Reflecting on, Reframing, and Revising Approaches to Texts: Teaching M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong!*, Again

As I sit here designing and prepping for a course I have not taught before, I reflect, as always, on previous texts, pairings, and themes I have used in the past. The course is Critical Thinking, Composition, and Literature; in other words, the choices for texts and critical approaches are endless. Its course aims also align with a writing about literature course I have taught in the past. My initial thoughts go to that course and the current historical moment where language is being stripped of meaning by political figures with more vigor than ever before, though definitely not a new practice.

This past December, I took part in a short series of posts about treating literature as political where I reflected on my approach to teaching generally and my approach to teaching Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition. Chesnutt was an easy way into that conversation because he provides a traditionally structured fictional narrative that is specifically depicting government corruption while illuminating racially motivated shortcomings in journalism. I am not suggesting that Chesnutt’s novel is in anyway simple; my students struggled with it for a variety of reasons. It is a text that students can open and tangibly point to a passage they deem political. This is not the case with many pieces of literature. Their political elements may be harder to see or, in the case of writers like Ishmael Reed, may require a knowledge of historical events and cultural moments readers may not possess. Moving beyond the content, the political can also be present in the form. This creates distance between students and the political elements of form because there isn’t necessarily something explicit for students to point to as political.

For instance, what would you do when presented with this poem?

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More importantly, what questions would you pose to students to help them enter this poem? (This is the opening poem to an experimental collection that gets increasingly difficult to decipher as it progresses.) Once students have entered the poem, how do we help them understand why the form is political? Helping students understand form as a political statement is not the same as telling them why form is a political statement. Showing students how form becomes political is the task.

I first taught, Tobago born, Canadian writer M. NourbeSe Philip a few years back in the same class I taught Chesnutt which was composed of both majors and non-majors. Her expeZong!rimental poetry collection Zong! (in which the above poem appears) was challenging for students, as I suspected it would be; it was, and still is, challenging for me. I don’t pretend to hold any answers to it which is part of what makes it so much fun for me to teach. This is also one of the purposes of the text: How do we make meaning out of the slave trade? There is something much more genuine when I don’t have a certain reading of a text to lead students through. The classroom discussions turned into a series of “what if” approaches as we played with the text. For those unfamiliar with Zong!, blogger Wandy Felicita provides a fairly succinct description of the text and its cultural/historical context and get yourself a copy.

My experience teaching Philip’s Zong! didn’t have any moments that would have made it into another edition of our teaching fails. ZongWhy fix it if it isn’t broke? Rethinking my approach to teaching the collection comes from a desire to get even more from the text than before. Last time, we only tackled “Os,” the literal bare bones of the collection. This time, I also want to move though the remaining sections “Sal” (salt), “Ventus” (wind), “Ratio” (rain), “Ferrum” (iron), and “Ebora.” It is also motivated by the fact that the summer course I am prepping meets three hours a day, four days a week. Thinking about how much further we can get when not limited to the 50 min class session fills me with vision. (In case you were wondering–because of course you were!–to the right is a an example of one of the 50 pages that make up “Ferrum.”)

Managing the Supplemental Materials

Philip includes supplemental materials at the end of the text: the court case decision, a glossary of terms, and excerpts from the diary she kept while writing the collection. Each of these pieces can be used as a tool to understanding her project. They provide insight and show the evolution of her work. Being an experimental text, however, can also lead to the over reliance on these supplemental materials. This over reliance combined with, or perhaps caused by, student anxiety surrounding experimental poetry results in students coming up with the same reading of every poem in the collection. Every discussion about every poem boils down to “Philip said she was doing X, well that is what this poem does.”

I appreciate the supplemental materials, but they serve as those little kid water wings that give parents and kids a false sense of security in swimming pools and, as trained swim instructors like myself adamantly argue, increase the risk of child drownings. Part of the work of teaching this text is convincing students to take those water wings off and swim without them. I don’t want to entirely disregard Philip’s framework for Zong!, so I respect her supplemental materials as I pull students away from them.

First, I use the supplemental materials to show why we shouldn’t rely on them so heavily. Philip’s approach to her project changed between the first section and the following ones because she was too limited. The first section is comprised solely of words that appeared in the one page court ruling on the case. By the second section, she has moved on, taking liberty to chop those words up and use any part of a word to construct new words. I suggest to my students that the same is true for us. The court case document was initially helpful for our understanding of the project of the collection, but after that, it becomes as much of a hindrance for our understanding as it did for Philip.

Second, I ask students questions that slowly pull them away from the supplemental materials. Here are a few from my series of leading questions:

A piece of the whole: I try to zoom students in by asking them to think about each poem serving a different purpose to get us to her main aim. “If her large project is about how language fails to articulate the atrocities aboard the Zong, the following court case, its disappearance from history, and the slave trade as a whole, what piece of that is represented in ‘Zong #[insert poem number here]’?”

“The Death of the Author”: While I don’t go quite as far as Barthes, I do encourage students to question our reliance on the author’s statements by asking them to assess her proposed goals. “Even though Philip tells us what she was trying to do, it doesn’t mean she has successfully done it. Let’s say we are arguing that a poem or the collection does something entirely different, what would that be?”

There are many other questions and ways of challenging student reliance on the supplemental materials. My experience is that students’ discomfort with the experimental nature of this collection will make them grab hold and not let go of anything that helps them make sense of it. This leads to a fun game I like to play with the poems.

The What if…? Game

The “What if…?” game is really about teaching students how to engage with experimental poetry. Here are some of our “What if…?”s:

The visual: We look at the poems and ask what the form or layout on the page encourages us to do with it. “In some of Philip’s Os poems there is a pull between line breaks and columns. What if we read the poem from top to bottom, as columns, instead of from left to right?” This approach still respects Philip’s project and challenges students to experiment as readers, similarly to Philip experimenting as a writer.

The aural: We play with voice. Going back to “Zong #1” pictured above. “What if there are multiple speakers to this poem? How does that change the impact of the poem? What if they are all saying this together at the same time? What if it is being said in rounds, like when little kids sing the ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat’ song?” As a class, we try various readings of the poem. We do this with many of the Os poems—often playing with the white space on the page, often changing the number of speakers, sometimes a call and response style.

The decisions we make in our “What if..?” empowers students and loosens their grip on the supplemental materials as they start forming their own understandings. We did this a few times, but teaching it again, I would do a lot more of this because of its success.

 Language and My Old and New Supplemental Materials

As I am returning to teach this text again, but for a course with slightly different aims, I am keeping many of my earlier practices as outlined above and bringing in some new pieces to help us get through some of our anxieties about experimental poetry.

When I previously taught this text, I had students work with The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database. We looked at some of the maps together to correct or filling blanks left from their previous education on the Middle Passage. I also asked them to explore some of the other features on the database and write a brief explanation of what they did and what they discovered. We also listened to Philip read from her collection.

Two additional texts I am bringing in as lenses for approaching Philip’s collection are Toni Morrison’s 1993 Nobel Prize speech and Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider. Both of these get at the issues of language and form that my students struggled with. We will be starting with Morrison’s speech, and then we will move onto Lorde’s essay collection before beginning Zong! Morrison and Lorde will work to bring students into the conversation about the political in language use and forms of writing. In this way, they will come to Philip’s collection with a broader scope of where and how her work can be positioned in the African American literary tradition and among black women writers.

Unexpected, but Temporary Roadblock When Teaching Zong! to Majors

As I mentioned above, the course was comprised of majors and non-majors, roughly 1/3 majors to 2/3 non-majors (but there were a few who have since converted). I bring this up because it impacted my experience teaching the text. The experimentation with form pushed my English majors too much, and they hit a wall. They struggled to get anywhere with the poems. My non-majors, however, were ready to go wherever the collection and our discussions took us. Reflecting on this difference and the statements my majors did make, the opposing reactions to the collection came from a different knowledge base about poetry. My majors had begun taking the survey courses in early British and early American literature. They had much stricter rules for poetry and how to approach poems than their classmates. This disrupted their ability to meet Philip’s on her terms and manifested in a strong resistance to her work. Because it was so challenging and what they had previously learned about poetry did not prepare them to engage with her, they got mad and disqualified it as both poetry and worthy of study. We got through it, but it took a lot of challenging those previous assumptions and having them consider how we moved from 13th century writing style to what we have now in the 21st century: Experimentation!

*Note: This poetry collection came onto my radar in 2012 during my participation in a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute, “Teaching African American Literature,” held at Penn State. My teaching approaches were inspired and developed from conversations about this text that took place during those three weeks.

Teaching Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale

PALS Note: We are pleased to have a guest post from Carli Sinclair. Sinclair is a graduate student studying American Literature at the University of Missouri. In this post, she writes about dystopian fiction and teaching Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Read on for Sinclair’s take on the novel. 

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Dystopias are hot right now. If the popularity of television shows like Black Mirror and The Walking Dead isn’t enough to convince you, consider that a television adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s ever-popular 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale will be coming to Hulu in 2017.

I was thinking about Margaret Atwood and the relatively recent cultural fascination with dystopias when I themed my Writing About Literature course “Utopias and Dystopias.” I’ve always wanted to teach The Handmaid’s Tale, and this course, which focuses on learning to write about literature with the aid of criticism and theory, seemed like the perfect opportunity. I first read and loved Atwood’s novel when I was eighteen and I imagined it would appeal to my students, many of whom have expressed an increasing interest in dystopian texts over the last few semesters. Moreover, as a story that imagines a future in which women’s rights are completely erased and women are instead largely used for reproductive purposes, it pairs naturally with feminist theory, which we would be discussing during the semester. And so it went on the syllabus, alongside Henry David Thoreau’s Walden which we would discuss as a utopian text, and away we went.

I was right in that Atwood did appeal to my students: they appreciated her writing style (especially after reading the lengthy sentences of Thoreau) and were fascinated by the plot. As with teaching any book for the first time, however, there were some challenges that I hadn’t anticipated, and these were often related to the sheer size and scope of the Republic of Gilead, the dystopian world that Atwood creates. Students sometimes struggled to keep characters organized or situate the world against our own, especially as Atwood often reveals Gilead’s development in a nonlinear fashion. In response to these challenges, I introduced a few activities that would not only help us to organize Atwood’s world and characters, but also pick up on how many of Atwood’s concerns are still relevant today.

Define, define, define

One of our questions of the semester naturally became: “What makes Gilead dystopian?” I quickly discovered that it would be useful to give students some key terms to use when defining a dystopian world; this would ensure that everyone was on common ground. We could refer to these terms over and over again regardless of the text we were considering, and it gave students some concrete language to use when writing about utopian/dystopian spaces in their own papers. And so starting the first week of class, I gave students five distinct terms that we would use to think about different facets of a utopian or dystopian community: 1) political, 2) environmental, 3) socio-cultural, 4) religious, and 5) economic.

Approaching Atwood’s Gilead in this way was incredibly useful—rather than getting bogged down trying to consider each of these aspects in one discussion, focusing on one aspect at a time gave our conversations more direction and helped students get more out of the novel. This approach also lent itself to group work very well, which was an added bonus. For instance, after reading the first section of The Handmaid’s Tale, I broke students into five groups and assigned each group one of these categories. Each group was tasked with finding instances of their particular category in the section we had read: the “political” group considered what made Gilead a political dystopia; the “environmental” group looked for moments where the environment was discussed, and so on. Once students had combed the chapters for examples, they came up to the board and listed what they had found, including page numbers to give everyone a specific place to mark in the text. Mapping Gilead on the board like this was not only a way to engage closely at the text, but it also helped students to visualize connections between the categories (political decisions would naturally impact socio-cultural conditions, for example), which led to a discussion about the many ways that those in charge of Gilead worked to keep characters like Offred, the novel’s protagonist, in place.

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What are the rules?

Once we had established some guidelines for how we would talk about Gilead as a dystopia, we moved on to considering the laws of the land and how they impact characters, especially Offred, who narrates the story. Atwood’s Gilead is a complicated place with unsettling rules that are revealed throughout the course of the novel. Moreover, Offred’s reflections jump back and forth between her present position as a handmaid and her very different experiences before Gilead was established. This was something that students often remarked upon, noting that they struggled with keeping track of what exactly Gilead required of its citizens and what specific behavior was forbidden or punishable, as well as Offred’s trajectory as a character—where she had been, and how she had got to where she was.

To help students keep track of how Gilead operates and Offred’s arc throughout the novel, I would often begin class discussion by asking students what rules they had noticed in the latest chunk of reading. These often started very simple: “Women must walk to the market in pairs,” for instance. These became more complicated as the novel went on often building on the rules we had discussed in our previous class: “While walking to the market, women are only allowed to speak about certain topics” and so on. Devoting just ten minutes or so to establishing the rules that students had discovered in the latest reading assignment was another way to map Gilead, as well as a way to keep tabs on Offred and what she was up against as the novel unfolded. (This could also easily be done as a free write in the beginning of class to get students focused on the day’s discussion or kept as a running log of sorts—perhaps on a class Blackboard or Canvas page for easy access.)

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Connections To The Present

After students felt as though they had a good handle on how to discuss Gilead as a place as well as Offred’s trajectory, I wanted us to use our understanding of Gilead to consider the popularity of Atwood’s novel and why it might still resonate with readers so strongly. One way we went about this was to spend a day considering what issues or questions from The Handmaid’s Tale students would consider relevant to their lives.

To help guide this discussion, I divided the class into small groups and had them brainstorm at least three questions or topics they noticed Atwood raising that they considered relevant in 2016. These had to be backed up with specific instances from the text, which meant students were again diving into the novel. They were quick to come up with examples that they considered significant to their own lives: environmental concerns (Atwood imagines a world in which chemicals and toxins have rendered the natural landscape irreparably damaged), questions about birth control (nonexistent in Gilead) and birth rates (birth rates are drastically and dangerously dropping in Atwood’s novel), issues surrounding the prison system (Atwood presents a world in which punishment is cruel and unusual, to say the least), women’s safety and questions of power (in Gilead, women are used as reproductive objects), and many more.

This activity resulted in a lot of discussion from the group, perhaps because they found concrete, direct ways to place a novel from 1985 squarely in 2016. The complicated links they were making also meant that they had to spend time unpacking the novel, getting into the nitty-gritty details of Gilead and thinking critically about the sorts of questions Atwood wanted to raise. Our discussion could have easily spanned several class days, or certainly a longer writing project in which students make these connections with real world examples linked up to the novel.

What I discovered in using each of these activities is that they not only gave students some specific ways to organize their thoughts on Gilead and the detailed dystopian society that Atwood creates, but they also helped everyone to engage with the text very closely—which is always something I’m trying to get students to do. Of course The Handmaid’s Tale tackles some challenging and provocative questions, but with some careful unpacking—and a nod to Hulu—it can provoke some powerful classroom discussions.

Contributor’s Bio:

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Carli Sinclair is a PhD candidate in the English at at the University of Missouri. She is currently working on her dissertation, which focuses on the role of landscape in nineteenth-century American women’s nonfiction. Other research interests include depictions of women’s work and Civil War poetry. She teaches American literature and Composition, as well as the occasional professional writing course.