Month: February 2014

Guerrilla Literature

As we end our work with a text, I like to have the students participate in what I call “Guerrilla Literature.” I will explain what this is later, but first let’s look at the reason why I’m using words as a tool for warfare.

I feel that some approaches to teaching literature can be limiting. The need to meet educational standards can lead to a fracturing of how we teach texts. What I mean is, because we have to teach, let’s say, characterization, we organize our units around that element and, therefore, our literature. The unfortunate result is that students see literature in tiny, niche analytical strategies. And because we move on so quickly, because we need to teach more standards, students don’t retain what they’ve been taught and thus show up to next years English class and say, “Our teacher didn’t teach us that last year.” the end result is that we tell students that they need to know what (insert random literary element) for the assessment over (insert random text), but now lets move on to (insert random literary element) that we’ll learn while reading (insert random text)…

I realize I’ve simplified the the teaching of texts, and that teachers don’t just teach one element per work, but even if we teach characterization, tone, and the historical background of a piece in one unit, we’re still missing out on so much more that the literature can teach us and students have little value in literature other than looking for symbolism and metaphor. While there is a push to teach pieces together that relate thematically, the appreciation of authors’ craft isn’t, and students don’t get to see the real importance of good authorship.

Literary elements are necessary to understand and appreciate literature, but when taught in small chunks without the needed connections that show their true meaning and importance, reading literature is something you just have to do in school. Therefore, the value is lost on students and why they often time don’t actually read the book and instead figure out what they need to say about the text from the teacher or another student and simply regurgitate ideas.

So what’s the alternative? Well, I’m still developing that, but anything I teach in class is sustained throughout the year. I teach the approach to literature, not the approach to a piece of literature. Don’t worry, I still cover all standards, but instead of expecting mastery at the end of a unit, I expect growth throughout the year.

Now back to Guerrilla Literature.

I have my students write important quotes from the text we’re finishing, in chalk, on the sidewalk of the bus loop. The idea is that other students on their way home from the “drudgery of school” will see all of this writing on the ground, read it, have some thought come to their mind, and WHAM!, they’ve been forced to think about literature. And maybe that quote was metaphoric, maybe it set a certain tone, or maybe it made them think about a book they actually read in the past. It doesn’t matter; they’ve read and thought.

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Stillness

As I continue to read NAW, I’m intrigued by the Silentists’ (not to be confused with Scientologists) search for perfect stillness. Stillness to me is the absolute of nothingness. A lack of movement indicates a lack of growth, change, pursuit, thought, feelings, desires, or anything else for that matter. To be perfectly still, one makes no decisions; one simply is, or rather, isn’t. I began to think about us and our desire to be perfect and how often we try to capture our “perfection” permanently.

I recently spoke to a student about her trying to get into college. She mentioned the fact that she had the right SAT score, the right ACT score, the right GPA, the right course load, the right amount of extra curriculars all to produce the right college application. In other words, the right snapshot of her at the right time that would allow universities to see her right perfection. All of which indicates, through binary opposition, that if it isn’t right, it’s wrong.

But what percentage of our lives do we achieve this perfect stillness?

In this wondrous world that allows us to share our lives with everyone instantaneously it may seem daft to say that we only share our perfections with the world. Yes, you can find 100 mistakes (grammatical or otherwise) a second on facebook, twitter, etc… However, the individuals who make those mistakes often don’t hold those mistakes as important or defacing, and therefore don’t care. Let’s call these mistakes, therefore, non-positives. Positives, therefore, are what people focus on making perfect, and remember, these positives are an instantaneous, permanent stillness.

We must consider the motivation behind why we post something on the internet. Sometimes it is linked to sharing information with others, but most of the time it is self promotion. This can come in the form of:
*a profile picture (How many pictures do you have to take of yourself before it comes out right? What makes you change it?)
*a post/tweet (Look at what I’m doing, eating, thinking etc… right now. Look how happy/creative/smart I am.)
We are constantly compiling data that shows us the way we want to be seen and we don’t allow ourselves to be seen in any other way than the way we want to be seen. Hence we are showing ourselves to the world in stills, momentary glimpses of our right selves.

I have a friend, Doug Cason, whose art has focused on individuals posting pictures of themselves on the internet. He found the background the most fascinating, when recreating this media in painting, because while the subject/photographer was so concerned with the subject/themselves, they paid no attention to what else was included in the picture, and the backgrounds were a jumble of random objects. They inadvertently were imperfect (non-positive) in their attempt to be perfect (positive). The same way my student, who unfortunately didn’t get into the school of her choice, was imperfect (non-positive) in her attempt to be perfect (positive). Thus proving that the attempt at permanent stillness is flawed.

Marcus explores this through his Silentists attempt at perfect stillness. The destruction that follows, to family and non-family alike, shows the fallacy of perfection given that even in moments of still perfection there is imperfection. It is growth to nothingness.

Notable American Women

I’m currently re-reading Notable American Women by Ben Marcus, which came about from a conversation I had with some students the other day. I had been describing the book to them, and one of the students suggested that we should all read it together. First off, it’s an amazing feeling to have students want to read what you give them in class let alone have them ask for extra reading, but they did and I was only too happy to oblige them. Unfortunately, this also forced me to look back at myself as a student in college.

I had read NAW eight years or so ago while I was still in college and can remember enjoying it and finding it intellectually stimulating, but in retrospect, I believe I enjoyed it because a professor had suggested it to me and I wanted so bad to read it, “get it,” and look “smart.” While I did understand some of it, my drive to look the part of an academic prevented an opportunity for me to focus on what I didn’t know and the chance to improve. Instead of accepting what I didn’t know, or understand, and ask questions, I focused on what I did understand. As a student, I was keenly aware when I was getting into an uncomfortable academic situation and would avoid it by focusing on an idea/concept I was comfortable with.

How much more could I have grown as a scholar had I accepted what I was lacking and worked to improve it? Yet many of us, as students or in our everyday life, do this. We hide behind what we know and avoid exposure to “the new” because we’re afraid of making mistakes, especially when the pressures of grades and looking smart in front of peers are a factor. Yet mistakes are where learning takes place. Mistakes drive learning through a desire to know and perfect our understanding of the world. However, if and when students fall back on what they already know, and in a sense plagiarize their our knowledge, there is no growth.

It is easy to fall into this trap with NAW given its metaphysical look at language and humorous rewritten history. Marcus makes it difficult to differentiate if he’s making a metaphorical point or simply working in the absurd. His quick movements from literal to figurative and metaphorical to absurd challenges the reader’s analysis; forcing them, more times than not, to step back and accept it for what it is; a linguistic adventure. A challenge that asks you to see elements of our world that are invisible, to touch the intangible, to be uncomfortable.

Even though I am a better reader than I was the last time I read it, NAW is still a tough read. And while I know I still won’t see all of the intricacies, my acceptance of what I don’t know will lead to a better reading experience.