Wednesday, December 7, 2016
December 7, 2016: Fall 2016 Reflections: Senior Seminar on 21st Century America
[As another semester comes to a close, I’ll reflect on some of my fall courses and conversations, focusing this time on moments and ways that they were relevant to our own moment. I’d love to hear your Fall 2016 reflections as well!]
Three takeaways from a class overtly focused on our current moment.
1) Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric: I already knew precisely how much we would get out of three of the course’s four main texts: Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah. But Rankine’s poem was more of a wild card, for lots of reasons including its complexity of style and structure, its multimedia elements, and its extended sections on very specific moments such as a 2006 World Cup incident involving French soccer star Zinedine Zidane. Suffice it to say that my concerns were unnecessary, and that I found Citizen to be both one of the most compelling and most teachable works I’ve brought into any class. Moroever, the second-person sections that open and close the poem bring readers into an intimate engagement with racism and identity as effectively as any literary or cultural work I know. Citizen should be on the short list of books all 21st century Americans need to read.
2) The Potential of Short Stories: Along with those four long readings, across the semester we read 12 short stories from the 2013 Best American Short Stories anthology. That gave us a chance to engage with many of our best contemporary writers, from Junot Díaz to Gish Jen, Karl Taro Greenfield to Daniel Alarcón, Kirstin Valdez Quade to Sheila Kohler, and many more. It also helped us bring in a number of vital 21st century themes, from addiction to shifting gender and parenting roles, globalization to the mortgage crisis. But what struck me most in this course thread was the unique and vital power of the short story as a genre, the way a great story can achieve what Edgar Allan Poe called the “unity of effect” so potently. Perhaps it’s too ambitious to think that most Americans would have the time and patience necessary to read a book like Rankine’s Citizen; but all of us could read a short story a week (let’s say), and doing so would both remind us of literature and art’s power and connect us to so many voices and themes.
3) The Limits and Benefits of What We Do: Obviously the election happened right in the middle of this semester and course, and to be honest it partly made me feel (on this score as on far too many others) somewhat hopeless. Here we all were, reading and critically thinking and talking about interesting and complex texts and issues; and there was America (or at least too many Americans), voting in a man who embodies the exact opposite of all those skills and goals. Indeed, one of the immediate aftermaths of his election has been a ramping up of overt attacks on higher education. Despite the claims of a list like that, I don’t in any way seek to brainwash students to any particular political perspective or ideology; but I do hope to lead them to a particular viewpoint, which is that the more we read and think and talk, the more we listen and learn, the stronger and more meaningful our individual ideas and collective conversations will be. In the course of the semester, we did that for a wide variety of issues that have only become more crucial in the election’s aftermath: from #BlackLivesMatter to climate change, education to rape culture, law and justice to immigration, and many more. And as always, the work, voices, and futures of my students gave me hope even—especially—in the darkest of times.
Next reflection tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Reflections you’d share?