Teaching Whitman with Whitman, Alabama

PALS is pleased to have another guest post by Matthew Luter. See Luter’s first post here. In this post he explores teaching Walt Whitman with Whitman, Alabama and explains the digital project that he has designed to go along with the reading.

I teach a yearlong American literature survey regularly. And I tend to use shorter poems to introduce Walt Whitman and his work to my students: the old standbys “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” and “The Dalliance of the Eagles” work well to convey how much Whitman values action, connection, and deep thought about the natural world.  But to set up spending a few days with Song of Myself, the Youtube channel Whitman, Alabama has become my go-to.* 

 Whitman, Alabama is a delight.  The concept behind the short films there is elegant, clever, and simple. For a few years, filmmaker Jennifer Crandall traveled all over Alabama, asking people from all walks of life to recite for the camera one of the 52 segments of Whitman’s Song of Myself.  There are now over two dozen videos on the channel, covering nearly half of this essential (and long!) poem.

Though anyone who spends time with the YouTube channel’s offerings will find their own favorites, two clips in particular have stood out for me and have become great teaching tools in my classroom. The poem’s opening segment (“I celebrate myself, and sing myself”) is performed with great warmth, humility, and good humor by nonagenarian Virginia Mae Schmitt. And segment 4 (“Trippers and askers surround me”) is read by young Caden Grider, while his baseball team practices around him. (I’d add that particularly for my teenaged male students, the latter can be revelatory, seeing 19th-century poetry melded with athletics in a basically seamless way that suggests no dissonance whatsoever in setting these two pursuits side by side.)

Many of the readings are also bookended by short interviews setting up the reader’s life and interests, and some of these unscripted moments reveal a great deal about why that reader might gravitate toward one segment of Whitman’s Song in particular. I’ve found it useful to have students think through, then, what aspects of segment 1 make just as much sense coming from an older woman (and one who, quoting the poem’s opening stanzas, calls herself “thirty-seven years old” at that!) as they do from Whitman.  These might both shape and complicate our received sense of Whitman as the great democratic poet, whose song of himself is also, as many have read it, the song of countless other selves.

The real fun comes, though, when I have my students, in assigned groups, choose a segment of Song of Myself and adapt it in a short video in the style of the Whitman, Alabama channel.  The assignment has two parts: a video clip, and an accompanying short essay of 3 pages or so that explains the choices they’ve made in their presentation of the poem. Even as this piece of writing is essentially secondary to the video, it’s where the most direct textual analysis in the project takes place. The essay must explain just how their video represents not just an adaptation of the poem, but an interpretation of it. This means answering two big questions: “According to this clip, what is this segment of the poem about?”, and “What choices have you made to convey this?” 

And indeed they must make choices. Some groups choose not to put themselves on camera, while others do. And even if their clip is as simple as a single shot of someone reciting lines to the camera, there are still lots of decisions to make, regarding location, costume, movement, camera placement.  These visual choices must not be arbitrary, I emphasize; they should be logically appropriate to what the students conclude their segment of the poem is about.

The results? As always seems to be the case when I assign hybrid critical/creative assignments, students surprise me. This year, one group of students presented segment 11 (“Twenty-eight young men bathe by the shore”) via filmed paper cutouts of bodies and beards. Another student filmed herself reciting segment 49 (“And as to you, Death, and you bitter hug of mortality”) while wandering a graveyard; she borrowed a stage prop of a skeleton and declaimed the stanza beginning “And as to you Corpse” directly to it.  And yet another group approached the unusually long segment 15 (“The pure contralto sings in the organ loft”) by filming many of their friends around campus, then attaching pieces of their footage to lines that suggested a conceptual link. The result depicted a casual day-in-the-life of our campus while connecting all that activity to Whitman’s awe at the variety of human pursuit.

Over time I’ve made one major alteration to this assignment that I think has resulted in more creative and personal projects. Originally, I required only that the full text of the poem be heard or seen onscreen, and that resulted in a few work-smarter-not-harder types simply reciting some Whitman over stock nature footage. (Well, it did lead to a few good conversations regarding respecting intellectual property found online.)  I have since required that students actually create the footage they present. This requirement gets them out of the classroom, forces a bit more active collaboration, and appears to have encouraged more intentional choices regarding their presentation of Whitman—in part by just encouraging more choices in general.

Among my central goals in any survey course is helping students come to see texts not as unconnected points on a nebulous curve, but as voices within a conversation across decades and centuries. (A future post will discuss another hybrid critical/creative assignment with this goal in mind.) Sometimes the other voices conversing with Whitman are clear and direct, as in Ezra Pound’s “A Pact” or Allen Ginsberg’s “A Supermarket in California.” But an assignment like this one, even if based on adapting a poem instead of creating an original one, proposes that students get to be—even, have to be—part of that conversation too.

And lastly, and most importantly, my own level of ability or comfort with a tech tool should never dictate whether or not I ask students to use it.  I can’t remember ever using iMovie, even though it came with my computer. Our students, though, probably have used it for some project or another, and even those who haven’t used it before tend to find it intuitive and user-friendly (or wind up in a group with classmates who are comfortable with it).  And earlier this semester, around the same time I gave my students some work time on this project during class, my campus’s classroom technology guru was encouraging students to experiment with Adobe Spark, a piece of the Adobe software suite for crafting presentations. She was glad to come demo the software for my students; tech specialists on your campus are similarly aware of tech resources you may not be familiar with, chances are, and will be equally thrilled to help your students put them to use.

*(A vital sidenote: yes, PALS readers, I have considered introducing Whitman via WaltGrittman. How could I not? But alas, after learning that my students were generally not familiar with Gritty—confirming my suspicion that we all live on different Internets—I’m setting aside WaltGrittman for now, but only when it comes to the classroom.)


Matthew Luter (@matthewjluter) is on the English faculty at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Jackson, Mississippi. He is the author of Understanding Jonathan Lethem (University of South Carolina Press, 2015), and his articles, on authors including Don DeLillo, Ellen Douglas, Willie Morris, and Bret Easton Ellis, have appeared in journals including CritiqueThe Southern Literary JournalGenre, and Orbit.  He is a founding board member of the International David Foster Wallace Society.


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