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Tuesday, May 10, 2016

May 10, 2016: Semester Reflections: Annie Baker in Capstone

[This week marks the final classes of the Spring 2016 semester, so this week on the blog I’ll offer some semester reflections, focusing on new texts or ideas I tried in my courses. I’d love to hear your spring reflections and any other pedagogical or personal perspectives you’d share!]
On two distinct but complementary reasons to teach more drama in lit courses.
The first literature course I ever got to teach was an Introduction to Literature, in my fourth semester of teaching as a grad student at Temple University, and I naturally included a unit on drama, featuring both Hamlet and Death of a Salesman. My second literature course was Six American Authors, an American lit survey I was fortunate enough to teach while adjuncting at UMass Boston, and I once again featured a dramatic work, this time Langston Hughes’s Mulatto. Yet in my eleven years at Fitchburg State, I’ve consistently struggled to include dramatic works in my literature courses, outside of one section of our American Drama course; it’s only been in Approaches to English Studies (our sophomore-level Gateway course) and English Studies Capstone (our culminating senior-level course) that I’ve found room on the syllabus for drama.
For this semester’s Capstone section I replaced Death of a Salesman (which I had taught in every prior Capstone of mine) with a much more contemporary play, Annie Baker’s The Flick (2013), a recommendation from my colleague and friend Joe Moser. It’s a wonderful play, funny and relevant and ultimately deeply moving, and we had a lot of fun discussing and performing it in our final unit of the semester. And as we did so, I realized two reasons why I want to find room for drama in my American lit courses as well. For one thing, you can’t read or teach drama without including those aforementioned performances, in order to help analyze acting, staging, audience, and all the related issues so central to dramatic works. And while I feature student voices and presentations in a variety of ways in every literature course, there’s quite simply nothing like having a group of students standing and moving and interacting in performance, and having all of us in the class both help direct and respond to those performative moments.
Baker’s wonderful play also reminds us—even when we’re just reading and discussing it more calmly at our desks—of the distinctive qualities of human voice and identity that dramatic works can capture far differently from other literary genres. Dialogue is of course an important part of fiction (and sometimes poetry) as well; but as Baker’s use of pauses and fragments, interruptions and arguments, monologues and silences, and many other elements illustrates, drama can use dialogue (complemented by stage directions, and some of Baker’s are among my favorite such directions ever) with a depth and compelling potency all its own. If one of the main reasons we read and teach literature is to help engage with the human condition in all its complexity and universal significance—and I’d put that close to the top of the list why we do so—then dramatic texts add to that work in ways that, quite simply, would otherwise be minimized if not entirely absent from our classrooms. Teaching The Flick has reminded me of that fact, and I look forward to the tough but important work of making room for more dramatic works in my other literature courses.
Next reflection tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Responses to this idea or others you’d share?

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