Monday, January 14, 2013
January 14, 2013: Back to School Hopes, Part One
[Every new semester brings with it lots of promise and possibilities; since I was on sabbatical in the fall, this will be my first time back in the classroom and the department in seven months, making it that much more of a new start. So this week I’ll be highlighting some of those hopes and goals for my Spring 2013 semester. I’d love to hear some of yours for a crowd-sourced weekend post on our collective springs to come!]
On three ways I hope digital resources can contribute to my American literature survey sections this spring.
In one of my September 2012 “Fall Forward” posts, I wrote about my plans to bring digital resources more fully into some of my core American lit syllabi. I didn’t exactly get to that work this fall, but I’m most definitely still hoping to add such digital materials to my two sections of American Literature II (Civil War to the present) this spring. For example, our first long reading in the course is Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), and it’s long past time I made better use of all the relevant materials on my Dad’s Mark Twain in His Times website. I envision starting each of our four discussions of the novel with a particular text or context from the site—one of Kemble’s illustrations, one of Twain’s influences, a contemporary review of the novel—and using it to help provide some jumping off points for the students’ own takes on the novel and these related questions. As long as I make clear to the students that such contextual materials don’t have “right” interpretations any more than the primary text does, I think it should give them additional ways in to reading and analyzing Twain’s novel.
The Twain site is an obvious, specific digital resource for that novel, but I’m also hoping to bring in more parallel but equally relevant historical and cultural materials for other readings. For example, our second long reading is Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition (1901), and I’m planning for the third day of discussions—the one focused on the section of the novel dedicated to the near-lynching of an innocent African American servant—to ask the students to spend some time examining the pictures and artifacts collected at the amazing Without Sanctuary site. Again, I don’t think there are definite interpretations or answers that we can or should take away from either that site or Chesnutt’s portrayal of lynching—but I’ll be very interested to hear what the students notice and think, and I can’t imagine that our conversation about the issue and the novel won’t be enriched by putting Chesnutt’s story side by side with this unparalleled archive and resource.
Then there are my more open-ended and (so far) undefined digital plans and hopes. Our third and fourth long readings, Nella Larsen’s linked novellas Quicksand and Passing (1928 and 1929) and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), are each set in and centrally defined by their Roaring ‘20s worlds. (Quicksand somewhat less so, as its protagonist Helga travels to many locations; but 1920s Harlem is the only place to which she returns in the novella.) I imagine my students, like most Americans, will have some sense of that period and world; but I’d love for us to use digital resources to help reconnect more fully with the era’s details and environment. But what would that mean, exactly? Recordings and contextual materials for 1920s jazz artists? Various material culture artifacts and other primary sources from the Harlem Renaissance? Clips from Hollywood films, newsreels, and other materials from the decade? Those all seem possible, but there’s only so much time and space, and only so much I can ask my students to look at (particularly in addition to our readings). So I’m still thinking about this one for sure—and would love to hear your takes, suggestions, or perspectives!
That goes for all of this, of course—and all week! Next spring hopes tomorrow,
PS. So what do you think? Thoughts on this course and these connections? Other hopes for the spring you’d share?