Reflections on Teaching Poverty & Wealth through American Literature

PALS warmly welcomes a guest post by Leah Milne. Milne is assistant professor of multicultural American literature at the University of Indianapolis. In this post she writes about a recent literature course on the subject of poverty and wealth. Milne reflects below on the course trajectory and potential lessons for future iterations of the course.

I just completed my first semester teaching a course entitled Poverty and Wealth in Literature, and part of my preparation involved envisaging the possible student responses to the subject and texts. Learning, for example, some general facts about the student body gave me a better sense of the audience, including the percentage of first-generation college students, the median income of their parents, and so on. My particular institution, for instance, is a small, private liberal arts college where about 40% of the students are first-generation, and many receive scholarships and/or financial assistance. Despite knowing this, however, discussing such a controversial subject as socioeconomic class elicited some surprises that I hope to better anticipate in the future.

I started the semester with two poems. Asking groups to interpret a poem or two on the first day of class is an easy way to establish the rigor of a course. In this case, the course required extensive literary analysis and classroom discussion. Since the course was directed towards students in their first semester of college, none of whom were English majors, I wanted to make the work requirements of the class clear. At the same time, these particular poems—Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus” (1883) and Gary Soto’s “Oranges” (1983)—established two scales of socioeconomic class that I planned for us to tackle that semester: the intimate and personal as represented by Soto’s nostalgic “Oranges,” and the global and grandiose as represented by Lady Liberty’s call of “worldwide welcome” in Lazarus’s poem.

While these two impulses of addressing both the intimate and the grandiose in class issues certainly formed the general foundation for the course, I had to quickly guide students in directions I had not predicted so early in the semester. For instance, during a class discussion about inequality on day 2, I felt compelled to encourage students to avoid the Oppression Olympics, a term I picked up from Elizabeth Martínez in her book, De Colores Means All of Us: Latina Views for a Multi-Colored Century (1998). Martínez addresses the problem with competing for the “gold medal of ‘Most Oppressed’” when she states, “Pursuing some hierarchy of oppression leads us down dead-end streets where we will never find the linkage between different oppressions and how to overcome them” (5). In other words, suggesting that we can rank who experiences the most oppression compounds the problem of inequality without addressing or solving it.

The most useful way I found for my students to comprehend the linkages that Martínez describes was through intersectionality. The originator of the term, Kimberlé Crenshaw, gave a TED talk explaining the dilemma of linked oppressions by way of Emma DeGraffenreid, a black woman who sued General Motors (GM) for discrimination. A judge ruled against DeGraffenreid, citing that GM had in fact hired black men and white women, and thus couldn’t possibly be discriminating against black women. Crenshaw illustrates what she calls the “urgency of intersectionality” by drawing attention (at 11:00 in the video) to the “law’s refusal to protect African-American women simply because their experiences weren’t exactly the same as white women and African-American men.” Considering intersectionality allowed my students and I to contemplate privilege without focusing on one singular characteristic like race, nationality, age, or location. Thus, for example, experiences of being poor looked very different in Zitkala-Ša‘s Yankton Indian Reservation and Carlisle Indian School in the late 1800s than in the relatively egalitarian community of Shaker Heights in the late 1990s, described in all of its glorious contradictions in Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere.

Intersectionality also allowed us to complicate perceptions of wealth. For instance, the wealthiest character we discussed this semester was Dr. Jo Baker of Destroyer, Victor LaValle’s graphic novel and Frankenstein follow-up. In addition to having a name that hearkens back to the entertainer and agent of the French Resistance during World War II, Baker is also the last living descendant of Victor Frankenstein, with access to a nearly unlimited amount of wealth for her scientific and technological experiments and inventions. However, this wealth has its limitations, particularly given her status as a black woman. When her son, Akai, is killed by policemen in a shooting akin to that of Tamir Rice, Baker continues the Frankenstein heritage by using her knowledge and resources to attempt to bring Akai back to life. It becomes clear to students, though, that Baker’s vast wealth and knowledge are not enough to fully counteract her linked oppressions as a black woman.

I was fortunate enough to moderate an interview with the author at the Indianapolis Central Library and the Center for Black Literature and Culture. As an added bonus, LaValle visited my students on the day they were to discuss his comic series, and one asked him if Akai would be okay at the end. Pleased, LaValle responded that her concern was the best response he could hope for, especially given the reluctance of many to discuss intersections of race and class that differ from one’s own. In fact, empathy—most specifically, our inabilities to empathize fully with others—emerged as the central frame through which I guided many of our class discussions on inequality. Even if one of us were, say, a mother, a black scientist, or as wealthy as Jo Baker, our abilities to fully comprehend her pain at losing Akai would never completely match up. The best we could do was try to empathize while recognizing our limitations in doing so. As one student related, “I know I will never be able to truly empathize, but I will attempt to empathize more.”

I found it helpful to further complicate affective responses such as this one by discussing intersectionality through the public perceptions about the causes of poverty, the latter described in an article by Laura R. Peck, and which I summarized for the students using examples from our texts. For instance, a significant subplot of Ng’s aforementioned Little Fires Everywhere is a transracial adoption involving a Chinese-American baby named—depending on your take on the issue—either May Ling Chow (her birth name) or Mirabelle McCullough (her adopted name).

Students can characterize the poverty of the birth mother, Bebe, as individualistic—blaming her for being, say, lazy or immoral. On the other hand, they could point to fatalistic determinants, suggesting that luck or divine will is the reason for her poverty. Finally, they could highlight structural determinants, such as the lack of systemic support for new mothers and/or newly-arrived immigrants to the US, or the low wages provided to restaurant workers and others in the service industry. Analyzing their responses to the causes of poverty, students were better poised to empathize with someone whom they may have otherwise dismissed as simply a bad mother. As one student admitted at the end of the semester, “My perception of socioeconomic issues have changed as I was very unempathetic towards certain aspects of poverty. However, after reading and learning about the determinants of poverty, I am much more aware and open-minded about issues of class.” Or as another student stated, “There are so many more determinants of poverty than most people realize. In general, there is a stereotype that people in poverty do not work hard, etc. However, many factors that individuals cannot choose heavily contribute to class inequality.” Similar applications were applied to the adoptive mother, Linda McCullough, and her sometimes clumsy attempts at motherhood, with Ng providing background into Linda’s sheltered upbringing and her family’s long and honored history in Shaker Heights. In fact, Ng’s work flourishes in such nuanced characterizations; each member of the Richardsons—the white, upper-middle-class family at the center of the novel—have unique ways of dealing with these aspects of identity.

Finally, specific structural considerations of poverty resonated in ways I had not predicted. For instance, equitable access to housing—and its connections to issues such as redlining and gentrification—became a surprisingly prominent theme in many discussions. Whether it was discussions of race-based covenants in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun or observations of nearby neighborhoods experiencing gentrification, housing functioned as a concrete anchor for contemplating the material consequences of inequality. Housing also allowed me to return to the grander ideals that began the semester, highlighted in Lazarus’s “The New Colossus”: If we as a nation truly wanted “the homeless [and] tempest-tost” on our shores (13), then we would have to reckon with the conditions that they would face upon their arrival. And if we really believed that the American dream is possible, then we needed to consider how we might best help others attain that dream.

The next time that I have the opportunity to teach this course, I plan on emphasizing the importance of learning through discomfort and of thus directly confronting more concepts like intersectionality that can propel the conversation forward in a productive manner. I also hope to incorporate more opportunities for self-reflection. I believe that doing so will guide students toward a deeper recognition of the ingrained norms and beliefs they have about class and the ways it interacts with and is affected by government policy, individual responsibility, and social and cultural beliefs. Finally, in reading literature alongside these discussions, I aspire for students to see the importance of literature — and the arts in general — in providing us different perspectives on these complicated issues.

Bio:

Leah Milne is an assistant professor of multicultural American literature at the University of Indianapolis. She teaches courses on American literature, nationality, young adult novels, postcolonial literature, and women writers. Her comparative book project examines writer-characters and forms of self-care in post-1945 ethnic American novels, focusing on texts by authors such as Louise Erdrich, Percival Everett, Carmen Maria Machado, and Jonathan Safran Foer. She received her doctorate degree from the University of North Carolina in Greensboro. Her work has been published in numerous academic journals and edited collections, including MELUSPostcolonial Text, and College Literature. Find her on Twitter @DrMLovesLit.

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When Aliens Invade the Classroom: Notes on Teaching Invasion of the Body Snatchers

“But…showers of small frogs, tiny fish, and mysterious rains of pebbles sometimes fall from out of the skies. Here and there, with no possible explanation, men are burned to death inside their clothes. And once in a while, the orderly, immutable sequences of time itself are inexplicably shifted and altered. You read these occasional queer little stories, humorously written, tongue-in-cheek, most of the time; or you have vague distorted rumors of them. And this much I know. Some of them—some of them—are true” (Finney 216).

Articles on Jack Finney’s 1955 science fiction novel Invasion of the Body Snatchers often begin with the novel’s famous opening lines, but here I open with the novel’s conclusion (don’t worry—I’ll get to the opening later!). Perhaps it’s poor form to reveal the novel’s eerie closing lines to those who haven’t had the pleasure of reading it yet, but I do so because of allusions to topics students eagerly discussed when I taught the novel earlier this semester. While the first few lines address the hot topic of fake or sensational news, the final two lines ask readers to think about how we, as humans, attempt to understand true phenomena that appear completely “alien” to us.

invasion books

Before diving into these specific issues, however, we should address some relevant background context, including common interpretations of the novel:

Originally published serially in 1954 in Collier’s Magazine as The Body Snatchers, the title was changed the following year to Invasion of the Body Snatchers for paperback editions. Set in Mill Valley, California (a typical small “Anytown, USA”), the novel’s narrator Dr. Miles Bennell recounts his discovery of and struggle against aliens who invade the town by duplicating the residents’ bodies, mannerisms, and memories, making residents who’ve been “snatched” difficult to detect. As the ever-observant doctor, Miles eventually realizes that the aliens can only “perform” emotion, not genuinely feel emotion.

In classic sci fi protocol, the events of the novel take place in the not-too-distant future of 1976. It’s worth briefly noting a good question to ease students into discussion: Why would Finney set the novel only a few decades into the future as opposed to hundreds of years?

While the novel was initially criticized for its plot holes, it quickly managed to achieve, according to Maureen Corrigan, a mythic status: “Sometimes the stories that stay with us aren’t the classics or even all that polished. They’re what some critics call ‘good-bad’ stories: The writing may be workmanlike and the characters barely developed, but something about them is so potent that they’re unforgettable—so unforgettable that they can attain the status of myth” (“The Sad Lesson”).

We credit Finney with the “myth” of the alien “pod person.” Corrigan writes, “The term ‘pod,’ used to connote a blank person, has become so much a part of everyday speech that even people who’ve never…read Finney’s novel know the gist of the nightmare he gave to America” (“The Sad Lesson”). Indeed, when I ask, I find that most students are generally familiar with the concept prior to reading.

 

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Corrigan adds, “Ever since Finney’s novel…critics have been generating theories about why this story has taken root, so to speak, in our collective imagination. The pods seem to mean all things to all critics; lately, a post-colonialist interpretation of the pods as imperialists is popular. But given the 1950s context, the pods are most commonly seen as either symbols of the ‘Communist Menace’ or, conversely, of McCarthy-ite group think” (“The Sad Lesson”).

Students generally jump on historical readings without my prompting, but this semester students also offered interesting feminist readings (the way the character Becky Driscoll tricks the aliens by acting against the gender stereotypes she seems to embody for most of the novel) and ecocritical readings (upon arriving to Earth, the pods initially and unsuccessfully attempt to replicate items of garbage).

Now we’re ready to tackle the issues that evoked the most energetic student discussion this semester. What follows is a breakdown of key points students identified in relation to relevant passages:

Fake and sensational news: One character who joins Miles Bennell in his fight against the aliens is fiction writer Jack Belicec, who saves newspaper clippings of weird and unbelievable occurrences. Several clippings (alluded to in novel’s closing lines) include “Frogs Fell on Alabama” and “Man Burned to Death: Clothes Unharmed” (Finney 81). Jack tells Miles, “These are lies, most of them for all I know. Some are most certainly hoaxes. And maybe the rest of them are distortions, exaggerations, or simple errors of judgement, or vision” (Finney 84-5).

The reliability of sources: One of the most seemingly sensational of Jack’s clippings cites L. Bernard Budlong, a biology and botany professor at a local college who claimed that “mysterious” pod-like “objects” found on a pasture outside of Mill Valley had “come from outer space” only to later retract his comment (Finney 84). Students noted that they recognize college professors as reliable sources of information and initially felt relief when Budlong himself (or at least the man who claims to be Budlong) explains how the reporter took his words out of context in order to “create” a more exciting story.

invasion pod

Students discussed how they were inclined to perceive information presented by characters as “reliable” based on profession. Miles and his colleague Mannie Kaufman, a psychiatrist, are presumably good sources of information because they’re doctors.

Generally speaking, I certainly agree that college professors and doctors are reliable sources, but Finney’s novel complicates matters since some of the professional sources we are inclined to trust have been “body snatched,” such as the professor and the psychiatrist. This led students to critically consider the dangers of blind trust.

Inexplicable truth: While Jack acknowledges that most of his clippings are likely fake, he resists writing them all off as fake. Students described the difficulty of distinguishing fake news from real. Jack says, “Strange things happen, really do happen…. Things that simply don’t fit in with the great body of knowledge that the human race has gradually acquired over thousands of years. Things in direct contradiction to what we know to be true” (Finney 82). Students acknowledged how people often dismiss or resist, sometimes with hostility, information that seems too unbelievable, sometimes despite evidence. As Jack says, it took “hundreds of years to accept the fact that the world is round” (Finney 83).

Explaining the unexplainable: Multiple residents in Mill Valley arrive at Miles Bennell’s office, claiming that a friend or loved one has been replaced by an imposter. In each scenario, Miles recommends psychiatric counseling for what he assumes must be delusions. Mannie Kaufman (or at least the man who claims to be Kaufman) explains the occurrences away as a case of “collective psychosis.” Miles is also inclined to seek a more rational explanation than “alien invasion” even after he sees an alien “pod” duplicating a body first-hand in Jack’s basement. Jack asks, “Should they [unbelievable occurrences] always be explained away? Or laughed away? Or simply ignored?” (Finney 83). Jack goes on to question the “objectivity” of science, claiming there is “no such thing” as “impartiality without prejudice” (Finney 83). Jack concludes, “We hate facing new facts or evidence, because we might have to revise our conceptions of what’s possible, and that’s always uncomfortable” (Finney 83).

Understanding the unfamiliar through the familiar: Once Miles is finally convinced that his town is under invasion, he next must figure out how to fight beings so completely “alien” to humankind. Based on textual evidence, students concluded that characters attempt to understand the unfamiliar through the familiar. Budlong explains it as follows: “What do imaginary men from Mars, in our comic strips and fiction, resemble? Think about it. They resemble grotesque versions of ourselves—we can’t imagine anything different! Oh, they may have six legs, three arms, and antennae sprouting from their heads…like insects we’re familiar with. But they are nothing fundamentally different from what we know” (Finney 173-4).

miles and becky 2.jpg

Students also noticed the frequent use of analogy throughout the novel. For example, Jack compares the process of the alien body duplication by comparing it to “medallion” making: “First, they take a die and make impression number one, giving the blank metal its first rough shape. Then they stamp it with die number two, and it’s the second die that gives it the details” (Finney 36). Miles attempts to understand the duplication process by comparing it to photo developing: “Then, underneath that colorless fluid, the image [on the photo] began to reveal itself—dimly and vaguely—yet unmistakably recognizable just the same. This thing [the transforming alien pod]…was an unfinished, underdeveloped, vague and indefinite Becky Driscoll” (Finney 59).

To wrap up, students recognized that knowledge is often limited and uncertain. As promised, here’s where the novel’s famous opening words come into play: “I warn you that what you’re starting to read is full of loose ends and unanswered questions. It will not be neatly tied up at the end, everything resolved and satisfactorily explained. Not by me it won’t anyway. Because I can’t say I really know exactly what happened, or why, or just how it began, how it ended, or if it has ended” (Finney 7).

donald sutherland duplicate

 

Ultimately, I think Miles’s warning, to which students respond with a fair mix of curiosity and frustration, is an important closing note because it suggests both uncertainty and continuation—even after Miles’s first-hand experiences with the aliens, he admits his understanding of the invasion is still a work-in-progress.

 

Works Cited

Corrigan, Maureen. “The Sad Lesson of ‘Body Snatcher’: People Change.” NPR, 17 Oct. 2011, npr.org/2011/10/17/141416427/the-sad-lesson-of-body-snatchers-people-change.

Finney, Jack. Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Simon & Schuster, 1955.