Pairing 19th c. and 21st c. African American writers; or, it seemed like a great idea at the time . . .

This past term, I taught a new course on nineteenth century African American writers. In an attempt to show students how nineteenth century African American life is incredibly relevant to twenty-first century African American life, I created an assignment I called “19-to-21.” This assignment required students to pair up a twenty-first century African American writer with one of the nineteenth-century writers on our syllabus, then give the class a presentation comparing the two writers stylistically and thematically. It sure did seem like a good idea! Yet very often, the presentations fell flat. Inspired by the wonderful recent “teaching fails” post, I thought I’d recount how I conceived of this assignment, what I hoped for it, ways it succeeded, and ways it failed. I think the idea has potential, and I’m hopeful that some of you could take what was very often a “meh” assignment and turn it into something more yay-worthy.

(Harriet Jacobs and Colson Whitehead)

Pairing up the writers

I’m not going to lie, selecting contemporary writers for this assignment took a lot of time and thought, and I was glad I had the whole summer to think about it. There are many wonderful contemporary African American writers who directly engage with the nineteenth century in their work, so the big problem for me was choosing. (My class was small, with only nine students enrolled, so I could only choose nine works.) Although the list was poetry heavy (occupational hazard), I included fiction and plays, too. Students drew the names of works out of a hat at the end of the first week of the term, so selection was random, and they had the works far in advance of their presentation dates, which were sprinkled throughout the term. Once they had their twenty-first century works, they were on their own to choose authors for comparison. Here are the contemporary works I chose (and I’d love it if you would offer suggestions for others in the comments section!):

And here are the nineteenth century writers and works we studied:

Finally, here are the pairings students came up with:

  • David Walker and Kyle Baker
  • Frederick Douglass and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
  • Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and Marilyn Nelson
  • Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and Vievee Francis
  • William Wells Brown and Tyehimba Jess
  • William Wells Brown and Suzan-Lori Parks
  • Harriet Jacobs and Thylias Moss
  • Harriet Jacobs and Colson Whitehead
  • Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, David Walker, William Wells Brown, and Natasha Trethewey (clearly, this didn’t work out so well)

(William Wells Brown and Suzan-Lori Parks)

How it worked and how it didn’t: insights and pitfalls

Here are the particular things I asked students to do in the presentations, which were intended to be 15-20 minutes in length:

  1. First, give a very brief (just a couple of minutes) summary and evaluation of the 21st century work.
  2. Then, draw some connections between the 21st century work and a 19th century work or works of your choice. For example, you might consider these questions (but don’t feel limited by them):
  • What overlapping themes do you see in the 19th century work and the 21st century work?
  • What textual or visual similarities do you see between the two works?
  • If applicable, how does the 21st century work appropriate, respond to, critique, or revise the 19th century work? How does the 21st century work respond to the 19th century more generally?
  • Whatever direction(s) you take this, make sure to pull out a chunk of text (or video, or whatever the medium is) from each work to show us and to compare.
  • Finally, prepare a question about the works for the class to discuss. Strive to move beyond questions that have to do with “did you like this” or “what do you think the author was trying to do here?” Root the question in the connections you are finding between African American literature and art in the 19th and the 21st centuries.

(Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and Marilyn Nelson)

Sometimes, this really worked, as when one of my students compared Tyehimba Jess’s Olio, which is about postbellum, pre-Harlem African American music (from minstrelsy to the Fisk Jubilee Singers to early vaudeville and more!), to William Wells Brown’s play The Escape, both of which are formally experimental texts that make use of (and radically re-shape) minstrel texts. Another student compared the dramatic monologues in Marilyn Nelson’s My Seneca Village to those in Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects, and she looked at rhyme and form in both poets’ work as well. In both of these cases, students kept their summarizing to a minimum, got quickly to the textual comparison, and provided the class with lots of visual aids to keep them interested. Both of these students also knew and were able to use literary terminology well in their analyses. Perhaps most importantly, these works really did speak to one another. It was easy to have conversation because the parallels between works were extremely clear.

When the 19-to-21 presentations didn’t work, it was largely for these reasons:

  • Way, way too much time spent summarizing (few things are more boring than listening to a lengthy plot summary of a book one has not read)
  • Speeding through the textual analysis before the class has had time to digest the comparisons
  • Lack of visual aids to keep class interested
  • Discussion questions that were largely unanswerable (these fell into a couple of categories: 1) why-did-the-author-do-this-and-not-that questions; 2) questions that were too closely based in the 21st century text, which the rest of the class had not read; or 3) questions comparing both texts, but without providing the actual texts for the class to look at)
  • Unfamiliarity with literary terminology, causing students to say wildly inaccurate things about the books they were reading
  • Lack of an interesting connection between the works, or trying to do too much (as you can see in the above example where Trethewey was paired with half the syllabus)

Meh . . .

 Of the nine presentations, we had three excellent ones, four that were just okay, and two that were truly taxing. (Both of the truly taxing presentations were heavy on plot summary and light on analysis, used few or no visual aids, and did not use accurate literary terminology.) I had such high hopes for this assignment, but presentation days honestly became one of my least favorite times of the term. I could see that most of the students felt the same way. Only my most committed students were invested in their peers’ work, and part of me just wonders if that’s the pitfall of presentations. (I’ve certainly seen this lack of engagement in other classes where I’ve had students do presentations.) There was a lot of zoning out, a lot of surreptitious phone-checking under the seminar table, a lot of notebook-doodling. This was a talkative class who liked each other and liked the nineteenth-century works, so the lack of investment in the presentations wasn’t from a lack of investment in the class or in each other. Perhaps most students weren’t nearly as curious as I imagined they’d be about twenty-first century books they hadn’t read. That’s my bad!

(Frederick Douglass and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins)

Looking forward: ideas for next time

 If I were teaching this as a fifteen-week course, I think I’d just build some of these twenty-first century works into the syllabus. (If those of you who are on the semester system try this, let me know how it goes!) Because we’re on ten-week terms at my school, there’s not really that kind of class time to spare. Here are some ideas I had that I might try next time:

  • Turning the assignment into a short paper instead of a presentation
  • Giving a demonstration of what I’m looking for to the class, rather than just writing it on an assignment sheet (no matter how clear I think my instructions are, they don’t always get followed; perhaps modeling a presentation would be a good idea)
  • Changing media and cutting down on options (for example, what if our class met outside of class time once a week to screen an episode of the current WGN television series Underground, then talked about all of our nineteenth century works in relation to the show?)
  • Asking students to provide excerpts of the twenty-first century works for the class to read a few days before the presentations (a couple of poems, a chapter of a novel, a scene from a play)

Or . . . I could just scrap it altogether and spend more time doing archival activities, which my students really enjoyed. I still believe in the relevance of nineteenth-century works to twenty-first century works, but I want to find a better and more exciting way for my students to make these connections. Can this assignment be saved? Let me know if you have ideas!

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