Wednesday, April 5, 2017
April 5, 2017: NeMLA Recaps: Re-reading Roundtable
[A couple weeks back, we held the 48th annual Northeast MLA Convention in Baltimore. Thanks to the work of President Hilda Chacón, Executive Director Carine Mardorossian, and many many more, the convention went off beautifully. This week I’ll follow up on five particular events and conversations—add your thoughts, whether you were there or not, in comments, please!]
On pedagogical and public scholarly sides to what might seem to be a personal pleasure.
I originally hadn’t planned to present on any scholarly panels at NeMLA, but as the conference program developed I had the chance to join a roundtable on the practice and value of re-reading literary texts. Organized by Richard Johnston, an English professor at the Air Force Academy, the roundtable was particularly compelling to me because I’ve always thought of re-reading as a distinctly personal activity, a way to return to favorite authors and works across the course of our lives and careers (whether through re-reading entire works or through what I call “pleasure grazing,” re-reading small sections of favorite works). Yet like reading itself, an often highly personal activity that can and should still be analyzed and theorized for all sorts of reasons, re-reading is worth our scholarly attention and conversation, and I was glad to have the chance to join Richard, my co-presenter Matt Duffus of Gardner-Webb University in North Carolina, and a group of interested audience members to discuss different sides to the process and meanings of re-reading.
Matt’s presentation, and much of the subsequent conversation, focused on re-reading as a purposeful part of our pedagogies. When Matt discovered that a number of students in his American Lit II survey had read two of his main texts (The Awakening and The Great Gatsby) previously, he decided to keep those texts on the syllabus and to take advantage of the opportunity to explore what the experience of re-reading them might look like and mean for that subset of his classroom. In our broader discussion, an audience member raised a different, more fully shared pedagogical use of re-reading: a seminar on The Grapes of Wrath in which the entire class reads the novel at the start, then moves through a number of other texts and contexts, and then returns to re-read the novel at the end. I found a great deal of value in both of these approaches to utilizing re-reading, but will admit that within the frame of my student-centered pedagogy, Matt’s approach is particularly interesting, as it entails not only meeting students where they are but also working to build where different groups of students are into the syllabus and work of a class. Such re-reading students could become, as Matt noted and sought to amplify, another layer of teacher or expert in the course, offering perspectives on a text that can help guide class discussions beyond simply plot or information and toward multi-layered analyses.
Longtime readers of this blog, and perhaps even people who have overheard me talking to myself on the street, will be entirely unsurprised at either of my focal points for my contribution to the roundtable: Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition, my favorite American novel and one of the books I’ve re-read most frequently; and public scholarship, and more exactly the role that works of literature can play in our collective conversations. I shared how my own readings of Chesnutt’s novel have evolved across the many moments and situations in which I have re-read it (from graduate school to early teaching experiences, the development of my teaching over time to experiences writing about the novel in both this blog and my most recent book), and linked that evolution to an argument about why all Americans should read (and ideally, yes, re-read, although one step at a time!) works like Chesnutt’s. As I mentioned in my presentation, living in a moment when (it seems quite clear to me) our president himself never reads makes it significantly harder to envision an America where we all read and engage literary works as part of our cultural and civic life. Yet much like the NEA’s Big Read program, the goal of such emphases wouldn’t be to force every American to read, but rather to make conversations about books and authors and culture—and the social and historical issues they can help us acknowledge and discuss—part of our communities and society. And if we can get there, Chesnutt’s novel would be at the top of my list of nominees.
Next recap tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other NeMLA memories to share?