Director’s Corner (NEMLA Blog Post #16)

Greetings from Chicago!

If your weather is anything like ours, the ups and downs in temperature are hard to keep track of.  Just a few days ago, I was wearing my heavy winter coat with a single digit wind chill freezing me on my walk to the train station.  Today the sun is out and the projected high is near 50 degrees fahrenheit.  I guess it’s true what they say.  If you don’t like the weather, just wait a minute.  Of course, temperature swings aside, there is no snow or ice on the ground here in Chicago.  That is worth the hassle of temperature swings.  At least in my opinion.

The NEMLA 2017 Conference in Baltimore, MD is just a little over a month away.  This year’s conference has a great lineup of speakers and events.  In the Anglophone/American Section, there are a broad range of research and teaching interests represented.  Everything from methods of teaching early American literature in a way that resonates with 21st century students to research on the eco-gothic and urban pastoralism.  You can see an online version of the convention schedule here.

The Anglophone/American area also has a great special event speaker this year.  I’ve teamed up the the Cultural Studies and Media Studies chair Lisa Perdigao to invite Brian Norman to speak on the topic of the “posthumous autobiography.”  You can read more about Brian Norman and his research here.

I hope to see some of my blog’s readers in Baltimore.  Just look for the mustache and bowtie.  My signature look.  ; )

After the conference wraps up in late March, I’ll be sending out a call for sessions for next year’s conference in Pittsburg (the last at which I’ll be serving as area director).  If you have an idea for a roundtable or session, start working on it now.  I’d love to see you there. Topics of particular interest for the Pittsburg conference include images of Labor in U.S.fiction (past and present) as well as panels that address immigrants and immigration in U.S. fiction, particularly Latinos.  Disability Studies panels are also welcome as this is a subject of perennial interest at our conventions.  Submissions on Disability Studies to my area should address in some way the literary texts that either subvert or reaffirm our current understandings of the disabled and/or of “ability.”

Now for the part of my monthly blog where I give you, my readers, some insights into my current work.  This month’s post (intended for January but woefully behind schedule) will focus on teaching, specifically my approach to teaching an intermediate level American Literature survey.

First of all, I’d like to start with some terminology.  I’m not always good at following my own rule, but over the years I’ve started to become more rigorous in my distinction between the meaning of the United States and that of “America.”  As I told my students during week one of this semester, the United States is a political and geographical reality.  It is a place on a map that you can visit.  America, in contrast, is an idea.  The only way that America has a physical reality in the world is through the actions of those who live in the United States and continually debate with each other the meaning of that idea.

To highlight that distinction, I subdivided my survey course into three sections.  The first I titled “America Lost/America Found.”  In this section of the course, we examined the competing views of the land espoused by the First Nations (i.e. Native American tribal cultures) and those of the “discoverers” of “America” (i.e. the English and Spanish explorers and settlers).  For one group of writers, the vision of the world they lived in was superseded while the other created “America” to fit the new continent within their pre-existing views of the world.

The second section of the course is called “A PostColonial Nation.”  This section of the course contains many of the same authors found in an American Literature survey, but they are re-contextualized within the framework of postcolonial theory.  The United States, after all, was a Colony of Great Britain that used many of the same reasons for independence that nations would use much later to justify separation from the “mother country.”  During the past week, my class has read Thomas Paine’s defense of the rebellion in the English Colonies (Common Sense and The Crisis).  One of my students made the astute observation that not only were the fledgling colonies growing to young adulthood (as Paine imagined them) but also realizing that they lived in a household with abusive parents and needed to move out.  Now that we have made it past the part where the English colonies are moving out of the home space created by the mother country, our next series of readings will look at the United States trying to determine its own identity in terms of culture.  What remains from the British tradition in the new world as authors and readers fight over the idea of “America” and what new ideas emerge?

The third and final section of the course addresses a concern that came up during the Presidential election last year that the cities of the United States are increasingly divorced from the world of a place called “the country.”  This problem goes back to the founding of the nation in the contrasting political philosophies of men like Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson.  For the purposes of this class, we’ll examine this urban/rural divide as a stable metaphor in U.S. culture and see how that metaphor plays out in two key novels from the late nineteenth century, Sister Carrie and O Pioneers!  In the first of these narratives, we see the fears of those outside the city at the corrupting power of urban space, particularly for women.  The second addresses the issue of immigration and the rural landscape.  Who are the people who live in the country?  What do they do for living?  What makes them different from those who choose to live in the city?

It’s been a while since I’ve had the privilege to teach an American Literature course so I’m putting my full energy into teaching it this semester.  My hope is to cement in my student’s minds the reality that terms do matter.  They frame the starting points of our thought.  Consequently, if we mistake “America” for the “United States,” we leave out the other countries that make up North and South America as well as Central America and the Caribbean.  We also assume that we know what “America” means.  If 2016 has taught us nothing else, it should be that these foundational terms cannot be taken for granted.  A healthy debate is always needed about the idea/ideal of “America” and how it relates to the United States.  I want to create a place where that debate can take place in a respectful and useful manner.

My hope for this post is to suggest to other scholars and teachers (wherever or whatever you teach) that syllabi matter.  I teach First Year Writing more frequently than literature and our program has a strong genre-based focused that emphasizes the relationship between writer, form, reader, context, and desired outcome.  Faculty need to ask themselves what they hope to achieve from their course and make this part of the creation of their course syllabi.  Too often it is a throw away genre that is constructed primarily to meet administrative needs and is thereby trapped in traditions that are comfortable but not useful for students or the advancement of pedagogy in a particular field.  I’m trying to break out of my comfort zone here and practice in the classroom some of the concepts I talk about in conferences like NEMLA as well as in my research.

Well, that’s all for this month’s post.

Until next time….

John Casey

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