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Thursday, December 14, 2017

December 14, 2017: Fall 2017 Reflections: Adult Learning Classes

[As another semester comes to a close, I wanted to spend the week reflecting on some complex moments and questions related to Teaching under Trump (trademark AmericanStudier!). I’d love to hear your thoughts, on these or any of your own teaching or semester reflections, in comments!]
On three benefits for life in Trump’s America from my semester’s three adult learning courses.
1)      Historical Knowledge: My first class for Assumption College’s Worcester Institute for Senior Education (WISE) program was at once the most historically focused and yet the most overtly connected to our own moment of the three courses I’m highlighting here. That is, I believe that the course’s central focus on Expanding Our Collective Memories, on presenting five particular histories that we need to better remember, had a lot to offer our 21st century conversations and narratives. To cite one example, for the first class I highlighted a series of forgotten Revolutionary era histories, from early feminist authors and activists to African American slave writers and figures to the period’s Moroccan Muslim American community in Charleston. These figures, texts, and histories are of course well worth remembering for their own sake, but they also and crucially shift our sense of the Revolution and America’s founding, reminding us that such cultures and communities have been integral and vital parts of our national identity and community since its origin points.
2)      Cultural Contexts: My first class for Brandeis University’s BOLLI program was much more literary in emphasis, focusing on creative works by pairs of American authors from shared or similar cultural backgrounds (one more historical and one current). But each and every one of those authors and pairs of course had something meaningful to offer for 21st century American conversations and culture, and I would highlight in particular the two novels on which our middle three weeks of discussion focused: Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition (1901) and David Bradley’s The Chaneysville Incident (1981). I wrote in my preview post about my excitement at teaching that pairing (as well as Bradley’s novel at all) for the first time, and the class and conversations didn’t disappoint. We stayed closely focused on both of those wonderful novels for much of our time, of course, but we nonetheless also linked them to a wide and deep variety of contemporary issues, from police brutality and the anthem protests to the resurgence of white supremacy and debates over American identity (among many others). I’ve long believed that Chesnutt’s book should be required reading for all Americans, and after this experience I might just have to add Bradley’s into the mix as well.
3)      Communal Conversations: My I’ve-lost-track-of-what-number class for Fitchburg State’s ALFA program had no central theme or question; we just read and discussed ten great short stories from the Best American Short Stories 2016 anthology. As a result, while a few of the stories connected to one or another specific issue in Trump’s America, most did not do so in any particular way, and most of our conversations thus focused on the stories themselves as well as various contexts far beyond 2017. And yet I would nonetheless argue that these conversations offered a vital experience for living in and surviving the age of Trump: the chance to be part of and share thoughts and ideas with a community of interesting, engaged, intelligent, empathetic fellow Americans and humans. The horrors of our current moment can feel not only crushing but isolating, as of course can various features of our social media and technological worlds. So I’m not sure there’s anything we can do more consistently and crucially to combat those effects than to find and treasure such communities. Every adult learning class I’ve ever taught has offered one for me, which is why I keep coming back to these wonderful programs.
Last reflection tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Fall reflections you’d share?

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