Teaching Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America after Charlottesville

PALS Note: We are excited to feature this guest post by Katie Fitzpatrick that continues earlier discussions of the role of the political in literature classrooms. Fitzpatrick explains the immediacy of engaging students in constructive political discourse as she considers how to find a balance between the content of a course titled “Democracy in America” and the current political events students encounter outside of the classroom.

I designed my course “Democracy in America” in the fall of 2016, when the campaign was still in full-swing. Anticipating a different result on November 8th, I began the syllabus: “Where does democracy go after the clamor of a Presidential election dies down? How does democracy happen on a daily basis, at the local level, or even outside the law?” I imagined that with President Clinton in office many American liberals and centrists would take a step back from politics – in relief. I wanted to keep the focus on the way democracy unfolds between and beyond Presidential elections, in school board meetings, classrooms, living rooms, and rallies. I selected novels (and secondary sources) that would allow students to consider not just the formal procedures of democracy, but the attitudes, beliefs, and emotions (the ethos) underlying it. We would discuss paranoia and extremism through Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America and Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate, racism and (mis)representation through Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker, and, finally, participation and public relations through Joan Didion’s Democracy and Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night.

Of course, my question “Where does democracy go after the clamor of a Presidential election dies down?” took on new meaning after the election. Far from stepping back in relief, my friends and colleagues seemed more involved in politics than ever. The risk was not that democracy would recede from view for another four years, but that, without our efforts, it would disappear entirely. Yet although the context had changed, the texts I had selected for the syllabus still seemed like apt choices. In fact, they had taken on a new urgency. When I learned I would be teaching the class this fall at Muhlenberg College, I saw it as an opportunity to contribute (even in a small way) to a more thoughtful and constructive political discourse.

Teaching The Plot Against America

“Democracy in America” was offered as a special version of a pre-existing sophomore-level English course, “Literature as Politics.” It was a seminar-style, writing-intensive course with only 13 students, allowing for in-depth class discussion. We began with Roth’s The Plot Against America, which I taught over five 75min class periods. In the latter half of the unit, I brought in non-literary texts from the 1930s-1960s that illuminated the novel’s historical setting. These also connected indirectly to the events of the present, especially the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, which occurred a just few weeks before the class began. I taught selections from Hannah Arendt and Richard Hoftstadter, as well as a 1939 New York Times article, covering a Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden. But while the connections between these texts and 2017 were apparent to me, I didn’t make those connections explicit in class. Later, my students would ask why we had steered clear of a more direct conversation about contemporary politics during our Roth unit. This was a question that, as I will explain at the end of this post, prompted me to think more deeply about democracy, disagreement, and the post-Trump classroom.

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The Plot Against America narrates a counterfactual history of WWII. In place of FDR, Americans elect Charles Lindbergh – a famed aviator, but also a Nazi-sympathizer and anti-semite. Across the novel, Roth’s young protagonist (also named Philip Roth) watches as his family struggles to understand their place in a world of increasingly open anti-semitism.

Because almost everyone in my class was new to literary interpretation, I began by teaching close-reading skills. For this, I drew activities from Writing Analytically, by my colleagues David Rosenwasser and Jill Stephen. For example, my students used what Rosenwasser and Stephen call “the method” to analyze Roth’s description of Jewish-American identity. Students looked for patterns, binaries, strands, and anomalies in a passage describing his family’s assimilation. They then used these observations to write a paragraph analyzing how Roth constructs (and then deconstructs) a binary between Jewish and American identity. Overall, The Plot Against America served as an excellent introduction to close-reading. Students found the plot engaging and Roth’s prose accessible. Moreover, his (to me) obvious allusions and metaphors—the Roth family arguing in front of the Lincoln Memorial; Philip’s national park stamp collection turning to swastikas in a nightmare—helped students practice interpreting symbolism, a skill that was vital when we read Invisible Man a few weeks later.

Frameworks for Analysis

After two class periods focused on close-reading, I began incorporating additional, interdisciplinary sources. The first was Richard Hofstadter’s well-known 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” Hofstadter argues that politicians using the paranoid style seek to explain complex political phenomena through a single scapegoat (Catholics, Jews, Communists, Freemasons). Students had no trouble naming uses of the paranoid style in the present. We discussed islamophobia, anti-semitism, and “pizza gate,” but also considered the liberal focus on Russian meddling, which sometimes risks occluding the profound divisions within American society. If anything, students found it too easy to name contemporary phenomena that seemed paranoid and we had to work together to put some limits on the term. They often defaulted to viewing any form of disagreement or antagonism through the lens of paranoia. I explained that, for example, it is not paranoid for Republicans to accuse Democrats of undermining the second amendment; it is paranoid to suggest that Obama is secretly Muslim. A particularly instructive moment occurred when one student suggested that being against GMO food products is paranoid. Two other students expressed that they were against GMO products. I allowed both sides to argue their viewpoints for a few minutes, then pointed out they had performed an example of legitimate democratic disagreement. Both sides had presented reasoned considerations without accusing one another of being secretly in the thrall of shadowy forces. This, I explained, was the difference between democratic antagonism and the paranoid style.

We then discussed the place of paranoia in The Plot Against America. The fascist politicians in the novel express obviously paranoid views. But so do Aunt Evelyn and Rabbi Bengelsdorf, who rely on an elaborate conspiracy to justify their own complicity in an anti-semitic regime. Finally, Philip’s parents are unsure whether to believe the most seemingly paranoid theories on the Jewish left (expressed by radio personality Walter Winchell). Intriguingly, Winchell’s “paranoid” fears about the government’s violent intentions seem prescient by the end of the novel. In this way, Roth suggests that it can be difficult, without the advantage of historical hindsight, to determine which views will prove paranoid, and which prophetic.

Historical Contexts

For the fourth day of our unit, I brought in a 1939 New York Times Article (purchased from their online archive). The article, “22,000 Nazis Hold Rally in Garden; Police Check Foes,” covered both the rally and the clashes between police and protesters outside (events also described in the novel). In particular, I drew attention to a quoted statement from the American Jewish Committee:

“The German-American Bund is, in our opinion, completely anti-American and anti-democratic. It is a foreign-inspired organization endeavoring to arouse in the United States the same hatreds which in Germany have brought the condemnation of the entire civilized world. Nevertheless, because we believe that the basic rights of free speech and free assembly must never be tampered with in the United States, we are opposed to any action to prevent the Bund from airing its views.”

I asked students whether they agreed with this statement. Most did. We discussed to what extent that position was consistent with their view of the novel as a whole. After all, the central problem in the text is President Lindbergh’s refusal to join WWII to fight against the Nazis. If students wanted to protect the free-speech rights of Nazis in the United States, while supporting military intervention against those abroad, could they make those two positions consistent?

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New York Times article covering Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden.

The students were, at first, visibly puzzled by this problem, and they didn’t ultimately agree about their stances on it. But it led to some nuanced and interesting points. One student suggested that while we might intervene against the state violence being perpetrated in Europe, this was different than the non-state actors rallied at Madison Square Garden. Others considered whether and how democracy could contain both free-speech protections and fierce condemnations of hate speech. For me, this discussion obviously resonated with the recent events in Charlottesville and with contemporary debates about racism, anti-semitism, and free speech. I was glad to see my students wrestling with these urgent questions in an informed, thoughtful, and rigorous way. But while I assumed that they could make the connection to Charlottesville, I (mistakenly) did not make that connection explicit.

From the Classroom to the Campus Climate

About a month after we concluded our discussion of The Plot Against America, a racist incident occurred on our campus while my students were studying Invisible Man. This led to an impromptu (and heated) class discussion about how the racism in the novel connected to current events. When I asked students whether they would like to make those explicit connections more often, they all said they would. Several even mentioned that they wished there had been more opportunity to talk about current events during our Philip Roth unit. This surprised me at first; I had intended to make the connections quite clear. But upon reflection, I realized I had also felt a bit wary during class discussion. I wasn’t sure where my students stood politically, and being a new faculty member myself, I was worried about provoking a tense debate between them or appearing to “push” views they disagreed with.

Instead, what I learned over time (especially in our Invisible Man unit) was that most (perhaps all) of my students were roughly on the liberal/left side of the political spectrum. More importantly, they were capable of working through political disagreement among themselves when it arose. The irony, of course, is that when I designed the syllabus, I had intended to tackle political questions head-on. But the antagonistic political climate itself got the best of me. I wasn’t sure if we could have a democratic conversation about democracy, even though I was given a group of students who were more than capable of doing just that. Of course, my wariness might speak to my own lack of pedagogical courage. But I think it speaks equally to a vague chilling effect on free speech – not (or not only) for de-platformed conservative speakers, but for junior, contingent, and immigrant faculty teaching contemporary political issues, even at supportive liberal arts colleges.

Much of the current debate about free speech on campuses is less about free speech per se, than about which kinds of conversations colleges want to foster, which forms of disagreement they want to stage. Most colleges are prepared to hold debates on taxation, for example, but not on the humanity of people of color (a necessary distinction, in my opinion). In my class, I found myself faced with a different version of this problem. I was prepared to foster disagreement about students’ interpretations of the novel, their reactions to Hofstadter, or their views on Walter Winchell’s dissent. What I wasn’t prepared for, pedagogically or emotionally, was a conversation where one student compared President Trump to the Nazi-sympathizing President Lindbergh and another found this comparison outrageous. Of course, that’s a more vital conversation than anything about close-reading, but it would be a difficult conversation to have – one potentially destructive of our classroom environment, and early in the semester too.

I’m still not sure how to lead that kind of discussion, and I’m aware that it could go very well or very poorly. I’m still trying to learn how other teachers have led conversations about politics in the past year, and I think we could all stand to reflect on these questions more. But my major take-away is that my students wanted to have more difficult conversations, and were capable of doing so. Perhaps they understood democracy better than I did.

Contributor Bio

Macintosh HD:Users:Barbra:Desktop:Screen Shot 2017-11-13 at 7.13.47 PM.pngKatie Fitzpatrick is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the English department at Muhlenberg College. She received her PhD from Brown University in May 2017 and is currently at work on her first book, Between Law and Justice: Legal Authority, Political Philosophy, and Postwar Fiction. She can be found at katiefitzpatrick.info and on twitter @katiefitzpat.

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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?

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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.