Monday, August 31, 2015
[As another Fall semester kicks off, a series of preview posts—this time focusing on new things I’ll be trying this semester. Leading up to a special pedagogy post this weekend!]
On how getting creative can help both students and professor keep things fresh.
The first-half American literature survey was one of the classes I taught in my first semester at Fitchburg State University, and while I’ve significantly revised my syllabi for the other ones—First-Year Writing I (on which more in Wednesday’s post) and Ethnic American Literature (about which I’ve written many times)—in the decade since, I’ve kept the American Lit I syllabus almost identical since that initial Fall 2005 iteration. I promise that that’s due not to laziness but rather to success: I have found that American Lit I is consistently one of the courses in which I feel that my students do the best work, develop their voices and ideas most successfully, respond most positively to the readings and conversations, and so I’ve never wanted to reinvent a wheel that seems to be rolling very smoothly just for the sake of reinvention.
At the same time, there’s a danger in keeping any syllabus too static, especially one with which I’ve taught for ten years (and at least 15 sections). And while that danger is partly for the students—who, I firmly believe, can sense when a professor is not engaging with the material as much in the present moment as we ask them to do, and who understandably might respond by giving less of themselves to that course as well—it’s even more there, I would argue, for the professor. We’ve likely all had that teacher who seemed to be lecturing from the same yellowed notes he or she had used many times before, for whom this particular section and semester was literally no different from many others that had come before. Since my classes are capped at 30 students and thus operate almost entirely as discussions (rather than lectures), and since I do all my own reading and grading of student work, it’d be impossible for me not to engage with this new group of students—but nonetheless, it’s just as important for me to engage anew with the material in front of us, rather than relying on my prior experiences or perspectives.
More and more, I’ve come to believe that offering creative options for student assignments and writing represents one vital way to keep things fresh. Again, that’s partly for my own sake: reading 30 compare and contrast essays is far more compelling when even a portion of those essays take the creative option and create (and then analyze) a dialogue between their two authors (to name one example of a creative option I’m considering for this semester’s Am Lit I). But it’s most definitely for the students’ sakes as well: my most successful Am Lit paper has always been the first, in which I ask the students first to imitate a chosen passage and then to use that imitation to develop their close reading of that passage; and I’ve come to realize that there’s no reason why I shouldn’t offer similarly creative options for the course’s later two assignments, and lots of reasons why I should. I don’t think I’ll require the creative work in papers 2 and 3—not everyone benefits from or prefers that option—but I plan to offer it as an option in each case, and hope and believe a number of students will take me up on that offer. I’ll keep you posted on the results!
Next preview tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Things you’re hoping to try or do this fall?
Saturday, August 29, 2015
[A Recap of the month that was in AmericanStudying.]
August 3: Virginia Connections: Slavery at Monticello App: My annual Old Dominion series kicks off with a new app that exemplifies how technology and public history can work together.
August 4: Virginia Connections: UVa’s African American Cemetery: The series continues with the memorial cemetery that makes a significant but partial contribution to our collective memories.
August 5: Virginia Connections: Confederate Memorials: Two obvious Confederate memorials in Charlottesville and one more subtle one, as the series rolls on.
August 6: Virginia Connections: Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum: Three exemplary exhibits and pieces from the wonderful Colonial Williamsburg museum.
August 7: Virginia Connections: Writing Deafness: The series concludes with a great recent scholarly book that contributes to many disciplines, including AmericanStudies.
August 8-9: My Virginia: A special weekend post highlighting posts on the many people and communities that define my Virginia!
August 10: Birthday Specials: 2011 Birthday Best: A birthday week series kicks off with 34 favorite posts from the first year on this blog!
August 11: Birthday Specials: 2012 Birthday Best: 35 bday favorites from the blog’s second year, as the series rolls on!
August 12: Birthday Specials: 2013 Birthday Best: The series continues with 36 bday favorites from the blog’s third year!
August 13: Birthday Specials: 2014 Birthday Best: 37 bday favorites from the blog’s fourth year!
August 14-16: Birthday Specials: 38 for 38: The birthday series concludes with 38 favorites from the last year on the blog!
August 17: Cape Cod Stories: The Mashpee Revolt: A Cape Cod series starts with what’s challenging and complex about a historical rebellion, and what’s very clear.
August 18: Cape Cod Stories: Thoreau and the Cape: The series continues with two complementary reasons to read Thoreau’s often-overlooked travel book.
August 19: Cape Cod Stories: The National Seashore: Three telling spaces within the Cape’s beautiful natural wonder, as the series rolls on.
August 20: Cape Cod Stories: Provincetown: Three revolutionary stages in the evolving, very American history and identity of the Cape community.
August 21: Cape Cod Stories: The Changing Cape: The series concludes with what the Cape isn’t any more, what it is, and what it might be.
August 22-23: Crowd-sourced Summer Getaways: One of my fuller recent crowd-sourced posts, featuring both Cape Cod responses and lots of other summer getaway ideas—add yours in comments!
August 24: More Poems I Love: Larcom’s “Weaving”: A series on poems I love starts with Lucy Larcom’s unique, autobiographical, intersectional classic.
August 25: More Poems I Love: Piatt’s “Pique”: The series continues with Sarah Piatt’s clever, conversational, complex poem about gender and relationships.
August 26: More Poems I Love: Dunbar’s “Mask”: Paul Laurence Dunbar’s amazing poem about race, identity, community, and the lynching era, as the series rolls on.
August 27: More Poems I Love: Espada’s “Perfection”: Why I love Martín Espada’s reflective, political, powerful poem on work and identity.
August 28: More Poems I Love: Alexie’s “Exaggeration”: The series concludes with Sherman Alexie’s dark yet hopeful, and vital, poem.
Next series starts Monday,
PS. Topics you’d like to see covered in this space? Guest Posts you’d like to write? Lemme know!
Friday, August 28, 2015
[A few years back, I shared a handful of my favorite American poems in a weeklong series. Before I go back to sharing poems for money—well, teaching them as part of my job, but you get the idea—I wanted to highlight another week’s worth of favorite poems and a couple reasons why I love each. Share your favorites in comments, please!]
Today’s favorite poem is Sherman Alexie’s “The Exaggeration of Despair” (1996).
I love “Exaggeration” because it reminds me, eternal optimist that I am, of the darkest histories of our nation, histories far too often visited upon Native Americans like the poem’s speaker and his family and community but ones that reach across all cultural and social spectra of our society. I love it because at the same time it embodies the need to “open the door,” to remember and narrate those histories and stories. And I love it because it does so with rawness and grace, with pain and power, with all that poetry can do and much that only it can.
August Recap this weekend,
PS. Thoughts on this poem? Other favorites you’d share?