[This has been without a doubt the most challenging and exhausting semester in my 16 years at FSU and 20 years of college teaching. But I’ve also learned a ton, and for this end of semester series I wanted to reflect on a handful of those lessons. Please share some of yours—and any other Fall 2020 reflections and thoughts—for a crowd-sourced weekend post of solidarity and support!]
On how this semester has accelerated and amplified a gradual evolution in my teaching goals.
Five and a half years ago, I wrote one of my end of semester reflection posts on a striking pedagogical moment: when I connected our final conversation about Richard Wright’s Native Son in Major American Authors of the 20th Century to contemporary issues of mass incarceration, police brutality, and racism, and then took off my sweater to reveal an “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirt underneath. That post offers a starting point for my thoughts here, so I’d ask you to check that one out if you would and then I’ll see you back here.
Welcome back! As I wrote there, that was a watershed moment in my willingness to directly engage with contemporary issues in the classroom, in a way that I hope and believe was related to our readings and conversations, but that I shared much more overtly nonetheless. Over the next few years, I wouldn’t say that I did so particularly consistently, but rather that there were both specific classes (most obviously my Fall 2106 Senior Seminar on Analyzing 21st Century America, but also for example my Honors Lit Seminar on America in the Gilded Age that same semester) and moments in other classes (such as in both of my 19th and 20th Century African American Lit courses) where I found more occasion to highlight, and have us discuss, contemporary connections, and even contemporary political issues and debates, than I would have in prior years. I continued to try to ground those moments in our class texts and conversations, and also and especially to make clear that, like all of our class discussions, they were more about what students had to say than about whatever my own perspectives and ideas might be. But I did at the same time become more comfortable with the idea of sharing in the course of those discussions my own such perspectives and ideas on these contemporary connections, just as I would with any text and topic in front of us.
As you might expect, this semester presented many such moments, not only in another section of that Honors Lit Seminar, but also in American Lit I and even in First-Year Writing I (where, for example, as part of our unit on analyzing song lyrics as poetry I shared the videos for “This Land,” “Land of the Free,” and “March March”). I did try to ground the majority of those contemporary connections in class texts and conversations, such as linking American Lit I discussions of William Apess’ and Frederick Douglass’ critical patriotism to the need for that perspective in 2020. But, as I talked about as part of my contribution to the Fall 2020 NEASA Colloquium on Teaching American Studies in a Time of Crisis, I also stepped back at various moments to raise, share some of my thoughts on, and most importantly ask for my students’ thoughts on aspects of our contemporary world that were not specifically related to our day’s texts or topics—but that were part of our crucial contexts for those conversations nonetheless. In Fall 2020, I’m no longer willing to pretend that everything we do isn’t part of, influenced by, and contributing to our world—indeed, chief among all the lessons of this fraught and fragile and frustrating and vital semester is how intertwined we always are with that world, in both the most potentially destructive and the most inspiringly positive ways.
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
PS. So one more time: what do you think? Fall 2020 lessons, challenges, reflections you’d share for the weekend post?