Thursday, December 17, 2015
December 17, 2015: Semester Recaps: Honors Literature Seminar
[With this week’s final papers and exams comes the end of another semester at Fitchburg State University, and with it a series of semester recap posts this time focused on inspiring student work and ideas! Please share your own semester reflections in comments, and/or your spring plans and goals leading up to a predictive weekend post!]
My Honors Lit seminar on the Gilded Age featured lots of very strong individual student presentations, papers, and perspectives. But because it was such a strong group, our collective conversations also led to numerous interesting insights on our focal works and topics. Here are three of those impressive collective questions and perspectives:
1) Native American Agency, Stereotypes, and the Wild West Shows: Two of the supplemental online texts in our first unit (on the West) focused on histories and images/advertisements of the era’s Wild West Shows. The students had a lot to say about such complex topics as visual culture and the role of popular entertainments in culture, but I was particularly impressed with their nuanced conversation about the shows’ Native American performers. We moved through a number of issues of agency and power, stereotypes and alternative narratives, and the possibilities and limitations that these shows offered for their performers as well as their audiences. Really strong models of visual, popular, and material culture analyses in this inspiring conversation.
2) Romance, Realism, and Literary Marriages: Our first two main texts, Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’ The Story of Avis, feature central marriages that it’d be easy to read as entirely contrasted: Jackson’s idealized and romanticized union of Ramona and Alessandro contrasted with Phelps’ flawed and realistic marriage between Avis and Philip. But in our concluding discussions of Avis (the second of the two we’d read), the students acknowledged but pushed beyond that contrast, considering how both novels use both genres: Jackson keeping the marriage idealized and romantic in order to contrast it with her deeply realistic portrayal of histories of cultural oppression and dispossession; and Phelps starting with a romanticized portrait of love in order to develop her portrayal of how both genders are affected and limited by such romantic ideals and conventions. Conversations that helped me see both novels in new ways!
3) Assimilation and Resistance across Cultural and Historical Boundaries: In our last unit, I asked the students to read two complex texts at once: Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition and Sui Sin Far’s Mrs. Spring Fragrance. They were entirely up to the challenge, and responded with a number of interesting ways to link these two very distinct works. Some of the most nuanced conversations had to do with how Chesnutt and Far’s ethnic characters (that is, Chesnutt’s African American characters and Far’s Chinese American ones) respond to the pressures to assimilate into the mainstream (European American) culture that surrounds and oppresses them. Both authors create a range of responses to those pressures, and the students’ analyses of these distinct characters and themes helped us develop multi-layered readings of both works and of what they can help us see about culture and identity in the Gilded Age and in our own contemporary moment as well.
Last recap tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other reflections or predictions you’d share?