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 1100 Class Recap: 9/4/18

In class today, we continued exploring an essential question raised last class period: what is the value of studying literature? Prior to class, I asked you to begin reading from our Norton anthology, focusing on selections that covered the general overview of literature and of responding to fiction, poetry, and drama as separate genres.

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To begin, we considered the basic economic argument: how much money can I expect with a degree in literature? To answer that question, we looked at a couple economic summary reports (links are in the class calendar). The data suggest that having a college degree, no matter the degree, generally leads to a more lucrative career than no degree at all. Considering the humanities and literature in particular, the median salary for someone with a BA majoring in English was around $53,000 in 2013, with a substantially greater range (up to double that amount) for those who continue their studies in graduate school. Another popular career choice is to attend law school, where students with BAs in the humanities can use their communication skills as the basis for a prosperous legal career. In general, those majoring in English may have to spend more time finding their niche after college than those in STEM fields, but lifetime income expectancy still demonstrates a lucrative outcome for completing the degree. Besides the obvious career choices such as the writing and publishing industry, humanities graduates often end up in careers supervising others, according to a recent study you can read about here. For example, the communication skills gained through the humanities could make an employee a valuable project manager. That study also suggests that humanities graduates are generally employed and more satisfied with their jobs than the graduates of other fields. Read here for examples of 10 CEO’s from major companies (Starbucks, Avon, Disney, HBO, YouTube, ect) that graduated with humanities degrees. Each of them certainly had to work hard to gain their position, but the popular myth that pursuing a humanities degree is just throwing your money away is simply not supported by the data. I am not going to tell you that everything is easy and stress free for those pursuing a humanities education, but I do want to stress that you can follow your heart AND make a living at the same time.

After this conversation on the economics of the study of literature, we moved on to considering other sources of value. After asking you to describe some books you enjoy reading, we began working on a list on the board of ways that the study of literature can provides value. Here is our current list, based on suggestions you offered in class, which we will add to over the next few class periods:

  1. A salary
  2. Building empathy
  3. Touching our emotions
  4. Fostering discussion
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We next moved to discussing a general overview of literature, during which we talked at considerable length about how a focus solely on the cognitive domain of facts can miss the affective domain of feeling and personal experience. For example, many of you did not believe that this definition of a horse at the start of Charles Dickens’s Hard Times captured the essence of a horse: “Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth….” (Norton 1).

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John Keats’ “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” also suggests the valuable role literature can provide in moving past facts to open up a world of first hand experience (Norton 4).

The 1920s New York Times article we read about the wife accused of killing her alleged lover further suggests that we cannot always be sure of what the facts really are until we start considering the emotional and personal experience of those involved (Norton 12). Some of you thought the article’s presentation of the facts was insufficiently sympathetic to the plight of the accused woman, who claimed she was being sexually assaulted. Others of you rightfully noted that we need to consider her credibility and whether her story makes sense, given that a man lost his life as a result. The news paper article itself, however, is sufficiently vague to support rival interpretations of the nature of what happened: cheating wife who kills her lover after being discovered by her husband or woman defending herself from her abuser. Not only did we touch on the value of empathy here, but this discussion of that article along with the Keats poem and the horse definition resulted in a new addition to our values list: addressing the affective domain.

That news article also emphasized the constructed nature of writing, even a news account. How the facts are arranged and presented can affect how the reader is expected to respond and also suggest something about the narrator’s perspective.

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The old Buddhist story we read about the elephant in the village of the blind suggests how meaning depends on how the reader’s perspective as well. Each of the blind villagers came to different conclusions about what an elephant is based on touching parts of the animal, arguing that it is a long water hose or a rope or a set of pillars, and they were only able to reach a combined construction of the animal after discussing the elephant with each other and with the peddler who brought the elephant, who pointed out how it helps him move his wares as well. So to can readers of literature come away with different opinions that can be combined with or modified by the perspectives of other readers engaged in a shared discussion. This conversation dovetails with the value we listed earlier that literature has in fostering discussion. Through those discussions, our perspectives can change in beneficial ways.

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We concluded class with a brief overview of the distinctions between three general types of poetry: narrative, dramatic, and lyrical. As part of that discussion, I drew the following test to help you determine which type of poetry a given poem might generally be:

poetry test

Of course, the above test will be often challenged by particular examples of poetry, which tends to fight categorization. However, it is a good place for us to start. We will begin looking at examples for each type of poetry next class while returning to the above test. As we do, we will continue considering what the value of studying literature is while also considering closer a second question we have repeatedly touched on this class and last class: how do authors and readers construct meaning?

As a reminder, there are additional readings listed on the calendar that all address somehow the role of literature within society. Please make sure to do those readings and to write a quick one page response to one of the four questions posted on the calendar.

Also, as a final reminder, any terms that come up in our discussions can often be looked up in the back of the Norton anthology. For instance, you could look up the meaning of “narrative” or “plot.” The anthology places in bold all such terms that are defined at the back of the book. I provided a quick explanation of a few terms in class today, which we will address again in the future, but your best resource is the back of your book.

Thanks for a fun and productive second day of class!