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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History’s Inconsistent Characters

My students expect authors who make it onto the syllabus to be “good” people.  If these writers don’t have sound morals, why would we care about what they have to say?

Some of my students want the same thing from authors and historical figures as they want from fictional characters: consistency. Because of this, I see students lump both fictional characters and actual people into the overly general groups of “good” or “bad.”

Of course, this overgeneralizing is a problem that I try to tackle from the get-go each semester.

In nearly all of my literature courses, I introduce students to a chapter titled “Worth the Consideration of Those to Whom It May Prove Worth Considering” from Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man (1856).  In this chapter, the narrator directly addresses readers and their mounting concerns about the novel’s “inconsistent” characters.  The narrator first acknowledges that in fiction “there is nothing a sensible reader will more carefully look for, than that, in the depiction of any character, its consistency should be preserved” (75).  Next, despite this seemingly reasonable criterion for judging a character’s effectiveness, the narrator refutes:

while to all fiction is allowed some play of invention, yet, fiction based on fact should never be contradictory to it; and is it not a fact, that, in real life, a consistent character is a rara avis? Which being so, the distaste of readers to the contrary sort in books, can hardly arise from any sense of their untrueness. It may rather be from perplexity to understanding them. (75)

I find the narrator’s rationale here persuasive and so do my students.  People are, by nature, inconsistent and complex.  I frequently change my mind about things without any reasonable explanation, I listen sometimes to opera and sometimes to death metal, I donate to animal rights organizations even though I eat meat, but all of this is ok.  According to Melville’s narrator, my behavior is natural—it’s simply human—and I’m reminded of several lines from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.) (224)

While my students readily and enthusiastically agree that humans are inconsistent, they still struggle to apply it at times, especially with figures they’ve long-term internalized or romanticized as “good” or “bad”. They can’t conceive how I would allow a morally “bad” author to have a voice in the classroom. Such is the case when I teach James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans (1826).

Last of the MohicansAlthough The Last of the Mohicans is set during the French and Indian War, Cooper writes, and subsequent editions appear, throughout the peak era of Indian Removal. I like to use the Broadview edition that includes relevant historical documents that provide context for the narrative, such as excerpts from the “Indian Removal Act” (1830) and excerpts from Andrew Jackson’s “Second State of the Union Address” (1830).

I initially ask my students, “So what do you think Cooper tries to accomplish in The Last of the Mohicans?”

Students generally respond that the text is explicitly sympathetic to indigenous plight not only because of how Uncas and his father Chingachgook, the heroic Mohicans, are depicted as wise and brave but also because even the villainous Magua only seems to be villainous because of white influence. The English manipulate Magua to act against his own nation and turn him into a drunk, resulting in his exile and fueling his desire for revenge.

However, based on everything scholarship knows about Cooper’s life and political ideologies, The Last of the Mohicans actually functions as a justification for Indian Removal, and Cooper himself was, in fact, pro-removal and pro-Jackson. By setting the novel in the context of the past and focusing on the extinction of a particular tribe, Cooper essentially argues, “It’s a shame about those Indians and their suffering, but it’s too late to do anything about it now. It’s ok though because as long as we remember them fondly, we don’t have to feel guilty about anything. Progress must continue.”

This typically comes as a surprise to students and forces them to reevaluate the connection between the novel and the section of the supplemental document, Jackson’s second “State of the Union Address,” in which he explains:

Humanity has often wept over the fate of the aborigines of this country, and Philanthropy has been long busily employed in devising means to avert it, but its progress has never for a moment been arrested, and one by one have many powerful tribes disappeared from the earth.  To follow to the tomb the last of his race and to tread on the graves of extinct nations excite melancholy reflections.  But true philanthropy reconciles the mind to these vicissitudes as it does to the extinction of one generation to make room for another. (451-2)

Students realize that just as Jackson discusses indigenous groups in terms of “extinction” and suggests that philanthropy can “reconcile the mind” of white Americans struggling with guilt and “melancholy reflections”, Cooper like-mindedly believes that literature can further help to “reconcile the mind,” so Americans can move forward with progress. Rightly so, my students see this as a “bad” and brain-washy thing.

This is the point in discussion where my students outwardly mourn. I hear students say: “What Americans did to Native Americans was horrible,” “Native Americans were here first, and the land was rightfully theirs,” “Native Americans were treated so unjustly, so unfairly,” “Jackson and Cooper—they were both terrible people who made everything worse.” My students ask me why I would assign a novel that is basically, in their opinions, propaganda for the historically “bad” team.

I don’t see the novel’s value in the classroom as determined or affected by whether or not Cooper was a “good” or “bad” person.  I’m okay with understanding Cooper, as I understand many other early American authors, as inconsistent.  I teach Cooper’s novel because it reveals so much about American culture in the Jacksonian era. I also teach the novel because it reveals so much about my students in the contemporary era.  I say to my legitimately concerned group: “Well, this campus stands on what was once Iroquois territory. Why don’t you take action, right the wrongs of the past, and give it back? The Iroquois nation still exists—give it all back.”

As expected, I hear no enthusiastic “yes!” from the group. Instead, the following type of dialogue ensues:

Students: “Well, we can’t do that. That doesn’t make sense”

Me: “Why not? You clearly feel indigenous people have been wronged. You feel sorry for them.”

Students: “But we can’t just give land back. We’ve done so much and accomplished so much with this space over all these years.”

Me: “Ah, you’ve ‘cultivated’ the land—it’s now too late to make a change?”

Students: “If we just give everything back, where would the university go? Where would our cities go?”

Me: “That kind of large-scale displacement would cause a lot of chaos…”

Students: “And what would Native American groups with populations way smaller than ours even do with all of the space?”

Me: “So, the land would be ‘wasted’?”

In a nutshell, the student rationale for why we can’t give the land back today sounds a lot like the rationales provided by those “terrible people” Andrew Jackson and James Fenimore Cooper.  In his address, Jackson, like my students, explains how Americans have “accomplished so much” with the land:

What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns, and prosperous farms, embellished with all the improvements which art can devise or industry execute, occupied by more than 12,000,000 happy people, and filled with all the blessings of liberty, civilization, and religion? (452)

The most common arguments for removal in the 18th and 19th centuries centered on the idea that indigenous peoples failed to cultivate land and use it to its full potential. As a result, what mattered was not who was there first but who was using the land most productively and efficiently.

I ask my students, “Does that mean you’re all ‘bad’ people?”, but this question only yielded silence.

To get students talking again, I ask, “Was Thomas Jefferson a ‘good’ person?” They respond with a definite “yes.” I ask them to explain why, and they, as expected, cite the “Declaration of Independence” and his role in the American Revolution. I then tell them that as president, Jefferson devised manipulative plans to trick Native Americans into debts that they would only be able to pay off by giving up lands. Jefferson was unquestionably pro-removal. I can point to specific letters Jefferson wrote which prove so.

Is Jefferson still a “good” person? Is the “Declaration of Independence” enough of a reason to forgive his problematic ideologies about other races? Even if my students aren’t familiar with Jefferson’s plans for indigenous peoples, they are aware that Jefferson was a slaveholder.

But why do people feel compelled to categorize Jefferson, anyone else for that matter, as “good” or “bad”? Why this drive to figure out in which group to place history’s characters? Why do we need to see Jefferson as a hero and Jackson as a villain instead of as what they are: flawed, contradictory humans?

I tell my students an overly simplistic story: Once upon a time, there was a boy who was orphaned because his family died helping others during a war.  Despite being an orphan, the boy worked hard and became a lawyer.  Now a man, he eventually fell in love, got married, and tried to have children, but his wife couldn’t conceive, so they adopted. One of the adoptees was a Creek Indian, orphaned when his parents were killed during a battle. The man claimed that he saw himself in that orphaned little boy and felt compassion for him.  About 40 years later, the man got a really important job, but before he could start, his beloved wife died on Christmas Eve. In her memory, and because he loved children and was once an orphan himself, every Christmas he would go to the city orphanage and bring all the children presents.

Can my students guess who this story is about? No. How could they possibly believe that Andrew Jackson, a “bad” man who readily exterminated indigenous populations could ever do something as inconsistent and “good” as identify with, adopt, and raise an indigenous child? Jon Meacham’s 2008 biography describes Jackson in the following way:

He was the most contradictory of men….A sentimental man who rescued an Indian orphan on a battlefield to raise in his home, Jackson was responsible for the removal of Indian tribes from their ancestral lands….Like us and our America, Jackson and his America achieved great things while committing grievous sins. (xix)

Does a story about bringing orphans Christmas presents justify or forgive Jackson of his policies or actions regarding Indian Removal? Absolutely not—those are things that can never be forgiven or forgotten, especially by those whose ancestral lines were directly impacted.

But the anecdote about Jackson does at least reveal that he, like Cooper, like all other humans, is inherently contradictory. My own students, certain of their own “goodness” shared sentiments quite reminiscent of Jackson’s and Cooper’s during our discussion of The Last of the Mohicans. Does that mean they’re secretly “bad”? I don’t know. Regardless, I think they will consider their own inherently contradictory natures before hastily applying labels like “good” or “bad” in the future.

Works Cited

Cooper, James Fenimore. The Last of the Mohicans. Edited by Paul C. Gutjahr, Broadview,

Jackson, Andrew. “Second State of the Union Address.” Gutjahr, pp. 451-3.

Meacham, Jon. American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House. Random House, 2008.

Melville, Herman. The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade. Edited by Hershel Parker and Mark Niemeyer, Norton, 2006.

Spengemann, William C., and Jessica F. Roberts, editors. Nineteenth-Century American Poetry.  Penguin, 1996.

Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself.” Spengemann and Roberts, pp. 165-225.