Challenges and Rewards of Guest Lectures: Teaching Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye for One Class Period

When a colleague invited me to give a guest lecture in her African diaspora literature course last year, I immediately, and perhaps too emphatically, said, “yes!” Of course I wanted to discuss Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye for fifty minutes. Obviously my love of various forms of collaboration–like this site, for instance–make me a proponent of guest lecturing. Go into others’ classes! Invite others into your classroom! Foster some learning communities! Do It!

But don’t “Just Do It.” Sorry, Nike. There are a lot of factors at play when guest lecturing. And while I’m no old pro, I am here to provide you with some insight I’ve gained through my handful of guest lectures. I’m focusing on a specific experience in a literature classroom because it is most relevant to this site and it adhered the most to the lecture format. I am going to start with a bit of background information on the course before going into the design of my guest lecture and my approach to teaching Morrison’s The Bluest Eye for one class period.

Assessing the Lay of the Land

The who, where, what, and why questions are extremely important when preparing for a guest lecture. Let’s start with the who and where. As mentioned above, this was a 50 minute class period. It was also a general education, introductory level course. Another element worth mentioning is that it was significantly larger than most other literature courses in the department with the enrollment opened to 90 students (if I remember correctly, maybe more?). As such, it was in a lecture room that included a small stage, more of a platform really, with amphitheater style seating. This all has an impact on the teaching experience.

Those very practical elements of class size and layout contributed to making my guest lecture a much truer lecture. If it was actually my class and I met with them 3 times a week all semester, I would have spent more time working around the limits of the space and class size for more discussion. Since I only had one class period with them, I embraced the lecture in an environment that it was really made for.

The Outsider

A challenge for both students and guest lecturers is how group dynamics play out between the insiders and the outsider. As a guest lecturer, the students in the class did not know me and had not had any previous interactions with me. As an outsider, I did not know how the class functioned as a group or how the students interacted with their regular professor. I didn’t walk in there entirely blind, though. I knew my colleague and had seen her in action before in a couple different type of class settings, so I did know the type of rapport she builds with her students. That said, they were her students, not mine.

Despite the distance between us, the students responded to questions I asked them. They put forth a good faith effort and brought me into the group as much as they could during that class period. That is really all I could ask for in such a short time span.They were engaged, and I had fun with them.

Lecture versus Discussion

Even though I was invited to guest lecture, I didn’t want to just get up and talk for the full 50 minutes. Since my own teaching style involves quite a bit of discussion and student ownership over their learning, it was challenging to find ways to move in and out of discussion based on the aforementioned components. But we moved between lecture and discussion through broad and specific questions and my directing them to specific passages in the novel. I was very much leading them through a certain reading of the first half of The Bluest Eye, but stopping to let them do some of the concept application work.

My The Bluest Eye Lecture

When agreeing to do the guest lecture, I was given the schedule and asked to choose the day and topics I wanted to lecture on. I  chose the end of the first week on the novel, which ended up being the Friday before spring break, and I designed my lecture around two main elements: 1) contextualizing Morrison and The Bluest Eye in the African American literary tradition, and 2) introducing students to elements of race and psychoanalysis in the novel via WEB DuThe Bluest Eye.jpgBois’s double consciousness. The class had already been working with the novel for two class periods when I came through the door.

A PowerPoint accompanied my lecture (no bullet points involved), providing students with quotes from other works and some images referenced in the novel. Students had read the first half of the book, up through the “Winter” section. They had not yet reached Pecola’s rape scene (one of the reasons it often makes banned books lists), but since it is referenced in the opening to the novel, it was where I began.

Writing Back to the African American Literary Tradition

There were three specific texts I wanted to introduce the students to and create a progression for their thinking about the way Morrison represents the psychological weight that is placed upon race in the United States and its presence in works by other black writers.

Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man: I began by very briefly summarizing the beginning
of the chapter of Invisible Man where Invisible Man Invisible_Man.jpgill-advisedly takes the school’s benefactor Mr. Norton to gawk at the Trueloves. I had combed through the 30+ pages that involved Jim Truelove telling his story of raping his daughter in order to find a short passage that would best show the complexities of reading Morrison’s Breedloves as a response to Ellison’s Trueloves. I put a short exchange between Mr. Norton and Jim Truelove on a slide and read it with the students.

I used this as an entry into the project of The Bluest Eye based on the brief opening to the novel. I presented Morrison’s novel as trying to make sense of the Truelove’s story from Invisible Man, but from a different perspective. The questions I asked students to keep in mind throughout my time with them and as they finished reading the book were:

  • What actually happened to Pecola? According to Pecola? According to the black community?
  • Who does Morrison give a voice to? And what does that do to the narrative?
  • Why did it happen? vs. How did it happen? (This is set up in the novel’s opening. See pages 5-6.)

In the opening, the “why” is framed as being too much for the narrator to deal with and the “how” is positioned as the focus of the account. The why, however, is implicitly weaved throughout the narrator’s story.

WEB DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk: My slide had the definition DuBois gives of DuBois.jpgdouble consciousness.  After introducing them to the concept, we went to the text and read an excerpt that showed the concept functioning in the Breedlove’s lives (see page 38).

We paused here to first explore the concept of double consciousness among the characters before adding the layer of physical “beauty” to it. The question I posed to students at this point was:

  • How has the United States’ popular culture erased and superimposed racial identity by creating and treating white “norms” as the “norm,” as the universal experience, as a non-race?

We looked at the scene on the playground where Pecola was the subject of attack from the playground boys (pg. 65). We questioned what exactly Bay Boy, Woodrow Cain, Buddy Wilson, and Junie Bug were persecuting in Pecola and how they were attacking elements of their selves that they identified in her.

Gwendolyn Brooks’ Maud Martha On my Maud Martha slide, I provided thmaud-marthae quote from the vignette in which Maud Martha compares herself to a dandelion. This is a moment of empowerment in Brooks’ book, where the ordinary is viewed as extraordinary. The opening scene in The Bluest Eye and this vignette in Maud Martha both reflect on flowers, conditions in which they flourish and conditions in which they struggle or never sprout.

I took students to the place in The Bluest Eye where Pecola is rejecting her entire body and all her features (see pages 45-50). In the midst of these pages the dandelion is referenced (page 48). Though here, it is not the ordinary as extraordinary, but as a disappointment.

Whiteness and Hollywood Beauty Standards

When I did the PALS review for the MLA Approaches to Teaching the Novels of Toni Morrison, there was one essay that I did not mention because I wanted to take a minute to talk about it in this post. Kathryn Earle’s essay “Teaching Controversy: The Bluest Eye in the Multicultural Classroom” provides idea after idea about how to use media and popular culture, both past and present, in the teaching of The Bluest Eye. From analyzing models’ skin tones in fashion magazines to Hollywood to the Dick and Jane readers. One draw back to this essay is that there are moments where it feels dated. Her anxieties about teaching race in the classroom as a white woman actually might be more relevant in the current political climate, so some my find her suggestions for working through that helpful.

While Early’s suggestions are great, they may take more setup for the current generation of students. How many of our students know who Ginger Rogers and Greta Garbo are or what they look like (let alone Betty Grable, Hedy Lamarr, or Claudette Colbert)? More may know of Shirley Temple, but few have seen any of her films. It is extremely difficult to discuss these references in the novel when students have no idea who is actually being referred to. There is the same issue with the Dick and Jane readers. If you can’t visually show them to your students, there will be a disconnect and they will simply have to take your word for it.

I didn’t get into the whole Dick and Jane element, that is full conversation in and of itself that I didn’t have time for in my lecture. Since my lecture progressed from double-consciousness to beauty standards, I focused on some of the Hollywood references made in the first half of the book. I asked students about the beauty standards Pecola (and Claudia and Frieda and Maureen)  was being held to and influenced by. Enter images of those Hollywood starlets. I also had a slide of Shirley Temple dancing with Bill “Bojangles” Robertson. We looked at a few of the many passages referencing these Hollywood images.

Finally, I ended with an image of Jesse Williams and a quote about his experience with European beauty standards and his blue eyes in Hollywood. The purpose of this was to move the conversation out of Classic Hollywood into the present, as they continued to think about representation and Pecola’s quest for blue eyes.

Literature is Political: Teaching Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition, Critical Patriotism, and Media Literacy

Note: This week at PALS, we are responding to Ben Railton’s new book, History and Hope in American Literature: Models of Critical Patriotism. Between PALS’s regular contributors, we have taught nearly all of the texts addressed in Railton’s book, but we will only focus on a few in posts by PALS’s co-editors Shelli Homer (part 1) and Brianne Jaquette (part 2 and part 3) .  First up is Homer with a look at Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition.

Captain America: Truth (comicbook)

Last semester in an intermediate composition course, I had students spend the semester researching and writing about American Wars. Throughout the semester, they compared posters from WWI and WWII with pamphlets from the 1960s (Vietnam, Civil Rights, Women’s Lib), reflected on narratives created from Civil War diaries and letters, assessed trends the representation of 9/11 in print media both foreign and domestic, and finally, analyzed the representation of war in a Hollywood film of their choosing.

The first day of class, I wrote the word patriotism on the board and had students do some free writing connected to the word. Students’ thoughts went in a lot of directions, but mainly they were anxious about offending others as they struggled with a desire to be critical of it and to be “good Americans” because somehow those two things do not mesh. More importantly, they all knew someone in the military and wanted to be respectful of that as well. We followed the free writing with a short article that challenged the idea of patriotism by questioning whether it was really any different from nationalism which the scholar described as dangerous. We critiqued the article and some of the writer’s choices as we moved into a discussion of the purpose of patriotism and the many ways it could be defined. Students wanted permission to think critically about their relationship with patriotism; they wanted to be critical patriots without being labeled un-American. All of them had their own defining moments that had already fundamentally challenged their blind childhood patriotism. I went to some very difficult places with students, but everyone was respectful so we came out the other side virtually unscathed with heightened critical thinking skills for encountering manifestations of patriotism.

I open with this anecdote because a statement I have heard several times from colleagues has gone something like, “Why does everyone think we have to addressister-outsiderpolitical topics in our classes? I just enjoy the literature with my students and teach them to appreciate the formal elements, like style and form.” There was a time when my response to this was in the vein of “to each their own, I guess.” But those responses have never fully worked for me. The idea that focusing on style and form will spare us a political conversation is naïve. Choices about form are political. Choices about style are political. Choices about word use are political. Can those elements be successfully taught while avoiding any sort of political discussion in the classroom? I would like to pause and point us all to Audre Lorde’s essay “The Master’s Tools will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” Maybe we should just re-read all of Sister Outsider.

I completely understand the anxiety about how to manage politically charged conversations and a fear of students yelling at one another or us. While I sympathize with teaching anxieties 100%—I’m a teacher. It’s hard. I get it.—I don’t support avoiding it because it is challenging for us as well as our students. There is a lot of scholarship out there to help us figure out how to approach the literature through various cultural lenses, more and more of it involving political readings. Ben Railton’s new book, History and Hope in American Literature: Models of Critical Patriotism, provides us with ways to rethink how and why literature is especially productive for helping “audiences not only better remember and understand our histories, but also genuinely connect to and empathize with them.” His book engages with political contexts and challenges the desire to forget or ignore dark parts of American history that have not been adequately or collectively addressed. These “dark parts” make for some very tough classroom conversations, but also for some amazing learning opportunities.

One of the darkest parts of American history, both past and present is race. I have also had colleagues ask the loaded questions, “Why do I have to learn and teach about African American culture and people to teach the literature? Why can’t we just appreciate Toni Morrison’s beautiful prose?” Well, because those questions are the definition of cultural appropriation, taking a piece of the culture while disregarding the lived experience of those who created it and the cultural context from which it came. We definitely don’t need to be reinforcing cultural appropriation in our classrooms. And, again, can a real appreciation of the literature be taught while pretending it was created in a vacuum? Literature challenges the dominant historical narratives that are accepted and live in citizens’ imaginations. That challenge is, also, political. The remainder of this post is about teaching critical patriotism through narratives of historical revision and historical recovery with Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition as the example.


The Course

Teaching with attention to political elements and providing historical contexts is second nature to me. A few semesters ago, I taught a Writing about Literature course titled “African American and Caribbean Narratives of Historical Revision and Historical Recovery.” We read four pieces of literature in the course: M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! (2008), Thylias Moss’s Slave Moth (2004), Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition (1901), and Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of Butterflies (1994)—if I were to teach this course as strictly African American or Afro-Caribbean, instead of open to Caribbean texts at large, I could replace Alvarez’s novel with Tayari Jones’s Leaving Atlanta (2002) or Edwidge Danticat’s The Farming of Bones (1998), amongst countless others, and have a similar progression to the course. All of the texts could be places in the category of historical narratives. I also structured the course to move through the texts according to the temporal setting of the narrative, not the publication date.

By the time we got to Chesnutt, we had looked at the history and geography of the middle passage with Philip’s poetry collection and read William Wells Brown’s slave narrative with Moss’s neo-slave narrative. Despite students’ skewed and incomplete education about the institution of slavery in the Americas, they were able to ground themselves in past knowledge to engage with the first two authors. The big piece of US history that semester after semester I find students have no conceptualization of is what happened between the Civil War and Civil Rights. Most white students and some students of color have never heard the term Jim Crow. Thus, students struggle to conceptualize The Marrow of Tradition as a historical novel because the events Chesnutt depicts, from minstrelsy to the coup d’etat, don’t fit in their version of America.

The 1898 burning of the African American newspaper office in Wilmington, NC.

There are so many themes connected to both race in America and the representation and treatment of race in American literature. We touched on several of those throughout the novel, based on students’ interests and confusion. Jim Crow was one of my main focuses, in addition to the culminating event of the novel: the coup d’etat that was nearly erased from US history. To help students better understand Jim Crow, I read students some of the different Jim Crow laws and used an interactive map to show students that 1) Jim Crow laws were about much more than segregation and 2) it existed throughout the US, not just in the South.

The Newspaper Assignment

Since the main focus of the course was historical gaps and misrepresentations, with this novel, as with the other texts of the course, I had students explore the history behind Chesnutt’s historical setting. As Melissa Range has previously discussed, the use of newspaper databases can be a quite fruitful approach to the teaching of literature and historical contexts, among other things. The assignment was fairly simple. A week into the novel, I asked students to choose an early newspaper database or online resource for 19th century news articles and find an article about the events depicted in The Marrow of Tradition. Students had to use terms like, race riot, and search the specific year I gave them, but they found short articles across the United States about the event. Once the students found an article they wanted to work with, they had to analyze it both visually—this takes into consideration the layout of the page, as many of them got to see their chosen article scanned in on its full newspaper page—and for the rhetoric used in recounting the events. This was a short one page write up.

Sharing and Newspapers/Media Literacy

Students brought both their one page write up and a print out of their newspaper article to class. I had them get into small group of 3 or 4 and share/compare their findings. They then reported back to the class the observations they made as a group. Some students discovered one news article had been reprinted in several newspapers. Other students were interested in the slight shifts in word choice between newspapers. One of the big observations was that most all of the newspaper articles were very short with hardly any information. Students were a bit suspicious of how vague the articles were. This lead into a discussion of the currently popular concept of media literacy. Since I gave them a very specific assignment and we were already in the reconstructing history mode, they were in a more critical mindset. They were frustrated that there wasn’t more information. They were trying to understand a historical event without a historical account. We had not yet made it to the end of the novel, so they also did not have Chesnutt’s account. They did have much of Chesnutt’s fictionalized plotting leading up to the ultimate coup d’etat and massacre of African Americans in Wilmington, NC.

After completing the novel, we returned to this assignment to compare the newspapers’ accounts with Chesnutt’s. We picked through history a bit more, keeping in mind some of the arguments put forth by the white supremacists characters in The Marrow of Tradition. A student eventually stumbled upon a revised news article that, like Chesnutt’s novel, was in opposition to those article published at the time of the event. When I initially taught this course, there were only one or two articles online that corrected the initial racist “race riot” narrative of the events of 1898 in Wilmington, NC, and those articles were all from the 2000s, over a century later. There have been a few more articles that have come out since I taught the course, but they are all roughly of the same revised account.

Showing students that it took over 100 years for the events to be acknowledged by mainstream media as a coup d’etat and massacre of African Americans, not a race riot where white Americans were the victims had the biggest impact on students the entire semester. It made them much more critical and aware of the manipulation of information. It also gave them a different appreciation of literature and one of its uses.

Note: My students and I discussed everything Railton addresses in his The Marrow of Tradition chapter in History and Hope in American Literature. If you are nervous to confront the political in your classroom, start there for some specific breakdowns of the text.