Tuesday, December 15, 2015
December 15, 2015: Semester Recaps: American Literature I
[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!]
For the individual student presentations in my American Lit I survey course, I ask the students to share three things: a couple bio and career highlights for their focal author; a couple close reading starting points for one of the readings by that author with which we’re working that day; and, most individually, an outside connection, some way they’d link this author and/or text to something from their own perspective, knowledge, experiences, or the like. That final one is not an easy element, but it can lead to some really interesting links, as illustrated by these three examples from this semester’s section:
1) Our first presenter, focused on William Bradford’s Of Plimoth Plantation, got us off to an inspiring start: in his outside connection he linked Bradford’s visions of arrival, the New World, and its native cultures to those from multiple other explorers, both of the future United States and those from other places and times (such as Marco Polo). I make sure that students don’t feel they have to have such immediately relevant outside knowledge to fulfill this presentation element—but if and when they do, it can provide an impressive additional layer to help frame our discussions, as did this presenter’s outside contexts for Bradford and our first class conversation for sure.
2) Just as valuable as such contemporary connections, however, are ways to link an author and reading from one historical moment to figures or events from other time periods. Our presenter on Chief Pontiac and his mid-18th century speech on Native American mythologies, identities, and relationships with European cultures, did just that: she linked Pontiac’s speech to Malcolm X’s 1964 Washington Heights speech (source of the famous “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock” line), thinking about how these orators use and revise cultural and national history to engage their audiences and develop their positions. I had never thought to link these two American speeches, but immediately saw the relevance and value of doing so, a great argument for this kind of cross-historical outside connection.
3) Finally, there are those more personal outside connections, the kind that allow the students to link one of our seemingly distant authors and readings to aspects of their own lives and identities; these always offer great reminders of how much of our own perspectives is always in our readings and analyses of any material. This semester, for example, the student presenting on Catherine Maria Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie linked Sedgwick’s creation of a character’s 1st-person storytelling voice within a 3rd-person narrated work of fiction to her own challenges and goals as a creative writer, helping remind us that all of our authors (whatever their genre) are creative writers not at all unlike us as we face our own writing struggles and efforts. A particularly inspiring and pitch-perfect lesson to take away from these presentation outside connections!
Next recap tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other reflections or predictions you’d share?