Sunday, May 04, 2008

The Sunday Salon - On Unconventional Reading

While it might be tempting to say that I haven't been reading lately, what I really mean is that I haven't been reading novels lately. The Sorrows of an American is still on hold in favor of student research papers, so I figured why not just go with it? This installment of The Sunday Salon will deal with some of my students' research papers.

I have an unusually large number of incredibly advanced students this semester. I'm teaching Literature-Based Research, which is a beginning composition course that focuses more on the techniques of research as related to literature than in-depth discussion of literary issues. That is, my students are just learning the language of literary analysis and how to hunt for and employ literary criticism. The class I'm grading at the moment is an 8-week online course, and I have to tell you, there are few things more daunting than trying to teach the basics of literary analysis (vocabulary, style, critical thinking), MLA format, and research (literary criticism, library datases) in 8 weeks without ever seeing the students.

Although teaching this class was a gargantuan task, I have thoroughly enjoyed my online students, and they've been joyfully up for anything when it comes to the course reading and writing. We did a short fiction unit that focused on William Faulkner's short story, "A Rose for Emily," a poetry unit that covered a mish-mash of stuff including Louise Gluck's "Gretel in Darkness," T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," and Langston Hughes's "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" and "Theme for English B." Finally, we did a short Drama unit over David Auburn's Pulitzer-winning play, Proof.

So far most of the students have opted to write about "Emily" as that paper was the longest and most involved of the ones we completed earlier in the semester. They simply had to expand and deepen their existing analysis and add some sources to complete the 7-10 page final paper. However, I have some very brave, motivated students, and a few of them chose to go a different way and start largely from scratch.

In particular, I'm giddily pleased with two papers: one over "Gretel in Darkness" and another over "Theme for English B." Admittedly, I'm pretty excited about these papers because they're about two of my very favorite poems.

"Gretel in Darkness," as you might expect, is an offshoot of the "Hansel and Gretel" fairy tale. The poem doesn't retell the story, it ruminates on Gretel's fate after having killed the witch. Have a look...

This is the world we wanted.
All who would have seen us dead
are dead. I hear the witch's cry
break in the moonlight through a sheet
of sugar: God rewards.
Her tongue shrivels into gas . . .

Now, far from women's arms
and memory of women, in our father's hut
we sleep, are never hungry.
Why do I not forget?
My father bars the door, bars harm
from this house, and it is years.

No one remembers. Even you, my brother,
summer afternoons you look at me as though
you meant to leave,
as though it never happened.
But I killed for you. I see armed firs,
the spires of that gleaming kiln--

Nights I turn to you to hold me
but you are not there.
Am I alone? Spies
hiss in the stillness, Hansel,
we are there still and it is real, real,
that black forest and the fire in earnest.

I just adore the imagery Gluck uses in this poem. It's so dark and moody and daring.

Langston Hughes's "Theme for English B" has been a favorite of mine since I read it in an American Lit. survey course as an undergraduate. Hughes is another master of imagery and wordplay...

The instructor said,

Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you---
Then, it will be true.

I wonder if it's that simple?
I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem.
I went to school there, then Durham, then here
to this college on the hill above Harlem.
I am the only colored student in my class.
The steps from the hill lead down into Harlem
through a park, then I cross St. Nicholas,
Eighth Avenue, Seventh, and I come to the Y,
the Harlem Branch Y, where I take the elevator
up to my room, sit down, and write this page:

It's not easy to know what is true for you or me
at twenty-two, my age. But I guess I'm what
I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you:
hear you, hear me---we two---you, me, talk on this page.
(I hear New York too.) Me---who?
Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love.
I like to work, read, learn, and understand life.
I like a pipe for a Christmas present,
or records---Bessie, bop, or Bach.
I guess being colored doesn't make me NOT like
the same things other folks like who are other races.
So will my page be colored that I write?
Being me, it will not be white.
But it will be
a part of you, instructor.
You are white---
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
That's American.
Sometimes perhaps you don't want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that's true!
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me---
although you're older---and white---
and somewhat more free.

This is my page for English B.

The student(s) really enjoyed the way the speaker in the poem humanizes himself to a white teacher and draws attention to shared experiences.

As a teacher myself, it's always exciting when the students see something admirable and fun in some of my favorites (although I never let them know which ones are my favorite pieces until after the fact).


  1. How exciting for you as a teacher! Good luck on grading papers.

  2. I really enjoyed the Langston Hughes poem. Thank you for sharing it here. Happy Grading!

  3. What a fascinating class that must be to teach. I'm also thrilled when my students enjoy my favorites, but what's best is when they see something in a piece of literature that I never noticed before. Or launch off onto some creative project, that's moving, too.

  4. I am full of admiration for you. I know that I couldn't teach long distance. I am a good teacher, I know that, my students tell me so, but I rely totally on seeing them face to face and enthusing them with my own passion. How I would begin to do that over the net, I don't know. You must be very good indeed. Thanks for including the poems. I didn't know either of them.

  5. Thanks, Samantha!

    Beastmomma, glad you liked it! Langston is the man.

    Amen to that, Dewey! I've had quite a few very creative interpretations this semester. It always leads to great discussion.

    It's a task, Ann, I can tell you that for sure. This online thing will take a lot more work to master completely, but I think I'm off to a decent start. :) I know I'm teaching one online class in the fall for argument class. I taught one this semester, and I had SO much fun with it.

  6. I am immensely jealous of you for two reasons today. First, you were smart enough to double up on your Salon post and your grading. Wish I had thought of that.
    Secondly, you get to teach lit, something that rarely comes my way.
    But I also have great papers (some not so great), but lots that show wonderful progress. Thanks for sharing.

  7. I love, love Theme for English B!

    It sounds like a fantastic class -- I wish we had a class like that at my CC. My students have a very difficult time transitioning from Comp I (they read only essays and write various kinds of essays) to Comp II, where we study only literature. What textbook do you use?

  8. These are two very lovely poems! The conversational tone of Hughes poem is effective. But surely, the one on Gretel shakes me to the core!

    Why haven't I been reading poems? Hahaha!

  9. When I was at Tech we taught Proof. I'm not sure that many of the students appreciated it, but whatever. ;) I Love "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." I think I'll go re-read it tonight.

  10. Andi, I'm SO glad I get to teach some lit. Our department is pretty good about rotating the schedule so everyone gets a piece of everything. And the Lit/Research courses are a required second section of freshman comp, so there are a ton of those classes.

    PS, we use a textbook called Literature: Reading, Reacting, Writing. It's a really nice combination of anthology and writing textbook. I've enjoyed using it.

    Lightheaded, I love poetry when I find a poem that really speaks to me. I know I'd read Gretel in Darkness before this semester, but it never really stuck with me until now. :)

    Trish, excellent! I don't know how many schools really teach it, but I think it's a great one to work with. For my classes there was just enough to uncover to get them hooked. And watching the movie helped. Enjoy your Prufrock re-read!


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