Tuesday, May 14, 2013
May 14, 2013: End of Semester Thoughts, Part Two
[As another semester wraps up, a series on some AmericanStudies lessons I’ve learned from my courses and students this spring. Share some of your semesters, won’t you?]
On three perfect examples of how student voices and ideas keep me moving forward.
Along with the longer and more developed papers, my American Literature II course includes a couple of shorter and more creative exercises, offering (I hope) different ways for students to connect to and analyze particular readings. In the second, I ask them to pick any character other than the protagonist in Nella Larsen’s Quicksand or Passing (we read both) and to imagine that character’s perspective on that protagonist (since Larsen gives us only the protagonists’ perspectives on everyone else). The creative exercises always produce some of my favorite work of the semester, but this time students made particularly original and effective choices, with these three at the top of the list:
1) One student created the perspective of God (!) on Quicksand’s Helga Crane. As she wrote, religion plays a central and complex role throughout the novella, leading up to its crucial influence in Helga’s final setting and role. But the choice also allowed this student to consider questions of free will and fate—and thus of how much responsibility Helga bears for her decisions and life—in a truly striking way.
2) Another student created the perspective of the cab driver who picks up Irene Redfield in the opening scene of Passing. This profoundly minor character appears for only a few paragraphs, but this student did a wonderful job considering how much the cabbie helps introduce themes of social perception and identification that permeate every moment of the novella. And he managed to imagine the voice of a 1920s Chicago cabbie pitch-perfectly to boot!
3) A third student worked with the same opening scene of Passing, but created instead the perspective of another very minor character—the unnamed man who escorts Clare Kendry to the rooftop restaurant where she unexpectedly reunites with Irene. All we ever know of this man is that he’s not Clare’s husband and yet seems intimately connected to her—but as this student highlighted, that’s more than enough to introduce key aspects of Clare’s situation and character, and to foreshadow one of the novella’s climactic revelations.
I learned a great deal from these exercises, and from so many of my students’ voices and ideas, this semester as every semester. Works for me! Next semester conclusion tomorrow,
PS. Student work you’d highlight?