The syllabi for “The Harlem Renaissance” and “American Literature to 1865” are now posted under the Teaching tab. I am not entirely satisfied with either of these courses. I had to design both of these from scratch and make some quick decisions about which texts to include, taking into account which texts the students might actually read, and what I felt confident that I could teach competently given the workload involved. (The composition courses are both full at 25 students, and the other two are capped at 30 and 35).
The Harlem Renaissance is not as dude-heavy as it looks. But I should have front-loaded it with more women writers and critics earlier. Partly the list is reflective of what’s in The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader. An early informal poll of the class shows that few of them know much about African-American Literature, so week by week we’ll be building their knowledge of African-American history and literature and the Renaissance from scratch. We’re also covering more women performers in the first few weeks, talking about Florence Mills, Bessie Smith and Josephine Baker, among others. Maybe I could have put a full novel by Jessie Fauset or Nella Larsen on the list (we’re reading the excerpts in the Reader), but I talked to some students who took the last Harlem Renaissance class and they seemed to get a kick out of Black No More, so I decided to go with that as the novel selection.
The list of texts in “American Literature to 1865” is very selective. My strategy there is to go deeper into a few longer texts instead of reading several short texts superficially. Again, this is experimental so we’ll see how it goes. I wanted to do Hawthorne and Melville and Stowe (among others), but any of those would have required a month long reading commitment. I got good responses from Whitman in last semester’s composition classes, so I thought we’d dive in and read as much of Leaves of Grass as we can manage. I’m hoping that Whitman will allow us to tie in other literary and historical themes from the period, including Native American history, transcendentalism, industrialism, westward expansion, the Civil War, etc.
And yes, we are reading two slave narratives (Douglass and Jacobs), so I’m looking forward to the evaluations at the end of the term complaining that this course was “all about slavery.”
I often wonder about my fellow professors who coo online about how great their classes are and how great their students are. I wonder if what they are saying really represents the reality of their classrooms. In some cases, their Rate My Professors page tells a very different story. (Though, yes, usually the most ignorant and laziest students are the ones leaving the harshest comments on RMP. They’re all like “Ehrmygawd, she made us do WORK!”)
I try to avoid publicly disparaging students, though it is so very easy to go online and gripe. I’m connected to a lot of professors on social media so I see the constant litany of venting about student behavior, and yes, I’ve contributed to it myself from time to time. I get the appeal of complaining. It can be cathartic to go online and scream with your friends about some of the blatantly disrespectful bullshit we put up with in classrooms, whether it’s students who email us with demands to recap classes that they missed, or students who show up half an hour late and start talking and texting, or the students who expect to get A’s for work that probably shouldn’t even be accepted in a middle school class, let alone college.
But in the interest of transparency I feel I should add a follow up to my previous posts. Looking at the evaluations from last semester apparently there were people in my classes who absolutely HATED me and hated the work. I figured that was true of certain individuals, but it was enlightening to see it in writing.
In Contemporary American Fiction there was one student who said they hated the course and only took it because there was nothing else that fit their schedule, as if I am somehow to blame because they are too incompetent to manage their own goddamn educational program. But whatever…
One of the most amusing comments was that “all the books were about the same topic: Black Authenticity.” Hmm…now that’s interesting. I didn’t realize that in the first four weeks of class when we were talking about digital media, print culture, intellectual property, and theories of the novel we were really just talking about black authenticity. And I suspect Kathleen Fitzpatrick, David Shields, Don DeLillo and even Teju Cole might be surprised to know that this is what their work is really all about.
You see, this is an example of what David Leonard wrote about in this article for the Chronicle. Students often bring their own racialized perceptions to the classroom, and a different professor teaching the same books probably wouldn’t have received that comment. But, when the black dude made you read 3 out of 7 texts by authors of color, somehow that equals “all the books were about the same thing.” Got it. And I wish I could say such biases were limited to white students, but don’t even get me started about some of the attitude I’ve gotten from black students.
In that class, and others, there were complaints that I didn’t lecture enough. Yes, you read that right, I did not lecture ENOUGH. So much for all the snarky hipster pedagogues out there who keep telling us that millennials really want to be all collaborative and shit. I had already suspected this myself, so it was nice to see the confirmation. On the one hand, I take that as a sign the course was effective because it means they were not in the comfort zone of sitting passively and watching a professor talk. I required them to lead the sessions in groups each week and that meant doing the kind of careful, rigorous reading that one must do in order to talk to others competently and at length about books that one has read.
But no, they do not want to take the lead and collaborate and do projects together because that means WORK. What they really want to do is sit back and watch someone else talk while they fiddle with their phones. Adjacent to that point were multiple comments from students in different classes demanding that the classes be more “entertaining.” Now that’s a very telling word coming from people raised on screens and trained in the culture of amusements, isn’t it? “Amusing Ourselves to Death” is what Neal Postman wrote about some years ago. I always include some critical media work in every class, so there is some space for intervention there, whether any of that critique actually sinks in.
All of this has made me feel I need to rethink my strategy in the classroom. You can drive yourself crazy smashing your head up against the brick wall of institutional cynicism in higher education right now. Profit-driven education means that schools admit unprepared, apathetic, insolent students and demand that professors teach these folks who are clearly uninterested in any kind of serious work. It also means many of their professors are contingent laborers who don’t have the time or resources to teach them competently even if they wanted to. But the students keep showing up with tuition checks so we’re required to “serve” them. Too often, higher education today feels like a parody of college. All the buildings are there, and there are people walking around, but it might as well be an elaborate movie set with actors, because there is little in the way of serious instruction and education going on.
OK maybe I’m romanticizing my own experiences. Yes, Morehouse is an unusual place, and I was a diligent student and I associated with other students who were competitive and we challenged each other. At the same time, there were also people around us going through the motions. When I went back to campus a few years ago for a professor’s retirement symposium, the most common complaint among my former professors was student apathy.
It sounds old-fashioned, I know, but learning really does require discipline. The way to really get results out of students is to demand a certain level of discipline from them, and I’m seeing that this is impossible in many cases. There is a baseline of effort necessary from a student in order to teach them anything. You can be the greatest music teacher in the world, but if you have a student who refuses to practice scales at home, then there is nothing you can teach that student in the one or two hours you are together each week. A great coach cannot train an athlete who only shows up to practice and won’t work out on her own. A mathematician cannot teach math to someone who won’t work on problems sets by themselves. And so forth…
Part of our job as teachers is to coax that effort out of them, and I do that by having certain expectations of participation, and making those expectations clear from the very beginning. Ultimately the goal is to get them to take over their own learning process and learn how to teach themselves. But that is very difficult in a situation where apathy is the accepted norm. I’d love to run a classroom where if a student hasn’t shown up two or three classes into the term, then that student gets dropped. But no, no. We have to let them in the class because they paid, and so now you get someone who missed all of the things I went over in the first two classes, hasn’t bothered to read the syllabus, and now I’m forced to waste time and energy and interrupt the flow of my class by repeating myself and going over the most basic shit that we already covered. And rarely do these stragglers turn out to be eccentric future Rhodes Scholars.
We get students who are so apathetic that they won’t even buy a book (not even an inexpensive one) and won’t read anything, and turn in papers that completely ignored everything we went over in the class. And please don’t give me that open-source crap, because I post free texts on Blackboard all the time and they don’t read that either. Despite spending days going over research methodology I still got “works cited” pages that were nothing but numbered list of weblinks. Twice last semester during research paper draft workshops – TWICE – I had students ask if they could leave since they hadn’t bothered to do the work. (My answer: Of course you can leave whenever you want to, This is college! There are consequences to every decision, but you’re never required to be here if you don’t want to be.)
I mean, what do you do with that kind of apathy? I just don’t know. I’m mystified by it, and I don’t understand it. Why would a person keep showing up to do something they are so uninterested in doing? Why does that person not have the guts to leave, go out and do whatever it is they believe is more important? These are spiritual questions really, and I’m neither a priest nor an imam, so I can’t help with that.
On the other hand, I do understand. Such students are the ideal customers for a profit-driven college system. They’re sleepwalkers. Rudderless. Directionless. They’ll show up with tuition money year after year, drag their educations out five, six, seven years, keep buying books and school paraphernalia, and food from the food court, and will get very little out of the experience. Unfortunately, they occasionally do show up in classrooms, and we are expected to find ways to teach them even when they act like requiring the tiniest bit of effort from them is a human rights violation.
Yes, there are some who are worth the effort. I have had some excellent students over the years, and there were some amazing students who did great work last term and and who I could see have potential to do great things in whatever fields they choose. Those are the students I try my best to show up for and give a good class because they deserve to have a professor who can challenge them and make them better. And occasionally if other classmates of theirs want to show up and make an effort along with them I am always willing to help anyone who at least tries to do the work. Plenty of students have passed my classes over the years who probably shouldn’t have, but that was because they at least tried to do the work, and I’m not interested in screwing people over when I know they are making a real effort. Because in making that effort, at least there is some learning taking place. It may not be the ideal outcome I want, but the very practice of writing and reading will at least help them to develop these skills.
So I just wanted to add a dose of reality here if I’m going to be writing about pedagogy on this blog. I usually try to avoid negativity and I am always conscious of protecting student privacy. Mostly, I post my educational material here because, well, I’m a teacher. I want to share the knowledge from these courses with others who might be interested in the subject matter, and who might get ideas for teaching their own classes. I know I’ve learned a great deal from what other professors post about their classes, and in many cases I’ve directly incorporated lessons, strategies and course policies I’ve found from other professors online.
So I felt like I needed to clarify, and yes, to vent a little bit, but from here on out I’ll try to keep things positive. But believe me, when you read anything about classes on this blog, even when I do not say so explicitly, you can rest assured it was not written through the lenses of rose-colored glasses.
Last semester’s course on Contemporary American Fiction turned out to be a success, with good effort and engagement from the students and interesting conversations each week. It was a “hybrid” course, my first time teaching in such a format. The course met in person Mondays, and online on Wednesdays. I was skeptical, but the format actually turned out to be fruitful and relevant to the subject matter of the course, which I gave the subtitle “Obsolete?: The University and the Novel in the Digital Age.” The course itself turned into a mixture of short-form digital writing (with discussion board conversations each week), long-form reading (five novels altogether) and more polished, formal writing (with short review essays due every two weeks).
With the online discussions on Wednesday it was obvious some students were just phoning it in with perfunctory responses to the first comments they came across. But I let that slide. Just putting some words together each week was good practice in developing a discipline of reading and writing. Serious writers learn to write consistently whether they “feel like it” or not, and I think that’s what they were learning to do with the weekly assignments.
So I wanted to record a few thoughts about the books we covered:
The Anxiety of Obsolescence – I assigned this book to add some more theoretically dense critical writing than the students might be used to. Fitzpatrick’s book was one of the main texts I had in mind for this course when I designed it. The very form of the text that we used, Fitzpatrick’s own online version of the book, is a clever experiment in merging theory and practice. Much has changed since 2006 when it was published. The collapse of bookstores, even the corporate chains, and budget cuts to libraries shows that fears of obsolescence are not entirely unfounded. But I liked the way that Fitzpatrick unpacks some of the cultural meaning behind declarations of obsolescence; mainly that they often come from gatekeepers (yes, often straight white men) who find their power and influence being challenged by the hordes of commoners. Again, the Ferguson protests are another instructive moment. Others have already written about the way that women, and women of color specifically, have wielded social media and used it in interesting ways politically and intellectually, and how they have often encountered vicious responses in these digital spaces. There’s so much hostility directed at women who have followings, so much resentment that certain women are being listened to and read, and so much of that male anger is driven by the assumption that these women do not deserve such platforms, and that merely reading and listening to them is somehow culturally and politically dangerous, and that therefore these women must be put back in their places and silenced. Fitzpatrick’s book is a welcome corrective to the reactionaries who warn us that new digital forms are destroying literature, journalism, or intellectual discourse, and she provides a convincing analysis of the sinister cultural politics lurking in those critiques.
Reality Hunger – I know Shields’s book is a gimmick, and there might be other theorists who I could have assigned to get the same critiques into the conversation, but mostly the book was an effective and engaging introduction to some basic ideas about copyright, intellectual property, digital reproduction and writing. The students mostly resisted his skepticism about the form of the novel. As wired as they are, they are also not averse to all long form reading. After all, this is the generation raised on Harry Potter, and raised on the revived interest in say, Lord of the Rings or Chronicles of Narnia. Those examples of fantasy writing speak to Shields’s biggest blind spots. Yes, reality-TV and mockumentary and memoir are prevalent forms, and he gives some sound arguments (by cobbling together the words of others) about why these forms dominate in a digital culture. But the continued popularity of science fiction, fantasy, vampire, romance and supernatural novels (among other “genre” writing) seems to suggest that there’s still a thirst for fantastic fiction in literary form, and that the generation of social media seems to be interested in more than thinly veiled autobiographical forms of their own lives.
White Noise – I have written about this novel before (“Reading DeLillo’s White Noise in the Summer of Ferguson”) and I thought what I put down about was pretty darned perceptive especially in light of the Black Friday protests that came about later. (Though I didn’t take the argument far enough.) Many people have complained about the venal consumerism of Black Friday, the sacrilegious corporatization of a sacred Christian holiday, and the awful spectacle of people being trampled to death for cheap electronics. Despite all of this, it was last year in 2014 that we really saw the first substantial pushback against the gluttonous consumption of the Christmas shopping season. Black activism did that. And the Ferguson movement brought into stark relief the ways that American consumerism can (and will) be weaponized against movements for justice.
The Human Stain – Reading this book again deepened my appreciation for Philip Roth’s writing. Yeah, yeah, I know he’s a misogynist prick and I’m not supposed to like him. Yeah, I watched the PBS documentary Philip Roth Unmasked a couple of years ago when it came out and it occurred to me how many male novelists he cited as exemplars of the form. But he is undoubtedly important, and much of his writing is genuinely insightful. Even from a feminist perspective, a novel like The Dying Animal captures so well the changes that the movement brought to the culture of college campuses. Clearly Roth did his homework about the African-American experience in The Human Stain, capturing the drama of a black family living on the edge of the color line. The book also articulated so well that hysteria of the Clinton-Lewinsky moment, a moment, which by the way, fell into the realm of “history” for my students. (Most of them were too young to remember when that was all going down.) The discussion board conversation about The Human Stain was one of the best, as we talked about the concept of “passing” and racial identification. My perception of their comments is that they were indicative of a generation raised on consumerism, and trained in the language of choice. Their consensus about Coleman Silk’s decision to pass for white was that people should be able to choose to identify however they want. Nevertheless, I also pushed them to consider the ways in which race is embedded in particular histories of white supremacy and anti-blackness, a history which complicates the seemingly benign concept of “choice.” The idea that there are things we cannot choose seems to offend the sensibilities of the young, but understanding the difference between those identities you can and cannot choose is the beginning of empowerment and understanding.
Erasure– I wasn’t sure how this novel would go over, but it turned out to be one of their favorite books. Their reactions to it were interesting. The centerpiece of the novel is My Pafology (later retitled Fuck) a satirical novel based on the plot from Richard Wright’s Native Son, and a parody rife with exaggerated caricatures of the black underclass. I was surprised that some of them found the backstory about literary fiction writer Theolonious Ellison less interesting and less funny than My Pafology/Fuck, but I suppose that is precisely the irony that Everett was going for, and maybe that reaction only serves to reaffirm what Everett was writing about in the first place, and shows how brilliant this novel really is. I shared with them some of my own writing on the book, and I think we had a good conversation about minstrelsy and the fraught history of black cultural performance in a white supremacist culture industry. Last year another of Percival Everett’s academic novels, Glyph was republished by Graywolf Press. I will be discussing both of these novels at the upcoming NeMLA meeting in Toronto in early May.
On Beauty – This is a novel that really deserved more than two weeks of discussion. The students struggled to get through it and I’m sure some of them cursed me for assigning it since it was so long, but mostly they seemed to enjoy it. I admit I was skeptical about this novel after my first reading a few years ago. Reading it again, however, I saw the beauty and power in Zadie Smith’s writing, and there were so many great passages I wanted to linger over but couldn’t do so in my push to get through. (Full disclosure: I’m working on a longer piece about it, so I will have several chances to re-read it again.) The book really does dig into and occupy the academic novel genre. I would not be at all surprised if it turns out Smith read several of them before composing this one. On Beauty hits all the conventions of the genre, but delivers them in a fresh and even subversive way. I loved Smith’s beautiful descriptions of the physical geography of academic spaces, and she nails the absurd pettiness of academic politics. While reading this novel I also read Smith’s compelling new short story published last year “Miss Adele Admist the Corsets” an inventive take on gentrification-era New York told through the story of an aging drag queen. (The full story was temporarily available on the The Telegraph.)
Open City – Well, this was a colossal flop. They HATED this book. I have to admit; I miscalculated. Mainly, I think I let my inner New York historian take over and distort my vision of the novel. One of the things that Cole has been so highly praised for with Open City is the novel’s rich, perceptive take on the geography and history of NYC. Without that context, yes, a reader might see it as just some book about a dude wandering around, seeing random shit and thinking deep thoughts about it. I did mention that this was in the tradition of the flâneur, and one student happened to be reading Baudelaire in another class. Despite the negative reactions to it I’m still glad we read it because Cole provided us with a different approach to the novel. We listened to this interview with Cole where he described Open City as an “idea-driven” rather than “plot-driven” novel, and that seemed to help clarify things a bit. They still didn’t like it, but I felt like we got an interesting conversation out of it, and selfishly, I was glad to re-encounter what I still think is a luminous and important piece of 21st century writing. And pedagogically, I felt it became a useful exercise in how to write intelligently, thoughtfully and fairly about a work one doesn’t like.
Along the way we talked about the politics of higher education, and some conventions of the academic novel, and we read Jeffrey Williams’s article “Teach the University.” I think we fulfilled that concept of teaching the university in this class, by addressing some of the pertinent issues in higher education in our readings of these novels.
No, I don’t have any grand pronouncements about obsolescence to conclude with, but whatever the outcome, the future of the novel and the university is in the hands of the next generation, and I am not without hope.