American Survey: Getting Student Input

View From Mt. Pierce

“…For his simple heart
Might not resist the sacred influences,
Which, from the stilly twilight of the place,
And from the gray old trunks that high in heaven
Mingled their mossy boughs, and from the sound
Of the invisible breath that swayed at once
All their green tops, stole over him, and bowed
His spirit with the thought of boundless power
And inaccessible majesty…”

– William Cullen Bryant, “A Forest Hymn”

After two treks in New Hampshire’s beautiful white mountains, I’m back in New York City and preparing for the new semester with my students at Hunter College. This year I’m teaching an American Literature survey course and trying something different by┬ásending students a Google Form to find out: 1. What they’ve already read, and 2. What they want to read. Nothing’s worse than reading the same text over and over again in college and not getting the exposure you want to new books and new ideas. The nature of a survey course in “American Literature: Origins to the Civil War” brings many white male canonical writers to the table but my approach is to incorporate women and African American writers, American history, and literary portrayals of Native Americans into our classroom discussions as much as possible alongside classics like Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Likely texts include the poetry of Phillis Wheatley, James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie, Solomon Northrup’s Twelve Years a Slave, and Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

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In an Emersonian spirit, the reading is only part of a semester’s work: the experience of evolving as a scholar involves much more. On the trails I listened to the wind in the trees that sounded like ocean waves, I woke up to birds chirping beats that would make Kanye West jealous, and I watched the sun make angelic silhouettes of pine trees as it set and came to a new understanding of (and a sense of shared experience with) writers like Henry David Thoreau and John Muir. The expansive and intricate landscapes of Cooper’s The Pioneers have a whole new meaning to me as a reader, and one of my goals this semester is to give students this type of entry point into reading American Literature.

Mt. Madison

The Plan: On the first day students will watch the beginning of The New World (2005) to get a sense of the firstness of the landing experience for both sides: that of the colonists and the Native Americans. The sounds, silences, and sense of fear captured in the film will give students in 2015 a better understanding of the New World as it was at the time: new. Over the course of the semester students will each be responsible for a total of four class blog posts about: 1. A historical figure (e.g. Sacagawea), 2. An artist who draws from nature (e.g. Ansel Adams), 3. A nature walk to be determined by the student, and 4. A comparison post that combines at least one of these posts with a close reading of a piece of literature we will cover in class. I’m looking forward to this semester and to posting more here as we trail-blaze our way through!

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