Monday, August 29, 2016
August 29, 2016: Fall 2016 Previews: Analyzing 21st Century America
[The Fall semester is just around the corner, so this week I’ll preview some of the courses and plans for which I’m excited as a new semester gets underway. I’d love to hear your own upcoming courses, plans, work, or whatever else has you excited for Fall 2016!]
One thread I’m definitely adding to a new undergrad seminar, and one I’m wondering about.
When I started designing an English Studies Senior Seminar on Analyzing 21st Century America (our department’s Senior Seminar rotates between all our faculty and focuses on a new topic each time it does so), I knew I wanted to include and modify a number of aspects of last summer’s hybrid grad course on the same subject: the overall interdisciplinary methodology, including short stories from a contemporary Best Of anthology complemented by readings from a variety of other disciplines; collections of online materials grouped around key 2016 themes like climate change and cultural appropriation; and student presentations on TV shows and films that portray and engage with our moment in one way or another. All of these will look different in both an undergrad course and a semester-long in-person one than they did in a hybrid summer graduate course, but hopefully all will continue to work as well as they did last summer and will help us talk about the complex topic that is our 21st century nation and world.
One of the key differences with a semester-long course as compared to a five-week one, however, is that we have room for many more readings, and indeed for books as well as short stories and online materials (to be clear, our grad students can handle multiple books in a summer course, but I opted for lots of shorter readings instead). I considered a few different options for how to select those longer readings for the seminar, but as the year unfolded felt more and more certain that it made sense to group them around an inescapable 2016 theme: #BlackLivesMatter. We’ll be reading four texts that all connect to that movement and issue yet offer a variety of disciplines and forms that will hopefully keep our conversations evolving and fresh: two creative literary works, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah and Claudia Rankine’s poem Citizen: An American Lyric; and two works of nonfiction, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. I also hope to bring in excerpts from many other writers and works, from Jelani Cobb to Jesmyn Ward, Fruitvale Station to Blackish, and more. I fully expect that these conversations will get testy and heated at times, as they should and must—but also that every student, and their teacher, will gain a great deal from each and every reading and conversation on this key topic.
Speaking of key topics and heated conversations, though—I knew when I proposed a seminar on this topic that the presidential election would come to its culmination during the semester, but I have to admit that I didn’t quite think through whether and how to make it part of our class. Of course many of our topics are inherently political, and will require us to talk about contemporary debates and divergent perspectives and the like; yet that’s still not the same (it seems to me) as talking overtly about Trump and Clinton, and about (for example) my own increasingly strong feelings on that choice and election. As I’ve discussed before in this space, my perspective on politics in the classroom is an evolving one, yet I remain convinced that my job is centrally about helping students develop their own voices and perspectives, not sharing mine with them. I haven’t figured out whether and how I can directly bring up and bring into our class the election without doing more of the latter than I’m comfortable with—but I know that’s an inescapable question with which to grapple in a course like this, and I’d very much appreciate any thoughts and tips you might have!
Next preview tomorrow,
PS. Thoughts on this course? Other previews or plans you’d share?