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Thursday, April 19, 2018

April 19, 2018: NeMLA Recaps: Two Teaching Roundtables

[This past weekend was the 2018 Northeast MLA convention in Pittsburgh. It was a great time as usual, and this week I’ll highlight some standout moments and conversations. Leading up to a weekend post on how you can get involved in this great organization!]
On two impressive roundtables that offered distinct but intertwined visions of teaching in 2018 America.
For my Fall 2017 Semester Reflections series, I focused on various factors under the umbrella heading of “Teaching under Trump.” One of my central points throughout that week’s series was that every class I’ve taught over the last few semesters has been influenced by all that’s taking place in 2017 (now 2018) American society and culture: some more overtly (never more so than the Senior Seminar on Analyzing 21st Century America I was in the midst of teaching when the 2016 election took place), some more subtly (such as the different way I talk about issues of American identity every time they come up in any class, which is of course pretty often for this AmericanStudier), but all influenced in one way or another (or, typically, many ways). If that means that I have become more political in my teaching than I once professed to be, then so be it; certainly I have had more moments of overt classroom advocacy or activism over the last few years than I in did my entire first decade of teaching. But I think it’s at least as accurate to say that our society and world have become so infused by these issues and debates that everything we do in class, including things that don’t seem overtly political at all, has at least some significant connection to social and political contexts.
On the first day of the NeMLA convention I attended two pedagogically focused roundtables that thoughtfully addressed the more overt and more subtle forms of classroom politics, respectively. The more overt was “Teaching Early American Literature in a Time of Political Upheaval,” featuring talks by Thomas Doran, Hugh Egan, Teresa Gilliams, Sarah Young, Lucas Hardy, Joshua Bartlett, Todd Thompson, and Alex Moskowitz. To be clear, when I say “more overt” I don’t in any way mean that these wonderful and nuanced individual talks were advocating for any particular form of classroom political engagement, or even for so engaging at all; instead, the roundtable as a whole recognized and responded to many of the same aspects of Teaching under Trump that I discussed above, highlighting various ways in which materials, discussions, and other aspects of Early American Literature classes necessarily connect to, are influenced by, and comment on 2018 social and political debates and issues. Moreover, each and every speaker modeled an approach that welcomes every student perspective and voice, while nonetheless working with the texts and contexts in ways that do not minimize their ability to speak to some of the darkest and most challenging sides to our contemporary moment. I came away from this great discussion even more motivated to seek that elusive combination of textual and historical focus in the classroom paired with collective recognition of the contemporary connections for those topics.
Offering a more subtle but just as significant set of models was the second roundtable, “Imagined Connections: The Space of Empathy in the Undergraduate Classroom,” featuring talks by Sarah Foust Vinson and Susan Larkin, Lisbeth Fuisz, Martin Gasper, Kathleen Hanggi, Kerry Hasler-Brooks, Melissa Jenkins, and Matthew Leporati. Questions of empathy in literature and writing classrooms—its possibilities and limits, the role of texts and cultural works, whether and how it can cross boundaries between identities and communities, and so on—are of course not at all limited or specific to this contemporary moment, and these talks rightly engaged with them in ways that would be just as relevant in other times. Yet at the same time, I don’t think it’s just my own argument that empathy is a form of resistance in Trump’s America that made this roundtable and its thoughtful and inspiring talks so particularly salient in 2018. That is, if empathy is both a complex potential goal for any specific class and one of the things that educational spaces and communities can always encourage and amplify, this is a moment when it becomes more important than ever to think about whether, when, and how to work for it. These great talks and speakers gave me plenty of ways to consider those questions as I move forward with my Teaching under Trump.
Last recap tomorrow,
PS. NeMLA responses or thoughts? Other organizations or conferences you’d highlight?

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