As I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, my 8 a.m. class this semester has been a challenge but by now (two months into the semester) my students have grown accustomed to me throwing questions like “Is feminism a privilege?” at them at 8:10 a.m. They talk in their listening dyad activity for two minutes each, and then they turn to me during our reflection and say, “WTF? It’s too early for this.” We have at this point done enough community building to be honest with one another. We walk through the W’s, T’s, and F’s together and find ourselves in a conversation that prepares us to go over the reading for the day. This week it was Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston.
Start with What Students Know
In line with my goal to teach the basics of literary studies, I get up and write on the board: “Know,” “Kinda Know,” and “Don’t Know,” leaving plenty of space between each of the three columns. We start with what we know about the historical and biographical context. Then we drift into things we should probably look up: the Great Migration, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow. And then we get to what we know we don’t know: the history of Eatonville, Florida, and the history of Haiti, where Hurston supposedly wrote the novel in seven weeks.
I broke students up into groups of 2 and 3, and assigned them several of the “Kinda Know” and “Don’t Know” things we’ve written on the board. Then I set a timer for five minutes for them to do research and find the salient points about those topics that they want to share with the class. Once time was up, we went around and shared, coming up with even more things we “Kinda Know,” such as words like “carpetbagger,” “scalawag,” and more. We took another five minutes to look those words up and find answers. Meanwhile, we debated what was applicable to the text and how much biography and history we should read into it, and how much of the book we should address independently.
Transitioning from Lecture to Discussion
Although student-centered pedagogy is always my goal, and it has been successful in many of my classes, I’ve found that these students, who are very advanced, wanted to hear me lecture more. I hate lecturing, so this was my compromise: we build a map of all the context we need to understand a text before we discuss and dissect it together. Student-centered pedagogy doesn’t work for all students, as Cathy N. Davidson reminds us in her HASTAC blog post, “How Student-Centered Learning Connects to Great Teaching.” But I think there’s a way to go about lecturing that keeps students engaged and shows them how much knowledge is at their fingertips with the internet as well as how much knowledge we have collectively, sitting in a room together and sharing ideas to fill the board.
Starting in a collaborative activity focused on research that announces–literally–with the writing on the wall that this is low stakes (e.g., “Kinda Know” and “Don’t Know”) helps ease students into a discussion of a text without the fear of being wrong. There are moments in between when I add in a little lecturing to fill in the gaps, but when I task them with looking things up, they often contribute more than what I know. This was especially helpful to me this week because it was my first time teaching Their Eyes Were Watching God. I had allowed my students a lot of control over the content of our syllabus and they picked this book. While I love doing this, it can sometimes leave me in a scramble to prepare if we do back-to-back texts I’ve never taught before. By researching together, they took the wheel in teaching their peers and self-teaching.
When we transitioned into class discussion, my students were warmed up and ready, already adjusted to talking with each other and working their way towards answers that satisfied them. I’ve gotten 100% participation both days this week, and while I’d like to say it’s because of this teaching method, I think the real reason is that Hurston’s writing is so compelling, beautiful, sincere, and thought-provoking.
Discussion Tips: Their Eyes Were Watching God
One thing that worked particularly well was the dyad activity I chose for the first day of Their Eyes Were Watching God, before we got to discussing the book and doing the Know/Kinda Know/Don’t Know activity. I asked students to talk about their favorite word–any word they liked, or any word very particular to them, their friends, or family, or a word that sounds different with an accent. A few students shared their favorite words and described interesting stories behind their favorite words. This led to a discussion of the vernacular in the novel, Hurston’s experience as an anthropologist, and Janie’s wisdom expressed in plain yet poetic terms. We addressed the critique of Hurston’s education (some critics think her use of vernacular oversimplifies the characters), and arrived at the conclusion that the vernacular gives life to the voices in the novel, making them feel more like close, intimate friends–it places us within the story and makes us feel like we’re there.
Since this is a course called “Gender in the American Renaissance,” we spent a great deal of time talking about the Harlem Renaissance, doing a similar Know/Kinda Know/Don’t Know activity on the second day of our discussion. We talked about what Hurston contributed to the Harlem Renaissance that separated her novel from others written in the period. We discussed at length whether or not Janie is a feminist character and intersections of race and gender in the novel. One student pointed out that women of color have a “triple consciousness,” adding a critique to W.E.B. DuBois’ theory of “double-consciousness.” Another student suggested that this book wasn’t so much about racism and sexism as it is about colorism and love, adding more nuance to the intersectionality of the discussion.
Finally, we went back to the beginning of the book to its first two paragraphs (I had deliberately saved this for last), and I asked my students what Hurston was trying to say about the dreams of men and women. We pointed out the irony of ships being the things of dreams and also the transport of slaves across the Atlantic. We compared the movement and fluidity of the image of a ship touching the horizon compared to the fixity of women’s dreams being “the truth.” This carried us to a conclusion in the last minutes of class that women of color see into gender and race in ways that men of color and white women cannot, making them closer to truth and life as it really is.
Next week, we’re reading the first two chapters of bell hooks’ ain’t i a woman, watching Kerry Washington perform Sojourner Truth’s speech from the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, and also reading a white-washed version of the speech quoted in a Norton Anthology of American Literature. (It’s terrible, but good to read in comparison to discuss the violence of the white, male-dominated canon.) My students will be spending the first five minutes of class working in two groups: one researching the Akron convention, and the other researching the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention. After sharing their findings for five minutes, the groups will switch and be tasked with finding even more information to share about the other convention in five minutes. The whole activity should take about 20 minutes, and then we’ll get to bell hooks, situated in the history behind the title she chose for her book.
[Update: The class after our research session on Seneca Falls and Akron, I had students look back at their notes and each choose 3 salient things to take away about the events they had researched. We wrote these on the board and it gave us an opportunity to reflect on the activity itself. I highly recommend doing this because it helps students remember what they learned and apply it!]