Thursday, September 7, 2017
September 7, 2017: Fall 2017 Previews: Literary Conversations at BOLLI
[As the Fall semester of my 13th year at Fitchburg State commences, a series previewing some of my courses and other plans for the fall. I’d love to hear about your fall classes and plans in comments!]
On two literary pairings for which I’m particularly excited in a new adult learning class.
I wrote earlier this year about my unfolding connection to the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Brandeis University (BOLLI). BOLLI does many things, including the kinds of lecture series for which I was able to talk about the Harlem Renaissance in July. But first and foremost, BOLLI is an adult learning program, one that offers Study Groups (a concept about which I wrote in that hyperlinked post) for senior learners on a wide variety of topics and themes. For my first such Study Group, which will run for ten Thursday mornings this fall, I decided to focus on Literary Conversations: Pairing Past and Present Ethnic American Writers. As that title suggests, we’ll read pieces by two writers at a time, one from the 19th or early 20th century, one from our own moment, each pair linked by a particular, if certainly broad, cultural or ethnic community (Asian Americans, Native Americans, Caribbean Americans, etc.). My main goals are simply to share these writers (many of whom, especially the earlier ones but also many of the contemporary folks, I believe to be largely unread) and to see what we can make of the pairings, what they might open up on topics like identity, community, history, and story.
I am of course excited for all of my pairings (I’d better be!), but I wanted here to highlight two in particular. Most of our pairings will last only one week/class and focus on short readings or excerpts, but at the semester’s center will be two weeks with two African American historical novels: Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition (1901) and David Bradley’s The Chaneysville Incident (1981). As even casual readers of this blog likely know, Chesnutt’s book is my favorite American novel, and I’ve taught it even more than I’ve blogged about it here. So while of course I’m very excited to share it with a new community (I’ll be shocked if any of the BOLLI folks have encountered Chesnutt’s novel previously), I’m even more thrilled for the chance to teach Bradley’s novel for the first time. I’ve loved Chaneysville since I first read it as a teenager, featured it prominently in my college senior thesis, and wrote about it in my latest book (alongside Marrow, natch). But, in part because it’s a long and extremely challenging novel and in part just because, I haven’t yet found an opportunity to teach it in a college class. To say that I can’t wait to talk about it (alongside Chesnutt’s book) with this group of BOLLI students would be not to come close to expressing how much I’m looking forward to these two weeks.
The rest should be pretty great too, though, and one pairing that I think could lead to really interesting conversations links 19th century Mexican American novelist María Ampáro Ruiz de Burton to the contemporary Mexican American writer Sandra Cisneros. Cisneros is relatively well known (perhaps the most well known of my featured writers), and so too, of course, is the 21st century Mexican American community. Whereas I think we hardly ever remember, much less read and discuss, 19th century Mexican American voices like Ruiz de Burton’s, which is one main reason why we generally don’t think about that community (or the Hispanic American one more generally) as extending back to our collective origin points (considering them instead, when we do at all, as a foreign alternative or adversary—Spanish explorers, Mexican foes in the Mexican American War). So I can’t help but think that reading Ruiz de Burton alongside Cisneros will open up new ways of thinking—not only about those forgotten histories, but also and just as importantly about Cisneros, 21st century Mexican American and American communities, our own moment and world. I can’t wait to find out, and of course will keep you posted!
Next preview tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Fall courses or plans you’d highlight?