Wednesday, November 16, 2011

November 16, 2011: Kids Say the Darnedest Things 3

[The best way I can think of to respond to the Penn State situation is to focus for this week’s blog posts on a few of the many very impressive voices and ideas my students have shared over the years, to exemplify some of the best about what both college and young people have to offer. This is the third in that series.]
I wrote yesterday about a moment in my first semester of teaching, during which I utilized a standard course syllabus; for every semester and every course since then, I’ve created my own syllabus, with every choice (from the texts to the daily schedule to the assignments, and every other element along the way) entirely up to me. But it’s one thing to create a new syllabus for an existing course, and certainly another to create an entirely new course—and it wasn’t until six years later, in the fall of 2007, that I had the chance to teach for the first time two such new courses (both of which I had created in the prior year).  One, an Introduction to Science Fiction and Fantasy, was the direct result of student interest and inquiries, and so I knew that it’d feature a passionate and involved group of student voices who would insure it would be a successful first semester; but the other, an entirely redesigned course in Ethnic American Literature, was much less of a sure thing.
I was uncertain about a couple of aspects of the Ethnic course—including my decision to have us read pairs of works at a time, so we could put them in conversation with one another across generational, generic, or other boundaries—but my central questions revolved around what I’d be asking of the students. In an effort to get the students to put their own identities and experiences in the same conversations with those of the (often) more overtly “ethnic” Americans about whom we’d be reading—something that I had found largely absent when I had taught the existing FSU ethnic lit course in my first semester, not least to be sure because of my own inexperience and inability to get discussions going—I had decided to assign not conventional analytical papers, but instead a semester-long, multi-part, multigenerational family timeline and analytical history. I had first learned about the project from supplemental materials for American Identities, the AmericanStudies textbook created by faculty in the UMass Boston AmericanStudies department, and had immediately felt it would be a great way to get students to research their own families and identities—but, I wondered, could they analyze those topics? Or would they just end up telling interesting but non-analytical stories about them?
I had nothing to worry about. It’s true that my students had plenty of really interesting stories to tell, and certainly in the first stage or two of the project they did more storytelling than they did analyzing. But that was, it turned out, a great model for how the project can build over the course of the semester—starting to get into the stories and information initially, and then adding in analytical frames and ideas more and more fully as the students move toward the final project’s fully analytical history paper. That process also gave the students a chance to figure out ways to put their own family stories and histories in conversation with those present in our shared readings, leading to a number of surprising, striking, and very impressive final project connections. I can still remember at least a handful of individual examples—no small feat given that I’ve taught two subsequent sections of the course, and that it’s been four years!—but none stands out more than the nursing student who analyzed gender identities and roles across the generations in her own Finnish American family (both of her grandmothers had over twenty children; she herself was already engaged but hoping to complete her nursing degree and enter the profession before starting a decidedly smaller family) in conversation with the multigenerational and multicultural women’s experiences at the heart of Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club (1989). I think she learned a good deal through her work on the project—I know I did!
More tomorrow,
PS. Any multigenerational family stories you’d like to share and perhaps (briefly) analyze?

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