Teaching the American Literatures (T-AMLIT) is an electronic discussion list devoted issues concerning the teaching of a radically changed and continually expanding field of American literary and cultural studies. Since it began operation in March of 1994, about eight months ago, T-AMLIT has grown to almost 800 subscribers. The participants in T-AMLIT come from forty-eight states and a dozen countries, including Poland, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Germany, the Czech Republic, Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, Sweden, and Denmark. Sponsored by D.C. Heath, T-AMLIT is an academic, non-commercialized and open information resource addressing all aspects of teaching the literatures of the United States.
I began T-AMLIT last Spring because I realized that no electronic discusssion list existed dedicated solely to matters of teaching American literature. Yet I also wanted T-AMLIT to be more than simply a discussion forum; I wanted it to be a multipurpose, multi-layered forum, structured in such as way as to be of maximum use to teachers in all the various different stages of course design and teaching practice. That is, I wanted T-AMLIT to address all kinds of needs, whether a teacher is looking who looking for text and author ideas, or rethinking a syllabus, or creating a new course, or grappling with the nuances of pedagogical techniques, or more abstract issues of teaching philosophy and method.
To facilitate this idea that T-AMLIT should address multiple kinds of needs, I have developed within T-AMLIT a half dozen or so distinguishable threads, by which all postings, queries and messages are identified. I designate each of these threads with a prefix so that participants can easily recognize the nature of each mail message. On T-AMLIT, so far, there are five such threads: TEXT/QUERY (T/Q), PEDAGOGY (PED), SYLLABUS (SYL), T-AMLIT JOURNAL (JRNL), and INTERNET RESOURCES (NET). (A fuller description of each of these and some samples are provided below.)
T-AMLIT has indeed turned out to be more than just a discussion forum, but a place where abundant resources are created and shared. I am repeatedly impressed by the collective power and richness of the collective knowledge of the T-AMLIT community. I work very hard to arrange and package messages that come across T-AMLIT so that they are useful and manageable. I never edit a posting, nor reject any communication that pertains to teaching American literature, but I do spend a lot of time piecing together similar and multiple postings on certain topics, so that one mail message in a subscriber's box may contain as many as 6 or 8 messages on the same topic assembled together. Overall, I send out to the list a bundle of 4 to 6 mail messages, about 3 times a week.
By far the largest and most active thread on the list is what is called the TEXT/QUERY Thread (T/Q). This is one of the most immediately useful and productive aspects of T-AMLIT. Participants write in with queries for the names of texts, titles, and materials on the widest possible variety of topics. Some of the many, many T/Q threads have included queries for text, title and author ideas on Asian American autobiography, working class literature, gothicism in American culture, non-fiction memoirs about the 1960's, poems about technology, materials on the Harlem Renaissance, works foregrounding dialect and vernacular, gay autobiography, and fiction about first generation immigrant experiences. (A sample of one very interesting and productive thread on works concerning "Interracial Interactions" is excerpted below.)
Messages and queries specifically addressing the techniques of teaching are shared on T-AMLIT through the PEDAGOGY Thread (PED). PEDAGOGY topics have included such things as approaches to teaching _Daisy Miller_, or stream of consciousness writing in _The Sound and the Fury_, or how to teach concepts of manifest destiny to juniors in high school, or ways to teach Emily Dickinson's letters along with her poetry, or how to use computers in the literature classroom and how to negotiate student discomfort with certain topics, such as gay and lesbian literature. (One interesting and very practical thread on managing long [2 1/2 hour] classes is excerpted below.)
To complement the bibliographic T/Q threads, and the often practical PED threads, T-AMLIT also features postings that take up theoretical and more abstract issues of teaching. This thread is called the T-AMLIT JOURNAL (JRNL) and has featured a wide variety of topic, such as the relationship between literary and cultural studies, the extent to which 'political meaning' should be the content of literary study, the place of theory in the literature classroom, and the new meanings and contexts of 'close reading' in a post-structural era. (Two examples of an exchange on the JRNL thread concerning the problem of students resisting engagement with (older) literary texts, is excerpted below).
The SYLLABUS (SYL) thread on T-AMLIT is devoted to sharing syllabi, as well as discussing the structure and development of whole syllabi. From time to time members will simply offer up their syllabi for exchange. Yet, there are also discussion sequences associated with the posting of syllabi, such as a recent one on ways to structure a year-long American literature course for 11th graders, or the substantial series of suggestions elicited in connection with a course on "Constructions of Race." There has even been a recent discussion of the ethics involved in sharing syllabi themselves--proving once again that any good discussion has a healthy dose of self-consciousness!
Finally, the most recent addition to T-AMLIT is the INTERNET RESOURCES thread (NET), where information is requested and shared regarding internet resources pertaining to American literary studies. Some of the items posted have included information on Native American discussion lists, how to subscribe to an Ethnic History discussion list, and where to find listings of electronic journals. This thread works in tandem with the Electronic Archives on the World Wide Web (see inset).
*A T-AMLIT SAMPLER*
(1) TEXT/QUERY (T/Q): "Interracial Interactions"
One day, Ricahrd Yarborough submitted this request:
Valerie Smith, King Kok Cheung, and I are in the midst of putting
together a new course on interracial interactions in American
fiction. Not surprisingly, most of the texts that we've located
color. We've also found a few works by Asian American authors that deal with contact with blacks. To this point, that's about it. We would greatly appreciate any suggestions of other texts that we might consider for our reading list. Thanks.
Within a few days, more than 30 responses came pouring in (which I then packaged into three mail messages of about 10 postings each). Here's a sampling of the original request and the responses.
Subj: RE: T/Q: Interracial Interactions
Michael Dorris, _Yellow Raft on Blue Water_, focuses on black/Native American interaction. Benay Blend firstname.lastname@example.org
From: IN%"LOYDAD@dlu.edu" 20 SEP 1994 09:08:20.76
Subj: RE: T/Q: Interracial Interactions
Look at Bernard Malamud's THE TENANTS.
From: IN%"email@example.com" "Sherry Linkon"
Subj: RE: T/Q: Interracial Interactions
My "multicultural American lit" course focuses on cultural interaction between people from different backgrounds (not just race). I've used Sherley Anne Williams's _Dessa Rose_ and Doctorow's _Ragtime_ (especially good for discussing the differences between race and ethnicity the gap
between Tateh's fairly easy assimilation and Coalhouse's struggle/fight) along with the Norton _New Worlds of Literature_. I really like that anthology because it has a lot of the kinds of readings you're looking for pieces by Gary Soto, for example, on interactions between Latinos and Asian Americans, stories about interactions between Irish Americans and Italian Americans, etc. A couple of other stories not in that anthology also work well: Joanne Greenberg's "L'olam and White Shell Woman" looks at interaction between a middle class Jewish woman and her
Native American co workers on a Wyoming reservation; there's another story in _Imagining America_ (I'm not sure if I have the title right here) called "Thank God for the Jews," about an Indian woman who buys meat at the kosher butcher (noting the link in dietary laws as well as her process of assimilation).
By the way, I think focusing on interaction makes a lot of sense helps us bridge the assimilation vs. separatism dichotomy.
Subj: RE: T/Q: Interracial Interactions
You may have included it already under the black / white rubric, but how about Malamud's _The Tenants_? Not that I find it an especially pleasant read, especially under current circumstances on campus and elsewhere. But then, pleasure & comfort wouldn't exactly be the point...
Eric Murphy Selinger
From: IN%"JCSJJ@CUNYVM.BITNET" "Chris Suggs"
Subj: RE: T/Q: Interracial Interactions
I'm not sure how you are setting up the category "interracial" but it seems good to remember that at the turn of this century Jewish gentile reltionships were often considered interracial by both sides. That being the case, you could use Israel Zangwill's 1907 play "The Melting Pot." The popular culture of the period was full of these stories. Try the Yiddish theater, for example.
On another front, there's an interesting "interracial" subplot in
Sutton Griggs's 1899 novel _Imperium in Imperio_. In it, a young African American woman commits suicide rather than marry the man she loves ( a very light mulatto lawyer, one of the central figures of the book) because she has read a book, _White Supremacy and Negro Subordination_, that has convinced her that
"the intermingling of the races in sexual relationship was sapping the vitality of the Negro race and, in fact, was slowly but surely exterminating the race." (173) Unable to resist his appeal while she lives, but unwilling to contribute to the extinction of her people, she chooses death.
In _Blake, or The Huts of America_, Martin Delany, a "Race" man, argues by example against interracial relationships by casting mulattoes as villians and the "pure" Africans as heroic.
I think some thought should be given to 19th century African American attitudes to the question as distinct from more contemporary positions and tensions.
Chris Suggs firstname.lastname@example.org
A few titles that come to mind, the first two of which are in the Heath Anthology and are very teachable: Hisaye Yamamoto's "Seventeen Syllables," in which the adolescent daughter (Japanese American) is involved with a Chicano young man; Thomas Whitecloud's "Blue Winds Dancing," which focuses much on the contrast between Anglo and Native American culture; also,
some of the included poetry by Joy Harjo and by Janice Mirikitani concerns white and Native American or white and Asian American relationships (as cultural tensions and/or personal relationships), although I realize you said "fiction" (and, Whitecloud's work is more of an autobiographical
essay, perhaps fictionalized). Other pertinent fiction are the wonderful novels of Barbara Kingsolver, esp. _Animal Dreams_ which centrally concerns a personal/romantic relationship between a white woman and a Pueblo man; also her _Pigs in Heaven_ concerns a white woman (who's a small part Native American) and her adopted, Navajo daughter and their both learning about Navajo culture and cultural differences. Hope this is helpful.
Marilyn Edelstein, English, Santa Clara U
I guess by the time you see my late response, you might have got a lot of suggested titles. But I still strongly recommend to you Alma Luz villanueva's novel, "Naked Ladies". The novel, published early this year by Bilingual Press, Tempe, Arizona, explores the "interracial interactions" through tracing the
interethnic relationships between Chicanas, Blacks, Causasians, and Asian Americans. I tried this book in my course, "Ethnic Literature in America." It turned out to be the favorite book of the whole class.
California State University, Chico
Subj: RE: T/Q: Interracial Interactions
I'm rather interested in this subject myself, since I'm writing a
dissertation for my Phd in English on the continuation of and innovation on the trickster tradition in the works of five contemporary African American and Native American writers.
You might check out Leslie Marmon Silko's recent novel, "Almanac of the Dead," which depicts an uprising of indigenous and oppressed people across the US and Mexico, and looks at interrelationships between whites, blacks, Chicanos, and American Indians (besides being an excellent and very disturbing book).
Also Silko's earlier novel "Ceremony" depicts to varying degrees Laguna Pueblo veterans from the Korean War and their experiences with whites, Japanese, Japanese Americans, intratribal relationships ("traditionals" vs. Indians who have left the Res), relationships with Mexicans/Chicanos, and relationships with other tribes particularly Navajo.
I also saw a book entitled "Black Indians" about a year ago which I dearly regret not buying and don't know the author's name, but it was about interrmarriage & interrelationships between African Americans and American Indians.
This is what comes to me off the top of my head I'll post more if I think of them.
From: IN%"email@example.com" "Carter C. Revard"
Subj: RE: T/Q: Interracial Interactions
Richard Yarborough's request raises interesting questions indeed. My Ponca Indian cousin, Casey Camp Horinek, is presently working on a documentary with a Black/Indian woman from Los Angeles on the history of mixed Black and Indian people in this country, a long overdue study of which their documentary may be a good start. The Choctaw, Creek, Seminole peoples include a great many intermixed tribal members and the history of "freed slaves" and "Black Indians" in Oklahoma is likely to contain many of the bads and worses of American history once looked into. I think Faulkner is one of the few who addresses the mixture
in some way (think of THE BEAR and "Red Leaves" maybe?). In the nineteenth century after slave importing was stopped Indian women might be kidnapped and taken south for breeding purposes, I believe. Civil War fights in Oklahoma (Indian Territory) split the slaveholding Indians from the North supporters. I
don't know any novels or books that go directly at this complex matter. I only mention things at the edge of course consciousness when I am trying to teach American Indian literature.
Subj: RE: T/Q: Interracial Interactions
You probably already have Kingston's _Tripmaster Monkey_ (which
begins with Wittman Ah Sing consciously imitating a shuck and jive, and ends with a utopian discourse on race).
What about Rudolfo Anaya's lyrical _Bless Me, Ultima_? It's set in a Southwestern Mex Am community which has minimal interactions with the Anglo world, but there's a strong plot element involving the dual Spanish/Indian spiritual heritage of that community. (It also teaches well.) Likewise, Ana Castillo's works (_So Far From God_, the more polemical _Mixquiahuala Letters_, and the disturbing _Sapagonia_) focus on the confrontation of Anglo and Latino communal values (you don't say exactly how you mean "race": who counts?).
Going back a ways, Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton's recently republished novel, _The Squatter and the Don_ (1885), dramatizes the dispossession of the Spanish speaking californios following the Mexican War from a perspective that students are very unlikely to have been exposed to. While Ruiz de Burton explicitly accuses the US Government of racial bias against citizens of Mexican descent, her "solution" to that assumed readerly prejudice is problematic: she makes all the californios white (they "pass" for Spanish in New York high society), denigrates Indians, and makes any racial mixing between the two groups invisible. Nonetheless, those are all suggestive points for discussion. Unfortunately, it's a rather long book I just finished teaching it for the first time, and I have to
confess it got mixed reviews from the class. If anyone has comments or suggestions on that novel or on teaching constructions of "race" in Latino texts in general, my preoccupation of the moment I'd love to have an exchange of ideas.
Kirsten Silva Gruesz
College of William & Mary
T-AMLIT JOURNAL (JRNL): "Student Engagement with Texts"
How to cope with students who are simply not responding to the reading. Claire Pettengill, John Slatin.
Subj: RE: JRNL: YOUTH, LITERACY, RELEVANCE
I have been away for a week and have just come upon the "journal" discussion of teaching American literature, which raises lots of good issues. As a teaching assistant, I've taught the early American survey course to undergraduates at the University of Maryland and encountered incredible resistance to careful reading my students constantly complained that the
language was "archaic" and that they had a hard time understanding the long sentences. So the comments I've read on this journal that we're actually teaching students how to read make sense to me (though I don't think you can separate "reading" from "political" issues). I responded to my students' complaints by cutting some works out of my syllabus, and spending a day or two a week focusing carefully on short passages, as if they were poems, (sections from Jefferson's "Notes" and "Charlotte Temple" worked particularly well).
However, I still found the semester frustrating, precisely because my "interests" seemed so irrelevant to my students, who persisted in seeing the "Puritans," along with abolitionists and early feminists, through the lens of twentieth century stereotypes. (In our discussion of Margaret Fuller,
several students rejected Fuller as a man hater motivated by her own unattractiveness!)
Still pondering the failure of this semester, I recently
attended the conference of the American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies in Charleston, and went to a very good panel about "Teaching Eighteenth Century American Texts to a Twentieth Century Audience." One panelist, whose name unfortunately escapes me just now, suggested teaching
"backwards" for two reasons both to hook into students' interests, and to avoid imposing an artificially "progressive" shape on the material we teach. For example, she begins her course with a viewing of a recent "noble savage" film like "Last of the Mohicans" or "Dances with Wolves" and then reads
a Cooper novel. She asks her students what the filmmakers have changed about (added to or taken away from) the book, and focuses on those differences to get them started thinking about the importance of certain issues at particular historical moments. This approach has the advantage of tapping into students'
comfort with video as well. I'm planning to try something like this the next time I teach American literature it sounds like an excellent way to force students to PAY ATTENTION to their reading, and there are lots of interesting possibilities. I'm especially looking forward to reading the "Scarlet Letter" BEFORE a Puritan conversion narrative, and then focusing on what aspects of Puritanism Hawthorne chose to emphasize and their relevance to
his era. I've also been considering comparing some current editions of early American works with the first editions, asking students to point out differences in editorial apparatus and speculate about their significance(s). This could help illuminate the larger topic of the institutional USES of "American literature" in our day and in previous eras. (A great exercise for the nineteenth century would be to discuss Emily
Dickinson's fascicle "publication" after examining a twentieth century edition of Dickinson perhaps one aimed specifically at children or teenagers). I'm sorry I can't remember the panelist's name Carla Mulford was also on the panel and gave a good talk about multiculturalism and teaching
early American literature. She's published a paper on the same topic in the "Heath Anthology Newsletter," if you can find it.
I found Claire Pettengill's message on the possibilities of teaching 19thc. and colonial lit "backwards" interesting and thoughtful. It's a strategy I've often thought about over the years but never tried, partly because (in all honesty) I've been too lazy to re think the syllabus in the way such a move would demand, and partly because I've worried that it would amount to little more than replacing a falsely "progressive" movement with an equally falsely teleological one, leaving students with
the impression that the whole point of Puritan writing was to make it possible for Hawthorne to write _The Scarlet Letter_. All the same, I'll be teaching the Am Lit Before 1865 half of the upper division survey this semester (I'm at Texas, Austin) don't blink, you'll miss a century! so maybe I'll try it.
But I'm troubled by another aspect of the post the sense of "failure," the anger at the students that seems to me to emerge in the lines about "FORC[ing]" them to "PAY ATTENTION" (caps in the original), the dismissal of the students' complaints that they find the language "archaic" and the sentences too long and too difficult to comprehend. I've heard the same complaints many times over the past 15 years, and it's finally occurred to me that maybe the students aren't just whining maybe they're telling us something about the history of literacy, or at least of reading, and how stylistic norms and rhetorical training have changed in the 350+ years since Winthrop wrote "A Model of Christian Charity" or Bradford his account of the Separatists' landfall on Cape Cod ("For all things stand upon them with a weatherbeaten face" a line that still takes my breath
away, almost 20 years after I read it for the first time; yes, I'm an old fart). The idea of FORCING students to PAY ATTENTION to those sentences in the way we might like reminds me of a recent incident involving me and my cat, which had infuriated me by using the bathtub as a litterbox AGAIN. Well, you can rub a cat's nose in it and it won't get the message, or at least not the one you mean to send: the message it gets, I suspect, is
that you're rubbing its nose in shit.
What if we change the assumptions we make about students under these circumstances? What if we say to ourselves, not that the little bastards are perversely refusing to recognize the value of these ancient texts and so withholding their attention in a reflexive philistinism; what if we say instead that they *would* PAY ATTENTION in our way *if they knew how*? and so took the pedagogical challenge as being to help them train their attention. The kind of attention that we take for granted as equivalent with reading (and by "we" I mean people with a professional commitment to English studies) is by no means self evident, by no means natural: it's *learned*. And just as we once had to learn to do this (and then have to keep learning, because each new move that comes along insists on a different kind of reading, a different kind of attention), so we have to
teach our students to attend in a way that makes sense to us. This way of framing it raises other questions, of course, about the legitimacy of our own ways of reading: what's the source of our authority as readers or of our way of reading?
None of this is to say that I don't share the concern and frustration and occasional astonishment at the conservatism and hostility to change and resistance to any kind of explicitly political/cultural analysis that my students, too, often manifest. But the idea that our job is to FORCE people to pay attention without showing them what that means runs counter
to the conception of teaching that I've evolved into over the years. For years, I scribbed BE SPECIFIC in the margin of students' papers, then one day it occurred to me I could do that till I was blue in the face and nothing would change: the students thought they were *being* specific, they giving it their best shot, and it was up to me to change their notions of specificity.
Sorry to go on so long.
University of Texas at Austin
PEDAGOGY (PED): "Teaching Long Classes"
Elise Earthman, Shelley Reid, Elizabeth Renker
From: IN%"firstname.lastname@example.org" "Elise Earthman"
Subj: RE: T/Q: LONG CLASSES
I, too, teach 2 1/2 hour classes in the summertime not Intro to Lit but essentially the same thing sophomore level composition about literature.
I find I have to vary the activities a lot during that period, having some discussion, some group work, some exercise type activities having to do with writing (since I'm teaching comp along the way). I'll also stop in the middle of a discussion and, after posing what I hope is a meaty or controversial question, ask them to discuss their thoughts with
the person next to them anything to break up the monotony of me them me them talking for all that time. We also make sure to take a short break in the middle, to keep our sanity!
I'll be happy to correspond more privately if you like it's a real challenge.
Subj: RE: T/Q: REQUESTS FOR ASSISTANCE: MORRISON, NATIVE AMERICAN LITERATURE,
Re: long classes
My best advice is quite general: mix things up a lot. Move from impromptu response paper or journal writing to lecture to small group tasks to class discussions to peer review sessions to student presentations; from the chalkboard to the overhead to the text to xeroxes to notebooks; and from bio historical background to formal elements (character, plot) to themes to personal responses (yours and students') to comparisons to
reading or writing techniques; try not to get hung up on "equal" or "consistent" coverage of each text compared to the one before it. My experience suggests that 20 minutes is a pretty good goal for a single approach/topic; in 2.5 hours you might teach (or facilitate) 4 or 5 or maybe 6 "mini classes."
I would also suggest recruiting the students to help whenever possible by giving brief presentations or arriving with written discussion questions or working with partners to take notes/draft/revise, etc.
And finally, don't be reluctant to schedule in class work time in which students can seek help from you or (better yet) each other; especially in the rushed schedule of a summer session class, a 20 minute work period once every week or two can help everyone catch up and stay with the pace.
Subj: long classes
In response to Mary H. Smith about teaching 2 1/2 hour classes: The classes I teach are all 2 hr/twice a week. I will just share with you what has worked for me. I always start class with a brief contextualizing lecture. For perhaps twenty minutes, I discuss biography, historical issues, critical debates, and so forth about the subject matter for the day. I use the rest of the class period in guided discussion with my students, by which I mean that I ask them a very directed series of questions that I know will get us to some sense of closure at the end of the
period. These questions accomplish different kinds of things: get them to look closely at textual moments; get them to make connections with other material we've covered; get them to think about specific analytical problems and form tentative conclusions. I should also add that I require participation, and although a few students are usually resistant to this at the beginning of the quarter, it works very well and they all end up saying how much they liked the spirit of the class. Also: in each previous class
This gives them a handle on the assignment and always gets
the subsequent class off the ground quickly. Hope this
*How to Subscribe to T-AMLIT*
*The Electronic Archives for Teaching the American Literatures*
From the beginning, T-AMLIT was conceived as the complement of another resource that would be created on the World Wide Web as a usable archive of syllabus and pedagogical materials for teaching American Literature. As of November 25, the Electronic Archives for Teaching the American Literatures will be operational on the World Wide Web. The Web site, housed at Georgetown University and developed by the Center for Electronic Projects in American Studies, the Electronic Archives will contain a wide range of materials and resources, including syllabi and course materials, the logs and notebooks from T-AMLIT, the complete run of the Heath Anthology Newsletters, as well as hundreds of pointers, indexes, and gateways to other internet resources on the literatures of the United States.
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