Making Room for BIG Books

Despite what some students might think, a semester is really short!

All instructors know the feeling of wanting to cover more material than a semester can actually hold. As a result, perhaps especially in survey or genre courses potentially covering centuries of literature, we often opt to teach shorter-length works or excerpts from longer works. While this gives us the satisfaction of “covering more ground” and the assurance that students will (hopefully) complete assigned readings, doesn’t a BIG part of literary study involve reading BIG books?

While I don’t have a rigid definition in mind of what constitutes “big” or “long,” I generally mean works, usually novels, of 400+ pages.  I know people have different educational experiences, but when I reflect on both my high school and college careers, I realize I didn’t read many “big” or “long” works at all. It wasn’t until graduate school that I was regularly assigned long novels in my classes.

Throughout college, I found that most of my long novel reading was non-assigned. If my instructors mentioned important canonical works in class, I often made a point to find them in the library and read them during my free time or during winter/summer breaks. BIG BOOKs

There are certainly still self-motivated students who read a lot on their own time, but they’re not necessarily reading “big” books. Also, many students, despite the desire to read more, really don’t have the time to do so between taking classes or working.

If experience and training in reading “big” books is essential to the development of English majors, and average English majors can’t fit “big” books in on their own time, then it’s important to make room for “big” books in our courses whenever we can. I try to incorporate at least one long novel into each of my literature classes.

Of course, making room for a 400+ page novel is easier said than done, and both instructors and students have their concerns. While I speak on behalf of common instructor concerns below, I interviewed several former students who read “long” novels in my classes to get a better idea of their perspectives (I paraphrase much of their commentary below for the sake of format).

Instructor Concerns about Course Objectives: I have a lot of historical ground to cover, so can I replace several shorter works with one longer work and still convey historical developments? It’s also important for my class to convey stylistic range and authorial diversity, so can I really afford to sacrifice any voices?

My Response: Meeting course objectives is generally non-negotiable. In survey courses or courses where diversity is an essential objective, including a “big” book may not be feasible.  However, I usually only include one long novel per applicable class, so there is still room to include shorter length works and diverse range of voices.

Instructor Concerns about Pacing: How much class time do I need to devote to a long novel? How much reading can I expect students to complete for each class? Will my students even read a long novel through to the end?

Student Concerns about Pacing: How long are we spending with this huge novel? Will I have enough time to read, or will I have to skim? Will the language and style be readable or difficult? Will the subject matter be hard to understand? If we’re only spending two weeks on it, how much of the material will we actually cover during class? Is it worth putting in all the time to read a huge novel if we’re only spending a couple weeks on it?

Response: Several semesters ago, I considered including Moby-Dick in a genre class on the novel. A seasoned colleague told me not to bother. He said, “It’s too long and too old. No one will read it.” I think it’s unfair to assume that students simply won’t complete an assigned work just because it’s too long or too old. We all know that students don’t always complete readings, even when they’re short and contemporary.

Moby Dick

Upon talking to students, I’m most compelled by a frustration they share. Many students are not, despite popular belief, frustrated by a large quantity of reading, but by the disproportional amount of class time devoted to discussing a large quantity of reading. Students are practical about their time, and I can’t blame them. When students invest a lot of time in reading, they want to see a return on that investment by discussing material comprehensively in class. It makes sense that students will invest more in a text that takes up a month of class time rather than a week.  As my students explain, regardless of length, it’s frustrating to read something that goes unaddressed during class.

The ability to complete readings successfully is dependent upon slow pacing, which prevents students from rushing or skimming through a narrative and feeling “mixed up” or “hazy” on points during discussion.  When more class time is devoted to a work, students are not only more likely to finish reading but also to have a stronger comprehension of what they read.

Additionally, the students I interviewed expressed enthusiasm about having extended class time to think “more deeply” about a work, cover “more territory,” and explore “diverse perspectives” during discussion. Even in advanced classes where strong students could reasonably be expected to complete 200-300 pages of reading in a week, it’s unlikely we could do more than scratch the surface of those 300 pages in a week’s worth of discussion.

In matters of pacing, instructors also need to consider the language, style, and density of the material. For example, I usually spend four to five weeks on John Steinbeck’s 600ish page novel East of Eden, but I usually spend six to seven weeks on an older work like James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, even though it’s about 150ish pages shorter than Steinbeck’s novel.  While students find that Steinbeck’s narrative is written in readable and mostly conversational contemporary English, students find that Cooper’s long-winded language and convoluted writing style slow down the reading pace.

East of Edenlast of the mohicans

Instructor Concerns about Placement: Where should I position a “long” novel on my syllabus? Is it better to start or finish a class with a “long” novel?

Student Concerns about Placement: Will I have to read a “long” novel during the busiest parts of my semester? Will I feel overwhelmed with all the work I have to do?

Response: I have positioned long novels at the beginning (for reasons of historical chronology), middle, and end of courses, and my experiences have been most successful when placing long novels at the end of a semester. I discovered insight as to why through student interview. As I’ve already addressed, reading “big” books isn’t exactly common practice for most students, so seeing a “long” novel assigned in a class can be feel overwhelming and intimidating. Therefore, throwing students into the “deep end” of the “lengthy literature pool” at the start of the semester isn’t ideal.

Students also disclosed a preference for starting with shorter works, not only to build up reading “endurance” and confidence, but also to get comfortable with the dynamics of group discussion in a given class.  Students are usually comfortable with reading practices and class dynamics by mid-semester, but it’s best to wait until after the chaos of midterms to start a long work. Also, students noted that while they are busy at the end of the semester, most exams and papers are due after classes end. Slowly working through a long novel in the final weeks of a semester, therefore, can feel more “therapeutic” than “taxing.”

Instructor Concerns about Value: Will assigning a long novel be worth it? Will my students really gain anything from the experience?

Student Concerns about Value: Will reading a long novel be worth it? Will I really gain anything from the experience?

Response: When I asked students how they felt after completing a long novel, they agreed that the overall experience is rewarding.  One student noted, “I feel accomplished when I finish a long novel; there is some sort of pride rooted in the ability to complete a task that at first seemed daunting and almost overwhelming.” Another student noted, “After finishing a long novel, the initial feeling that follows is relief. Then, accomplishment–I actually completed something!…If a novel is special enough, something about me changes afterward.”

BIG BOOKS 3

A BIG part of making sure a BIG book is a BIG hit is generating enthusiasm about the experience throughout the semester. It’s important for students to think of a long novel at the end of the semester as a “grand finale,” not a “final punishment.” Additionally, it’s important to stress that the group will work through the text slowly and that, as the instructor, you’ll be there to walk them through it all. These kinds of consistent prefatory remarks will help students feel (at least) a little better about a task that for many will be a totally new experience.

Do you teach “big” books? If so, what “big” books do you include in your classes? Where do you position them, and how long do you spend with them? How do your students engage with “big” books?

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Teaching Japanese Internment Using Julie Otsuka’s When The Emperor Was Divine

PALS is happy to have a guest post from Jessica Thelen, who is an incoming PhD student in English at the University of Delaware. Thelen writes about teaching Japanese Internment in her Introduction to American literature classses and, in addition to providing useful teaching ideas, Thelen makes astute observations about what subjects are and are not taught routinely in American schools. 

Introduction

In a fall 2017 survey that I distributed to both of my sections of English 215: Introduction to American Literature, one student suggested that in teaching this course next semester, I include a unit on Japanese Internment since this was an era of American history that they wanted to learn more about. When creating the syllabus for my Spring 2018 iteration of this course, I recalled this student’s comments and decided to teach a mini-unit on Japanese Internment. I had not taught Japanese Internment before, but I believed it would be a fruitful topic for the course, particularly since some of the objectives of this course are to “cultivate an understanding and appreciation of the value of creative writing in addressing historical and contemporary questions pertaining to the outlined themes of the course (race, ethnicity, and identity)” and to “critically examine our own biases and positionalities while recognizing and taking different perspectives into account.” In order to introduce my students to this era of American history, I decided to use Julie Otsuka’s 2002 novel When The Emperor Was Divine, which focuses on an unnamed Japanese American family, the majority of which is interned at the Topaz Incarceration Camp for most of WWII. Although fictional, Otsuka deftly uses historical accounts to create her narrative and constructs an accessible text for high school and college students.

downloadSetting Up the Novel: Historical Contexts and Supplemental Materials

Since I teach at a small, predominantly white institution, I knew that bringing in historical contexts before starting Otsuka’s novel would greatly contribute to students’ understanding and engagement with the text. This was made clear when, on the first day of this mini unit, I asked my students if they had learned about Japanese Internment in school or in some other context, and only a handful of students raised their hands out of a class of twenty-eight. That class period I had planned to show a documentary on Japanese Internment, entitled Rabbit in the Moon, but unfortunately it was no longer available online, so instead I gave the class a general overview of Japanese Internment: anti-Japanese sentiment prior to WWII, Order 9066 (the executive order President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed on February 19, 1942, which officially began Japanese Internment), as well as the FBI raids where many Japanese and Japanese American men were arrested prior to Internment beginning in earnest.

Since the documentary was unavailable, I decided to spend the next class having students listen to and answer questions on Chapter 1 (“The Roundup”) of a new podcast entitled Order 9066. In this podcast, scholars discuss Japanese Internment and internees share their experiences in the camps. Before listening to the podcast in class, I introduced it by distributing a set of questions for students to answer while listening, which included questions such as:

  1. What were some of the reactions of Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans upon hearing about the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941?
  2. What were some stereotypes regarding Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans that were part of the popular consciousness (even prior to Pearl Harbor)?
  3. What was the FBI’s role in the beginnings of Japanese Internment? What were some reactions to the FBI raids on Japanese immigrant and Japanese American homes?
  4. What is your main take away from this podcast? What is something that your learned from it that you would like to discuss with the class?

This podcast and the related questions were very effective in encouraging student engagement, as seen in a survey I distributed at the end of this unit (two weeks after ending it). In completing the survey, one student wrote, “To hear the podcast and to hear what people went through is amazing.” After listening to and discussing this episode of Order 9066, I assigned two chapters (Chapters 10 and 11) of Erika Lee’s The Making of Asian America: A History (2015) that focus on Japanese Internment. I began that class with a Free Write, asking students to think about and do some writing on the following questions:

  1. How were Canada, Peru, and other Latin American countries involved in Japanese Internment in the U.S. and abroad?
  2. What helped to establish the premise of “military necessity” of Japanese Internment?
  3. How did some Japanese Americans resist orders before and during Internment?
  4. What was life like for Japanese Americans after they were released from the camps?

The students were, at that point, able to use their knowledge from Order 9066 and Lee’s book to discuss these questions, as well as possible reasons why Japanese Internment is not frequently taught in schools. Many students suggested that it was because the U.S. does not like to recall its wounds and shameful past, and would, rather, as they stated, “sweep it under the rug.” Once students had this context and had begun to consider such questions and their implications, we began to read When The Emperor Was Divine.

Teaching When The Emperor Was Divine

I taught Otsuka’s novel over the course of five 50-minute class periods. Since I run a discussion-based course with brief segments of lecture, I typically begin each class with a Free Write where students take some time to process their thoughts, answer questions, and come up with points and questions to discuss with the class.

Textual Analysis

For the first segment of the novel, I had students focus on (pages 1-22). One of the Free Write questions I asked students to focus on for that day was: “How are the unnamed daughter, mother, and brother, reacting to Internment (physically and psychologically)? Some students were able to then make connections between the characters’ experiences and those of past Internees who told of their experiences in Chapter 1 of Order 9066. Connections made included the destruction of any family artifacts connected to Japan, feelings of uncertainty and fear, as well as the fracturing of families, as many heads of households, like the father of the unnamed family in When The Emperor Was Divine, were arrested and interned months before their other family members were.

Over the course of the novel, students also focused on the symbolism Otsuka employs to emphasize that Internment had both psychological and physical effects. This symbolism often takes the form of animal imagery: wild horses underscoring the desire for freedom and escape, and the tortoise standing for the family and their loss of identity (in one scene, the son/brother carves the family’s identification number onto a tortoise’s shell that he keeps as a pet). A few students also brought up that symbols also took the form of plant life: a tulip grown in the internment camp symbolizing hope, growth, and renewal, the lack of trees in the camp signifying isolation, harsh conditions, and homesickness, and the rose bush as the desire for normalcy.

Incorporating Visuals

In one class period, as a way to break up the pattern of large class discussions and small group work, I pulled up a series of photographs and paintings related to Japanese Internment, made available by the Japanese American Digital Relocation Archive (JARDA). Along with printing out the images and displaying them on the projector, I also passed out a list of questions for students to focus on as we looked at and discussed the images:

  1. What are the noticeable differences between the paintings and the photographs?
  2. As a viewer, which has more of an impact on you (emotional, historical, etc.) – the photographs or the paintings? Why?
  3. What is left out of the photographs that is depicted in the paintings and vice versa?
  4. General thoughts and comments regarding the photographs and paintings?

The first photograph I started with, however, was provided by one of my students—her grandparents’ neighbors in Arizona own a fire hydrant that had been used in one of the Internment camps. The neighbor had been a firefighter and had come into possession of this fire hydrant as a retirement gift. When looking at this photo, students remarked on the everydayness of it. This image in particular was useful in helping students understand that artifacts related to Internment still exist, and that such artifacts include everyday objects—objects that we still use today.

In looking at this photograph, copied below, taken of the Amache Relocation Center in Colorado on December 9, 1942 by Tom Parker, one student remarked on how big the camp was—while reading Otsuka’s novel he hadn’t realized how many barracks there were. Another student remarked on the barren landscape and the monotony of the scenery— how it reminded him of a modern prison—once again making a connection between the past and the present.

Overlooking the Amache Relocation Center, near Granada, Colorado. In the foreground is a typical barracks unit consisting of 12 six room apartment barracks buildings, a recreation hall, laundry and bathrooms, and the mess hall. Photographer: Parker, Tom Amache, Colorado

When looking at the painting included below, entitled “Goodbye My Son,” by Henry Sugimoto, circa 1942, students were drawn to the facial expressions of the family in the middle—how sad yet resigned they look, as well as the fear about what could happen to their son once he is overseas. Another student pointed out the vibrant colors, which makes the scene depicted seem more immediate. And yet another student called attention to the words included, words that were commonly seen in Internment camps: “Mess Hall,” “WRA,” and “Block 23,” as well as the people in the background hanging laundry and talking.

Goodbye My Son

When asked to reflect on what they remembered from our mini-unit on Japanese Internment a few weeks after finishing this unit, many students stated that these images were incredibly helpful in beginning to understand this period of American history: “The photos…provide the visuals to the stories;” “I definitely enjoyed the visual aspect simply because I feel like when you see something[s], especially for what they really were, you sympathize more with it.” Another student wrote that “the picture[s] were hard to look at ‘cause you feel the pain through them.” Looking at the paintings and photographs worked in conjunction with Otsuka’s novel by helping students visualize objects and emotions focused on in her novel, such as the barracks and the sadness that those interned experienced.

Reflections – The Benefits of an American Studies Approach

In finishing up our discussion of Otsuka’s novel, students deftly connected course materials to the family’s difficulties post-Internment. What really struck the students was the indifference and cruelty aimed at Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans post-Internment. One student brought up that this was also discussed in Chapter 11 of Lee’s The Making of Asian America: A History—how the fictional mother in Otsuka’s novel and the nonfictional parents that Lee mentioned struggled to find work post-Internment due to continued discrimination against the Japanese. Another brought up that the internalized racism experienced by the siblings in Otsuka’s novel was similar to that expressed by Gabe and Tomas, two of the main characters in Brian Ascalon Roley’s novel American Son (2002), our first novel of the semester.

In the survey distributed to the class a few weeks after finishing this mini unit, one of the questions I asked was if students enjoyed learning about Japanese Internment in our Introduction to American Literature course, and of the 25 of 28 total students who completed the survey, 23 students responded that they did, mainly because they did not previously know about it, that it was a big part of American history that people should have more knowledge of, and that they were interested in learning more about American history. The overwhelmingly positive, critical, and engaged response from my students when reading Otsuka’s novel and learning about Japanese Internment underscores my belief in the benefits of taking an American Studies approach when teaching American Literature courses (encouraging interdisciplinary thinking by using art objects such as paintings, visual artifacts such as photographs, first person accounts like the podcast, and historical analysis such as the chapters from Lee’s book), as well as my belief that effective teaching is a collaborative effort between students and instructors, resulting in a creative, nuanced learning environment.

Works Cited

Lee, Erika. The Making of Asian America: A History. Simon and Schuster, NY: 2015. Print.

“Japanese American Relocation Digital Archive (JARDA).” Calisphere, calisphere.org/exhibitions/t11/jarda/.

“Order 9066 Podcast | APM Reports.” APM Reports – Investigations and Documentaries from American Public Media, www.apmreports.org/order-9066.

Otsuka, Julie. When The Emperor Was Divine. Anchor Books, NY: 2002. Print.

Roley, Brian Ascalon. American Son. 2002. Print.

 

Bio:

Jessica Thelen is an incoming PhD student in English at the University of Delaware, pursuing their Race and Ethnicity research track. She taught as a Visiting Lecturer in the English Department at Westfield State University from 2016-2018, where she taught courses ranging from English Composition, Introduction to American Literature, and World Literature.