Essays on Teaching the American Literatures

(from the Heath Anthology Newsletter)

Introduction to Part II of the Teaching the American Literatures Series

by Paul Lauter

We are continuing in this issue of the Newsletter our series on teaching the new American literatures. Raymund Paredes writes here about approaching Chicano literature and David Bergman about gay and lesbian texts. Randall Bass talks about something more purely pedagogical using the computer in the classroom.

These essays in themselves illustrate the wide variety of strategies available for teaching a reconstructed American literature and for teaching in general. Paredes’ approach is largely historical, emphasizing key moments like the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo which have led to the flourishing of Chicano writing today. He also underlines some of the recent developments in Chicano literature, like the concern for borders and liminality. As readers will see, these are also themes emphasized in the Contemporary section of the Anthology’s Second Edition.

In his essay, Bass discusses the pedagogic imaginary and how canon and syllabus are beginning to merge in this information age. He specifically discusses the electronic resources developed to supplement The Heath Anthology, new technologies for new courses. Bergman focuses more on problems of classroom dynamics, of particular consequence in working with such a conflicted area as lesbian and gay literature. I think readers will find his concrete pedagogical strategies not only helpful in that domain but more widely suggestive of strategies for coping with reluctant and even angry students.

Whatever else The Heath Anthology has become a symbol, a challenge, a success story, an expression of change it is, first and last, a teaching text. Therefore, I particularly want to call your attention to two major tools directed at the needs of teachers. The computerized Syllabus Builder has been expanded and redesigned and is now available in both Macintosh and IBM-PC compatible formats. I can say on the basis of my own experience as an until recently computer-illiterate teacher that these disks are not only friendly but wonderfully informative. The material has been drawn by Randy Bass from over thirty real syllabi of courses people have actually taught. So the material has the authenticity and concreteness we find so helpful.

We are also completing a new edition of the Instructor’s Guide, edited by John Alberti of Northern Kentucky University. The new edition will not only be significantly revised and updated, but it will include essays akin to those we have run in the Newsletter designed to provide contexts for and ideas about teaching a reconstructed American literature.

I want to conclude, on the occasion of the publication of a Second Edition of the anthology, with a personal note. When some of us began to talk twenty-five years ago about reconstructing American literature, and even when we implemented a project at The Feminist Press to take steps toward that goal about fifteen years ago, it all seemed quite visionary, chillingly optimistic. Now I perceive that real change has taken place not that the process is completed far from it. But I do remember what students were expected to study in 1968, and I see where many of us are now. So my optimism and energy get renewed. Primarily because I meet so many of you trying this, risking that (often a great deal, in fact), working very hard to make education valuable to our students. That is no easy task right now, when colleges and universities are under unprecedented ideological and economic attack, when the very value of education seems to be questioned.

These Newsletters, the interactions we have at meetings, the seminars in which we participate (like the wonderful institute on multicultural literature Carla Mulford organized this past June at Penn State) serve practical goals like expanding our teaching repertoires. But for me, at least, they have a much more fundamental purpose: overcoming the isolation of the separate campus and the individual classroom, building as we used to call it a sense of solidarity. I still find that a good term; it means that we’re part of a cultural and social movement for meaningful, valid change that we help build and that supports us in our work. So I want to say a word of personal thanks for the sustenance I’ve received from so many of you, for the opening of new opportunities, and the renewal of that optimism which was not, I think, at all misplaced.

This page was prepared by Audrey Mickahail at the Center for Electronic Projects in American Culture Studies (CEPACS), housed at Georgetown University, under the direction of Randy Bass, Department of English.