Pairing Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing” with Richard Blanco’s “One Today”

Richard_Blanco.jpgTwo years ago, Middlesex Community College (MxCC) hosted a reading by Richard Blanco. Before attending this event, I did not know much about Blanco or his work, other than vaguely remembering his participation in the 2013 Presidential Inauguration. Named by President Obama as the fifth inaugural poet in American history, Blanco is “the youngest, first Latino, immigrant, and gay person to serve in such a role.” His reading at MxCC was both incredibly thoughtful and thought-provoking, especially during the moments in which he explored his experience with different parts of American culture. During this event, I quickly realized how much I wanted to teach Blanco’s poetry in my upcoming English 102: Literature and Composition course.

After reading “One Today,” the poem that Blanco read at the 2013 Inauguration, I knew it would fit perfectly in my poetry unit for English 102. I designed this unit for students who have not spent a significant amount of time reading poetry in the past; therefore, I assign poems with similar themes for each class period. This way, the theme becomes our class’s starting point to discuss and identify the various poetic devices used in each poem. I decided to pair Blanco’s “One Today” with Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing” when designing the following lesson plan, one that builds on this past activity, to help students further practice critically analyzing poetry while introducing them to the basics of New Historicism.

“I Hear America Singing”

I start this activity with “I Hear America Singing” because I have found its content to be very accessible to students, regardless of their previous experiences with poetry. Since reading poetry out loud can help students to hear certain poetic devices at work, I have the class read this poem out loud—as a group. This idea of using chorale reading was first introduced to me through the Teach This Poem series from Poets.org, at which Blanco serves as a contributor.

Walt_Whitman,_steel_engraving,_July_1854

After the chorale reading, I ask students to spend a few minutes writing down their reflections on reciting the poem together as a group. I ask them to explain how the activity has changed their understanding of the poem’s content. I also ask them to take note of:

  • Which words are repeated in the poem
  • The people who are named in the poem
  • The activities that are described in the poem
  • Their take on the last three lines of the poem

Students are quick to point out that they noticed the repetition of the word “singing.” This observation leads to a discussion of how the idea of singing makes the workers seem happy or as if they have a sense of pride in completing their work. We also discuss how the phrases “the varied carols I hear” (Whitman line 1) and “each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else” (11) show the idea of difference, or uniqueness, while the repetition of the word “singing” shows a commonality in these different workers. Students often take note that the professions named are all ones in which people work with their hands. We then discuss the implications of why Whitman may have chosen to highlight these jobs and how the idea of work is celebrated in the poem.

2013_Inauguration_Richard_Blanco

“One Today”

Since the genesis of  “One Today” is so closely tied to a specific event in American history, I begin this part of the in-class activity by having my students watch Blanco read his poem at the 2013 Presidential Inauguration. While watching this clip from PBS via YouTube, I ask students to write down their observations of the actual event, how Blanco presents himself, and how he reads the poem.

Then, I have students annotate their copies of “One Today.” During this process, I ask for students to take note of:

  • Any words that are repeated throughout the poem
  • Images in the poem that stand out to them
  • Any words or phrases that evoke specific senses
  • The use of -ing words
  • Allusions to Blanco’s personal history
  • Allusions to events from American history

My goal during our discussion of “One Today” is for students to understand how Blanco constructs a depiction of America that celebrates the unique qualities of its citizens while still emphasizing the importance of unity. To do this, we spend a lot of time thinking through what language in the poem shows unity and what language shows difference. For example, I often start with the second stanza of “One Today,” which begins with “My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors, / each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day:” (Blanco 7-8). Through the use of “my face” and “your face,” Blanco acknowledges the different people living in America, yet by the second line we are “crescendoing into our day.” This shift in pronouns is a small detail, one that students new to analyzing poetry may not catch. Throughout the discussion, I make sure that students see how important these choices, no matter how seemingly tiny, are and that these choices are what help Blanco to craft his portrayal of America in “One Today.”

Analyzing the Concept of America in Both Poems

After discussing both poems, I provide my students with a brief introduction to New Historicism. Since theory is not a focus of English 102, I do not spend too much time covering the intricacies of New Historicism; instead, I share with students this overview from The Purdue OWL. I focus my mini-lesson on the questions posed at the bottom of the web page, which are designed to guide students through considering the ways in which the cultural events that occurred during a time period in which an author is writing may influence a text’s content.

To further explore this connection, I have students spend a few minutes researching, either on a computer if we are in the lab or on their phones, what was happening during the time periods surrounding 1867 and 2013, the years in which “I Hear America Singing” and “One Today” were published, respectively. Obviously, students are much more familiar with major events that happened during the beginning of this decade. Refreshing themselves on what life was like in the years leading up to 2013 helps students to have a better foundation for analyzing the ways in which Blanco portrays America in “One Today,” and if this portrayal reflects a realistic portrait of America, even with (or in spite of) the positive tone that the genre of an occasional poem requires.

pexels-photo-269646-USA

Conversely, students often possess a wide range of background knowledge on the 1860s, with some history buffs having a clear sense of the time period and other students knowing almost nothing about it. Some students are very surprised to learn that The Civil War occurred during this decade, especially when considering the fact that “I Hear America Singing” does not mention slavery. This observation leads student to question Whitman’s portrayal of America as a united country and to explore why Whitman may have made the decision to emphasize this united front in “I Hear America Singing.”

This lesson plan is designed to not only help students analyze “One Today” and “I Hear America Singing,” but to also prepare them for the next poems that I teach in this unit, Langston Hughes’s “I, Too” and Claude McKay’s “America.” These poems will help students to further develop their critical reading skills while continuing to analyze the concept of America in poetry.

Advertisements

The World’s Eye and the World’s Heart: How to be a Public Intellectual

eye quilt
Image source: York Heritage Quilters Guild Blog

At a time of political discord and increased activism on our campuses and in our communities, some of us may be seeking appropriate and productive ways to offer our professional perspectives as highly trained academics and educators. As a matter of fact, those of us academically prepared in the field of American literary and cultural studies have much to offer a society that is grappling with what it means (and has meant) to be an American, whose story matters, and who gets to control the narrative. Indeed, the American literature and American literary history we have spent years studying, researching, and teaching can provide remarkable and hopeful insight into this daunting political moment.

Our field birthed the original American public intellectuals Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, who both lectured in the Lyceum movement and endeavored to make their ideas relevant and useful to the American public. Thoreau first lectured on “Civil Disobedience” and Walden to his Concord, Massachusetts friends and neighbors. Emerson’s 1837 “American Scholar” address tells us that the fully engaged American scholar is not sequestered from the public, but “breathes and lives on public illustrious thoughts.” The public intellectual, in Emerson’s view, is fully integrated into public life as “the world’s eye” and “the world’s heart.”

Although we may not see ourselves as public intellectuals in the distinguished tradition of Emerson and Thoreau or the more contemporary Stanley Fish, Claudia Rankine, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, many of us are probably already engaged in outreach, teaching, and other efforts as public intellectuals.

Public Outreach: The Service of the Public Good

john jaspers flag
Flag (1954) by John Jaspers

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a public intellectual as “[a]n intellectual who expresses views (esp. on popular topics) accessible to a general audience.” A recent article in AAUP’s Academe explains that “[p]ublic intellectuals communicate their research in ways that are accessible to the public and translatable to the needs of communities.” According to the article, public intellectuals “apply their disciplinary knowledge and expertise to the service of the public good.”

When asked why they engage in public intellectual outreach, a survey by Morrison & Tyson Communications found that faculty did so for the following reasons:

To improve public understanding of their areas of expertise.

To enhance the reputation of their institutions.

To enjoy talking with people who have an interest in their work.

          Source: Inside Higher Ed, Scholar as Public Intellectual, January 21, 2011

In a time of great suspicion of scholars and expert knowledge, our outreach as public intellectuals could lead to regaining the public’s trust of academic institutions and academia in general.

The Organic Intellectual : Aligning Your Personal and Professional Values

pussy pink
Pussy Pink Urchin (2017) by Wangechi Mutu

On my own campus in a small town in Texas, pubic intellectual outreach ranges from a music professor who conducts the local symphony orchestra; a political science professor who coordinates a program that trains student to write grants for local non-profit agencies during the summer; and a chemist who hosts a “Citizen Scientist” podcast with her husband. Many of my colleagues regularly give public lectures about their areas of academic expertise to local civic organizations, historical societies, and literary groups.

Other colleagues serve as board members for community non-profits that benefit from the specialized academic training of local faculty. A colleague and friend who teaches in Idaho has a women’s studies background that contributes to her work as a board member of the local YWCA women’s shelter.

Speaking of this friend, she recently wrote a guest post for PALS on her very successful Moby-Dick half marathon, a public outreach program organized by her students. Some of the most innovative and effective public intellectual outreach projects include students. Andrew D. Kaufman’s successful “Books Behind Bars” outreach class for students at the University of Virginia is another example.

Yet many colleagues bristle at the term “public intellectual” because it seems to reinforce the very elitism and hierarchy that we aim to diminish when we bring our knowledge into our communities. Antonio Gramsci’s notion of an “organic intellectual” blurs the boundary between the “sacred” ivy tower and the “profane” general public. According to Gramsci, “traditional” intellectuals replicate the elite class structure and hegemony of academia. By contrast, “organic” intellectuals are academics who come from and work on behalf of the people.

Today we might think of an organic intellectual as an academic whose intellectual, personal, and political values are authentically aligned and expressed through meaningful public outreach.

Writing for a General Audience

audience

Writing for a general audience can take the form of opinion articles for local, regional, and national newspapers. Such articles might offer perspective on current events through the lens of our academic area of expertise. We are also qualified to write about issues facing higher education, as did my colleague in response to the proposed graduate student tax in the recently passed tax bill.

Scholars may feel unprepared to do this type of writing. When I drafted an opinion article on The Handmaid’s Tale and Texas politics, I was advised that what I saw as an already concise 1,000-word article had to be trimmed by an additional 350 words. I was also told (albeit gently) to adjust my vocabulary to the 7th-grade level. Although I had to adapt to this new writing format and style, it was gratifying to have my ideas about a timely issue published right away. Unlike the peer-reviewed academic articles I have published in scholarly volumes, I received feedback from my audience almost immediately. I continue to receive comments from members of the public who come across my article online.

There are any number of articles about writing for a general and popular audience, but one very useful resource is the OpEd Project. The goal of this organization is “to increase the range of voices and quality of ideas we hear in the world,” particularly those of women. To that end, the OpEd Project offers workshops on how to write for newspaper opinion pages, with strategies on how to pitch an idea and find a venue for publication. Their website has excellent advice on the format of an opinion article and what editors are looking for.

Activism and Pedagogy

SchoolhouseIntArg11-300x201
Image Source: Edmond Historical Society and Museum

Many debate the role of activism as part of our scholarly identities. Yet these days we may find that even asking the essential questions at the heart of our field — the very questions that guide our research and teaching — can be a form of activism simply because these questions disrupt the status quo. Those of us with interdisciplinary commitments to fields such as gender and women’s studies, environmental studies, and critical race studies may find that activism is an organic extension of what we do in our research and in the classroom. Our own public outreach and activism is a way to model an intellectually engaged and active citizenship to our students.

The classroom itself may be considered a type of public intellectual outreach; ideally, our students will take and disseminate knowledge from our classes into the world as members of an informed and voting citizenry. Recent crowd-sourced syllabi such as #CharlestonSyllabus and #PostTrumpSyllabus exemplify the intersection of activism and pedagogy by constructively using expert knowledge to advance conversations about the most pressing issues of our time.

Pedagogical writing and scholarship, such as that offered through the Pedagogy and American Literary Studies site, is also an example of public outreach. In a time when many do not see the value of higher education, good teaching and its outcomes “must be made visible through artifacts that capture its richness and complexity.” Especially as the structure of the professoriate changes, we need more opportunities to substantively and transparently discuss our teaching and pedagogy as a means to move the broader professional and cultural conversation about teaching and student learning beyond outcomes-based assessment and “return on investment.”

Considerations and Questions

brain circles
Brain Circles by Marguerite Jay Gignoux

Even with the protections of academic freedom, scholars might want to be aware of the possible perils of public intellectual work, especially graduate students and contingent faculty members. Many academics may prefer to compartmentalize their professional research and teaching, their political commitments, and their personal values. And many may find that they simply do not have time to commit to public intellectual outreach.

However, many scholars have found public outreach to be a rewarding form of intellectual work. And it is a worthy and necessary endeavor. With so much at stake, our role as the eyes and hearts of our democracy has never been more crucial.

  1. Is there a better term for “public intellectual” than “public intellectual”?
  2. What can you do or are you already doing to align your intellectual, personal, and political commitments?
  3. What changes can we make in the profession to value, reward, and recognize public outreach?
  4. Have you been involved in any outreach projects as a public intellectual in your community?