MyAmericanFuture

MyAmericanFuture
MyAmericanFuture

Thursday, December 14, 2017

December 14, 2017: Fall 2017 Reflections: Adult Learning Classes



[As another semester comes to a close, I wanted to spend the week reflecting on some complex moments and questions related to Teaching under Trump (trademark AmericanStudier!). I’d love to hear your thoughts, on these or any of your own teaching or semester reflections, in comments!]
On three benefits for life in Trump’s America from my semester’s three adult learning courses.
1)      Historical Knowledge: My first class for Assumption College’s Worcester Institute for Senior Education (WISE) program was at once the most historically focused and yet the most overtly connected to our own moment of the three courses I’m highlighting here. That is, I believe that the course’s central focus on Expanding Our Collective Memories, on presenting five particular histories that we need to better remember, had a lot to offer our 21st century conversations and narratives. To cite one example, for the first class I highlighted a series of forgotten Revolutionary era histories, from early feminist authors and activists to African American slave writers and figures to the period’s Moroccan Muslim American community in Charleston. These figures, texts, and histories are of course well worth remembering for their own sake, but they also and crucially shift our sense of the Revolution and America’s founding, reminding us that such cultures and communities have been integral and vital parts of our national identity and community since its origin points.
2)      Cultural Contexts: My first class for Brandeis University’s BOLLI program was much more literary in emphasis, focusing on creative works by pairs of American authors from shared or similar cultural backgrounds (one more historical and one current). But each and every one of those authors and pairs of course had something meaningful to offer for 21st century American conversations and culture, and I would highlight in particular the two novels on which our middle three weeks of discussion focused: Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition (1901) and David Bradley’s The Chaneysville Incident (1981). I wrote in my preview post about my excitement at teaching that pairing (as well as Bradley’s novel at all) for the first time, and the class and conversations didn’t disappoint. We stayed closely focused on both of those wonderful novels for much of our time, of course, but we nonetheless also linked them to a wide and deep variety of contemporary issues, from police brutality and the anthem protests to the resurgence of white supremacy and debates over American identity (among many others). I’ve long believed that Chesnutt’s book should be required reading for all Americans, and after this experience I might just have to add Bradley’s into the mix as well.
3)      Communal Conversations: My I’ve-lost-track-of-what-number class for Fitchburg State’s ALFA program had no central theme or question; we just read and discussed ten great short stories from the Best American Short Stories 2016 anthology. As a result, while a few of the stories connected to one or another specific issue in Trump’s America, most did not do so in any particular way, and most of our conversations thus focused on the stories themselves as well as various contexts far beyond 2017. And yet I would nonetheless argue that these conversations offered a vital experience for living in and surviving the age of Trump: the chance to be part of and share thoughts and ideas with a community of interesting, engaged, intelligent, empathetic fellow Americans and humans. The horrors of our current moment can feel not only crushing but isolating, as of course can various features of our social media and technological worlds. So I’m not sure there’s anything we can do more consistently and crucially to combat those effects than to find and treasure such communities. Every adult learning class I’ve ever taught has offered one for me, which is why I keep coming back to these wonderful programs.
Last reflection tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Fall reflections you’d share?

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

December 13, 2017: Fall 2017 Reflections: First-year Writing I



[As another semester comes to a close, I wanted to spend the week reflecting on some complex moments and questions related to Teaching under Trump (trademark AmericanStudier!). I’d love to hear your thoughts, on these or any of your own teaching or semester reflections, in comments!]
On how a culminating assignment can help us engage with the world around us.
In the semester preview post for my First-year Writing I class, I focused on the many non-writing-specific skills that writing courses like this one also have to include and teach. As I mentioned there, Fitchburg State University is moving toward the creation of First Year Experience courses (likely to be piloted this coming academic year, and one of which I’m likely to teach so watch this space for more), a kind of complementary introductory class that might well allow some of those skills to shift out of the First-year Writing series. If so, that could help create more space for us to focus on the variety of writing skills and assignments that not only are the official center of these first-year writing courses, but also and even more importantly have their own vital contributions to make to our students’ identities and lives, well beyond their time on campus. In this post I wanted to focus on the potential benefits of one such assignment in my own Writing I class, a complex culminating paper in which I ask students to combine the two dominant modes of writing—personal and analytical—through which we have moved in the course of the semester.
For this Paper 5 assignment, I ask the students to pick a broad topic for which they both have personal connections/experiences and can imagine analytical questions and lenses. Some of the many wonderful topics that students chose this time around included eating disorders and body image, experiences and issues of veterans reintegrating into society, the cultural role and complexities of video games as an artistic genre, and challenges and opportunities related to nursing in a multicultural society. For the paper I ask the students to create roughly 4-5 paragraphs each for more personal and more analytical sides (with one or more outside sources helping provide the evidence for the analytical paragraphs in particular), and to then create a paper structure that moves back and forth between these two forms of writing. They also give their one oral presentation of the semester on their topic and work in progress, to practice those skills as well as get feedback from both me and a peer on their developing paper. And along the way we read and discuss two particularly prominent and illuminating examples of this complex genre of writing, Adrienne Rich’s “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-vision” and Richard Rodriguez’s “The Achievement of Desire,” to help model its form and elements.
There’s a lot that I value and love about this culminating assignment, which I’ve been using since my first time teaching Writing I at FSU back in Fall 2005 (!). But here I want to highlight briefly three applications of it to the lifelong goal of engaged citizenship in 21st century America. First, the assignment asks students to consider their personal stakes in broad topics, and indeed to treat those personal connections as just as worth attention and investigation as more formal analytical questions; as this space no doubt reflects, I think we can’t fully discuss any topic without such personal reflection and engagement. Second, the assignment requires at least a bit of research before the students can create the analytical paragraphs, reflecting the importance of specific detail and knowledge for such analysis of issues; from our current president on down, all Americans could use more research time before they opine in any and all debates and conversations. And third, both the oral presentation and the paper itself require the students to communicate both the personal and analytical lenses to outside audiences, and thus to think about how they can add their own perspective and their evolving knowledge into such broader conversations and communities. Am I saying all Americans should write a version of my Writing I Paper 5? Well…
Next reflection tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Fall reflections you’d share?

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

December 12, 2017: Fall 2017 Reflections: Mark Twain Seminar



[As another semester comes to a close, I wanted to spend the week reflecting on some complex moments and questions related to Teaching under Trump (trademark AmericanStudier!). I’d love to hear your thoughts, on these or any of your own teaching or semester reflections, in comments!]
On reading and thinking about a long-past author as a contemporary commentator.
I’m pretty sure I hadn’t thought at all yet about the syllabus or specifics for my Major Author: Mark Twain senior seminar when I gave last March’s talk at the Twain House on the topic of “Twain as Public Intellectual.” (Perhaps that’s a bit more inside baseball than you’d like if you’re a non-higher ed reader, but it’s a general truth, if not indeed a fact universally acknowledged, that as of March 3rd we don’t often have any real sense of our Fall classes, beyond their basic existence.) I’d even go further, and say that when I put in my idea to focus this third iteration of mine for the course (after ones on Henry James and W.E.B. Du Bois) on Twain, I did so much more because of the breadth and diversity of his career and works than because of any particular thought about contemporary connections he might offer. I knew that toward the end of his career Twain wrote a number of pieces that engaged very fully with his contemporary society (in ways that would also resonate with our own), but generally saw that as one of many stages in that long and multi-faceted career.
Well, I was wrong—or at least severely understating the case—on two distinct but interconnected levels. For one thing, I discovered in one of those late-career texts, 1905’s “As Regards Patriotism” (that’s not the whole piece, which also includes some engagement with the U.S. occupation of the Philippines that had pushed Twain so fully into the political realm, but it gives you a good sense of it at least), perhaps the most relevant historical source for our contemporary debates over the NFL anthem protests that I’ve yet encountered. And for another, even more unexpected thing, I likewise discovered a very early-career piece of Twain’s, 1866’s “What Have the Police Been Doing?,” that resonates quite closely and stunningly with the current debates over police brutality that are so intimately linked to those anthem protests and many other contemporary conversations. Which is to say, across the whole arc of his long career Twain not only engaged with aspects of his contemporary society, but did so in ways that also offer specific and important contexts and lessons for ongoing issues and debates in 21st century America.
That last clause is a tricky one, though. The latest of these Twain pieces were written well more than 100 years ago, and the police piece more than 150. Obviously the whole of my public scholarly career is dedicated to the idea that learning about the past can and should affect us in the present in a variety of ways, but is it really possible—or desirable—to see particular pieces from 100 to 150 years ago as direct and relevant commentaries on our contemporary moment and society? Shouldn’t we instead take both them and their historical and social contexts on their own terms, complex as they already were? I would agree that that’s a primary move, and hope and believe that we began and dwelled in that specific analytical space for many of our class conversations. But it’s not either-or, and we also consistently (in our shared work and in individual student responses and papers) linked both specific pieces like the ones above and overarching aspects of Twain’s writing and genres, career and perspective, society and contexts, to debates, issues, cultural works, and ideas in 2017. Speaking for myself, I learned a great deal about both Twain and us through those contemporary links, and wish that many more Americans had the chance to read these pieces and consider what Twain can tell and offer us.
Next reflection tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Fall reflections you’d share?