Making Room for BIG Books

Despite what some students might think, a semester is really short!

All instructors know the feeling of wanting to cover more material than a semester can actually hold. As a result, perhaps especially in survey or genre courses potentially covering centuries of literature, we often opt to teach shorter-length works or excerpts from longer works. While this gives us the satisfaction of “covering more ground” and the assurance that students will (hopefully) complete assigned readings, doesn’t a BIG part of literary study involve reading BIG books?

While I don’t have a rigid definition in mind of what constitutes “big” or “long,” I generally mean works, usually novels, of 400+ pages.  I know people have different educational experiences, but when I reflect on both my high school and college careers, I realize I didn’t read many “big” or “long” works at all. It wasn’t until graduate school that I was regularly assigned long novels in my classes.

Throughout college, I found that most of my long novel reading was non-assigned. If my instructors mentioned important canonical works in class, I often made a point to find them in the library and read them during my free time or during winter/summer breaks. BIG BOOKs

There are certainly still self-motivated students who read a lot on their own time, but they’re not necessarily reading “big” books. Also, many students, despite the desire to read more, really don’t have the time to do so between taking classes or working.

If experience and training in reading “big” books is essential to the development of English majors, and average English majors can’t fit “big” books in on their own time, then it’s important to make room for “big” books in our courses whenever we can. I try to incorporate at least one long novel into each of my literature classes.

Of course, making room for a 400+ page novel is easier said than done, and both instructors and students have their concerns. While I speak on behalf of common instructor concerns below, I interviewed several former students who read “long” novels in my classes to get a better idea of their perspectives (I paraphrase much of their commentary below for the sake of format).

Instructor Concerns about Course Objectives: I have a lot of historical ground to cover, so can I replace several shorter works with one longer work and still convey historical developments? It’s also important for my class to convey stylistic range and authorial diversity, so can I really afford to sacrifice any voices?

My Response: Meeting course objectives is generally non-negotiable. In survey courses or courses where diversity is an essential objective, including a “big” book may not be feasible.  However, I usually only include one long novel per applicable class, so there is still room to include shorter length works and diverse range of voices.

Instructor Concerns about Pacing: How much class time do I need to devote to a long novel? How much reading can I expect students to complete for each class? Will my students even read a long novel through to the end?

Student Concerns about Pacing: How long are we spending with this huge novel? Will I have enough time to read, or will I have to skim? Will the language and style be readable or difficult? Will the subject matter be hard to understand? If we’re only spending two weeks on it, how much of the material will we actually cover during class? Is it worth putting in all the time to read a huge novel if we’re only spending a couple weeks on it?

Response: Several semesters ago, I considered including Moby-Dick in a genre class on the novel. A seasoned colleague told me not to bother. He said, “It’s too long and too old. No one will read it.” I think it’s unfair to assume that students simply won’t complete an assigned work just because it’s too long or too old. We all know that students don’t always complete readings, even when they’re short and contemporary.

Moby Dick

Upon talking to students, I’m most compelled by a frustration they share. Many students are not, despite popular belief, frustrated by a large quantity of reading, but by the disproportional amount of class time devoted to discussing a large quantity of reading. Students are practical about their time, and I can’t blame them. When students invest a lot of time in reading, they want to see a return on that investment by discussing material comprehensively in class. It makes sense that students will invest more in a text that takes up a month of class time rather than a week.  As my students explain, regardless of length, it’s frustrating to read something that goes unaddressed during class.

The ability to complete readings successfully is dependent upon slow pacing, which prevents students from rushing or skimming through a narrative and feeling “mixed up” or “hazy” on points during discussion.  When more class time is devoted to a work, students are not only more likely to finish reading but also to have a stronger comprehension of what they read.

Additionally, the students I interviewed expressed enthusiasm about having extended class time to think “more deeply” about a work, cover “more territory,” and explore “diverse perspectives” during discussion. Even in advanced classes where strong students could reasonably be expected to complete 200-300 pages of reading in a week, it’s unlikely we could do more than scratch the surface of those 300 pages in a week’s worth of discussion.

In matters of pacing, instructors also need to consider the language, style, and density of the material. For example, I usually spend four to five weeks on John Steinbeck’s 600ish page novel East of Eden, but I usually spend six to seven weeks on an older work like James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, even though it’s about 150ish pages shorter than Steinbeck’s novel.  While students find that Steinbeck’s narrative is written in readable and mostly conversational contemporary English, students find that Cooper’s long-winded language and convoluted writing style slow down the reading pace.

East of Edenlast of the mohicans

Instructor Concerns about Placement: Where should I position a “long” novel on my syllabus? Is it better to start or finish a class with a “long” novel?

Student Concerns about Placement: Will I have to read a “long” novel during the busiest parts of my semester? Will I feel overwhelmed with all the work I have to do?

Response: I have positioned long novels at the beginning (for reasons of historical chronology), middle, and end of courses, and my experiences have been most successful when placing long novels at the end of a semester. I discovered insight as to why through student interview. As I’ve already addressed, reading “big” books isn’t exactly common practice for most students, so seeing a “long” novel assigned in a class can be feel overwhelming and intimidating. Therefore, throwing students into the “deep end” of the “lengthy literature pool” at the start of the semester isn’t ideal.

Students also disclosed a preference for starting with shorter works, not only to build up reading “endurance” and confidence, but also to get comfortable with the dynamics of group discussion in a given class.  Students are usually comfortable with reading practices and class dynamics by mid-semester, but it’s best to wait until after the chaos of midterms to start a long work. Also, students noted that while they are busy at the end of the semester, most exams and papers are due after classes end. Slowly working through a long novel in the final weeks of a semester, therefore, can feel more “therapeutic” than “taxing.”

Instructor Concerns about Value: Will assigning a long novel be worth it? Will my students really gain anything from the experience?

Student Concerns about Value: Will reading a long novel be worth it? Will I really gain anything from the experience?

Response: When I asked students how they felt after completing a long novel, they agreed that the overall experience is rewarding.  One student noted, “I feel accomplished when I finish a long novel; there is some sort of pride rooted in the ability to complete a task that at first seemed daunting and almost overwhelming.” Another student noted, “After finishing a long novel, the initial feeling that follows is relief. Then, accomplishment–I actually completed something!…If a novel is special enough, something about me changes afterward.”

BIG BOOKS 3

A BIG part of making sure a BIG book is a BIG hit is generating enthusiasm about the experience throughout the semester. It’s important for students to think of a long novel at the end of the semester as a “grand finale,” not a “final punishment.” Additionally, it’s important to stress that the group will work through the text slowly and that, as the instructor, you’ll be there to walk them through it all. These kinds of consistent prefatory remarks will help students feel (at least) a little better about a task that for many will be a totally new experience.

Do you teach “big” books? If so, what “big” books do you include in your classes? Where do you position them, and how long do you spend with them? How do your students engage with “big” books?

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Reflections on Teaching Poverty & Wealth through American Literature

PALS warmly welcomes a guest post by Leah Milne. Milne is assistant professor of multicultural American literature at the University of Indianapolis. In this post she writes about a recent literature course on the subject of poverty and wealth. Milne reflects below on the course trajectory and potential lessons for future iterations of the course.

I just completed my first semester teaching a course entitled Poverty and Wealth in Literature, and part of my preparation involved envisaging the possible student responses to the subject and texts. Learning, for example, some general facts about the student body gave me a better sense of the audience, including the percentage of first-generation college students, the median income of their parents, and so on. My particular institution, for instance, is a small, private liberal arts college where about 40% of the students are first-generation, and many receive scholarships and/or financial assistance. Despite knowing this, however, discussing such a controversial subject as socioeconomic class elicited some surprises that I hope to better anticipate in the future.

I started the semester with two poems. Asking groups to interpret a poem or two on the first day of class is an easy way to establish the rigor of a course. In this case, the course required extensive literary analysis and classroom discussion. Since the course was directed towards students in their first semester of college, none of whom were English majors, I wanted to make the work requirements of the class clear. At the same time, these particular poems—Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus” (1883) and Gary Soto’s “Oranges” (1983)—established two scales of socioeconomic class that I planned for us to tackle that semester: the intimate and personal as represented by Soto’s nostalgic “Oranges,” and the global and grandiose as represented by Lady Liberty’s call of “worldwide welcome” in Lazarus’s poem.

While these two impulses of addressing both the intimate and the grandiose in class issues certainly formed the general foundation for the course, I had to quickly guide students in directions I had not predicted so early in the semester. For instance, during a class discussion about inequality on day 2, I felt compelled to encourage students to avoid the Oppression Olympics, a term I picked up from Elizabeth Martínez in her book, De Colores Means All of Us: Latina Views for a Multi-Colored Century (1998). Martínez addresses the problem with competing for the “gold medal of ‘Most Oppressed’” when she states, “Pursuing some hierarchy of oppression leads us down dead-end streets where we will never find the linkage between different oppressions and how to overcome them” (5). In other words, suggesting that we can rank who experiences the most oppression compounds the problem of inequality without addressing or solving it.

The most useful way I found for my students to comprehend the linkages that Martínez describes was through intersectionality. The originator of the term, Kimberlé Crenshaw, gave a TED talk explaining the dilemma of linked oppressions by way of Emma DeGraffenreid, a black woman who sued General Motors (GM) for discrimination. A judge ruled against DeGraffenreid, citing that GM had in fact hired black men and white women, and thus couldn’t possibly be discriminating against black women. Crenshaw illustrates what she calls the “urgency of intersectionality” by drawing attention (at 11:00 in the video) to the “law’s refusal to protect African-American women simply because their experiences weren’t exactly the same as white women and African-American men.” Considering intersectionality allowed my students and I to contemplate privilege without focusing on one singular characteristic like race, nationality, age, or location. Thus, for example, experiences of being poor looked very different in Zitkala-Ša‘s Yankton Indian Reservation and Carlisle Indian School in the late 1800s than in the relatively egalitarian community of Shaker Heights in the late 1990s, described in all of its glorious contradictions in Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere.

Intersectionality also allowed us to complicate perceptions of wealth. For instance, the wealthiest character we discussed this semester was Dr. Jo Baker of Destroyer, Victor LaValle’s graphic novel and Frankenstein follow-up. In addition to having a name that hearkens back to the entertainer and agent of the French Resistance during World War II, Baker is also the last living descendant of Victor Frankenstein, with access to a nearly unlimited amount of wealth for her scientific and technological experiments and inventions. However, this wealth has its limitations, particularly given her status as a black woman. When her son, Akai, is killed by policemen in a shooting akin to that of Tamir Rice, Baker continues the Frankenstein heritage by using her knowledge and resources to attempt to bring Akai back to life. It becomes clear to students, though, that Baker’s vast wealth and knowledge are not enough to fully counteract her linked oppressions as a black woman.

I was fortunate enough to moderate an interview with the author at the Indianapolis Central Library and the Center for Black Literature and Culture. As an added bonus, LaValle visited my students on the day they were to discuss his comic series, and one asked him if Akai would be okay at the end. Pleased, LaValle responded that her concern was the best response he could hope for, especially given the reluctance of many to discuss intersections of race and class that differ from one’s own. In fact, empathy—most specifically, our inabilities to empathize fully with others—emerged as the central frame through which I guided many of our class discussions on inequality. Even if one of us were, say, a mother, a black scientist, or as wealthy as Jo Baker, our abilities to fully comprehend her pain at losing Akai would never completely match up. The best we could do was try to empathize while recognizing our limitations in doing so. As one student related, “I know I will never be able to truly empathize, but I will attempt to empathize more.”

I found it helpful to further complicate affective responses such as this one by discussing intersectionality through the public perceptions about the causes of poverty, the latter described in an article by Laura R. Peck, and which I summarized for the students using examples from our texts. For instance, a significant subplot of Ng’s aforementioned Little Fires Everywhere is a transracial adoption involving a Chinese-American baby named—depending on your take on the issue—either May Ling Chow (her birth name) or Mirabelle McCullough (her adopted name).

Students can characterize the poverty of the birth mother, Bebe, as individualistic—blaming her for being, say, lazy or immoral. On the other hand, they could point to fatalistic determinants, suggesting that luck or divine will is the reason for her poverty. Finally, they could highlight structural determinants, such as the lack of systemic support for new mothers and/or newly-arrived immigrants to the US, or the low wages provided to restaurant workers and others in the service industry. Analyzing their responses to the causes of poverty, students were better poised to empathize with someone whom they may have otherwise dismissed as simply a bad mother. As one student admitted at the end of the semester, “My perception of socioeconomic issues have changed as I was very unempathetic towards certain aspects of poverty. However, after reading and learning about the determinants of poverty, I am much more aware and open-minded about issues of class.” Or as another student stated, “There are so many more determinants of poverty than most people realize. In general, there is a stereotype that people in poverty do not work hard, etc. However, many factors that individuals cannot choose heavily contribute to class inequality.” Similar applications were applied to the adoptive mother, Linda McCullough, and her sometimes clumsy attempts at motherhood, with Ng providing background into Linda’s sheltered upbringing and her family’s long and honored history in Shaker Heights. In fact, Ng’s work flourishes in such nuanced characterizations; each member of the Richardsons—the white, upper-middle-class family at the center of the novel—have unique ways of dealing with these aspects of identity.

Finally, specific structural considerations of poverty resonated in ways I had not predicted. For instance, equitable access to housing—and its connections to issues such as redlining and gentrification—became a surprisingly prominent theme in many discussions. Whether it was discussions of race-based covenants in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun or observations of nearby neighborhoods experiencing gentrification, housing functioned as a concrete anchor for contemplating the material consequences of inequality. Housing also allowed me to return to the grander ideals that began the semester, highlighted in Lazarus’s “The New Colossus”: If we as a nation truly wanted “the homeless [and] tempest-tost” on our shores (13), then we would have to reckon with the conditions that they would face upon their arrival. And if we really believed that the American dream is possible, then we needed to consider how we might best help others attain that dream.

The next time that I have the opportunity to teach this course, I plan on emphasizing the importance of learning through discomfort and of thus directly confronting more concepts like intersectionality that can propel the conversation forward in a productive manner. I also hope to incorporate more opportunities for self-reflection. I believe that doing so will guide students toward a deeper recognition of the ingrained norms and beliefs they have about class and the ways it interacts with and is affected by government policy, individual responsibility, and social and cultural beliefs. Finally, in reading literature alongside these discussions, I aspire for students to see the importance of literature — and the arts in general — in providing us different perspectives on these complicated issues.

Bio:

Leah Milne is an assistant professor of multicultural American literature at the University of Indianapolis. She teaches courses on American literature, nationality, young adult novels, postcolonial literature, and women writers. Her comparative book project examines writer-characters and forms of self-care in post-1945 ethnic American novels, focusing on texts by authors such as Louise Erdrich, Percival Everett, Carmen Maria Machado, and Jonathan Safran Foer. She received her doctorate degree from the University of North Carolina in Greensboro. Her work has been published in numerous academic journals and edited collections, including MELUSPostcolonial Text, and College Literature. Find her on Twitter @DrMLovesLit.