Pedagogy Under Fire; Or, When Community Members Want A Say Over Your Classroom

I enjoy discussing pedagogy, hence my participation in this site. At the start of every semester, as I go over the syllabus with my students, I create a space for us to discuss why I have made the decision I have for our course. We discuss text choices and order. We discuss assignments and scaffolding. In other words, we don’t just go over the syllabus, we discuss my pedagogical rationale. Students generally feel comfortable engaging with me right of the bat, and they question some of my decisions which leads to further discussion.

I will talk teaching and pedagogy all day long! Why not? It makes us better instructors. This semester, however, I discovered my limits. While I’m happy to partake in these conversations with my students, with other colleagues, and even with parents scouting community college courses for their high school students, I am not compelled to respond to random requests from community members.

The Email

A few weeks into the fall semester, I received the following email:

Concerned Citizen Email

My chosen focus for the class in question is loosely based on an approach I have used before: Narratives of Historical Revision and Historical Recovery. I have written two PALS posts about texts I have taught in various versions of this course: M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! and Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition. This past semester, Chesnutt’s was not one of the texts under fire; though this email’s reference to literature appreciation took me back in my mind to my earlier Chesnutt piece. My most recent line up for this course, and the texts with which this citizen was concerned, was Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider, M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong!, Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera, Luis Valdez’s Zoot Suit, and Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club. 

I thought about different possible responses to address this person’s inquiry, but there were too many factors involved. First, I was teaching 18 units, so all my extra time was already committed to my students. I didn’t have more than two minutes to commit to this odd interest in my course. Second, based on the rhetoric of this email, there isn’t a response I could have provided to appease the writer; going back to my first point, I didn’t have the time for the lengthy back-and-forth debate about my teaching choices that would almost inevitably ensue. Third, this person wasn’t actually interested in my course and didn’t have any knowledge of it. Finally, this email isn’t really about my class per se but about the larger backlash towards higher education.

So I chose not to respond.

Student Activity

Instead, I turned this email into a teachable moment because we just can’t get enough of those! In honor of the American Library Association’s Banned & Challenged Books Week, I put the content of the email up on the board for my students to respond to (and I removed all the sender’s identifying information, like I did here because I’m anti the practice of doxing). At this point in the semester, we had just finished reading the first two texts, the Lorde and the Philip.

I asked them to:

  1. Write out their own initial reactions to the email.
  2. Respond to the concerns based on their knowledge from those first two texts.

My students had endless questions about the email to nearly all of which I answered, “I don’t know.” I did know, at least nothing beyond my own informed speculation. They wondered many of the same things I did. How did this person know what books we’re reading? Why would someone be so concerned about a college class they aren’t taking? But really, the questions suggest they don’t know what the class is about at all, so they can’t have the syllabus; where did they get the list of books from? Who has this much time on their hands? And my favorite, why you? Why are they trying to come after you of all teachers?

For the second question, the response was pretty standard across the board–Ahem. Thank you M. NourbeSe Philip. A paraphrase of all the responses goes something like, if this person had opened Zong!, they would not question how it promotes critical thinking. A direct quote from the in class discussion that was also shared by the room was “I have never thought about something so hard or so much in my life!” I also share those sentiments every time I read Zong! Always to my surprise, however, they also discussed how much they were learning about history. This is one of the purposes of my course focus, but I guess I am always hoping that at some point students will arrive from high school with more knowledge of these huge pieces of history like the middle passage.

Getting Political

Moving back to the first question, because this is where I would like to spend the remainder of this post, the responses varied much more. The similarities were that they spent a lot of picking apart of the email itself in an attempt to address the questions they had about why the person had written it in the first place. For instance, many students pointed out that it wasn’t an American literature course, so why would American classics be the go to texts? They were close reading (yay!) the email to try and figure out how much information its writer was working with.

Where the responses differed had to do with my students political identities and affiliations. I know! I have finally made it to the elephant in the room. This email was really all about politics. And by politics, we are talking about actual politics. When I wrote about Chesnutt as mentioned above, I framed it in terms of literature being political. That can be taken very literally by talking about political parties which sometimes fits the literature, but I normally approach it much more broadly which is how I have always interpreted the concept. This is what seems to be missing from one of the many current wars on education that has encouraged things like the Professor Watch List.

But what exactly was it about these texts that “represent [the] liberal leftist agenda and ideology” my emailer was so concerned about? All five writers were people of color. More than half of the writers identify as LGBQT. There are Lorde and Anzaldúa’s calls to fight the patriarchy. Author’s names and title words appear in languages other than English. The writers challenge dominant historical narratives. These are the assumptions that my more politically liberal students identified. Nearly all of these things would require more than just a glance at the course’s list of books. They would require a bit of research, wouldn’t they? Research where the emailer would also learn these books aren’t obscure and my teaching choices aren’t as radical as they are being treated in the email.

My politically conservative students’ responses were much more nuanced. They too were trying to process some of those go to assumptions, like writers’ race or sexuality being the emailers issue, but were filtering it through their own conservative identities. The challenge they faced, and still face, is America’s dominant two party system where conservative equals Republican and everything that stands for, while liberal equals Democrat and everything that stands for, despite the fight put forth by numerous other political parties.  So my conservative students who support gay rights struggle with it positioned as liberal, which has been recorded more widely about the younger generation. And my conservative students who support DACA and clear paths to citizenship for immigrants of various documentation statuses struggle with the valuing of marginalized voices and experiences as liberal. These values are also apart of their conservative identities.

Ultimately my conservative students were, at the very least, annoyed that their agency was being taken away by the emailer. There were some hypothetical concessions in the form of, “yes, I guess Sister Outsider can be considered liberal because Lorde talks about her lesbian identity and the patriarchy a lot.” The follow ups to this were a whole bunch of buts: “but we aren’t mindless drones,” “but we are in college to be challenged,” “but our political positions aren’t being attacked,” “but we don’t have to agree with every single point; we’re just learning about other perspectives.”

I would place a large part of these students’ responses on who we were reading. Lorde and Anzaldúa are very friendly to readers; I mean, after rethinking the erotic with Lorde, they are ready to engage with her anger. The other part of students’ responses has to do with my pedagogy. I present them with the challenging texts and contextualize the material, but they have to figure out what to do with it.

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Teaching Film and Film Adaptations in Literature Courses

This past spring, we had a few posts on different elements of teaching film, Jacinta Yanders on documentary films and composition and Phil Smith on teaching Disney adaptations in a two part post. This week I am discussing another aspect of teaching film: when, why, and how we use them in the literature classroom. And, heads up, my southern literature background steals the show in this post.

I have taught film studies in the past, so I am an avid supporter of teaching film. I have served as a pre-screener for an independent film festival, and I also love a blockbuster. I can generally find something or many things to appreciate regardless of how “good” or “bad” a film has been deemed. All that said, I am very careful of when I incorporate films into the literature classroom.

For me, the crux of the issue of teaching film adaptation in literature classrooms is that movies create definitive images of characters, settings, importance of themes, etc.

For instance, who is your Anne Shirley? Megan Follows from the 1985 Anne of Green Gables mini-series and its sequels or Amybeth McNulty from the 2017 Anne with an E? There were many strong reactions, both positive and negative to the newest version, that are centered on adaptation and which of the Annes held up in individuals’ imaginations. But what about Anne Shirley from 1908-1985? What did she look like when coming to life in her readers’ minds? My Canadian grandmother grew up on Prince Edward Island, so the novel held a solid presence in my childhood.

I have heard the argument in passing and face-to-face discussions that film clips can give students a sense of setting and show them different time periods regardless of how bad the adaptation might be. I am not sold on that being a good enough reason to bring film adaptations into the classroom. Are the writers we teach in our classrooms capable of successfully setting a scene and helping readers envision the world and characters of their literature? I hope so. If not, then why is it vague or cryptic? (I’m thinking of some Modernists here.) In other words, how important is what gets lost or forced in adaptation? How important is what the literature creates in our students’ minds on its own?

Teaching Film Adaptation or Just the Film
Adaptations

Despite my appreciation for “bad” movies, most of the literature I teach does not do well in the adaptation department. Maybe it’s an issue of under funding or maybe it is a disconnect between the original writer and screenwriter that loses the essence of the original text. I do think that discussions of adaptation, and especially entire courses devoted to film adaptation, are productive. It is accurate to note that if I were to teach a film adaptation course, I would largely be teaching texts I haven’t taught before.

I’m going to be very upfront about the fact that the films I teach in my literature courses are nearly all adaptations from plays (note: below I discuss not overdoing the use of film when teaching plays). In an introduction to American literature course, I spent a chunk of time on Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof–the 1958 adaptation staring Paul Newman and Liz Taylor–due to the rewriting of the main plot conflict between play and the film.

Williams refused to be a part of the film’s production, and its Broadway director Elia Kazan, who also directed many other films, refused to direct it based on the changes. My students follow along in their books, assessing how the movie reflects the play. It goes along rather smoothly throughout the first act, but by act two, they are flipping pages and trying to figure out how the movie derailed so far from the play. “Why is this whole scene taking place in a basement?” or “I don’t understand why this scene is here or what Big Daddy is doing” or “Wait, I thought he was in love with his friend” kick off our discussion. This is the point that Williams and Kazan would not take part in. By 1984, a year after Williams’ death, a new version by Jack Hofsiss takes back important pieces of the plot. Having students follow along in their books while noting elements of the text that are well produced or missing makes them more active readers and challenges their assumptions.

 Film as Film

I have also ditched the written version a time or two and taught just the film. Normally my decision to leave the written version out of the course has to do with the original writer also serving as the screenwriter. For instance, I have taught Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, starring Betty Davis, without the play. There is a significant change between the ending of the play and the ending of the film that I find more interesting than my students generally do, but without knowledge of the play, some of those elements that would lead to an adaptation discussion disappear. When I validate the screenwriter’s work as worth study, something else happens instead. Students’ change the way they think about both literature and film.

When Teaching Plays, Respect Performance

One of the great things about teaching plays is that performance is a key component of the form. Additionally, the structure of most plays–acts and scenes–make it easier to show clips as opposed to the film in its entirety. Perhaps even more importantly, there are so many options, not just one (or maybe two) film adaptations, but theater productions from high schools, colleges, community theater troupes, and professional shows on youtube!

I often don’t bring in film adaptations when teaching plays because sometimes things happen in adaptations that make the rough around the edges high school stage production 100 times better that its cinema counterpart. Does anyone remember John Malkovich as Tom Wingfield in the 1987 film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie? No. Well, I don’t recommend watching it. After a two minute clip, my students were dumbfounded. Their responses ranged from “That was awful” to “That’s not how I read the tone of the play” to “They made that from this?” Looks of disgust filled the classroom as students tried to understand how the dark comedy they thought they were working with turned into just a depressing drama that took itself way too seriously.

Now, Enter the same two minute clip from the Booth Theater’s 2013 production of The Glass Menegerie with Zachary Quinto as Tom and Cherry Jones as Amanda Wingfield–well not exactly the same two minutes because pacing delivered us more in that same amount of time. The energy of the stage and from the actors created the characters and tone my students expected to see. We discussed the differences between the written version of the play in their hands, the film version, and the stage version. The written version varied the most because they each brought their own nuanced reading of it, while there was a clear consensus on the film and stage versions.

Last semester in my British Literature: Romantics to Present course, the first performance of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days they saw was an impromptu production by their classmates with props I brought to class that day. As a class, they had a similar feel for Winnie and Willy–perhaps because it came at the end of the semester and they were used to the way their classmates read the literature at that point–even without me framing it for them. After discussing the performance, we watched a few clips from theater productions and they were annoyed with the character decisions made in the adaptations. Even though they found Winnie annoying generally, they felt the adaptations over exaggerated her and undermined the moments of sympathy they felt for her. I guess my use of adaptation in the classroom tends to fall on the side of the adaptations’ shortcomings, not successes. In this case, they were so invested in their creation of the characters refused to let the multiple visual representation change what existed in their imaginations.

Ultimately, I worry about doing a potential disservice to students. We should constantly ask what the film is going to add to our students’ understanding and our curriculum, and why it is important.

What are your thoughts on teaching film in the lit classroom?