Sequencing Stories with Katherine Anne Porter and Sui Sin Far

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via Cordelia McLellan

In the spring at PALS, I wrote about teaching three stories from the perspective of all of them being a little weird, and this fall, in my revised teaching statement, I wrote about how important it is to sequence students’ work—how one assignment needs to lead into the next and build to the end of the semester. When reflecting on my current interest in sequencing, I think I have been drawn toward it because of my recent teaching schedule. Most of the courses I teach, from first year composition to introduction to literature to a course on the short story, benefit from clear scaffolding that leads students through the semester. Of course, all classes benefit from structure and organization, but I think in more focused courses the sequencing might come more naturally to the course based on the material. If I was teaching a course on something like the American Transcendentalists, the connections would be easy to spot from text to text. Even something as simple as “these authors were friends” provides a pretty clear connection to move from author to author. However, in a class such as, The Short Story, I purposefully pick authors from a variety of time periods/movements/nations. I have to work harder for our transitions to not be, “Whelp, next is…” I have thought a lot about how to sequences these stories to make the transitions seem more natural to students.

I teach several story collections in roughly chronological order, but I don’t want time to be our only connector. So far, I have made two strategic moves to help smooth out my syllabus: 1) I draw explicit attention to the transition we are making in classroom activities, and 2) I am teaching entire collections of short stories to lessen the number of transitions we are making. In the rest of this post, I am going to outline these choices and explain how they have helped me structure my course and how they could be adapted in other courses.

An example to show transitions between authors in the classroom is how you can connect texts by Katherine Anne Porter and Sui Sin Far. These collections were published within a few decades of each other, but they are so stylistically different that it would appear that they have very little in common. When placed on a syllabus together, it might be unclear how to move from one to the next. However, a very clear point of connection between them is a focus on place. A focus on place can illustrate how both of these authors expand the scope of their texts through characterizations of new immigrants and new generations of Americans. For example, as a formal or informal writing assignment, each student can be asked to pick a character from Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider to write about. Then they will pick a character from “Mrs. Spring Fragrance” to compare to their first character. They are to draw comparisons in terms of setting and influence on the plot. For example, someone could write about how Mr. Helton the Swedish immigrant in Porter’s “Noon Wine” upends the claustrophobic life on a small Texas farm, while in Far’s “The Americanizing of Pau Tsu,” Adah Raymond almost ruins the marriage of Wan Lin Fo when his wife does not understand his friendship with a white woman. The way these characters move through space, both locally and transnationally, causes unintended negative consequences for the lives of other characters. Given the chance to juxtapose these two texts, students will come up with creative connections between them. This writing assignment could be done in class or could be expanded to be an essay test or a short paper. This teaches students to perform more expansive readings of texts, and it helps us all move from point to point in the semester.

In the Short Story class, I have also taught entire short story collections instead of just individual stories. I did this in large part because of specific advice I received from one of my mentors who told me that there is less prep in teaching novels than articles or stories because there is less shifting gears. I felt very, “hmmm…” about this advice when I first heard it, not because I didn’t believe it but because I didn’t have a frame of reference for how that might work. When I sat down and planned my first short story class, I remembered this advice, which is not that far from the information in the excellent post from Melissa Range on teaching a collection of poems. How was I going to teach this class? With the advice and Range’s essay in mind, It didn’t take me too much pondering to realize that I should teach short story collections and not just individual short stories. (This doesn’t mean that I teach no individual short stories. I just don’t do it exclusively.) Teaching entire collections has helped me to structure my syllabi, and I think it has been useful for me and my students.

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I’ve already written about Sui Sin Far in my two posts (one and two) on San Francisco and obviously in the example above, but I would like to write more specifically here about how I taught her book as a whole. I have not done the first example below directly in class, but it is similar to the kind of connections I have asked students to make. The second example is from my classroom this semester and is an exercise that could be applied to many short story collections.

The perks of teaching Mrs. Spring Fragrance as an entire text were that students were able to make connections across the text. This is especially helpful for Sui Sin Far because it allows students to unpack how complexly the author is representing the hybrid spaces of San Francisco’s and Seattle’s Chinatowns. She not only layers different opinions and perspectives from American and Chinese characters, but also she weaves together praise and dissent for all of the characters and their influences in the stories. For example, students can trace how Far uses subversion in her text to highlight the hypocrisy of American people and American policies. In the titular story, the main character Mrs. Spring Fragrance goes to a lecture with an American woman who is an acquaintance of hers. The title of the talk was “America the Protector of China!” In a letter to her husband, Mrs. Spring Fragrance notes with dripping sarcasm how offensive she found the talk. She writes, “It was most exhilarating, and the effect of so much expression of benevolence leads me to beg of you to forget to remember that the barber charges you one dollar for a shave while he humbly submits to the American man a bill of fifteen cents.” This moment is funny and revealing of Mrs. Spring Fragrance’s wit, but it also happens quickly in the story and is not analyzed by the author. Far moves so fast that she does not have time to signal all the moments of analysis for the readers. This is where reading the whole collection comes in handy.

Students might have missed this first moment of humor, but they often find other places to laugh throughout the text. One of the clearest ones is in “The Inferior Woman” when Mrs. Spring Fragrance says that she is going to write a book about Americans. She comments that “the American woman writes books about the Chinese. Why not a Chinese woman write books about the Americans?” Students with experience with theory might laugh at this joke because they understand the orientalism that it is critiquing, but I think that even students who didn’t have this frame of reference would find the humor in the subversion of expectations. If students miss the first joke in “Mrs. Spring Fragrance” they will get this one or another one, which will present an opportunity to circle back and discuss all of these different moments when the text uses humor as an interruption to the plot. Far uses these interruptions often to make more pointed commentary on the injustices of U.S. policy or the prejudice of white Americans. While there is critique built in throughout her text, some of the sharpest criticism comes in these sarcastic moments. Teaching only one story in isolation would not highlight these rich moments, which are ripe for exploration.

This semester, in our second to last class on Mrs. Spring Fragrance, we made a list on the board to help us facilitate our discussion. We listed all of the stories with a quick plot synopsis for each one. This helped us keep straight what happened in each story. Sui Sin Far’s stories are very short, and it can be had to differentiate between them. One could argue that these stories, where major plot developments often happen in one paragraph or a few sentences, are underwritten or lacking depth, but, especially when seen in sequence, it becomes clear how much Sui Sin Far is packing into her collapsed narratives. Instead of being superficial, her stories actually contain a lot of depth in a short space. Discussing the stories as you write them on the board helps students to see this. Alongside all of the stories, we also listed all of the themes we could think of that were present in her texts. I have mentioned doing this in my PALS post from the beginning of the semester, and I think it is an invaluable activity. It not only gets the students thinking in engaging ways about the text, but it also showcases how much you could discuss in the various texts. You won’t be able to cover it all in a class period, but students need to see how vast our discussions could be. This is especially true of introduction-level students, who often do not have approaches for getting into the text.

After we had our lists on the board, my students then picked a theme to write about in a short writing exercise. We ran out of time at this point, so I asked them to finish the exercise at home and bring it back to the next class period. If we had had more time, I would have asked them to each share a portion of their writing exercise and used their ideas to launch into a further discussion of the text. This exercise could be done with a single short story, but giving them a wide range of stories to pick from allows students to find points of intersection between texts. Students are not only applying their knowledge about how themes work to a text, but they are also evaluating what examples work best and synthesizing information from a variety of places. These are great skills to practice if students are already adept at them and crucial skills to develop if students are less comfortable in such arenas. This exercise also models how experienced writers approach writing about literature. Whenever possible in the classroom, we should model for our students how they are supposed to do work outside of the classroom, and this activity helps students see that.

Although I did change the structure of and the texts on my syllabi based on the ideas described in this post, the mental shift I made to start thinking about the sequences of texts in my courses was a rather small one. It was not a radical overhaul of my pedagogy but a move to make my semester smoother. However small the shift, it has helped my planning and my courses. What small shifts have changed your teaching and what means have you used to link the components of your semester?

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