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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Teaching José Orduña: Ekphrasis and the North American Essay

 

Rarely does a visiting writer sit down for the Friday morning craft talk and introduce a concept that I go on to use every day – every day – after. But this is exactly what happened when José Orduña, essayist, professor of English at the University of Nevada, Screenshot 2018-04-09 08.26.52and author of The Weight of Shadows visited us at the University of Missouri last September.

The concept Orduña shared was this: one must have an occasion to write.

He showed us a photograph of the U.S.-Mexico wall and pointed out that while certain prominent political voices are calling to “build the wall,” the wall already exists. Indicating the wall in the photograph, Orduña said: “this is my occasion to write.” As I understand it, the wall provides the impetus for Orduña’s research, and likely also guides his aesthetics.

“The occasion to write” is a useful concept for writers and students of writing. It is also useful for readers. The concept thus helps me link two different course goals in my Introduction to the Nonfiction Essay: one major goal is to expose students to contemporary trends in nonfiction. Another major goal is to coax students into writing beyond themselves. I recently created an ekphrastic writing assignment to combine these, relying on art, history, and conversation to multiply students’ own occasions to write.

Ekphrasis: Ancient to Contemporary

  1. What’s ekphrasis?

Ekphrasis, from the Greek, combines ek and phrásis (literally “out” and “speak”) into a verb for “proclaiming” or “calling an inanimate object by name.” At its simplest, any work of art that is “about” or enmeshed in another work of art (usually of another medium) can be understood as participating in the ekphrastic tradition.

I insist—in this post, as in life—that we be as expansive as possible in our thinking about what constitutes art. Example: ekphrastic writing may dialogue with a rock opera, a painting, a violin concerto, a capoeira performance, a piece of jewelry, a digital mashup… The real key is that ekphrastic writing is crucially more than description. It is also distinct from art history or criticism. Ekphrasis engages another artwork to enter into creative communion with it; ekphrastic writing is writing that thinks alongside art.

  1. Why teach ekphrasis in Introduction to the Nonfiction Essay?

Ekphrastic approaches are flourishing in the contemporary essay. Off the top of my head, here is an incomplete list of 21st century books of ekphrastic nonfiction:

Visual artworks are central to the project:

  • Terry Tempest Williams, Leap (2000)
  • Michael White, Travels in Vermeer (2015)
  • Jericho Parms, Lost Wax (2016)
  • Mark Doty, Still Life with Oysters and Lemon (2001)

Dialogues with visual artworks less centrally, but significantly and recurrently:

  • Claudia Rankine, Citizen (2014)
  • Maggie Nelson, Bluets (2009)
  • José Orduña, The Weight of Shadows (2016)

Dialogues with nonvisual artworks (namely music):

  • Joni Tevis, The World is on Fire (2015)
  • Mary Cappello, Life Breaks In (2016)
  • Elena Passarello, Let Me Clear My Throat (2012)
  • Geoff Dyer, But Beautiful (1991—okay, not the 21st century, but a favorite)

On to the practical application portion of this post.

The Lesson Sequence, Part One: Reading Orduña

In celebration of Orduña’s contribution to my thinking vocabulary, I assigned “A Civilized Man,” the fifth essay in his 2016 book, The Weight of Shadows.

“A Civilized Man” takes place in a waiting room in the Neal Smith Federal Building in Des Moines, Iowa. Orduña observes a young couple whose attorney might be coaching them for the inhumanity of a Stokes interview, the interview that scrutinizes a couple’s request for immigration relief based on their marriage (thus coldly judging the legitimacy, moral standing, and substance of legal partnership itself). Because they “look like posed figures in a Renaissance painting,” Orduña studies the scene as he would a canvas. Ultimately, Orduña draws from the Venetian painter Andrea Mantegna’s “Adoration of the Magi,” linking contemporary power dynamics to historic consciousness of 1500s Europe. We learn not only about U.S. immigration policy, but also about strange resonances with the Medici Bank, its financing of the Catholic Church, the resulting erosion of absolute monarchy, the rise of trade- and transaction-based power—discovering uneasy echoes with the Department of Homeland Security at every step.

In class, our analysis focused on disentangling one core question: what is the role of the artwork in this essay’s whole assemblage of meanings and effects?

To piece together an answer to this question, I had students track exactly what percent of the text describes “Adoration of the Magi,” what percent of the text teaches context about “Adoration of the Magi,” and what percent of the text explicitly connects “Adoration of the Magi” to the waiting room or to the “present-dayness” of the essay.

Students created a retrospective structure of the essay, and discovered that the bulk of the essay is not about artwork at all. Yet of course the closer they looked, the more tacit connections they discovered. Is it an essay that “just touches” on a Renaissance painting here and there, or is that painting actually woven in between the lines on every page? The latter, of course.

The Lesson Sequence, Part Two: Research and Writing

Second, we took a field trip to the Museum of Art and Archaeology, where students did a good deal of freewriting. They had a few days to expand this initial work and complete a five-hundred word ekphrastic essay responding to any artwork they encountered at the museum. Examples: I read two essays dialoguing with Rembrandt paintings, an essay about an ancient Indian carving of Ganesha, another one taking a work of American Impressionism as muse, and several essays rooted in sculptures and photographs from the museum’s curated exhibit of works by emerging young artists with disabilities.

In the next stage of research exploration, students turned to print and online sources to gather historic research. They found sources on their artists, on the medium (one student learned about the development of acrylic paints, for example; another researched the history of photography), and on the countries/social contexts in which their artworks were created (the student writing about Ganesha, for example, made a valiant effort to scrape the surface of Hindu literary/mythological tradition). Most students came away from this research less satisfied with their initial take on their chosen artwork (which is to say, more curious). Regardless, in a 500-word mini essay, students had to marshal new information and creatively convey the most intriguing things they learned.

Finally, part three of this research exercise required students to have a conversation. They identified a theme/topic in their ekphrastic writing assignment. And they had to think of a person with whom they’d be able to have a lively, 5-10-minute conversation about this theme/topic. Another 500-word mini-essay came out of this exercise.

Ultimately, students assembled their work into longform essays that—via ekphrasis, historic research, and the human voice—explored a range of convictions, questions, memories, and experiences. Students discovered that from the headwaters of their initial required research (mimicking Orduña’s methods of connecting art to life by freewriting in front of an artwork), their thinking had traveled unexpected distances.

Takehome Points

Takehome points from this exercise and discussions emphasized craft strategies and “how-tos” (how to write about art, how to connect art to something else you’re writing about, etc.).

But the literary studies component of this sequence is probably more significant. Students came away with new recognition of a notable trend in the contemporary essay: nonfiction writing about art is flourishing right now. Popular conceptions of nonfiction rarely see past the memoiristic “story of my life” intent on understanding one thing, the “I”—but with ekphrasis, my students experienced an occasion to write that exceeded their individuality. Ultimately, my hope is that they leave the semester seeing the essayist as part of a wider thinking community, someone in conversation with the world in which they’re embedded—and responsible to and for it.

IMG_2234
“Le Badaud” (meaning “the idler” or “the onlooker”). The sculpture is in Sarlat, France, birthplace of Montaigne’s dear friend, Étienne de la Boétie. I am persuaded this idling, onlooking badaud has centuries of essays on the mind as he gazes upon the passing people. The sculpture is by Gérard Auliac.