Intro to Postmodernism: Questioning the Truth Claim

PALS is excited to kick off our 2018-2019 academic year with a guest post by Matthew Luter. Luter is on the English faculty at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Jackson, Mississippi and author of Understanding Jonathan Lethem. In this post Luter discusses how he introduces postmodernism to his students through an intriguing classroom activity, which touches on ideas of truth and asks students to contemplate the distinctions we make between fact and fiction. 

Gustav Klim

Literary postmodernism is a tough concept to introduce to my high school students. Many students have never heard the term postmodern at all; a few are aware of it as a kind of buzzword that has become a right-wing boogeyman; and more than a few are a little turned off by how academically highfalutin’ it sounds. In order to introduce it to my students, I developed a set of tasks that lean into rather than steer away from the complications of literary postmodernism. To highlight the inherent contradictions and paradoxes of the postmodern, I begin with discussion of language and narrative, which quickly turns to some broader philosophical questions.

This lesson has become an unlikely favorite of my students, which genuinely surprises me. Yes, the activity is interactive and mostly lighthearted… but it’s also deeply abstract, does not resolve its big questions neatly, and—oh yeah—involves me straight-up lying to my students for a large chunk of class time. I’ll explain.

I generally use this activity with junior or senior American literature courses that have already spent a few weeks with some major texts of the modernist era. As a result, I position the postmodern as both a natural outgrowth from modernism and a sharp contrast against it, with help from a few bite-sized pieces of literary theory. In explaining how modernism and postmodernism differ, I borrow most heavily from Brian McHale’s distinction in Postmodernist Fiction between modernism as a movement interested in epistemological questions and postmodernism’s shift to the ontological (once those two “ologicals” get defined, of course). Another useful theoretical text, Ihab Hassan’s “Toward a Concept of Postmodernism,” includes a chart of opposed binary descriptions of modernism and postmodernism, and a few of its more accessible pairings have proved helpful. My students have already encountered canonical modernist texts like The Great Gatsby and A Streetcar Named Desire that invite investigative interpretation, asking readers to sort through what is and isn’t true about the checkered pasts of their main characters. The day’s focus, then, is the shift from asking what is true to to asking what is real.

Toward that end, I give small groups of students paragraph-length case studies recounting recent literary or cinematic stories in which the lines between the real and the unreal (or in some cases, the labels fiction and nonfiction) wind up considerably blurred. Examples I’ve used include the controversy surrounding James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces; the disqualification of Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line from consideration for the Best Documentary Oscar; and Art Spiegelman’s letter to the The New York Times objecting to their initial placement of Maus on the fiction bestseller list. Each case study includes enough information about the text in question to get the group started in discussion, as well as a few conceptual questions, mostly asking students to consider where the ambiguity lies anyway regarding the reality or nonfictionality. For instance, the group assigned James Frey discusses, “How does labeling a book fiction or nonfiction alter how readers consume it?” The group addressing The Thin Blue Line, a documentary which includes re-enactments of events in a crime’s timeline, considers, “In what ways might such a film be best understood as fact, and in what ways is it fiction?” And after learning that Maus is a well-researched Holocaust survivor narrative presented in graphic novel form, a third group discusses, “Why would such a book have ever been classified as fiction at all?”


Crucially, I designate this day of class a tech-free meeting: no laptops out, no Googling additional information about these stories. That’s because one group has a story that’s totally made up: the fake story I currently use describes a political candidate hiring a lookalike to play himself in campaign commercials, while writing all of the text for the ads himself. Students are asked: if the candidate is in charge of the content of the message, and he never claims to be the lookalike (or vice versa), are voters being deceived? Has lying happened?

After some small-group discussion time, each group introduces their story to the full class, presents how they have answered their assigned questions, and invites additional responses from classmates. After hearing from all four groups, I introduce to the full class a fifth and final case study: “Some element or elements of at least one of these stories is made up. What is the fictional information? And if we got good class discussion out of it today, does it matter?”

For a few minutes, the class becomes a fairly upbeat game of Call My Bluff—and most of my students successfully identify the fully fictional story. But the second half of the final case study shakes some students up—which is the point. Some students quickly decide that the day’s activity has all been in good fun, concluding that the exercise would be problematic only if I were to end class without coming clean. But others are a bit more unsettled for a moment, and usually, at least one student in each class asks how they are to know I haven’t misled them on other class days. Some students flatly respond, “Well, we don’t.” Others respond that the debriefing discussion taking place currently—my admission to having misled them briefly—means that in the end, no one has really been misled at all. And so on. The best part is that the ensuing conversation winds up being one among students; we all know the teacherly joy of the class discussion in which students talk to each other instead of sending every comment through the teacher. And so, a brief introduction to a new literary period has turned into a discussion on the more abstract philosophical question of under what circumstances, if ever, it may be appropriate to play with factuality as a means to an end.

As a result, the lesson has proved useful for me in introducing texts such as Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, which calls into question its own truth claims in “How to Tell a True War Story” and “Good Form,” and Don DeLillo’s White Noise, which encourages readers to question which authority figures ought to be believed amid the airborne toxic event. I could imagine it working equally well to introduce texts in the tradition of speculative fiction—especially those, like Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle or Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, that posit alternative American histories. Or intentionally multi-voiced texts that work, Rashomon-like, to complicate the credibility of any individual speaker when multiple accounts contradict each other, or fiction that relies on overtly unreliable narrators. The lesson sets up individual postmodern texts, but it also makes visible and experiential postmodernity’s essential distrust of grand narratives, authority figures, and easy binaries like fact-versus-fiction.

I am well aware of the risks this lesson takes. Some students find such radical skepticism disturbing and dislocating, while others feel quite liberated by the sense that it gives them permission to ask tough questions and to question authority. And in our present age of claims to alternative facts and accusations of fake news, to present an outright falsehood to students on the same playing field as verifiable information—even temporarily—might be read, I know, as exacerbating all that is problematic about the postmodern marketplace of ideas, not as helping to explain those difficulties. As a result, I do think of this activity as one best placed late in a school term, after a certain trust and rapport within a classroom has been established.

But in my experience, explaining the idea of “the truth claim” as an abstract rhetorical idea only gets students so far. We can talk about how readers’ expectations are shaped by the label nonfiction or fiction on the back of a book. We can talk about how, in literary history, the dividing line between nonfiction and fiction has not always been as sharp as many would like it to be now.  And students can certainly offer accounts of their own experiences that “didn’t seem real” even as they were experiencing them, from the grief of losing a loved one unexpectedly to the euphoria of sharing a state championship with their teammates. They’ve all had reason to question their own realities, even if they don’t yet share the literary critic’s vocabulary for such an episode.

This activity has succeeded in my classroom not only because it helps students acquire that vocabulary, but also because it gives students a moment of genuine doubt as to why—or indeed, whether—the authority figure presenting them with a truth claim ought to be believed as representing something that is real. After all, to make a truth claim about a story is to make an assertion about what is ethical or desirable—or even possible—in the world we share. Discussing this idea, I would assert, requires attention to fact, to fiction, and to what things, both fruitful and dangerous, can follow when the lines between the two are blurred. I hope students leave this class session, then, with a solid introduction to American postmodernism, but even more so, a clearer understanding of what’s at stake when we call something true or false—or a little of both.


Contributor Bio: 

Matthew Luter (@matthewjluter) is on the English faculty at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Jackson, Mississippi. He is the author of Understanding Jonathan Lethem (University of South Carolina Press, 2015), and his articles, on authors including Don DeLillo, Ellen Douglas, Willie Morris, and Bret Easton Ellis, have appeared in journals including CritiqueThe Southern Literary JournalGenre, and Orbit.  He is a founding board member of the International David Foster Wallace Society.


Dear College Professor: On Your Incoming Students

PALS is thrilled to have a guest post by Clay Zuba, a teacher at Xavier College Preparatory High School in Phoenix, Arizona. Zuba writes about his prior experience in the college-level classroom and asks higher education professionals to consider how to best serve the level and teaching needs of incoming students. Zuba makes the point that we need to understand how students develop as learners in order to best meet their needs. For more from Zuba, you can find his nonfiction and fiction writing about House of the Seven Gables here

via Ed Lim Photo

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a preponderance of professors, have at least once or twice recently said to themselves, “students today . . .”

Fill in these ellipses with your most common complaint about students entering your classrooms. You may find that they cannot read critically or write clearly. Perhaps they don’t know how to pose thoughtful questions or conduct research. Or know the first thing about symbolism, or the American Revolution.

I’m a high school English teacher. I’m writing to you regarding our students, their preparation for college, and how you can best build on this preparation in your classrooms. I freely admit that I am still learning to teach my own students. And I wouldn’t presume to tell you what to do. But in my younger days, almost every faculty member with whom I spoke at least once said, “students today . . .”

Including myself. Since beginning as a high school English teacher about a year ago, I’ve learned a lot about these students. It surprised me. I wanted to share. Maybe we can work together.

via Geoff Livingston

Who I was, and who I came to be

I was one of you once. In January 2016 I earned my Ph.D. in American Literature, with a specialization in antebellum print culture. I published. I held a number of research fellowships. Between the time I started a Master’s Degree in 2010 and I moved on from the academic job market in 2017, I taught undergraduates at six universities on the east coast, in Texas, and the southwest. I had on-campus interviews, no offers. That is the way it is for many of us right now.

I began teaching at a college preparatory high school this past fall. I teach English to juniors and sophomores at what is considered an elite high school. One hundred percent the students with whom I work will attend a four-year college. This year they have been accepted to places such as Duke, and Stanford, and Airforce Academy. But many will attend in-state land-grant universities or smaller, out-of-state niche schools private and public. My students are very likely representative of those that will enter your classrooms as freshmen.

Even though I am very good at research, I admit that I love to teach young people in writing and literature. And I believe in the mission to prepare my students for university-level study. Much like you, as a university instructor, I often found my students insufficiently prepared to undertake their course of study in higher education. A few of them had a strong foundation in writing and literature. But many of them had trouble paraphrasing a thesis in an article in The Atlantic. Even the ones that could needed to learn to think  more critically. And some of the others (literally) didn’t understand how to analyze figurative language. I admit to thinking some version of “what on earth is going on in high schools”?

What I found out is going on surprised me. It may surprise you, too. We are actually teaching students all of these skills in high schools. We are teaching them to write essays with a clear thesis sentence at the end of the first paragraph. We are teaching them the elements of the gothic as a literary genre. We are teaching them to identify and analyze figurative language. And most students take their education seriously.

However, a number of entangled conundrums await students when it comes time for them to transfer their skills and knowledge from high school to college. I come to my conclusions based on my experience teaching both groups of students, rather than empirical study. I  hope you will find them helpful.

via raindropsrainbow

Four rules for teaching my high school students

  1. Reorient, repeat.

I taught them to write a strong thesis statement and identify symbolism. Even so, you need to repeat and reinforce these skills. You need to reorient the knowledge students already have for their college environment. There are at least three reasons I need to ask you do this.

First, most young students do not transfer skills and knowledge well from one environment or field to another. High school students have difficulty transferring what I teach them about writing to their history class. They have difficulty applying their knowledge of history to help them historicize what they read in my American literature class. The same will be true of your students, but they will be facing an even greater change in environments, undergoing one of the great rites of passage in our society: the transition from high school teenager to college adult.

Second, if you do not demand that students apply their old close reading skills to your new classroom, they will assume that you do not require close reading skills in your classroom. They will assume that these were only for high school. So, model close reading skills as you like to see them. This will give my students confidence as they grow to use these skills in your classroom.

And three, their brains are still growing in their capacity for abstract thought.  For example, my students’ understanding of the types of abstract ideas that symbolism can encompass and how writers attach these ideas to concrete objects, will be different than when they become your students. No doubt you have your own favorite theory of intellectual development, but for reference I’ll link to the ones William Perry first published in 1968.

Believe me, my students and I discussed symbolism in The Scarlet Letter. We spoke about how the concrete symbol of the A acts as a vessel for abstract problems of sin and self-actualization. We identified how the symbolism of the A changes throughout the novel. But I’m going to have to ask you to model this thinking again if you want your students to analyze symbolism again in the college classroom, with college-level thinking.

  1. You need to teach writing – again, constantly.

The critical thinking that your students will do about literature will be deeper and more demanding than in my high school classroom. But as I mentioned above, they do not have the experience reasoning and creating on the level of abstraction necessary for your college classroom. If they do not have expertise in thinking, these students will not have experience writing with about abstract ideas, either.

You must teach writing even if, especially if, you are a tenured professor. If you appreciate the close connection between writing and critical thinking in your own work, you will see how important it is for you to give students feedback on their writing. Because it is feedback on their thinking. And if they know you are an expert on, say, Faulkner, they will value your feedback on writing more than they did the adjunct (still an expert, but an institutionally devalued expert) who taught them to write in their first-year writing course.

  1. Foster intellectual curiosity

As a high school teacher, I hope I’m helping my students build foundations that will enable them to ask worthwhile questions about literature and writing. But because, again, they are still developing, I can’t yet help many of them ask complex, nuanced abstract questions – and most questions worth asking in college are abstract.

They do have intellectual curiosity. But they are not sure yet what is worth asking. They do not know what is debatable and unanswered. And because of this, you are going to have to teach them, at least once in your classroom, to do research. If you use your university’s databases for research, you are going to be the best resource available for using research to answer the types of questions you’d like students to ask in your classroom.

  1. Be more attentive to your students as young people.

When I was teaching college, I didn’t consider it my job to think too deeply about my students inner emotional lives. And neither did any of the professors who served as my research or teaching mentors. But they need us to be attentive to them as young people, sorely.

I see my students 4-5 days a week. It gives me an awareness of how much they look to us as examples to build their spectrum of the moral and intellectual possibilities for adulthood.

It’s true that your students have plenty of other role models in college. But most of them are not good role models. Maybe your students’ parents are not even good role models. So you need to show them you care. Check in if they miss an assignment uncharacteristically. Encourage them when they doubt themselves.

It isn’t too late for you. You can still make a difference.

via Liz West


I could tell you more. But you’ve already given me your attention for long enough. If you’ve read this far, you’ve been kind enough to listen. Yet, if we are really going to work together to help our mutual students, this has to be a two-way partnership. And I want to hear from you.

What can we do, as high school teachers, to help our students prepare for college? What are the gaps between high school and college?

What am I missing in the miasma of grammar, genre, symbolism, figurative language, oral proficiency, vocabulary, historicization, themes, authors, writing structures, research skills, reading skills, et cetera, that I hope to instill as foundations for their college learning experience?

Please write back.  

Contributor Bio:

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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 about Nathaniel Hawthorne is a precursor to his upcoming historical novel Love in the House of the Seven Gables.