Some Pedagogical Takeaways from the NEH Summer Institute

Part of this post appears in “‘I think Aladdin looked kinda white’: Teaching Cultural Projection in the Classroom” on the Pedagogy and American Literary Studies’ blog. The links throughout provide more insight into the technique being discussed. 

238dd-gaines_portrait_long-e1446060564580During the NEH Summer Institute, Ernest J. Gaines and the Southern Experience, pedagogy was a big topic of discussion. Throughout the institute, the visiting lecturers and scholars shared with one another various texts and resources for discussing issues of race, class, and gender in the classroom. Some proposed ways to include the texts being examined in the institute to the composition classroom as well as the literature classroom. This exchange of pedagogical techniques invigorated me and the rest of the participants, getting me excited to bring these tools into my own classrooms in the near future. Today, I want to take a moment to share with you a few of the ideas we talked about over the course of the four week institute.

One of the techniques that stuck out to me is also one of the simplest. (This is a technique that I am sure most of us use already in the classroom.) As he spoke about the texts during week two, Richard Yarborough also talked about and exhibited something he does in his own classroom. When discussing texts, Yarborough reads the opening paragraph of a work out loud to his students. Some may view this as veering too much towards a formalist interpretation of texts, but by having students read, aloud, the opening paragraph, they can see what the author is trying to do from the opening words of a text.

Perhaps the best example of this occurs with Ernest J. Gaines’s Of Love and Dust (1967). (I have written about this before on the Ernest J. Gaines Center’s blog.)  In the opening paragraph, Jim Kelley, that narrator of the novel, describes standing on the gallery and seeing a car race down the dusty road in the quarters towards his house. Students will note that the novel starts with a road and a car coming down it, signaling a journey. Most of Gaines’s texts start this way, with a road or a journey. The word “dust” appears four times in the paragraph, presenting its symbolic significance throughout the novel as an omen of disruption and signifier of suffocation. Finally, the final sentence presents the reader with an image that blurs the separation of blacks and whites that the novel centers around: “It was too dark to tell if [the man walking towards Jim] was white or colored” (3).

imageIf students read William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! (1936) alongside Gaines’s novel, they can compare and contrast the narrators and the imagery being presented, specifically the image of “dust.” Rather than serving as a symbol of disruption, “dust” in the opening paragraph of Faulkner’s text signifies stagnation. As for the narrators, Faulkner’s novel presents a challenge to readers, especially since it shifts between different voices throughout. The opening paragraph, however, occurs in third person.  Of Love and Dust does something similar, but  Jim Kelley maintains a first-person narration throughout. Having students look at the first paragraphs, and the choice of point of view, will allow them to not only determine some of the imagery that will be at work throughout the text but to examine whether or not the narrator should be considered reliable or not.

Another topic that occurred during the institute was that of cultural projection. Herman Beavers started off week three by talking about Richard M. Merelman’s Representing Black Culture: Race and Cultural Politics in the United States (1995) and cultural projection. Merelman defines cultural projection as follows:

A politically, economically, and socially subordinated group engages in cultural projection when its allies put forth new, usually more positive pictures of itself beyond its own borders. By inviting respect, commendation, debate, and engagement, these new images contest the negative stereotypes that dominant groups typically apply to subordinates. For its part, a dominant group engages in cultural projection when it and its allies develop a newly positive set of self-images, and put forth such images to subordinate groups. These new images not only contend that dominant groups deserve the right to rule, but also ask subordinate groups to approve rather than resist or distrust rule by dominants. (3)

miss_jane_pittmanDuring our discussion, Beavers noted that there are three different types of cultural projection: hegemonic (maintains dominant projection), counter-hegemonic (challenging dominant projection), syncretic (dominant and subordinate working together). After watching the film version of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974), Beavers commented that the movie is a cultural projection developed by the dominant and subordinate groups. However, it is, ostensibly, a film for whites. In that manner, it becomes a form of hegemonic cultural projection. Even though the film garnered nine Emmy awards and paved the way for Roots, it placates a white audience and makes them, in women was, feels better about their position because the problems of racism and subjugation have been solved, or at least challenged, through the film’s final scene. As well, it presents a white newspaper reporter as Jane’s amanuensis instead of the African American history teacher that records her story in the novel. This change totally reverses the narrative and who, ultimately, tells Jane’s story.

Having students think about cultural projection by having them question whether or not a text, film, album, or other form of art works to present a subordinate group in a non-stereotypical light would be a good way to have them examine what they consume and why. To me, this question of cultural projection is important, especially when I think about documentaries and films like ESPN’s Ghosts of Ole Miss, Quentin Tarantino’s  Django Unchained (2012) and The Hateful Eight (2015), and even Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015). In each of these instances, what is the main focus of the narrative? For me, while each explores issues of race and class by “attempting” to reverse stereotypes, they do not accomplish their goal because the dominant hegemonic white culture ultimately maintains its position at the end.

For me, the incorporation of visuals, at least in regards to either photographs or paintings, in the classroom allows students to better visualize the text(s) that they are reading. This is especially true when providing students with images such as those from the FPA/OWI (1935-1945) programs from around the country. These images, taken by the Farm Program Administration and Office of War Information show life all over America during the depression and during World War II. Maria Hebert-Leiter showed some of these images to the participants, and they gave everyone a more vivid image of Ernest J. Gaines’s Louisiana. I have used these images in my class before, and I have had students find images on their own and present them to the class. This exercise makes them relate something they have read to a visual accompaniment and describe why they chose that specific image to the class. These images are all collected at the Library of Congress, and you an also find them at Yale’s Photogrammar site. At Photogrammar, students can search for images by state and county (parish).

Another visual repository that Keith Byerman mentioned is Without Sanctuary: Lycnhing Photography in America (2000), a website that collects photographs of lynchings from across America. This site, while disturbing, gives students images of what authors describe in their texts. I would use caution with this site because the images are disturbing and will cause visceral reactions. I would point students here, possibly showing one image briefly; then, I would present them with the NAACP’s An Art Commentary on Lynching (1935) which presents artistic representations of lynching to counter it and to raise awareness. This exhibit would go well with a now defunct website, Jimcrowhistory.org. You can get to this website via the Way Back Machine. It shows all of the Jim Crow law as and contains a map of documented lynchings in the United States, showing them all over the country, not just in the South.

Finally, students encounter another visual resource forte to before they even open the book. Before reading the text, have students examine the cover and comment on what they think they book may be about based on the cover image and the back matter. After reading, have students talk about whether or not the cover met their expectations. As well, have them search various covers of the same book, talking about whether or not the cover matches the themes in the book. This can be done prettying easily. I have written about this exercise in relation to different covers for Of Love and Dust, both domestic and international covers.

When having students look at the visual accompaniments and representations,  have them think about cultural projection and who is actually providing the image(s) and why. In this way, students will begin to see how what they consume, no matter what the material may say, still comes to them in a heavily mediated manner that either works to elevate the subordinate group or to  maintain the hegemonic system.

Of course, these items are not all of the things we discussed during the four week institute, but they are some of the pedagogical tools I will take with me back to the classroom to expand upon my teaching. What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below.

Gaines, Ernest J. Of Love and Dust. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1979.

Merelman, Richard M. Representing Black Culture: Race and Cultural Politics in the United States. New York: Routledge, 1995.

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