A Syllabus Late and Soon

Our Literature as Our Learning

 

or,

 

American Literature/American Learning Redeemed:

 

A syllabus.

 

First, a proposition, related to the retitling of the course, whereby:

 

  1. We—whosoever that entails—agree that a course that has been slashed in half promotes a sense of violent distinction, and that such a course should be reconstituted (&, consequently, renamed) to promote the ways in which narrative elements interact productively and cooperatively within society;
  2. That through such a redemption, we can come to view ostensibly unidirectional systems of “power dynamics” rather as an integrated field, engage with literature writ large not as a result, accident, or product of learning but rather as a coextension and cohabitation of its domain, and reimagine sociopolitical “structures” and educational “institutions” as creative literary constructs;
  3. That, through the recasting of our subject positions, we can take ownership of—and “own up to”—our variegated histories and collective social existence without recourse to a historically proscriptive or oppressive category (American), while assuming a stance of radical ignorance regarding our intersubjectivity

 

Furthermore, and in regards to our “final project:”

 

As a continuance of our (II) proposition, we will reimagine our “unidirectional” final project rather as a project field. In response to the economy of the Book, we propose a class whose operation itself constitutes and its “final” project. The due date is constant and immaterial… the classes are not “preparatory” for a unified, victorious assertion of mastery; they are statements of eminent rejection of mastery and valorization of theory as practice.

 

The classes suggested below, therefore, will distribute the temporal work of a final project dynamically across the time remaining in our semester. They are performance-education. All readings, soundtracks, images, etc. are—as a matter of course—“optional.” Requirements hinge on a productive engagement with the material. What is productive engagement? This leads us to the next paragraph.

 

As to grading. In sharp contrast to the threat-based enforced-failure model of previous classes, I offer an enforced-A model. Who, if not graduate students thoroughly invested in meaningful and substantive change regarding the very methods and limits of education, can demonstrate that punitive, economically (and racially, etc etc) motivated systems of abstract gradation are not intrinsically necessary to the advancement of learning and society? Our grades—which both underpin and undermine our ability to authentically engage with our classes and their content—should be consistent with our theory-as-practice.

 

In a way, of course, the enforced-A model is a far more threatening proposition. If we fail, as a grouping of individuals, to adhere and invest meaningfully even in a syllabus imagined, constituted, and implemented by our own most noble and truly-felt collective ideals—and especially to those ideals concerned primarily with our learning—then we have demonstrated a far deeper inconsistency, one whose structural impact on our selves reaches well beyond the impact of a C, or a W, or an F.

 

 

Forever Young Americans

 

Such a class will be engaged in an equally archaeological and architectural project at crafting new avenues of freedom for the eternally “young American,” as well as a critical engagement with the weight and historical resonance of those terms. We will look for intersectional strengths and weaknesses in various constructions of these terms, and produce a series of “founding documents” for a new “Young American,” including a decision of whether or not (and why) we choose to retain any or all of the wording or prior thematizations. These “founding documents” can include innovations on any of the forms exampled below—literary magazine, oratory, sermon, declaration, short story, anthem, protest song, painting—or any combination or extension of these forms. Within the time period allotted by the class, we shall map a strategy for public dissemination, based on the form of the document/documents we have agreed upon. For instance, the decision to inaugurate a literary magazine could impose a longer timeline than the decision to write a new national anthem, and a new national anthem could be played directly to the public, submitted (however symbolically) to our government, uploaded as a youtube video, or published along with a critical essay on the history of our current National Anthem, or National Anthems as a category, and so on.

 

Suggested Content*:

 

 

Imagined Communities 187-206

Benedict Anderson

 

 

“A Model of Christian Charity” (1630)

John Winthrop

 

“The Declaration of Independence” (1776)

Thomas Jefferson et al.

 

The Constitution of the United States of America (1789)

Thomas Jefferson et (even more) al.

 

The Star Spangled Banner (1814)

Francis Scott Key

 

“The Great Nation of Futurity” (1839)

John L. O’Sullivan

 

“The Young American” (1844)

Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

Marginalia, VIII.118-119 (1846)

Edgar Allan Poe

 

“The Gettysburg Address” (1863)

Abraham Lincoln

 

“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (1891)

Ambrose Bierce

 

“The Stars and Stripes Forever” (1896-7)

John Philip Sousa

 

“Three Places in New England (Orchestral Set No.1) (1903-29)

Charles Ives

 

The Birth of a Nation (1915)

  1. W. Griffith

 

“Hands,” Winesburg, Ohio (1919)

Sherwood Anderson

 

“Barn Burning” (1939)

William Faulkner

 

“Appalachian Spring,” (1944)

Aaron Copland

 

“Forever Young,” Planet Waves (1974)

Bob Dylan

 

“Young Americans,” Young Americans (1975)

David Bowie

 

“A Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mt. Rosalie” (1866)

Albert Bierstadt

 

*Yes, those are all old/dead white men/primary sources. It’s an America. Please, lets interrupt it. Bring to bear Our founding documents in contrast & conversation with this AMERICA. In fact…

 

Interrupting (old/dead white male) America

 

In which members of the class [PART A] investigate, research, present, or uncover narratives and/or narrative figures that provide a counterpoint, contradiction, rejection, qualification, or other intercession/interruption upon our old Canonized friend suggested in the title of the class.

The findings—in whatever form they take—of these investigations will be brought into the classroom, and shared in brief form at its outset, [PART B] or, they can be detailed and discussed online prior to the class. We then will take a look [PART C] at how these interruptions function within their fields of discourse, and how they can be translated or transmuted to bridge gaps between areas of knowledge.

 

Action Groups [PART D]will then be formed. These groups will work on strategies to “de-interrupt” the interruptions… that is, to raise and facilitate conscious pedagogy (here, as elsewhere, I use that term to signify both ‘societal’ and ‘formal’ educational practices, in all their multivalent multiplicities) surrounding these interrupt-narratives/figures with the aim of broadening the hegemonic playing field.

 

This plan could use a concrete example in lieu of a list of “suggested content,” as part of the aim of the class is specifically to discover, investigate and present non-canonical, undercurrent content. SO, for example:

 

PART A: I have recently picked up a 1998 book, Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas by Sylviane A. Diouf. I find fascinating the ways in which the Islamism of slaves has been actively & passively concealed or misrepresented across vast swaths of the o/dwm American cultural canon.

 

PART B: In a discussion board on our class site or HASTAC, I summarize, contextualize, and quote parts of the book and attendant sources, and submit a general series of questions surrounding others’ experiences of slavery, Islam, and their conjunction: “How were you taught about the American slave trade? How (if you have) have you approached teaching it? Same questions vis-à-vis Islam? Were you aware of this dynamic? Do you think it is something that should be more generally discussed, if so, at what levels and with what (if any) caveats? Can you foresee any potential pitfalls? Political/institutional applications & ramifications? Etc etc etc etc etc”

 

PART C: After considering what responses I may have generated, I isolate and present to the class a summarized version of what/how this text intervenes upon dominant narratives within education, or a specific branch of education.

 

PART D: (If others are interested in forming a strategy based in or around a certain aspect that resonates with my nascent project, we can form a group together. If, for some reason, no one has anything close to this idea, my group can be myself. Let’s say one other member of the class is interested in a little-known black songwriter during the Civil-Rights era whose work was appropriated and/or distorted by o/dwm forces.) We form an Action Group based on a text-level intervention into a common form of transmission—high school level institutionalized educational practices in New York City. We develop a multi-tiered plan in which we analyze, exploit, or attempt to modify resources in use or available to educators (textbooks, software, webmedia, etc), while creating (or adding to) a resource page or archive directly involved in deepening and broadening public knowledge and perception of these narratives.

 

Finally,

 

A postscript: Having read many of the proposed syllabi already posted, I am intentionally avoiding—in my suggested content, though by no means in my form and thought—direct education-theory work, contemporary criticism, and boxes with dates in a grid. The great mass of such readings outlined in other syllabi and on the site serve as universally “suggested content;” as the diffusion of our constant final project will require a greater measure of “live” class-customization. Additionally, the more I consider the scope suggested by any of my classes, the less they make sense on a weekly basis and the more they make sense as overarching structural models. So I’ve collapsed them into the preceding two ur-classes.

 

13 comments

  • Very unique, well thought out and interesting syllabus Jeff. I am a bit on the old fashion side so I was one of those who used the date/grid syllabus system but maybe next time in another class whether as a student or educator I will attempt to create a syllabus in a similar format to yours.

  • Totally anarchic in the best sense of that word. I love it!. Yes, dead white male cultural and political figures *are* “an America” – I think too often that America is dismissed wholesale, and along with all that is consciously rejected, other aspects of that identity are no longer available to question and explore.

  • Your action group idea for the final project is exciting. It makes me think of “culture jamming” – in particular the activities of the Barbie Liberation Organization (BLO):

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barbie_Liberation_Organization

  • Jeff,

    You have chosen a really intriguing combination of “foundational texts” (e.g. Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution, Emerson, etc.) and unconventional resources here (e.g. Dylan’s “Forever Young” and Bowie’s “Young Americans”… did you consider including Bowie’s “I’m Afraid of Americans” as well?). The idea of interrupting the old/dead white male canon appeals; could you offer additional alternative, non-canonical texts to augment Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas? Old, Weird America? Challenging prevailing rubrics of structure, temporality, and assessment is also refreshing. Perhaps tomorrow you could explicate and clarify your ideas about “enforced-A model” grading. I look forward to discussing your project ideas in class as well.

    • Well, as noted in the syllabus, I’d kind of rather have all of us find someone new (even to our jaded, omniscient graduate selves) to irrupt on the canon, but, I mean, off the top of my head, and in absolutely no organized order:

      Dorothy West, incl ‘The Living Is Easy;’

      Sylvia Moy, motown music producer;

      Luci Tapahonso, Navajo Poet Laureate & her works;

      Michelle Cliff, “Abeng,” novel & other works… Along those lines:

      Stephanie Black ‘Life and Debt,’ documentary film…

      Buju Banton’s music & life history, incl criminality…

      Baucom’s “charting the black atlantic” (The caribbean thing got me going… And leads me to

      ‘Trumpet,’ by Jackie Kay (look that one up, its a great read, and the life of the historical artist it bears a debt to…

      Billy Tipton (trangender jazz pianist)…

      Slave Narratives other than Douglass’ or Jacobs… On the slavery score:

      Slave/ exslave Fiction from ‘Huts of America’ -level anti-canonicity on;

      Or, even (from a mental disability/normativity point of view or otherwise) the relative non-existence of a truly”l “outside” literature (which could look at the treatment–if not the content– of authors such as Henry Darger)

      In any case, the idea isnt necessarily to “raise up” hidden diamonds to the level of the great narratives, but to expand the field of what/how we consider “great” to include and explore as many different positions as we can. Such a project is necessarily–and, to me, ecstatically–asymptotic.

  • P.S. I’m sorry my syllabus was physically difficult to read. I intended to export the content from the spreadsheet template, but I simply didn’t have time. This formatting problem can be mitigated soon though, I hope.

  • What a unique approach! It makes me think of a higher education form of the Waldorf/Steiner method in K-12. I like your variety of multimedia Suggested Content. We’re rarely, if ever, given the opportunity to interrogate paintings, songs, primary documents, film, etc., in a single course.

  • Jeff―
    I dig your manifesto-style approach to declaring what “we” are and what we can do. A powerful way to produce a productive polemic with established traditions! And I like the emphasis on a critical engagement with the old/white/male visions of America, and the prospect of refashioning our nation (all the way to the anthem!) is thrilling.

    Also, your cumulative approach to the final project and the “enforced A” possibility is intriguing. I would like to see how this would work out, and I agree that an experimental graduate seminar is an exemplary venue for such explorations.

  • I like the variety of media that you use and the plug of old/white/dead men. I think there is a lot we can pull from this to take a unique lesson/day here!

  • I like that this puts the literature back in American Lit, Am Learn. “Winesburg, OH” is a great. Many of our syllabi have leaned towards learning and away from lit and I think this offers a good balance. I also like the idea of a new national anthem. As Jade said, we should try to have fun. And writing a new national anthem would be really fun.

  • Nice rejection of a traditional syllabus – but will it hold up to logistics?

    • Haha, I suppose not! Of course this syllabus was crafted to (hopefully) push against & move the boundaries of syllabization and logistical oppression. I don’t know how successful it was, but I have grown so sick and tired of writing syllabus after syllabus that expounds critical and “radical” pedagogical practices in a rectangled-off expression of manifestly regressive/non-critical “sober educational-institutional reality.”

      I’ve run some successful classes and workshops using similar (and much MORE “experimental”) syllabi/mission statements; I guess the objective is to expand our thinking, not to privilege any form, necessarily, over another.

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