Bringing Moby-Dick to the People: A Reading Marathon as a Class Community Engagement Project

PALS Note: We are thrilled to have this guest post by Marlowe Daly-Galeano, an associate professor of English at Lewis-Clark State College, about a class project to develop and host a reading marathon of Moby-Dick. Read more about the project below and let us know if you plan your own reading marathon! 

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student-designed artwork

Of Whales in Paint: When It Comes to Service Learning, Don’t Forget the Arts.

College campuses across the country celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by offering opportunities for students and faculty to participate in acts of service and community engagement. At my institution, these include a variety of projects such as walking shelter dogs, stocking the shelves of the food pantry, and helping at the veteran’s home. In our current moment—when the arts and humanities are often under-supported—I’d like to suggest that in addition to valuable outreach opportunities like these, we should also strive to provide service and community engagement opportunities that connect people to the arts.

Last semester, in both of my American literature courses, I encouraged students to recognize that literature is neither created nor consumed in a vacuum. It is easy to joke, as I have been wont to do, that English majors have no practical skills or that reading is a leisurely act disconnected from the world. But those ideas are both false and pernicious. I have tried to move away from making these kinds of self-deprecating jokes, which undervalue my profession and my students, to take a stance as an advocate for the value of the arts and those who are trained to critique and appreciate them. As part of this endeavor, students in my nineteenth-century American literature senior seminar designed and hosted an all-day reading marathon of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick for our community. My graduate program at the University of Arizona hosted a Milton Marathon every year, during which Paradise Lost was read aloud over the course of a day, so I knew that a reading marathon could be a powerful way for a community to engage with oral tradition and an individual text. When I learned of the Moby-Dick reading marathons at New Bedford and Mystic Seaport, I knew it was something I wanted to do. Combining that interest with a desire to implement service learning and community engagement into my teaching led me to this approach.

In this post, I will elaborate on that event as a model for a class community engagement assignment. While the beginning and end of this post focus on the larger rationale and take-away from a literature-based community engagement event, the middle sections detail the preparation and implementation of the event for any of you who want to host your own reading marathon or similar community engagement event on your campus.

One of the learning objectives for my course was to “Communicate the relevance of studying literature to the broader community in which we live and work, through participation in—and reflection of—community events.” From the first day of class, students understood that not only would they be reading Moby-Dick, but they also would be responsible for sharing Melville’s novel with our campus and community. The community engagement event and reflection assignment accounted for 20% of their semester grade, carrying the same weight as their term paper and discussion participation grades. It was treated as a major assignment rather than an extra. I believe that by giving the assignment this much weight, I encouraged students to recognize the true value of community engagement. Yes, this was a fun assignment, but it was not built into the syllabus just for fun; it was designed to emphasize the ways that literature and the arts affect and transform communities. That is important work that we must take seriously.

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Sometimes an engaged community looks like this

Loomings: Our Study of the Novel

Our first reading assignment included the extracts, chapters one through six, and Melville’s essay, “Hawthorne and His Mosses.” Using “Hawthorne and His Mosses,” we explored Melville’s theory of Romanticism, focused on the idea of “the dark characters,” and pondered why Hawthorne was so important to Melville’s project. Although I’ll admit that the students may not have been as smitten with this essay as I am, it did help them to see Melville as a writer in conversation with others, which would be one of the ideas our community engagement project would emphasize.

The majority of the seminar students were reading Moby-Dick for the first time, though some had read “The Whiteness of the Whale” or other excerpts in the literature survey. We spent three and a half weeks reading and discussing the novel. The longest reading assignment was about 100 pages from the Norton Critical edition. One class period within this unit was a designated reading day, on which no class was held. I’ve found that scheduling a reading day during a long text helps students stay motivated and reduces fatigue, thereby making the discussions more successful.

Because this class was a senior seminar, students were more responsible for their own learning, and they signed up in advance for discussion leadership days. Their discussion leadership approaches varied. Some students began their discussions by having their classmates write or share reactions. One student brought a large stack of cards, featuring uncaptioned photographs. He asked each student to choose cards that represented a character in Moby-Dick and to explain their choice of cards. Discussion leaders also guided us through the close reading of a passage of their choice. These student-led discussions allowed the class to explore the novel in minute and broad ways. When I was not leading the discussion, I tried to be fairly quiet, requiring students to take ownership. Although being quiet in the classroom can be hard for me, it is empowering for students. They were not able learn passively; they had to lead discussions (and help their classmates by participating actively in the discussions), which mandated that they come to class prepared to engage deeply. I think this engagement translated into an enthusiasm for the novel that they were then able to share with the community.

During one class period in which there was no assigned student discussion leader, I presented a lecture on Melville, whaling, and criticism. I geeked out by showing parts of the American Experience documentary Into the Deep: America, Whaling & the World, which is pretty much my favorite thing in the world. While the film provides background on the politics, mechanics, and economy of American whaling, I love it because it cannot separate that history from a Romantic treatment of the whaling industry that, for modern readers, is inseparable from our appreciation of Moby-Dick. To prepare for my lecture, I also consulted Greg Specter’s resources here on PALS along with the critical apparatus in the Norton edition.

Going Aboard: Event Preparations

After we finished reading the novel, we devoted several class periods or parts of class periods to planning for the event. I had to arrange the date and location of the event prior to the start of the semester, but students were responsible for making all other decisions. Most of the students had never attended a reading marathon. Before our first planning session, students listened to the Chapters podcast “A Moby Dick Marathon at Mystic Seaport” to become more familiar with how a reading marathon works.

Planning: The class decided on the food offerings, helped to hang promotional posters, solicited, made, and provided prizes, designed and made bookmarks, broadsides, and coasters, and determined the selection of chapters to be read aloud. Since we lack the resources and population to host a full twenty-four-hour marathon on our campus, our “1/2” marathon featured about nine hours of reading. (And, yes, I recognize that “1/2” is a bit of an exaggeration, but “1/3 marathon” lacks panache!) Students determined the time it would take to read each chapter and created a schedule of chapters.

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Promotional flyer

Visuals: Because a reading marathon is a largely auditory experience, students worked to create visual elements for our event. On each table, they placed blue candy (to evoke water), copies of the novel for those who wanted to read along, and printed coasters made by students enrolled in the letter-press class. Throughout the marathon a slideshow looped. Students gathered images for the slideshow that included photos of whales, ships, covers of various editions of the novel, Melville and Moby-Dick cartoons, and whaling illustrations. We also prepared a handout for attendees. One side of the handout provided background information on Melville and Moby-Dick. The other explained the mechanics of a reading marathon. The handout let attendees know that they should sit in “Reader’s Row” if they wanted to read out loud and that they could come and go as they pleased during the day. We also created an exhibit table, on which we placed copies of other books by Melville as well as books and movies related to Melville studies, whaling, and Moby-Dick.

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Exhibit table 

 

Sponsorship and Support: My department had T-shirts designed for the event, which were provided to all of the students in the class and faculty who requested them. We also ordered extra T-shirts for prizes. I approached our rep at W.W. Norton & Company about sponsoring the event. Norton provided the podium copy of the novel (which I pre-marked with the selected chapters) in addition to some tote bags, pens, and critical editions for prizes. The critical editions were particularly appreciated by the English majors! Students solicited donations from other organizations, including the campus coffee shop and our local movie theater. I invited both the dean and the college president, and our dean enthusiastically accepted the invitation to be our opening reader.

The Chase: The Unfolding of An Event

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Our music professor takes a turn at the podium

The Day: Our event was scheduled from 8:30 am to 6:00 pm, and students were asked to be there for as much of the day as they could. All of the students were present during the opening chapter, our regularly scheduled class period, the reading of the final chapter, and the closing celebration. They signed up for additional blocks of time throughout the day, so that we generally had at least half of the class present at any given moment. My early American survey class spent their class period at the marathon that day, and many ended up staying for much longer.

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Folks who stayed for the whole marathon made themselves comfortable

Roles: Students rotated between different roles throughout the day. One person stood near the door to give out the handouts we had prepared. Another updated the “Now Reading Chapter ___” and “Up Next” dry-erase board. One gave readers an “I Read at the Moby-Dick Half Marathon” sticker and bookmark after they stepped down from the podium. One was the MC when we took reading breaks to give out prizes. If they weren’t occupied with a particular job, students read along or got in line at “Reader’s Row” to read a selection of the novel. I encouraged each student to take a turn as a reader, and although some were reluctant to take the podium, in the end they all ended up reading a chapter or portion of a chapter.

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Sign for Reader’s Row

Modifications: Although we had created a reading schedule for the event, readers all have their own pace, and at one point we were behind schedule and decided to cut a few chapters from our line-up. As we neared the end of the novel, we found ourselves well ahead of schedule and added additional chapters.

Fortification: Breakfast and lunch foods were served during the day, and there was a steady stream of coffee consumed throughout the event. The students and I supplemented the college food services offerings with some event-themed foods, including whale crackers, oranges and bananas with whale stickers on them, and “Mrs. Hussey’s rolls.”

Celebration: Following the reading of “The Chase,” all participants read the epilogue aloud in unison. We then honored our achievement with a sparkling cider toast and cut into “The Whiteness of the Cake” (an idea we stole from the Mystic Seaport marathon).

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The whiteness of the cake and student-designed coasters

Epilogue: Reflection

I have found Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching a helpful resource on service learning and community engagement. There, Eyler and Giles offer a definition of service learning that emphasizes the reciprocal relationship between experiential action and learning reflection (qtd. in Bandy, “What is Service Learning or Community Engagement?”). To ensure my students met our learning objective, the final step of the community engagement assignment required them to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of their event. Each student completed an evaluation of the reading marathon, in which they scored various aspects, from the success of our publicity efforts to the quality of the food. The evaluations indicated that we could have done a better job publicizing the event, the food was acceptable, and the audience engagement was very high. In addition to completing this evaluation, they responded to questions about what they learned from hosting and participating in the event and what they would take away from it.

I confess that I enjoyed reading their responses as much as I liked the marathon itself. Their observations and reflections were insightful and charming. One student’s “Reading marathons > Running marathons” statement still makes me giggle. Several students commented that hearing the book read aloud showed them that literature can be enjoyed in various ways, something we tend to forget in a culture that privileges visuals over sound. Some found the novel funnier when they heard it read aloud, and one noticed the extensiveness of Melville’s alliteration. One of my brave colleagues had the challenge of taking the podium for the “Stubb’s Supper” chapter, an experience which emphasized the difficulty of reading dialect and vernacular. When we discussed the event afterwards, students all agreed that it was very special to hear so many different voices reading the book. While a few of the readers offered a nearly flawless reading, most stumbled, paused, mispronounced something, or lost their places occasionally. In these imperfections, the participants were able to recognize the unique and special human experience we were all a part of.

One student realized that a novel can be appreciated in segments and parts, in addition to having a value as a whole work. “Most people who came,” this student observed, “ seemed to enjoy just the parts [of Moby-Dick] they heard/read. It was fascinating to see that this is a method through which people who haven’t read the whole book can come to appreciate it.” My students, like so many English majors, are accustomed to literature as a solitary experience, but one observed, “There is a lot to be gained from participating in it communally.” Another found that exposure to literature may be all it takes to attract new readers, responding, “My partner joined us for a little while and . . . enjoyed the event. My take-away was that if you can get them in the room, non-literary lovers will enjoy themselves.” (Our work is done!)

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Student artwork

I think that hosting our community engagement event helped my students develop professional skills in event planning, publicity, and communications. They could discuss this experience in a job interview or application. I know it gave them the opportunity to articulate what the arts do and why they matter—a skill I hope they will continue to practice in their personal and professional lives. I was gratified to learn from feedback my students and I received, that our event generated new Melville enthusiasts in our community, and, in some cases, it may have converted even the most reluctant reader. One student who attended the event told me, “My girlfriend told me Moby-Dick was stupid. She was totally wrong!”

Perhaps one of the greatest services a Moby-Dick Half Marathon provides is to demystify this big, intimidating American novel, a novel that people think is too hard or too boring or too weird for common appreciation. Even if we don’t catch all of Melville’s references—and who does?—or grasp all of the metaphysics, there is much to value with every new experience of this novel. My class and other participants recognized and enjoyed MobyDick’s complexity, but they also experienced its humor, its pleasure, and its bare narrative power. In the end, I hope the reading marathon showed everyone who participated that literature and community exist in a rich, dynamic, evolving conversation.

BIO: Marlowe Daly-Galeano is associate professor of English at Lewis-Clark State College, where she teaches courses in American literature, writing, and humanities.

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Teaching Handsome Lake’s “How America Was Discovered” as Protest Literature

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Copyright Kim Smith

I am currently teaching a 200-level topics course entitled “Rise Up! Protest and Dissent in American Literature.” The class starts with excerpts from Alexander Hamilton’s 1775 pamphlet Farmer Refuted and ends Harriet Jacobs’s 1861 slave narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. In this class, we take our definition of “protest literature” from John Stauffer’s foreword to American Protest Literature: Protest literature “critiques some aspect of society, but also suggests, either implicitly or explicitly, a solution to society’s ills” (xii). In class discussion and assignments, students analyze how protest literature from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries “functions as a catalyst, guide, or mirror of social change” (xii). My syllabus includes literature of the American Revolution, the early anti-slavery and abolitionist movements, the nineteenth-century women’s rights movement as well as working class and American Indian literature from the antebellum era.

In the unit on “American Indian Rights,” the class considers the role of transcribed oral texts in the protest literature tradition of the United States. One of my favorite texts to teach in this unit is Handsome Lake’s “How America Was Discovered.” Handsome Lake (1735-1815) was a Seneca prophet whose teachings were passed down and later recorded by Seneca anthropologist Arthur Parker in the early twentieth century. An excerpt of “How America Was Discovered” is found in the Heath Anthology of American Literature and can be incorporated into survey courses on early American and nineteenth-century American literature. I’ve also taught it in a topics course on “American Origin Stories.” The narrative is about one-page long and re-tells the well-known Columbus story from a Native perspective. Because it is short and seems to tell a familiar story, it is very accessible to students. However, the reading is incredibly rich and needs to be taught in the context of Handsome Lake’s revivalist religious movement.

Handsome Lake: Background and Context

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Some instructors may be hesitant to teach “How America Was Discovered” if they are not specialists in American Indian literature—which I am not. Indeed, teaching the cultural and tribal context of the literature is vital, as Abenaki writer Joseph Bruchac reminds: “When talking about an American Indian story you need to be specific about what particular Native nation owns that story. Always acknowledge the nation and the individuals who have shared that story. Remember, too, that stories are embedded in a cultural matrix” (39-40). I always have students read scholar Andrew O. Wiget’s introduction to Handsome Lake in the Health Anthology, and in class lecture, I provide additional information on Handsome Lake and the Longhouse Religion inspired by his visions and prophecies. Sometimes, depending on the goals of the course, I also have students read chapters from Bruchac’s Our Stories Remember to provide my students with a context for reading and approaching Native literature.

Handsome Lake (1735-1815) was a leader in the League of Iroquois, a confederation of several tribes located in what is now upstate and central New York. After the American Revolution, the Iroquois lost most of their land and were forced to live on reservations as retribution for siding with the British. Removal from their homeland, disease, war, and  encroaching settlement by white colonists resulted in loss of cultural cohesion and autonomy. Due to so much change and loss in such a short period of time, some Iroquois turned to the alcohol introduced by whites, further eroding the traditional way of life.

Handsome Lake also succumbed to alcohol and illness, but had a powerful religious vision in 1799. Three messengers of the Creator—possibly representing three Quaker missionaries who were admired by the Iroquois—appeared to him in Iroquoian dress. From this vision, Handsome Lake developed the “Gaii’wiyo,” or the “Good Word” which centered on two teachings: Cede no more land to the whites and revitalize the old traditions. If not, destruction would soon follow. These visions were called the Code of Handsome Lake and developed into the Longhouse Religion, a combination of Quaker teachings and Iroquoian traditions. “How America Was Discovered” is just one prophecy from this code, published in 1923 in Parker’s Seneca Myths and Folk Tales. As Wiget explains in his introduction in the Heath Anthology, the narrative exposes the “Columbian consequences” of European exploration and colonization of the Americas.

“How America Was Discovered”: Summary and Analysis

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The story opens with a “great queen” who “had among her servants a young minister.” Students can always ascertain that the “great queen” refers to Isabella of Spain, yet as the narrative progresses, students find that the young minister is not Columbus. He does not enter the story until almost the end, thereby downplaying the centrality of Columbus to the European “discovery” of America. This counters the traditional American discovery story that most of my students learned in elementary school, of Columbus heroically “sailing the ocean blue” with the Niña, Pinta, and Santa María.

The queen asks the young minister, to “dust some books that she had hidden in an old chest” where he finds a “wonderful book,” a reference to the Bible. Like Columbus himself, the importance of the Bible is also diminished in the discovery of America, discarded and apparently forgotten by even the Queen and her ministers. In this “wonderful book,” the young minister reads that it was the “white man” who “killed the son of the creator,” a direct reference to Christ. The Seneca probably would have known the story of Jesus’s crucifixion from their contact with Quaker missionaries. Nonetheless, in Handsome Lake’s version of the crucifixion, it is emphasized that white men kill Christ. The implied question remains: If the whites killed Jesus, then why should Indians be implicated in and beholden to the story of sin and repentance told through Jesus’s crucifixion?

The young minister reads that Jesus didn’t return “after three days and again after forty,” and that his followers despaired.  Instead of having faith, the young minister “was worried because he had discovered that he had been deceived” and asks for advice from the “chief ministers.” They counsel him to “seek the Lord himself and find if he were not on the earth now.”

In his quest to find the Lord, the young minister eventually come to a gold palace with a “handsome man” who tells of “a great county of which you have never heard.” It is “across the ocean” and the young minister will receive fame and wealth if he will bring five things to the “honest and single-minded” people there: cards, money, the fiddle, whiskey, and blood corruption. In other teachings, Handsome Lake warns against alcohol and gambling. The handsome man in this story hopes that the fiddle will speak to the base and lower natures of the innocent people across the ocean. Students may not understand that “blood corruption” is a reference to sexually transmitted disease, which could affect fertility and reproduction. Indeed, the handsome man explains that the blood corruption will “eat their strength and rot their bones,” a possible reference to the degenerative nature of syphilis.

Although the young minister is promised “wealth,” “position,” and “power” if he introduces these corrupting influences to the virtuous people, he is worried and begins to “wonder if he had seen the Lord.” But when the young minister warns Columbus to not seek this land, Columbus still decides to “fi[t] out some boats and sai[l] out into the ocean.” Although the other ministers have seen through the “handsome man’s guise,” Columbus does not. In Handsome Lake’s account of how America was discovered, Columbus is not a hero but rather a misguided, foolish young man who does not listen to those with more wisdom and experience. It turns out that “that land was America.” Soon, more ships with white men flood the new land, bringing “cards, money, fiddles, whiskey, and blood corruption.”

The handsome man who told the young minister about the innocent people of America was the devil, and “when afterward he saw what his words had done he said he had made a great mistake.” In short, the discovery of Americas by Europeans was not part of God’s providential design, but rather the work of devil. And even the devil regrets the evil that he caused by convincing the Europeans to go to the Americas.

With this narrative, Handsome Lake offers a “re-evaluation of Christian elements” and a “negative evaluation of the motive and influence of Europeans,” thereby exposing the contradictions at the heart of the Columbus story, one of the organizing myths of the United States.

Legacy and Present Day Connections

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Photo by Indian Country Today Media Network

Although Handsome Lake’s prophecies were never realized in his own time, they were an inspiration for other Native revitalization movements such as the Sun Dance of the Great Basin later in the nineteenth century.  Handsome Lake’s Longhouse Religion is still practiced today.

I try as much as I possibly can to responsibly teach what Bruchac calls the “cultural matrix” of tribal specificity, although I know I sometimes fall short due to my own lack of knowledge and cultural blind spots. I am always learning and trying to do better. However, I think that it is important for my non-Native students in rural north Texas to learn about Native resistance and protest as an on-going historical process, not a short-lived moment in the past or an isolated present day phenomena.

In the protest literature class, my students link Handsome Lake’s narrative to the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, particularly Handsome Lake’s insistence that his people cede no more land to whites and the Dakota people’s protest of the environmental degradation that would be caused to their homelands as a result of the pipeline. In fact, some students note that in terms of pointing out the hypocrisy of a Christian nation and the greed at the heart of America’s origins, Handsome Lake’s protest is needed now more than ever.

Questions for class discussion and assignments:

  1. What is the significance of downplaying the role of Columbus in “How America Was Discovered”?
  2. How does altering the American origin story help Handsome Lake achieve his religious and political purposes?
  3. What makes Handsome Lake’s story a form of “protest literature”?
  4. How can this narrative sharpen our thinking about present day protest movements and protest literature?