So many readers and clients are wondering how to keep going under the turmpocalypse. It’s hard. Between protesting, writing emails, signing petitions, attending town halls, and sobbing in our beds, it’s quite difficult to get anything else done. Who has time to think, let alone publish?
But at the same time, outrage is productive of new kinds of engagement, and moribund civic practices are seeing new life. Citizens are showing up in ways that we haven’t in a long time: acting, thinking, writing, gathering, and resisting in unprecedented configurations. Where this all will lead, nobody knows. It is utterly opaque. Indeed, in a world where we find Teen Vogue, the Park Service, Budweiser, and Frederick Douglass emerging as active thought leaders in the #resistance, it’s safe to say that we are in a strange time. To paraphrase a beloved anthropological principle: it’s making the familiar strange, and the strange (all too) familiar.
Anyway, in that light, I’m pleased to share a wonderful comment thread from my friend Eleanor Courtemanche’s Facebook page (shared with permission of all participants), about teaching literature at the present moment. Come to find out, in an authoritarian, neo-fascist kleptocracy that is spinning wildly out of control, standard survey texts don’t read quite the same as they did a few months ago. Dickens and George Eliot and Chaucer, et al are suddenly leaping off the page and speaking directly, in unexpected ways, to the day’s news.
As an anthropologist I actually can’t stop thinking, since the week of the election, about the 1987 text, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance, by James C. Scott. As I watch myself, my friends and compatriots, and all of us in the resistance engage in ever more methodical forms of sabotage, foot-dragging, mockery, evasions, graffiti, veiled speech, and so on (along with, of course, the more overt forms of protest that are for the time being still permitted in this country), I keep asking myself – how weak are we? How authoritarian is the US? How much like the Malaysian peasants of his study have we become? And what can this classic ethnography teach us? If I were in a classroom right now, you can bet I’d be teaching this text.
If there was ever proof of the continued vitality and dynamism of the humanities – the NEED for the humanities and humanists to teach them – in the present moment, this shows where we find it: in our classrooms, in the ways that faculty and students continually discover new insights in old sources.
Read on. Then, please share your own recent teaching moment in the comment thread! I’d love for this to turn into a crowd-source inspiration, to use when all hope feels lost, and we are seeking a reminder of why we love what we love, and do what we do.
Eleanor Courtemanche (English, UIUC): Every time you teach a work of literature, it’s different, because the world has changed. Last time I taught a Dickens novel, Trump wasn’t a serious contender for President, so a world in which villains LOOK like villains felt cartoonish, unreal, and morally sketchy. Melodrama is the new realism.
Carolyn Williams (English, Rutgers) But melodrama always WAS a form of “realism” — according to some principles of realism — a) realism is relative, and therefore “more realistic than” always rules (and melodrama was more realistic than poetic drama, since it was written in prose and featured ordinary people, as the novel did) and b) realism is descendental, so uglier-than, dirtier-than, lower-than, seamier-than, more sordid-than etc reads out as more-realistic-than. The villain IS a special case, I admit, one might say a pre-realistic condensation — of social forces that are too complex to be understood — into a character — or, as Jameson has recently argued, the principle of “evil” in the world gives way to more mixed motives the more realistic fiction becomes, esp in Eliot (only he leaves out the fact — I think! I will have to read again! — that this evolution toward complexity of the villain was happening in melodrama too — where the villain became less a representative of “evil” than a representative of capitalism, e.g. in the second half of the c19).
[EC: Well Dickens certainly thinks melodrama is realism. “IT IS TRUE,” he asserts about his portrayal of Nancy in Oliver Twist — and the “streaky bacon” passage in that novel is about how the way he interleaves pathos & humor may SEEM fake but in fact it’s actually the structure of human experience.]
Andrea Kaston Tange (English, Macalaster): Currently teaching A Tale of Two Cities and utterly unable to think about anything but contemporary politics. It’s amazing what a difference context makes. For what it’s worth, students are drawing all of these connection –to the corrupt Monsignor who only wants govt officials who will agree with him rather than caring about their expertise, to the ones in my drama class who couldn’t stop talking about the Federalist papers’ discussions of governance while reading Hamilton, to those looking at Mill’s On Liberty and fixated on passages about what creates the most dangerous tyranny. My class on 1859 feels shockingly contemporary in its ideas; only the syntax of the sentences feels “old” to them.
Daniel Purdy (German, Penn State): same applies to the Weimar Republic, about which everyone wants to know more these days. [EC: Life is a Cabaret!] [KK: Tomorrow…belongs…to me!}
Pam Thurschwell (English, Sussex): This is so true. I’m teaching The Line of Beauty on Monday which I always loved for its subtle Jamesian exposure of the ruses of power and now I just want to kill all the rich people in it in a really nasty way.
Carolyn Betensky (English, U of Rhode Island) I taught George Eliot’s Janet’s Repentance last week and found an astonishingly relevant exchange between the bully character and someone who dared to challenge him on “facts.” #fakenews.
Lauren Goodlad (English, UIUC) I remember having a whole new vision of Barchester Towers when our campus was going through the awful [Stephen Salaita] unhiring fiasco. Now it would probably feel more like a parable of Kellyanne Conway’s failed efforts to rule the Old Boys network (a la Mrs. Proudie).
John Levi Barnard (English, Wooster) Just taught Federalist #1 (by Hamilton, everyone’s favorite “Founding Father”), in which we (re-)discovered this: “a dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people than under the forbidden appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government. History will teach us that the former has been found a much more certain road to the introduction of despotism than the latter, and that of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.” Students discovered the relevance of the Federalist with no prompting from me.
Rob Barrett (English, UIUC) I suppose the current emergency would draw a line under the resistance of the commoner birds to the vainglorious eagles in Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls …
Matt Walker (Cellist, ALIAS Chamber Ensemble:) The “Best of times, worst of times” thing seems to have gained a lot of relevance, with the recent discussions of growing wealth inequality.
Diana Maltz (English, Southern Oregon): All the novels I am teaching have sociopaths and psychopaths in them, I am discovering. Moreau in the fall. Jekyll and Hyde was a doozy. I should add, abusive fathers too.