What the Founders Read: Solutions for a Problematic Course

What the Founders Read: A Problematic Class
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First the Founders had to run…

This semester I’m teaching What the Founders Read. The class is a 200-level literature course and it is cross-listed with Political Science. I had one goal when I began designing the course: make sure that the Founders would run. I made several tactical choices about the focus of the class and the works that I included. I made sure to include Hamilton; I made sure to play that up in the course description. I included works like The Federalist Papers in order to meet the needs of the course’s cross-listed audience. Many of these choices altered my initial vision for the course. As I began planning the day-to-day trajectory of the course, I felt the class leaning towards what the Founders (and Lin-Manuel Miranda) wrote—not what they Founders read. I began to see nothing but problems the foundation of my class. Honestly, I started to rue even thinking about planning and teaching the class. I still find it a challenge to write and think about this course.

A Frame

I knew I wanted a larger frame than just “what the Founders read.” Literary works constitute the main body of the course’s readings. These texts reflect a narrow view of the Founders and a narrow view of what they read. The class felt like a giant disservice to my students. Over at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, John Fea introduced a running feature called “Today The Founding Fathers Were Invoked.” Each entry provides a rundown of recent news stories “invoking” the Founding Fathers on various topics. Fea closes each entry with a call to action: “The Founders are invoked every day. Isn’t it time we invest in American history so that when we do invoke the Founders we do so responsibly?” Fea’s call represents a concise expression of the concern that I had all summer while planning my class. I came to the conclusion that the “responsible” thing to do was to own up to the course’s limitations and problems, make those problems as central to the course as what the Founders read. I pointed out the limits of the class on the first day. I owned these limitations during the first week of class readings: we read pieces on defining the Founders and Founders Chic.

In the remainder of this post I’ll address a few of the immediate problems that I saw in my course. I’ll highlight the steps taken to mitigate these problems and turn them into a course theme.

Striving for a Diversity of Voices and Perspectives

Poems on Various subjectsIn light of the narrow topic of the course’s primary readings, I sought to assign additional resources that introduced a variety of perspectives. Given the topic of the course, the content is largely white and male—a direct result of the topic proposed. I sought to mitigate this limited focus by including a unit on the correspondence of Abigail and John Adams, plus a unit on the poetry of Phillis Wheatley. Still, the women included in the course can be seen as defined in relation to their connection to the Founders. I wanted to include additional voices and perspectives in this class. This is a 200-level course with a lot to cover. I did not want to add a wealth of secondary materials, but it would be irresponsible in a course like this not to include current critical conversations related to the Founders. I tried to reach a middle ground on this issue in two ways. First, I wanted the course to have a component that focused on public scholarship: pieces that were easy to read, models of writing for a general audience, but still rigorous. I selected works from popular media, blogs, podcasts, and other sources.

I tried the best that I could to include a diversity of voices and perspectives in the class, especially regarding scholarship by women, but I need to do better. In selecting readings and podcasts I added as many voices as I could. In day-to-day course meetings I try to be aware of which voices I emphasize from our readings. I try to point out these disparities in class discussion. Though the course doesn’t emphasize assigned secondary readings directly from journals or books, I want students to come away from the class aware of the ongoing critical conversations– like those that inspired the Women Also Know History initiative. In selecting the assigned pieces I made sure to select works that could act as conduits to additional secondary sources. I also created a Twitter list that could be a student resource.

Podcasts
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Ben Franklin’s World
is a key part of the “readings” this semester

The course makes use of several episodes of Liz Covart’s Ben Franklin’s World. This semester I wanted to do better at integrating Ben Franklin’s World into my course. I’ve used episodes of the podcast before, but relied on the hope that students would draw organically on it in class discussions. I was not satisfied by how I integrated Ben Franklin’s World in previous classes. Podcasts are fun; Ben Franklin’s World is fun. I didn’t want to turn listening to podcasts into a chore. For the Founders class I built in short reflections papers centered on each assigned episode of Ben Franklin’s World. These reflections are modeled after a low-stakes assignment that I did as a graduate student in a literary theory course. (Don’t laugh this was one of the best low-stakes assignments I remember as a student—at any level.) The reflections consist of 3 parts: a summary, a reflection, and list of key terms or buzzwords—all on a single typed page. I am encouraging students to think of these reflections as tools to help them in their work; to envision them as records of the show and an accounting of their own ideas. I think this is a fair assignment that does its best to balance taking something fun and using it as an assignment. The question & and answer format of Ben Franklin’s World, along with each episodes’ excellent show notes, lends itself to a low-stakes assignment like this. Note: Be sure to check out Catherine Hostetter’s post “Podcasts and Pedagogy.”

The Syllabus Re-Do Assignment

The semester will culminate in an opportunity for students to redesign the course. In the “Syllabus Re-Do Assignment” students have an opportunity to select new primary and secondary texts for an imaginary semester. I’ve used versions of this assignment with great success when teaching in literature surveys. The assignment invites students to imagine a new approach to the course theme and invites them to select new weekly readings. For this assignment students pair primary and secondary texts, sprinkle them over a semester, generally following the same patterns in our own course: longer works get more time, etc. This isn’t meant to be a daily recounting, but a way for students to envision the semester in weekly chunks. A short personal reflection explaining their remade course will accompany the assignment.

I’ve already started sharing with students the limitations of the course. I am hopeful that the “Syllabus Re-Do” assignment will provide students an opportunity to identify flaws that they see in the course, while drawing on their own academic discipline and personal interests. I am hopeful that highlighting the conversations happening via public writing, social media, and podcasts will help students to see the stakes involved. I’m open to creative approaches in this assignment and I look forward to the results.

Looking Ahead

The above ideas are just a few ways that I have sought to address problems in my course. This semester students will have the opportunity to participate in activities both on-campus and off-campus. In a follow-up post I’ll address how these outside the classroom components help address other content problems in the class.

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From an English Major: Reflections on Two Undergrad Classroom Experiences

PALS Note: We are super excited to interrupt your summer break for a post by Christna Stubbs. Stubbs is a recent graduate of the University of The Bahamas and will be attending Acadia University for graduate school in the fall. In this post, she writes about some of the classroom activities that stood out to her the most as an undergrad. This is a new perspective for the blog, and we welcome the commentary from our students. 

As I sat, thinking about the thousands of things I could write about regarding this topic, I was forced to reminisce on my past classroom experiences. I literally mulled over in my mind the very first class I took as a fresh-faced freshman, to the last one I took as seasoned senior. Thinking back on that period of my life as an undergrad, I find myself remembering my “AHA” moments…You know those moments, right? The moments in class when you become excited about the text you’re studying. It’s like a lightbulb goes off in your head after days, or sometimes weeks of feeling like you’re sitting in class with a highly decorated dunce cap on your head, or “I don’t understand” tattooed across your forehead.

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After these “AHA” moments, you FINALLY understand why the lecturer was so excited when she introduced the text on the first day, and why she looked so disappointed when the class didn’t seem to share her initial excitement. The text somehow becomes more than just another text that you have to read or write about, or pretend to like in order to appease your lecturer (you students know what I’m talking about); it resonates with you, it becomes one of those texts that you know you will always remember.

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It’s those “AHA” moments that reminded me of why I love literature in the first place. When I think about the classes I took in the past that allowed for those experiences to occur, in contrast to the classes that made me want to die of boredom, I realized a few really noticeable differences. So, I decided, (after days of brainstorming!) why not take you through two of my experiences as an undergrad student? I want to talk to you guys about what took place in the classroom that influenced one of my “AHA” moments, and what occurred in another classroom that simply didn’t make the cut.

So, without further ado…let’s dive in!

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CLASSROOM #1

Before I say anything else, let me assure you that I really do love British Literature, and I appreciate all that I learned in this particular course. However, I just don’t recall ever having any “AHA” moments in this class, and here’s why:

As a class, we were never given any tools/exercises that encouraged us to engage with the texts.

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Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe that all lecturers are obligated to come up with clever ways to make the literature more appealing to their students, but I must say that it can make the world of difference. (Take it from a student.) At the time, I really could not fathom why I always felt disconnected from the lectures or discussions. I somehow always felt out of the loop, and it took a toll on my confidence as a student. As a sophomore, I began to rethink my decision to study English because of my inability to fully understand or connect with the material that we studied in this particular class. When I think back on that experience, I honestly believe that I felt this way because as a class we were never really given any tools that would encourage us to engage with the readings. Class time often consisted of the lecturer beginning with a detailed biography of the author, moving onto a lecture on the reading. We usually wrapped up with the lecturer asking everyone about their thoughts on the lecture (which many of us never had)…it was all very methodical. Rigid even.

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Apart from this routine, we were never really given a chance to engage closely with the text. It may have been different if our lecturer might have begun class-time by asking everyone how they felt that the reading could possibly connect to their lives? For instance, our class consisted largely of black, postcolonial students, and up to that point, many of us had taken at least two levels of West Indian Literature, in which we were to read at least five postcolonial texts per semester. Because of our rich background in postcolonial literature, and also being products of a postcolonial society, it would have been nice if we were given the freedom to discuss how reading British Literature made us feel, since it was a huge colonizing force. Did we come to class with any preconceived notions about some of the authors because of our exposure to postcolonialism? Did we feel disdain when we read it? Were we able to appreciate it in any way? Did we want to cringe when we found out that Wordsworth would be on the reading list for the semester? Simple questions like these would have been really great exercises that compelled us to engage more with a lot of the readings that we were assigned. I think if we were given tools like these, or similar to these, class-time would have been a lot less anxiety-ridden, and drawn-out.

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Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy most of the readings, but they were just that…readings that I enjoyed. I was never able to engage with the texts apart from the usual themes that are usually explored or explained. Now, I do think that it’s wonderful to enjoy the texts that you read in class, but I believe that it is even more wonderful to learn something from the texts that you read. I think a text should teach you something– about life, about the people around you, or about yourself; a text should challenge you, and make you look at the world in a way that you never would have thought about looking at it before. Because we were not allowed the opportunity to do more than just enjoy the readings in this class, most of the class-time felt like a race against the clock. I think I spent more time looking at my watch and thinking about what I would be eating for lunch than trying to understand the material. While I did always appreciate the lectures and discussions (the parts I were able to fathom, at least), I believe that if we were given exercises that compelled us to engage with the text, or think about it in a way that different from the usual, maybe class-time would have been a bit more enthusing. Who knows, I may have had an “AHA” moment?

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CLASSROOM #2

The very first day that we opened Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy in my Caribbean Women Writers class, I was honestly unimpressed.

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I couldn’t get why everyone kept runnin’ on bout dis Lucy book. Translation from Bahamian English: “I could not understand why everyone kept praising the Lucy book”. I felt like Lucy covered the same old themes that we discussed about Kincaid’s work in previous classes. Nothing new or original stood out to me about the text. My lecturer, however, who so graciously wanted us to appreciate the book as much as she did, began class by eagerly asking each person what they thought of the text. I bit my tongue, not wanting to disappoint her or sound like a killjoy, but chose to speak up after a few gruelling minutes,“It honestly didn’t do much for me.” And that was the truth at the time.

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Some of the other students seemed to think otherwise, but it’s safe to say that most of us shared the same sentiments. Thankfully, my lecturer did not look the least bit disappointed, but continued to discuss various themes that we would cover throughout the semester. I honestly left class that day eager to move on to the other texts that were scheduled on the syllabus.

Little did I know, my lecturer was cooking up ways to force us to really engage with the text, and by the next class, she didn’t care to ask us if we had a change of heart overnight, but instead instructed everyone to take out a copy of the text. This is one of the first things that made this classroom experience amazing—a simple exercise that my lecturer introduced to the class. This exercise not only changed the way we all engaged with the text, but it inspired discussions that simply could not end, even after the semester was over.

Our lecturer had us read through the very first chapter of Lucy quietly, making us highlight whatever colour that we noticed. My first reaction was…Huh? Colours? What does that have to do with anything?…. but I did it anyway, and the results were mind-boggling. After highlighting the colours that stood out, she asked us to look at the colours pointed out in chapter one, and think about the moments in the text where these colours reappeared. Can they represent something more than what we see at first glance?

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I remember looking down at the words that I highlighted, “pale yellow,” and I thought long and hard about the moments in the text where this colour yellow resurfaced—half listening to the array of colours that my classmates pointed out and explained.

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I can still recall sitting there, fighting with myself, trying hard to remember that one moment…then something clicked to me, and guess what guys? I became excited, like super excited. This was the beginning of my “AHA” moment. I could not remember the last time I was so excited to discuss a revelation that I had in the classroom. I eagerly raised my hand, and explained (with giddy pride) that Kincaid used pale-yellow to describe the appearance of the sun in America on Lucy’s first day as an au pair. She described it as being “pale-yellow, as if the sun had grown weak from trying too hard to shine; but still sunny” (5). I vigorously turned to middle of the book where this pale-yellow colour emerged again, describing what seemed to be an aura of sunlight that enveloped the character Mariah, the mother of the children that Lucy cared for. Now guys, at this point, I had disregarded the character of Mariah…I mean like completely wrote her off, simply because I didn’t think her character had any depth worth exploring.

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However, after I thought about the re-appearance of the pale-yellow colour, and connected it to the character. I realized that just like that pale-yellow sun tried hard to shine, Mariah tried hard to live a perfect life, although it really was not perfect. I knew, even after giving that answer that I was barely scraping the surface, and I wanted to know more. This pale-yellow colour could mean something so much deeper than I thought. I don’t think I would have ever begun to understand the character of Mariah without my lecturer compelling us to think about what the colours meant. I became so engrossed with this pale-yellow colour and its connection to Mariah that I wrote my first paper of that semester on the topic.

Now, while this colour exercise initiated my “AHA” moment, I think that my classmates polished it off for me. Because we were all so excited about our revelations after the colour exercise, we became eager to discuss other aspects of the text, like Lucy’s actions towards her friends and Mariah. Some of my classmates thought that Lucy was just a messed up, angry person; however, after sharing our own experiences and attempting to place ourselves in Lucy’s shoes, most, if not everyone in the class felt as though they could relate to Lucy’s experience as not only a black individual, but one whose actions were a result of her disdain for colonialist ideology. As products of a postcolonial society, many of us, like Lucy were bombarded with colonial ideals. Like Lucy, we were taught to adore flowers that never once bloomed in our native land, and like Lucy, we were praised when we spoke “proper” English, because our native tongue, Bahamian English “implied ignorance”. Because of this, we understood Lucy’s decision to leave home at the beginning of the text. We didn’t see it as her being selfish, or disobedient to her mother—we saw it as her desire for autonomy—to define herself on her own terms, not on the terms that her mother (who constantly imposed on Lucy colonial ideologies and ideals), sought to define for her. Living in a society where colonial ideologies are still pervasive, we all agreed that it somehow made sense for Lucy to leave home. We knew that the longer she stayed, the easier it would be for her to conform to the colonial ideals that she sought to flee. We were even better able to understand the somewhat cold, and indifferent life that she lived. We could almost empathize with Lucy, despite these personality flaws, because we knew that her actions were a result of her desire to reject everything that her colonial counterparts sought to impose upon her. We no longer looked at Lucy as an angry, promiscuous character; she became more of a comrade, someone who we could understand, despite some of the bizarre things that she did. Like Lucy, we refuse to be mentally enslaved to the ideals that our forefathers fought to free us from. Like Lucy, we wished not to be controlled by the oppressive ideologies of our colonial pasts. Because we became so connected to Lucy as a character, many days, we left the classroom feeling inspired and united—all with a similar purpose, to refuse to be controlled by ideologies that permeated our society (like Lucy) and live life to the fullest. This here was the polishing off my “AHA” moment—being able to discuss the text with classmates that just got it. They understood my struggles, and we were all able to connect with Lucy because she too shared a lot of those struggles.

Now, when I see my copy of Lucy sitting on my book-shelf, I smile. I think about my role as a postcolonial individual, I think about the fact that I could see a small glimpse myself in Lucy. Most importantly, I think about the simple colour exercise that my passionate lecturer thought of, and my amazing classmates—both of which made my smile possible.

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I can probably talk about my classroom experiences for about 100 pages, but I’m on a word limit here guys. So, I guess I’ll just wrap up by saying that although they may seem trivial, utilizing simple exercises in a classroom to encourage students to engage with a text can make a break a student. This couldn’t be more true for me. When I thought about the “AHA” moments that I experienced during my undergrad career, I realized that they almost always occurred because of simple exercises that my lecturers thought of. These exercises changed the way that I not only viewed the literature that I studied but fostered a class environment that allowed myself and my fellow classmates to feel comfortable enough to both express ourselves and connect with the texts that we read and each other.

As I transition into my graduate career this fall, I truly hope that these exercises aren’t forgotten, because I believe that it is these very same simple exercises that pave the way for many of our “AHA” moments.

Contributor Bio:

11076246_10155439349135397_5313472970728128444_n (1)I recently graduated from the University of The Bahamas with a Bachelor of Arts in English. I will be attending Acadia University in the Fall to pursue my Master of Arts in English. I am an avid blogger, and I’m interested in Postcolonial and Children’s Literature, as well as literature that explores themes regarding Gender and Sexuality.