The Context of “Disobedience” — by Michael Estes

I teach English Composition at a diverse community college, and for the past few years I’ve asked my students to read Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience.” Teaching “Civil Disobedience” excites neither me nor my students with the thrill of encountering an innovative text, but surprisingly, the context of my teaching has made it new.

The first layer of novelty lies in the fact that most of my students haven’t heard of Thoreau. Whatever they’re teaching them in those high schools (pronoun vagueness intentional, and I’m a former high-school teacher), Transcendentalism isn’t high on the list. Both Thoreau’s beard and his diction are unfamiliar to my students, but with the help of a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s autobiography lauding Thoreau’s eloquence on the importance of “noncooperation with evil,” we quickly discover that he’s preaching a familiar theme: what’s legal is sometimes the opposite of what’s right.

ThoreauA second layer of novelty stems from the relevance of a 165-year-old essay to my students’ educational paths. As we read Thoreau’s description of the inferiority of the American government to the American individual in statements such as “This American government . . . has not the vitality and force of a single living man” and “[The American government] does not keep the country free. It does not settle the West. It does not educate [emphasis original],” it’s hard not to think of the stories my remedial Composition students have told me about complacent English teachers in their pasts, and we discuss whether or not the current American government educates and how much vitality it seems to have to invest in the cause of keeping the country, or its citizens, free. In my students’ experiences and those of their peers, is the public-school system more invested in dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline, or constructing it?

This leads to a final source of contextual novelty for “Civil Disobedience”: race. Thoreau exhorts his readers to be jailed if necessary before they contribute their poll taxes to a government that, in his view, wishes to use tax money to conduct the Mexican War and thereby spread slavery. His experiment in civil disobedience occurred in the inevitable context of his status as a Harvard-educated white male, and he spent one night in jail. Imagining for a moment that black men had the option of paying poll taxes in 1849, how would Thoreau’s experiment have been received at the time if he had been black? What laws and legal practices today are immoral, and what happens to those who resist them?

Three quotes from “Civil Disobedience” that have been particularly relevant to my students’ discussions of law, morality, and the relationship between police and citizens:

•  “It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.”
•  “A very few, as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men, serve the state with their consciences . . . and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated as enemies by it.”
•  “Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.”

Before reading Thoreau, my students write an essay about an event in their own lives that changed who they are, and I’ve learned from these essays that the contexts of many of my students’ lives are very different from my own. I don’t pretend for a minute that bringing “Civil Disobedience” to their attention is a form of letting my life be “a counter friction to stop the machine” of social inequity that characterizes some of their lives. But as a teacher, using “Civil Disobedience” in the context of a classroom mostly filled by people whose lives somehow demonstrate civil society’s disobedience or betrayal of the social contract has proven valuable. Pedagogically, it’s exciting to see students respond passionately to an essay they had no intention of having a meaningful encounter with and discover its connections to the contemporary world. Personally, I would love for it to have the potential to help, in Thoreau’s words, “prepare the way for a still more perfect and glorious State, which also I have imagined, but not yet anywhere seen.”

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Estes photoMichael Estes teaches English in Louisville, Kentucky, in the company of his wife and two daughters. His poetry has appeared in Boulevard, RHINO, The Potomac Review, and elsewhere.

Martin Luther King Day 2017 — Online Teaching Resources

MLK

In English Composition courses, I usually assign Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” I’ve heard from students that they really appreciate having that reading included. My students also respond very strongly to “Learning to Read and Write” by Frederick Douglass.

It’s possible to listen to MLK read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which is especially useful in an online-learning environment. Stanford University’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute has other excellent resources and curriculum suggestions.

Ned Stuckey-French provides fantastic analysis and context of Martin Luther King’s “Letter” here.

Thank you to Nancy Peck for suggesting the inclusion of original source documents. You can access MLK’s documents through http://thekingcenter.org/archive.

For contemporary and current resources, this NPR report is a useful start: “Ferguson in the Classroom: How One College Took Up Race and Policing This Semester.” The November 2015 NPR report discusses this NYU class developed by Professor Frank Leon Roberts. You can find Roberts’s #blacklivesmatter syllabus and other resources here.

In additition, here is a link to “13 Significant Books on Civil Rights for Martin Luther King Jr. Day.”

For creative writing courses, and departments, it’s essential to consider Claudia Rankine’s keynote address at AWP/LA (2016). Rankine adapted that address into an essay for The Writer’s Chronicle, found here. Rankine’s masterpiece Citizen: An American Lyric (Graywolf) should be considered essential reading.

Please also consult the Syllabus on Black Feminism from Melissa Harris-Perry, here.

Here at Assay, you will find our resources and pedagogy articles useful. Here are a few suggestions:

On James Baldwin:

On Civil Rights:

On Empathy:

If you have other classroom resources that you wish to share, I’ll add them to this post as I receive them. Many thanks!

Reading List: Essays that Define the Essay

The following is a list in response to a request for suggestions of “an essay, accessible to undergrads, defining the literary essay (not academic or comp/rhetoric).” Thanks to Dinty W. Moore and so many others who took part in this Facebook thread. If you have other suggestions, please leave a note, and I’ll add it to this list. (Of course, we were pretty excited to see suggestions from our pages, too!) Where possible I include a link to the piece.

Atwan, Robert. “Notes Towards the Definition of an Essay.”

Didion, Joan. “On Keeping a Notebook.”

https://www.penusa.org/sites/default/files/didion.pdf

Jessica Handler’s “Favorite Essay to Teach” about assigning Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook” might be useful. Find it here.

Hampl, Patricia Hampl. “The Dark Art of Description.” (Indirectly defines the literary essay.)

–. “Memory and Imagination.”

Harvey, Steven and Ana Maria Spagna. “The Essay in Parts.”

Hoagland, Edward. “What I Think, What I Am.”

Lott, Brett Lott. “Toward a Definition.”

Ozick, Cynthia. “She: Portrait of the Essay as a Warm Body.”

Sanders, Scott Russell. “The Singular First Person.”

Stuckey-French, Ned. “Our Queer Little Hybrid Thing.” (Lots of suggestions to use this for undergrads and grad students. Some report greater success using this with higher-level undergrads & grad students.)

We’d love to see more essays that define the essay. Consider submitting one to Assay!

Favorite Essay to Teach: Sui Sin Far’s “Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of a Eurasian” by Brenna M. Casey

When I teach Sui Sin Far in my classroom, I start with indignation.

Far was a woman of firsts. In the second half of the nineteenth century, she was the first writer of Chinese ancestry to be published in English in North America. Far was one of the first voices writing from newly forming Chinese and Asian American communities. These communities, themselves, were a product of the forced migrations of workers in the brutal coolie trade, indentured and carried across the Pacific on retrofitted slave ships to fill the gaps in labor left by the abolition of slavery at the end of the U.S. Civil War. Far was the first writer to acknowledge the presence of Chinese women and children living in burgeoning Chinatowns, billed all too conveniently by the U.S. and Canadian governments as the temporary sojourn of bachelor laborers. Born to an English father and Chinese mother, Far is one of the earliest thinkers to contemplate multiraciality in an American context. She remains a smart and prolific writer whose work across multiple genres—reportage, fiction, and essays—ushered in the twentieth century. Her currently uncovered works (many of which were penned anonymously or signed with a pseudonym including her given name, Edith Maude Eaton) number some 250 published pieces in over 40 periodicals throughout Canada, the U.S., and Jamaica. Sui Sin Far’s work should be as prized and familiar as Henry David Thoreau or Mark Twain. And yet, no one of my students has ever heard her name.

This, I tell students while pantomiming a frustrated flip of the seminar table, is an all too familiar story for women writers in America. Especially, I say waiting a freighted beat, for women of color.

editheatonphoto1“Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of a Eurasian” is organized as the title suggests: a palimpsest of thoughts, memories, conversation fragments, and anecdote that, taken together, form the collagic and painful coming to consciousness of Far’s own racial difference. Despite her ability to pass as a white woman, Far is insistent on enunciating her Chinese heritage. This insistence often results in Far’s immediate vulnerability in the dangerous era of the Chinese Exclusion Act. The form bespeaks the content. Identity formations are a process; the effect of Far’s prose is cumulative. Only as a catalog of Far’s own excruciating education do seemingly inconsequential social interactions take on the stifling weight of Far’s feelings of being between, “something different and apart.”

The essay was written for the New York Independent in 1890, but its content is eerily prescient. Students transiting in their own early adulthood identify with the formative experiences of childhood cruelty and mean-spirited inspection by their peers. Without fail, students of all different backgrounds table a two-part question ubiquitous on college campuses: “Where are you from?” Then: the coded, casual, and insidious racism of the follow-up, “No, where are you really from?”

Far also insists on particularizing her experience as a woman. One episode of “Leaves” relates an unwanted sexual advance from a naval officer who visits Far uninvited. He wants to tell her, he says, about all “the sweet little Chinese girls” he met while stationed in Hong Kong. While we never learn how this incident ends, the menace of its beginning lingers. The officer laughs a little when he introduces himself and Far writes, “The laugh doesn’t suit him somehow—and it doesn’t suit me, either.”

I love to teach this essay because it isn’t perfect. In its do-gooder enthusiasm, Far sometimes reasserts the prejudice she seeks to dismantle. As in the moment when Far is confronting her own ethnic biases and writes that two Chinese men she glimpses in a store are “uncouth specimens of their race.” In another anecdote, Far is tracing commonalities between herself and the black population of Jamaica—a radical moment of interracial solidarity—but never questions the infantilizing characterizations deployed upon a servant class. These encysted bigotries, are not without their merit. They demonstrate to students that ethnic and racial identities are not fixed. Rather, they are untethered from individual bodies, visually unsurveillable, and consolidated only through careful engineering—made and remade by whomever is controlling the narrative.

“A bird on the wing is my emblem of happiness,” writes Far, encouraging her reader to leave natal places and known landscapes. Her travels across North America reveal national differences and parochial similarities “After all I have no nationality and am not anxious to claim any,” Far concludes, wresting indignant control of her own narrative, “Individuality is more than nationality.”

***

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Photo credit James Bernal

Brenna M. Casey is a writer and educator based alternately in Prague, Czech Republic, and Durham, North Carolina. She teaches literature and creative writing at Duke University where she is completing her doctoral work in the Departments of English and Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies. She holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Notre Dame. She is currently a regular contributor at Ploughshares and you can read her work here.

Jenna London on “The Shepherd’s Life” by James Rebanks

The Shepherd’s Life is a place-based memoir in which the author describes his life as a traditional shepherd in the Lakes District of Ireland in the 1990s and early 2000s. Through his vivid descriptions, reflections, explanations, historical background and scenes, James Rebanks implores the reader to re-evaluate preconceived notions about the shepherding lifestyle. Rebanks argues that the shepherd’s life is a choice and, for many, a calling. Rebanks provides personal, scientific and philosophical details dealing with nature—primarily farmland and sheep—that convinces the reader he is a reputable source. The Shepherd’s Life is divided into four main sections: Summer, Autumn, Winter and Spring. Rebanks could have just as easily separated the book into the major periods of his life. But instead, he uses the section titles to illustrate an intrinsic connection with nature. Rebanks’ general purpose is to inform the reader about this lifestyle that suffers from many stereotypes. In doing so, the author also portrays his deeply rooted sense of place and connection to the land. Rebanks does not use his memoir for self-discovery. Instead, he provides the reader with information he has already learned.

shepherdslife

On a personal level, Rebanks examines his relationship with his father. However, this theme is secondary to the larger picture of the book: the narrator loves life as a shepherd and wants to dispel misconceived notions about this profession. Rebanks gives the following description of the Lake District:

“For many it was a place of escape, where the rugged landscape and nature would stimulate feelings and sentiments that other places could not…But above all I would learn that our landscape changed the rest of the world. It is where the idea of all of us having a direct sense of ownership (regardless of property rights) of some places or things because they are beautiful or stimulating or just special was first put into words…. Arguments were formulated here that now shape conservation around the world.” [7]

Rebanks addresses how humans and the natural environment in a specific region are interconnected. The setting couldn’t simply be plopped someplace else without having a significant impact on the premise of the book. Rebanks states that the Lakes District is of ecological importance on an international level. In this manner, nature represents an ever-changing entity worthy of further exploration. Suggesting that the land prompts humans to feel something is empowering to nature, as is the notion that conservation principles have been formulated based on this geographic location. However, the idea of people having ownership over the land suppresses the environment.

Domestic animals—sheep—are a fundamental aspect of both the narrator’s identity and his livelihood. He demonstrates a largely symbiotic relationship with the livestock: people provide the animals with food and shelter. The sheep provide people with wool, sustenance and—perhaps most importantly—an identity and life’s purpose. Throughout the book, Rebanks provides the reader with an intimate view of a shepherd’s daily activities, thoughts, and mindset, as is evident when he describes an annual sheep sale.

“…But, as important [the sheep] goes to one of the top flocks, Turner Hall where he will be looked after and given a chance to breed with some of the best ewes. For weeks after the sales I miss seeing him each day, as if once I had a van Gogh on my wall and now it is gone.” [173]

Rebanks enables the reader to see how this lifestyle is a business with an emotional component. Most readers—whether they are interested in art or not—know who van Gogh is, and can understand the extent to which a piece of his artwork is cherished. Therefore, any reader could sympathize with the author, whether or not she can relate to having a similar relationship with an animal.

Throughout the book, Rebanks demonstrates a passion and admiration for the livestock without anthropomorphizing them. Rebanks’ overall tone is one of authority and confidence. While he reveals a great deal of admiration and respect for sheep, Rebanks seldom suggests the lifestyle is an easy or unflawed one. Instead, he provides a wealth of information about a little-known profession that requires a deep understanding of and dependence on the land. For example, he writes: “The best sheep have a sense of their specialness, and this ewe seems to know that she is one of the stars.” [168] Here—as is typical throughout his book—Rebanks regards sheep with respect and suggests they are a species capable of thoughts. But he does not suggest that sheep are capable of the same thought process humans have. Rebanks argues that the ancient life of shepherds is one of choice, not one of misfortune or poverty. Rebanks is not necessarily making this way of life out to be more glamorous than it actually is. But he does argue that this physically demanding livelihood is special and worth saving. Writing candidly, Rebanks easily convinces the reader that his convictions to farming are genuine.

He illustrates several generations of families to whom everything centers around sheep and the land, giving precedence to the needs of the animals before their own well-being. These actions are incredibly empowering to the environment. At the same time, however, the land and animals are manipulated to serve human’s needs. Nature is both empowered and suppressed in the following passage:

“Trimming sheep feet. Rescuing lambs from being stuck in fences. Mucking out the stalls. Trimming the muck from the tails of ewes and lambs. As you drive past, you wouldn’t notice them, but they add up over time. Landscapes like ours are the sum total and culmination of a millions little unseen jobs.” [55]

In this example the environment (via animals) is oppressed because it is controlled and manipulated by humans. Lambs are stuck in fences that wouldn’t exist if humans hadn’t put them there. Feet and tails trimmed for humans’ aesthetic wishes. But one could argue that those same tasks give the environment a sense of empowerment. In another passage, though, Rebanks mentions that dinner isn’t served until the animals have been cared for. The sheep are given priority over human’s needs, which is also empowering towards the animals.

The length of his individual musings range from a few words to entire paragraphs but average a sentence or two. Rebanks incorporates musing primarily within passages of scene and summary rather than writing passages that are exclusively musings. For example, he writes:

“Tough farms were not places to get rich, but they offered opportunities to those willing (or forced by necessity to take a chance)…If you had a big lowland dairy farm with good soil, you probably looked down your nose a bit at these farmers on marginal land. These tough farms are two months behind in the growing season…” [58]

This moment of reflection is in the “you” point of view and appears to be prompted by the need to define “tough farms.” The reflection serves to describe via comparison. Rebanks refers to a generic person in the shepherding community who is embedded in the lifestyle. Nature has multiple roles in this passage, including educating the non-familiar reader. But most interesting is how nature contradicts itself. It not only provides a humble livelihood (not places to get rich) but also represents a status symbol (if you had…you probably looked down your nose…). This nature-centric passage is another example of the concurrent suppression and empowerment of nature. Rebanks does not romanticize the life of a shepherd in this passage. Even the individuals “looking down their noses” are not depicted as having glamorous or “easy” lives. These aspects add depth to the story and represent how both the placement of musing and the musing itself are critical in molding a work of nature writing.

Editor’s Note: For the next three issues of “In the Classroom,” we’ll be sharing three pieces by Jenna London. You can read each one individually, or read all three together, for example, as a classroom assignment to support the reading of each book Jenna analyzes. Up next, Rick Bass’s “Nine Mile Wolves” and Terry Tempest Williams’s “Refuge.”

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j_london_picJenna London lives and writes in upstate New York. She is an MFA candidate at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has appeared in E the Environmental Magazine, AMC Outdoors, Berkshire Living and others under her pre-marital surname of Kochmer.

Chauna Craig on James Alan McPherson’s “Umbilicus”

Editor’s Note: In light of recent events, Assay is working to fill its spring issue with work that focuses on social justice in nonfiction teaching, reading, writing, across all disciplines that claim nonfiction. All approaches to texts are welcome. Deadline: January 1st, but we are reading now. Please see our call here at Assay’s new Submittable Submission page.

We’re looking for work like this, which first ran in our “In the Classroom” series in 2015. We are proudly reposting it today.


 

Baltimore, 2015.  Los Angeles, 1992.  Detroit, 1967. Los Angeles (Watts neighborhood), 1965, etc. Race riots, urban revolts, rebellions, uprisings. Whatever the media calls the cycle of public eruptions of outrage over racial injustice in this country’s history, we live in a society where the history of racism continues to shape reactions and decisions, even seemingly small ones like whether to accept help when a car breaks down on the side of a road.

James Alan McPherson’s “Umbilicus” was one of my favorite essays to teach in 1998, when it was reprinted in that year’s Pushcart Prize anthology. Thoughtful, complex, vivid—it taught me. Seventeen years later the essay remains a model of nonfiction writing for how effectively it combines narrative and reflective meditation and demonstrates how personal experience is often weighted by larger cultural forces.

james_alan_mcpherson

James Alan McPherson

McPherson’s narrative begins in the late fall of his first year as a professor in Iowa when a friend urges him to get out and explore the countryside, to take a chance and expand beyond his careful circle of home and work. He does so, and his spirits are reawakened: “I began to reconsider the essential importance of risk to the enterprise of life.”

The story really begins when the casual touring ends. His car’s engine smoking on the side of the road, McPherson begins to walk for help. A pair of white men in a pickup truck offer a ride.

When I first read this essay, I thought immediately of James Byrd, Jr., who encountered white men in a pickup in Texas and didn’t survive the meeting. He was tied to the truck by a rope and dragged three and a half miles, his head severed somewhere on that road. What makes McPherson’s essay especially powerful is that Byrd was murdered the year after it was first published. McPherson couldn’t have drawn on that story while writing, as I did when reading. But he drew on everything his life had taught him to the point those men stopped their truck, and we see his mind wavering between the risk of trust and the history of distrust.

He writes,

“The two of them seemed to be laborers, or at least farmers. The gun rack stretched across the rear window took my memories back to the terror of that long road I had traveled to this place. There was the truck, the gun rack, the white faces, the road. But they did not have the oily Southern accent. I accepted their offer, and the passenger moved over and allowed me to take his seat.”

Soon, however, the men volunteer proof of their trustworthiness. They insist that they “like the colored.” When they discover that there are no tow trucks at the service station, they devise a plan to tow the car themselves:

“There’s a rope on the back of this truck.  We can drive on back and tie that rope to the front bumper of your car. Then we’ll just tow her on in to Cedar. You can pay us what you were gonna pay the tow truck, plus we’ll do it for less money.”

Though we have no concrete reason to suspect the men of ill intentions, they are not kind either. They expect to be paid. They expect gratitude for the bargain. Through dialogue and careful characterization, readers are led to identify with McPherson’s growing wariness.  No proof of malice, but no proof of benign intentions either.

The best essays reflect the world, not as we want it to be, but as we experience it. We rarely get incontrovertible evidence to support our hopes or fears. We make the best decisions we can in the moment, while all of our human bias, fears, hopes, risks, denials and confusion compete for consideration. “Umbilicus” embodies the drama of individual risk and retreat in the context of history. As darkness falls and McPherson grows desperate, he agrees to the white men’s plan. They tie his car to their truck, and they start driving. Roads that seemed fairly smooth before now feel foreboding as McPherson tries to steer a dead car, unable to see much, relying on the white men’s skills and care, his only remaining sense of control his brake pedal. He reflects on how “…the old life lessons came back. There has never been a life-affirming umbilicus between black and white.” The rope is no longer in his mind a lifeline, but a danger; the men are no longer rescuers but “two drunk white men” putting his life at risk.

McPherson admits that he acts from this “reduced frame of reference.” I had no trust left in me. He hits the brakes, sending both vehicles into the ditch, even as the rope, the umbilicus, holds. Though at the end of the essay he walks away, we realize that no one ever really walks away from a dead car or a broke-down Baltimore, or Los Angeles, or Detroit, etc. “Umbilicus” lingers in the reader’s mind, not only because the writing is sharp and vivid, but because it awakens our own (often secret) doubts about the rhetoric of race in this country.

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10679674_10205306037194106_650969032157442128_oChauna Craig’s essays have appeared in Fourth Genre, Lime Hawk Review, Terrain.org and Superstition Review.  Her work has been honored as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays, and she’s won fellowships to Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Vermont Studio Center, and Hedgebrook Writers Retreat.  She teaches at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

Kyle Simonsen on My Favorite Essay to Teach: Susan Orlean’s “Meet the Shaggs”

Susan Orlean begins her essay “Meet the Shaggs” by noting that “depending on whom you ask, the Shaggs were either the best band of all time or the worst.” Unless you are asking my students. Then they are unanimously the worst.

I introduce my students to the band itself before I actually assign Susan Orlean’s essay. First, I play them a bit of the music: a twangy, off-key, discordant cacophony that many visibly react to. I ask them to write a short description of the music after they’ve listened to the song, threatening to play more if they stop writing. Then I show them the cover of the album, the three girls—Betty, Dorothy, and Helen Wiggin—posed on a dark stage with their instruments, and ask them to describe the imagery on the cover. They do so, and then I take volunteers to read their descriptions aloud.

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Some are more vicious than others, but they’re nearly universally disparaging and judgmental. One student called them “a trio of people who are as ill-clad as they are tone deaf,” whose earnest music sounds “like an electrified accordion taking a tumble down an escalator.” Another student wrote, “‘You can never please anybody in this world,’ they sing, which is true in the sense that you can never please anybody while playing them this awful, awful song.”

Then we read “Meet the Shaggs,” and we find that Susan Orlean, as part of her profile of the Shaggs, describes their music very differently. The judgments are still there, but they aren’t Orlean’s; instead, she quotes Frank Zappa and anonymous music critics from the Internet—the latter sounding much like the descriptions by my students. Instead, Orlean’s descriptions are, well, descriptive. She calls the music “winsome but raggedly discordant pop,” nailing down the genre, but also notes some potential influences: “the heptatonic, angular microtones of Chinese ya-yueh court music and the atonal note clusters of Ornette Coleman.” Yet she also manages to be conversational, writing that “something is sort of wrong with the tempo,” and wondering if “they are just a bunch of kids playing badly on cheap, out-of-tune guitars.”

What I like about an exercise like this one is that it focuses in on something essential about becoming a better writer: knowing what’s possible. In getting to compare the descriptions they write—first to each other’s, and then to Orlean’s—students get to see that the way they chose to describe it initially isn’t the only way, and that two very different descriptions can also both ring true.

Some of my savviest students have noted that the judgmental descriptions sometimes say more about the person doing the describing than the object they are describing, leading into discussions about tone, voice, and narrative persona—we know Orlean is smart, knowledgeable, and compassionate not because she tells us these things about herself, but because she demonstrates them in her descriptions of the music and her interactions with the members of the Shaggs as she interviews them for the essay.

Orlean’s knowledge, for instance, is evident in all the ways that she suggests the exhaustive research that informs the piece. She mentions her interview with the town historian from Fremont, New Hampshire, where the Shaggs grew up, and quotes from his book about the town. She hints at numerous interviews and conversations with music critics, local residents who knew the girls, and the Shaggs themselves. And yet all of this research fades into the background of the Shaggs’ origin story—I know this, because I see the sudden realization of the tangible legwork that went into the essay dawn on the faces of students as we comb through it.

The real reason this essay is my favorite one to teach, though, is Orlean’s compassion. I believe one of the greatest gifts of studying creative nonfiction is that it allows us to close the span between our lives and the lives of others, others who may be very different from us, to know them and understand them. This is important in memoir, of course, where the marginalized can tell their story in their own voice, but also in essays like “Meet the Shaggs,” where Orlean sheds light on the loneliness and suffering the Shaggs endured at the hands of their abusive father, telling their story and replacing our reaction of loathing with our capability for understanding—even if I doubt any of my students are listening to the Shaggs on their commutes home.

[Listen to “Philosophy of the World” by The Shaggs here.]

***

kyleprofilephotoKyle Simonsen writes, edits, and parents two children from his home in Wahoo, Nebraska. He teaches at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. His writing also appears in Sidebrow, Opium Magazine, and Rain Taxi, among others.

Jennifer Case–A Nerve for Excellence: Teaching Annie Dillard’s “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek”

When I first assigned Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in an environmental writing course, I immediately recalled a warning my mentor had given early in my teaching career. “I once taught a book that I loved, and the students hated it. It was the worst teaching moment I’ve had,” she said. “Never teach your favorite book.”

PilgrimatTinkerCreekDillardPilgrim at Tinker Creek is, without a doubt, my favorite book. The first time I read it, I was a quiet, intense high school student who enjoyed gardening, writing, and hiking. I was struggling with religion, trying to understand my own beliefs, and Dillard’s environmental spirituality—deep and dark and unnerving in its questioning—felt like a new kind of communion. “Something pummels us, something barely sheathed. Power broods and lights. We’re played on on like a pipe; our breath is not our own,” Dillard writes (15). Reading such passages when younger, I felt pummeled, played on, breathed upon. I felt fed and swallowed whole.

I hesitated, as a result, when assigning the book to my class because I couldn’t bear the thought of them not appreciating it, or—perhaps even more—the book no longer living up to my memory of it.

To be sure: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is dense. It is meditative and philosophical, chockfull of allusions. It is a hard book to read and a hard book to teach. To help my students digest it, I broke the class into groups and had each group take a five-page chunk of the chapter “Intricacy.” They identified their section’s major images, symbols, and ideas, and they transferred those glosses to the board. By the end of the hour, the board was crammed with phrases such as “red blood cells,” “the goldfish in the bowl,” “chloroplasts,” “evolution and trees,” “eye pouches and Henle’s loop,” “intricacy and red blood cells and speckles.”

When I asked what they saw, they replied, “a mess.” Which was true. Aside from a few echoes and patterns, the reverse outline we created appeared random and confusing and discursive.

I then read from the middle of the chapter, where Dillard writes,

The creator goes off on one wild, specific tangent after another, or millions simultaneously, with an exuberance that would seem to be unwarranted, and with an abandoned energy sprung from an unfathomable font. What is going on here? The point of the dragonfly’s terrible lip, the giant water bug, birdsong, or the beautiful dazzle and flash of sunlighted minnows, is not that it all fits together like clockwork—for it doesn’t particularly, not even inside the goldfish bowl—but that it all flows so freely wild, like the creek, that it all surges in such a free, fringed tangle. (138-139)

“In what ways is form meeting content, here?” I asked, and we discussed how Dillard’s chapter, in tackling the complexity and messiness and intricacy of the natural, biological world, is also complex and messy and intricate. Her essay, like the subject matter she describes, goes on millions of tangents simultaneously, with an abandoned energy that, for some students, seemed unwarranted. We discussed how Dillard’s chapters—each of them—masterfully mimicked the subjects they tackled. My own faith in Dillard’s writing—and my students’ appreciation for her—burgeoned. I sighed with happiness and considered the lesson a success.

But it is the book’s afterword, actually, that offers the greatest lesson, and explains why I keep returning to it. When describing her experience writing Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard recounts a New Yorker essay she’d read about mathematicians, who apparently suffer “the failure of the nerve for excellence” as they age (279). The phrase piqued Dillard, as it piqued me in high school, when I promised myself that I, too, would write a Pulitzer prize-winning book by the time I was 30.

I am older, now, than Dillard was when she started writing Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Though I teach at a university and consider myself a writer, I have not published that Pulitzer prize-winning book. As a result, reading about Dillard’s nerve for excellence makes me strangely nostalgic. But Dillard’s book still pummels me; it still inspires me in its confidence, in its willingness to explore painful depths and answer impossibly complicated questions. More than anything, then, this is why I continue to teach Dillard’s essays. I want my students to be ambitious. I want their nerves for excellence to spark. Year after year, decade after decade, Dillard’s work has offered such stimulation, for me and for them.

***

Jennifer_CaseJennifer Case’s poetry and prose have appeared in journals such as ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, Zone 3, Split Rock Review, English Journal, Poet Lore, and Stone Canoe, where her work received the 2014 Allen and Nirelle Galson Prize in Fiction. She is the Assistant Nonfiction Editor of Terrain.org and teaches creative writing, professional writing, and composition at the University of Central Arkansas.

Creighton Nicholas Brown — My Favorite Essay to Teach: Jamaica Kincaid’s “A Small Place”

Every spring semester that I teach English 203: Exploring the World, I look forward to the day when my students begin discussing Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place. While not definitionally an essay, Kincaid’s slim 81-page memoir (or travelogue? or jeremiad?) is the shortest text I teach in a course using contemporary nonfiction travel writing to explore postcolonialism, social and environmental justice, and issues of gender in the global South.

Kincaid

My students arrive to class having been confronted—without warning from me—with Kincaid’s categorical rage and pinned under a relentless gaze constructed skillfully through her repetition of you. Kincaid lands my students in Antigua and regularly reminds them, “The thing you have always suspected about yourself the minute you become a tourist is true: A tourist is an ugly human being.” We spend much of the first of two class days working through both Kincaid’s rage and my students’ deeply personal reactions to her castigation of Western tourists.

Of particular interest for me on our first day with A Small Place is the transition in class discussion from discounting Kincaid’s scathing observational claims about her readers to a conversation considering whether such anger can be productive. This conversation is bumpy with some students arguing her outrage does not merit her description of them as “incredibly unattractive, fat, pastry-like,” and others positing that Kincaid’s indignation grabs her readers’ faces and forces them to look at, to see, to witness the over 500-year history of Western barbarity on this twelve by nine-mile-wide island. These students—those arguing for the productivity of anger—begin to cite passages linking the slave trade to Antigua’s Hotel Training School and to the discourse of tourism, which positions us to discuss contemporary imperial discourses and institutions during the next class meeting.

We leave our first class devoted to A Small Place reflecting on Kincaid’s stark observation on the development of capitalism. She asks her readers, my students, “Do you know why people like me are shy about being capitalists? Well, it’s because we, for as long as we have known you, were capital, like bales of cotton and sacks of sugar, and you were the commanding, cruel capitalists.”

What I like most about A Small Place—in addition to her profound rage, despair, and unanticipated hope—is watching as Kincaid carefully maps historical and contemporary imperial discourses and institutions onto this small island. As she guides us through the streets of St. Johns, she catalogs institutions such as the bank that once traded in human capital and now lends the descendants of those slaves funds or the hospital that government ministers avoid. But the most striking example of Kincaid’s discursive cartography is her genealogy of the Hotel Training School.

We spend much of the first half of our second day explicating Kincaid’s claim that the Hotel Training School, which produces hospitality workers for the many hotels lining Antigua’s beaches, resulted from slavery and emancipation. She remarks, “In Antigua, people cannot see a relationship between their obsession with slavery and emancipation and their celebration of the Hotel Training School (graduation ceremonies are broadcast on radio and television).” This is a challenging discussion for my students. Initially, they seem to react with the same frustration they felt on the first day, but as we closely read the text, my students realize they’re collectively feeling despair with the systemic injustice built into this one industry in Antigua, which they realize can be translated onto other metonymically small places. This is why I love to teach A Small Place: it is in this moment when my students stop resisting Kincaid’s acerbity and begin to empathically engage with her humanity.

I devote the second half of our second day with A Small Place to explicating Kincaid’s conclusion—both as the moment we witness her rage and despair dissolve into cautious hope and as a model for my students’ conclusions in their own writing. Line by line we determine the purpose of each sentence and observe that Kincaid concisely contextualized and summarizes her thesis, makes a provocative insight, and concludes with the broader implications of her project:

Again, Antigua is a small place, a small island. It is nine miles wide by twelve miles long. It was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1493. Not too long after, it was settled by human rubbish from Europe, who used enslaved but noble and exalted human beings from Africa (all masters of every stripe are rubbish, and all slaves of every stripe are noble and exalted; there can be no question about this) to satisfy their desire for wealth and power, to feel better about their own miserable existence, so that they could be less lonely and empty—a European disease. Eventually, the masters left, in a kind of way; eventually, the slaves were freed, in a kind of way. The people in Antigua now, the people who really think of themselves as Antiguans (and the people who would immediately come to your mind when you think about what Antiguans might be like; I mean, supposing you were to think about it), are the descendants of those noble and exalted people, the slaves. Of course, the whole thing is, once you cease to be a master, once you throw off your master’s yoke, you are no longer human rubbish, you are just a human being, and all the things that adds up to. So, too, with the slaves. Once they are no longer noble and exalted; they are just human beings.

If I’ve planned my course schedule correctly, the two days we dedicate to discussing A Small Place are sandwiched between Sarah Vowell’s Unfamiliar Fishes and spring break. My students leave for Gulf Shores, Cancún, or Saint Kitts having grappled with Kincaid’s justified rage, despair, and hope-filled plea, and having investigated a network of contemporary imperial discourses.

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BrownCreighton Nicholas Brown is a doctoral candidate and Emmy-winner at the University of Kansas, where he teaches in the English Department. Currently, he is working on his dissertation, which is titled (Un)Disciplined Subjects: Postcolonial Life Writing and Contemporary Imperial Discourses. His research interests include contemporary literature of the global South, postcolonial theory, life writing, and ecocriticism. His most recent publications are “The Hunger: The Power and Politics of a (Post)Colonial Cannibal,” which appeared in Diasporic Identities and Empire: Cultural Contentions and Literary Landscapes, and “Dracula’s Colonized Tongue Speaks through Fanged Teeth.”

Teaching “Captain Love” by James M. Chesbro

The first major assignment in my first-year Composition class is a literacy narrative. One of the biggest leaps I’m asking the students to make in the sentences they construct is to shift their guarded writing objective from trying to “prove” a thesis, to the more courageous attempt of trying to reveal a sense of humanity in themselves as narrators and the people they write about. They want to glorify or chastise, but I want them to consider how the writers in our curriculum create characters with some complexity, characters that are human.

The first drafts the students create regarding learning to read or write tend to include early memories of a parent or an influential teacher. I love teaching Jerald Walker’s “Captain Love,” published in River Teeth, because this concise and moving essay allows me to invite them to question how the honest narrator portrays his father.

Walker’s essay begins with his blind father coming home from his job as a high school teacher. A rainstorm had soaked his father’s white dress shirt, making the t-shirt beneath visible. The twelve year-old Walker deduces that his father had accidentally put on his eighteen-year-old brother’s t-shirt, on which was a picture of a man and woman having sex. Tshirts

As we enter into Walker’s opening scene, I want to navigate the students through the essay by pointing out how the writer develops his father into a person whose limitations go beyond the obvious physical impairment of blindness. As a boy, Walker knew his father would “explode” if he told him he was wearing a pornographic t-shirt, which had become visible. Even though Walker informs us both of his parent’s are blind, I want to emphasize that the adult narrator looking back on his twelve year-old self does not depict an angelic boy whose wings fly him above the challenges of having blind parents. In fact, he tells us that “sometimes,” while “feeling mischievous, as I was that late afternoon when my father came home wearing porn,” he enjoyed telling on his brother, “smiling at the thought of my brother’s fate.”

Exercise:

I split the room in half. One side needs to find assets and shortcomings for the father, and the other searches for these examples in the narrator. Each side of the whiteboard is dedicated to each character. I ask them to name a quality they observe from their assigned character and to list a short quote that demonstrates this characteristic.

Once they return to their seats, and we discuss what they have written on the board, it becomes apparent that the father is not unrealistically depicted as an invincible man with endless patience. After Walker told his father what he was wearing, the father curses. He takes the t-shirt off, and “snatched the T-shirt over his head so violently it tore, which set in motion a tearing frenzy.”

We re-read the paragraph where the adult narrator reveals his ability to see that “despite my father’s rage, he would one day forgive this too.” Walker states his father “forgave all of his children for our transgressions.” And eventually, together we settle into the specific examples of the “many violations” Walker shares,

like how we gathered our vegetables in our hands during dinner and, under the pretense of getting more milk, dumped them behind the refrigerator; how we kept our lights on in our bedrooms well after lights-off time; how we tiptoed into the kitchen to sneak cookies; how when told to turn off the television, we put it on mute; and how, if we were in the front of the house playing a particularly captivating game beyond our curfew, we remained silent as our father stood on the porch, his hands cupped to his lips, calling our names—transgressions we might have gotten away with if lights and televisions did not hum, vegetables did not rot, neighbors did not snitch, if cookies ate themselves.

Writing Prompt:

Toward the end of class, I tell the students to recall an experience that stands out in their minds about an adult figure they know very well. Summarize the experience on one side of the page, naming both the attributes and shortcomings of that adult. Then on the other side I challenge them to write this experience as a scene. Try to avoid any commentary. Include some dialogue. Take us to a specific place.

I remind them what makes Walker’s father “Captain Love” is after working all day to support his family, he comes home to realize he had been wearing his son’s pornographic t-shirt. He eventually moves past his anger and “forgave his children.” How is the adult they are writing about human?

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James_Chesbro.jpgJames M. Chesbro’s essays have been listed as notable selections in The Best American Sports Writing 2014 and The Best American Essays 2012, 2014, 2015. His work has appeared in The Writer’s Chronicle, The Washington Post, Brain, Child Magazine, Connecticut Review, The Huffington Post, AOL.comThe Good Men Project, Superstition Review, Weston Magazine, The Connecticut Post, and Spiritus. He is the co-editor of You: An Anthology of Essays Devoted to the Second Person (Welcome Table Press, 2013). Essays are forthcoming in Under the Gum Tree and Pilgrim. James teaches full-time at Fairfield Prep. He holds an MFA from Fairfield University, where he is an adjunct professor of English. He lives in Connecticut with his wife and children. Please visit his webpage and follow him @Jamie_Chesbro.