Monday, January 12, 2015
January 12, 2015: Spring 2015 Previews: Chesnutt and the Ferguson Syllabus
[With the start of a new semester comes all the new opportunities and possibilities provided by a fresh group of courses. In this week’s series I’ll highlight a few of those semester plans, among a couple other things on my Spring 2015 radar. I’d love to hear about your spring plans and goals in comments!]
On how I’m hoping a last-minute syllabus change can connect my classroom to the world beyond.
Almost exactly a year ago, as part of last January’s spring preview series, I wrote about one of my more difficult pedagogical decisions to date: to replace my favorite American novel, Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition (1901), with Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899) as a mainstay on my American Lit II syllabus (one of the courses I teach most frequently at FSU). All of the reasons I highlighted in that post remain in play, and in both that spring section of the survey and my Fall 2014 American Novel to 1950 course I have found that students do indeed connect very well to Chopin’s novel and all the complex and important questions and themes with which it presents us. So when I put in my book orders in October for this spring’s two sections of the survey, I kept Chopin on there and Chesnutt off—and then, just a few weeks before the semester’s end, I called the bookstore and switched those two texts.
The reason for the change can be boiled down to one hashtagged phrase: #FergusonSyllabus. What began as that Twitter trend has grown into an evolving, extremely impressive public scholarly conversation about how readings and discussions in American literature, history, society, sociology, and identity (among other topics) can provide a broad and deep contextual framework for a better communal understanding of the Ferguson violence, protests, and all the related issues to which they connect. There have been lots and lots of great nominations for that shared syllabus, but I can’t think of a better book through which to connect students to conversations about race and history, the shadows and legacies of slavery and discrimination, segregation and lynching, law and ethics, family and generational relationships, violence and community, the worst and best of American history and identity, and much more than Chesnutt’s monumental novel.
As I noted in last year’s post, in most (if not all) of my prior experiences teaching Chesnutt’s novel, the majority of my students haven’t been able to finish that dense and demanding work. But while that certainly presents a challenge, I would also argue that in this case it offers an opportunity: for me to frame for them in every way I can, from the use of other contextual materials (such as the lynching website Without Sanctuary) to analytical connections to our contemporary moment and its histories and stories, the significance and resonance of this book. I’ve written elsewhere about the balance of democracy and direction I have come to feel is necessary in a survey course, and in this case, that is, I believe that substantial direction from me will help make Chesnutt’s novel the rich vehicle for historical and contemporary connections it can and should be. I still and always will want to hear what the students think and have to say—but there are clear and good reasons why I made the change back to Marrow, and I plan to share them with the students throughout.
Next preview tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Spring plans you’d share?