In my literature courses, I have four major goals for my students: I want students to learn how language and texts work, how texts are both the products and shapers of their historical and cultural contexts, how these texts can affect readers today, and how readers can use them for their own purposes. These goals arise from my commitment to both historicism and what Philip Barrish calls “critical presentism,” or “new ways of reading specific literature of the past not only in but with the social present—and of doing so self-consciously and also productively” (19). In other words, critical presentism maintains an awareness of the difference between history and the present, but without denying either the connections between past and present or the impossibility of escaping the concerns of the present when dealing with the past. These are important issues for making literature relevant and useful to college students who are studying a variety of disciplines: if students can be introduced to the ways in which authors and readers collaborate in the construction of knowledge by interpreting texts and putting them to work, then students can potentially see themselves in the same light, and thus be more critical and self-aware participants in a variety of disciplines and intellectual communities.
One way I put both historicism and critical presentism into practice in my classroom can be seen in how I generally approach a text like Shakespeare’s Othello. After briefly lecturing on the historical context of the play, and spending several class sessions helping students discuss the the text in relationship to that context, I introduce clips from a number Othello adaptations to help students explore how Othello functions in contemporary contexts: Geoffrey Sax’ version in which Scotland Yard passes over “Ben Jago” to promote Othello after race-related riots in London; Tim Blake Nelson’s “O” in which Othello is a star basketball player at an otherwise white private high school; The Reduced Shakespeare Company’s “Othello Rap”; and James Earl Jones’s performance of Othello’s speech to the Venetian senate at the White House in 2009. These clips allow us talk about how performances of Shakespeare’s play can react to contemporary conceptions of race, and often work to construct their own versions of racial identity. This leads into an activity where students work in groups to develop a proposal for their own movie adaptation of Shakespeare’s play. Students have to present their proposal to the rest of the class, which is then asked to analyze the proposal’s approach to race, just as they did with the film clips. This sequence—moving from historical context to text, and from adaptations to critical reflection—emphasizes that both the literary texts we read and the critical approaches we use on them are not just obliquely relevant to today’s culture, but that they are immediately useful. They allow us to better understand our own world, sometimes through similarities, sometimes through juxtaposition.
Two of my most common writing assignments that also help achieve these goals are the commonplace book project and the logical outline as a precursor to a larger research paper. The commonplace book is a cross between organized note taking and short response papers, designed to help students develop a systematic awareness of the themes we are working with in class and to make connections between the texts we read. In the assignment, I ask students to use the methods of the early modern commonplace book to track the major themes of the course, recording quotations from each day’s reading, class notes, and their own responses to the individual readings and class discussions. I also encourage students to follow themes or terms of their own choice throughout the semester as part of their preliminary work in finding a research topic. The logical outline asks students to build on the collection of materials from the commonplace book and move towards a process of inquiry and, ultimately, argumentation. Both assignments allow and help students to think intertextually, to consider how texts are in conversation with one another. Students begin to think of literary texts as spaces where authors and readers talk with one another—even over the space of a hundred or a thousand years—rather than as objects that must simply be consumed either for education or entertainment. In turn, they can understand their own responses to literature, films, and other texts not just as fodder for class discussion, but also as important elements of what we do as a university and as a culture.
Barrish, Phillip. White Liberal Identity, Literary Pedagogy, and Classic American Realism. Columbus, OH: Ohio State UP, 2006.