Monday, April 20, 2015

this and that

I figured I’d use this last blog post of the semester to do a couple of things. First, to reflect upon the first project that my students write in my 1020 assignment sequence and how it—perhaps inadvertently—accomplishes some of the goals Lang talks about in his chapter on the first day of class. Next, to kind of brainstorm out loud one particular teaching strategy I would like to incorporate into the syllabus I am working on for our final assignment.

“First Impressions”

I know I’ve at least mentioned the first project in my 1020 assignment sequence before and here are the directions:

Project One
Descriptive/Narrative Paper: Mining for and Recognizing One’s Personal Voice: “Writing About Writing” 
(3-4 pages, due 11:59 p.m., Sunday 1/25)

In Project One you will be introducing yourself to our class through the description and/or narration of one of the following prompts pertaining to the act of writing. For this project you can choose to describe and/or narrate:

  • A time or experience in your life when you used writing to accomplish, change, obtain, prove, or express something important or defining.
  • Why you like, dislike, love, hate, excel at, struggle with, look forward to, or dread writing. For this prompt, you might want to focus on a specific genre (or type) of writing.
  • A particular piece of writing of which you are proud, and why. This could include anything you’ve written during or since high school—an essay, poem, personal statement, diary entry, editorial, et cetera ad infinitum. 

You have total freedom on this first assignment to tell your story using whatever language, tone, form, and style you think most effective—and of course, as they are the key to truly conveying the who, what, when, where, and why of something, the more details the better. In this first paper I would like to see, hear, and meet you.

With Project One we begin our assignment sequence with a writing assignment that gives you a chance to write with comparatively few prescriptions, so as to get a sense of the personal voice in your writing that you are bringing to our class. You will use this first piece of writing to help frame, approach, and reflect upon the transition you will be making into “college” or “academic” writing scenes and situations, rife as they are with directions, requirements, and rubrics. Along with our corresponding discussions and class work, this assignment will help you identify a set of implicit questions (concerning audience, purpose, and situation) to reflect upon as you encounter each new writing task throughout the semester. Project One will help you begin to think about the similarities and dissimilarities, and continuities and discontinuities between your personal voice and the academic voice you will develop as you face the demands of writing for academic audiences and the corresponding rhetorical situations. 

The past three 1020 classes that I’ve taught have done this assignment, and although it has been useful for a number of reasons that I had not even really considered when I was developing and writing it, I regret to say that I am not sure it has done what I intended with regards to voice. Why and how it has—and/or I have—failed to generate the ideas and discussions that I hoped it would (and which it still might, with more work on it this summer) is not why I’m talking about it, but instead I’m bringing it up because it accomplishes a couple of goals that Lang brings up in his chapter on the “First Days of Class.”

First of all, most of my students have said that they really enjoyed it, and I have received a lot of very thoughtful, sincere, poignant, and inspiring papers. Students also have often told me that starting the semester off with a low-stakes, “expressive” paper like this is an excellent way to ease back into the writing ritual after a break, instead of simply plunging right back into the “formal academic” writing that they will be doing throughout most of the rest of the semester. 

At the most basic level, for me, as an instructor, this assignment is an excellent and fun way for my students to introduce themselves to me. Beyond this perhaps selfish reason though, the above assignment is a really effective way to elicit the kind of information that Lang talks about in the section of the aforementioned chapter that discusses “First Impressions” (31-37). In this regard, this first writing project in my 1020 assignment sequence has proven to be an incredible and pleasurable way to get an idea of the “prior knowledge” the students bring into the 1020 classes that I teach, to get at least some idea of how well my students write and express themselves (although this has not been an accurate barometer in this regard a few times now), and to get a picture of my students’ “past experiences with the course topic, or [of] their understanding of” at least some of the ideas and skills I will—hopefully—help them discover and develop over the course of the semester. Yeah, instead of covering this stuff in the first class or two, this assignment isn’t due until the end of the second week of classes, but on the other hand, this first project ultimately gives me a more in-depth and genuine account of this information than the short little first-day exercises that Lang describes.

My Syllabus

I’m hoping to organize my syllabus around “keywords.” I will either derive the keywords from Raymond Williams’ influential Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society:

Or from Bruce Burgett and Glenn Hendler’s newest edition of Keywords for American Cultural Studies:

So, the idea is to have my students in perhaps ENG 2310, “Major American Books: Literature and Writing,” pick a keyword that ties into their interests, and have this keyword guide their readings throughout the semester. First, their will be a short assignment summarizing and responding to the corresponding entry in whichever of the above texts I choose to use, which will both begin the students engagement with their keyword and also commit them to it. I like the idea of having them do weekly blog-posts throughout the semester on each reading, and their readings and blog-posts will be guided primarily by considerations of their keyword. 

So that the students’ keywords are in dialogue with one another beyond our discussions in class, I would organize keywords into individual blog groups. For instance, if I was to use Burgett and Hendler’s text, one blog group could consist of “Region,” “South,” and “Border.” Or if I was using the Williams’ text, a possible grouping of related keywords could consist of “Labour,” “Radical,” “Violence,” and “Industry.” Obviously the groupings for the blog groups could go on indefinitely. Part of the students' grades would also consist of responding to other students’ blog posts and there would be at least one short paper using the keyword to guide their analysis of a text the class reads.

That’s what I’ve got for now…but there is also this:

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Book Review

I am reviewing the newest edition of American Cultural Studies: An Introduction to American Culture, which is the third edition of this text and was first published in 2012. First and second editions were published in 1997 and 2006. It is published by Routledge and can be purchased new from Amazon at—what I consider to be—the reasonable price of $45.00. It was written by Neil Campbell and Alasdair Kean, who are both professors of American Studies at the University of Derby, in the United Kingdom. Some of the updates and revisions that this newest edition includes are sections focusing on Barack Obama’s presidency and America’s transition from the “Bush Years,” the increasing attention to what is called “Hemispheric American Studies” and the corresponding discussions surrounding globalization, and updated discussions of spaces and sites in the United States such as “suburbia” and the Mexican border. There is also an accompanying website for this newest edition, the URL of which can be found at the end of each chapter along with sections on “References and Further Reading,” and sections on “Follow-up Work,” which provide a number of exercises and assignments that help illustrate and establish the thoroughly interdisciplinary nature of the book and field. The website is organized according to the chapters of the book and includes links to corresponding online resources and further assignments and discussion tools.

At the beginning of the “Using the Book” section of the introduction, the authors explain that practicing the kind of interdisciplinarity indicative of the field of American Cultural Studies means employing different modes of analysis in each chapter, since, as Campbell and Kean explain, “investigations of different themes or topics demand different approaches” (9-10). The authors’ intention is therefore not to provide comprehensive summations of the topics that are examined in each chapter, but instead, to draw an illustrative picture of the wide “range of potential approaches to [studying] American culture” (5). So, I would say that the best way to describe the overall methodology of this book is to call it teaching by example. Or as the authors themselves describe their approach, “by way of discussion of interdisciplinary issues” the text can be seen as “a starting-point or a place of departure” (5) for students’ own work. Though I think this is definitely useful, I am not sure if I would require a class to purchase the whole textbook, because I think simply copying and distributing a selection of representative and illustrative chapters from the text might suffice in establishing the wide variety of approaches there are to examine specific topics in American Studies. I am still undecided about this.

There are two major concerns laid out in the introduction which help to define and guide the text’s methodology. The first major concern of the text is with what the authors identify as “the problematic nature of national [specifically American] identity” (3). Campbell and Kean break this first concern down further into questions regarding the problems with critical inquiries that reduce “national identity to some essential singularity,” and likewise, critical work which attempts to merely study American culture “in isolation and from ‘within’” (3). In this regard, the text maintains a heavy methodological emphasis on what the authors call “worlding”—or “viewing American culture as intrinsically linked to wider flows of meaning and identity” (20). The second major concern of the text is with the nature and importance of interdisciplinarity. The authors break this down into questions regarding the relationships between texts and contexts, of what is—and can be considered—a “text,” and finally to questions of how history is written, received, and studied (5-7). The type of international and interdisciplinary American Cultural Studies that is practiced in this text, the authors explain, is thus meant to inspire and encourage students who are just being introduced to the field, to develop their engagement with American culture and interdisciplinary work “in tandem” (2).

“The American City: ‘The old knot of contrariety’” (chapter six) is as good a chapter as any for getting an idea of one particular mode of cultural analysis practiced in the text. I think it does a great job of illustrating the ways in which an interdisciplinary cultural-studies approach can illuminate how cities can be viewed as perpetually ongoing events and processes, that are constructed as much out of cultural texts, social discourses, and human behavior as they are by the architectural structures and geographical sites of which they are physically comprised—and correspondingly, how important it is that these different perspectives be dialogically engaged when studying cities. An illustrative example (or two) might help to provide a picture of what this looks like in the chapter. In the section of the chapter focusing on the “Theoretical City: The Desire for Control and Order,” the authors draw from material ranging from architect Rem Koolhaas’s Delirious New York, Edgar Allan Poe’s short-story “The Man of the Crowd,” spatial theory from Michel De Certeau and Marshall Berman, D.J. Waldie’s memoir Holy Land, and Woody Allen’s film Manhattan to examine the tensions between the visions and aspirations of urban planners and the lived experience of human beings in the built environment. Analogously, in the section of the chapter discussing “The Spaces of the City: Architecture, Art, and Ambivalence,” the authors draw from the literature of Upton Sinclair, the parks of Frederick Law Olmstead, the architecture and writings of Frank Lloyd Wright, the essays of urbanist Lewis Mumford, the architecture and essays of Louis Sullivan (the “father” of the skyscraper), the paintings of Edward Hopper, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the spatial theory of Neil Harris, and Billy Wilder’s film-noir classic Double Indemnity to examine how the built environment and the lived experience(s) of human beings inhabiting these spaces and sites effect and reflect one another.

Despite its claims to being an “introduction” to American cultural studies, I do believe this book to be a bit theory heavy. Which is fine with me, of course, but for a lower-level undergraduate course in American culture, I think this book would require at least some supporting and supplemental theoretical elucidation. For instance, in the introduction alone the authors draw from Foucault, Harvey, Bakhtin, Barthes, Jameson, and Hall (just to name a few). Admittedly though, I feel as if I am having some difficulty deciding if the depth and scope of these theoretical engagements are that far beyond the capacities and knowledge of undergraduate students, or if it would simply be a matter of dealing with theoretical questions during class discussions. Correspondingly, a big part of the introduction is in fact devoted to unpacking many of the theoretical and thematic terms and concepts that are often encountered throughout the text. As I state above, though a selection of the text’s chapters would be useful as examples to both illustrate the variety of interdisciplinary strategies in American Cultural Studies and to help establish how broad this variety can be, I am still unsure if I would require students to purchase the entire text. With the above said, I do think that individual representative chapters would be incredibly helpful in establishing themes in a course specifically on American literature and culture.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Monday, April 6, 2015

"Taking the Text on a Road Trip"

I really could not have found a better article on pedagogy in literary and cultural studies than the one whose description follows. “Taking the Text on a Road Trip: Conducting a Literary Field Study,” was written by Paul D. Reich and Emily Russell and appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of Pedagogy. The title of the article says it all—it is a description and analysis of what the authors call a “field study” (or “road trip”) exploring a number of literarily, historically, and culturally significant sites across the region known as “the South.” Admittedly, just the thought of someday being able to perhaps integrate something like this kind of methodology into courses that I teach on American literature and culture, is at least part of the reason I’m here. 

Reich and Russell’s “field study” was conducted over a spring break, seven weeks into the upper level undergraduate course they were teaching which was organized around the concept of “region”—focusing specifically on the regional literature of “the South.” The field study consisted of a one-week road trip via van (and train and plane to get to and from their home campus in Florida—Rollins College, in Winter Park) that began in Savannah, Georgia and ended in New Orleans, Louisiana stopping to experience literary, historical, and cultural sites that included Flannery O’Connor’s childhood home and the Mercer Williams House in Savannah; the Andalusia farm outside of Milledgeville, Georgia where Flannery O’Connor did much of her writing; Kelly Ingram Park and the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama; William Faulkner’s Rowan Oak house just outside of Oxford, Mississippi; and the French Quarter in New Orleans. Many of the corresponding readings (as well as the accompanying theoretical texts) were read and discussed in the first seven weeks of the class leading up to the “road trip” and included John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, William Faulkner’s Light in August, Kate Chopin’s At Fault, and Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun. There were also shorter readings that were assigned for between the destinations (to be read while on the road or in hotels) which included Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People,” Alice Walker’s “Beyond the Peacock: The Reconstruction of Flannery O’Connor,” Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” and Sally Wolff’s “William Faulkner and the Ledgers of History.” There were also short reflective writings done either on the road or in hotel rooms, and some archival work along the way. The final seven weeks of the class focused primarily on individual work which included “fifteen- to twenty-page seminar papers and creative projects ranging from short films and original songs to hand-sewn dolls” (418), all of which, the authors indicate, drew from experiences from and material generated during the road trip.

One of the most significant challenges that the authors discuss is how to make a field study such as this more than simply an exercise in traditional literary tourism, which the authors explain is often prompted by mere “sentimental attachment to character, hero worship of authorial genius, and a strong belief in the ability to achieve direct access to the persona and the past through the preserved site” (419). To avoid the perils of uncritical sentimentality that often come with tourism the authors’ attempted to make the critical methodologies of the classroom “portable” (419). As they explain early on, this meant extending the scope of the textual interpretation practiced in the classroom to include new “object[s] of study,” specifically, “the author’s house, the guide’s rhetoric, and the region’s self-presentation” (419). 

The first “object lesson” with which the authors and their students tussled involved the varying degrees of preservation the different authorial homes received and likewise the kind of public attention that each of the different homes elicited, which, as the authors explain, “allowed us to examine how those differences signified hierarchical structures within the literary canon” (420). For instance on one end of the spectrum would be all of the resources that the University of Mississippi and the greater Oxford community allots to the Faulkner House compared to the comparatively humble allotments afforded to Flannery O’Connor’s Andalusia farm, which is maintained entirely by contributions and a nonprofit foundation (421). To complicate these canonical differences even further, the authors had the students read Alice Walker’s “Beyond the Peacock: The Reconstruction of Flannery O’Connor” between Savannah and O’Connor’s farm outside of Milledgeville. Thinking about how race factors into these canonical and social prioritizations Walker astutely laments how disheartening it is “that in Mississippi no one even remembers where Richard Wright lived, while Faulkner’s house is maintained by a black caretaker” (421). 
Reich and Russell explain that after this reading and the aforementioned stops on the road trip, the class’s conversations would frequently come back to what they “now saw as blank spaces on the map” (421).

The second “object lesson,” involving the commentary and guiding inducements and questions provided by Reich and Russell to their students, quickly became a question of narrative and historiographical authority between the authors and the guides that they and the class encountered at some of these sites. This meant having to critically navigate around the often romanticized accounts and narratives that the tourist industry was peddling, and upon which some of the guides that the class encountered stubbornly insisted. These were of course accounts and narratives which often conveniently glossed over—or outright ignored—some of the more deplorable historical details one finds in the South. Corresponding to their reading of Kate Chopin's At Fault, the class had stopped at Oak Alley Plantation in rural Vacherie, Louisiana, which proved to be an illuminating example of this narrative tension. Despite the slavery and human misery that once operated there the guide fatuously asserted that "the plantation had been sustained by "family and a love of the land," to which the authors added parenthetically, "plus 57 killed servants" (422). The guide's romanticized narrative was simply one element of the tourist experience which also included the site being marketed as a great place for weddings and destination for experiencing "'authentic' regional fare in its restaurants" (421). (If it's not appropriate to market a site like a German concentration camp as a place to have weddings, which I of course agree with, I've never completely understood why an American slave plantation is considered appropriate for such things and wonder what this says about how our country deals with its past. I'm well aware of the differences between a plantation and a concentration camp, but at the same time, the levels of misery and suffering seem comparable. I guess a conversation for another time.) As Reich and Russell explain, these scenarios presented the class with another “fictional” text to consider, meaning the one “focused on place and authored not by the writer or by the students but by the agents of literary tourism” (420). Of course, in a region such as the American South, this kind of struggle for historiographical agency is especially significant.

New Orleans ended up being a generative and illuminating place for the final “object study” regarding how regions, cities, and sites attempt to represent themselves. Here they had their most disappointing and seemingly most touristy experience. Here they encountered shallow literary tourist attractions that the authors describe as being “ephemeral, often occurring in marginal spaces like the street, the trolley, and the tour bus”—for instance, random plaques indicating that William Faulkner or Tennessee Williams had lived in a certain apartment. On the other hand, they had read Dave Eggers’ post-Katrina narrative, Zeitoun. They explain that there are now tourist buses of the city’s Ninth Ward that promise “an eyewitness account of the events surrounding the most devastating natural—and man-made—disaster on American soil!” (423). They and their class could not reconcile themselves to this kind of “so-called disaster tourism,” and consequently decided against it. They conclude that New Orleans’ attempts to represent itself and its spaces as literary sites fails in two ways—they “were either too removed" such as the shallow and surface level kind of tourism of which the above plaques are indicative, or they were "too uncomfortably present” (423), meaning how wrong it seemed to take a tour bus ride where the point is "to gawk at poor, largely black, unrecovered neighborhoods as a commodified example of 'disaster'" (423).

These three “object lessons” illustrate that professors and instructors leading such a literary field study “are forced to relinquish some authority over the texts and their contexts” (423). This is where preparing the students to approach these spatial texts critically, and for themselves, becomes especially crucial. “For a generation steeped in the ethos of ironic distance,” the authors write regarding their students’ experience at the Oak Alley Plantation in Vacherie, LA, “they smirked at attempts to belatedly incorporate a multicultural story of slavery onto the grounds of the plantation and laughed at the euphemisms employed by the tour guide” (422). The different “teachers’ voices” that the aspiring literary scholar will encounter on these kinds of field studies at each site, Reich and Russell suggest, compete to present a “narrative of the region, the author, and the work” (424). Since these inevitable tensions between authoritative voices are at times beyond the control of the literary professor, the authors conclude, an effective pedagogical strategy is “to encourage the students to examine not just the texts but the locations and their experiences there as stories to be closely read” (424). In other words, encourage students to consider their own affective responses to and impressions of the sites.

OK, logistics, practicality, and feasibility for this kind of literary field study. Of course this sounds expensive—and it is, although one only gets a picture of this in note nine. Beyond it requiring students to spend their spring break thus (which is not a difficult sell to literary enthusiasts), this course came with an added fee of $1800. Yep. In a far more ideal world (country), there would be public resources for such academic luxuries but of course, in this world, this cost would put this out of reach of many students. In this regard, the authors say that their students’ ages on this literary road trip ranged from twenty to forty, included a fairly equal distribution of “traditional” students and students in the “evening degree program,” and was racially, ethnically, and economically diverse. Although I see how this kind of a site-specific and “experiential” pedagogy would be tough to pull off at a lot of schools, at the same time I feel like in most upper-level classes and seminars in literary and cultural studies one encounters the kind of passion for and enthusiasm towards literary texts that students would make this work—whether it would be through simply taking a little more money in loans or sacrificing some other luxury outside of the academy. Unfortunately—as much as this article excites me—this is definitely an academic luxury.

As should be clear at this point in the semester after a number of our conversations, this kind of pedagogical effort to create connections between literary texts and the spaces and places which they represent, excites me. Using one student's comments in the article, this kind of dialectical engagement with the American landscape and the literary texts that have helped form our perceptions of the sites of which it is comprised, creates a generative connection between that which is "ephemeral" and that is "tangible" (428), which those of us in the humanities rarely get to experience or explore. "While within the humanities," Reich and Russell suggest in this regard, "there are few opportunities for experiential learning, literary field studies provide one way to replicate the experiences students have in other disciplines" such as the natural and social sciences (430). The idea that this kind of literary road trip brings into the conversation, the narrative being created by the students' own experiences and impressions of these sites, is precisely the kind of blurring of the boundaries between the "in here" of the academy and the "out there" of the world that I think is crucial if the humanities are to remain relevant.