Wednesday, May 17, 2017
May 17, 2017: Spring 2017 Reflections: Contemporary Connections in American Lit I
[As the Spring 2017 semester comes to a conclusion, a series of classroom reflections, this time focused on new things I tried in my courses. I’d love to hear your Spring reflections in comments!]
On two ways I worked to link my most historical class to our current moment.
As I wrote in my January preview post on the class, there are lots of potential parallels between the figures and texts we encounter in my American Literature I survey course and our current president and moment. But while I’ve gradually made my peace with bringing my personal and political perspective into courses when and where it’s appropriate, it’s important for me to be clear that such occasions are still few and far between, and have to relate to the specific class reading or topic in an organic and central way. Which is to say, I most definitely did not raise any of those parallels between Christopher Columbus and Donald Trump in our American Lit I discussion of Columbus and two of his letters; that discussion focused, as did nearly all of our class conversations, on the texts in front of us, and if and when any contemporary or other contexts were brought into the mix, it was students who did so, not me. I believe that should be our consistent practice as teachers of literature and culture, and doubly so when the texts and figures in question are (as they are throughout American Literature I) significantly distant from us in time.
There were, however, a couple particular moments in American Lit I where it felt appropriate to raise (briefly) such contemporary connections. One came as I was introducing our second unit, on the Revolutionary era; for each of our four focal units/time periods I provide just a few minutes of introductory contexts for the upcoming three weeks before we get to our first authors/readings. For that Revolutionary unit, the first week focuses on readings from prominent Framers and Revolutionary leaders, while the second and third add in other, less well-remembered examples from similarly Revolutionary communities (women in week two, African Americans in week three). We don’t have any readings related to South Carolina’s Revolutionary era Moroccan Muslim (Moorish) community, as I don’t know if any such texts exist; yet that community is well worth remembering, for its own sake but also for its relevance to our framing documents and laws. So I spoke about that Muslim American community as part of this unit introduction; and in so doing, I couldn’t help but address the way in which the elision of such communities from our history makes it far more possible to argue for banning Muslim arrivals and discriminating against existing Muslim American communities in 2017. I didn’t dwell on that contemporary connection, but neither did I pretend that remembering the past differently doesn’t have such present effects and stakes.
Then there’s the last class meeting of the semester. In all of my courses I see that last meeting as (among other things) an opportunity for me to say a bit more about my own take on our topics, and thus potentially to provide my ideas about such contemporary connections. For many sections of American Literature I, I’ve brought in Pat Buchanan’s deeply troubling 2007 article “The Dark Side of Diversity” on the last day, using that text to highlight mythical narratives of a founding, homogeneous national identity and then contrasting those narratives with the realities of the America we’ve encountered in the course of our units and readings. I did so again this semester, but this time I went a couple steps further: talking at some length about the stakes of those differing definitions of America, the more exclusionary and more inclusive images on which my current book project focuses; and making the case for why I see 2017 as such a pivotal moment in the long histories of those competing narratives of national identity. To my mind, that’s not at all a partisan or even a political point, but rather a fundamental question of how we remember our histories and envision our nation; yet there’s no doubt that engaging with that question also means challenging quite directly the narrative behind “Make America Great Again.” If that’s a corollary effect of my American Literature I course and syllabus, well, I’m okay with it.
Next Spring reflection tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Spring semester reflections you’d share?