Mapping Don DeLillo’s White Noise

PALS is very happy to welcome Katie Fitzpatrick back to the blog. Her first post can be found here. Fitzpatrick currently works at the Coordinated Arts Program in the University of British Columbia. The following post describes a mapping classroom activity where students reacted to passages from Don DeLillo’s White Noise.


After reading
the first third of Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise, my students asked me if there would ever be a plot, if anything would ever happen. While reading Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the class had worried about Offred’s fate in the Commander’s house. While reading Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, they had wondered about the dark mysteries underlying Hailsham’s idyllic appearance. Now, they were intrigued by the strange conversations in White Noise, but they couldn’t begin to guess where it was all headed. I explained that there would, eventually, be a plot (DeLillo observes that “all plots tend to move deathward” and a gun appears in the third act), but that I had chosen the book for a rather different reason.

White Noise is a novel that I like to teach in first-year literature courses because it addresses so many Big Ideas – from death and religion, to consumerism and the media – both explicitly and elliptically. It is clear from the get-go that DeLillo is trying to express something profound but it’s never immediately clear what. For this reason, the book provides ideal practice for first-year English students who are just learning how to trace a Big Idea across a text.

This year, I am teaching a 6-credit, full-year course (ASTU 100) in the University of British Columbia’s “Coordinated Arts Program.” The course (capped at 25) provides first-year students with 3 credits of university writing and 3 credits of introductory literary studies. At the point in the semester when I assigned DeLillo, my students were preparing to write a research essay that asked them to trace how an abstract concept is elaborated or challenged across a literary work (with the help of four scholarly sources). I told them that reading White Noise would help them to develop the skills necessary for that assignment; in reading DeLillo, I explained, I didn’t want them to follow a plot so much as an idea.

When reading Never Let Me Go and The Handmaid’s Tale, our class had focused both on very large issues (narrative style, plot, and character) and on very narrow close-readings of individual sentences and passages. Now, I explained, it was time to read between and across scenes – to note repeated themes or motifs, to consider how different passages echoed or contradicted one another. When I expressed that I wanted students to practice “tracing connections between passages” one asked (I’m paraphrasing): “Can we make a map like a conspiracy theorist with all the passages?” She used some hand gestures to paint the picture; she was imagining the chaotic walls of sticky notes and long-lens photos and red yarn and scrap paper often depicted in crime procedurals and conspiracy thrillers. This struck me as perfect. “Yes,” I said, “Let me think about it.”

The next week, I came to class prepared to run this activity. I selected and printed nine key passages from the first half of White Noise (we hadn’t finished reading it yet). Some were passages we had already discussed or close-read in class, others were new. I also brought nine magnets from home, so I could “pin” the passages to the magnetic whiteboard, which would serve as our “conspiracy map.” Next, I set out a number of supplies on tables near the whiteboard. I placed extra copies of each key passage around the tables, so students wouldn’t have to wait in line to read a passage on the whiteboard. I also put out whiteboard markers, pens, and sticky notes. I had purchased a multi-colored pack of sticky notes, and I assigned the colors to five key themes that I saw echoed in several of the passages: death, religion, consumerism, the crowd, and the simulacrum. Lastly, I displayed the instructions for the activity on a slide, projected at the opposite side of the room.

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When class began, I instructed students to move around the tables and the whiteboard, eventually reading all nine passages. I encouraged them to note their responses and observations in several ways: 1. If they noticed a particular theme in a passage (say, consumerism) they could simply post a sticky note of that color on or near that passage 2. They were encouraged to also write an annotation on the sticky note (in pen). These annotations could explain how/where they saw the theme in the passage, note other observations, pose questions, or answer questions previously posed by others. 3. If they noticed a theme or idea expressed across two passages, they were encouraged to use whiteboard markers to draw a connecting line/arrow and to describe the connections they saw.

Students spent about 30-35 minutes on the activity, and remained focused and engaged the entire time. At first, they were very quiet; they silently read passages and tentatively added sticky notes and comments. As the activity continued, they became more animated and confident, commenting on the increasingly chaotic appearance of the board and on their peers’ observations. When the board was completed, I allowed them to take notes or photos (in a reference to the novel’s “Most Photographed Barn,” they dubbed it the “Most Photographed Board”), and then reconvened class for a wrap-up discussion.

During the discussion, I asked students to share any connections they had found especially surprising or interesting. I also asked them how this activity had changed their understanding of the character of Murray (three of the nine key passages I selected were his speeches). Our “conspiracy map” had helped students to perceive some continuity in Murray’s seemingly random observations, particularly when counter-posed to quotes from the novel’s protagonist, Jack Gladney. Overall, they could now see that Jack tended to take a pessimistic attitude toward crowds and consumerism, while Murray tended to take an optimistic view. I asked them to consider whether DeLillo (or, if you prefer, the text) was giving more credence to one outlook or the other, if one was more obviously satirical or exaggerated. Lastly, I gave students a short homework activity: they had to write a paragraph about two of the passages and one idea connecting them, considering whether the two passages treated that idea in similar or different ways.

Because I teach two sections of the same course back-to-back, I was able to run this activity twice in a row. It was interesting to note how the “conspiracy maps” in the two classes differed. The color-coded sticky notes allowed me to quickly perceive the main themes each class had identified. For example, one class had marked a scene where Babette (Jack Gladney’s wife) appears on television with yellow sticky-notes (religion) and pink ones (the simulacrum), while several students in the other class had marked the same passage with blue sticky-notes (death). I also observed that one class tended to identify surprising new themes with a single word (“UFOS,” “disease,” “academia”), while the other class used the whiteboard markers to offer more elaborate responses to my pre-identified themes (“both Murray and Jack seem to be constantly thinking about death but Murray seems to have confidently accepted it because he can articulate it so well”).

Teaching the activity twice also allowed me to make changes from one group to the next. At first, I assumed the activity would take all of my 50 minute class. When students finished after 35 minutes, then, we were all a little unprepared for the wrap-up discussion, and it started off slow. By the time the second group arrived,  however, I was more prepared. I told that group I would later be asking them to share a connection they found especially interesting or surprising; thanks to that simple warning, they were ready for the discussion, which got going faster. Meanwhile, I had developed our conversation about Murray spontaneously with the first group, but posed questions about him more deliberately with the second. If you replicate this activity in your own class, I recommend planning out your wrap-up discussion more than I did (and I’d be curious to hear what you come up with!).

Overall, however, I would describe the activity as highly successful. It was fun, creative, and thought-provoking. It also got students interacting with the text, one another, and the classroom in new ways, thus echoing some of the “active learning” strategies I learned from Cathy Kim and Linda McGuire while teaching at Muhlenberg College last year. Moreover, because the idea was generated by a student, it demonstrated my willingness to adapt the course in response to their input. Most importantly, students practiced tracing connections between and across passages – both during the activity itself and in the related homework assignment. This is a skill that proved very useful when it came time to design and execute their final essays (which they are drafting as of is this writing). While not every student is writing on White Noise, those that are have developed their own twists on topics covered in the “conspiracy map,”  analyzing masculinity & consumerism, for example, or academic & popular ways of knowing.

Lastly, the “conspiracy map” helped students to see White Noise as a novel less concerned with the unfolding of a plot and more concerned with the working through of ideas. Eventually, Jack Gladney becomes embroiled in the plottiest plot – attempting to kill his wife’s lover – but by the time students reached that section, they saw it as embedded within a larger, more intricate network of ideas. As a result, we were all able to read Jack’s discussion with the disbelieving nuns as the novel’s true climax – the moment when the concepts we were tracing (religion, death, the simulacrum) achieved their most complex inter-articulation. Ultimately, the activity helped us all to perceive what “happens,” or fails to, in White Noise.

Bio:

Katie Fitzpatrick teaches in the Coordinated Arts Program at the University of British Columbia. Next year, she will be joining UBC’s “Arts Studies in Research & Writing” program as a Lecturer. Dr. Fitzpatrick also works as an Editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books, and her writing has appeared in both public and scholarly venues, including The Nation, Aeon Magazine, The Chronicle Review, Twentieth-Century Literature, and Post45.

One thought on “Mapping Don DeLillo’s White Noise

  1. Thank you for sharing this idea—I plan to try it in my First Peoples Literature course this semester with Eden Robinson’s Monkey Beach.

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