Afro-Pedagogy: Reading Abolition, Then and Now

I’m trying to take the best parts of my Jane Austen Seminar from last fall into this new school year.

I loved that class.

It saved me from slipping into a dangerous ennui that was mucking up the vibe in my classes. I took advantage of the structure and the topic, and it worked beautifully. It wasn’t perfect (that was never the goal), but it was pretty damn good.

Given the nature of a seminar (a small group of highly motivated students) and the subject (the Jane Austen canon is perfect for a semester course), I was able to ask students to do four things before the semester started:

  • Imagine their own assignments based on what they wanted to learn about Austen and the skills they wanted to work on over the course of the semester
  • Think about the kind of readings they wanted to do with the texts (mostly theory or mostly context essays)
  • Develop course policies (because I am tired of keeping track of the comings and goings of grown-ass people)
  • Daydream about the kind of “culminating” project they wanted to complete at the end of the semester.

My only rule was that they had to come up with the kind of work I could defend should somebody who thought the could have an opinion about my teaching ask us what we were doing while we ate cookies and talked about Austen on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We spent the first day of class brainstorming about the semester, and I asked them to submit work proposals and then met with them individually to make sure they had what they needed from me to work independently.

The students really surprised me.* They came up with ambitious projects (all of which required more research than I would have asked of them), they challenged themselves (I will love forever the incredibly shy student who said she wanted to work on speaking and public and designed two presentations on Austen in adaptation, including discussion questions that she distributed to the class before her presentation so they could have a productive conversation when she was done), and they were more creative than I could ever have imagined (for his final project, the musician in the course played music Austen’s characters would have heard on a keyboard he dragged to class while giving us a lecture on how music composition shifted in Austen’s time). One student wanted to learn how to write book reviews, and he did. It was pretty remarkable to see the transition, a process he reflected on in essays and conferences with me during the semester. Another student wanted to write about Austen the readers of her blog while another put herself in charge of being our guide to the customs of Austen’s readers. We had a student auditing the course who would write these pithy responses to our class discussions, and students shared resources they found on Blackboard.

*The class voted unanimously that i could talk about our work.

It was the best teaching experience of my 15+ years in higher education. I actually looked forward to reading student writing. I wanted to mark and comment on their work.

Let’s all just sit with that for a minute.

In lieu of a syllabus, I sent the class regular memos. There were students who wanted traditional instruction and more direction, and, of course, I was happy to provide that. Everyone got “grades” but more than that I wrote them letters about their work. Sometimes they wrote back. Students who were transferring in from community colleges were especially good about seeing me for help understanding the kind of analytical writing expected of them.

They kept me on my toes, challenging notions about Austen I hadn’t reconsidered in a long time, and asking for more time if they felt I was rushing them through a novel. Best of all, they supported one another in and out of class. They cheered one another on, gave advice and feedback for those who were writing in public, and took on extra-curricular projects together. When things got too stressful, we took a break so everyone could catch up on the readings. And they did.

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abolition lit art

I can’t replicate everything about that seminar, but for a class I’m teaching next semester called “Writing in the Major” I plan to take a similar approach by helping students design a series of assignments that feel interesting and meaningful to them. I don’t really know what the course is actually supposed to do, “Writing in the Major” means, but I’m using it as an opportunity to let students experiment with how to use the reading we do in class to focus on a modern political question. The class will focus on British abolitionist literature—primarily poems, novels, and essays published between 1789-1830—but I’m asking students to think of a policy or practice that has been abolished or one that they would like to see abolished and to start thinking of how writers shape and reflect those movements.

We’re forever telling students that being an English major means they can “do anything” and that literary study develops their “critical thinking skills” (I said this in a class a year or so ago and every single student groaned and/or rolled their eyes), so I want this class to be an experiment in what that means in real time.

My working theory is that the reason we so often hear politicians and other rhetorical beings claiming King’s “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” is because movements tend to follow similar patterns, and I’m going to work with my students to help them recognize those patterns. They want so much to “relate” to what we’re reading and this class seems like a good place to let them do that in some sustained and nuanced way. What I hope some of them will do is find literature that reflects and/or contributes to a modern political movement and then discuss their readings in a series of writing assignments we’ll develop together.

More than wanting them to complete a concrete set of tasks, I’d like them to think about the kind of reading and writing they might want to do beyond the classroom. I’m even toying with not requiring them to read everything on the reading calendar but to see the readings as an introduction to the kinds of writing that shapes a social movement. Maybe a student will read the poetry on the syllabus and then do a comparative study of poems written by GLBT writers seeking equal rights in the twenty-first century. Or a student will read about sugar in the eighteenth and nineteenth century and learn about what modern commodities we take for granted rely on slave labor. White women in the early nineteenth century co-opted the issue of slavery for their own political goals (I’m looking at you Wollstonecraft), and I suspect that my students will notice this pattern in modern political movements.

I’m lucky to work closely with faculty who can help me point students down most any path they want to follow. I suspect I’ll be asking my academic twitter community for help.

I’m not sure how this will work, but I’m trusting that my students will be curious enough to work out what they want to do with me as guide and coach. And I’m trusting that whatever my reputation for being “hard” and “intimidating,” students who have worked with me know I’m open to all reasonable revisions to the syllabus. They’ll ask me enough questions to work out the details. I’ll also have the option of traditional assignments, but I really want students to leave class with a reading list for the future.

Like most tenured faculty, my classes tend to be a mix of students who have taken other classes with me and those who probably just took my classes because they are required and/or fit in with their schedule. I know from experience that some of them will jump at the chance to play with what we’re doing in this class while others will feel anxious with the “weight of too much liberty.”

I’ve taught graduate seminars and as a sophomore survey on British abolitionist literature (and published on the topic), so I’m conversant enough in it to let the class experiment with how to use the texts I’ve selected for us. I want us to be all over the place and want to create a space where students are rewarded for reading outside of the classroom and connecting that to the larger questions we’ll consider over the course of the semester.

We’ll write quite a bit, but I don’t know how much grading I’ll do. Instead, I think I’ll consult with students on writing projects and then let them submit work when they feel it’s ready for me to grade. What I found in the Austen seminar and in the Intro to Theory course I teach is that my English majors respond best to short writing assignments that require them to focus tightly on an argument. Longer essays just invite plot summaries and vague prose. Most students hate those longer essays and will never write in that form again, so I’d rather help students figure out how writing fits into their lives and then work with them to do that writing critically, with great care.

Productive chaos in the classroom is my very favorite thing (that and eating excellent cookies with my students), so I’d like to develop an atmosphere while still leaving room for students who actually want and need structure. My Austen seminar made clear how much I can trust students to seek out the most from their course work with a lighter guiding hand, leaving me more time to work with students who need more attention and who are trying to find their way into literary analysis.

In my Romanticism course, I make my students slog through A Defence of Poetry. They kind of hate it, but we linger over this moment:

But poets, or those who imagine and express this indestructible order, are not only the authors of language and of music, of the dance, and architecture, and statuary, and painting: they are the institutors of laws, and the founders of civil society, and the inventors of the arts of life, and the teachers, who draw into a certain propinquity with the beautiful and the true that partial apprehension of the agencies of the invisible world which is called religion.

With this class, we’ll try to figure out how those who trade in language changed the world in their time and ours.

 

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Afro-Pedagogy: The Poetry of Race and Privilege

You should know that this was not the “race unit” of the intro to theoretical reading (officially “The Pursuits of English”) course I co-teach. On the first day of class, I worked with students in my section to develop a more nuanced reading of Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” that moved beyond a sexist/not sexist discussion of the lyrics. When we read Barthes’ “Death of the Author,” we used a poem by the bi-racial poet Ross Gay to think about how we read a poem called “Pulled Over in Short Hills, NJ 8:00 am” when we don’t know who the author is. In fact, we were actually talking about New Historicism for this unit, and our primary texts came from Lucille Clifton and Langston Hughes. This is not just true about race. We’ve been thinking about Queer Theory long before our unit on it that we’ll start next week with Kiss of the Spider Woman. We read Sedgewick with Sense and Sensibility and consider the Sapphic tension in Emily Dickinson’s poetry.

You should also know that as much as I loved“When Your (Brown) Body” and wanted my students to read it, I wasn’t sure if teaching it was actually a good idea. It’s not just that I happen to adore Tressie and so was worried about appearing biased towards her argument but that it’s such a provocative piece that I wasn’t sure it would be productive in the classroom.

In this instance, I’m the choir and Tressie is the preacher, but there’s a fine line between teaching critical analysis and proselytizing and I am loath to cross it.

But since the loose theme of the class is “the body” and we had already decided to teach Lucille Clifton, it actually made sense to at least consider adding her essay to our syllabus. In addition to its argument, it’s rhetorically interesting, and I thought my students might see in this essay a useful strategy they could adapt for their own writing. It’s difficult to build an argument with personal anecdotes, but this essay is a good example of how that can work.

The main thing, however, was this: As much as I love Hughes and Clifton and enjoy teaching them whenever I can, they keep race and bodies at a safe remove from how people of color move through the world. Hughes feels so historical and “canonical” at this point and Clifton uplifts, and while we know in theory this uplifting is born of pain, it’s all too easy to forget that poems like “homage to my hips” or “won’t you celebrate with me” reflect racist, sexist systems. Appiah and McMillan Cottom, I hoped, would provide a lens through which to read those works that demanded a more nuanced, analytical response to their poems.

My colleague suggested Appiah immediately and after thinking about it for a few months, I sent him Tressie’s piece and asked if he thought it would be useful. His reply was an immediate and decisive “yes!”
The unit ended up being:

Kwame Anthony Appiah—“Race”
Lucille Clifton—Selected Poems
Langston Hughes—Selected Poems
Audre Lorde—“On the Uses of Anger”
Tressie McMillan Cottom—“When Your (Brown) Body is a (White) Wonderland”

My colleague thoughts students needed background, so we posted these youtube links to give them some context for McMillan Cottom’s piece:

The Miley Cyrus VMA Performance (video removed)

Azz Everywhere: How Bounce Music Hit Big Time
http://www.fuse.tv/2013/10/big-freedia-bounce-music-history-twerking

Big Freedia The Queen Diva

We did not watch them in class.

We spent the first week on Appiah and Hughes and the second week on Clifton, Lorde, and McMillan Cottom.

I’m not going to talk specifically about my students’ work with these texts (even if I don’t name them, I don’t want them to feel they are the subject of this post as it might make them feel they need to perform something in the classroom), but the intersection of these texts demanded that I develop a new strategy to help my students think critically about all texts in general and texts that point to race and racism specifically. I had to think carefully about how to frame this as an exercise in literary criticism and not simply a consciousness-raising session. So I lead with the literature, returned to the literature, and asked my students to write their responses to the class discussion.

The thing is, you can’t talk about race and racism in a university classroom without raising something. I know this on some level, but initially I wasn’t paying too much attention to this truth. But the raising of something or other required something. I realized I needed to articulate some of what might hinder a careful consideration of a painful and complicated topic. On the final day of the unit, after having the class listen to and write short reflections on Clifton’s “what the mirror said,” I put up six points of clarification about privilege and then asked the class to consider the core question (#7 below) in the context of how we read Clifton. In other words, I wanted us to think about how we respond to all of these women of color.

Using Power Point (because that’s just how fancy I am), I put up the following:

1. You can benefit from the privilege that comes with your race/ethnicity, sexuality and class and still have a pretty difficult time of it. In other words, being white, middle or upper middle class and heterosexual, or a man (or all of these things at once!) doesn’t mean your life is a bed of thorn-free roses.

2. It’s a hard truth, but, as Appiah reminds us, race is used as a way to make hierarchies and hierarchies mean that some people are considered more valuable than others. It can be disconcerting to live with the fact that you benefit from a system you had no part in creating.

3. Benefiting from racism is not the same thing as wanting to benefit from racism.

4. We tend to think of racism in the broadest terms—dragging someone behind a truck, hurling racial epithets, Stand Your Ground laws. In reality, it permeates so many different parts of our culture that it’s difficult to avoid.

5.You can enjoy Miley Cyrus and still consider yourself a good person (but it does mean you probably have awful taste in music ☺)

6.Miley Cyrus ≠ All White Women

And then finally:

7. As an intellectual exercise, consider what the world is like if McMillan Cottom is 100% right. What does that mean for you and how you live in the world?

We talked for a little while about one through six and then we walked slowly through McMillan Cottom’s post, particularly the early part where she recounts how white women and men react to her body.

I asked the women in class to consider how many complicated social contracts were broken in those moments by saying that as much as we want to live in a society that respects women at all times, we know that, as women, being out with a man can protect us from unwanted advances. It’s a complicated, sexist truth, but it’s one most of us rely on from time to time.

We pivoted from there to the video of Peggy McIntosh talking about how she came to write “Unpacking the Knapsack of Privilege.” It’s seems so old school to me that I was tempted to simply pass the essay out, but the video is even more compelling than simply reading the essay. She speaks so compassionately and honestly and the list rolls up so slowly that it demands careful attention. Watching rather than reading the essay shifted the dynamic in the classroom and lead to a thoughtful conversation.

In response to student questions about “what can I do!?!?” I thought it useful to show Jay Smooth’s now famous “How to Tell Someone They Sound Racist” video. Knowing how to frame the conversation seemed a good place for those interested in doing so, and it’s also an amazing rhetorical feat (something several of my students noticed immediately). It’s also funny:

Class discussion then moved in and out of all the texts with students “relating” to all of the above and then, more importantly, thinking critically about how we read different representations of oppression.

I explained the Angel/Whore configuration of femininity that peaks in the Victorian period and argued that it gets raced in modern society with the Oprah/Precious configuration. I also talked about what I call “The Oprah Winfrey Syndrome”—one that makes it so that black women are most popular when they are inspiring figures that middle-class white women can look up to while feeling good that they like a black woman who is not sexually threatening. I returned to the question of what it means if McMillan Cottom is right and how we can think about what we seek in poems by authors of color.

Without going into details, I can say that students were engaged, critical (in the best ways), curious, and did a lot of writing on their own.

It’s tempting in a class like this to measure success by some ideological outcome, to hope that my students will run out and be bold activists and/or allies in the fight against racism. Maybe that will happen. Maybe I’ll get some e-mail message in a year or so telling me this. When I used fairy tales to teach theory several years ago (see Matthew, Patricia A. and Jonathan Greenberg. “The Ideology of the Mermaid: Children’s Literature in the Intro to Theory Course.” Pedagogy 9.2 (Spring 2009): 217-233. ), I would get e-mails that would send me over the moon about how reconsidering “The Little Mermaid” was life changing for students who now “read” the world as texts to be carefully considered. But I know that the work of the classroom is to model engaged, critical thinking, and I saw that happen in class this week.

And, for now, I call that success.

The week in Afro-Pedagogy: Nat King Cole, Wynton Marsalis, Gloria Gaynor and Cake

I’ve been trying not to overthink my choices for those first few minutes of class because, if I overthink them, I’ll worry too much about whether or not students are “getting” it when I really just want them to have a transitional moment. Worse, rather than simply listening with, perhaps, some moment of insight, they’ll feel as if they have to perform.

Vibe is everything.

For the final Frankenstein discussion I kept thinking about Gloria Gaynor’s classic “I Will Survive” and how Cake’s cover of the song gives it a different hue, especially with the guitar riffs and the male vocalist.  One assignment for the class asks students to either recite a poem of their choosing or adapt the structure of one of the poems to their own topic.  I hoped the Gaynor-Cake versions of the song might inspire them.  The only problem is that Gaynor’s disco tune is really only good for two things—dancing around in one’s apartment (usually while singing at the top of one’s lungs)  or dancing in a club (preferably with a group of friendly gay men).  If the point is to settle in, Gaynor’s not going to do it. But in order to get to Cake, I had to go through Gaynor.  We ended up listening to just the first few minutes of Gaynor (and it was a bit jarring), but the Cake cover seemed to pull most of the students into the work for the day. Of course, Frankenstein’s creature promises to do the exact opposite of survive (a funeral pyre seems to be in his immediate future), but I’m not necessarily going for a specific correlation with these moments.

It’s not so easy to experiment with music in the classroom, and I have to remind myself not to seek a specific reaction from anyone. It was affirming to see students tapping their fingers and feet to Cake, but music is such a personal medium (so often we listen to it in private spaces) that it’s difficult to share in the clinical space of a classroom.

I don’t particularly have the, the vocabulary to discuss music.  This is not necessarily a bad thing as it reminds me, again, how much of critical writing is knowing what language to use to describe what a reader feels about a text.  For all that I keep a list of terms that my students need in order to discuss literature, I sometimes forget just how much of that vocabulary is new to many of them. At this point, it’s not even second nature to me. It’s just how I talk, but that wasn’t always the case. This uneasiness with musical vocabulary keeps me mindful.

It’s difficult to decide how much needs to be done by way of introduction or discussion afterwards.  In my “Art of Poetry” class last week we read canonical Donne, “The Flea” and “A Valediction: Forbidding Morning.”  The second poem had me thinking of Wynton Marsalis playing Hayden and Mozart with the National Philharmonic.  Symphonic music with Donne felt like a cliché, but for the second class, when we discussed “The Flea,” Nat King’s Cole “If You Can’t Smile and Say Yes…” felt more in keeping with the spirit of whatever Afro-pedagogy might be.  But the song needed a bit of glossing.  I wanted students to note the line “squeeze me a squoze” and felt I needed to explain what “men are scarce as nylons” alluded to.  And that brings me back to my main concern.  How much do students really need to know about these songs?  I run the risk of overthinking, of being that nerd who ruins the moment with overbearing explanations.  Students don’t need to “get” everything anyway.

And really how is life not better for spending three minutes with Nat?  I mean really…

NB: As I was jotting down a few notes, I realized that the other, perhaps more present, inspiration for this experiment comes from my favorite blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates and his occasional Morning Coffee posts.

(Thanks to my friend A.S. for putting Cake’s cover of “I Will Survive” on a birthday mixed CD.)