Challenges and Rewards of Guest Lectures: Teaching Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye for One Class Period

When a colleague invited me to give a guest lecture in her African diaspora literature course last year, I immediately, and perhaps too emphatically, said, “yes!” Of course I wanted to discuss Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye for fifty minutes. Obviously my love of various forms of collaboration–like this site, for instance–make me a proponent of guest lecturing. Go into others’ classes! Invite others into your classroom! Foster some learning communities! Do It!

But don’t “Just Do It.” Sorry, Nike. There are a lot of factors at play when guest lecturing. And while I’m no old pro, I am here to provide you with some insight I’ve gained through my handful of guest lectures. I’m focusing on a specific experience in a literature classroom because it is most relevant to this site and it adhered the most to the lecture format. I am going to start with a bit of background information on the course before going into the design of my guest lecture and my approach to teaching Morrison’s The Bluest Eye for one class period.

Assessing the Lay of the Land

The who, where, what, and why questions are extremely important when preparing for a guest lecture. Let’s start with the who and where. As mentioned above, this was a 50 minute class period. It was also a general education, introductory level course. Another element worth mentioning is that it was significantly larger than most other literature courses in the department with the enrollment opened to 90 students (if I remember correctly, maybe more?). As such, it was in a lecture room that included a small stage, more of a platform really, with amphitheater style seating. This all has an impact on the teaching experience.

Those very practical elements of class size and layout contributed to making my guest lecture a much truer lecture. If it was actually my class and I met with them 3 times a week all semester, I would have spent more time working around the limits of the space and class size for more discussion. Since I only had one class period with them, I embraced the lecture in an environment that it was really made for.

The Outsider

A challenge for both students and guest lecturers is how group dynamics play out between the insiders and the outsider. As a guest lecturer, the students in the class did not know me and had not had any previous interactions with me. As an outsider, I did not know how the class functioned as a group or how the students interacted with their regular professor. I didn’t walk in there entirely blind, though. I knew my colleague and had seen her in action before in a couple different type of class settings, so I did know the type of rapport she builds with her students. That said, they were her students, not mine.

Despite the distance between us, the students responded to questions I asked them. They put forth a good faith effort and brought me into the group as much as they could during that class period. That is really all I could ask for in such a short time span.They were engaged, and I had fun with them.

Lecture versus Discussion

Even though I was invited to guest lecture, I didn’t want to just get up and talk for the full 50 minutes. Since my own teaching style involves quite a bit of discussion and student ownership over their learning, it was challenging to find ways to move in and out of discussion based on the aforementioned components. But we moved between lecture and discussion through broad and specific questions and my directing them to specific passages in the novel. I was very much leading them through a certain reading of the first half of The Bluest Eye, but stopping to let them do some of the concept application work.

My The Bluest Eye Lecture

When agreeing to do the guest lecture, I was given the schedule and asked to choose the day and topics I wanted to lecture on. I  chose the end of the first week on the novel, which ended up being the Friday before spring break, and I designed my lecture around two main elements: 1) contextualizing Morrison and The Bluest Eye in the African American literary tradition, and 2) introducing students to elements of race and psychoanalysis in the novel via WEB DuThe Bluest Eye.jpgBois’s double consciousness. The class had already been working with the novel for two class periods when I came through the door.

A PowerPoint accompanied my lecture (no bullet points involved), providing students with quotes from other works and some images referenced in the novel. Students had read the first half of the book, up through the “Winter” section. They had not yet reached Pecola’s rape scene (one of the reasons it often makes banned books lists), but since it is referenced in the opening to the novel, it was where I began.

Writing Back to the African American Literary Tradition

There were three specific texts I wanted to introduce the students to and create a progression for their thinking about the way Morrison represents the psychological weight that is placed upon race in the United States and its presence in works by other black writers.

Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man: I began by very briefly summarizing the beginning
of the chapter of Invisible Man where Invisible Man Invisible_Man.jpgill-advisedly takes the school’s benefactor Mr. Norton to gawk at the Trueloves. I had combed through the 30+ pages that involved Jim Truelove telling his story of raping his daughter in order to find a short passage that would best show the complexities of reading Morrison’s Breedloves as a response to Ellison’s Trueloves. I put a short exchange between Mr. Norton and Jim Truelove on a slide and read it with the students.

I used this as an entry into the project of The Bluest Eye based on the brief opening to the novel. I presented Morrison’s novel as trying to make sense of the Truelove’s story from Invisible Man, but from a different perspective. The questions I asked students to keep in mind throughout my time with them and as they finished reading the book were:

    • What actually happened to Pecola? According to Pecola? According to the black community?
    • Who does Morrison give a voice to? And what does that do to the narrative?
    • Why did it happen? vs. How did it happen? (This is set up in the novel’s opening. See pages 5-6.)

In the opening, the “why” is framed as being too much for the narrator to deal with and the “how” is positioned as the focus of the account. The why, however, is implicitly weaved throughout the narrator’s story.

WEB DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk: My slide had the definition DuBois gives of DuBois.jpgdouble consciousness.  After introducing them to the concept, we went to the text and read an excerpt that showed the concept functioning in the Breedlove’s lives (see page 38).

We paused here to first explore the concept of double consciousness among the characters before adding the layer of physical “beauty” to it. The question I posed to students at this point was:

    • How has the United States’ popular culture erased and superimposed racial identity by creating and treating white “norms” as the “norm,” as the universal experience, as a non-race?

We looked at the scene on the playground where Pecola was the subject of attack from the playground boys (pg. 65). We questioned what exactly Bay Boy, Woodrow Cain, Buddy Wilson, and Junie Bug were persecuting in Pecola and how they were attacking elements of their selves that they identified in her.

Gwendolyn Brooks’ Maud Martha On my Maud Martha slide, I provided thmaud-marthae quote from the vignette in which Maud Martha compares herself to a dandelion. This is a moment of empowerment in Brooks’ book, where the ordinary is viewed as extraordinary. The opening scene in The Bluest Eye and this vignette in Maud Martha both reflect on flowers, conditions in which they flourish and conditions in which they struggle or never sprout.

I took students to the place in The Bluest Eye where Pecola is rejecting her entire body and all her features (see pages 45-50). In the midst of these pages the dandelion is referenced (page 48). Though here, it is not the ordinary as extraordinary, but as a disappointment.

Whiteness and Hollywood Beauty Standards

When I did the PALS review for the MLA Approaches to Teaching the Novels of Toni Morrison, there was one essay that I did not mention because I wanted to take a minute to talk about it in this post. Kathryn Earle’s essay “Teaching Controversy: The Bluest Eye in the Multicultural Classroom” provides idea after idea about how to use media and popular culture, both past and present, in the teaching of The Bluest Eye. From analyzing models’ skin tones in fashion magazines to Hollywood to the Dick and Jane readers. One draw back to this essay is that there are moments where it feels dated. Her anxieties about teaching race in the classroom as a white woman actually might be more relevant in the current political climate, so some my find her suggestions for working through that helpful.

While Early’s suggestions are great, they may take more setup for the current generation of students. How many of our students know who Ginger Rogers and Greta Garbo are or what they look like (let alone Betty Grable, Hedy Lamarr, or Claudette Colbert)? More may know of Shirley Temple, but few have seen any of her films. It is extremely difficult to discuss these references in the novel when students have no idea who is actually being referred to. There is the same issue with the Dick and Jane readers. If you can’t visually show them to your students, there will be a disconnect and they will simply have to take your word for it.

I didn’t get into the whole Dick and Jane element, that is full conversation in and of itself that I didn’t have time for in my lecture. Since my lecture progressed from double-consciousness to beauty standards, I focused on some of the Hollywood references made in the first half of the book. I asked students about the beauty standards Pecola (and Claudia and Frieda and Maureen)  was being held to and influenced by. Enter images of those Hollywood starlets. I also had a slide of Shirley Temple dancing with Bill “Bojangles” Robertson. We looked at a few of the many passages referencing these Hollywood images.

Finally, I ended with an image of Jesse Williams and a quote about his experience with European beauty standards and his blue eyes in Hollywood. The purpose of this was to move the conversation out of Classic Hollywood into the present, as they continued to think about representation and Pecola’s quest for blue eyes.


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