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.

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

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Teaching Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America after Charlottesville

PALS Note: We are excited to feature this guest post by Katie Fitzpatrick that continues earlier discussions of the role of the political in literature classrooms. Fitzpatrick explains the immediacy of engaging students in constructive political discourse as she considers how to find a balance between the content of a course titled “Democracy in America” and the current political events students encounter outside of the classroom.

I designed my course “Democracy in America” in the fall of 2016, when the campaign was still in full-swing. Anticipating a different result on November 8th, I began the syllabus: “Where does democracy go after the clamor of a Presidential election dies down? How does democracy happen on a daily basis, at the local level, or even outside the law?” I imagined that with President Clinton in office many American liberals and centrists would take a step back from politics – in relief. I wanted to keep the focus on the way democracy unfolds between and beyond Presidential elections, in school board meetings, classrooms, living rooms, and rallies. I selected novels (and secondary sources) that would allow students to consider not just the formal procedures of democracy, but the attitudes, beliefs, and emotions (the ethos) underlying it. We would discuss paranoia and extremism through Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America and Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate, racism and (mis)representation through Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker, and, finally, participation and public relations through Joan Didion’s Democracy and Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night.

Of course, my question “Where does democracy go after the clamor of a Presidential election dies down?” took on new meaning after the election. Far from stepping back in relief, my friends and colleagues seemed more involved in politics than ever. The risk was not that democracy would recede from view for another four years, but that, without our efforts, it would disappear entirely. Yet although the context had changed, the texts I had selected for the syllabus still seemed like apt choices. In fact, they had taken on a new urgency. When I learned I would be teaching the class this fall at Muhlenberg College, I saw it as an opportunity to contribute (even in a small way) to a more thoughtful and constructive political discourse.

Teaching The Plot Against America

“Democracy in America” was offered as a special version of a pre-existing sophomore-level English course, “Literature as Politics.” It was a seminar-style, writing-intensive course with only 13 students, allowing for in-depth class discussion. We began with Roth’s The Plot Against America, which I taught over five 75min class periods. In the latter half of the unit, I brought in non-literary texts from the 1930s-1960s that illuminated the novel’s historical setting. These also connected indirectly to the events of the present, especially the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, which occurred a just few weeks before the class began. I taught selections from Hannah Arendt and Richard Hoftstadter, as well as a 1939 New York Times article, covering a Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden. But while the connections between these texts and 2017 were apparent to me, I didn’t make those connections explicit in class. Later, my students would ask why we had steered clear of a more direct conversation about contemporary politics during our Roth unit. This was a question that, as I will explain at the end of this post, prompted me to think more deeply about democracy, disagreement, and the post-Trump classroom.

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The Plot Against America narrates a counterfactual history of WWII. In place of FDR, Americans elect Charles Lindbergh – a famed aviator, but also a Nazi-sympathizer and anti-semite. Across the novel, Roth’s young protagonist (also named Philip Roth) watches as his family struggles to understand their place in a world of increasingly open anti-semitism.

Because almost everyone in my class was new to literary interpretation, I began by teaching close-reading skills. For this, I drew activities from Writing Analytically, by my colleagues David Rosenwasser and Jill Stephen. For example, my students used what Rosenwasser and Stephen call “the method” to analyze Roth’s description of Jewish-American identity. Students looked for patterns, binaries, strands, and anomalies in a passage describing his family’s assimilation. They then used these observations to write a paragraph analyzing how Roth constructs (and then deconstructs) a binary between Jewish and American identity. Overall, The Plot Against America served as an excellent introduction to close-reading. Students found the plot engaging and Roth’s prose accessible. Moreover, his (to me) obvious allusions and metaphors—the Roth family arguing in front of the Lincoln Memorial; Philip’s national park stamp collection turning to swastikas in a nightmare—helped students practice interpreting symbolism, a skill that was vital when we read Invisible Man a few weeks later.

Frameworks for Analysis

After two class periods focused on close-reading, I began incorporating additional, interdisciplinary sources. The first was Richard Hofstadter’s well-known 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” Hofstadter argues that politicians using the paranoid style seek to explain complex political phenomena through a single scapegoat (Catholics, Jews, Communists, Freemasons). Students had no trouble naming uses of the paranoid style in the present. We discussed islamophobia, anti-semitism, and “pizza gate,” but also considered the liberal focus on Russian meddling, which sometimes risks occluding the profound divisions within American society. If anything, students found it too easy to name contemporary phenomena that seemed paranoid and we had to work together to put some limits on the term. They often defaulted to viewing any form of disagreement or antagonism through the lens of paranoia. I explained that, for example, it is not paranoid for Republicans to accuse Democrats of undermining the second amendment; it is paranoid to suggest that Obama is secretly Muslim. A particularly instructive moment occurred when one student suggested that being against GMO food products is paranoid. Two other students expressed that they were against GMO products. I allowed both sides to argue their viewpoints for a few minutes, then pointed out they had performed an example of legitimate democratic disagreement. Both sides had presented reasoned considerations without accusing one another of being secretly in the thrall of shadowy forces. This, I explained, was the difference between democratic antagonism and the paranoid style.

We then discussed the place of paranoia in The Plot Against America. The fascist politicians in the novel express obviously paranoid views. But so do Aunt Evelyn and Rabbi Bengelsdorf, who rely on an elaborate conspiracy to justify their own complicity in an anti-semitic regime. Finally, Philip’s parents are unsure whether to believe the most seemingly paranoid theories on the Jewish left (expressed by radio personality Walter Winchell). Intriguingly, Winchell’s “paranoid” fears about the government’s violent intentions seem prescient by the end of the novel. In this way, Roth suggests that it can be difficult, without the advantage of historical hindsight, to determine which views will prove paranoid, and which prophetic.

Historical Contexts

For the fourth day of our unit, I brought in a 1939 New York Times Article (purchased from their online archive). The article, “22,000 Nazis Hold Rally in Garden; Police Check Foes,” covered both the rally and the clashes between police and protesters outside (events also described in the novel). In particular, I drew attention to a quoted statement from the American Jewish Committee:

“The German-American Bund is, in our opinion, completely anti-American and anti-democratic. It is a foreign-inspired organization endeavoring to arouse in the United States the same hatreds which in Germany have brought the condemnation of the entire civilized world. Nevertheless, because we believe that the basic rights of free speech and free assembly must never be tampered with in the United States, we are opposed to any action to prevent the Bund from airing its views.”

I asked students whether they agreed with this statement. Most did. We discussed to what extent that position was consistent with their view of the novel as a whole. After all, the central problem in the text is President Lindbergh’s refusal to join WWII to fight against the Nazis. If students wanted to protect the free-speech rights of Nazis in the United States, while supporting military intervention against those abroad, could they make those two positions consistent?

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New York Times article covering Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden.

The students were, at first, visibly puzzled by this problem, and they didn’t ultimately agree about their stances on it. But it led to some nuanced and interesting points. One student suggested that while we might intervene against the state violence being perpetrated in Europe, this was different than the non-state actors rallied at Madison Square Garden. Others considered whether and how democracy could contain both free-speech protections and fierce condemnations of hate speech. For me, this discussion obviously resonated with the recent events in Charlottesville and with contemporary debates about racism, anti-semitism, and free speech. I was glad to see my students wrestling with these urgent questions in an informed, thoughtful, and rigorous way. But while I assumed that they could make the connection to Charlottesville, I (mistakenly) did not make that connection explicit.

From the Classroom to the Campus Climate

About a month after we concluded our discussion of The Plot Against America, a racist incident occurred on our campus while my students were studying Invisible Man. This led to an impromptu (and heated) class discussion about how the racism in the novel connected to current events. When I asked students whether they would like to make those explicit connections more often, they all said they would. Several even mentioned that they wished there had been more opportunity to talk about current events during our Philip Roth unit. This surprised me at first; I had intended to make the connections quite clear. But upon reflection, I realized I had also felt a bit wary during class discussion. I wasn’t sure where my students stood politically, and being a new faculty member myself, I was worried about provoking a tense debate between them or appearing to “push” views they disagreed with.

Instead, what I learned over time (especially in our Invisible Man unit) was that most (perhaps all) of my students were roughly on the liberal/left side of the political spectrum. More importantly, they were capable of working through political disagreement among themselves when it arose. The irony, of course, is that when I designed the syllabus, I had intended to tackle political questions head-on. But the antagonistic political climate itself got the best of me. I wasn’t sure if we could have a democratic conversation about democracy, even though I was given a group of students who were more than capable of doing just that. Of course, my wariness might speak to my own lack of pedagogical courage. But I think it speaks equally to a vague chilling effect on free speech – not (or not only) for de-platformed conservative speakers, but for junior, contingent, and immigrant faculty teaching contemporary political issues, even at supportive liberal arts colleges.

Much of the current debate about free speech on campuses is less about free speech per se, than about which kinds of conversations colleges want to foster, which forms of disagreement they want to stage. Most colleges are prepared to hold debates on taxation, for example, but not on the humanity of people of color (a necessary distinction, in my opinion). In my class, I found myself faced with a different version of this problem. I was prepared to foster disagreement about students’ interpretations of the novel, their reactions to Hofstadter, or their views on Walter Winchell’s dissent. What I wasn’t prepared for, pedagogically or emotionally, was a conversation where one student compared President Trump to the Nazi-sympathizing President Lindbergh and another found this comparison outrageous. Of course, that’s a more vital conversation than anything about close-reading, but it would be a difficult conversation to have – one potentially destructive of our classroom environment, and early in the semester too.

I’m still not sure how to lead that kind of discussion, and I’m aware that it could go very well or very poorly. I’m still trying to learn how other teachers have led conversations about politics in the past year, and I think we could all stand to reflect on these questions more. But my major take-away is that my students wanted to have more difficult conversations, and were capable of doing so. Perhaps they understood democracy better than I did.

Contributor Bio

Macintosh HD:Users:Barbra:Desktop:Screen Shot 2017-11-13 at 7.13.47 PM.pngKatie Fitzpatrick is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the English department at Muhlenberg College. She received her PhD from Brown University in May 2017 and is currently at work on her first book, Between Law and Justice: Legal Authority, Political Philosophy, and Postwar Fiction. She can be found at katiefitzpatrick.info and on twitter @katiefitzpat.