Bookending the Survey Course with Native American Literature-Part Two: Contemporary Texts and Authors

In November, I blogged about teaching ancient oral literatures at the beginning of a semester-long survey course in American literature. Here’s the follow-up on coming full circle from oral tradition (in weeks one and two) to contemporary Native American literature (in weeks fourteen and fifteen).

Bookending a survey course with studies of Native literature is not only structurally satisfying, but finishing an American literature course with study of contemporary Native literature is also a good latter-half or latter-third of the semester review: since “contemporary” Native American literature is usually understood to include the 21st and 20th centuries, you could easily end up reviewing over a hundred years of the literary landscape. In other words, if the course has put Realism, Naturalism, Existentialism, Modernism, and Postmodernism on the table, turning to contemporary Native American literature gives you a chance to revisit any/all of these, but from a sometimes surprising standpoint. Students discover how the big moves happening in published Native literature sometimes align—and often don’t align, or don’t align in expected ways—with the canonical literary landscape they’ve been probing in the course.

Second wave/Native Am. Renaissance: Paula Gunn Allen’s The Woman Who Owned the Shadows

For example, scholars see “pairs of opposing foci”—a structural staple of Native American Renaissance literature of the 1970s and 80s—as a re-emergence of Modernist binaries. Indeed, Native American Renaissance texts often construct stark contrasts between rural/urban, reservation/city, white/Native, tradition/Anglo-European, etc., opening the door for class discussion to delve into the aesthetics and politics of reviving and repurposing Modernist techniques and methods of expression in a new cultural and historic moment.

Below, I’ll introduce two critical resources helpful in teaching, lecturing, and shaping analytic discussion of contemporary Native American literature. Then I’ll touch on some of my own experiences and reflect on what worked… as well as where I dropped the ball.

Critical Resource #1

Simon Ortiz’s 1981 “Toward a National Indian Literature” discusses the way in which Native Americans have been adopting, adapting, incorporating, and repurposing colonial languages—especially Spanish, French, and English—on their own terms. “It is the way that Indian people have creatively responded to forced colonization,” writes Ortiz. And along with repurposing languages themselves, Native peoples draw on and similarly repurpose aesthetic patterns, literary tools, and textual practices of colonial origins. The thrust of Ortiz’s argument is that we must understand this particular fusion—the fusion of language adoption/repurposing with the continued use of oral tradition—as the foundation of Native American contemporary literature.

Ortiz’s argument makes for rich lecture and discussion material in the classroom because it introduces students to a basic interpretive practice: part of an analytic encounter with contemporary Native American literature entails re-engaging knowledge of the basic literary features that characterize oral tradition. As I wrote about in November, Robert Bringhurst’s 2014 interview in Guernica Magazine foregrounds oral traditions’ (a) emphasis on the more-than-human world, and (b) its exploration of how “mythtime” interacts with “realtime.” These two characteristics give students something concrete to draw out, close read, compare across texts, etc.

Critical Resource #2

Erika Wurth’s 2016 article in Writer’s Chronicle, “The Fourth Wave in Native American Fiction,” lays out a historic framework and charts four major literary developments. Wurth’s claims are specific to fiction, so her article might be less useful for instructors
wanting to emphasize another genre (e.g., poetry, a genre with respect to which a westernized literary audience is arguably already comfortable discussing orality). On the other hand, many Native American writers contest westernized genre-boundaries, so bringing poetry to the table alongside Wurth’s arguments could be an interesting exercise.

Either way, Wurth’s writing is accessible (the article can be assigned to students if time and reading load allow) and her division of over a century of literature into four distinct and digestible parts provides landmarks. Here’s a compressed run-down:

  • The first wave of contemporary Native American fiction anticipates an
    First wave: D’Arcy McNickle’s The Surrounded

    untrained, unfamiliar audience. In texts from the early 20th century, plot, action, and character development are all apt to be “interrupted” by explanation of cultural references and/or history lessons.

  • Literature of the second wave (which corresponds with what is usually called—albeit problematically—the Native American Renaissance) tends to work with one general plotline: stories of individuated pain give way in the end to collectivity, shared consciousness, and realization of embeddedness across boundaries of time, space, and species.
  • Wurth’s third wave is “language first” fiction; that is, stories and novels no longer bear the second wave’s burden of asserting communal healing, and instead prioritize lyricism.
  • The most recent shift Wurth identifies is that writers contributing to the fourth wave
    Fourth wave: Richard van Camp’s The Lesser Blessed

    take a Native point of view as self-evident, thus requiring the reader to bring a degree of historic and cross- or multi-cultural familiarity to the table.

My Experience

Students seemed to find the most traction when tasked with returning to what they had learned about features of traditional oral literatures. They approached contemporary Native American texts as a scavenger hunt, seeking out evidence of emphasis on the more-than-human-world, mythtime, and realtime. Our most lively discussions revolved around describing and questioning these features’ functions in contemporary (as opposed to ancient, sacred) texts. The “active, ongoing presence of the past” became a theme for us, one students applied to pop culture references as well as to class texts.

On the other hand, students had more trouble applying Wurth’s four waves as an interpretive tool—they wanted it to work as a roadmap. In other words, they sought firm dates to associate with each wave, and were game to seek out evidence of, for example, “language-first” lyricism in a text if that text was pre-designated as third wave. Lessons learned? I feel that Wurth’s schema would have been a better teaching tool if I had framed it more directly as grounds for debate. For example, asking half the class to argue that Louise Erdrich’s “Fleur” is most productively understood as second wave, and the other half of the class to argue that it is most productively understood as third wave—or that Sherman Alexie’s “War Dances” belongs more squarely to the third versus the fourth wave—would have positioned students to engage Wurth’s ideas less as a system of classification and more as an analytic lens.

In Closing… Texts and Authors?

The Open Education Database proposes this list of twenty Native American must-read authors. Ernestine Hayes, Debra Magpie Earling, Eddie Chuculate, and Eric Gansworth are four more I’m eager to mention…and of course I would be happy to supply additional authors/titles to anyone interested!


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. 


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.


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.)


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:


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.