The Kosova-Mississippi Connection

February 25, 2013

I have thought daily of my students in Kosova over the eight months since my return to the USA.  Thanks to emails from Besa, Gezim, Arlind, and Ragip, the seven time zones that separate us seem a bit less immense.  They all report missing me as much as I miss them, a sentiment that means more to me than they may realize; they report, too, that the research writing they did in our Twentieth-Century American Literature class has served them well in subsequent courses, particularly on their major paper on Toni Morrison.

(L to R) Armind, Arlind, Fidan, me, Bajram, Laurita, Dafina, Shkodran, Ragip, Albana, Gezim, June 2012

behind Judy and me, (L to R) Besa, Fidan, Blerta, Kadrie, Edita, Merita, and Xhemile

behind Judy and me, (L to R) Besa, Fidan, Blerta, Kadrie, Edita, Merita, and Xhemile, June 2012

In my next email to these four students and to their 18 colleagues, I will urge them to return to this blog, where they can reminisce with me about our six months together and, just as important, where they will discover how much they continue to influence by writing.  As it turns out, this blog has served as a rough draft for a book I have written.  Titled Writing Visions of Hope: Teaching Twentieth-Century American Literature and Research, the book narrates our collaborative reading and writing in these two courses.  More than an account of writing-to-learn pedagogy, the book narrates my students’ stories and ties their lives to modern and contemporary literature of the Balkans as well as to the literature of America, 1901-2000.  This book will appear, I’m guessing, in May or June of 2013, one year after my departure; it will be published by Information Age Publishing.  I will certainly alert all my blog friends as well as my students when the book enters the world.

Additionally, the journal Pedagogy, published by Duke University Press, will soon publish an article on my work with these Kosovaran students, focusing primarily on our study of poetry.  This piece, titled “Considering Claims and Finding One’s Place,” should also reach print sometime in 2013.

I also hope that my Kosovaran students will return to this blog to see how they continue to influence my teaching here at Mississippi State University.  In the fall of 2012, for instance, I taught a writing course for first year students.  Remembering how much my students at the University of Pristina enjoyed journaling on poetry, not only to learn how to analyze the poems but also to find personal connections to the poet’s stories, I used the same approach with these young American students, who read, among other poems, Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish,” one of the poems my UP students read.  Using the very same journaling prompts I assigned in Kosova, I asked my students to study the “five-haired beard of wisdom” and other figures and details that taught us to see the beauty of this grotesque fish and to hear the speaker’s joy as she decides to “let the fish go.”

But, remembering the energy of my Kosovaran students, prompted by our readings, as they narrated their lives, I asked these American students to consider writing an essay, grounded in their journaling on Bishop’s “The Fish,” that narrates one of their own experiences in the world of nature, one that changed the way they think about nature and their own place in the natural world.  Many students took this option, one which produced some of the best writing of the semester.  Attached, you’ll find a sample of this nature writing, Trip Kennon’s essay on “The Face of the Ozarks.”

John Bickle, Professor and Head, Philosophy & Religion (Source: Univ. of Cincinnati)

John Bickle, Professor and Head, Philosophy & Religion (Source: Univ. of Cincinnati)

This winter/spring semester, with philosopher Dr. John Bickle, I’m team-teaching a Humanities course for third-year undergraduates, a course that blends studies in philosophy—Dr. Bickle’s department—with readings in Western American novels focused on the Frontier experience—my department.  Our students also relate their readings in philosophy and literature to classic movies on the American West:  “Shane,” the 1953 film on the clashing destinies of cattle men, “sod-busters,” and loners like Shane; “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” the 1962 cinema that examines frontier justice, juxtaposing the rule of the gun with the rule of law; “Hombre” (1967) and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975), films that explore the tension between selfishness and self-sacrifice that informs the heroic code.

A.B. Guthrie, Jr. and his daughter Gus Miller (Source: Main Hall to Main Street, University of Montana)

A.B. Guthrie, Jr. and his daughter Gus Miller (Source: Main Hall to Main Street, University of Montana)

Drawing again on my experience with students at the University of Pristina, I asked my American students to keep a journal as they read our first novel, A. B. Guthrie, Jr.’s The Big Sky (1947), the story of mountain man Boone Caudill, the ‘white Indian’ who ironically clears the way for westward expansion even as he flees from mid-nineteenth century American civilization east of St. Louis.  For their first essay, we asked the students to “identify three characteristics that best define Boone Caudill’s character to clarify why novelist Wallace Stegner calls Boone a “doomed” hero of the frontier.  What qualities strike you as heroic?  What qualities undercut that heroism?  How and why is Caudill doomed?  Does his doom result from his heroic virtues, from his flaws, or from both?  Does his doom result in part from forces exterior to his character?”

Cover of A.B. Guthrie's The Big Sky

Cover of A.B. Guthrie’s The Big Sky (Source:

To help students to gather material for this essay, we asked them, just as I asked students in Kosova, to journal in response to analytical questions like these below, focused on Part Four of the novel, where Boone seems so happy with his Piegan wife Teal Eye, but then gets caught up in trail-blazing to Oregon and in jealousies that lead to his shooting of his dear friend Jim, the man whose life he had earlier saved from the frozen mountains:

  1. Boone has reached the age of 29, Teal Eye 22.  How would you describe the sources of Boone’s happiness in this relationship and in his life as a Piegan?
  2. What evidence do we see here that the end draws near for Indians and for mountain men?
  3. How, why does Boone get drawn into Peabody’s Oregon project?
  4. Boone’s fatal choice to trail-blaze for Peabody leads to even stronger evidence of nature’s brutality and indifference to men and their “manifest destinies.”  Find at least three passages that use description to develop this naturalistic theme.
  5. What qualities in Boone stand out here as he and Jim face death by freezing and death by starvation?
  6. Look up “pantheism” in the dictionary.  Do you see any pantheism emerging here?  Who seems to think most deeply about the spiritually of nature?
  7. We see Boone’s love for Jim even after it appears that Jim has betrayed him.  What sequence of bad news and mistakes leads to Boone’s suspicion of Jim?  How do the causes and effects of Boone’s rage help you to understand Stegner’s notion of Boone as a “doomed” hero?

As of this writing, the students haven’t written this essay yet, but their brilliant responses to these journaling prompts, which they shared in class—just like we did in Kosova—bode well for some wonderful essays.

In addition to these undergraduate courses, I have taught two MA-level courses: in fall 2012, Writing Center Tutor Training, in spring 2013, Composition Pedagogy.  Writing Center pedagogy, of course, focuses on one-on-one teaching; I went into this course with great enthusiasm, having seen conferencing work so well at UP as my students moved through three drafts of their research papers on Death of a Salesman, A Lesson Before Dying, or some other work of their choice.

I approached the Composition Pedagogy course with equal enthusiasm, remembering that many of my students in Kosova aspire to become teachers.  I recalled, too, that all of my UP students responded generously to my request to interview them concerning their literacy histories, particularly as those histories relate to their memories of the 1990s wars in the Balkans and to their aspirations as students and professionals.  After my American MA students had read and journaled on several articles focused on how we learn to read and write and on how we might best help students in our classrooms to develop these literacies, I asked them to write a narrative essay, focusing on their own literacy histories, on their own writing processes, or on their observations of a master writing teacher (see assignment pdf), a request preceded, of course, by rough drafting and peer response sessions—precisely the strategies that worked so well in Kosova.  If you will click on the attached files, you will find the excellent responses of Kiley, Aaron, Kayleigh, Jessica and Sharon; you will also see them depicted below.


(L to R) Kayleigh Swisher, Aaron Grimes, Sharon Simmons, February 2013

(L to R) Jessica Moseley, Kylie Forsythe, February 2013

Postmodern Poetry

May 14, 2012

As we gathered for the next session, I referred students to the board, where they saw a list of works from the postmodern period—post-World War II—that we had already read and discussed:

In reviewing the list, I suggested that we could begin thinking about postmodernism as a continuation of modernism, particularly the interrelated themes of remembering as a basis for moving on, for making decisions about how to use our time, themes addressed in all the works listed here and in many of the works we would take up in these last four weeks.  But the horror of World War II, especially its atomic ending, had such a traumatic effect on the entire culture, I said—as we saw in Faulkner’s question, “When will I be blown up”—that literary voices began to explore with new urgency the flux of our existence and its apparent absurdity.  “Some of these voices,” I continued, “sound post modern in their rejection of T.S. Eliot’s allusive, academic ‘high modernism,’ as we will hear today in ‘The Fish’; others, as we will see in Vonnegut, sound postmodern in their unflinching explorations of the violent absurdities of our culture.”

I also spoke of postmodern “chaos theory,” the idea that human beings can collaborate in creating order, however tentative, from the randomness of experience, as we saw in Lahiri’s “Sexy.”  “Miranda and Dev,” I reminded the students, “met by accident; then Miranda babysat for Rohin, an encounter she never planned; but she and Rohin collaborated in shaping a tentative order from the chaos the father’s adultery had caused, an order that disallows ‘loving strangers’ when such relationships root in deceit and crush the deceived.”  By the end of that story, I concluded, Miranda had learned to open her eyes, “and her new wakefulness gave her the courage to end the affair.”  This insistence on open eyes, I told the students, would inform every postmodern work we would read, and I challenged them to reflect on this idea of wakefulness as it might relate to Faulkner’s call for literature that gives us “hope,” that persuades us we can ‘endure and prevail.’

Bishop and Jarrell

Elizabeth Bishop (Source: Poetry Foundation)

Before we turned to Elizabeth Bishop’s 1946 poem “The Fish,” I asked the class to turn to her letter to her friend and fellow poet, Robert Lowell, whom she takes to task for writing poems about his recently divorced wife, poems that explore suffering but combine fiction and fact.  In doing so, she tells Lowell, he has violated a trust with his former wife and with his readers, who can’t know “what’s true, what isn’t” (2498).  “Postmodernists may consider “truth” a fluid, ever-changing phenomenon, but what does her remark to Lowell tell you about her sense of duty as a poet?” I asked.  Earning a “10” for the day, Besa said the she shares Martin Luther King’s commitment to seeing accurately and publishing what one sees.

I thanked Besa for providing us a perfect transition to “The Fish” and asked Arlind to read the poem aloud.  After Arlind’s reading, I re-read the first and last lines aloud: “I caught a tremendous fish….and I let the fish go.”  I then asked for a show of hands, fisher-hands.  Singling out Gezim among the fishermen and fisherwomen, I asked if he ever lets fish go.  “Only if it’s too small,” he answered.  “So why would she release a “tremendous” fish?  Does her description, her use of figurative language in between the first and last lines, help us to understand her bizarre decision?”  I asked.  With no quick response forthcoming, I asked the class to focus on the first two lines, on facts and details about the fish.  “What first strikes you as odd, given his size?”  I asked.  Ragip read line six: “He hadn’t fought at all.”  He then mentioned that the “homely” fish looks warn-out, “battered.”  “What about ‘venerable’?  What does this word suggest?”  Gezim offered that the fish must be venerated, respected, because he has fought many battles, “and his ‘skin hung in strips’” (ll. 8-10).  “Don’t we normally use words like ‘homely’ and ‘venerable’ and ‘grunting’ to describe people?  Why would Bishop want to personify the fish?” I prodded.  Edita suggested that the speaker begins to see more than a fish, something to eat; she sees a fellow being who has known struggle and deserves respect.

Commending the students’ close-reading interpretations, I asked what figures of speech Bishop uses in these lines to help us to see the fish more clearly.  After we noted the skin “like ancient wall-paper” decorated in “rose” patterns and barnacles, “rosettes of lime,” I asked what we begin to notice about this ‘homely’ fish?  Edita mentioned the “sea-lice” and “rags of green weed” hanging off its huge body, but she said that the simile and metaphor suggest beauty, not ugliness.  Praising her insight, I asked what other images and figures suggest beauty and further personify the fish.  We then quickly catalogued the details of Bishop’s portrait: the gills “fresh and crisp with blood,” the “white flesh/packed in like feathers,” the swim-bladder “like a big peony,” the eyes “larger than mine,” the “sullen face” from which “five old pieces of fish-line” hang down “like medals with their ribbons/frayed and wavering,/a five-haired beard of wisdom/trailing for his aching jaw” (ll.25, 27-28, 33-35, 45-63).  “So what does the speaker realize as she stares down at the exhausted but honorable old fighter that fills her boat with ‘victory,’ surrounded by a ‘rainbow’ of oily water and rust? (l. 65, 68-75)?  Why does she let her ‘victory’ go?”  I prodded further.  We then discussed the paradox that Bishop develops, the beautiful becoming one with the grotesque.  Such wakefulness, we agreed, allowed her—and her readers—to see the respectability, even honor of fellow non-human creatures, insights, I suggested, that Black Elk would have commended.

Randall Jarrell (Source: Poetry Foundation)

As we turned to Bishop’s contemporary, Randall Jarrell, I asked the students what this master teacher and military man insists that we see in “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” beyond the fact stated in the title. With no quick answer coming, I asked Bajram to read the five-line poem aloud:



From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

When he finished, I asked for his response to the last line.  He said that the speaker uses the past tense, suggesting that he looks back on his own death from the perspective of eternity.  “And does he seem at all emotional about the removal of his remains from the plexiglass glass gunner’s station of the bomber?”  “No,” he responded, “he describes the removal of his guts as though he were describing the wiping of mud from a windshield.”  “Right,” I said, “so matter-of-fact, an everyday occurrence, yet such a shocking image of the consequences of aerial warfare.  What do we learn about this victim?  How old is he?” I asked.  We then wrestled with the equally horrible metaphor in the first line, which describes a baby falling from its “mother’s sleep,” from his mother’s womb, into the “belly,” the womb of the State, the bomber.  “How does the verb “fell” underscore the youth of the airman?”  I asked.  Fidan responded, stressing the almost instantaneous transformation of the infant into a soldier.  Complimenting him on his interpretation, I said we would see the same idea explored in Vonnegut’s novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, subtitled The Children’s Crusade, stressing that ‘children’ do most of the dying in wars.  “Babies of course come wet from the warm uterus.  What happens to the wet baby in the bomber?” I asked.  Several voices responded, citing the frozen “wet fur” on the flight jacket.  I then asked what they made of the fourth and fifth lines, the reference to getting loose from the “dream of life” and waking to the cacophonous “nightmare” of “black flak.”  Arlind suggested that peace must be a dream, an illusion, that reality must be the hell of war.  “Why doesn’t Jarrell end of the poem with such a statement,” I wondered.  “Who needs it?”  Arlind responded.  “Precisely,” I said.  If we have seen the image, we don’t need a tacked-on moral.  It’s all about seeing—and having the courage to keep your eyes open.”

I then invited readings from journals, those prose or poetic accounts of everyday objects or animals that ‘so much depends’ on seeing.  Remembering Merita’s reading from her journal the previous week, when she spoke of her frustrations with poetry, her skepticism that ‘so much depends’ on poetry, I feared that no one had responded with a poem.  To my delight, hands shot up across the room, and nearly everyone had a poem to share.  Many of these poems centered on their memories of their mothers.  Blerta, for example, read her poem about her mother’s “sun-beam” smiles; Xhemile described her mother’s “wrinkles” and her “vigorous eyes,” images of her “unconditional love” and her abiding guidance; then Merita brought the whole class to tears with “I See You Coming In,” her memory of her deceased mother:

I see you coming in, little by little, in small steps,
With an albatross round your neck,
I wonder will it ever go away.
You have the snow in your hair; I didn’t notice it’s already winter.
The wrinkles on you face tell that it was heavy all the way through.
I lift you in my arms as you are tall as an eleven-year-old girl,
Oh, no, the great soul of yours makes you big as a mountain.
I kiss your tired face, and then you cry.
Inside your eyes I see a mirror of me.
You kiss me back.  Don’t worry, I am fine, you say.
And I want to hold your hand until I count your ages spots
And start over, all over, again, so you don’t ever go for a second time.

As we all mopped our faces and prepared to leave, I thanked those who had read for demonstrating the power and accessibility of poetry.  I reminded them, too, that we would sample postmodern fiction next time, as represented by Flannery O’Connor’s story “Good Country People.”  After they finished the story, I asked that they write an interpretive response in their journals to the end of the story, where we see another startling revelation, Joy-Hulga in the barn-loft, legless.

Poets Remembering Parents, Part II

April 21, 2012

Li-Young Lee (Source:

Turning our attention to Li-Young Lee’s poem “The Gift,” I began with the obvious but important fact that Lee’s poem establishes as we come to it from the work of Plath and Dove, namely, that men share with women this intense need to remember their fathers clearly, to ‘get back’ at them or to them, to understand them and love them, perhaps to forgive them, perhaps to get past them.  “Do you recall from the introduction what distinctions Lee’s father achieved?” I wondered.  Several voices responded with “physician to Chairman Mao” and “political prisoner in Sukarno’s Indonesian jail.”  “Right,” I said, “and our editors also credit Lee with using the same techniques that Dove used in resurrecting her remorseful but menacing father, relying on multi-sensory appeals to recreate his father and to remember him faithfully and accurately.”

Noting that the word “gift” never appears in the poem, except in the title, I asked, “What is it?”  Arlind responded with “his ‘stories,’” Dafina with “his ‘tenderness’ and ‘discipline.’”  Praising both answers, I asked how Lee uses sensory imagery to reveal that tenderness and firmness.  We then explored Lee’s use of synecdoche and metaphor, the “voice” that sounds like “a well of dark water,” the “hands” that embrace Lee’s young face but also raise “flames of discipline” over his head (ll. 1-13).  We then noticed the long-term effect of these remembered images, as Lee sees himself, years later, lifting a splinter from his wife’s hand with the same healing gentleness that his father had ‘planted’ in his hand decades before.  “And how does Lee express his gratitude for these gifts?” I asked.  Edita responded by citing “what a child does….I kissed my father” (ll. 33, 35).

“When you juxtapose Lee’s poem to Plath’s “Daddy,” or even to Miller’s play Death of a Salesman, what do you realize about the American family and about the need of grown children to look back and understand their parents?” I asked.  This prompt led to some interesting comments on the need of children to reconstruct family narratives of justice and love as well as stories of injustice and abuse.  “What do adult children receive, other than some joy and lots of pain, from remembering such stories?” I wondered.  “Is it just about assigning blame, condemning mom or dad for what we have become?  Or about kissing the parent who loved you well?”   Wisely, Merita responded, “It’s more about the adult child making a choice, saying ‘you had the wrong dream,’ or ‘I’m through,’ or ‘I choose to pass on your love to my family.’”

Applauding this perceptive insight, I asked the class where Louise Glück’s poem “Appearances” stands on spectrum of remembering family narratives and choosing what the next chapter will be.  After Laureta read the poem aloud, I reminded the class of the introductory comments on Glück’s “complex family relations,” her psychoanalysis to deal with the resulting pain (3000), and then asked where they saw pain and coping mechanisms in the poem.  We quickly caught the reference to being “analyzed” but also the humor, the reference to portraits of her and her sister hung “over the mantel,/ where we couldn’t fight” (ll. 2-3).  When I asked what she remembers about her mother, we reviewed key descriptors of the “strong,” ‘controlling’ woman who valued “order,” who grieved always over another daughter who died, who “ministered to” her living sister and, in so doing, “damaged the other” (ll. 28-36).  “So what does the adult child now realize about the consequences of her mother’s unequal love?” I asked.  Besa rose to the challenge: “She understands that because she always wanted to be “child enough” for her mother, she became “too obedient,” too ready to be shaped—“If you want me to be a nun, I’ll be a nun”—to earn her mother’s approval (ll. 26, 43-44).

Yusef Komunyakaa (Source: Indiana Review)

“Yes,” I responded, “and such realizations can liberate the adult, as we saw in Biff at the end of Salesman.  Isn’t it interesting that when adult children take a different route than the parents took, they usually do not try to ‘kill’ the parent, as did Plath; on the contrary, they try to preserve the parent, as did Biff.”  I then asked if they could recall where Yusef Komunyakaa got his name and how that naming might relate to the instinct to preserve the parent.  No one remembered, so we scanned the introduction for this sentence: Komunyakaa “adopted the lost surname of a Trinidadian grandfather who came to the United States as a child” (3075).

Noting, too, the statement that Komunyakaa devoted his poetry to restoring black faces—from rural Louisiana, from Bourbon Street, and from Vietnam—that have been ‘erased’ from cultural memory (3075), we sought to discover how he remembers his father in “My Father’s Love Letters.”  After Fidan read the poem aloud, we spoke of this illiterate alcoholic mill worker, who asked his son to write his love letters to his wife, “promising to never beat her/Again” (ll. 6-7).  “But what else does Komunyakaa refuse to erase?” I asked.  Arben answered, listing the tools of his trade, the “carpenter’s apron,” the “gleam of a five-pound wedge” that “pulled a sunset/Through the doorway of his toolshed” (ll. 12, 22, 24-25).  “Right,” I said, “and he also remembers that his father could look at a blueprint and instantly know ‘how many bricks/Formed each wall’” (ll. 30-31).   Asked for his conclusion, Arben added that the drunken brute also seems to be a true craftsman, an artist “almost redeemed by what he tried to say” in his letters (ll. 35-36).

Thanking all for their patient, insightful readings, I asked for volunteers to read from their journals about their parents.  Bajram responded with a full-page tribute to his mother, the “goddess” who never failed him as he grew from childhood to adolescence and manhood.  Though he had not attempted poetry, we all praised the poetic quality of his prose, poetic in the sense that it relied on imagery from her kitchen table, site for buttering home-made bread and learning letters, and from his bedside to stress her nurturing tenderness, and from the war—school doors closed, soldiers ruling the streets—to stress her dignity and courage in a time when ethnic cleansings made it difficult to sustain either quality. Thoroughly impressed by Bajram’s tribute, I thanked him for celebrating the ‘gifts’ his mother provided, much as Li-Young Lee had done in his poem about his father.

Teaching A Lesson Before Dying: Part 2

March 31, 2012

Justice, Injustice, and Places of Meaning

A Lesson Before Dying

Cover of Gaines' A Lesson Before Dying

As the students entered for the next session, I directed their attention to the board, where I had written “New Criticism,” “New Historicism,” and “Deconstruction,” as well as the names of important theorists associated with these critical approaches to literature.  In applying these critical theories to Gaines’ novel, I explained, we would abandon neither feminist nor Marxist approaches, as the novel provides plenty of examples of extremely strong women and of economic inequities that reflect the Marxist critique of capitalism.   But these additional critical tools, I assured the class, would enrich their understanding of Gaines’ Lesson by complementing feminist and Marxist perspectives and by providing a fuller sketch of critical thought in the twentieth century.  These varied perspectives, I said, would also help us to see the connections between our theme on “Marriage, Family, and the American Dream” and our theme on “Justice and Injustice.”

Aristotelian Communication Triangle

Aristotelian Communication Triangle (Source: The Basics of Effective Technical Communication)

Pointing to the Aristotelian communication triangle I had written on the board, I encouraged students to think of New Criticism as focused on the literary work itself, the center of that triangle.  Often associated with its Southern practitioners, Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, New Criticism, I explained, dominated American critical thought at mid-century for over three decades.  Rejecting critical approaches unduly focused on the writer’s intentions (one corner of Aristotle’s triangle), the reader’s responses (another corner), or literary history (another corner), the New Critics, I further explained, insisted on an “objective” reading of a work, a “close reading” that savors the ironies and ambiguities of a given poem or fiction but finds and defends the “organic” unity of its imagery and structure.  We would practice this New Critical approach, I said, as they shared their thoughts on the study questions I provided.

Continuing my sketch of critical currents, I explained that by the 1980, influenced by French theorist Michel Foucault and his concern with the “discourse of an era,” scholars such as Louis Althusser declared themselves New Historicists, critics who employed New Critical close-reading strategies but extended their analysis beyond the work itself to the cultural practices that shape a given work and define its “situatedness.”  To reinforce this dual focus of New Historicism, I pointed again to the triangle, to the work in the center and to the “situation” at the ‘real-world’ corner.  We would practice New Historicism, I said, when we discuss the character Grant, who, like the author, grew up in a Louisiana share-cropping culture in the 1930s; who, like the author, attended elementary school in a one-room plantation church; who earned a university degree in California, just as the author did; who returned to Louisiana, just as the author did, because of the irresistible pull of this very real place he is “unable to leave” (102), and because of his outrage over the racial injustices that defined it in the 1940s, the historical setting of the novel, two decades before the emergence of Dr. King and the civil rights movement.

Concurrent with the New Historicists, I continued, the Deconstruction critics emerged, following the thought of Russian dialogic theorist Mikhail Bakhtin and French theorist Jacques Derrida.  Also deploying New Critical close-reading strategies, these critics reached decidedly un-New Critical conclusions about literature, arguing that no work possesses unity, either as a free-standing work or as a reflection of its cultural situation.  Instead, I explained, Deconstruction critics argue that every “text” contains a line of interpretation that undercuts another reading, so that no fixed meaning can ever be discovered.  While New Critics talk about ambiguities worked out via art into a unified meaning, I clarified, Deconstruction critics argue that the flux of a text, like the flux of life, can never be fixed, never settled beyond dispute.  We would see this flux, I said, in trying to assess Grant’s teaching, his resistance to authority figures, and his relationship with Vivian.

A Lesson Before Dying

Having completed this description of critical trends and their relationship to Gaines’ novel, I divided the students into three groups, assigned each group five of the study questions I had asked them to consider as they read, and then asked them to collaborate on answers, grounded in evidence from the novel, that they would share with the whole class.  I explained that they had 20 minutes to do their work, after which each group would have 15 minutes to report their findings to the other two groups.  Though the students had already experienced peer-response groups, they had never worked together on an interpretive problem.  Nevertheless, the pressure of the time limit seemed to distract them from anxieties over this charge to construct meaning communally; as they got to work, I roved, listening to their tentative answers, watching them scramble for evidence.

After 20 minutes, I interrupted them, telling them that they need not worry if they had not finished their task, that we would go ahead and see what each group had discovered.  I then called for a report from group one, reminding them that we wanted evidence, including page numbers, not just general answers, to the questions below:

1. How does the defense attorney’s case affect your feelings for Jefferson (pages 7-8)?

2. How do you explain Grant’s anger—as a black man and as a teacher—when Miss Emma’s face (12) and Tante Lou’s words (13-14) urge him to talk to Henri about visiting Jefferson?

3. How do Grant’s feelings for Vivian and for the town (29) explain his reluctance to intervene in Jefferson’s case?

4. Describe Grant’s teaching and disciplining methods.  Do they seem effective?  Explain.  How do Grant’s situation and the students’ lives influence and explain Grant’s harshness (29)?

5. What similarity do you see between the attorney’s defense of Jefferson (chapter 1) and the way Mr. Pichot and Sheriff Guidry treat Grant (chapter 6)?

New Historicists at Work

Group 1: New Historicists at Work

Group one began by responding to #1 and #5 together, saying that they felt great sympathy for Jefferson and Grant.  When I asked for their evidence, they referred to page eight, where Jefferson must endure the remarks of his attorney, who ‘defends’ him in front of the all-white jury by calling him a “hog,” not a man, a beast capable in his panic of looting the liquor store cash drawer, but incapable of thought and therefore incapable of planning the murder of the store owner.  They reported sympathy, too, for Grant, a black man with a university education, who must endure the arrogance of Sheriff Guidry and Henri Pichot, powerful white men who keep him waiting for hours when he comes to ask permission to visit Jefferson in jail.  “But what difference do you see between Jefferson and Grant in the way they deal with the insults?” I asked.  Laureta, a member of group one, quickly observed that Jefferson keeps his head down and remains silent, but Grant reports that he has waited “two-and-a-half hours” and offers no smile, knowing that the white men expect a smile and a “not long” in response to their question, “Been waiting long?” (47)  “Did you notice Grant’s verbs?” I asked her.  Laureta then pointed to his saying “doesn’t” instead of the ungrammatical “don’t,” revealing his defiance of these white men, who expect Grant to show his subservience by using dialect (48).

Some of this sympathy and admiration for Grant melted away, however, when the group responded to questions 2-4.  They reported understanding Grant’s anger when his Tante Lou demands that he visit Jefferson in jail, that he teach Jefferson to feel like a man, not a hog, before he dies in the electric chair, but they argued that Grant shows too little respect for Miss Emma, Jefferson’s godmother, when he tells her that he can’t make Jefferson a man, that he can only “keep others from ending up like this” (14).  They also reported understanding why Grant would want to move with Vivian to someplace where he could feel alive, less stifled (29), but they had no respect at all for his use of foul language and his whining tone, especially when he says, “I’m supposed to make him a man.  Who am I?  God?” (31).   They said, too, that they understood why Grant would be frustrated with his one-room school and inattentive students, but they roundly condemned Grant’s cruelty to his students, releasing his own stress by shouting in their faces and hitting them with a ruler for lapses in concentration, for writing crooked sentences on the board and for playing with bugs (35-41).

Congratulating this group on their excellent work, I called on group two.  Apologizing for coaxing the first group into answering their question on Grant’s use of language to assert manhood, I asked for their comments on questions 7-10:

6. How does Grant use language to assert his manhood in chapter 6?

7. At the top of page 62, Grant compares the “old men” laborers to the student woodchoppers.  What do his thoughts reveal about his goals as a teacher?  Why had his former teacher urged Grant to “run”?

8. Why does Grant believe his aunt is “stripping” him of “everything you sent me to school for”?

9. Give two reasons why Grant tells Jefferson that he will “lie” to Emma about Jefferson’s refusal to eat.

10. Why do Grant’s memories of Joe Louis and the old men’s talk of Jackie Robinson—both black sports heroes—make Grant think of Jefferson?  What irony do you see in the achievement of these heroes?

Deconstruction Critics at Work

Group 2: Deconstruction Critics at Work

This group commented first on #8-9, for their answers here, they said, return Grant to a more favorable light.  To this point, they argued, Grant’s visits to Jefferson have confirmed his reasons for resisting this seemingly impossible job of persuading Jefferson of his manhood.  When I asked, “How so?” they pointed to Jefferson’s sarcasm about his execution date, his eating from Emma’s food bag on all fours, like a “hog”; then Arlind read Grant’s passionate speech aloud:

Everything you sent me to school for, you’re stripping me of it….The humiliation I had to go through, going into that man’s kitchen.  The hours I had to wait while they ate and drank and socialized before they would even see me.  Now going up to that jail.  To watch them put their dirty hands on that food.  To search my body each time as if I’m some kind of criminal.  Maybe today they’ll want to look into mouth, or my nostrils, or make me strip.  Anything to humiliate me.  All the things you wanted me to escape by going to school.  Years ago, Professor Antione told me that if I stayed here, they were going to break me down to the nigger I was born to be.  But he didn’t tell me that my aunt would help them do it. (79)

Gezim mentioned, too, that Grant really impressed him at the end of the next visit to the jail, when Grant tells the still-hostile Jefferson that he intends to lie to Emma about Jefferson’s refusal to eat her pralines because telling the truth, he tells Jefferson, “would kill her”; he also tells Jefferson that he plans to return so that the “white man” can’t “win” (84).

Everyone agreed that such language makes Grant seem much less whiny than he seemed at first, more combative, even daring.  When I asked what they learned about Grant from his thoughts on the woodchoppers in #7 and the old men in #10, Dafina stressed Grant’s compassion for his students, many of whom would end up as woodchoppers (61), and his compassion for Jefferson in that “depressing cell uptown” while the old men at the bar can only talk about their boxing hero Joe Louis and their baseball hero Jackie Robinson (90).  Praising these insightful answers, I asked them to consider how Grant’s compassion here would attract the interests of a New Historicist or Marxist critic, who would see Grant’s thoughts as a commentary on the rural South in the 1940s, when most black children really had no access to the American Dream, a time when even black heroes like Robinson and Louis could stir hope but do nothing to change the everyday reality of the plantation.  “And what might a Deconstruction critic want to point out about the Grant we have seen so far?” I asked.  Blerta responded by describing the two narratives on Grant, the cruel, selfish whiner and the bold, compassionate man.

Finally, with little time remaining, we turned to the third group for their report on these questions:

11. How do you explain the tension and anger between Grant and his Aunt, and between Grant and Reverend Ambrose?

12. What does Grant mean when he says he is “unable to accept what used to be my life, unable to leave it”?

13. This novel on racism and injustice is also a love story.  How does Grant’s tenderness for Vivian affect your view of him?  What effect might their love have on Grant’s ability to “teach” Jefferson to be a man?

14. At the end of chapter 18, Grant wants to give up on Jefferson, but Vivian insists that “something is changing” (141).  What evidence do you see in chapters 16-18 that suggests that Grant and Jefferson are both changing?

15. In chapter 19, why does Gaines provide so much detail about the Christmas party, the play, and Ambrose’s prayer?  What irony do you see in Grant’s prominence at this event as the director of the children’s play?

New Critics at Work

Group 3: New Critics at Work

When I asked if they saw any irony in Grant’s prominence in the town as Jefferson’s teacher (#11) and as the director of the annual Christmas play (#15), Ragip said that Grant’s apparent atheism makes him an outsider in a church-going community led by Reverend Ambrose, who humiliates Grant by praying publicly, before and after the play, for doubters like Grant who think they don’t need God.   When I asked if this tension between belief and doubt explains the quote in #12 about Grant being “unable to accept what used to by me life,” Ragip agreed.  “What about  #13?  Do you see the same Grant you saw earlier in his relationship with Vivian?” I asked.  This question led to some blushing and looking down at desks, but Albana spoke up, saying she admired the tenderness she sees in Grant’s love-making with Vivian (108-109).   “And Vivian believes in God,” Albana added, smiling; “Maybe she will change Grant’s mind on that topic.”  “Do you see any irony in her dual roles as believer and as Grant’s lover?”  I asked.  “Remember that Vivian’s divorce has not been concluded yet, so this romantic scene also raises issues about adultery.  Do any of you have concerns about her morality?” I prodded.  Wisely, Albana said that “life gets complicated.”

“Do you think that Vivian has a point that “something is changing” in Grant, particularly in his relationship with Jefferson?” I prompted.  Gezim responded with Grant’s comment that he “wasn’t so angry anymore” (125), reflecting Vivian’s influence; he also applauded Grant’s defense of Vivian after Jefferson crudely insults her: “That lady you spoke of, boy, cares about you” (130).  “Does this flash of anger in defense of the woman who keeps Grant “coming here” have any impact on Jefferson?” I asked.  Several voices spoke up, citing the “tears in those big reddened eyes” (130), a major crack in Jefferson’s wall of resistance.

With our time ending, I reminded the class that we would finish discussing Lesson next time and that they should write journal responses to two more of the remaining 13 study questions, all focusing on this transformation of Jefferson and Grant that we had already begun to see.