Thursday, May 12, 2016
May 12, 2016: Semester Reflections: Multimedia Texts in Ethnic American Lit
[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 the value of adding two kinds of multimedia texts to a familiar and favorite course.
I’ve almost certainly written more, both in this space and in other published writing, about my redesigned Ethnic American Literature course than about all the other classes I teach put together. It’s a class that reflects some of my own most central ideas of cross-cultural American identity, that allows me to teach perhaps the widest range of texts in any one course of mine (from Frederick Douglass to Michael Patrick MacDonald, Black Boy to The House on Mango Street, and Amy Tan to Martín Espada, among others), and that features, in the student family history projects, an assignment that has been consistently both meaningful to each individual student and incredibly compelling and moving for me to read. All those aspects of the course have been present and exciting in every section I’ve taught since the first (2007) redesign, including this semester’s. Yet I believe it’s important not to let even our favorite courses stagnate (maybe especially not them), and I’ve found that adding supplemental multimedia texts has helped me keep Ethnic American Lit fresh.
I first did so during the final class of my prior (Spring 2013) section of the course, using two Macklemore songs (“Irish Celebration” and “White Privilege”) to help us talk one last time about both heritage and identity and cross-cultural conversations in American society. This time I used “Irish Celebration” as a supplemental text in our Irish American unit (during which we read MacDonald’s All Souls and Mary Doyle Curran’s The Parish and the Hill), bringing such contemporary musical works into more direct conversation with our ongoing readings and discussions. I still used two final class musical texts as well, but tried to integrate them more fully into the semester’s work, featuring one song that extended our first unit’s readings of Douglass’ narrative and Black Boy (J. Cole’s “A Tale of 2 Cities”) and one that added contemporary issues of and debates over refugee and migrant communities into our discussions (M.I.A.’s “Borders”). There’s no doubt in my mind that songs (and, in M.I.A.’s case, groundbreaking music videos as well) offer complementary but distinct analytical opportunities from those provided by written literary texts, and I will continue to figure out ways to make songs part of classes like Ethnic in the semesters ahead.
This semester, for the first time in any literature class, I also decided to use the occasional online humor video as a way to present our themes in a different light: Key & Peele’s “Negrotown” sketch and SNL’s “The Day Beyoncé Turned Black” video for the African American unit, Seth Meyers’ “Boston Accent” faux-trailer for the Irish American one, and BuzzFeed’s “If Latinos Said the Stuff White People Say” video for the Hispanic American one. I’m not quite as sure of how to use these kinds of videos in class discussions, and indeed wasn’t expecting to do so much at all; I was planning for them to be brief, fun interludes before getting back to our reading discussions. Yet in each case, students had a great deal to say, with many folks who were more generally hesitant to jump into those reading discussions adding their voices and perspectives in these conversations. Which only reinforces my goal of using these kinds of multimedia texts in future classes, but also reminds me that I should treat them and our use of them just as critically and analytically as we do any of our other texts.
Last reflection tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Responses to this idea or others you’d share?