Pedagogy Under Fire; Or, When Community Members Want A Say Over Your Classroom

I enjoy discussing pedagogy, hence my participation in this site. At the start of every semester, as I go over the syllabus with my students, I create a space for us to discuss why I have made the decision I have for our course. We discuss text choices and order. We discuss assignments and scaffolding. In other words, we don’t just go over the syllabus, we discuss my pedagogical rationale. Students generally feel comfortable engaging with me right of the bat, and they question some of my decisions which leads to further discussion.

I will talk teaching and pedagogy all day long! Why not? It makes us better instructors. This semester, however, I discovered my limits. While I’m happy to partake in these conversations with my students, with other colleagues, and even with parents scouting community college courses for their high school students, I am not compelled to respond to random requests from community members.

The Email

A few weeks into the fall semester, I received the following email:

Concerned Citizen Email

My chosen focus for the class in question is loosely based on an approach I have used before: Narratives of Historical Revision and Historical Recovery. I have written two PALS posts about texts I have taught in various versions of this course: M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! and Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition. This past semester, Chesnutt’s was not one of the texts under fire; though this email’s reference to literature appreciation took me back in my mind to my earlier Chesnutt piece. My most recent line up for this course, and the texts with which this citizen was concerned, was Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider, M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong!, Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera, Luis Valdez’s Zoot Suit, and Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club. 

I thought about different possible responses to address this person’s inquiry, but there were too many factors involved. First, I was teaching 18 units, so all my extra time was already committed to my students. I didn’t have more than two minutes to commit to this odd interest in my course. Second, based on the rhetoric of this email, there isn’t a response I could have provided to appease the writer; going back to my first point, I didn’t have the time for the lengthy back-and-forth debate about my teaching choices that would almost inevitably ensue. Third, this person wasn’t actually interested in my course and didn’t have any knowledge of it. Finally, this email isn’t really about my class per se but about the larger backlash towards higher education.

So I chose not to respond.

Student Activity

Instead, I turned this email into a teachable moment because we just can’t get enough of those! In honor of the American Library Association’s Banned & Challenged Books Week, I put the content of the email up on the board for my students to respond to (and I removed all the sender’s identifying information, like I did here because I’m anti the practice of doxing). At this point in the semester, we had just finished reading the first two texts, the Lorde and the Philip.

I asked them to:

  1. Write out their own initial reactions to the email.
  2. Respond to the concerns based on their knowledge from those first two texts.

My students had endless questions about the email to nearly all of which I answered, “I don’t know.” I did know, at least nothing beyond my own informed speculation. They wondered many of the same things I did. How did this person know what books we’re reading? Why would someone be so concerned about a college class they aren’t taking? But really, the questions suggest they don’t know what the class is about at all, so they can’t have the syllabus; where did they get the list of books from? Who has this much time on their hands? And my favorite, why you? Why are they trying to come after you of all teachers?

For the second question, the response was pretty standard across the board–Ahem. Thank you M. NourbeSe Philip. A paraphrase of all the responses goes something like, if this person had opened Zong!, they would not question how it promotes critical thinking. A direct quote from the in class discussion that was also shared by the room was “I have never thought about something so hard or so much in my life!” I also share those sentiments every time I read Zong! Always to my surprise, however, they also discussed how much they were learning about history. This is one of the purposes of my course focus, but I guess I am always hoping that at some point students will arrive from high school with more knowledge of these huge pieces of history like the middle passage.

Getting Political

Moving back to the first question, because this is where I would like to spend the remainder of this post, the responses varied much more. The similarities were that they spent a lot of picking apart of the email itself in an attempt to address the questions they had about why the person had written it in the first place. For instance, many students pointed out that it wasn’t an American literature course, so why would American classics be the go to texts? They were close reading (yay!) the email to try and figure out how much information its writer was working with.

Where the responses differed had to do with my students political identities and affiliations. I know! I have finally made it to the elephant in the room. This email was really all about politics. And by politics, we are talking about actual politics. When I wrote about Chesnutt as mentioned above, I framed it in terms of literature being political. That can be taken very literally by talking about political parties which sometimes fits the literature, but I normally approach it much more broadly which is how I have always interpreted the concept. This is what seems to be missing from one of the many current wars on education that has encouraged things like the Professor Watch List.

But what exactly was it about these texts that “represent [the] liberal leftist agenda and ideology” my emailer was so concerned about? All five writers were people of color. More than half of the writers identify as LGBQT. There are Lorde and Anzaldúa’s calls to fight the patriarchy. Author’s names and title words appear in languages other than English. The writers challenge dominant historical narratives. These are the assumptions that my more politically liberal students identified. Nearly all of these things would require more than just a glance at the course’s list of books. They would require a bit of research, wouldn’t they? Research where the emailer would also learn these books aren’t obscure and my teaching choices aren’t as radical as they are being treated in the email.

My politically conservative students’ responses were much more nuanced. They too were trying to process some of those go to assumptions, like writers’ race or sexuality being the emailers issue, but were filtering it through their own conservative identities. The challenge they faced, and still face, is America’s dominant two party system where conservative equals Republican and everything that stands for, while liberal equals Democrat and everything that stands for, despite the fight put forth by numerous other political parties.  So my conservative students who support gay rights struggle with it positioned as liberal, which has been recorded more widely about the younger generation. And my conservative students who support DACA and clear paths to citizenship for immigrants of various documentation statuses struggle with the valuing of marginalized voices and experiences as liberal. These values are also apart of their conservative identities.

Ultimately my conservative students were, at the very least, annoyed that their agency was being taken away by the emailer. There were some hypothetical concessions in the form of, “yes, I guess Sister Outsider can be considered liberal because Lorde talks about her lesbian identity and the patriarchy a lot.” The follow ups to this were a whole bunch of buts: “but we aren’t mindless drones,” “but we are in college to be challenged,” “but our political positions aren’t being attacked,” “but we don’t have to agree with every single point; we’re just learning about other perspectives.”

I would place a large part of these students’ responses on who we were reading. Lorde and Anzaldúa are very friendly to readers; I mean, after rethinking the erotic with Lorde, they are ready to engage with her anger. The other part of students’ responses has to do with my pedagogy. I present them with the challenging texts and contextualize the material, but they have to figure out what to do with it.


Reflecting on, Reframing, and Revising Approaches to Texts: Teaching M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong!*, Again

As I sit here designing and prepping for a course I have not taught before, I reflect, as always, on previous texts, pairings, and themes I have used in the past. The course is Critical Thinking, Composition, and Literature; in other words, the choices for texts and critical approaches are endless. Its course aims also align with a writing about literature course I have taught in the past. My initial thoughts go to that course and the current historical moment where language is being stripped of meaning by political figures with more vigor than ever before, though definitely not a new practice.

This past December, I took part in a short series of posts about treating literature as political where I reflected on my approach to teaching generally and my approach to teaching Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition. Chesnutt was an easy way into that conversation because he provides a traditionally structured fictional narrative that is specifically depicting government corruption while illuminating racially motivated shortcomings in journalism. I am not suggesting that Chesnutt’s novel is in anyway simple; my students struggled with it for a variety of reasons. It is a text that students can open and tangibly point to a passage they deem political. This is not the case with many pieces of literature. Their political elements may be harder to see or, in the case of writers like Ishmael Reed, may require a knowledge of historical events and cultural moments readers may not possess. Moving beyond the content, the political can also be present in the form. This creates distance between students and the political elements of form because there isn’t necessarily something explicit for students to point to as political.

For instance, what would you do when presented with this poem?

Screenshot (76)

Screenshot (77)

More importantly, what questions would you pose to students to help them enter this poem? (This is the opening poem to an experimental collection that gets increasingly difficult to decipher as it progresses.) Once students have entered the poem, how do we help them understand why the form is political? Helping students understand form as a political statement is not the same as telling them why form is a political statement. Showing students how form becomes political is the task.

I first taught, Tobago born, Canadian writer M. NourbeSe Philip a few years back in the same class I taught Chesnutt which was composed of both majors and non-majors. Her expeZong!rimental poetry collection Zong! (in which the above poem appears) was challenging for students, as I suspected it would be; it was, and still is, challenging for me. I don’t pretend to hold any answers to it which is part of what makes it so much fun for me to teach. This is also one of the purposes of the text: How do we make meaning out of the slave trade? There is something much more genuine when I don’t have a certain reading of a text to lead students through. The classroom discussions turned into a series of “what if” approaches as we played with the text. For those unfamiliar with Zong!, blogger Wandy Felicita provides a fairly succinct description of the text and its cultural/historical context and get yourself a copy.

My experience teaching Philip’s Zong! didn’t have any moments that would have made it into another edition of our teaching fails. ZongWhy fix it if it isn’t broke? Rethinking my approach to teaching the collection comes from a desire to get even more from the text than before. Last time, we only tackled “Os,” the literal bare bones of the collection. This time, I also want to move though the remaining sections “Sal” (salt), “Ventus” (wind), “Ratio” (rain), “Ferrum” (iron), and “Ebora.” It is also motivated by the fact that the summer course I am prepping meets three hours a day, four days a week. Thinking about how much further we can get when not limited to the 50 min class session fills me with vision. (In case you were wondering–because of course you were!–to the right is a an example of one of the 50 pages that make up “Ferrum.”)

Managing the Supplemental Materials

Philip includes supplemental materials at the end of the text: the court case decision, a glossary of terms, and excerpts from the diary she kept while writing the collection. Each of these pieces can be used as a tool to understanding her project. They provide insight and show the evolution of her work. Being an experimental text, however, can also lead to the over reliance on these supplemental materials. This over reliance combined with, or perhaps caused by, student anxiety surrounding experimental poetry results in students coming up with the same reading of every poem in the collection. Every discussion about every poem boils down to “Philip said she was doing X, well that is what this poem does.”

I appreciate the supplemental materials, but they serve as those little kid water wings that give parents and kids a false sense of security in swimming pools and, as trained swim instructors like myself adamantly argue, increase the risk of child drownings. Part of the work of teaching this text is convincing students to take those water wings off and swim without them. I don’t want to entirely disregard Philip’s framework for Zong!, so I respect her supplemental materials as I pull students away from them.

First, I use the supplemental materials to show why we shouldn’t rely on them so heavily. Philip’s approach to her project changed between the first section and the following ones because she was too limited. The first section is comprised solely of words that appeared in the one page court ruling on the case. By the second section, she has moved on, taking liberty to chop those words up and use any part of a word to construct new words. I suggest to my students that the same is true for us. The court case document was initially helpful for our understanding of the project of the collection, but after that, it becomes as much of a hindrance for our understanding as it did for Philip.

Second, I ask students questions that slowly pull them away from the supplemental materials. Here are a few from my series of leading questions:

A piece of the whole: I try to zoom students in by asking them to think about each poem serving a different purpose to get us to her main aim. “If her large project is about how language fails to articulate the atrocities aboard the Zong, the following court case, its disappearance from history, and the slave trade as a whole, what piece of that is represented in ‘Zong #[insert poem number here]’?”

“The Death of the Author”: While I don’t go quite as far as Barthes, I do encourage students to question our reliance on the author’s statements by asking them to assess her proposed goals. “Even though Philip tells us what she was trying to do, it doesn’t mean she has successfully done it. Let’s say we are arguing that a poem or the collection does something entirely different, what would that be?”

There are many other questions and ways of challenging student reliance on the supplemental materials. My experience is that students’ discomfort with the experimental nature of this collection will make them grab hold and not let go of anything that helps them make sense of it. This leads to a fun game I like to play with the poems.

The What if…? Game

The “What if…?” game is really about teaching students how to engage with experimental poetry. Here are some of our “What if…?”s:

The visual: We look at the poems and ask what the form or layout on the page encourages us to do with it. “In some of Philip’s Os poems there is a pull between line breaks and columns. What if we read the poem from top to bottom, as columns, instead of from left to right?” This approach still respects Philip’s project and challenges students to experiment as readers, similarly to Philip experimenting as a writer.

The aural: We play with voice. Going back to “Zong #1” pictured above. “What if there are multiple speakers to this poem? How does that change the impact of the poem? What if they are all saying this together at the same time? What if it is being said in rounds, like when little kids sing the ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat’ song?” As a class, we try various readings of the poem. We do this with many of the Os poems—often playing with the white space on the page, often changing the number of speakers, sometimes a call and response style.

The decisions we make in our “What if..?” empowers students and loosens their grip on the supplemental materials as they start forming their own understandings. We did this a few times, but teaching it again, I would do a lot more of this because of its success.

 Language and My Old and New Supplemental Materials

As I am returning to teach this text again, but for a course with slightly different aims, I am keeping many of my earlier practices as outlined above and bringing in some new pieces to help us get through some of our anxieties about experimental poetry.

When I previously taught this text, I had students work with The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database. We looked at some of the maps together to correct or filling blanks left from their previous education on the Middle Passage. I also asked them to explore some of the other features on the database and write a brief explanation of what they did and what they discovered. We also listened to Philip read from her collection.

Two additional texts I am bringing in as lenses for approaching Philip’s collection are Toni Morrison’s 1993 Nobel Prize speech and Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider. Both of these get at the issues of language and form that my students struggled with. We will be starting with Morrison’s speech, and then we will move onto Lorde’s essay collection before beginning Zong! Morrison and Lorde will work to bring students into the conversation about the political in language use and forms of writing. In this way, they will come to Philip’s collection with a broader scope of where and how her work can be positioned in the African American literary tradition and among black women writers.

Unexpected, but Temporary Roadblock When Teaching Zong! to Majors

As I mentioned above, the course was comprised of majors and non-majors, roughly 1/3 majors to 2/3 non-majors (but there were a few who have since converted). I bring this up because it impacted my experience teaching the text. The experimentation with form pushed my English majors too much, and they hit a wall. They struggled to get anywhere with the poems. My non-majors, however, were ready to go wherever the collection and our discussions took us. Reflecting on this difference and the statements my majors did make, the opposing reactions to the collection came from a different knowledge base about poetry. My majors had begun taking the survey courses in early British and early American literature. They had much stricter rules for poetry and how to approach poems than their classmates. This disrupted their ability to meet Philip’s on her terms and manifested in a strong resistance to her work. Because it was so challenging and what they had previously learned about poetry did not prepare them to engage with her, they got mad and disqualified it as both poetry and worthy of study. We got through it, but it took a lot of challenging those previous assumptions and having them consider how we moved from 13th century writing style to what we have now in the 21st century: Experimentation!

*Note: This poetry collection came onto my radar in 2012 during my participation in a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute, “Teaching African American Literature,” held at Penn State. My teaching approaches were inspired and developed from conversations about this text that took place during those three weeks.