How Did Kurt Vonnegut Know There Would Be a Pandemic?

When we plan courses, our choices are deliberate, right? We conscientiously select texts and arrange them in meaningful ways to increase the odds of student engagement, and we envision particular learning outcomes based on the trajectories we spend months setting up.

Yet, despite all the planning and preparation, sometimes the most profound moments of learning are the result of plain old “dumb luck”—the chance compatibility between the literature we teach and the unanticipated circumstances of the world around us.

Blue Footed Booby

I frequently teach a gen ed American lit course that fulfills the following “Challenges in the 21st Century” learning objective: “Knowledge and understanding of the historical roots, contemporary manifestations, and potential future of important challenges students may encounter as they move into the world beyond the University.” Based on this objective, I designed the course around the theme of “survival,” flexibly defined. Here’s the course description from my syllabus:

“This course will explore the concept of “survival,” and its various contextual definitions, in relation to American identity. What does it really mean to “survive” in America as an individual, as a family, as a community, as a nation, or even as a species? What do we depend upon to survive at each of these levels? What obstacles emerge or stand in the way of our survival? We’ll ponder these multifaceted questions through critical analysis of course literature and films.”

I haven’t meddled with the course theme over the past few years because the it has consistently resonated with students. When I encourage students to think about “survival” in small scale or short-term ways in their daily lives, they usually identify immediately: How do you “survive” a long day at work? How do you “survive” an awkward family dinner? How do you “survive” a semester at college?

Why do I encourage students to think about the definition of  “survival” so flexibly? Well, because most students haven’t actually dealt with “survival” in a major life-or-death way…until this semester. What it means to “survive” a semester at college isn’t the same as it what it meant when I taught the class last year.

When I originally selected the literature for the course, I wanted to represent a wide range of “survival” experiences, but I also had to keep in mind that this gen ed course is dominantly filled with non-English majors who may not enjoy reading. I’ve found a lot of non-majors are interested in Science Fiction or dystopian narratives, so I inserted Sci-Fi novels at the beginning, middle, and end of the course.

I start the course with Jack Finney’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1955) and end with Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park (1990), but I’d like to focus on the middle text here since it’s the last novel my students finished this semester before our course completely converted to an online format as a result of COVID-19: Kurt Vonnegut’s Galápagos (1985).

For those who aren’t familiar with the novel, it’s classic Vonnegut weird! Galápagos is narrated by Leon Trout, son of Vonnegut’s infamous reoccurring character and Science Fiction writer Kilgore Trout. Leon recounts the events transpiring in 1986, including global financial crisis, a world war, his own death, as well as the near extinction of the human race, that consequently lead to what humans will be like one million years later—the present day from which the ghost of Leon speaks.

Leon spends the majority of the novel juxtaposing what humans were like in the 1980s in what he describes as the era of “big brains” versus what humans are like one million years later—a picture of humanity that runs counter to what most students envision when asked to imagine the future.

So, what do students envision the future will look like? Usually, responses will range drastically from WALL·E to The Terminator, but the underlying constant is a world characterized by ultra-technology. Students are surprised to find the opposite at work in Galápagos: a “tranquil” and “slow” future in which humans have devolved into furry seal-like creatures with flippers and tiny brains. Leon comments, “And all the people are so innocent and relaxed now, all because evolution took their hands away” (202), and “Killer whales and sharks keep the human population nice and manageable, and nobody starves” (129).

Seals

So, how did humans end up as seal creatures? There are two primary forces at work in the novel: poorly-devised human “survival schemes” and “dumb luck.”

As Leon explains, human “survival schemes” back in the 80s weren’t always so logical, thanks to humans’ impractically “big brains.” Here are some of his critiques:

“The financial crisis , which could never happen today, was simply the latest in a series of murderous twentieth-century catastrophes which had originated entirely in human brains….More and more people were saying that their brains were irresponsible, unreliable, hideously dangerous, wholly unrealistic—were simply no damn good” (25).

“So I have to say that human brains back then had become such copious and irresponsible generators of suggestions as to what might be done with life, that they made acting for the benefit of future generations seem one of many arbitrary games which might be played by narrow enthusiasts—like poker or polo or the bond market, or the writing of science-fiction novels” (81).

“Apologies for momentary brain failures were the staple of everybody’s conversations: ‘Whoops,’ ‘Excuse me,’ ‘I hope you’re not hurt,’ ‘I can’t believe I did that,’ ‘It happened so fast I didn’t have time to think,’ ‘I have insurance against this kind of thing,’ and ‘How can I ever forgive myself,’ and ‘I didn’t know it was loaded,’ and on an on” (180).

“Furthermore, human brains were too easily swayed by “mere opinions”: “Mere opinions, in fact, were as likely to govern people’s actions as hard evidence, and were subject to sudden reversals as hard evidence could never be” (16).

With “big” human brains constantly “malfunctioning,” Leon explains that humanity’s survival a million years into the future is a matter of sheer luck. A handful of people were in the right place at the right time, escaped on a cruise ship from Ecuador, ended up on the sustainable Galápagos island of Santa Rosalia, and managed to repopulate. Isolated, without technology, and with no hope of rescue, evolution took over from there.

But aside from the Santa Rosalia “survivors,” what happened to the rest of the human race? Leon explains, “Some new creature, invisible to the naked eye, was eating up all the eggs in human ovaries, starting at the annual Book Fair in Frankfurt, Germany. Women at the fair were experiencing a slight fever, which came and went in a day or two, and sometimes blurry vision. After that…they couldn’t have babies anymore. Nor would any way be discovered for stopping the disease. It would spread practically everywhere” (176).

Leon later poignantly reflects, “Truth be told, the planet’s most victorious organisms have always been microscopic” (201).

The timeliness of the novel this semester certainly felt more uncanny than coincidental.

I always situate Galápagos at the midterm point of the semester because it’s a comedy. A lot of survival-themed literature can get pretty gloomy, so I want students to go into their midterms or spring breaks with uplifted spirits. As you can imagine, the novel’s humor didn’t “land” the way it normally does; however, precisely because of the COVID-19 circumstances, student engagement with the novel was at an all-time high.

One student even commented, “It’s like Vonnegut knew there would be a pandemic.”

Vonnegut

And I think there’s something to this statement, right? Great authors are sort of like fortune-tellers or prophets. This is why it’s so important to hear them out and think carefully about they have to say. In the two weeks before our online conversion, I saw students use Vonnegut’s novel to work through and discuss their own panic, fear, anxiety, anger, and uncertainty about the pandemic and what their futures hold.

At one point, Leon summarizes the plot of The Era of Hopeful Monsters, a novel written by his father, Kilgore Trout: “It was about a planet where the humanoids ignored their most serious survival problems until the last possible moment.  And then, with all the forests being killed and all the lakes being poisoned by acid rain, and all the groundwater made unpotable by industrial wastes and so on, the humanoids found themselves the parents of children with wings or antlers or fins, with a hundred eyes, with no eyes, with huge brains, with no brains, and on and on” (86).

In the past, students saw this exaggerated sci-fi “plot” as a warning about our potential future, but today that potential future has essentially arrived. While we’re not yet humanoid mutants, we have waited until “the last possible moment” to deal with our “serious survival problems.” What do we do next? How do we adapt? Is there hope?

If there is hope, it’s suggested near the end of Galápagos when Leon points readers to the novel’s epigraph, an Anne Frank quote (281):

“In spite of everything, I still believe people are really good at heart.”

Now that my course is completely online, I’m moved not only by how my students have come together via our Blackboard discussion board to support each other but also by their drive to continue discussing our course literature despite the chaos.

Sometimes it takes a pandemic to help a class full of non-English majors understand how important literature is.

Works Cited

Vonnegut, Kurt. Galápagos. Random House, 2006.

Tips for Faculty Teaching African American Languages and Literature

PALS is excited to welcome a guest post by Carly Overfelt. Overfelt writes about the mistakes that white people can make when teaching African American languages and literature and provides information about how to do this better in the classroom.

Several weeks ago, a news story circulated on Twitter about a high school student who was upset by her teacher’s lesson on “African American Vernacular English” in preparation to read Their Eyes Were Watching God. According to the story, the lesson made her feel that her teacher was assuming that all African Americans speak ungrammatical/incorrect English, and she complained to her mother. The screenshot did look bad, especially out of context. What made it worse was that the way it was reported used language that supported the idea that African American language is indeed “incorrect” English. A statement by the teacher’s association did help answer some questions, but this “springboard to academic English” style curriculum is controversial, even with the context.

I’m not here to weigh in on that particular lesson. What matters to me is that the student was harmed. My goal is to share some tips here that might help prevent similar harm to students in the classrooms I am familiar with, like general education literature courses in college. I’m writing this as a white person for other white people, especially white faculty who teach African American texts (literature, film, music) and have no training in linguistics. Ideally, your institution will hire more people of color to teach those texts and also devote resources to professional development in the area of linguistic diversity and linguistic justice. Until then, this post may be helpful.

What you do in your classroom, of course, depends on your goals and learning outcomes. I have written this series of tips assuming that at least one of your goals is to show students that the language associated with a text like Their Eyes are Watching God is unjustly (and with real consequences) categorized in our society as “lazy” or “incorrect,” while it is actually as valid, complex, and innovative as any other English they may encounter in the study of American literature.

Decenter Yourself 

Decentering yourself is probably the first rule for white faculty teaching African American Literature anyway, but it is important enough to state outright here again. You are bringing your own linguistic and cultural background to the classroom, and part of your job as you raise the topic of language is to not use your own language background as the “norm” and default to which all other language patterns are compared. How can you decenter yourself?

  • Center your students’ languages/Englishes. You can do this by beginning with an activity that asks them questions about their languages/Englishes to first establish that linguistic diversity is here and it’s ok. This works for every student. There is no student who texts the same way they write, and speaks in class in the same way they talk to their mom on the phone, etc.
  • Center Black writers. African American writers are already dealing with these issues of language and power much better and more efficiently than you can, so start there. If you’re preparing students for a longer text, try beginning with something short, like a poem, and talk through it with your students. One great choice might be “Finna,” a new poem by Nate Marshall, or maybe the segment of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, where she describes meeting a therapist whom she had only spoken to on the phone before (18). Guide students through unpacking stereotypes our society associates with particular types of speaking and what is at stake. 
  • Center scholars. As much as possible, let the technical information (like syntactic structures, phonological patterns) about African American Language come from voices who study that and who are practiced in explaining it for educational purposes. As much as possible, these should be voices who identify as speakers of the language, or who identify as part of the Black community. For example, you can have your students watch Talking Black in America. You can also refer to trusted texts like The Oxford Handbook of African American Language.
    • Why even introduce the more technical linguistic information? I’m not saying you should or should not, but introducing some of the core features can help students understand that it is systematic. For example, when students learn the “rules” behind the distribution of zero copula (the optional omission of so-called “linking verbs” in some contexts), it might counter their notions that the language is “random” or “lazy.” 
    • What was so bad about the chart from the Fresno story, then? It showed that the language is rule-governed and what the patterns were, right? Context is key. I don’t know the dynamics of the room in that instance, but if you’re a white teacher in a predominantly white class, using a chart like that could make African American students feel like they are being studied like an object, and being flattened, whether or not they identify with the linguistic patterns portrayed. Because of the visual rhetoric and the terminology, that particular chart is not something I would personally use.
    • Avoid the idea of “translation” and don’t have students “translate.” This centers more privileged varieties of English as normative and African American Language as a foreign outlier (the thing that must be made legible). Just use resources that already include Standard American English (whatever that is) paraphrases if you’re wanting students to see meanings they might not catch. Even after reading about the context and learning outcomes for the translation exercise that offended the Fresno student, I still would not use that technique in my college literature classroom, as I don’t think the outcomes are worth the harm that they could cause students. If students who have command of the language have self-expressed interest in explaining aspects of it to other students, I think that could be valuable and empowering, but that’s different. If students who identify as speakers decide to use words like “translation” to talk about their Englishes, then of course let them, and ask them questions about why they chose that word. You and your whole class will learn.

Let the Literature Speak for Itself

Don’t make the mistake of assuming that the dialogue spoken by Black characters in African American literature is somehow a real-world transcript of African American English, as described by linguists. It is a literary creation for a specific purpose and should not be taken too literally in most cases. That is, “In what way does the author imagine African American speech, and what seems to be at stake?” is probably a better question for your classroom discussion than, “Is this an authentic/realistic depiction of the variety we know of as African American English?” I’ve written and given talks about this, and I’d love to have separate conversations with folks about this approach, if/when they’d like.

Disrupt Labels

State over and over again that categories like “African American Language” or “Southern English” or “Standard English” are labels for ideas, and that they do not capture reality. That means that just because there is something linguists call “African American Language” or “African American English” does not mean all African Americans speak that way. Many do not. Your African American students may not use those features, or may not identify with what you’re describing at all. And many who do use some features, do not use others. And probably some features are used that are not yet observed by any linguist. That’s ok, and that’s how language works.

Don’t Make Assumptions about your Students’ Language Attitudes

Remember that your students who use the stigmatized features of African American Language often feel negatively about them in certain ways and see “Standard English” (whatever that means) as superior for classroom and other purposes. Your Black students are not sitting around waiting for you to realize that their language is valid, and then feeling proud of how woke you are when you do. It’s more complicated than that. Some of them have mixed or negative attitudes about their own speech or the speech of their families. It makes me sad and I wish they did not, but it’s not about how I feel or what I want. Don’t argue with students or position yourself as the expert on their language (“You should love your language! I will teach you how beautiful it is!”). Rather, if they express negative attitudes, ask them questions about how they feel and why, and how it relates to the texts you’ve been reading by African American authors who grapple with this. Give them space to think and talk it out if they feel comfortable doing so; your whole class will learn, including you.

Do Not Say or Use the “N Word”

Do not under any circumstances use/say/pronounce/articulate/write the N word. The time period of the literary piece does not make it okay. The fact that you’ve heard people say it or sing it does not make it okay. This word has a complex place in American society and a complex relationship with African American linguistic culture. If you don’t understand why you should not go near this word, or you don’t understand how to teach certain texts without it, listen to Koritha Mitchell’s piece for the C19 podcast about this.   

Educate Yourself

One key take-away from Koritha Mitchell’s podcast episode, especially for white people, is to “do the work.” Do the work to educate yourself on what language actually is and how it works. If you believe in the white supremacist ideology of Standard English, you will not be able to help using euphemisms and coded language that undermine any point you are making. You need to get right with yourself first. Educating yourself on these issues is a process, and is never complete. I am only able to offer these tips because I have, myself, made many mistakes and I am still learning. You can refer to any of the resources and texts I’ve already mentioned, and here are a few more good entry-level, popular-audience resources you can check out:

Articulate While Black: Barack Obama, Language and Race (2012) 
H. Samy Alim and Geneva Smitherman

Vocal Fries Podcast: Interview with Nicole Holliday

Spoken Soul: The Story of Black English (2000)
John Russell Rickford and Russell John Rickford
(This text increasingly feels dated but still does a great job hitting a range of important topics, including literary texts, for a lay audience.)  

Bio:

Carly Overfelt is the Multilingual and Intercultural Program Coordinator at Gustavus Adolphus College, where she is a tutor, advisor, and instructor for the international and multilingual students. She also regularly offers faculty development and campus programming around issues of linguistic diversity and linguistic justice. Before her work at Gustavus, she got her Ph.D. in English from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where she specialized in linguistic approaches to literature, and taught composition and general education literature courses.