In These Uncertain Times: Embracing the Weird in a Contemporary Literature Seminar

PALS welcomes a guest post from Kate Harlin. Harlin is an Assistant Professor of Postcolonial Literature at Eureka College in Eureka, Illinois. In this post, she writes about the joys and challenges of planning and executing a contemporary literature seminar in her first job during a pandemic.

This was going to be a weird semester no matter what. I am a newly minted PhD. I am in my first faculty job at a tiny private liberal arts college after teaching through my graduate degrees at a huge public university. And also, there’s a global pandemic.

When I found out over the summer that I’d be teaching an upper-level contemporary literature seminar and that the seminar would absolutely be running despite having three students enrolled, it became clear that I needed to just lean into the weirdness. The college’s catalog description for the course was wonderfully broad in its concept of contemporary literature; any genre was fine, no national literature was specified, literature in translation was explicitly permitted, and the periodization was defined as “since the mid-20th century.” My own work primarily focuses on the 21st century, so I was already inclined to narrow our class’s definition of contemporary to the past 20 years. I was even more inclined to do so when I realized this would most likely limit the assigned texts to those published since my undergraduates were born.

Normally, the next stage of planning a course like this— for me at least—would be to choose a more specific logic for assigning texts. I decided I wanted my students to come away from the course with a sense of the particular disturbing weirdness of 2020 within the context of the general disturbing weirdness of the post-9/11 world.  The four books (a play, two novels, and a collection of short fiction) I ended up assigning are Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks, The Vegetarian by Han Kang, White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi, and Earthly Delights and Other Apocalypses by Jen Julian. Ultimately, this resulted in a booklist that I summarized to my students on the first day of class as “books I can’t quite wrap my own head around.” Rather than intimidate them, though, I was clear that this was meant as an invitation to muddle through with me, to offer strange and uncomfortable interpretations, and to sit with confusion, just to see what happens.

Early on in the semester, this small group of upper-level English majors proved themselves to be smart, insightful readers. At the same time, the level of genre-bending (is Topdog/Underdog satire? What on earth is a postcolonial gothic?)  and the lack of narrative and thematic closure in the works we were reading genuinely disturbed them. From the beginning, this course has been an exercise in collaborative meaning-making. In fact, their final project will be an “Un-Paper” assignment that asks them to bring together the four literary works from the course in a way I hadn’t predicted when creating the syllabus. If my only curatorial logic was “published after 2001” and “weird/unsettling”, what more specific insights might my students come up with about these works and about this historical moment?

Those questions are going to remain unanswered for a few more weeks as we wrap up the semester, but another off-beat assignment has already encouraged my students to think beyond the page in understanding and periodizing this so-called contemporary literature.

I was inspired by a graduate seminar on contemporary fiction I took during my MA, where the professor had us bring in and share our own supplemental scholarly sources. There are a few elements of this exercise that I thought would be especially productive in the undergraduate classroom. First, I like the emphasis on the value of outside research to supplement reading literature beyond the obvious paper- and article-writing applications. Additionally, it serves as an opportunity for students to see where literary studies can intersect with other fields of study and bodies of knowledge. The assignment appears on my syllabus like this:

After the conclusion of each assigned text, someone will be assigned a 45-minute context presentation. The goal of this presentation is to encourage students to think through the contemporary context of each literary work, and to argue for a particular context’s impact on the literary work. Each presentation should be a sustained engagement with a single contemporary context for the work. Contextual subjects may be historical/political events, works of art or pop culture, social movements or trends, new technologies, etc.

In class, I encouraged students to be inquisitive and creative in their approaches to this, and explicitly told them it would be a great assignment to “get weird” with themselves, weirdness itself being a primary theme of the course. In other words, I explicitly welcomed them to take risks with creative and potentially far-fetched approaches to the text. I even went so far as to suggest they consider starting their presentation from an angle that their classmates and I might be immediately inclined to disagree with.  Finally, rather than having students sign up for a text at the beginning of the semester, I also asked them to tell me during our discussions if they were interested in presenting on a particular text.

This last curveball was probably the one the students were most uncomfortable with, but I wanted them to proceed with this project from a place of genuine inspiration and curiosity, not out of an arbitrarily assigned obligation to dig into any particular work. This is also the element I would certainly have to change for a class with the usual number of students. However, I think reserving a week at the end of the semester for these context presentations, where students could retrospectively discuss the text of their choice, would preserve the opportunity for organic discovery we’ve been able to achieve in this unusually tiny class.

Either way, I will be incorporating this assignment into future seminars, because the work my students have produced so far has been thrilling to see. Because I offered so few specific requirements on the formatting of these presentations, they have largely been Powerpoints, sometimes with embedded videos and discussion questions, but this description does nothing to account for the huge amount of specialized knowledge and provocative interpretations these presentations have contained—much more than if I were leading these particular class days myself.

First, a student who is a humanities and social science double major chose to present on Topdog/Underdog, because she was profoundly disturbed by the abandonment of the play’s two main characters as children. In particular, she attributed the failure of social services to intervene on the African American boys’ behalf to racism and took this assumption as her point of departure. As a result, this student offered a lesson in the racialized history of Children and Family Services departments across the United States since the Progressive Era, as well as some recent efforts to reform the supposed “unconscious bias” of these institutions.

During her presentation, this student revealed that she had a “moment of panic” when she began her research because she had assumed that, like Lincoln and Booth in the play, Black children would be ignored and forgotten by social services institutions. However, she quickly learned that children of color, especially black and latinx children, were far more likely to be removed from their parents’ care than white children. By having to reconsider her assumptions, she was able to draw larger and more complex connections between governmental institutions and their impact on families of color. At the end of her presentation, she made connections between Topdog/Underdog, the destruction of Black families during slavery and the recent family separation policies enacted at the US/Mexico border. 

Just this week, another student took a completely different approach to Helen Oyeyemi’s postcolonial vampire novel, White is for Witching. Inspired by a classmate’s comment about the novel’s “dream logic” during class discussion, this student immediately asked to present on the novel. She ended up with an incredibly wide-ranging but entirely coherent presentation that touched on everything from Freud to the nature of “reality.” Eventually, she made a compelling argument for reading the novel as part of the lineage of twentieth century surrealism, comparing it provocatively with Salvador Dali’s Lobster Telephone from 1936.

Reflecting on this assignment, it seems naïve of me to have expected students to fix these works in the contemporary moment. How could they not constantly reach back through time for clues as to how we got here? However, I don’t intend to change the assignment itself to explicitly ask students to fit these works into long historical narratives. In fact, the irresistibility of history, and its incessant presence, is in itself a marker of the contemporary. While this might seem obvious to any professor of contemporary literature, it’s certainly a joy to help undergraduates discover this conclusion anew.

Bio:

Kate Harlin is Assistant Professor of Postcolonial Literature at Eureka College in Eureka, Illinois. She earned her PhD from the University of Missouri in 2020. Kate’s work focuses on contemporary fiction from Africa and the African diaspora. Her writing has previously appeared in The Rumpus, BuzzFeed Reader, LARB, and elsewhere. You can find her tweeting about teaching, TV, and her cats @TheGreatKatee.  

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