Addressing Despair in the Classroom: An Ecocritical Approach to Non-Canonical American Writers

PALS Note: This is the second post from Christina Katopodis about her novel approaches to the American literature survey. Read below for her ideas on combatting despair in face of the many injustices and tragedies in American literary history. And find her first post here

In my last post, I talked about building community in the classroom, something I value as a teacher because it means simultaneously establishing a safe and flexible learning environment. The community-building began with the nature walk and class blog, in shared experiential learning. The ecocritical framework to the course, from the walk to the readings, bolstered a sense of solidarity in the classroom that we discovered we needed later in the semester. One additional goal I had for “American Literature: Origins to the Civil War” was to center America’s origins around her founding mothers and people of color in addition to the “city on a hill” story. While I view this as a good strategy, I didn’t anticipate despair in the classroom when we encountered the never-ending violence of nation-building on multiple fronts. The underlying ecocritical framework to the course became a method to combat despair with activism.

Reading Dissonance in American History: Indian Removal & The Noble Savage
To construct a feminist American origin story from the outset, we devoted time to Anne Bradstreet, Mary Rowlandson, and Hannah Dustan, women in and on the edge of the wilderness. From risking the dangers of childbirth to committing murder, these women demonstrated that life in the wilderness was all about survival, skill, and reason. Despite the Calvinist doctrine of passivity, they didn’t have time to be victims. In early American captivity narratives, the wilderness was a space in which transgressing gender boundaries was palatable even to Calvinist readers.

Bridging early American origin stories and nineteenth-century reimaginings, we read the introductions to Deloria’s Playing Indian and Mielke’s Moving Encounters. There’s little room for secondary reading in a survey course, but both were a fantastic investment of class time. Playing Indian provides context for the Boston Tea Party, from appropriations of Native American identity under the guise of radical freedom to shedding the costume after the war to adopt Indian Removal politics. Likewise, Moving Encounters provides several readings of sentimental moments between whites and Native Americans predicated on the death and departure of Native Americans.

We discussed the Indian Removal Act (1830) at length while reading Hope Leslie and Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans. Teaching the two together was extremely rewarding. Students loved Hope Leslie—it’s an exciting tale that reimagines the Pocahontas story very differently from John Smith’s telling. According to David Reynolds, Magawisca is portrayed as an angel of the forest, which counterbalances the nineteenth century “Angel of the House” stereotype. Students strongly sympathize with Magawisca, more so than any other character, yet this compulsion to empathize warrants addressing the problematic portrayal of the noble savage. The novel can easily lead into the trap of apology but Mielke’s book prepares students to problematize Magawisca’s sentimental departure. Then, and I highly recommend teaching them in this order, students view Cooper’s novel very differently: the disguises are all taken off at the end and racial boundaries are clearly restored. The love stories in Hope Leslie disguise this, whereas Cooper’s racism is obvious. The secondary readings bring this contradiction to the forefront: students understand that novels sympathetic to Native Americans may also be supportive of Indian Removal.

Race and Gender in the Wilderness: Intersectionality & Environment
The wilderness in both novels plays a large role in representations of race and gender. In Hope Leslie, the potential love between Magawisca and Everell is acceptable only when they are young and living on the edge of the wilderness, the borderline of “civil” and “savage” that gets wider with age. In the wilderness, Magawisca’s arm is severed in the act of saving Everell’s life. It’s clear she is a warrior who saves Everell instead of being saved. Likewise, at sea, Hope uses her education (more specifically, her Latin) to escape from a band of drunken sailors chasing her. Sedgwick’s refusal to write women as incapable victims recalls the early captivity narratives; she uses the wilderness as a place to test gender boundaries and break them.

While racial boundaries seem clear in Mohicans, Cooper’s view of masculinity is not. Heyward is a charming suitor for Alice Munro when he’s standing in Colonel Munro’s office, but in the wilderness he’s incompetent, always falling asleep on watch, and rather pathetic for a hero compared to the skilled Chingachgook and Uncas. Yet Heyward displays gentlemanliness, weary of violence, establishing himself as “civil” and not “savage” in comparison. Gender and race intersect in different ways depending on the ground a character stands on, or what his ambitions are. We read Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick through a similar framework but adding in disability studies, the white whale symbolizing whole masculinity, endlessly deferred.

Finding Individual Accountability: Transcendentalism & Self-Reliance
Both Cooper and Melville can be read using animal studies, but this can also lead to despair when discussing the pigeon shooting in Cooper’s The Pioneers or the whaling industry. When students expressed mounting anxiety about deforestation, climate change, and animal extinction, I told them to go back to Thoreau and to connect his love of nature to civil disobedience and activism. The “Economy” chapter of Walden is as much about Thoreau’s financial accounts as it is a philosophy of personal accountability.

As the irony of the Declaration of Independence infiltrated class discussion, and the revolutionary American spirit lost its romance, the Emersonian part of my pedagogy kicked in: I believe that students need to go out into their environments and decide for themselves what justice is and what they need to do to achieve what feels most true to them. I ask them to do some self-reflection, form their own ideas and back them up with evidence and analysis, and, in turn, form their identities and career paths. Emerson asks, “Where do we find ourselves?” That, to me, is what college should be about. At least, it’s a good time to start questioning.

A student spoke up in class one day to tell us about her younger brother who was studying 8th grade American History. He told her what he was learning and she said he had it all wrong, fact-checking his history book based on what she had learned in our class. This moment became an example of how students were already taking a first step to making change happen. I used the structure of the course to argue that we were already working toward justice by doing justice to people as well as the animals and lands that have been marginalized in history. I said it was up to them to do something with that knowledge. There are worse things to be accused of than being an optimist.

Despair in the Classroom: Teaching Slave Narratives

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Image via PBS

Most students define “American” at the beginning of the semester using words like “freedom,” “acceptance,” and “equality,” probably based on their 8th grade history class. But the American origin story becomes an even more obvious myth when we talk about the Fugitive Slave Law (1850). The connections between America’s origins and today’s politics lead quickly to disillusionment and despair. Concurrent discourse in the media about shootings, the second amendment, Black Lives Matter, and police brutality had trickled into class discussion throughout the semester because they were so relevant. It quickly became apparent that not much has changed in the country’s violent history.

I think we reached a breaking point at Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. I had framed Incidents as a narrative about survival instead of victimhood, but disillusionment with “the land of the free” made it hard to view her as anything but a victim. As I discussed Dr. Flint’s power over Linda Brent, a student in the back of the room repeatedly commented, “but that’s so sad.” I opened my mouth and then stopped the protective teacher impulse because empathy is not enough, and there are zero “take backsies” in history.

The best thing I think we can do for our students is to treat violence and injustice as content and not as metaphor. For example, rape isn’t a literary device, no matter how many times you teach Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock.” That’s why I teach consent in the college classroom, treating my students as actants and survivors, young Cora Munros and Magawiscas instead of victims.

Addressing Despair: Choosing Literature that leads to Social & Environmental Justice
Empathy and anger are only preliminary, limited responses to literature. Literature leads to activism, which is the best way to argue for its relevance today. Stowe’s sentimental novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, although it has many, many problems, nevertheless served as evidence in Congress to argue for the abolition of slavery. This course ended in the spirit of social justice once we openly acknowledged our despair and talked about it together as a class.

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Central Park via the author

This fall I’m working environmental justice into the syllabus and tying it to social justice. I’m inspired by my colleagues Kaitlin Mondello and Becky Fullan and their work at John Jay on this blog: Sustainability & Environmental Justice. I will be asking students to pledge to do one thing that is environmentally sustainable for the duration of the semester and to write a reflection about the experience as one of their blog posts. If we reach a moment of despair about climate change, I can remind them that they are already taking part in a solution, similar to the work of questioning and reading critically. I hope the disillusionment will turn into an optimistic sense of social and environmental responsibility as well as a belief that they will effect change in their adult lives.

Contributor Bio:

IMG_4852088740534 copyChristina Katopodis is a 19th Century Americanist, Adjunct Lecturer at Hunter College, and an English PhD student at the Graduate Center CUNY. Christina’s dissertation brings together American Transcendentalism and Sound Studies, examining vibrational epistemology in the works of Margaret Fuller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and William James. Her teaching philosophy balances backwards pedagogy with student-driven learning, aiming to empower individual students by providing flexible learning environments in the classroom and online. She draws from a variety of approaches to make texts accessible, allow individual students to progress at different paces, and encourages intellectual risk-taking in class discussions, collaborative group work, and using media platforms from blogs to Twitter. For further information, check out her website, where she also blogs about teaching.

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Student-Driven Pedagogy in the Early American Survey Course

PALS Note: PALS welcomes guest contributor Christina Katopodis, who is an Adjunct Lecturer at Hunter College and an English PhD student at the Graduate Center CUNY. Katopodis writes about her experience engaging students in the early American literature survey. Allowing students choice in syllabus and class design, asking students to find nature in the New York City spaces, and introducing soundscapes into the classroom have all become integral parts of her student engagement. Katopodis elaborates on her ecocritical approach to the survey here

Crafting a syllabus for my “American Literature: Origins to the Civil War” survey course last fall, I felt the challenge of pairing down a long list of readings and covering centuries of literature in one semester.

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There were three unique hurdles to this course for me: making the survey student-driven, getting all 31 students to participate in discussions, and bringing the American wilderness into an urban classroom. This post will offer my strategies for approaching each through an ecocritical framework and offer some useful takeaways. In a second post, I will align community-building methods with an ecocritical approach to early American non-canonical texts, using a foundational experience in nature to combat despair in the classroom.

Empowering Students: Decolonizing the Syllabus & Classroom Environment
Empowering students and fostering a sense of community in the classroom has an enormous impact on achieving learning outcomes. You can start doing this before students meet you by incorpGoogle-Survey copyorating them into the construction of the syllabus. In a survey course, there are several canonical texts like Hawthorne’s
The Scarlet Letter that students have likely already read. To avoid repeats and expose students to as much as possible, I sent a survey out to the roster over the summer to find out what the majority had read, hadn’t read, and what they wanted to read most. None had read Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie, which ended up being the class favorite. Several students had requested Moby-Dick, so it made it onto the syllabus instead of several other texts. Not all, but about a handful of students loved it cover to cover. It was special to our class because they—not all, but enough—had asked to embark on the voyage.

I also create opportunities for students come up with discussion questions. Giving up some of my authority, I tried to only step in to tie their points together or to arrive at what I wanted them to take away from the discussion. The most successful way I’ve found to do this is to ask students to write down a discussion question in the first five minutes of class. I collect the questions, and ask them in the flow of discussion, and that is how we spend the entire class. This method works better if you have already spent a previous class introducing a text. Often, it’s a great way to call on a student who hasn’t spoken up, to ask them their own question. Student-driven discussions often lead to multiple, unexpected and far more interesting takeaways than mine.

Sometimes I ask students to get into pairs to brainstorm questions, which gets everyone talking, as does most group work. Asking students to complete student-directed work may overwhelm them at first, but only at first. With a little planning in advance and given enough time, students thrive together as long as there are clearly outlined expectations. For example, on the day we covered Las Casas, Smith, and Bradford, I put students into groups of 4-5, and asked them to list 3 things we needed to know about an author. They had read the introductions to the texts in the Norton Anthology of American Literature (Vol. A) as part of their homework, so I told them to consult their notes or scan the introduction now, in class. Each group shared, minimizing my lecturing and allowing us to cover more ground. It not only reinforced personal accountability in a large class but also demonstrated the importance of reading introductions. For longer-term group projects, I outline what parts of the work will be graded, and give students a group member evaluation at the end. Embracing my inner nerd, I built group work for Moby-Dick to a naval theme, assigning each group a captain. Beyond empowering individual students, small groups are foundational to fostering a larger sense of community in a class.

Building Community: Blogging About Nature 

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Mt. Katahdin via jbarreiros

In order to construct the class as a student-driven whole, I needed to build trust between us, myself included. Instead of looking for a “right” answer, I wanted students to get comfortable with taking risks in discussion, and looking to each other instead of always looking at me when they speak. The class blog fostered a tremendous sense of solidarity and trust in the classroom, something I’ll talk about more in my next post. But if I had to pin it down to one activity that gave us all a common experience to build from, it was the 1-hour nature walk assignment and follow-up blog post.

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New York City via Andos_pics

I teach in Manhattan, often in a room without windows. I wasn’t sure how to teach New York City students about the American wilderness, which I felt was crucial to understanding what distinguished “Americans” from their ancestors in Europe. But where would city students find “nature”? Gretchen Reynolds wrote “Walking in Nature Changes the Brain” for The New York Times last July, noting that city dwellers have a higher risk of anxiety and depression most likely linked to a lack of green space. I wanted to transform the long cement sidewalks into rows of corn, give the sheep back to Central Park, and tune out the car horns so students could hear the birds, whispering trees, and footsteps of woodland animals. It seemed impossible at first, but I asked students to go into nature, leaving the definition deliberately open, with their phones turned off for at least one hour, and then to blog about the experience.

cadillac-mountain copyAfter letting my students define nature for themselves, I realized how limited my definition was. They found nature everywhere, from household pets to the Hudson River. Some went hiking, one student took the ferry, and another listened to the natural sounds in a video game. They reported hearing and seeing things they hadn’t noticed before: sounds were suddenly louder, colors more vivid, strangers more interesting. Most felt a sense of inner peace by the hour’s end.

I assigned the nature walk early in the semester before winter settled in, hoping it would inform their readings—and it did. I coupled this exercise with Nash’s Wilderness and the American Mind and Thoreau’s “Walking” to demonstrate a critical, self-reflective approach to the environment’s role in identity formation. Students echolocated themselves in the process. Despite completing the task individually, the walk gave them a shared experience unique to such a large class. Students were more comfortable participating, responding to each other instead of directing all their comments to me.

Because they had to start their nature walks and other posts on a group blog, they also became better connected with each other. They were required to write a total of four blog posts and eight comments, but several wrote more. The blog offered a valuable space for nonverbal participation, and a low-stakes forum to test out ideas for papers and get feedback. Students became better neighbors to each other, cultivating an environment of solidarity and trust in the classroom.

Interdisciplinary Learning: Listening to the American Soundscape

The blog environment supplemented participation in class discussions, yet the classroom lacked the ambience of the blog, which quickly filled with pictures of green urban spaces. The classroom, instead, was flooded with florescent lights, angled awkwardly and cramped. To take a note from Thoreau, there wasn’t room enough to hear our thoughts.

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View from Hunter College via author

Sound is one way to bring the wilderness into the classroom, to focus a class, and to create an immediate shared listening experience ripe for analysis. Close listening is a skill that translates well into close reading. When introducing students to Las Casas, John Smith, and William Bradford, I played the opening of Terrence Malick’s The New World (2005), which is perfect for an American origins course. The film begins with Wagner’s euphoric Prelude to Das Rheingold, and the magical vision of white sails appearing through the trees as the colonists float in to “settle” the land. The alert, listening Native Americans provide contrast to the bumbling, armored colonists, setting the stage for readings that take place in the wilderness.

The subtle sounds early Americans heard before the Industrial Revolution have been overpowered by a loud soundscape and earbud culture. We often seek out quiet spaces in order to “hear” ourselves “think.” This is what makes music and the act of listening such an excellent start to a class: it’s centering, like a meditation, and then the present task is given primary focus. In Listening to Noise and Silence (2010), Salome Voegelin writes that silence is “the beginning of listening as communication” (xv). When we listen together, our thoughts are more likely to harmonize, changing the environment of a classroom.

I often bring music into the classroom. I play Traubeck’s album Years when teaching Emerson’s “Circles” and ask students to think critically about tree rings. Rothenberg’s music from Why Birds Sing is useful for practicing deep listening in the classroom, and his book Bug Music prepares students for listening to a text like Thoreau’s Walden. Musical metaphors play a large role in Transcendentalist philosophy. Megan Marshall’s work on Fuller’s music criticism is a great pairing for Woman in the Nineteenth Century.

Music is like thinking in a classroom: we oscillate between dissonance and resonance, but both have a place in the score. Giving students more agency took us on some unexpected journeys, like discussing school shootings and the second amendment, and on less travelled tangents, like the fluidity of sexuality in the nineteenth century compared to later homophobia. Those were some of the most meaningful class discussions we had, and a flexible syllabus and student-driven classroom made room and opportunity for them. Some discussions, however, took a dark turn, especially when we focused on Indian Removal, slavery, and women’s oppression. In my next post, I’ll discuss an ecocritical framework to the American survey course as a way to combat despair in the classroom.

Contributor Bio:

IMG_4852088740534 copyChristina Katopodis is a 19th Century Americanist, Adjunct Lecturer at Hunter College, and an English PhD student at the Graduate Center CUNY. Christina’s dissertation brings together American Transcendentalism and Sound Studies, examining vibrational epistemology in the works of Margaret Fuller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and William James. Her teaching philosophy balances backwards pedagogy with student-driven learning, aiming to empower individual students by providing flexible learning environments in the classroom and online. She draws from a variety of approaches to make texts accessible, allow individual students to progress at different paces, and encourages intellectual risk-taking in class discussions, collaborative group work, and using media platforms from blogs to Twitter. For further information, check out her website, where she also blogs about teaching.