The Field of Reads: Weird Adventures in Course Design and Planning

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The texts for my honors, learning community, and writing courses.

The assigned books in my fall honors class are a weird mélange. Notice that I didn’t say “The books that I assigned…” A few of the included texts come via a menu of options generated by a committee of instructors teaching different sections of an honors class in the fall. Yes, I was part of the decision making process. Yes, I advocated for many of the books on the menu.

“Memory and Revision” is the loosely conceived theme of the fall honors course. The last time that I taught the course I imagined it as “History and Revision.” I tossed in Hamilton and The Female Review to augment the books I selected from the menu curated by the committee. (You can read more on teaching The Female Review with contemporary texts here.) These texts would still fit the theme. This time I wanted to use more contemporary texts.

My last honors class was a weird class. The students knew it was a weird class. We spent a lot of time on the things I knew best, but flew through things I wasn’t all that familiar with as a teacher or a scholar. It wasn’t a bad class, but it was off. I’m not saying the day-to-day functioning of the class was off. The texts fit together because of the theme. It was just weird. The students were troopers and helped the class work, too. Once we were all comfortable with each other we talked about the seemingly weird choices. I should have done that the first week of the semester.

This semester might be a weird mix, too. The texts themselves aren’t weird in the sense that Brie Jaquette wrote about here, but the pairings are weird. So, what is on the docket and why? Join me on a journey through this semester’s Field of Reads.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
This is the summer reading. Students are asked to read this book over the summer, which I guess they will do. This text is common to all the honors classes. I advocated for the book during our meetings. Why? It was the shortest book; it was contemporary; it also seemed like the best option for students to read without any guidance. I was told it was a book that young folks often enjoyed reading. Other instructors pointed out that it worked well in class, too. I listened to an Audible version and absolutely loathed it. We’ll spend a week or two on the book at the semester’s start.

Fences and Radio Golf by August Wilson

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Book Ends: A desk copy and a personal copy

I read Fences a long time ago. I saw a production of Fences a long time ago, too. I’ve never seen or read Radio Golf. These two texts are from the menu of common texts. I advocated for the inclusion of these texts. My last three years in Pittsburgh have shown me that students don’t really know much about Pittsburgh. Many of them aren’t from Pittsburgh. Many of them claim to be from Pittsburgh, but are from suburbs or communities a good distance away.

In today’s Pittsburgh many students don’t know the history. The Pittsburgh of today hides its old self, and its long-standing problems, behind its new, glossy image as a forward-moving tech-driven city. It’s a lie. The problems Wilson addresses in his plays remain for many of Pittsburgh’s citizens. You can stand on the campus where I teach and see the legacy of Urban Renewal. You can see the interstates cutting through the downtown. You can see the luxury apartments. The food deserts. It’s all there. I advocated for Wilson’s work because the problems he details are still here in this city, even if they’re masked to many college students behind a sleek office buildings and the glossy university ad campaigns extolling the virtues of going to school downtown.

The Book of the Dead by Muriel Rukeyser

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Books of the Dead

This book isn’t part of the menu of books selected by the committee. The inclusion of this book is all on me. Rukeyser’s long poem details the story of the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel disaster and its aftermath. I’m including this book for many of the same reasons I advocated the selection of works by Wilson. Pittsburgh, of course, isn’t far from West Virginia, but West Virginia seems worlds away from Pittsburgh. I selected this text because it highlights the relationships between workers’ rights, the environment, issues of class, and issues of race. Rukeyser’s approach in The Book of the Dead fits the theme of history and memory—or memory and revision. Rukeyser’s poem is about many things, but I think justice, or more accurately injustice—or justice denied, is one of the important themes. I’m excited about including this text. I’m drawn to Rukeyser’s work because I love the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead.

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Book of the Dead of Hori, about 1969-945 BC; Cleveland Museum of Art

Rukeyser riffs off of  the ancient Egyptian text throughout her poem. I’ll be using the recently published edition of The Book of the Dead from West Virginia University Press. This new edition includes an excellent introductory essay by Catherine Venable Moore. (Read more about this landmark publication here.) As part of the unit on Rukeyser’s poem, we’ll take a look at some applicable passages from the ancient text that inspired her. Still, like the works by Wilson, it is an odd pairing with Perks of Being a Wallflower.

Akhenaten: Dweller in Truth and Before the Throne by Naguib Mahfouz

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This novel rates Aten out of Aten

These novels by Naguid Mahfous aren’t from the menu of committee options. I selected these texts based on the history/memory/revision theme. I also selected these works because they are contemporary texts. Plus, I thought these texts would be a nice pairing with the Egyptian themes in Rukeyser’s poem. There was also that stray email I received announcing that the Middle East as a theme this year for my university. Akhenaten tells the story of the heretic pharaoh of the same name through the perspectives of individuals that knew him. It certainly is a text that fits the theme of revision since each of the characters recount the reign of Akhenaten from their own perspective. It is also one of the few texts that I’ve actually read. I read this years ago when I was seriously considering becoming an Egyptologist. It was the summer going into my sophomore year of college. If you can’t tell I still like Ancient Egypt.

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A journey of 5000 years: From Narmer to Sadat.

The other book by Mahfouz, Before the Throne, covering nearly 5,000 years of Egyptian history, plays out through a tribunal before the court of Osiris as he and other gods of the Egyptian pantheon examine Egypt’s leaders. I hadn’t read the book until this summer, but I figured the book would fit the theme. I also see Before the Throne, with its invocation of a courtroom drama, as a fitting pairing with Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead, especially because of the testimonial intertextuality of the poem. With these last three pairings we loop back to the theme of justice, too.

Let’s Get Weird
On the first day of the semester I’m planning on doing Abigail Burnham Bloom’s “First Paragraphs” activity from The Pocket Instructor: 101 Exercises for the College Classroom. (Read Shelli Homer’s review of The Pocket Instructor here.) In this exercise, students are presented a handout with all of the first paragraphs from the novels assigned for the semester. The activity serves as a way for introducing the texts and course to students. Plus, it is an activity that gets students (and the instructor) away from the standard go-over-the-syllabus-day. The activity provides an opportunity for students to meet the texts, ask questions, make connections, and start thinking about close reading.

Not Feeling So Weird
I’m about to email the book list to the students enrolled in the honors course. That soon-to-come email is the occasion for thinking about my weird class. I started writing this post because I wanted to explain my weird class, I guess, to myself. The summer is a long break between placing a book order and writing a syllabus. One can forget a lot about the solid choices that inform a book order.

Weigh In
Anubis says: Be sure to weigh in with your thoughts! Detail of a coffin at the Cleveland Museum of Art

A thousand words later and I feel a lot better about my weird class. Does your class feel weird because it needs to fulfill programmatic expectations or include texts from a menu curated from a committee? How much do you share with students about course planning and the choices that you make? We’d love to hear from you! Weigh in with a comment below or give us a shout on Twitter or Facebook!

All photos by the author.

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Pairing Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing” with Richard Blanco’s “One Today”

Richard_Blanco.jpgTwo years ago, Middlesex Community College (MxCC) hosted a reading by Richard Blanco. Before attending this event, I did not know much about Blanco or his work, other than vaguely remembering his participation in the 2013 Presidential Inauguration. Named by President Obama as the fifth inaugural poet in American history, Blanco is “the youngest, first Latino, immigrant, and gay person to serve in such a role.” His reading at MxCC was both incredibly thoughtful and thought-provoking, especially during the moments in which he explored his experience with different parts of American culture. During this event, I quickly realized how much I wanted to teach Blanco’s poetry in my upcoming English 102: Literature and Composition course.

After reading “One Today,” the poem that Blanco read at the 2013 Inauguration, I knew it would fit perfectly in my poetry unit for English 102. I designed this unit for students who have not spent a significant amount of time reading poetry in the past; therefore, I assign poems with similar themes for each class period. This way, the theme becomes our class’s starting point to discuss and identify the various poetic devices used in each poem. I decided to pair Blanco’s “One Today” with Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing” when designing the following lesson plan, one that builds on this past activity, to help students further practice critically analyzing poetry while introducing them to the basics of New Historicism.

“I Hear America Singing”

I start this activity with “I Hear America Singing” because I have found its content to be very accessible to students, regardless of their previous experiences with poetry. Since reading poetry out loud can help students to hear certain poetic devices at work, I have the class read this poem out loud—as a group. This idea of using chorale reading was first introduced to me through the Teach This Poem series from Poets.org, at which Blanco serves as a contributor.

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After the chorale reading, I ask students to spend a few minutes writing down their reflections on reciting the poem together as a group. I ask them to explain how the activity has changed their understanding of the poem’s content. I also ask them to take note of:

  • Which words are repeated in the poem
  • The people who are named in the poem
  • The activities that are described in the poem
  • Their take on the last three lines of the poem

Students are quick to point out that they noticed the repetition of the word “singing.” This observation leads to a discussion of how the idea of singing makes the workers seem happy or as if they have a sense of pride in completing their work. We also discuss how the phrases “the varied carols I hear” (Whitman line 1) and “each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else” (11) show the idea of difference, or uniqueness, while the repetition of the word “singing” shows a commonality in these different workers. Students often take note that the professions named are all ones in which people work with their hands. We then discuss the implications of why Whitman may have chosen to highlight these jobs and how the idea of work is celebrated in the poem.

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“One Today”

Since the genesis of  “One Today” is so closely tied to a specific event in American history, I begin this part of the in-class activity by having my students watch Blanco read his poem at the 2013 Presidential Inauguration. While watching this clip from PBS via YouTube, I ask students to write down their observations of the actual event, how Blanco presents himself, and how he reads the poem.

Then, I have students annotate their copies of “One Today.” During this process, I ask for students to take note of:

  • Any words that are repeated throughout the poem
  • Images in the poem that stand out to them
  • Any words or phrases that evoke specific senses
  • The use of -ing words
  • Allusions to Blanco’s personal history
  • Allusions to events from American history

My goal during our discussion of “One Today” is for students to understand how Blanco constructs a depiction of America that celebrates the unique qualities of its citizens while still emphasizing the importance of unity. To do this, we spend a lot of time thinking through what language in the poem shows unity and what language shows difference. For example, I often start with the second stanza of “One Today,” which begins with “My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors, / each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day:” (Blanco 7-8). Through the use of “my face” and “your face,” Blanco acknowledges the different people living in America, yet by the second line we are “crescendoing into our day.” This shift in pronouns is a small detail, one that students new to analyzing poetry may not catch. Throughout the discussion, I make sure that students see how important these choices, no matter how seemingly tiny, are and that these choices are what help Blanco to craft his portrayal of America in “One Today.”

Analyzing the Concept of America in Both Poems

After discussing both poems, I provide my students with a brief introduction to New Historicism. Since theory is not a focus of English 102, I do not spend too much time covering the intricacies of New Historicism; instead, I share with students this overview from The Purdue OWL. I focus my mini-lesson on the questions posed at the bottom of the web page, which are designed to guide students through considering the ways in which the cultural events that occurred during a time period in which an author is writing may influence a text’s content.

To further explore this connection, I have students spend a few minutes researching, either on a computer if we are in the lab or on their phones, what was happening during the time periods surrounding 1867 and 2013, the years in which “I Hear America Singing” and “One Today” were published, respectively. Obviously, students are much more familiar with major events that happened during the beginning of this decade. Refreshing themselves on what life was like in the years leading up to 2013 helps students to have a better foundation for analyzing the ways in which Blanco portrays America in “One Today,” and if this portrayal reflects a realistic portrait of America, even with (or in spite of) the positive tone that the genre of an occasional poem requires.

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Conversely, students often possess a wide range of background knowledge on the 1860s, with some history buffs having a clear sense of the time period and other students knowing almost nothing about it. Some students are very surprised to learn that The Civil War occurred during this decade, especially when considering the fact that “I Hear America Singing” does not mention slavery. This observation leads student to question Whitman’s portrayal of America as a united country and to explore why Whitman may have made the decision to emphasize this united front in “I Hear America Singing.”

This lesson plan is designed to not only help students analyze “One Today” and “I Hear America Singing,” but to also prepare them for the next poems that I teach in this unit, Langston Hughes’s “I, Too” and Claude McKay’s “America.” These poems will help students to further develop their critical reading skills while continuing to analyze the concept of America in poetry.