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What Books "Should" We Read?: Notes Towards Day 3 (Tues, Sept. 6)

Anne Dalke's picture

I. welcome to Taylor C--hm!
* meet here this week, then consider changing it up?
do this for all my eco-courses
(w/ Joni, Nkechi, Rosa in Eco-Imaginings;
w/ Creighton, Beatrice, Amaka in ESem)
to get us to pay attention to what difference environment makes...
might work for this class, unsettle patterns of
where we sit/who we sit with/how we sit...?
is destabilizing, have to share labor of picking,
letting people know ahead of time...want to?

* also what about snacks??

* also please put down your phone # so we can contact
one another about/on/if you don't show up for field trips

* I know that Jody just set up apppointments to meet w/ each of you,
I also want to talk w/ all of you before the end of the month (=your first paper);
I'd like esp. to meet, soon, w/ the 8 of you I haven't worked with before:
Alliyah, Franny, Hannah, Hannah, Kamara, Nyasa, Olivia, Swati--just
a "get acquainted" conversation...I have slots @ 12:30 & 4:30 tomorrow (Wed),
and 3:45, 4:15, 4:45 on Thursday...will offer some next week as well...
Monique will ask about meeting w/ you, too--don't get overwhelmed by all
these invitations, just plan to meet w/ each of us over the next few weeks...

II. On Thursday, we wrestled w/ the critics who were wrestling w/ "Lemonade"--
I learned a lot from our conversation both about how we "read" Beyonce,
and how we were "reading" one another reading, reading our own silences/speakings.

For today, I'd asked you to look through
Candice Benbow's #Lemonade Syllabus,
#charleston syllabus,
the curriculum for White Americans--
all created around the idea that art work, like Lemonade,
and political events, like the shootings in Charleston,
all emerge from a history, have a geneology; and that as
reader-citizens we have a responsibility to learn those histories.

Also striking is that each of the syllabi were generated collectively
(#charleston syllabus: "more than a list. it is a community of people
committed to critical thinking, truth telling and social transformation");
and that the resources are largely not books--
(so, per curriculum for White Americans,
"there's no excuse not to dig into them").
These are two interesting principles to think about
as we go on to think about constructing classroom
syllabi: how imp't is the geneology/how imp't its collective generation?

Kicked off this syllabus with the question of what you
need to know to watch/appreciate/understand Lemonade:
what history does it arise from? what is its canon?
what syllabus might you assign for folks to get it?
there was a lot of energy in the room in response to
contemporary critiques of the music video, esp. bell hooks;
one way to respond to that would be to give a fuller
context--about the genre, about the history of
being a black woman in this country (how allowable anger is...)
We'll come back to Beyonce @ the end of the semester;
the syllabus I constructed grew from Lemonade.
And the first big book on that syllabus is
Toni Morrison's 1987 novel Beloved; for Thursday,
read through Part I (first 160 pp in my edition).

For whom is this a re-reading?
How might you prepare your classmates for it?
Any reading advice? (Recognizing Amaka's comment
on Friday, that we enter differently, w/ different knowledges;
and that only one of you is an English major....?)

Very important novel for me, first read when I was pregnant w/ my 4th child;
it's about a mother of four who cannot keep her children safe, 
which made it very powerful for me, as a free white 20th c. southern woman.
I taught the novel a lot in those years of being a young mother;
haven't taught it for a long time;
re-read it this summer and found it still very compelling.
I'd like to give you two other ways in, aside from the maternal.

One is historical; the novel has a geneology, a very particular history.
Over 40 years ago, Morrison was working as an editor @ Random House,
compiling a group of essays about Black history, and found a
very brief article from 1856, describing a minister's brief visit,
in jail, to a slave mother who had killed her child.
It's one of the very few records of the actual words of this woman,
whose name was Margaret Garner, and it inspired Morrison to
develop the storyline of Beloved. She did a lot of research into
slavery and abolitionism, but not much into Margaret Garner:

"I wanted to invite her life...I wanted to be accessible to anything the
characters had to say about it....Recording her life as lived would not
interest me and would not make me available to anything that might be pertinent...
I'm looking to find and expose a truth about people who didn't write it...trying to fill
in the blanks that the slave narratives implement the stories I heard..."

In telling you that history, I'm aware that I'm also giving you a trigger warning for the novel:
it includes the death of a child, @ the hand of her mother--and/but it also includes
scenes that help us understand how a woman would be brought to the point of
believing that her child would be better off dead than returned to slavery.

The second way into the book is formal: it has to do w/ how Toni Morrison writes.
This novel belongs to the genre known as "neo-slave narratives,"
contemporary books about slavery that say things the first slave autobiographies could not;
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl very carefully couched for white abolitionist audience,
much of the violence of Harriet Jacobs' life was omitted, to make it palatable for them;
her story was introduced by a white woman, to assure her veracity, etc.
Morrison is doing something quite different.
She does not make this reading easy for you; she does not pander to her audience;
the first sentence is pretty impenetrable. The whole novel is difficult,
and we'll think about whether the difficulty is part of the point,
whether Morrison chose to make this opaque, ambiguous, uncertain,
to make us feel lost and uncomfortable, to refuse us
any simple answers, easy just. read.
take in what you can. come w/ questions.
and we'll work together on Thursday to make sense of it...

III. for today,  I asked you to read Rebecca Solnit,
“80 Books No Woman Should Read,"
Joel Schlosser's "Who Gives a Fuck About Tocqueville?" and my
response to Joel, "WTF; or, a legacy of failure"--to get you
thinking about how we read/what we read/
what we want to be made to read/what we should read/
how canons get constructed...

Get up, pair up with someone you haven't talked with yet.
Share your reactions to the three essays,
write down any questions/comments about them
you'd like to bring back to the larger group.

Tell each other about your own experience with canonicity:
what were you made to read in h.s. and @ Bryn Mawr?
Do you have any sense of an American literature canon?
(If so, what's in it?)
Really focus here on literature classes (could be
humanities, i.e. art history...)
What is the story of what you had to read?
Brainstorm particular reading lists--
what was the larger story of what you read?
Was there a set of values built into those selections?
Did they favor any particular group of people,
time period, geographical location,
any particular sort of behavior,
any particular kind of writing?
How accessible, how dense, how varied?
[what 'values' does dense prose valorize?]

There's a notable literary scholar, Henry Louis Gates Jr
(b. West Va, now directs AfAmResearch Center @ Harvard,
discovered first two books by AfAm writers, both women
[Harriet E. Wilson, Our Nig (1859),
Hannah Crafts, The Bondswoman's narrative (1853?)]
published extensively about integrating black literature into the western canon;
hosted the "Finding Your Roots" series on PBS (which used genealogical research
and genetics to discover the family history of well-known Americans, and
encountered some controversy when Ben Affleck persuaded Gates to
omit information about his slave-owning ancestors)...

Anyhow! in Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars (1992), Gates wrote,
"The teaching of the teaching of values...contingently...
it has become the teaching of an aesthetic and political order...
"None of us is naïve enough to believe that the 'canonical'
is self-evident, absolute, or neutral."

What values were taught in the literature
you have been taught in school?
What values do you think literature should teach?
Or should it/can it not teach values?
What is the relationship of the literature you have been taught
to read w/ the way you want to live your life?

Break off and write about this for 5 minutes...

[by 3:30]: IV. return to the large group:
[what about Swati's hand-holding/hand-raising?
follow same pattern as Friday, me too?]
what emerged?
how should/could/might canon be constructed??
what should the required courses be @ BMC?
what should literature courses highlight?
what about the relation between what's taught and how?
[Katie re: trigger warnings excusing profs from pedagogy?]

Reading Notes

Solnit: books are instructions; you read them to be a man;
assume you identify w/ the protagonist;
"instructions in extending our identities out into the world,
human and nonhuman, in imagination as a great act of
empathy that lifts you out of yourself..."
Schlosser: respond to the problem through geneology:
looking for points of origin, past responses,
to history for new perspectives on the present
not fully adequate to the problems of 21st c. America
Dalke: his world older, smaller
can't ever construct an adequate canon;
class reading lists are a zero-sum game;
focus more on modes of inquiry than valorizing ind'l texts
are all narratives equally valuable?
how assign value to texts relative to other texts?