Tuesday, January 15, 2019
January 15, 2019: Spring Previews: Ethnic American Literature
[A new semester is upon us, and with it comes a new Spring Preview series. Leading up to a special weekend post on book updates, plans, and hopes!]
On what’s always been and remains both complicated and crucial with my long-running class.
I’ve been writing about my Ethnic American Literature class almost since I first taught it, in my first (Fall 2005) semester at Fitchburg State (when it was known by the well-intentioned but seriously problematic name “Other Voices”). Or, at least, since I recognized the significant problems with that first section (most of them due to my own lack of experience and failings, to be sure, but also connected to the complexities of teaching ethnic American lit I documented in that first hyperlinked article) and thoroughly reinvented the class for the second (Fall 2007) time I got to teach it. While some of the specific readings and assignments (and peripheral materials) have of course evolved in the eleven years since that second section, the basic syllabus and structure of the class have stayed the same, including the paired readings, the multi-generational family timeline and analysis project, and other core elements and details.
Each of those elements brings its own challenges, many of them practical like how to navigate two long readings simultaneously (or at least concurrently) over the same three-week periods (this class has by far the most reading of any I teach, although I try from the start of the semester to make clear that students can and should focus on what most speaks to them and that we’re assembling our overall conversations about these paired texts collectively). But perhaps the greatest challenge in the class remains one I talked about in the first two hyperlinked articles above: the danger of generalizing about culture and identities, and the difficulty of contextualizing and/or challenging those generalizations given our limited time and multiple focal points. To name one example from my last section of the class: during our unit on Irish American texts, a student raised the historical myth of “Irish slaves” to directly critique the African American works and perspectives from the prior unit. Given that many FSU students have Irish heritage, and that many newer students are African American (including sizeable contingents of both cultural heritages in that particular section), this was an especially fraught moment, and one I couldn’t possibly do full justice to in this limited class time and conversation.
I tried, though. I tried a bit on the spot, responding with some first thoughts on both that historical myth and the divisive and racist purposes it has served in our collective memories and narratives (without using those words, of course, so as not to critique or antagonize this student directly). And I tried even more at the start of the next class, presenting a five-minute mini-lesson on some of the real struggles of Irish Americans, some of the myths that have nonetheless been associated with that community, and how and why we can use texts and specifics to push beyond those broad and often inaccurate starting points and get into more nuanced and analytical conversations. And then we got back to those text-based conversations and the student voices and ideas. That class was in the Spring 2016 semester, and given all that has happened over the three years since I think it’s fair to say that discussions of ethnic American literature, history, identity, and community will be that much more fraught and charged in Spring 2019. Which is to say, I’m even more excited to teach this long-running and favorite class of mine this time around!
Next preview tomorrow,
PS. Spring previews of your own to share? I’d love to hear them!