PALS Summer Post Roundup

Site visits and page views are lean for PALS between the May and Labor Day. A summer readership drop-off is a common occurrence for many academic blogs, perhaps especially so for a blog focusing exclusively on teaching. Our traffic successes follow the rhythms of the academic school year. (You can read more about our traffic flow here). Our visits are robust during the fall and spring terms, but drop off during holidays and extended breaks. Again, the readership drop-off phenomenon isn’t exclusive to PALS, as these tweets from Robert Keys show.

 

By the way, if you’re not visiting Keys’ Adverts 250 Project throughout the entire year, you’re missing out!

We even joked about this drop-off earlier in the summer. Our joking paid off and turned into one of our summer blog posts! Side Note: We’re always looking for guest post pitches. Hit us up with your ideas!

The summer months have always been lean for PALS since our rollout in the late summer of 2015. Our readership has climbed over the subsequent years, but the summer drop-off has remained a constant. However, the summer of 2018 topped all previous summers for site views and visitors, no doubt facilitated by a rather substantial uptick in content generated by our regular and guest contributors. PALS usually takes the summer months off, a practice reflecting the fact we understand our success is tied to the rhythms of the academic year.

However, in the summer of 2018 we posted a lot more than usual, which might explain our uptick in visitors to the site. Today’s post is a rundown of our summer 2018 content; it covers May through Labor Day. Think of it as an extended ICYMI as your semester starts to ramp up!

Teaching (Vocation Optional) by Meagan Ciesla

I bring this up because the idea of teaching as a vocation has been on my mind. For many of us in academia, we came to teaching through some other pathway: an interest in lab research, reading that kept us up at night, writing we didn’t want to stop doing. And although teaching is for many enjoyable work, it is often not a calling, but a career.

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

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.

Dear College Professor: On Your Incoming Students by Clay Zuba

I’m a high school English teacher. I’m writing to you regarding our students, their preparation for college, and how you can best build on this preparation in your classrooms. I freely admit that I am still learning to teach my own students. And I wouldn’t presume to tell you what to do. But in my younger days, almost every faculty member with whom I spoke at least once said, “students today . . .”

School’s Out: How to Focus Your Writing With a Summer Writing Group by Randi Tanglen

As many of us know from teaching writing workshops and incorporating peer revision into the classes we teach, writing is a collaborative and community process. Our students’ writing benefits from the feedback and support their peers provide. Yet for many of us, the demands of teaching and instruction make our own scholarly and creative writing an isolating and solitary process. Further, because many of us who read the PALS blog tend to emphasize teaching and pedagogy, our writing might not always be the priority we would like it to be on a day-to-day basis. A summer writing group may help you and your colleagues address concerns about writing in isolation and how to prioritize your own writing.

Some End-of-Semester Thoughts on Academic Struggle by Caitlin Kelly

In my current position I have the opportunity to serve as advisor to first-year students and this was my first time to do that. In one way or another, almost every conversation with my advisees turned to struggle. While some of the struggle they face comes from outside of the university community, a lot of it comes from within. I can only speak to the students I’ve taught but one of the things I’ve noticed about selective institutions is that there is a sense that all high-aptitude students are capable of anything if only they try hard enough.

Schooled in Barbecue by Thomas Hallock

I confess, I had other expectations. Being summer, the time when teachers become learners, I asked Mr. Walker to teach me how to cook ribs. He agreed to school me.

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

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.

Intro to Postmodernism: Questioning the Truth Claim by Matthew Luter

Literary postmodernism is a tough concept to introduce to my high school students. Many students have never heard the term postmodern at all; a few are aware of it as a kind of buzzword that has become a right-wing boogeyman; and more than a few are a little turned off by how academically highfalutin’ it sounds. In order to introduce it to my students, I developed a set of tasks that lean into rather than steer away from the complications of literary postmodernism.

Writing Academically with Emotional Clarity by Brianne Jaquette

I also have come to realize that I didn’t just need to write more; I needed more explanations for what makes good writing. I think the focus on what makes for competent writing in academia is a bit off. Yes, people care about our argument. They care about our sources and our research. But rarely is anyone talking about the quality of our writing, and we fall into bad habits of super long explanations and wordy clauses. We think we already know how to write, so we do not ask anyone about the clarity of our sentences. We only ask, “Does this argument make sense?”

Making Space for Voice and Choice: Assignment Design in an Online Course by Jacinta Yanders

However, in recent semesters, I’ve been thinking more and more about student ownership in the classroom and working to provide opportunities in which students have a hand in shaping the course. In the spring semester First Year Writing course I taught, for example, I had students generate the assessment criteria for their essays and vote on what they believed to be the most important elements of that criteria. By this point, students had seen and worked with sample essays as well as given feedback on drafts from their classmates. They had some sense of concrete moves that came across well to them as readers and other choices that hindered them. Collectively, they were responsible for setting the stakes for the essays and ultimately revising their work to meet those stakes.

This is not a Desk Copy by Greg Specter

It is no wonder the books start getting beaten down physically just by going in and out of bags. Corners dinged. Corners bent. Corners peeling. Stains. The physical destruction of my books is disconcerting for someone that takes care of their books. I take pride in reading a book and finishing it in mint condition. The semester is cruel to my books.

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Intro to Postmodernism: Questioning the Truth Claim

PALS is excited to kick off our 2018-2019 academic year with a guest post by Matthew Luter. Luter is on the English faculty at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Jackson, Mississippi and author of Understanding Jonathan Lethem. In this post Luter discusses how he introduces postmodernism to his students through an intriguing classroom activity, which touches on ideas of truth and asks students to contemplate the distinctions we make between fact and fiction. 

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Gustav Klim

Literary postmodernism is a tough concept to introduce to my high school students. Many students have never heard the term postmodern at all; a few are aware of it as a kind of buzzword that has become a right-wing boogeyman; and more than a few are a little turned off by how academically highfalutin’ it sounds. In order to introduce it to my students, I developed a set of tasks that lean into rather than steer away from the complications of literary postmodernism. To highlight the inherent contradictions and paradoxes of the postmodern, I begin with discussion of language and narrative, which quickly turns to some broader philosophical questions.

This lesson has become an unlikely favorite of my students, which genuinely surprises me. Yes, the activity is interactive and mostly lighthearted… but it’s also deeply abstract, does not resolve its big questions neatly, and—oh yeah—involves me straight-up lying to my students for a large chunk of class time. I’ll explain.

I generally use this activity with junior or senior American literature courses that have already spent a few weeks with some major texts of the modernist era. As a result, I position the postmodern as both a natural outgrowth from modernism and a sharp contrast against it, with help from a few bite-sized pieces of literary theory. In explaining how modernism and postmodernism differ, I borrow most heavily from Brian McHale’s distinction in Postmodernist Fiction between modernism as a movement interested in epistemological questions and postmodernism’s shift to the ontological (once those two “ologicals” get defined, of course). Another useful theoretical text, Ihab Hassan’s “Toward a Concept of Postmodernism,” includes a chart of opposed binary descriptions of modernism and postmodernism, and a few of its more accessible pairings have proved helpful. My students have already encountered canonical modernist texts like The Great Gatsby and A Streetcar Named Desire that invite investigative interpretation, asking readers to sort through what is and isn’t true about the checkered pasts of their main characters. The day’s focus, then, is the shift from asking what is true to to asking what is real.

Toward that end, I give small groups of students paragraph-length case studies recounting recent literary or cinematic stories in which the lines between the real and the unreal (or in some cases, the labels fiction and nonfiction) wind up considerably blurred. Examples I’ve used include the controversy surrounding James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces; the disqualification of Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line from consideration for the Best Documentary Oscar; and Art Spiegelman’s letter to the The New York Times objecting to their initial placement of Maus on the fiction bestseller list. Each case study includes enough information about the text in question to get the group started in discussion, as well as a few conceptual questions, mostly asking students to consider where the ambiguity lies anyway regarding the reality or nonfictionality. For instance, the group assigned James Frey discusses, “How does labeling a book fiction or nonfiction alter how readers consume it?” The group addressing The Thin Blue Line, a documentary which includes re-enactments of events in a crime’s timeline, considers, “In what ways might such a film be best understood as fact, and in what ways is it fiction?” And after learning that Maus is a well-researched Holocaust survivor narrative presented in graphic novel form, a third group discusses, “Why would such a book have ever been classified as fiction at all?”

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Crucially, I designate this day of class a tech-free meeting: no laptops out, no Googling additional information about these stories. That’s because one group has a story that’s totally made up: the fake story I currently use describes a political candidate hiring a lookalike to play himself in campaign commercials, while writing all of the text for the ads himself. Students are asked: if the candidate is in charge of the content of the message, and he never claims to be the lookalike (or vice versa), are voters being deceived? Has lying happened?

After some small-group discussion time, each group introduces their story to the full class, presents how they have answered their assigned questions, and invites additional responses from classmates. After hearing from all four groups, I introduce to the full class a fifth and final case study: “Some element or elements of at least one of these stories is made up. What is the fictional information? And if we got good class discussion out of it today, does it matter?”

For a few minutes, the class becomes a fairly upbeat game of Call My Bluff—and most of my students successfully identify the fully fictional story. But the second half of the final case study shakes some students up—which is the point. Some students quickly decide that the day’s activity has all been in good fun, concluding that the exercise would be problematic only if I were to end class without coming clean. But others are a bit more unsettled for a moment, and usually, at least one student in each class asks how they are to know I haven’t misled them on other class days. Some students flatly respond, “Well, we don’t.” Others respond that the debriefing discussion taking place currently—my admission to having misled them briefly—means that in the end, no one has really been misled at all. And so on. The best part is that the ensuing conversation winds up being one among students; we all know the teacherly joy of the class discussion in which students talk to each other instead of sending every comment through the teacher. And so, a brief introduction to a new literary period has turned into a discussion on the more abstract philosophical question of under what circumstances, if ever, it may be appropriate to play with factuality as a means to an end.

As a result, the lesson has proved useful for me in introducing texts such as Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, which calls into question its own truth claims in “How to Tell a True War Story” and “Good Form,” and Don DeLillo’s White Noise, which encourages readers to question which authority figures ought to be believed amid the airborne toxic event. I could imagine it working equally well to introduce texts in the tradition of speculative fiction—especially those, like Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle or Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, that posit alternative American histories. Or intentionally multi-voiced texts that work, Rashomon-like, to complicate the credibility of any individual speaker when multiple accounts contradict each other, or fiction that relies on overtly unreliable narrators. The lesson sets up individual postmodern texts, but it also makes visible and experiential postmodernity’s essential distrust of grand narratives, authority figures, and easy binaries like fact-versus-fiction.

I am well aware of the risks this lesson takes. Some students find such radical skepticism disturbing and dislocating, while others feel quite liberated by the sense that it gives them permission to ask tough questions and to question authority. And in our present age of claims to alternative facts and accusations of fake news, to present an outright falsehood to students on the same playing field as verifiable information—even temporarily—might be read, I know, as exacerbating all that is problematic about the postmodern marketplace of ideas, not as helping to explain those difficulties. As a result, I do think of this activity as one best placed late in a school term, after a certain trust and rapport within a classroom has been established.

But in my experience, explaining the idea of “the truth claim” as an abstract rhetorical idea only gets students so far. We can talk about how readers’ expectations are shaped by the label nonfiction or fiction on the back of a book. We can talk about how, in literary history, the dividing line between nonfiction and fiction has not always been as sharp as many would like it to be now.  And students can certainly offer accounts of their own experiences that “didn’t seem real” even as they were experiencing them, from the grief of losing a loved one unexpectedly to the euphoria of sharing a state championship with their teammates. They’ve all had reason to question their own realities, even if they don’t yet share the literary critic’s vocabulary for such an episode.

This activity has succeeded in my classroom not only because it helps students acquire that vocabulary, but also because it gives students a moment of genuine doubt as to why—or indeed, whether—the authority figure presenting them with a truth claim ought to be believed as representing something that is real. After all, to make a truth claim about a story is to make an assertion about what is ethical or desirable—or even possible—in the world we share. Discussing this idea, I would assert, requires attention to fact, to fiction, and to what things, both fruitful and dangerous, can follow when the lines between the two are blurred. I hope students leave this class session, then, with a solid introduction to American postmodernism, but even more so, a clearer understanding of what’s at stake when we call something true or false—or a little of both.

 

Contributor Bio: 

Matthew Luter (@matthewjluter) is on the English faculty at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Jackson, Mississippi. He is the author of Understanding Jonathan Lethem (University of South Carolina Press, 2015), and his articles, on authors including Don DeLillo, Ellen Douglas, Willie Morris, and Bret Easton Ellis, have appeared in journals including CritiqueThe Southern Literary JournalGenre, and Orbit.  He is a founding board member of the International David Foster Wallace Society.