Fostering Complexity in the Age of Oversimplification: Teaching American Culture in 90 Minutes or Less, Part One

We are pleased to have a guest post this week from Theresa Dietrich. Dietrich is currently a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Norway and writes about her experience planning lessons for classes she will only meet once. How do you teach students about a topic in one class period? Dietrich shares two examples below and look out for further ideas from Dietrich in a second post to come on April 25th. 

In thinking about the quality of the classroom conversations I have been having as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Norway, I am reminded of philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah’s discussion of the idea of conversations. “Conversations,” he says “begin with the sort of imaginative engagement you get when you […] attend to a work of art that speaks from some place other than your own. [Conversation is] a metaphor for engagement with the experiences and ideas of others. These encounters, properly conducted, are valuable in themselves.”

One of my roles as an ETA in Norway is traveling around a secondary school offering lessons designed to engage students in discussions of American culture and politics. These are one-off, 90 minute lessons meant to address staggeringly big topics, many of which have been generated in response to student questions like: Why do Americans love guns? How did Donald Trump win the 2016 election? How unequal is America?

I have thought a lot about how to facilitate productive conversations about these topics within a 90 minute timeframe. The challenge has many dimensions: after all, in an age where it seems that wars can be waged via Twitter, how do we foster classroom conversations which resist oversimplification and foregone conclusions? How can we avoid reducing gun violence, economic inequality, or systemic racism to statistics, sound bites, or recapitulations of what students already think or know?

In the way of some insights, I offer strategies with accompanying examples from lessons that I’ve taught in Norway to audiences of 15 – 18 year olds and adult immigrants.

The One that Stands for the Many: From Particular to Universal

In response to my early worry that class discussions were only scraping the surface—we couldn’t seem to get beyond headlines and notions of America’s present as a kind of cartoonish disaster—a wise colleague offered this piece of advice: You have to find the one that stands for the many. What he meant, I think, is that I needed to find the rooted particular in order to facilitate any kind of meaningful discussion of big questions about America’s troubled present. Students needed a limited initial lens through which they could view larger issues, something they could really dig into—to inhabit, to analyze, to critique—before group discussion.

Below are strategies for finding meaningful openings for discussion: a photograph, a political cartoon, a protest sign, a first-hand account, a poem. I’ll give examples of these openings, as well as the ways in which they can be used as a springboard for larger discussions.

A Picture is worth 1,000 words: Visual Analysis of Primary Source Documents

Because we rarely have time to read and analyze literature or nonfiction articles in class, provocative photos and political cartoons are a great opening for discussion. Visuals are also accessible to English language learners at many different levels. Some students may doubt their ability to analyze a poem they are encountering for the first time, but many can make an observation about an image.

In a lesson which attempts to capture the Civil Rights movement, we focus on the Little Rock Nine to illustrate the intense resistance that accompanied de-segregation. This exercise is taken and adapted from the excellent resources at Facing History and Ourselves.

Students are given various photos of segregationist protesters and the Arkansas National Guard physically blocking the entry of the Little Rock Nine on their first day of school with the accompanying questions:

  • Where are people standing? How are they relating to one another?
  • If you were there, what sounds might you hear?
  • Why do you think the guards are there? How are they relating to the students?

Students usually guess that the guards are protecting the students from the protesters. One student predicted that the guard was pointing a lost Elizabeth Eckford in the direction of her class. They are shocked to learn that something quite different is happening in these photos: the guards are keeping the students out instead of ushering them in.

When students have their imagined narrative contested, when they learn that the enrollment of nine African American teens to a high school in 1957 (almost 100 years after slavery was abolished) was accompanied by a National Guard blockade, vitriolic protest, and an armed escort by federal troops—they begin to understand that the business of abolishing racism in the U.S. has been tragically slow-going.

Cultural Memory: Linking the Past to the Present

I have found the Little Rock Nine exercise a good “opening” for talking about the continuous oppression born of slavery in the Civil Rights era and the present. Contextualizing the problems of the American present with the injustices of the past is essential for promoting thoughtful discussion. To borrow the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates commenting on police brutality, it is vital that students understand that “this conversation is old […] It’s the cameras that are new. It’s not the violence that’s new.”

By 10th grade in Norway, students have learned quite a bit about American history: they know about Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., and Rosa Parks. They also follow American news and know of police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement. But what they have a hard time grasping is the concept of systemic racism and the ways in which race continues to matter in America. Everyone agrees that racism is wrong, but some student don’t view it as a pressing challenge in Norway, and they wonder: Why is it still such a big deal in the U.S.?

The topic is also accompanied by diffidence and uncertainty: students are sometimes unsure about the language they should use: much of the vocabulary we have to talk about race in America (thanks to scholars of color) hasn’t made its way to Norway and doesn’t have a cultural equivalent. Some students seem to have thoughts that they aren’t sure how to give voice to, and others genuinely don’t think race is very relevant in the happiest country on earth. Shouldn’t we focus on the ways in which we are the same—our common humanity—rather than how we are different? seems to be a common refrain.

However, students are comfortable discussing race in the context of American history, as something that has existed in the past, but the transition to the present (or to its relevance in Norway) is more challenging. I have found contextualizing the present through first person accounts of the past to be productive. In the Little Rock Nine lesson, students hear from the woman in the photo with this audio resource (also from Facing History and Ourselves): “In Her Own Words: Elizabeth Eckford.” As a white person, (who is often having this discussion with white audiences), it is vital to ground our conversations in the words, artistic expressions, and terminology developed and articulated by people of color.

In the latter half of this lesson, we examine the continued relevance of the topic by looking at school resegregation and its dire consequences. There are excellent resources from Nikole Hannah-Jones on this topic. With their historical knowledge of the Little Rock Nine in mind, students are able to draw conclusions about what has changed in America, what hasn’t, and why that matters.

 

 

BIO

Theresa Dietrich is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Norway where she facilitates an academic writer’s workshop at the University of Bergen and offers weekly lessons designed to engage Norwegian teens in discussions of American history and culture.

Dietrich completed an M.A. in English and teacher licensure program at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She looks forward to teaching English Language Arts in a Boston-area public school next year. You can read more about her teaching and learning in Norway here.

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Bringing Moby-Dick to the People: A Reading Marathon as a Class Community Engagement Project

PALS Note: We are thrilled to have this guest post by Marlowe Daly-Galeano, an associate professor of English at Lewis-Clark State College, about a class project to develop and host a reading marathon of Moby-Dick. Read more about the project below and let us know if you plan your own reading marathon! 

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student-designed artwork
Of Whales in Paint: When It Comes to Service Learning, Don’t Forget the Arts

College campuses across the country celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by offering opportunities for students and faculty to participate in acts of service and community engagement. At my institution, these include a variety of projects such as walking shelter dogs, stocking the shelves of the food pantry, and helping at the veteran’s home. In our current moment—when the arts and humanities are often under-supported—I’d like to suggest that in addition to valuable outreach opportunities like these, we should also strive to provide service and community engagement opportunities that connect people to the arts.

Last semester, in both of my American literature courses, I encouraged students to recognize that literature is neither created nor consumed in a vacuum. It is easy to joke, as I have been wont to do, that English majors have no practical skills or that reading is a leisurely act disconnected from the world. But those ideas are both false and pernicious. I have tried to move away from making these kinds of self-deprecating jokes, which undervalue my profession and my students, to take a stance as an advocate for the value of the arts and those who are trained to critique and appreciate them. As part of this endeavor, students in my nineteenth-century American literature senior seminar designed and hosted an all-day reading marathon of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick for our community. My graduate program at the University of Arizona hosted a Milton Marathon every year, during which Paradise Lost was read aloud over the course of a day, so I knew that a reading marathon could be a powerful way for a community to engage with oral tradition and an individual text. When I learned of the Moby-Dick reading marathons at New Bedford and Mystic Seaport, I knew it was something I wanted to do. Combining that interest with a desire to implement service learning and community engagement into my teaching led me to this approach.

In this post, I will elaborate on that event as a model for a class community engagement assignment. While the beginning and end of this post focus on the larger rationale and take-away from a literature-based community engagement event, the middle sections detail the preparation and implementation of the event for any of you who want to host your own reading marathon or similar community engagement event on your campus.

One of the learning objectives for my course was to “Communicate the relevance of studying literature to the broader community in which we live and work, through participation in—and reflection of—community events.” From the first day of class, students understood that not only would they be reading Moby-Dick, but they also would be responsible for sharing Melville’s novel with our campus and community. The community engagement event and reflection assignment accounted for 20% of their semester grade, carrying the same weight as their term paper and discussion participation grades. It was treated as a major assignment rather than an extra. I believe that by giving the assignment this much weight, I encouraged students to recognize the true value of community engagement. Yes, this was a fun assignment, but it was not built into the syllabus just for fun; it was designed to emphasize the ways that literature and the arts affect and transform communities. That is important work that we must take seriously.

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Sometimes an engaged community looks like this
Loomings: Our Study of the Novel

Our first reading assignment included the extracts, chapters one through six, and Melville’s essay, “Hawthorne and His Mosses.” Using “Hawthorne and His Mosses,” we explored Melville’s theory of Romanticism, focused on the idea of “the dark characters,” and pondered why Hawthorne was so important to Melville’s project. Although I’ll admit that the students may not have been as smitten with this essay as I am, it did help them to see Melville as a writer in conversation with others, which would be one of the ideas our community engagement project would emphasize.

The majority of the seminar students were reading Moby-Dick for the first time, though some had read “The Whiteness of the Whale” or other excerpts in the literature survey. We spent three and a half weeks reading and discussing the novel. The longest reading assignment was about 100 pages from the Norton Critical edition. One class period within this unit was a designated reading day, on which no class was held. I’ve found that scheduling a reading day during a long text helps students stay motivated and reduces fatigue, thereby making the discussions more successful.

Because this class was a senior seminar, students were more responsible for their own learning, and they signed up in advance for discussion leadership days. Their discussion leadership approaches varied. Some students began their discussions by having their classmates write or share reactions. One student brought a large stack of cards, featuring uncaptioned photographs. He asked each student to choose cards that represented a character in Moby-Dick and to explain their choice of cards. Discussion leaders also guided us through the close reading of a passage of their choice. These student-led discussions allowed the class to explore the novel in minute and broad ways. When I was not leading the discussion, I tried to be fairly quiet, requiring students to take ownership. Although being quiet in the classroom can be hard for me, it is empowering for students. They were not able learn passively; they had to lead discussions (and help their classmates by participating actively in the discussions), which mandated that they come to class prepared to engage deeply. I think this engagement translated into an enthusiasm for the novel that they were then able to share with the community.

During one class period in which there was no assigned student discussion leader, I presented a lecture on Melville, whaling, and criticism. I geeked out by showing parts of the American Experience documentary Into the Deep: America, Whaling & the World, which is pretty much my favorite thing in the world. While the film provides background on the politics, mechanics, and economy of American whaling, I love it because it cannot separate that history from a Romantic treatment of the whaling industry that, for modern readers, is inseparable from our appreciation of Moby-Dick. To prepare for my lecture, I also consulted Greg Specter’s resources here on PALS along with the critical apparatus in the Norton edition.

Going Aboard: Event Preparations

After we finished reading the novel, we devoted several class periods or parts of class periods to planning for the event. I had to arrange the date and location of the event prior to the start of the semester, but students were responsible for making all other decisions. Most of the students had never attended a reading marathon. Before our first planning session, students listened to the Chapters podcast “A Moby Dick Marathon at Mystic Seaport” to become more familiar with how a reading marathon works.

Planning: The class decided on the food offerings, helped to hang promotional posters, solicited, made, and provided prizes, designed and made bookmarks, broadsides, and coasters, and determined the selection of chapters to be read aloud. Since we lack the resources and population to host a full twenty-four-hour marathon on our campus, our “1/2” marathon featured about nine hours of reading. (And, yes, I recognize that “1/2” is a bit of an exaggeration, but “1/3 marathon” lacks panache!) Students determined the time it would take to read each chapter and created a schedule of chapters.

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Promotional flyer

Visuals: Because a reading marathon is a largely auditory experience, students worked to create visual elements for our event. On each table, they placed blue candy (to evoke water), copies of the novel for those who wanted to read along, and printed coasters made by students enrolled in the letter-press class. Throughout the marathon a slideshow looped. Students gathered images for the slideshow that included photos of whales, ships, covers of various editions of the novel, Melville and Moby-Dick cartoons, and whaling illustrations. We also prepared a handout for attendees. One side of the handout provided background information on Melville and Moby-Dick. The other explained the mechanics of a reading marathon. The handout let attendees know that they should sit in “Reader’s Row” if they wanted to read out loud and that they could come and go as they pleased during the day. We also created an exhibit table, on which we placed copies of other books by Melville as well as books and movies related to Melville studies, whaling, and Moby-Dick.

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Exhibit table

 

Sponsorship and Support: My department had T-shirts designed for the event, which were provided to all of the students in the class and faculty who requested them. We also ordered extra T-shirts for prizes. I approached our rep at W.W. Norton & Company about sponsoring the event. Norton provided the podium copy of the novel (which I pre-marked with the selected chapters) in addition to some tote bags, pens, and critical editions for prizes. The critical editions were particularly appreciated by the English majors! Students solicited donations from other organizations, including the campus coffee shop and our local movie theater. I invited both the dean and the college president, and our dean enthusiastically accepted the invitation to be our opening reader.

The Chase: The Unfolding of An Event
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Our music professor takes a turn at the podium

The Day: Our event was scheduled from 8:30 am to 6:00 pm, and students were asked to be there for as much of the day as they could. All of the students were present during the opening chapter, our regularly scheduled class period, the reading of the final chapter, and the closing celebration. They signed up for additional blocks of time throughout the day, so that we generally had at least half of the class present at any given moment. My early American survey class spent their class period at the marathon that day, and many ended up staying for much longer.

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Folks who stayed for the whole marathon made themselves comfortable

Roles: Students rotated between different roles throughout the day. One person stood near the door to give out the handouts we had prepared. Another updated the “Now Reading Chapter ___” and “Up Next” dry-erase board. One gave readers an “I Read at the Moby-Dick Half Marathon” sticker and bookmark after they stepped down from the podium. One was the MC when we took reading breaks to give out prizes. If they weren’t occupied with a particular job, students read along or got in line at “Reader’s Row” to read a selection of the novel. I encouraged each student to take a turn as a reader, and although some were reluctant to take the podium, in the end they all ended up reading a chapter or portion of a chapter.

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Sign for Reader’s Row

Modifications: Although we had created a reading schedule for the event, readers all have their own pace, and at one point we were behind schedule and decided to cut a few chapters from our line-up. As we neared the end of the novel, we found ourselves well ahead of schedule and added additional chapters.

Fortification: Breakfast and lunch foods were served during the day, and there was a steady stream of coffee consumed throughout the event. The students and I supplemented the college food services offerings with some event-themed foods, including whale crackers, oranges and bananas with whale stickers on them, and “Mrs. Hussey’s rolls.”

Celebration: Following the reading of “The Chase,” all participants read the epilogue aloud in unison. We then honored our achievement with a sparkling cider toast and cut into “The Whiteness of the Cake” (an idea we stole from the Mystic Seaport marathon).

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The whiteness of the cake and student-designed coasters
Epilogue: Reflection

I have found Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching a helpful resource on service learning and community engagement. There, Eyler and Giles offer a definition of service learning that emphasizes the reciprocal relationship between experiential action and learning reflection (qtd. in Bandy, “What is Service Learning or Community Engagement?”). To ensure my students met our learning objective, the final step of the community engagement assignment required them to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of their event. Each student completed an evaluation of the reading marathon, in which they scored various aspects, from the success of our publicity efforts to the quality of the food. The evaluations indicated that we could have done a better job publicizing the event, the food was acceptable, and the audience engagement was very high. In addition to completing this evaluation, they responded to questions about what they learned from hosting and participating in the event and what they would take away from it.

I confess that I enjoyed reading their responses as much as I liked the marathon itself. Their observations and reflections were insightful and charming. One student’s “Reading marathons > Running marathons” statement still makes me giggle. Several students commented that hearing the book read aloud showed them that literature can be enjoyed in various ways, something we tend to forget in a culture that privileges visuals over sound. Some found the novel funnier when they heard it read aloud, and one noticed the extensiveness of Melville’s alliteration. One of my brave colleagues had the challenge of taking the podium for the “Stubb’s Supper” chapter, an experience which emphasized the difficulty of reading dialect and vernacular. When we discussed the event afterwards, students all agreed that it was very special to hear so many different voices reading the book. While a few of the readers offered a nearly flawless reading, most stumbled, paused, mispronounced something, or lost their places occasionally. In these imperfections, the participants were able to recognize the unique and special human experience we were all a part of.

One student realized that a novel can be appreciated in segments and parts, in addition to having a value as a whole work. “Most people who came,” this student observed, “ seemed to enjoy just the parts [of Moby-Dick] they heard/read. It was fascinating to see that this is a method through which people who haven’t read the whole book can come to appreciate it.” My students, like so many English majors, are accustomed to literature as a solitary experience, but one observed, “There is a lot to be gained from participating in it communally.” Another found that exposure to literature may be all it takes to attract new readers, responding, “My partner joined us for a little while and . . . enjoyed the event. My take-away was that if you can get them in the room, non-literary lovers will enjoy themselves.” (Our work is done!)

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Student artwork

I think that hosting our community engagement event helped my students develop professional skills in event planning, publicity, and communications. They could discuss this experience in a job interview or application. I know it gave them the opportunity to articulate what the arts do and why they matter—a skill I hope they will continue to practice in their personal and professional lives. I was gratified to learn from feedback my students and I received, that our event generated new Melville enthusiasts in our community, and, in some cases, it may have converted even the most reluctant reader. One student who attended the event told me, “My girlfriend told me Moby-Dick was stupid. She was totally wrong!”

Perhaps one of the greatest services a Moby-Dick Half Marathon provides is to demystify this big, intimidating American novel, a novel that people think is too hard or too boring or too weird for common appreciation. Even if we don’t catch all of Melville’s references—and who does?—or grasp all of the metaphysics, there is much to value with every new experience of this novel. My class and other participants recognized and enjoyed MobyDick’s complexity, but they also experienced its humor, its pleasure, and its bare narrative power. In the end, I hope the reading marathon showed everyone who participated that literature and community exist in a rich, dynamic, evolving conversation.

Contributor Bio

Marlowe Daly-Galeano is associate professor of English at Lewis-Clark State College, where she teaches courses in American literature, writing, and humanities.