Essential Questions

Heritage and Language in WHEREAS

After Poet X, we shifted to a consideration of Layli Long Soldier’s WHEREAS, which sparked some fantastic conversations regarding the continuing failure of America to address the historical and contemporary treatment of American Indians. These conversations included more than just the historical or economic facts. Long Soldier reveals to us how issues of conflict and reconciliation are entangled with language, and that language is, in turn, entangled with the self. To take just one example, the loss for words that the speaker experiences, one that she tries to address in various ways (such as by asking her father for the Lakota word for “tired”), is also a loss resulting from an ongoing process of erasure of the Lakota people. Long Soldier is challenging us to note how America is continuing this process of erasure today, even through the resolution of apology that Congress passed in 2009, and that erasure extends through the self, disrupting even our ability to think about the erasure or talk about it with each other. I used the word “our” because it would be a mistake to isolate this issue to just the experience of Layli Long Soldier. In referencing the 2009 Congressional Apology (passed by our representatives in D.C.), she is making clear that we are all implicated and affected in this erasure.

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We had a number of thought-provoking student presentations. One topic covered was the issue of the best terminology to use, with the best name to use for a people being, if possible, the name of the specific nation, such as “Lakota,” rather than a general term. When speaking generally, however, we learned that “Native American” has often been used, but many prefer “American Indian” or “Indigenous American.” We looked closer at the history of the 38 Dakota men hung during the largest legal mass execution in American history, which occurred the same week as the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.  We also considered the disparately high level of poverty, suicide, and violence experienced today by American Indians, with that violence including a substantial amount of violence committed by non-American Indians against American Indians. The sense I received from you was your desire for positive action, rather than words of apology that do little to improve the lives of individuals.

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We considered these issues while also thinking about “heritage” and “language” as topics for considering our ongoing question regarding the benefits and hurdles of a pluralist society. For some, a rich sense of heritage can be a crucial part of individual identity; others in our class felt that their own historical heritage was something that had been largely lost to the more general feeling of being an “American.” This leads to important points of potential conflict when different individuals feel the defining pressures of different heritages, whether historical or a more amorphous feeling of an American heritage.

These issues become compounded when we consider language use, including whether that language is English or not. As part of this consideration, we learned about “Différance,” a term coined by Jacques Derrida. My handout on the term can be found here. What I hope you take away from this is a sense of two things. First, that how we make distinctions, including between people, is entangled with the functioning of the language we speak: how that language defines words through differences to other words. Second, meaning is never something that is just in some word, such as “rabbit,” or in the understood connection of a word to some thing in the real world. Rather, meaning is something that occurs within a web of meaning in which we always, at some point, take for granted that meaning exists. An important consideration, therefore, is to delve into how such differences and such assumptions turn upon the thought and activity of the language use of those who speak it.

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To restate this last point, Layli Long Soldier is showing how the thought and actions of Americans affects the meaning and use of language, both the English language and the many languages of American Indians. The lack of thought and lack of action of Americans is reflected in an inadequacy to address, for example, Long Soldier’s Lakota heritage. This inadequacy of language can be seen in the strange gaps and spaces that Long Soldier shows us in her poetry, with those gaps being felt within the speaker, not just as a surface level presentation of words. Yet this inadequacy is also felt in the words of the 2009 Congressional Apology. Perhaps the emptiness of the Apology hides itself better through the coverage of numerous words and the mask of official formality, yet Long Soldier is pointing out how inadequate all those words are. The words merely blanket an erasure of heritage that Long Soldier’s speaker makes intimately clear. Thinking about language reveals, I hope, that these inadequacies of language are entangled with an inadequacy of thought and an inadequacy of action of the general American population.

Long Soldier’s critique should thus also demonstrate the necessity for poetry. How do we show an absence? How do we show a lack of thought? How do we show that which language is too inadequate to present? How do we use language to convey a meaning for which no word exists? How do we convey a meaning that is being erased along with the people who speak it? Faced with such challenges, language must resort to all the resources at its disposal, including through choices about how to break a sentence over multiple lines or how to space words across the page. Poetry is “weird” because every resource of language becomes necessary when the challenge is to convey what language cannot easily present. A poet like Long Soldier works in the blank space where dictionaries fail and where meaning cannot be easily paraphrased. Our challenge, as readers, is to feel the contours of what Long Soldier’s words reveal–much like metal filaments sprinkled over invisible lines of magnetic force. That challenge is worthwhile to address because that space is, too, a place where contemporary thought all too often fails: a space where our human linguistic software is entangled with error.

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Home and Family in Poet X

Our first focus is on the LatinX culture of New York’s Spanish Harlem today, as reflected in Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X. Her novel in verse depicts that culture and the experience of growing up in it. As she explains in the video of her acceptance of the National Book Award (here), she seldom was able to see examples of herself as she was growing up, and writing the work was important so that others like her could now see themselves and also be seen.

As part of this consideration, we had one student presentation on the possible interconnections between LatinX and Asian Americans, with considerations of how there are general kinds of negative connotations that both groups endure, including the feeling of being “perpetual foreigners.” There were also important differences, with Asian Americans feeling caught within what can seem positive but can also stifling: a conception of Asian Americans as being the “model minority.” This presentation also considered gender roles within both groups and the implicit and explicit belief that “boys are the better child to have.” This led the class into an interesting discussion of why sexual discrimination has been an experience shared widely across cultural groups.

Another student provided more in-depth information on the demographics of Americans of Hispanic descent. We learned that the Hispanic population is the largest minority population in the U.S. and that forms of Protestantism have overtaken a traditional support of Catholicism as the prominent religious faith among Hispanics today. For many, the social connections formed within religious institutions remain an important aspect of social life and identity. This led us to an interesting discussion of Poet X, whose central teenage character rebels against the religious dictates of her mother. Is that rebellion because Xiomara does not believe in religion or because that religion is being forced upon her? And does being Hispanic and Catholic impact her parents reaction to learning that their daughter has a boyfriend?

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These interesting conversations were accompanied by our consideration of how home and family impact our individual understanding of our desired pursuit of happiness. In The Poet X, for instance, the demands of home include an explicit threat from Xiomara’s mother that failure to follow religious principles will result in Xiomara being sent to the Dominican Republic. This sparked an in-class consideration of how our homes shape us and continue to follow us throughout our lives, even after we leave. In some ways, Xiomara’s mother has never quite left her former home in the Dominican Republic, and that home continues to impact her understanding of the best route forward for herself and her daughter in America. How much do any of us completely leave our homes and the effects of those homes on our views, speech, mannerisms, and approaches to interacting with others? Interestingly, The Poet X also reveals that our families place demands upon us as well, much like our homes do, but the demands of family and home are not always the same exact thing. For Xiomara, her home has never been the Dominican Republic, meaning that her mother’s universe of “homes” is different than her daughters, even though both are in the same family.

Moving forward, we will continue to consider how there are many considerations that impact our sense of identity and our desired path through life–with home and family being just the first two. These considerations might seem simple, but once we start focusing on how they are the same and how they are different, we can see how they together impact us in dynamic and startling ways.

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Finally, we began also considering why to use poetry as the principle medium for this course. Why not short stories? And why such a tight focus on contemporary poetry? To these questions, you have suggested a couple reasons so far. The first is that, since the readings are so contemporary, you have found it easy to relate to the readings, especially The Poet X. Second, you have noted that compared to a chapter of a novel, reading an individual poem is considerable less volume! Of course, none of you are slackers and this point does not mean that poems lack complexity. Far from it! Most poems require multiple readings before they can be understood. Nonetheless, you have appreciated the way that the economy of poetry places emphasis on textual considerations in ways that might be lost within the volume of language that a prose work presents–and I am in full support of you here! The efficiency of poetry is often a key quality that, through the careful selection of words, permits weight to be placed on each and every word, comma, and period in a fashion not paralleled in many prose works. Hopefully, our future poetry readings will continue to efficiently portray American contemporary society in ways that you can relate to and reflect on.

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A Pluralist America

Thus far, as our semester together begins, we have started considering this question: “How do the readings reflect the challenges and opportunities of a pluralist society?” By “pluralist,” I am referring to how American society is comprised of a diversity of ethnic, racial, religious, and other social groups. To introduce this inquiry, we began by considering what may be a surprisingly un-democratic concern of the nation’s founders: that one of the greatest dangers to American society is the power of the majority. The Bill of Rights, the Constitution’s system of checks and balances, and federalism all work as built-in protections for minority views and groups. In other words, the prospect of maintaining American society as pluralist rather than strictly “majority-ist” is something fundamental to America itself.

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But how do we nonetheless coordinate the divergent desires of America’s many individuals, each seeking different paths to happiness? To begin answering this question, we borrowed from John Rawls’ idea of a “veil of ignorance,” which asks us to imagine being a member of this society but not sure which member, whether male, female, rich, poor, somewhere in between, ect. While behind that “veil of ignorance,” we then can consider what rights should exist, especially when once we remove that veil we may find ourselves being members of any one of America’s many subgroups. In response, the class came up with a number of basic rights that students believed everyone should have, many of which are found in the Bill of Rights. However, a number of basic rights that you told me should be recognized as fundamental included these:

  1. Healthcare
  2. Parental time off (both paternal and maternal leave)
  3. Food
  4. Clean water
  5. Education
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Of course, how you would implement such rights would be a matter of debate, but the same is true of any right.

We also considered Rawls’ point that some inequality within a society might be beneficial if that inequality improves lives somehow, such as by paying brain surgeons more to help ensure we attract talented individuals willing to go through extensive training before they cut into our brains. Our class debates here, though, included interrogating who needs to be benefited–the worst off in society or the average member of society–and how much inequality is acceptable.

The key take-away from our initial considerations, however, is this: America is a diverse country that was conceived from its founding as supporting many divergent routes in the pursuit of happiness; however, America has also struggled with maintaining this ideal while also confronting questions involving inequality, what rights should be considered fundamental, and how various groups ought to be accepted within society–with the clearest example of this struggle being America’s continuance of slavery up until the Civil War, a legacy that continues to haunt America today.

Moving forward, we have now begun a closer focus on various examples of America’s many cultural groups while continuing our reflection on the challenges and opportunities of America’s pluralist society.

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Literature as a Past, Present, and Future Activity

This semester, I have worked to expose you to a multitude of examples of American literature published since the Civil War. While doing so, we have considered these works as something more than content to be covered for course passage or as historical examples to be known merely for our general edification. Throughout American history, we have been engaged in a continual process of asking ourselves who we are, what is affecting our pursuit of happiness, and how we can improve our lives. As part of this process, our readings have been more than dead objects for study, more than inert things, more than stationary nouns: they are verbs, they are the hard-fought activities of real people, they are the living synaptic-firing of a continually changing American “hive mind” attempting to work through thorny issues of American identity, quality of life, and progress.

Since the midterm exam, we have seen this process unfold through literature as Americans wrestled with industrialization, race, war, inequality, and traditional versus progressive understandings of identity. In particular, we have discussed how the modernists of the first half of the 20th century attempted to reconcile the feeling of hurtling toward the future with a sense of loss of traditional understandings and values that provided a “center” around which to organize a shared American outlook. That “center” was increasingly challenged, including the extent to which it was ever “shared,” as the 20th century concluded and the 21st century began. As part of our own consideration of the future, you then all reflected upon what the literature of the future should do to address your own concerns. Below, I will append a list of many of the issues you stated that you want the literature of the future to address.

As you review the list, I suggest you consider the important role of the American writer–from 1880 through 1920, through 1960, through 2000, and through to the end of your own life, through to the end of your own important and hard-fought activity of working past the thorny issues impacting your life now. The issues you raise below all involve, in some way, addressing American thought: how we collectively think about ourselves and our relationships with each other and our environment. These questions can certainly be addressed in many fields, including psychology, political science, chemistry, and engineering. Yet I hope that our course has made clearer that literature, as a genre of artistic expression, has a unique and vital role to play in addressing how we think through the concerns of human life. And that role is one that you can participate in. You too can use literature as a forum through which you can help us all think through these concerns. In doing so, your work becomes both an expression of your living voice and a part of the continuing process of American society feeling its way forward. Thinking is an activity: your work, too, can be the verb that Whitman’s work, that Williams’ work, that Levertov’s work, that Acevedo’s work is and continues to be.

American II Students on What the American Literature of the Future Ought to Address

The list below is my summary combination of the general points raised by all of you in your final reflection essays, with many of these issues being reported to me by multiple students in this class.

The American literature of the future ought to address the following:

  1. Women’s equality, including by better presenting a diverse representation of feminine identities;
  2. Technology, including social media over-stimulation, escapes from reality like through virtual reality, and loss of jobs due to technology;
  3. The gender expectations placed on men today;
  4. Climate change;
  5. Diversity, including by better presenting the experience of being a person of color, improving inclusivity, and addressing the veil that Du Bois discusses and that people of color continue to experience;
  6. Being able to not just accept but also to reject one’s local community;
  7. Ideals of justice and freedom;
  8. Mental health;
  9. Socioeconomic inequality, including how that inequality affects student debt;
  10. Gender and sexuality issues, including LGBTQ acceptance, being asexual, and normalizing being trans as an experience: a Whitman-like literature of the future would include individuals across the gender/sexuality spectrum;
  11. Community safety;
  12. A return to representation of American industriousness, rather than focusing on expressions of self-alienation and despair, including through presentations of the average, hardworking American;
  13. Challenging capitalism/imperialism;
  14. Being willing to abandon tradition so as to avoid the situation exemplified in Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily”: “We are no longer bound by outdated information and ideas of humanity, stop sleeping with the corpse of your ideal world and acknowledge the reality you live in”;
  15. Greater blending of genre lines and an increased consideration of poetry: “As in Robert Creeley’s ‘Credo,’ I’d like to see humanity and the writing we create to impact both the bizarre and tangible. I’d like it to reflect the randomness of ‘rain tomorrow’ (line 2-3) as well as the absolute humanness of ‘your hand’ (line 60). I’d like it to embrace humanity, I suppose— I want it to be just as magical as past imagist prose, yet just as gritty as that of the realist.”

 

The Ideal and the Reality of Race and Sex

In the first half of our semester, the class has made a number of important observations.

  • Whitman and Dickinson both suggest the transcendent: that which surpasses the raw, concrete particulars of the world that is nonetheless necessary for understanding our human experience of the world.
    • Whitman presents particular examples of individuals performing specific acts, but he is doing so in order to suggest something that transcends all those details: the idea of America.
    • Dickinson takes details, sometimes as surprisingly mundane as a ray of light or a buzzing fly, and then probes their spiritual significance.
    • Together, they suggest one way to address questions of America’s identity: by considering what the particular reveals about the ideal.
  • Twain, in comparison, seems more intent on presenting a realistic account of American life, warts and all (although he does this with a fair amount of humor too). However, Huck’s ethical quandaries reveal him as a pragmatist: Huck is attempting to balance reality with the ideal–with ultimately the ideal that matters for him being those relationship-driven values that he can put into action in reality.
  • Our semester therefore suggests two ways to address what America is: by looking at the ideals of America or by looking at the reality of America.
    • Between ideals and reality works a third approach: considering what ideals can pragmatically be made reality through a problem-solving approach to addressing the difficulties affecting the quality of American lives.

After this opening, we considered two topics of special importance in addressing the mismatch between America’s ideals and America’s reality: race and “the woman question.” Through in-class writings, I have been collecting data from you on what you think the readings are revealing to us. For each of these topics, I asked you to write about what our readings revealed about our class’s three “essential questions,” and below is a summary of what you have together told me:

  • In the readings, what social, environmental, and psychological factors are revealed as affecting the quality of individual lives?
    • Race:
      • Economic disparities not only restrict who has the power to buy what, but they also limit who can have the opportunity to improve their position in the future and who has the ability to be self-sustaining in the present.
      • The “race line” limits our ability the socialize with others, which also negatively affects our ability to be happy in our lives.
      • Access to education is a necessary but insufficient means on its own to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to succeed.
      • Political equality is also a necessary but insufficient means on its own to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to succeed.
      • The consequence of racial inequality and the belittlement of African Americans through negative stereotypes is that African Americans have felt shut out of society, affecting them psychologically, fostering depression and an unfair feeling of inadequacy, and forcing them to constantly have to fight for control over their identity.
      • Racism creates a tension between Americans that yields a toxic, hostile environment.
      • Geographical boundaries (such as the area around the town where you grow up) have had significant impacts on what individuals have believed is true or possible, causing surprise when individuals leave their home town. For example, some African Americans only really discovered racism when they left their predominately black home town.
      • The quality of work available for African Americans has often been harsher and more physical, leading to more work-related injuries and degrading the quality of their lives.
      • Racism makes African Americans see themselves negatively through the eyes of others and that America has not “had their back.”
      • Racism makes African Americans manipulate their own behavior to fit the expectations that society places on them.
    • Sex:
      • Negative social pressures interfere with the ability of women to have positive mental health, including the opportunities she has and her ability to connect with others (both alike and not like her).
      • Professions with expertise, such as medicine, have negatively affected women’s mental health (as seen in “The Yellow Wall-Paper”). Women’s input is not received, and the experts simply tell women what’s best for them, without their feedback. Even when their feedback was received, that feedback was discounted as wrong whenever it conflicted with what the male experts believed. This has caused women to experience being shut out of the decisions being made about their own well-being. Even worse, this has led to “gas lighting,” in which women themselves question their own understanding of their reality. Society never listens to people it oppresses.
      • Not being treated as an equal has negatively affected the mental health of women or has caused them to compete needlessly between each other.
      • Putting women on a pedestal as the “angel in the house” traps them: they are not given a chance to better themselves, are actually treated as the weaker sex, and are forced into servitude to men because they have no independent source of income.
      • Women are bound to performing according to the expectations of men, constricting the ability of women to live and achieve according to their own expectations. The expectations also cause a constant pressure to meet the ideals of men without instead being accepted for how women really are.
      • Women have been treated as weak-minded and therefore prevented from having any real impact on society or to be respected professionals coequal with men. Some women have even internalized this belief, such that their own thought processes are affected by the unconscious belief of their own inferiority.
  • What normative values are implicit in the readings, and how do those values suggest a framework by which to define progress?
    • Race:
      • One normative value is the claim that progress is equal to increased wealth.
      • Another way of measuring progress is the extent that individuals all feel as belonging within the whole of America, without being limited in their contact and interaction with others.
      • Another way of measuring progress is the extent to which all individuals are supported in seeing themselves in a positive light rather than being pushed toward self-hate.
      • Another way of measuring progress is the achievement of equality, whether educationally, socially, politically, or economically.
      • While today difference is more appreciated, in the past progress had been measured by how close to “white, wealthy, and male” you are.
      • Progress would be granting African Americans the right to their own personhood by being able to express their identity, including as a black artist, without having to conform to white standards.
      • For some, the prospect of “progress” has actually led to continued enslavement in a new form.
    • Sex:
      • Progress can be made when women can realize their own strength and value.
      • One way of measuring progress is wealth, and for women that has traditionally meant the wealth of their husbands.
      • For women, progress has historically meant trying to succeed somehow in a “man’s world,” which has undermined the mental health of women and pushed women toward jealously competing with each other.
      • Progress would be for women to have opportunities equal to men, equal rights, and equal respect as human beings.
      • Progress requires a society-wide shift in thinking away from an unfair characterization of femininity as lesser.
      • Progress requires women to have independence from men.
      • Progress requires society actually listening to women.
      • Progress requires re-conceiving marriage to allow for the equal personhood of women.
      • Progress has historically been measured by particular “traditional” values that have measured women through the framework of an “ideal” marriage in which the wife stays in the house and takes care of her husband’s every need.
      • In comparison to the stories read in class, there is progress in women obtaining higher education or pursuing careers in the workforce.
      • Progress for women would be freedom from confinement, whether socially through the role that our cultures forces on women or physically through confinement to the domestic home (or to just a particular room in that home).
      • Progress can occur when women work together as a group.
  • What national, group, or personal identities are significant within the readings, and how does the text participate in the construction of those identities?
    • Race:
      • The readings reveal:
        • What it means to be an African American, including by showing instances of individuals being deprived of opportunity, or being persecuted, or of being treated as an “other.” Also, by focusing on a subgroup, such as what it means to be a black woman.
        • What it means for their to be an African American community, with the strength of that community being important for supporting the strength of the individuals of that community.
        • What it means to be from the American South and, more particularly, what it means to be black in the American South.
        • What it means to be an American, including whether it is possible to be both black and American.
        • What it means to be a person and not property.
        • How social pressures construct individuals.
      • “Art mirrors truth, and explains it too. It gives an outsider a perspective on a group’s identity.”
      • Literature can be a way for individuals to insist on their own self-worth.
    • Sex:
      • The readings reveal:
        • What it means to be a woman in a society that holds women back by impeding their ability to pursue opportunities, grow, change, or heal.
        • How being a woman is controlled by particular roles, such as “mother” or “wife,” that are used as a basis to judge them.
        • What it means for women to be a class in which women can sympathize with each other, talk about their shared experience, form a sense of connection between each other, and further their own interests as a class.
        • What it means to be a white woman versus what it means to be a woman of color.
        • How literature can be an important way for women to share their voices, with hearing those voices being important because women know what the experience of being a woman is like better than men.
        • What it means to be a woman without a husband.
        • What it means to be an independent woman.
      • Literature can help readers experience what the lives of women are like.
      • Literature can show how women are hampered by various unfair “ideals” that they can then break free of.

For our next class, we will start by discussing anything that you found surprising about the above, and we will consider again what value literature has in addressing these issues.

Quality of Life, Progress, and Identity

Our semester is now in full swing, and we have read three crucial starting points for the study of American literature since the civil war: Walt Whitman’s poetry, including “Song of Myself”; Emily Dickinson’s poetry; and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. It is now time to focus more specifically on the three “essential questions” for this course, which are on the syllabus and restated below. For next class, we will start by trying to answer these questions in relation to Whitman, Dickinson, and Twain. Then, we will expand the conversation to the focus of next class’s readings: race. Please think about these questions in preparation for next class.

  • In the readings, what social, environmental, and psychological factors are revealed as affecting the quality of individual lives?

 

  • What normative values are implicit in the readings, and how do those values suggest a framework by which to define progress?

 

  • What national, group, or personal identities are significant within the readings, and how does the text participate in the construction of those identities?

Whitman, Poet X, and Our Essential Questions

In class, we have begun discussing what growing up in America is like today. Our class has so far read through two-thirds of Elizabeth Acevedo’s Poet X. We have also read, as a point of comparison, selections from Walt Whitman’s poems, including “One’s Self I Sing,” “I Hear America Singing,” and “Salut au Monde!” The first two poems are Whitman looking inward at America and emphasizing the particulars of the individuals within America. His catalogs of individuals serve the purpose of defining the larger group. Whatever America is, Whitman is arguing, it encompasses and celebrates each of the singular individuals he presents.  In comparison, “Salut au Monde!” is Whitman looking outward at the rest of the world. Again, Whitman is cataloging the world, and in so doing he is defining a global sense of humanity. At the same time, his posture toward that world is important: he ends by holding up a welcoming hand and declaring in French, “Hello World!”  There is some parallel here between Whitman’s outward facing raised hand of “hello” to the world and the raised torch of the Statue of Liberty (gifted after Whitman’s poem to the U.S. by the French), which is also outward facing toward the world. These two modes of perspective (looking in at ourselves or looking out at the world) can each play a part in defining what America is.

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Our class discussion of Poet X has yielded a growing list of details based on the text that you have decided seem either general to growing up in America today or particular to specific upbringings that may vary depending on the household or community:

General

  • Male sexual attention
  • Moral rules of courtship
  • Insufficient authority over one’s own life
  • Censorship
  • Having your first “crush”
  • Expectations of men as being the “protector”
  • Care for someone means fighting for that person if need be.
  • Rebelling against the moral rules we are taught

Particular

  • Individual authority over spiritual questions
  • Draconian parents
  • Emotionally absent parents
  • Parental advocacy for religion
  • Having your first “crush” be negatively associated with drug addiction or bad behavior
  • Relationships supported and framed through music
  • Favored musical genres
  • Whether someone has a sufficient “care network”
  • Whether authority figures are “hard liners” or permit more “fuzzy” lines
  • How large a community is, with “community” here perhaps entailing small groupings within a large city
  • What form of punishment is accepted

There were also two details that the class thought hovered somehow between “General” and “Particular” and that the class was divided on categorizing:

  • Receiving the sexual attention of much older men
  • Caring for someone means personally and physically fighting for that person now, rather than contacting an authority figure instead.

The listed items above generally relate to the following topics:

  • Sexual attention
  • Religion
  • Parents
  • Censorship
  • Negative associations
  • Music
  • Care networks
  • Hard lines vs. “fuzzy” lines
  • Community size
  • Punishment
  • Heritage
  • Individual vs community

In addition, I pointed out that we will be discussing the following additional topics specifically over the course of the semester:

  • Home
  • Family
  • Language
  • Aliens
  • Fences
  • Crossing
  • Americans
  • Beliefs
  • The majority/Congress
  • The courts
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In class, after some individual free writing, I tasked six groups of you to think about all of the above and propose one “essential” question that you think we should keep returning to for the rest of the semester. The questions you came up with were the following:

  • How do our surroundings (community, family, friends, ect.–or the lack thereof) affect who we are?
  • To what extent should punishment control who you are?
  • What factors can counterbalance the negative effects of a difficult or absent relationship with a parent?
  • How does race, ethnicity, language, and religion play into or change the definition of “American”?
  • How can America support maintaining cultural identity?
  • What should we value more, the beliefs of a person’s culture or the person’s individual beliefs?
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After a vote in which each of you who were present anonymously voted for two questions, your combined votes selected the three essential questions below that we will be focusing on for the rest of the semester. These three questions are all quite interesting. I am pleased and impressed with what the class has picked. I will post these at the top of our class calendar. Remember, class online discussion posts focusing on these questions will start next week. Here is the online discussion post assignment sheet.

Course Essential Questions

  • Essential Question #1: How do our surroundings (community, family, friends, ect.–or the lack thereof) affect who we are?
  • Essential Question #2: How does race, ethnicity, language, and religion play into or change the definition of “American”?
  • Essential Question #3: What should we value more, the beliefs of a person’s culture or the person’s individual beliefs?

ENGL 2220: Recap

As the course description states, our class will explore “the challenges, problems, and opportunities of a pluralistic American society.” A pluralist society is one that contains a  diversity of perspectives, such as a population containing a wide range of different family heritages or different religious beliefs, rather than a society where most people share the same family background and belief system. According to the CIA, for instance, the Greek population is 91.6% Greek, with 99% of the population speaking Greek, and 81-90% following the Greek Orthodox religion. In comparison, the composition of the U.S., as a country populated mostly by the descendants of immigrants, is much more complex:

us ancestry

We can get a sense of the continuing impact of immigration by comparing the above map to the following two showing the population densities in 1890 for German immigrants and for African Americans:

Germans

1890-map-distribution of germans

African Americans

statab1890

The 1890s may seem remote to us, but the population distribution for both of these groups is not much different today than it was in the 1890s. The effects of who are ancestors were and where they came to America to live continue to have an impact now on who we are and where we live.

At the same time, however, the U.S. is a relatively young country, especially when compared to countries like Greece, and it is continuing to change. The Pew Research Center has outline some major demographic changes reshaping the U.S. here, with a few notable changes being as follows:

  • The share of the U.S. population that is white is aging and dwindling and is projected to no longer comprise the majority of the population around 2055.
  • Asia, not Latin America or Europe, is now the biggest source of new immigrants.
  • More women are raising children alone or acting as the primary provider for their children
  • The middle class is shrinking while the two poles, lower and upper income households, are expanding
  • The number of individuals who profess affiliation with a form of Christianity is declining, and more people than ever before (22.8%) are claiming to be unaffiliated with any particular religion. Those who are unaffiliated now exceed Mainline Protestants (14.7%) and Catholics (20.8%), and they almost equal the number of Evangelical Protestants in America (25.4%).

These diverse and changing demographics and perspectives potentially present challenges and opportunities America must address in order to remain one nation. How can such a country stand united when it is comprised of so many divergent parts?

Walt Whitman’s poetry suggests one answer. Prior to writing poetry, he worked for newspapers for which he engaged in the heated cultural controversies of the 1840s, including the supposed threat that an increasing Catholic presence presented. The following are all quotes from Whitman’s early writing for newspapers. Note the heated and divisive tone and the incorporation of the pronoun “we” as a way to claim authority for his voice:

  • Whitman carried out a heated campaign against Bishop Hughes, “this cunning, flexible, serpent tongued priest, who has had the insolence to appear in the public forum” and to advocate for Catholic schools (“Sectarianism” 43).
  • Bishop Hughes, Whitman claims in one especially overblown attack, “uses his pontifical robes to cover the blackest, most traitorous heart in the broad limits of the American republic” (“The Aurora” 60).
  • Whitman attacked others in the media: “several of the most presumptuous and ignorant newspapers in the city have taken up the cudgels in defence of the Hughes party—those who desire to overturn our admirable system of public instruction. We have nothing to say to these ninnies” (“The Schools” 54).
  • Again regarding Bishop Hughes, “We feel called upon to condemn [him] in the
    strongest terms” because the bishop’s efforts risk “the people’s true interest”(“Sectarianism” 43, emphasis added).
  • “The Aurora, we imagine, . . . needs no certificate of it character for courage. . . . We have nerve enough to face the fire of battle, and stand by our cølors, and peal out the rallying cry to the last, in support of any cause which we sincerely believe to be holy and patriotic. . . . [W]e neither fear this cunning, selfish Hughes, nor any of his wretched gang” (“The Aurora” 59, emphasis added).

These quotes exhibit a Whitman who was quite heated in his engagement with divisive social issues over which he attempted to present himself as speaking for more than himself. Unfortunately for his newspaper career, he was frequently fired for his outspoken views, including for his distaste for slavery. Eventually, he left the newspaper business to work in the family business as a carpenter. In 1855, he released the first version of his famous Leaves of Grass containing a revolutionary poetry that startled and disrupted the accepted sense of the form of poetry and its subject matter. The beginning featured a picture of himself wearing working-class clothes:

walt 1855

This was not what a sophisticate and cultured poet was at that time supposed to look like, and his poetry celebrated the everyday working-class individual, who he routinely connected to America, rather than focusing on nobles, the rich, and the elite. “One’s Self I Sing” (available here) and and “I Hear America Singing” (available here) are good examples. Notice that in “One’s Self I Sing,” he makes an important claim: “One’s-Self I sing, a simple separate person, / Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse.” Rather than using the “we” of his newspaper days, he is focusing on the “I” and the self, but in doing so he is claiming that for America, the celebration of the individual self is what can join the myriad selves together. This shift is coupled with a generosity of tone and spirit not equalized in his earlier writing. For Whitman, faced with the challenge of how to represent a pluralist America as one nation, the solution was not to construct one shared perspective but instead to celebrate the multitude of individual selves, because the self contains the multitude.

As we begin working through reading Elizabeth Acevedo’s Poet X, I want to keep the above in mind. What challenges does Poet X suggest are presented by growing up today in America? What opportunities are presented? Does Whitman’s poetry offer any suggestions for today for navigating the cultural controversies of our contemporary period?

If you are interested in reading more of Whitman’s journalism, you can find the articles referenced above here:

Whitman, Walt. “Sectarianism and Our Public Schools.” The Journalism, edited by Herbert Bergman, Douglas A. Noverr, and Edward J. Recchia, vol. 1, Peter Lang, 1998, pp. 42–43.

—. “The Aurora and the School Question.” The Journalism, edited by Herbert Bergman, Douglas A. Noverr, and Edward J. Recchia, vol. 1, Peter Lang, 1998, pp. 59–60.

—. “The Schools, March 15, 1842.” The Journalism, edited by Herbert Bergman, Douglas A. Noverr, and Edward J. Recchia, vol. 1., Peter Lang, 1998, p. 54.

 

Engl 1100 Class Recap: 9/13/18

Today we began by a short review on MLA style while touring the Purdue OWL website on MLA style found here. Then, we spent most of our time discussing James Joyce’s “The Sisters” and “The Encounter.”  For “The Sisters,” we also talked about your upcoming short essay on the story, its plot, and the literary values the class has listed so far.

The class discussion did a good job at to the sense of “paralysis” that is a theme throughout Dubliners. For “The Sisters,” you were able to pick up on how morally paralyzed the priest seemed to be, especially after the chalice was broken. That leads back to the beginning, with the conversation among the adults about something being “bad for children,” which you interpreted as referring to children spending a lot of time studying with this priest rather than being outside, running around and playing. This potentially speaks. What could be bad here is not just that children should be permitted to be children but also that this paralysis could be transmitted from an older generation to a new one.

woman and three children playing water
Photo by Yulianto Poitier on Pexels.com

For “The Encounter,” you rightly picked up on the weirdness of the old guy that the two boys encountered in the park. First, he talks about how every boy should have a sweetheart, and then he says every boy who has a sweetheart should be whipped. There were many theories on what sparked this change and about what the man was doing when he wandered away for a few minutes and then came back. The story is quite vague about what the man could be doing, but the overall character of the encounter strongly suggests that the man is doing something very unseemly and sexual in public, for which he might feel shame about afterwards, prompting the abrupt change. This led us to a discussion on how sex and the moral punishments focusing on sex could lead to a sort of paralysis  that never really addresses the underlying issues, just as the man’s talk about the the proper conduct of boys never really addresses his own conduct, which is the real issue.

man in black shirt and gray denim pants sitting on gray padded bench
Photo by Inzmam Khan on Pexels.com

After this, we talked briefly about Joyce’s publication woes and about whether this book was “smut” and whether it should have been published. The general class consensus seemed clearly that yes, it should have been published.

Together, these two stories start to give us a sense of what Dubliners is about: giving us a “snapshot” of the Dublin of Joyce’s time. We could get a snapshot another way, such as by having paintings done,  for instance. We could even have paintings done of important moments in these stories, such as the strange encounter between these two boys and the weird old man. Alternatively, we could have a journalist’s account of the city. However, none of these ways of creating a snapshot would really capture the experience of living in Dublin at the time. A complex and multilayered portrayal of the city can only be felt through a careful arrangement of myriad details along with characters moving through the setting that make us feel their lives. Even movies or TV shows would not be quite the same, since there can often (although not always) be more of a sense of being inside a character’s head in literature. This suggests a new value to be added to our list: Literature provides a particular kind of experiential “snapshot” of a place or a culture not easily replicated through other ways.

red stall
Photo by Mark Dalton on Pexels.com

For next time, we will turn to two complex poems Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn” and Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” as well as this essential question: what is added to literature, as a study of humanity, by focus on art as evidence?

Engl 1100 Class Recap: 9/11/18

Today we began class by summarizing our current list of essential questions as well as the answers that we have come up with so far:

1. What is the value of studying literature?

  • A salary
  • Building empathy
  • Touching our emotions
  • Fostering discussion
  • Addressing the affective domain (i.e., rather than memorizing and listing the facts of what a horse is, such as how many legs they have [the cognitive domain], instead considering what the experience of being next to a horse is like or even of what the horse’s personal experience or emotions might be)
  • Addressing cultural controversies

2. How do authors and readers construct meaning?

  • voice
  • characterization
  • sound
  • plot
  • narrator/speaker

3. What is the significance of literature as a form of art?

Regarding the third question, about art, I began by wondering what the significance is for the study of literature that the primary evidence is an art form.  After all, literary studies is one of the humanities disciplines. What does this particular form of evidence add to our study of humanity? Archaeology, for instance, tends to look at evidence that consists of the sort of artifacts that societies leave behind. One of you suggested bowls, for example. The evidence that a psychologist may be interested in, by contrast, may be in the data from experiments involving humans or from questionnaires. As many of you noted, college students will do just about anything for $2, some pizza, or a cool t-shirt. Drawing on the responses from college student populations or from the national population is the basis for much study in psychology. So what could focusing on art as evidence suggest about humanity that bowls or human experiments do not?

One suggestion from one of you is this:

  • Suggests the interests of both the creator and the audience

This is a great point, since generally creators will be creating things that are of particular interest to them. Yet at the same time, they are generally not going to create things that no one else cares about. If the creator has an audience in mind, that creator is going to want to interest both the creator and the audience. Sure, we can get people to catalog their interests through a questionnaire, but this is a way to determine interests that does not depend upon the researcher first developing a sufficiently targeted questionnaire or experiment. The art work serves itself as a data point from which one could interpret the interests of those creating and receiving the art form.

Another of you suggested this:

  • Conveys emotion

This is another great point, and I want to emphasize here the word “convey.” I think a good followup question is this: what about emotion is being conveyed? This student’s suggestion intrigues me because I think it goes beyond merely the conveyance that emotion is happening or what the intellectual description of what that emotion is. Rather, the the thing that the artist could be attempting to convey is the emotional experience itself. This is an interesting way to gain insight in humanity because it leads to reflection upon our own emotional reactions and how they may compare to others and to the artist’s experience. We can talk about what the emotional experience might have been like for those people who drew cave paintings, but that is quite different than the prospect that the emotional experience the artist had could engender an emotional experience within ourselves for us to consider.

 

art-creative-creativity-20967

After considering the enigma that is art, we turned our focus to Yeats and his poem “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” After taking some time picking this poem apart, one of you noted that is similar to Wordsworth’s “I wandered lonely as a cloud.” Both poems involve the speaker reflecting on a tranquil natural scene. After considering this, we decided that there is some difference between the speakers. Wordsworth’s speaker can reflect from his couch; Yeats’s speaker would not only rise from that couch, he would go to that natural scene and build a cabin so he could live there. This becomes an interesting contrast between these reactions to the peace of the nature. Does the memory support us as we continue to live in civilization, or does it tempt us away from civilization altogether?

This conversation led us into a discussion of the whether you thought there was a difference between being calm and in your home and being calm and in nature. The general consensus was that no, those are two different kinds of calm experience. Some of you thought that you would be calmer at home, where you are safest, and some of you thought you would be calmer in nature, away from stressful reminders. But you also thought that they felt like different sorts of calm, even when they were at roughly the same level. At this point, I suggested that one of the values of literature is in hitting these delicate differences in human experience that perhaps cannot be touched in any other way. To make my point, I turned to an analogy to music theory while drawing the following on the board:

music theory

First, we considered how emotions could be expressed kind of like the power chords often used in heavy metal music. They are formed of the 1st and 5th note in a key. These chords have zero nuance and amount to the emotional impact of a sledgehammer. Nonetheless, they can have a powerful affect. I compared this to the simplistic but heavy emotional impressions frequent within superhero action movies today, twitter flame wars, and soap operas where everyone is either ecstatic or trying to murder each other. A more nuanced set of emotions might be similar to the major chord, which has a third note (the 3rd note of the key) that permits tonal nuance. This chord is the bedrock of much of the rock, pop, classical, and other music that we listen to today. It can be found in anything from the Rolling Stones to a complicated piece of classical piano music. Even more nuance can be found by adding a fourth note (such as the 7th note of the key), which is the something that jazz music does routinely. After explaining all this, I asked you to consider how the human heart could be thought of like a string instrument with two, three, four, or maybe even hundreds of strings. Part of what literature is often trying to do is to hit multiple strings at once in order to set up complex emotional experiences with subtle tonal differences. This is something that the class’s wisdom regarding the difference between being calm at home and being calm in nature suggests warrants attention. Humans are fully able to be sensitive to such subtle differences, but what in our everyday lives points us to consider these delicate gradations of the human experience? If much of everyday life hits us like a power chord, what can also pluck the more nuanced melodies of the heart? And how can we train ourselves to be more sensitive to literary works that are the emotional equivalent of complex jazz?

person woman music musician
Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

Based on the above, the following has been added to our list of values that literature provides:

  • conveying nuanced tones of the human emotional experience that are not easily conveyed otherwise and training us to become more sensitive to those subtle tones

We next moved to “The Second Coming,” for which I drew the following terrible picture on the board demonstrating a falconer launching a falcon who then flies in circles that expand ever outward as the bird searches for prey:

gyre

The point of this picture was to get you to imagine the ever expanding circles that would develop as the falcon flies farther and farther out. A most certainly better picture of what Yeats had in mind is this:

Double_Cones_MRD2

Notice that at the point that the circle reaches its widest point, a new center is born from which a new ever-widening cone extends until it reaches the original birth of the first cone. These cones capture Yeats’s conception of the cycles of history. For an interesting summary, if you are interested in learning more, click here.

Turning to “The Second Coming” with all this in mind, the poem becomes more understandable, but the class still raised a number of important questions. For instance, is the “beast” supposed to suggest something about Egypt and the sphinx? Is the beast supposed to be biblical, suggesting the apocalypse? Should we be afraid of the beast? Does our answer change if we step out of a western, christian worldview? How do we determine whether the beast’s slouch toward Bethlehem is good or bad? Don’t we need some sort of “center” to which to tie such value judgments? But what if that center has fallen apart? What if that center cannot hold?

ancient art cosmos dark
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

This conversation of ever-widening questions led into a discussion of Carl Jung’s work on dreams and the collective unconscious. We discussed dreams, and one of you shared a pretty crazy one that reoccurred nightly for a week as part of an ongoing war story involving her family. Jung was interested in what dreams and the images within them may reveal about the workings of our unconscious, which can include workings of the mind that have not or cannot be yet articulated within the conscious mind. Furthermore, since individuals share many aspects of the same culture, there can be some sense of the imagery in dreams tapping into a “collective unconscious.” Are there things that society in general is trying to work through that the individuals in that society process unconsciously?

Yeats felt that an important part of poetry was to attempt to convey the workings of this collective unconscious, using imagery that would affect readers in a fashion that is somehow deeper than can yet be expressed. I admitted that there was something about “The Second Coming” that always freaks me out, and many of you agreed. There is a disturbing underlying feel that is on one level certainly expressed with words likes “slouching,” “pitiless,” and “slow thighs,” but there is something about the language that also aspires to affect us in ways we cannot quite articulate.

black-and-white-blood-creepy-8578 (1)

This discussion prompted us to add the following to our list of literature’s values:

  • addressing the collective unconscious

A few of you noted that this poem seems relevant to today and our current political moment. There is a sense some can have today that “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” Likewise, the sense of things falling apart and anarchy could resonate today. On the other hand, some of you noted that this could be a generational perspective. Someone who is sixteen may not share the same sense of things falling apart that an older person may feel. These are excellent points; we should be attuned to what perspective the reader brings to the interpretation and to consider what bearing that perspective has on the poem’s significance.

Abe

For next class, we will finally turn to James Joyce and then to two difficult poems: Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”