Experiencing New Texts for the First Time Alongside Our Students

As our semesters draw to their staggered ends, we start planning our summer reading list and writing groups, along with our physical and mental rejuvenation activities to commence upon our recovery from the intense end of the semester grade-a-thons. PALS contributor Catherine Hostetter shared her first few summer reads with us last week. My pile is already well into the double digits with contemporary lit from my book club, pedagogy texts, and some classics–I may have downloaded all of the volumes of Clarissa to my Kindle (wish me luck!). Finally, we may have some texts in that pile that we are considering adding to our syllabi next semester.

My suggestion: take a leap of faith or make an educated choice. Either way, pick a new-to-you text to teach next semester and set it aside in order to read it for the first time alongside your students.

Course Design to Empower Students

Depending on the course, I like to switch out at least one novel or a whole group of texts in order to keep the class fresh for both my students and myself. Every semester that I have taught a literature course, I have chosen a text that was previously unread by me to include. This is an intentional move.

This is also not something I came up with on my own. I remember the first time I took a class during my undergraduate career where my professor pointed to a novel on the syllabus and stated that she had never read it before. Of course, the rest of the syllabus was an old shoe for her. The majority of my professors taught texts they knew inside and out, texts they had taught many times before, texts they had read plenty of criticism about. The experience of reading a new text with my professor was an especially empowering one.

PALS contributor Caitlin Kelly recently reflected on what happens when we don’t over prepare for class and follow students’ lead in an attempt to silence ourselves instead of silencing them with our knowledge of the literature. Reading a text for the first time alongside our students changes the dynamic. We don’t have our normal prior knowledge of the text nor do we have previous experiences teaching it to draw upon nor do we know how it plays out. Moreover, we get to share affective responses with students that we may have moved beyond by our 5th, 10th, or 20th read.

The Classics – Pick Canonical Works to Feel Safe

Last year in a post about teaching students to read through dislike or boredom of texts, I referenced reading Jane Eyre for the first time with my students in the late survey of British literature. I knew what happened in Jane Eyre despite never having read it. I had read ample criticism that referenced it. And I had attempted and failed to read it multiple times. So after the first 150 pages, it was a new-to-me novel, and I got to experience it for the first time with my class. Those who loved it showed me new ways of seeing it, and those who disliked it made me work harder to see it and approach it evenly for the sake of teaching it responsibly.

In addition to Jane Eyre, I have also finally read Moby-Dick because I put it on my syllabus. I had considered reading it at different points, but I had never really moved beyond purchasing it. I love the ocean, grew up in a west coast beach town, and am a surfer. I had read other 19th century sea literature with varying degrees of appreciation. However, anticipating the whale taxonomic classifications and the like moby-dick-brian-brainawaiting me made me want to clean my house instead of read. So I placed it on my early American literature survey course’s syllabus and charged through it with my students. We all had different chapters and sections of the novel that spoke to us. When one would question the relevance of a certain part, another would step in with the value for the work as a whole. We had several graduate level seminar discussions that thoroughly impressed me. I prepared most activities and discussions based off of what they posted to our online discussion board before class, but we also had the Norton critical edition to offer us additional critical support. 

In both of these examples, I chose to include novels–long 19th century novels–that did not appeal to me aesthetically or content-wise. I went on the journey with my students and came out with at very different appreciation than I would have arrived at if I read them on my own.

New Releases – Have a Little Faith

The other situation I have found myself in is waiting in anticipation for a book’s publication date. Last spring semester, I chose Patrisse Khan-Cullors’ When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir for my developmental composition course. Its release date was one week before the start of the semester. I placed the order in November and waited patiently for it to arrive at the end of January.

BLM MemoirChoosing a new text by an already established writer comes with some security, whereas I went in relatively blind with my choice, relying on the reviews of those who had read advanced copies. I chose Cullors’ memoir because I repeatedly experienced classrooms where the majority of students had little to no knowledge of the black lives matter movement. I wanted students to hear about BLM from one of its founders. It was beyond the perfect choice for my course. It tied together all of the scholarship and writing assignments from across the entire semester from social media to communication to mental health to black lives matter. Cullors’ memoir is a goldmine of topics for students to explore. Students also found it to be a page turner. They were reading ahead and connecting deeply with Cullors’ life.

Not Canonical, Not Awaiting Publication

Finally, I have chosen to teach an entire short story collection based on previously reading and teaching a single short story from it. After wandering through a series of Kentucky Club.jpgtexts looking for a short story addressing immigration, I came upon a recommendation for one of Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s short stories from Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club. I included one of his short stories in an online Intro to American literature course. Due to the overwhelming responses to that short story from my students, I place the entire collection on my syllabus and read it in its entirety with my students. It ended up being students’ favorite text of the semester once more. Again, this was an active decision to not read it before the semester. However, I was familiar with one of its stories, and trusted him to deliver with the rest of the collection.

If this is intimidating, go small. Start with a short story, a few poems, maybe a novella. Go with a canonical novel that has never made it to your “already read” list, but that you know is going to deliver. If you are feeling brave, choose a text that doesn’t have that prior seal of approval. Take that journey through a new-to-you text with your students and enjoy the unknown!

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Summer Reading

This past Saturday was Independent Bookstore Day. Even though my New Year’s resolution was to not buy any books until I read the ones that I already own, it’s hard for me to resist this event—it’s the perfect excuse to buy new books. This year, though, I went shopping with a goal. I wanted to purchase books that would help me grow as an educator. When teaching, I often spend so much time preparing lessons and reading student work that I barely have a chance to read for fun or professional development. In order to be more thoughtful about what I read, I have started a “summer reading list,” the beginnings of which I am sharing with the PALS community. I want this list to contain a variety of texts that relate to the teaching of writing or American literature in some way. Outlined below are summaries of the first four books that I will read this summer and how I hope they will inform my teaching.

The A-to-Z Self-Care Handbook for Social Workers and Other Helping Professionals

Screen Shot 2019-04-28 at 7.56.25 PMWhat initially stood out to me about The A-to-Z Self-Care Handbook for Social Workers and Other Helping Professionals is that it was written by social workers who “wanted to create a compact volume that would give readers some practical ways to look at self-care—something that would instruct readers in how to take charge of their own self-care plans.” Fitting under the umbrella of “other helping professionals,” teaching is an occupation that can come with a significant amount of emotional labor, which has already been written about in this PALS post. In addition, many young instructors must cope with the stress accompanied by taking on part-time employment, starting out in short-term positions, or moving away from one’s support system for a full-time job. The A-to-Z Handbook contains a variety of suggestions for how to manage this type of emotional exhaustion and stress. This text was created for “busy professionals who do not necessarily want an academic tome on burnout, but who recognize—experientially—the need to address these concerns.” I actually started reading this text while preparing to write this post and have already begun to reflect on how I can use these strategies to create my own formal self-care plan this summer.

The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and The Road to Civil War

screen-shot-2019-04-28-at-7.57.53-pm.pngJoanne B. Freeman’s The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and The Road to Civil War has been on my to-read list since I saw her speak about this book at the New York Public Library last fall. The Field of Blood details the “turbulent atmosphere of the decades before the Civil War, when the U.S. Congress itself was rife with conflict.” As someone who has studied American literature that was written between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, I, admittedly, have a much more generalized knowledge of American politics during this time. Therefore, I was shocked to learn how physically violent the sessions in Congress were. In the Author’s Note, Dr. Freeman writes, “When that fighting became endemic and congressmen strapped on knives and guns before heading to the Capitol every morning…it meant something…. In short, it meant the collapse of our national civic structure to the point of crisis. The nation didn’t slip into disunion; it fought its way into it, even in Congress.” I’m excited to learn more about this tumultuous time period as a way to gain a deeper understanding of the political context surrounding the Civil War’s beginnings. I can then use this newfound knowledge when teaching literary texts from this time period.

Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities

Screen Shot 2019-04-28 at 7.57.30 PM.pngAs someone who has spent a significant amount of her career teaching developmental writing students the five paragraph essay structure, I am a bit skeptical of this book’s central argument. Do we really need to completely eliminate the five paragraph essay? Is that even possible or feasible in some college classes, such as developmental composition? With these questions in mind, I plan on reading John Warner’s Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities with an open mind. The first chapter is entitled “Our Writing ‘Crisis’” and compares the five paragraph essay to training wheels on a bicycle, in that this structure ultimately limits the opportunities students have to make their own choices while writing. Warner argues, “By trying to guide students toward ‘proficiency’ or ‘competency,’ we wind up providing them with rules and strictures that cut students off from the most important and meaningful aspects of writing.” In this framework, the five paragraph essay becomes one of the many “rules” taught to students that restrict their ability to become independent and creative writers. Warner extends his argument to outline how grading and assessment, among other elements, can negatively affect student writing. The second half of this book then explores different approaches to teaching writing and other ideas that Warner labels the “unanswered questions.” Regardless of whether or not I end up agreeing with his ideas, I look forward to analyzing Warner’s argument and using it to critically think about my own teaching.

Calling a Wolf a Wolf

Screen Shot 2019-04-28 at 7.57.04 PMApril is National Poetry Month. To celebrate, NPR’s podcast Code Switch released an excellent episode entitled “Poets, The Life Boats.” It reacquainted me with Kaveh Akbar, whose collection Calling a Wolf a Wolf has been sitting on my bookshelf since last Independent Bookstore Day. The first half of the episode featured an interview between Akbar and Shereen Marisol Meraji, one of the hosts of Code Switch. Akbar was born in Tehran, Iran and came to the United States when he was a toddler. During their discussion of language, Akbar explains a sense of liminality, or in-betweenness, he often experiences: “In a room full of Persian people, I feel like the least Persian person, and in a room full of Americans, I certainly don’t feel American. And that’s an occasion for grief. It’s potent; it’s potent for art and creativity – right? – because it grants a vantage point that is sort of outside of.” This discussion between Akbar and Meraji on identity, language, and grief can serve as an introduction to Akbar’s poem “Do You Speak Persian?,” in which he writes, “I have been so careless with the words I already have.” In addition to exploring the relationship between these themes, poems in Calling a Wolf a Wolf also focus on Akbar’s addiction and recovery. When teaching a unit on poetry, I always try to include contemporary poets, so I would love to use this interview from Code Switch as a companion piece when teaching Akbar’s poems.

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These four selections are just the beginning of my summer reading list. Even though including more books might be ambitious (like many of you, I will be working this summer), what else should I add? What other texts can help inform my teaching? I look forward to seeing what the PALS community suggests.