Teaching the Crucible in the Post-Truth Era

Actual still frame from The Crucible (1996). No alterations have been detected.

“We burn a hot fire here; it melts down all concealment. Are you certain in your conscience, Mister, that your evidence is the truth?” – Deputy Gov. Danforth, The Crucible, ACT 3.

Dear College Professor,

As you may have read, I recently taught The Crucible in my 11th-grade English class. I know what you’re thinking. “I read The Crucible in high school in 1990, you read The Crucible in high school in 1971, you’re teaching The Crucible in 2019. What’s the diff, man?” When I first started teaching The Crucible last year, I didn’t know either.

But this year, I kind of started to, which is why I wrote the first part of this article, where I explained some of the difficulties I was encountering this year, and how I hoped to work around them. In this second part, I’m going to tell you how my solutions worked out, and what I learned about my students and myself.

Since I was once a College Professor, perhaps one not that different from you, I’m hoping that my observations about my students’ political and information literacy will help you prepare to teach this same body of students as they enter your classrooms.

If we limit ourselves to the historical context of the 1950’s, The Crucible is not a difficult text to teach. It’s when we try to help our students examine the play’s relationship with our 21st-century politics that things get sticky.

In 1952, the already acclaimed playwright Arthur Miller used the plot and setting of Salem Witch Trials as the foundation for an allegory about his own experiences during the Red Scare of the 1950’s. During this decade U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy led the House Un-American Activities Committee to accuse numerous Americans, based on little or no evidence, of being communist spies. Miller represented the contagious panic and mass-hysteria of the Salem Community to show his audience how a search for truth and justice had become corrupted by fear and a compulsion among the political elite for self-preservation.

As a result of Miller’s play, as Erin Cassese recently explained in a recent Vox article, the term “Witch-Hunt” entered the American consciousness as a means to describe a government-led, fear-driven persecution of marginalized members of society (often, as in the Salem Witch Trials and the Red Scare, women) for scapegoats. Did you notice that woman being inappropriately assertive? She might be a witch, or a communist.

But as Cassesse points out, our modern “Witch Hunts” – the term invoked by President Trump each time his actions are investigated or his authority questioned, “are often invoked defensively by men in positions of power and authority.” Calling investigations into patriarchal abuse of power, be they Trump’s alleged collusion with foreign powers or accusations of sexual assault by men like Brett Kavanaugh (as in this shaky argument), “witch-hunts” does more than undermine their veracity in the public eye – it delegitimizes them, and repositions the powerful as victims.

This second point – about the way that the term “Witch Hunt” has been co-opted by men those who control the apparatuses of state power – is the lesson that I find both more important for my students to understand, and found impossible to teach in my classroom. But it’s the point I find most important because it’s about language and literature and the way language changes. About how a term used to describe the abuse of the weak by the powerful has been co-opted to protect the already powerful. Whether or not we believe Kavanaugh, for example, or even sympathize with his outrage, the use of the term “Witch Hunt” has changed – and this is relevant to an American literature classroom.

When I tried to discuss this problem of language with my students, they were mostly silent. It’s true that they’re in high school – many of these students don’t follow politics closely. But probably fewer of your students do than you think, either. Yet, I found that they are nonetheless exposed to the modern use of the term, through either their social media or their parent’s television sets. Yet, because of the disparity between the ways that conservative and mainstream media sources portray current events, a classroom cannot create a consensus because it cannot agree on basic facts.

As I told you in my last post, in an attempt to remedy this problem, I asked my students to research a controversial current event that has been characterized in the news media as a “Witch Hunt.” I asked them to then write an essay that argued whether their event really is a Witch Hunt. In other words, based on their research, are the accusations driven by actual evidence of wrongdoing, or by mass hysteria and desire for political power.

Well, I’ve now had time to read their essays, and to reflect on what I learned from reading them. I’m ready to share with you, reader.

And the main thing I found: finding good, unquestionably unbiased and reliable sources about current events is getting to be kind of a sticky situation.

When Things Are Sticky

Quand y’en a marre […] via Adrien Leguay

As in any research project, our choice of sources will often determine the answers to our research questions. When I taught research in college, and when I teach it now, I try to teach my students how to identify reliable sources and to avoid unreliable sources.

My students made a lot of mistakes in this part of their projects. Often, these were the same mistakes my college students typically made – failing to understand the difference between an editorial/opinion piece and investigative journalism, for example. Or relying heavily on sources that did not analyze any primary information, but whose primary purpose was just to generate web traffic. Or accepting the face-value assertions that their source is non-partison when just a little digging reveals it’s sponsored by an oil company or something. So, I need to teach this better. You might consider the idea of placing an emphasis on this area, too.

There is no oil in the water. Coast Guard_100618-G-5176S-237-oil via Florida Sea Grant

On the other hand, I found that when we’re researching current events, it’s much more difficult to find the lines between a reliable source and an unreliable source than when we’re doing the research typical of the college classroom. We can’t just say “use only peer-reviewed sources.” If you’ve ever tried using your university-provided databases for research on a topic less than a couple of years old, you’ll know it doesn’t work that well.

When we leave the sources open to the online sources that could be arguably deemed reliable, which I did when I assigned the “Witch Hunt” project to my students, students can find the “facts” to support either side of an issue. My students found the sources to support arguments that Trump and Kavanaugh are victims, as well as that their victims are victims. They were not always sources I necessarily liked. But they were sources that, based on my initial online surveys, their families and immediate social circles would find reasonable.

Faced with this issue, I’m aware that some teachers make a list of prohibited sources. For example, you can use CNN but not FOX. You can use the Washington Post but not the New York Post. But I’ll tell you, it’s really easy to alienate your students by telling them that the primary sources of news accepted as unbiased in their household are really propaganda.

The Fire of Concealment

Fire! Via D4E

In your research and in my research peer-review is the gold standard but there is no peer review for current events because no one can agree on who has authority. Our standard news conduits leave open questions we would have once deemed reasonable to all but conspiracy theorists. What is reliable information? Is it the Attorney General of the United States? Is it the Central Intelligence Agency or the President of Russia?

In the United States we cannot agree on the answer to these questions as a society. In teaching The Crucible this year, I’ve come to doubt that it is not reasonable to presume that I can solve them in my classroom.

In Act 3 of the Crucible, the protagonist John Proctor who, as the saying goes, has 99 problems with him but being a witch is not one of them, tells Deputy Governor Danforth, the judge of the play’s Salem Witch trials, that Abigail Williams and the other accusers are lying. To prove this, John Proctor calls on Mercy Warren, who has herself accused others of witchcraft, to testify. Danforth warns Proctor: “We burn a hot fire here; it melts down all concealment. Are you certain in your conscience, Mister, that your evidence is the truth.”

Danforth’s fire is one of purification, that burns the impurities away from society. But what if our 21st-century fire does not “melt down all concealment” but instead burns so brightly that none can see what is behind it? What if this fire burns so long that we come to question whether there is any truth behind it, at all? Maybe this is the danger. Maybe this is the lesson of The Crucible in the Post-Truth Era.

IMG_20190501_071524

Clay Zuba is an English Teacher at Xavier College Preparatory High School in Phoenix, Arizona, where he teaches American Literature and writing. In 2016, he was awarded a Ph.D. in American literature at the University of Delaware. His acclaimed blog love7g.com about Nathaniel Hawthorne is a precursor to his upcoming historical novel Love in the House of the Seven Gables.

Advertisements

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?