I Hate This Too: Why It Can Be Good to Teach Books You Dislike

[Must students and teachers like everything they read in class?  Bard MAT graduate Matthew Denvir explores this question and discusses the benefits of teaching students why it is okay, and even good, to dislike certain books. Matthew graduated from the Bard MAT program in 2011.  He currently lives in Virginia Beach where he teaches English, Creative Writing, and Global Media Analysis at Tallwood High School.  Follow him on Twitter @TheRealMrDenvir.]

My students often ask a variation of the following question: “Did you choose this book?”  The Tempest, Lord of the Flies, Animal Farm.  Did I choose these?  Why?  Reasons for asking vary.  Some hate the book.  Some love it. Some are curious about the process of teaching and creating curriculums.  I usually give them a stock answer about curricular conformity, book-room availability, and grade-level expectations.  I want to convey that books have value even if they’re not our favorites, that good readers—including students and teachers of literature—should always interrogate the quality of a book.  But maybe I should be more honest with them.  Maybe I should tell them, when applicable, “No.  I hate this book.”

I imagine this is not shocking to fellow English teachers. We know that we sometimes have to teach books we hate.  Julius Caesar is a popular target (“It goes nowhere interesting after the third act”), as is The Scarlet Letter (“I find it as boring as they do”) and Thoreau’s Walden (for this one, my colleague just did the finger-in-mouth puking gesture).

This is not to say we don’t love the field.  Of course we do.  Great teachers often have a contagious passion for their subject.  But while we may love capital-L Literature, we don’t always love the literature of English class.  I learned this lesson in 2016, when I started teaching Ayn Rand’s Anthem.  I learned it’s okay to teach a book I don’t like.  More than that, I learned it can be a good and valuable experience for students when the books we teach are not held up as objects of our praise and worship.

But First: We Need to Talk About Ayn Rand

If you are curious about Rand’s ideas but have a weight limit on your backpack, her slim Anthem is the place to start.  At about one hundred pages, it’s a breezy and admittedly enjoyable summation of her talking points.  The story involves a dystopia in which people are stripped of all individuality and free will, an imposition that has halted the advancement of knowledge and scientific progress.  People in the society do not know the words “I” and “me,” making for an interesting narrative voice in which the book’s speaker refers to himself as “we.” Useless government bureaucracy abounds.  For example, upon learning of electricity, the Council of Scholars rejects the technology on the grounds it would bring ruin to the “Department of Candles.”  The narrative arc follows Equality 7-2521—named, like all other characters, with an ideal followed by a serial number—as he discovers his individuality, breaks free from oppressive collectivism, and gains knowledge from old world books.  By the end, he learns “I.”

The story is engaging, but the preachy themes are troublesome.  Another diplomatic word for the book’s message might be controversial, but many may find its themes odious.  The protagonist’s discovery of self comes seemingly at the expense of all empathy.  “I do not surrender my treasures, nor do I share them,” he says at one point of revelation (95).  At another, “I owe nothing to my brothers, nor do I gather debts from them” (96). One crucial part of the plot involves Equality 7-2521’s invention of the light bulb, which he presents to the government as a way to improve society.  Upon the invention’s rejection, however, he admits, “We have not built this box for the good of our brothers.  We built it for its own sake” (76).

This is some radical stuff, stuff that might make even the staunchest right-winger a bit uneasy.  Anthem isn’t about finding your strength and putting it to good use; Anthem is about bettering yourself with no altruistic regard for others.  If you help others, in Rand’s way of thinking, you do so only because you benefit in some way from the help.  There is no obligation to be a contributing member of society.  “To be free, a man must be free of his brothers,” Rand writes.  “That is freedom.  This and nothing else” (101).  It’s an odd message to be teaching in a public school, a place where we strive to build community, support each other’s success, and work towards common goals—all paid for with taxes, of course.  And, aside from the oddity, it’s just disconcerting.  Do we really want to teach adolescents to disregard the needs of others, to focus merely on self?

But Students Love It (at first)

In one class, when I asked students if they’d heard of Ayn Rand or her ideas, a student mentioned a T-shirt bearing the quote: “The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me.” Though attributed to Rand, this quote is inaccurate; she never said or wrote this.  But the fact that the student liked the shirt illuminates why Rand is so appealing to high school students.

Rand has moxie.  She has chutzpah.  She makes a coherent philosophy of narcissism, and teenagers, going through the well-documented phase in which identity is asserted and self-concern trumps most else, latch onto Rand’s ideas with glee.  Who’s to blame them?  They are in the process of constructing identities in a world they find increasingly difficult and confusing; to read an author who intelligently makes the case that you are strong and self-reliant and you can do this will feel affirming.  The revelatory narration in Anthem comes after Equality 7-2521 discovers singular pronouns.  “I am.  I think. I will,” he says (94).  To fifteen year-olds, anxious about their role in a social world, these sentences have profound meaning.

Students also like Rand’s language, which is direct but elevated, with a tone whose straight-faced seriousness makes Hemingway look like Dave Barry.  Characters do not talk like real people; they talk like mythic figures out of an epic poem or fairy tale, with language reveling in its own grandiosity—repetition, references to “the gods,” heavy allusion to the Western canon, anachronistic use of “shall,” etc.  To high school students (so my theory goes), this seriousness strikes a chord.  Their understanding of and concern for self is not frivolous or inconsequential.  They care deeply about themselves, and they are moved by a novel that treats the subject of self with a reverence bordering on religiosity.

In teachers’ lounge conversations, my colleagues have confirmed the broader argument of my theory, if not exactly the particulars.  It’s well known that high school students love Anthem.

In Which I Start to Push Them

The class discussions about Rand started to seem too one-sided.  It’s not that I minded my students’ appreciation of the text; I just wanted to start a critical conversation about what this book was really telling us. This should not be specific to books we find problematic.  We should encourage a healthy analytical distance no matter the book we teach.

To do this, I use questioning strategies that focus on author’s purpose over plot, theme, literary techniques, etc.  Rand herself becomes the focal point around which our conversations exist.  We no longer discuss the book’s ideas; we discuss her ideas as conveyed through the book.

Practical Suggestion: to get your students to develop deeper-level, critical thinking skills about texts, use authors’ names as much as possible.  Change your lexicon to make clear you are discussing a real person’s ideas, not those of an abstract authorial figure.  For example, instead of asking, “What does this passage show?” ask, “What is Hawthorne showing us in this passage?”  Instead of “How is Ralph depicted in this scene?” use, “How does Golding depict Ralph in this scene?”  You get the idea.

The first opportunity to challenge my increasingly Rand-loving students comes about seven days into the unit.  We conduct a seminar in which students respond to guided questions posted on the board.  Students are given some time to prepare answers with textual support and commentary before joining a class-wide discourse on the topic.  The first question, after referring to the quote (supra) in which Equality 7-2521 admits he created the light bulb for its own sake, asks: What does this change of heart show about the narrator?  What does it show about Ayn Rand’s ideas regarding selfishness?

Dutifully, students begin to talk about the importance of creativity, of giving remarkable individuals the space to innovate.  I push back, just a little.  Is it troublesome that our hero expressly does not want to help his “brothers”?  That he does not create or innovate for any moral purpose, but just does so to do so? Can this be a problem?  Some students take the bait.  Discussion moves to why people should do work and how society could benefit from those who merely want to achieve.  Fair enough.

The discussion moves along until we get to our final question, which refers to the penultimate chapter, in which our narrator didactically espouses his newfound ideas about individualism (didactic espousing being a kind of Rand staple).  In this chapter, you’ll find Anthem’s greatest hits: “My happiness is not the means to any end.  It is the end.  It is its own goal.  It is its own purpose.”; “I am neither foe nor friend to my brothers, but such as each of them shall deserve of me.”; “What is my joy if all hands, even the unclean, can reach into it?”; “I am done with the monster of ‘We,’ the word of serfdom, of plunder, of misery, falsehood and shame ” (95-97). Etc.  I ask students: Do you agree with what the narrator says in this chapter?  Or do you think he has gone too far?  How could Rand’s ideas help society?  Or how could they hurt it?

These questions seem to be less revelation than permission. Students begin to disagree with Rand’s ideas in Anthem, some passionately so. Debates break out.  Some students remark that they have hated this book the whole time, which leads to an honest question I have: Do students feel they have to like the books they read in school?  If so, that’s a problem.  Students cannot become good critical thinkers if they assume they must like what they are learning.

Why This Is Important

The ability to argue with a text is becoming an increasingly important skill in the 21stcentury.  Today’s students will read and view more “texts” than any previously, and many of these new texts deserve a level of scrutiny they are not getting.  Social media provides users with a deluge of information, much of it designed to be consumed with little to no thought given to the purveyors of that information. Gallons of ink have already been spilled on the social effects of this—worldview bubbles, proliferation of fake news, simplification of complex issues—so no sense retreading that ground here. But think of the typical high school student scrolling through Instagram.  Each post is a text, whether a picture, aphorism, or meme.  It should concern one to imagine a complacent recipient of these un-vetted texts.  We know that even a tweet from the U.S. President can espouse a gross un-truth. Therefore, a more skeptical student, one more able to see and argue with the “author,” should be less easily swayed by pithy, inaccurate memes.

That said, let us not make the mistake of thinking the World Wide Web is the only source of troubling texts.  The very texts we teach, canon or not, are often just as deserving of a critical eye.  After four years in literature classes, a typical American high school student will have read a number of books that, while arguably great art, perpetuate problematic or outdated ideas about race, culture, gender, and class.  Take William Golding’s Lord of the Flies as an example, a staple in the typical high school English class.  There is an important discussion to be had about the characters’ associating indigenousness with savage immorality.  “Which is better,” Piggy asks Jack at one point, “to be a pack of painted Indians like you are, or to be sensible like Ralph is?” (180).  Perhaps there is a nuanced way to understand what is expressed here; perhaps the boys’ conflation of “painted Indians” with immorality is part of their uniquely English folly.  Or maybe the book is just racist.  Either way, the conversation is not an easy one to have.  It’s made easier, however, if we encourage students to see the author.

My tenth grade students encounter this representational hurdle when we read and perform Shakespeare’s The Tempest.  The play is perhaps most conventionally seen as Shakespeare’s farewell to his craft, but contemporary readers cannot ignore the colonialist relationship between Prospero and Caliban.  Prospero today seems like a colonizer, taking over Caliban’s island and exploiting both the land and its sole inhabitant.  Caliban resents this: “(I) showed thee all the qualities o’ th’ isle, / The fresh springs, brine pits, barren place and fertile. / Cursed be I that did so!” (1.2.404-406).  Prospero, in return, makes an accusation that, today, seems loaded with racial and cultural implications: he accuses Caliban of trying to rape Miranda, Prospero’s daughter.  “Would ‘t had been done!” Caliban responds, “Thou didst prevent me. I had peopled else / this island with Calibans” (1.2.419-421).  Caliban spends the rest of the play plotting to murder Prospero before learning his lesson, his rightful place.

Considering the play’s geography, it’s not a stretch to imagine Caliban as an African, an interpretation offered by director Julie Taymor, who cast Djimon Hounsou, an African actor, in the part for a 2010 film.  But this is beside the point.  African or not, Caliban is presented as the uncivilized indigenous being whereas Prospero is the civilized European.  This dynamic is troubling and needs to be addressed when teaching the play.  But, as with Lord of the Flies, Heart of Darkness, or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, this conversation will prove difficult if students are not made to see author.

For example, I could ask my students: Why does Caliban try to rape Miranda?  They may respond that Caliban is monstrous (he is scaly and fishlike), that he is naturally vicious and cruel.  In an attempt to get students to analyze Elizabethan views about non-Europeans, I may bring up questions about Caliban’s nature as it relates to his non-European status.  But, without building this discussion around author, the conversation could become vague and dangerous (e.g. “Is Mr. Denvir saying non-Europeans are natural rapists?” type thing).  It is sometimes difficult for students to remember that characters in a fiction are total creations of another human being.  So when we talk about why Caliban acts a certain way, we are not analyzing a person who exists in the real world; we are analyzing a fictive representation of an author’s ideas about how the world works.

To put it simply, don’t ask students, “Why is Caliban monstrous?” Instead, ask, “Why does Shakespeare make Caliban monstrous?” This way, students will make inferences about the author’s intent and purpose.  Some will stand up for the author and offer interpretations that treat Shakespeare generously.  “Sure, Caliban is monstrous,” they’ll say, “But Shakespeare wants us to see that his anger towards Prospero is justified.”  Others will be less forgiving: “If Shakespeare wants us to sympathize with Caliban, why does Caliban need to learn a lesson in the end?”

Such conversations are crucial for this text and others, since otherwise students may unconsciously internalize the prejudices of an author.  To be critical thinkers, students need to feel comfortable disagreeing with and even hating the authors they read.  This may be hard for some English teachers to stomach—the idea that we shouldn’t even put William Shakespeare on a pedestal—but good literary thinking requires students to truly see authors not as icons, but as flesh and blood people with ideas deserving of investigation.  This way, they can formulate and strengthen their own ideas about literature and the world. They’ll be more passionate and more articulate about the books they read in school.

In my own teaching, I have found that, when I remove the author from the discussion or try to convince students that the text has merit, the conversations become confusing and difficult.  But when I encourage student inferences about what the author may be doing, and allow students to voice their opinions about whether or not the author is successful in doing so, students are more engaged and the focus of our discussions is clearer.

In the End, What Did Students Think?

After our Anthem unit, student opinions about the book were mixed and nuanced. In a survey given to the class, 77% of students said they enjoyed reading the novel.  However, only 37% said they agreed with Rand’s ideas regarding individualism.  In written responses, many students mentioned their appreciation of literary aspects—prose style, character, plot—but their disagreement with thematic ones.  “I liked the story itself, but I didn’t like her ideas on individualism,” wrote one student.  “I liked the book, but I didn’t agree about everything she wrote about,” said another.

Very few students responded that they unreservedly liked the book’s message, but a number expressed appreciation for getting to see Rand’s perspective.  “Although I do not agree 100% with her,” wrote one respondent, “I opened up to a new way of thinking and I feel like I might have figured out something more about who I am as a person.”  Another said, “I liked Anthem because it showed a different perspective that I would never consider seeing.”

It is a sign of good literary thinking to appreciate certain aspects of a text while expressing reservations about others.  In order to hone this ability in students, teachers must show students how to see and analyze the author.

We English teachers should strive to cultivate a classroom environment in which the aggregate student response to a text is nuanced, considered, complex, but also divergent.  If some of my students hated Anthem, I hope they hated it passionately rather than passively.  And if they liked the book, I hope their enjoyment was thoughtful rather than thoughtless.

Some English teachers may believe it is their duty to make students appreciate the texts they read in class.  Such teachers have good intentions but are, in my view, wrong-headed.  Don’t get me wrong; the canon abounds with literary treasure.  But we shouldn’t teach students to love texts so much as we should teach them to love the act of reading itself.

Works Cited

Golding, William. Lord of the Flies. Penguin Books, 2006.

Rand, Ayn. Anthem. Penguin Books, 1961.

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. The Folger Shakespeare Library, 2009.

Innovative Classrooms in Palestine

[Derek Furr, Bard College literature professor and director of the MAT Program in New York, writes about the classroom research projects of Palestinian teachers in the MAT Program at Al-Quds Bard in Jerusalem.]

Today, under spring skies in East Jerusalem, a group of Palestinian educators moved one step closer to completing their degrees from the Al-Quds Bard Master of Arts in Teaching Program, presenting their capstone classroom research projects. Commencement presentations are a common enough occurrence in spring; if you’re reading this column, you’ve no doubt given or attended at least one. But as a board member today, I was acutely aware of the difference for these 70 educators, many of whom travel in stressful conditions, often over long distances, to attend classes and meet with advisors, all in an effort to transform Palestinian education. That’s a lofty goal, and might sound melodramatic to those of us for whom higher education has become a given and education “reform” a troubling cliché. But having followed this program closely, I am confident that its graduates are transforming schools. In their balance of seriousness and celebration, today’s presentations were evidence of that.

The seriousness came from the quality of the projects, as well as the disposition of the candidates. Each candidate had identified a question about student learning that challenges them in their current practice, and following the procedures of educational research, they had developed a literature review and research protocol and reported their findings and conclusions.  Because the classrooms that they represent range from primary to grade twelve across the disciplines of English language, mathematics, general science, and biology, the questions were diverse. But they had at least one aim in common: to move the teacher off the stage and put her among the children, who were now expected to make meaning rather than receive it only. It would be an exaggeration to say that all of their classroom research is bound for a peer-reviewed conference (though some could be), but it is fair to describe all these teachers as deeply invested in changing their practice for the benefit of the children.

Such changes are endorsed by learning theory and cognitive science, but they’re difficult to implement even under ideal conditions. It’s best not to take them on alone, so the research process at AQB is collaborative. Several of the science candidates, for instance, had decided to experiment with “flipped classrooms.” In effect, they created an informal network of schools where current best practices in science education are implemented despite the odds, such as classrooms of 36 seventh graders, or limited material resources, or simply the state of social and political emergency that is the norm in the West Bank. Note that even today, candidates traveling from Bethlehem faced traffic jams at a military checkpoint that turned a 30-minute commute into a 90-minute endurance test. When just getting to the university requires such effort, the commitment must be deeply held. Delivering these capstone presentations was serious.

At the same time, the hallways buzzed with joy and excitement. Entire families attended—the children, parents, in-laws, and grandparents of the candidates, all dressed to the nines. It seemed that at least one member of each family carried a tin of chocolates to share with board members and presenters; by the end of the day, I had a wide assortment of Quality Street candies in my backpack. And every moment was the subject of photography and videography, phones being as ubiquitous here as in New York. I was treated as a foreign dignitary, a status that I don’t deserve, and was asked several times to stand for a photo with the people who’ve done the real work. It was humbling.

Over lunch, I remarked about this seriousness and celebration to my colleagues. Of course, I’ve experienced something it elsewhere during capstones and commencement. In many settings, including ours in the US, being a teacher is courageous, undervalued labor, and pursuing a graduate degree while you teach every day and sustain s family is taxing. Completing the degree is worth serious celebration anywhere. And yet to me, the sheer intensity and earnestness of the event here seemed unique. One of my Palestinian colleagues ventured an explanation. She said that having been a graduate student in Palestine before the Intifada, she believed that the stakes for educational accomplishment have been higher ever since. “We need more joy,” she said. “We need causes for celebration.” I thought of that morning’s news—four protestors died and nearly a thousand were wounded in clashes with the Israeli Defense Forces at the Gaza border. Perhaps the persistent struggle to assert one’s value and dignity under the occupation, let alone to maintain happiness, confers an additional measure of importance on commencement at Al-Quds Bard. Whatever the reason, today’s presentations signaled that there is joy in the work of justice, and that there are at least 70 reasons to be hopeful about education in the occupied territories.

 

CAEP Annual Report 2018

The Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP) requires Bard to report annually on eight measures. Below, we’ve summarized our 2018 report, which includes data through the end of AY17. For clarity, we will organize the summary by impact measure.

  1. Impact on P-12 student learning and development (Component 4.1)

Summary: In a purposeful sample of Bard MAT graduates, representing a cross-section of disciplines, school demographics, and years in the profession, the average scores of their students on state exams are on or well above the state averages.

  1. Indicators of teaching effectiveness (Component 4.2)

Summary: In the same purposeful sample of Bard MAT graduates, representing a cross-section of disciplines, school demographics, and years in the profession, Bard teachers were consistently rated “effective” and “highly effective” by their employers.

  1. Satisfaction of employers and employment milestones (Component 4.3)

Summary: Bard MAT again participated in the annual employer survey administered by the Mid Hudson School Study Council. This survey is distributed to 110 school districts in the Mid-Hudson Valley of New York; 45% responded to this year’s survey. Bard is one of the smallest programs in the consortium, and it is the farthest north. In nearly all items surveyed, Bard teachers scored at or above average relative to peer institutions. These include such items as preparedness in content knowledge, differentiation, assessment, and culturally responsive practice.

  1. Satisfaction of completers (Component 4.4)

Summary: In March 2018, Bard MAT surveyed all of its graduates, 2004 to present, about the relationship between their preparation and their work in education. The ten items on the survey corresponded with the InTASC Standards for Teacher Education, and the survey met CAEP’s standards for data collection. Respondents represented all years of the program and were distributed across all certification areas. 93% of the respondents reported that they are currently employed in education, most (74%) in public K-12 schools. On each of the ten items, more than 90% of respondents report that they “strongly agree” or “agree” that Bard MAT prepared them for their work as educators. Items include such areas as differentiation (95%), assessment (98%), instructional strategies (98%), disciplinary expertise (97%), and professionalism (95%).

  1. Graduation Rates

Bard MAT graduation rates for the most recent three years are:

2014-15

Enrolled 22            Graduated 21  Rate 94%

2015-16

Enrolled 17            Graduated 16  Rate 94%

2016-17

Enrolled 26            Graduated 17  Rate 65%

Note that the dip in 2017 is largely accounted for by change of status from full to part time.

  1. Ability of completers to meet licensing (certification) and any additional state requirements.

Summary: All candidates who sought certification in New York or the state of their destination successfully received it in time for employment. As has been the case historically, our candidates scored well above average on the two NYS written exams—the EAS and the CST. Our cohort average total scores and rubric scores on the edTPA results were also above the state averages. Based on individual rubric scores, some sections of the edTPA seem to have been more challenging to a percentage of our candidates than others. In response, the Bard MAT faculty has adapted our edTPA support workshops to address these for the present cohort of candidates.

  1. Ability of completers to be hired in education positions for which they have been prepared

Summary: Of the most recent graduating classes, 88% are currently employed full or part-time in education positions. In the Bard MAT Survey of Graduates, 93% of respondents report that they are currently employed in education.

  1. Student loan default rates and other consumer information

The student loan default rate for Bard College FY15 is 2.0 That is the most recent date for which a rate is available. The college does not provide rates for each program.

 

 

Persepolis in the High School Classroom

[In this edition of Field Notes, we publish the MAT research project of Wilberforce Strand. Wilberforce is a literature student in the Bard MAT program and is currently student-teaching at Kingston High School in Kingston, NY. The MAT research project in literature includes lesson plans, an annotated bibliography, and a critical essay, all focused on a text that is commonly taught in the New York public schools. Wilberforce writes about Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis.]

Lesson Plans 

Lesson Number: 1

Learning Objectives

Students will know that Satrapi’s unique graphic novel both supports and subverts common comics tropes, and that she has reasons for engaging in, or not engaging in, these tropes. Students will also get an opportunity to work on free writing.

Prior Knowledge

Students will have finished reading the entirety of Persepolis. They will also be familiar with free writes.

 Resources Needed

Students will need a copy of Persepolis, their notebooks, and pen/cils.

Teachers will need the same items, along with a black/whiteboard, and chalk/markers.

 Learning Tasks

  1. Students will write a quick list free write to the question, “What do you expect of a comic book? What might be some defining characteristics of comics in general?” (5 mins).
  2. The teacher will then ask the class to provide elements from their lists, and write each of these up on the board, forming a class list. (8 mins)
  3. The teacher will go down the list on the board, and for each item they will ask, “Does this fit with Persepolis? How? Why might Satrapi have chosen to support or subvert that particular comics trope?” (20 mins)
  4. Students will choose one item from the list and write their own response to the latter question, “Why might Satrapi have chosen to support or subvert that particular comics trope? Why do you think that?” The teacher will circulate around the room and offer advice to any students who might need it. This piece will be collected as the students exit the room. (7 mins)

 Differentiation

During the elements involving writing, the teacher could easily act as guide or scribe for any students who might have a hard time getting their thoughts down on paper.

 Assessment

During the discussion aspects, assessment will involve the teacher paying attention to who is contributing, and who is not. They should also go out of their way to include students in the conversation who may be more hesitant to do so by asking them to supply aspects from their list. The final written response will be collected and used as a more formal assessment of the student’s understanding of the lesson’s focus. Because the items have just been discussed in class by the time this is written, the teacher will look for a more in-depth analysis of the comics trope than what has already been covered in class discussion. It is also important that the students not only answers the first question, but also answers the second (that is, explains their reasoning behind their first answer).

Lesson Number: 2

Learning Objectives

Students will know possible reasons why Satrapi would use the comics form, and not a different form, to tell her story. Students will also get an opportunity to work on free writing.

 Prior Knowledge

Students will have finished reading the entirety of Persepolis. They will also be familiar with free writes.

 Resources Needed

Students will need a copy of Persepolis, their notebooks, and pen/cils.

Teachers will need the same items, along with a black/whiteboard, and chalk/markers.

 Learning Tasks

  1. Students will write a free write to the question, “Why might Satrapi employ this particular genre to talk about this subject material?” (3 mins).
  2. The teacher will then ask for volunteers to share their answers. (3 mins)
  3. The teacher will ask the students to turn to the diptych on page 102, the page depicting young soldiers exploding on the battlefield in the upper panel and Marji and her friends dancing in the lower panel. The teacher will first ask, “What do you notice?” and get some responses to this question. Then they will move into questions along the lines of “Why would Satrapi choose to present this scene in this visual way? What might be lost (or gained) had she decided to tell her story in a more traditional prose form?” The teacher will begin to form a discussion around student reponses. (12 mins)
  4. Students will form groups of three or four, find a similarly graphics-heavy page of the text (pages 15, 42, 61, 71, 77, 89, 95, 235, 245, 250, 281, 290, 305, 309, and 329 could all be potential options) and discuss these same questions, “Why would Satrapi choose to present this scene in this visual way? What might be lost (or gained) from this passage if she had decided to tell her story in a more traditional prose form?” in regards to their particular page or image. (12 mins)
  5. Each group will share what they discussed. (5 mins)
  6. The teacher will ask the students to write a focused free write to the prompt, “Based on what you’ve heard from the different groups, why do you think Satrapi might have utilized the graphic novel form to tell her story?” This will be collected as the students leave the room.

Differentiation

During the elements involving writing, the teacher could easily act as guide or scribe for any students who might have a hard time getting their thoughts down on paper, and the mixture of full-class and small-group work would provide students with different discussion preferences different opportunities to discuss the work.

Assessment

Assessment here will require the teacher to carefully pay attention to the full-class discussion, and then to walk around the classroom and listen in on/offer advice or suggestions to the small-group discussions. The final free write will serve as an assessment of each student’s engagement in the class’s discussion and their understanding of Satrapi’s aims in regards to her choice of medium. An effective answer to this final question would include thoughtful ideas and analysis from the student (to track engagement with the text), but would also include ideas presented by the other groups (to track engagement in class).

Lesson Number: 3

Learning Objectives

Students will know that Satrapi criticizes both Western views of the East and Eastern views of the West, forming her own humanistic point of view.

 Prior Knowledge

Students will have read the entirety of Persepolis. They will be familiar with free writing.

 Resources Needed

Students will need notebooks, pens/pencils, and a copy of Persepolis.

The teacher will need the same items, along with a black/whiteboard and chalk/markers.

 Learning Tasks

  1. The teacher will ask the students to free write in response to the prompt, “How does Satrapi present the ways in which the West views Iran in the text? Make sure to use textual evidence to support your claim.” If any students are having trouble finding evidence in the text, provide them with the page numbers 166, 173, 177, 195, and 220 as hints. (5 mins)
  2. The teacher will ask students to share their findings, and make a list of these elements on the board. (7 mins)
  3. Similarly, the teacher will ask the students to write to the prompt, “How does Satrapi present the ways in which Iran (or the East) views the West in the text? Again, make sure you include textual evidence.” Again, provide students who are having trouble with the page numbers 73, 93, 133, 143, 156, and 193 as hints. (5 mins)
  4. The teacher will again ask for students to share, making a list of these elements on the board as well. (7 mins)
  5. The teacher will then ask the students to write in response to the prompt, “So, then, based on these two lists, is Satrapi pro-West or pro-East? Does she agree with either of these two points of view? Where do her opinions or aims fall?” (5 mins)
  6. The teacher will then ask for volunteers to share their answers, and build a discussion out of these responses to this admittedly trick question. (11 mins)

 Differentiation

Because the lesson revolves around writing, students who have a harder time getting their thoughts out on paper could be assisted by the teacher acting as scribe.

 Assessment

Assessment in this lesson will revolve around making sure to call on different students to get their answers to the different prompts, thereby ensuring the participation and understanding of all.

Lesson Number: 4

Learning Objectives

Students will know that Satrapi’s text seeks to deepen Western understandings of Iran.

 Prior Knowledge

Students will have read the entirety of Persepolis. They will be familiar with free writing. They will also be familiar with the concept of the ‘other’.

 Resources Needed

Students will need notebooks, pens/pencils, and a copy of Persepolis.

The teacher will need the same items, along with a black/whiteboard and chalk/markers.

 Learning Tasks

  1. At the beginning of class, the board will show the definition of transversalism. “Transversalism: the process by which people designated as enemies or others form new understandings of each other.” The teacher will make sure that the class understands this definition by asking a volunteer to re-state it in their own words. (5 mins)
  2. Students will write in response to the prompt, “Does Persepolis engage in transversalism? How?” (5 mins)
  3. The teacher will ask for volunteers to share their answers, fostering a discussion around the idea of the ‘other’. (10 mins)
  4. The teacher will say, “Now let’s get a little more specific.” They will give a list of focuses from the book on the board, including Islam, gender, war, and Iranian history. The students will be divided into these categories by interest. They will then be asked to discuss and answer the following questions: “1. What are typical Western views of that aspect of Iran or the Middle East? 2. How does Satrapi seek to disrupt those understandings? Make sure to find at least five examples of textual evidence for the latter question.” Students will discuss and write down their answers in preparation for sharing those responses in the following lesson. (20 mins)

Differentiation

Small group discussion can help students who feel less comfortable sharing in a full-class setting share their ideas.

 Assessment

The teacher will assess informally through listening in on small-group discussion.

Lesson Number: 5

Learning Objectives

Students will know that Satrapi’s text seeks to deepen Western understandings of Iran. They will also get an opportunity to compare and contrast a scene from the film version of Persepolis with the book.

 Prior Knowledge

Students will have read the entirety of Persepolis. They will be familiar with free writing. They also will have participated in the small-group discussion from the lesson before.

 Resources Needed

Students will need notebooks, pens/pencils, and a copy of Persepolis.

The teacher will need the same items, along with a black/whiteboard, chalk/markers, the link to the segment from the film version (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d1LPToZPf5c), and a projector.

 Learning Tasks

  1. Class will begin with each of the four groups sharing their findings from the previous lesson. If the groups leave out their textual evidence, the teacher will make sure to foreground the importance of that evidence. After each group, the teacher will ask if any other students from at the other groups have any input on that particular aspect of the text. (20 mins)
  2. The teacher will say, “Now we are going to switch gears and take a look at the film version of Persepolis. The film was also made by Marjane Satrapi, though it is different. We will take a look at one scene, the scene in which Marji is stopped by the female Guardians of the Revolution because of her new Western clothing. As we watch, make sure to follow along in the book (pages132-134) so that we can compare and contrast the two.” Show the clip. (5 mins)
  3. The teacher will first ask, “What do you notice?” After a few volunteers, they will ask, “What similarities do we see between the two?” After a few more volunteers, they will ask, “And what about the differences?” A few more volunteers will answer, and the teacher will help to foster a short discussion on the two versions of the scene. Finally, the teacher will make sure to tell the students to keep these ideas in mind for the following lesson on film versus text versions of Persepolis. (15 mins)

Differentiation

Looking at a film version of the story will enable more visually-inclined students to enter into the conversation in a new way.

 Assessment

The teacher will assess based on careful listening to the students’ pseudo-presentations, and to their responses to the film clip.

Lesson Plan Rationale

In my lessons on Persepolis I attempt to draw from my external sources to create something that would be workable for many different classes and environments.

My focus on the book’s graphic medium comes from the simple fact that treating graphic novels as serious literature is still a fairly new and unexplored concept. Often viewed as a juvenile form of storytelling, or at least a relatively unknown one, the graphic novel deserves a form-based discussion that might be less necessary with a more traditional prose text. As a long time fan of the medium myself, I hope to engender such an interest in my students. This requires investigating the aspects of a graphic novel that set it apart from more traditional forms, and asking the question, ‘What can we get from a graphic novel that no other form can easily give us?’ Because these lessons take place after the students have read Persepolis, this would have to be addressed earlier in the unit, possibly even the first or second day of reading the text. These earlier lessons might include advice on how to read comics effectively, and how to analyze image and text together. But after finishing the book, thereby acquiring a more complete idea of it, the students are at a place in which they are more qualified to talk about the form, or at least Satrapi’s version of the form. Focusing in on different visual passages and drawing connections between these enables the students to see the power of the combination of image and text. This visual focus also enables readers who may be more skilled in visual analysis, or those who read comic books and have been told in the past that that ‘isn’t real literature,’ that their skills are valuable in the literature classroom as well.

The other main focus of my lessons centers around transversalism, the more content-based element of my project. This, of course, was inspired by Botshon and Plastas’ writing on teaching Persepolis, and the ways in which transversal thinking is championed by the text itself. I imagine the concept of the ‘other’ would have been discussed earlier in the unit, perhaps when reading about Marji’s experiences in Europe (For more information on this concept, I would look into Edward Said’s Orientalism). To maximize the effectiveness of the text and these lessons, I imagine giving background information on the 1979 Islamic Revolution before students begin the book. Similarly, before beginning the book, I would have the students list their own knowledge or assumptions about Iran so that we could track which of those hold true and which are less factual. However, I introduce the concept of transversalism along with its definition after the students have completed the book. I think that this would enable the students to address their position as American readers, and thereby reinvent their reading of the text, after they have read it through one time and gotten a sense of their ideas about the text before this direct awareness. Being aware of the idea itself can transform an initial reading into something more complex. However, I value the different viewpoints and interests of different students, so when analyzing different subjects of the book from our Western point of view (Islam, gender, war, and Iranian history), I would have them divide up by interest.

I also include a bit on analyzing the film version of Persepolis, and comparing the film and the graphic novel, a bit on which I would expand if I were to build a full-length unit around these five lessons. I think this relates back to investigating the strengths and weaknesses of the graphic novel form, and the film would act as another version with which to analyze that. I see all three of these focuses coming together in the unwritten lessons that follow these five, in a larger discussion of the way form and content interact.

 

Critical Essay

“They don’t know anything of our centuries-old culture”: Rethinking American Assumptions of the Middle East with the Help of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis

            On January 29th, 2002, in his State of the Union Address, U.S. President George W. Bush infamously described Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as members of an ‘axis of evil.’ This phrase is often read as a strategy meant to rally the United States toward war in the Middle East and promote insecurity in the post-9/11 landscape. Indeed, according to Lisa Botshon and Melinda Plastas, two teachers writing in 2010, this kind of tactic has had lasting effects. “Recent polls indicate that a significant percentage of our nation’s citizens feel less ‘secure’ than they did before 9/11[…]one of the main factors contributing to Americans’ unease is their sense of Middle Easterners’ profound otherness[…]and the possibility that there are whole countries churning out terrorists to destroy the United States,” they write. The term ‘otherness,’ or ‘othering,’ describes the way in which one group of people (in this case, the U.S., or the West) creates constructions of another group (the Middle East) that are, by definition, precise opposites of the ways in which the original group views itself, thereby reducing the second group to a simple, unknowable ‘other.’ For instance, when Botshon and Plastas announce that they will be reading the book Persepolis, an Iranian’s graphic memoir, in their classes, they report that their students “often anticipate that this project will be a difficult challenge; after all, what could a member of the ‘Axis of Evil’ have to say of importance to them?” (5). This shows the lasting effectiveness of Bush’s ‘othering’ strategy. But Marjane Satrapi, author of Persepolis, was driven by Bush’s statement in an opposite direction, and as she said in a 2008 interview, “[…]when you call a whole country ‘axis of evil,’ or fanatics, or terrorists or whatever, after a while people forget that these are people you are talking about, they are human beings” (Ghadishah). And a reminder of this fact is her aim. In Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi seeks to humanize a demonized people by getting Western readers to re-think their ‘othering’ assumptions. This process is aided by both her own experience of education presented in the text, and through the text’s educative properties.

            One of the most iconic images of any Islamic country, at least from the West’s perspective, is that of the veiled woman. Satrapi introduces us to this image in her very first panel, in which she is depicted as a child, wearing a black veil. In the second caption, she depicts her classmates in a class photo; they, too, all wear veils. In Satrapi’s minimalist black and white style, their black hair, though uniquely styled, blends into their black veils. This is meant to initially indicate, perhaps, to a Western reader, that this veil has become a part of their body, a physical reminder of their culture. But this indication is meant to trick a Western reader, and the third and fourth panels on the first page give the first of many Iranian history lessons in the text, explaining that the veil had only become obligatory that year, following the 1979 revolution that would later be called ‘The Islamic Revolution.’ The final panel on the page completely throws off the assumption that these veils had become a normalized part of these girls’ lives, as they are comedically shown using their veils as jump-ropes, bridles for playing ‘horsey’, or simply refusing to wear them because “it’s too hot out!” (3). Though these girls are growing up in a newly Islamic country, they are still just that: girls. As Nima Naghibi and Andrew O’Malley put it in their 2005 article, “[In the first panel] Marji is separate, marginalized, veiled, and radically other; at the same time, she is a universal cartoonish figure of a child to whom presumably everyone can relate. Thus,[…]the reader’s moments of identification are destabilized by disidentification” (230-231). In other words, while Marji’s clothes establish her ‘otherness’, Satrapi’s illustrated version of her younger self can be widely relatable, as she allows for the reader to see their childhood selves in Marji’s nonspecific ‘cartoonishness’. This shows Satrapi’s commitment to portraying the complexity of Iranian identity to Westerners.

Given the fact that the veil only became obligatory for Marji when she was ten, this also reflects the shifting gender norms that accompany a shifting society. By the third page, Satrapi tells the reader that “everywhere in the streets there were demonstrations for and against the veil” (5). The panel holding this caption depicts two groups of women: on the left, four women in full black veils chant, “The veil! The veil!” while on the right, four women in tight, white shirts chant, “Freedom! Freedom!” (5). The veiled women’s bodies blend together, again as a result of the black and white color scheme, indicating a group or cultural mentality, while the lines separating the unveiled women are clear and each one has a unique hairstyle, indicating their individuality. This again challenges the Western notion of Islamic women, who are often viewed, as Botshon and Plastas put it, “as silent victims, lacking agency and any discernible past[…]By presenting Iranian gender rules as complex, changeable, and located in time, [Satrapi] invites readers to loosen their attachment to the politicized narrative of Iranian female passivity and victimhood” (10). These women, even those that demonstrate for the veil, have total agency in this panel as they fight for what they believe to be right.

Although the veil becomes a requirement for Iranian women, their agency evolves throughout the book. By the end, when Marji is an adult, she learns that “wearing the veil was a real science,” and that one could make a “special fold” that allowed tufts of hair to be seen from the front, but not in profile. “Year by year,” she says, “women were winning an eighth of an inch of hair and losing an eighth of an inch of veil” (293). Far from being static, as a Western reader might assume, Satrapi reveals that Islamic culture, at least in Iran, can shift. In fact, the veil, a symbol viewed by the West as the epitome of Islamic womanhood, is the very vehicle by which those woman can assert their agency and effect change, albeit gradually. Satrapi writes, “Showing your hair or putting on makeup logically became acts of rebellion” (302). In his 2011 article, Typhaine Leservot explains this phenomenon through a discussion of the Iranian government’s form of occidentalism, or ‘othering’ the West, in the text. As the Islamic regime is strictly anti-Western, “any behavior that is deemed non-Islamic [is] therefore necessarily western,” meaning that “showing one’s wrist or ankle, laughing loudly, even wearing makeup,” while not intrinsically Western or political, become so. Even in the face of such a powerful regime, women still have agency, even if it isn’t the more overt form found in Western countries.

Many Westerners view the Middle East as being populated completely by impoverished people. But to challenge this assumption, Satrapi highlights Marji’s experience of economic privilege, as her family is fairly well-off. Her parents encourage her from a young age to educate herself, and so she is constantly reading. One important book in her development is a comic book on Marx and dialectical materialism. Part of her is aware of her privilege, and she feels ashamed sitting in her father’s Cadillac. “The reason for my shame and for the revolution is the same: the difference between social classes,” she says, proudly (33). However, these Marxist tenets clash with the strict society she lives in. In one vignette, she helps the family maid, Mehri, communicate with a neighborhood boy whom Mehri has a crush on. When Marji’s father finds out, he forbids Marji from continuing and tells her, “You must understand that their love was impossible[…]in this country you must stay within your own social class” (37). Young Marji cannot understand the intricacies of her economic reality, and so responds stubbornly, “Dad, are you for or against social classes?!” (37). On one level, Marji interacts regularly with her own financial privilege, a privilege that Western readers might assume a girl in Iran would not have.

But another part of her is unaware just how far that privilege goes. Marji learns that young boys from the poorer areas of Tehran are given keys at school and told that “if they went to war and were lucky enough to die, [those keys] would get them into heaven” (99). This knowledge is followed by one of the most iconic pages in Persepolis. The page has two panels, and the larger, upper one depicts shadowy, faceless figures with keys around their necks being exploded by mines, their bodies twisted in the air. Underneath this, a smaller panel depicts Marji and her friends dancing, with a caption stating, “Meanwhile, I got to go to my first party. Not only did my mom let me go, she also knitted me a sweater full of holes and made me a necklace with chains and nails. Punk rock was in” (102). The child soldiers’ contorted bodies mirror the raucous dancing of the party-goers, their key necklaces reflect Marji’s punk accessory, and their implied shrapnel wounds are reflections of her ‘sweater full of holes.’ As Naghibi and O’Malley write, “The effect of the comparison of scenes—necessitated by their arrangement on the page—is a profound indictment; far from being a political gesture, Marji and her friends’ consumption of punk subculture becomes a shallow indulgence of privilege” (240).

Leservot argues that this page is just one of many reminders in Persepolis of the “contrast between[…]two Irans, the westernized elite and middle-class, and the fundamentalist poor,” a contrast of which many Westerners are not even aware. His argument revolves around the idea that the Iranian upper- and middle-class construct a form of the West in their lives for different purposes at different parts of the text. Ironically, as above with the use of makeup as rebellion, the government’s strict ideologies inadvertently caused these constructions: “Just as the regime forced the Iranian poor into acting as Fundamentalists, promising them paradise for de-mining war fields, it also indirectly fostered a particular westernization of the elite and middle-class” (Leservot 123). At this stage, the West and its culture is a means of escape. “[Marji] has been seduced by a homogenous West, which she has carefully constructed so as to escape the realities of her own country.[…]she takes refuge in the superficial fun of western popular culture” (Leservot 123). It is poignant that this particular piece of Western pop culture is punk rock specifically, as Satrapi seems to mock the performative violence of punk culture by placing it next to actual, unconscionable violence.

Marji’s interest in Western culture, or the version of Western culture she constructs, continues as she gets older. In one particular vignette, her parents take a trip to Turkey and smuggle a denim jacket, a pin of Michael Jackson, a pair of Nikes, and two posters back for Marji. The posters are of Iron Maiden and Kim Wilde. A big fan of Wilde, Marji later goes out to buy one of her tapes on the black market, fully decked out in her new jacket, pin, and Nikes. On her way home, she is stopped by two members of the women’s branch of the Guardians of the Revolution, a group formed to put Iranian women “back on the straight and narrow by explaining the duties of Muslim women” (133). They threaten to take her to their headquarters, and Marji knows that if that happens she could be held indefinitely and even whipped. So, she lies. She tells them that the man on her button is Malcolm X and not Michael Jackson, and that she wears Nikes to play basketball on her school’s team. Finally, in desperation, she tells them that if she is late, her stepmother will burn her with an iron or even send her to an orphanage. They let her go, and Marji returns home, puts on her Kim Wilde tape, and starts singing along, “We’re the kids in America, whoao!” (134). A Western reading of this vignette might use Western codes of youth rebellion to understand it. She gets in trouble because she emulates Western fashion, but also her familiarity with Western figures gives her a way out when she claims that her pin depicts Malcolm X, “the leader of black Muslims in America,” even if this strategy doesn’t work. This reading suggests that the West always provides the way to freedom. As Naghibi and O’Malley write, “Ironically, Marji’s tame, by Western standards, teenage rebellion is transformed, for Western readers, into a profound statement of resistance and individualism in the menacing face of a totalitarian, fundamentalist Islamic theocracy” (238). Satrapi encourages the Western reader to identify with rebellion as a part of coming of age, but she also highlights the different ways power circulates depending on one’s location, class, religion, and gender. Marji’s rebellion, here and elsewhere in the text, is not simply the teenage rebellion of the United States, though it may appear that way to a Western reader. Botshon and Plastas speak to this when they write, “While American readers may appreciate Marji’s rebellion, they also must realize the great danger in which she places herself by wearing her jacket and Michael Jackson pin on the streets of Tehran” (7). To get the opportunity to experience just a small piece of Western culture, and rebel against the strict islamic government in the process, Marji willingly jeopardizes her own physical safety. This would rarely be an issue for rebellious Western teenagers, but it is Marji’s unavoidable reality. The song choice at the end of the chapter is a heavily ironic one, then, because what she has just experienced makes clear that she is definitely not a kid in America.

Earlier in this chapter, Satrapi uses visual elements to support, then subvert, the cross-cultural similarity implied by the shared consumption of American pop music, again challenging the reader to look beyond their own assumptions. The title of the chapter, “Kim Wilde,” is accompanied by the image of the light-colored eye, eyebrow, and hair of a woman we can only assume to be Wilde herself. This links the chapter back to the first chapter, “The Veil,” as this chapter’s heading image also depicts the eye and eyebrow of a woman from the same angle, although this woman wears a headscarf. While this image is black on white, as with most of the book, the image of Wilde’s eye is white on black, as it depicts her light-colored hair and probably blue eye. The two are visually similar, perhaps suggesting a commonality between a veiled Muslim woman and the secular rock star. But the colors are the exact opposite, highlighting their difference. Later, Marji stands in front of the Wilde poster she has just hung up and imitates the singer’s body position. This seeming similarity between the two is again also marked by difference, because Marji’s hair and top are dark while Wilde’s are light. Also, because Marji faces the poster, her stance and Wilde’s are mirror images of each other, a mirror image being the same but also the exact opposite. This chapter might lend itself to a reading of the text that foregrounds Western aesthetics and tastes as universal. However, the connection to Marji’s mirror stance and the image accompanying “The Veil,” subverts this reading by stressing difference and cultural specificity.

Satrapi’s choice of the graphic novel as a medium allows her to continue to challenge the reader to look past their assumptions about Iranian culture. As Naghibi and O’Malley put it, “The ‘cartooniness’ of her drawings encourages the reader to see herself in Marji, to see the self in the other, to erase all differences in a gesture of ‘cultural understanding’” (228-229). This provides a Western reader with a way into the story, even though its content is often alien both to Western culture and to Western constructions of Iranian culture. But erasing cultural differences is not her main aim in using a ‘cartoony’ style, and Naghibi and O’Malley go further to offer the claim that, “by adopting a naïve, childlike drawing style, [and] working in a medium associated primarily with either low-brow or juvenile readers and narratives, she effectively ‘camouflages’ the complex politics of identity and nation Marji’s story raises in the guise of simplicity and universal accessibility” (234). Furthermore, the minimalistic, black and white, drawn images allow for more freedom in terms of representing the regular violence of the text, such as the child soldiers being exploded by landmines. As Satrapi herself says, “I cannot take the idea of a man cut into pieces and just write it.[…]It would not be anything but cynical. That’s why I drew it. People are not ready to read a book about all the misery of the Third World, and I don’t blame them” (qtd. in Botshon and Plastas, 7). Satrapi’s artistic style gives readers the opportunity to investigate their own ideas and assumptions about Iranian culture without being too blatantly critical of them, and also presents a common elements of that culture, violence, in an accessible and safer manner.

When Marji is a teenager, her parents decide to send her to a French school in Austria, and it is in this section that Satrapi challenges Western constructions of Iran the most. Though most students at her Viennese school seem uninterested in becoming her friend, she eventually makes a friend named Julie who then introduces Marji to her own group of friends. When she meets one friend, Momo, Julie says, “This is Marjane. She’s Iranian. She’s known war,” to which Momo replies, “War?!” and “You’ve already seen lots of dead people?” Her new friends are very interested in philosophy, specifically philosophy about death, so her experiences excite them and she is quickly welcomed into the group. While Marji is excited to be accepted, the reader can see that their interest in her is not because of who she is, but rather because “she’s known war,” a phrase they often repeat (166). She is, to them, more of an exotic commodity than a friend. This, unfortunately, is one of the more positive experiences that Marji has in Austria. Many people she meets have assumptions about either her country of origin or her skin color. When she eats straight from the pan in the nun’s home she temporarily stays in, a nun tells her, “It’s true what they say about Iranians. They have no education” (177). When a man hits on her at a bar, she tells him that she is French, because, as she puts it, “At the time, Iran was the epitome of evil and to be Iranian was a heavy burden to bear. It was easier to lie than to assume that burden” (195). An old man on a bus calls her a “dirty foreigner” and tells her to “get out!” (220). And lastly, when she goes to the home of her boyfriend, his mother accuses her of “taking advantage of [her son] and his situation to obtain an Austrian passport,” accuses her of being a “witch,” and screams at her, like the man on the bus, to “get out!” (220). This instance is the most surprising to Marji, because although she had tried to write off what happened on the bus as “just the reaction of a nasty old man,” she is shocked that someone she actually knows would treat her this unkindly (220). In this section, Satrapi asks the Western reader to acknowledge this, then re-evaluate their own relationships with, and treatment of, people from other cultures. Later, back in Iran, Marji notes that “in the West you can collapse in the street and no one will give you a hand,” so, though a Western reader might assume that Western culture would be more ‘civilized’ than that of Iran, these episodes Marji experiences in Europe might indicate a more complex distinction.

For Leservot, Marji’s experience in Europe marks a turning point in his argument about Marji’s constructions of the West in the text. While Marji was previously shown to enjoy reading Western philosophy, such as Marx, and listening to Western music, such as Kim Wilde, Leservot argues that once in Europe, Marji realizes that the version of the West she has constructed for herself, a version unchallenged by reality, is in sharp contrast with her experiences in the actual West. Leservot zooms in on one particular moment, her first Austrian party. She is excited about the party until it comes, and in a full-page panel depicting the scene of the party, she sits alone, wide-eyed and obviously uncomfortable while others lie around smoking, laughing, and kissing. As Satrapi writes in the two captions surrounding the panel, “The party was not what I imagined. In Iran, at parties, everyone would dance and eat. In Vienna, people preferred to lie around and smoke. And then, I was turned off by all these public displays of affection. What do you expect, I came from a traditionalist country” (185). Leservot points out that, “When a regime forbids you from using any western product[…], transgressing these rules mean[s] acquiring western objects on the black market, further reducing western culture to clichéd products of consumption while preventing any real understanding of how people (not objects) interact in western culture” (125). Marji is puzzled by her new surroundings because the Iranian government has made it difficult for Iranians to interact with the West other than through objects. Satrapi encourages the Western reader to take advantage of the fact that they have no such limitations.

When Marji returns to Iran, she has a newfound sense of the West that she brings with her into her art. She wants to attend art school, but first she must pass the National Exam. In the drawing segment, she creates a reworking of Michelangelo’s “La Pietà” in which Mary is replaced by a grieving mother and Jesus is replaced by the body of an Iranian soldier, a ‘martyr.’ She adorns the top of the picture with images of tulips, which she explains in a footnote was because, “It’s said that red tulips grow from the blood of martyrs” (281). This is yet another example of how Satrapi challenges the Western reader. As Naghibi and O’Malley write, “This is a remarkable example of the shifting significations in Satrapi’s texts: the assumptions of recognition and familiarity experienced by a Western reader are constantly undermined by the interjection of culturally specific and unfamiliar references” (230). This drawing, along with the Iranian mythology-themed amusement park she designs later, is an example of how she feels changed by her experiences in the West. This change effects a depression, and she says, “My calamity could be summarized in one sentence: I was nothing. I was a Westerner in Iran, an Iranian in the West. I had no identity. I didn’t even know anymore why I was living” (272). She feels like a mix of different cultures, and her art reflects that. Leservot even argues that she uses this slightly Western-inspired art “to survive mentally and socially in her country as well as to subvert governmental propaganda” (128). Marji’s art combines Western influences, such as Christ and gaudy amusement parks, and Iranian influences, such as tulips and Persian mythology, and so Satrapi challenges the Western view that the West and the East, as ‘othering’ decrees, are exact and complete opposites.

Education is a major and important aspect of Marji’s life in Persepolis, and Satrapi uses this to again challenge Western ideas of Middle Eastern womanhood, namely, that Middle Eastern women are always uneducated. This Western assumption is even directly reproduced in the text in the cruel words from the nun, discussed above, who states that Marji’s table manners have confirmed her assumption that Iranians “have no education” (177). However, in Marji’s life, this could not be further from the truth. As a result of her parents’ philosophical interests, Marji gets absorbed into the world of reading at an early age, as stated above, and this becomes a commonality between every stage of her life. When it is announced on TV that the Ministry of Education will be closing all schools and universities temporarily so that the “decadent” educational system and school texts can be “revised to ensure that our children are not led astray from the true path of Islam,” Marji’s mother erupts with a loud “Oh no!” (73). When her mother later finds out that Marji has skipped school to spend time with her friends, she exclaims, “Now is the time for learning. You have your whole life to have fun! What are you going to be when you grow up? In this country you have to know everything better than anyone else if you’re going to survive!!” (113). Her parents heavily foreground education, and this shapes Marji’s growth as she passes through the equivalent of elementary school in Iran, the equivalent of high school in Austria, and art school upon her return to her home country. The availability of schooling for Marji is, of course, aided by her family’s higher economic status, but this still challenges Western beliefs about women in Islamic countries.

The theme of education takes on a new dimension for the Western reader, in that Satrapi uses the text itself to educate those readers on the realities of Iranian life. When asked about her aims in writing Persepolis, Satrapi answered that “I wanted to put a few things straight.[…]When I arrived in France [her current country of residence], I met many people who expected me to speak Arabic. So many Europeans do not know that difference between Arabs and Iranians. They don’t know anything of our centuries-old culture” (qtd. in Botshon and Plastas, 3). She uses many different opportunities throughout the book to teach the reader about the complexity of that ‘centuries-old culture,’ explaining through the historical background-based introduction, various monologues, family stories, and illustrations that Western discussions of Iran that mostly connect her “old and great civilization” to “fundamentalism, fanaticism, and terror,” are “far from the truth” (Introduction). Botshon and Plastas, in their Persepolis teaching notes, identify this aspect of the text as transversalism, a term conceived of by Italian feminists meaning, “the process by which people designated as enemies or others form new understandings of each other” (2). Persepolis allows the Western reader to go about that process and enables them, as one student of the two teachers puts it, “to re-think [their] ideas of people, particularly Iranians,” and to learn that “what we [see] in the media […isn’t] completely true” (Botshon and Plastas 7).

Because of this aspect, Persepolis practically begs to be taught in the modern classroom. Botshon and Plastas find that teaching the book “offers the potential to begin to disrupt U.S. audiences’ one-dimensional image of Iran and Iranian women[…]encourag[ing] students to skirt the wall of intolerance and participate in a more complex conversation about Iranian history, U.S. politics, and the gendered interstices of war” (12). This complexity is precisely what Satrapi is after, and Perin Gurel speaks to this point in her notes on teaching Islam and transnational feminism. Gurel argues that an educator teaching about those two items in tandem “should strive to do three things: historicize feminism, historicize Islam, and highlight the complexities of representation” (67). First, instead of only presenting the historical successes and positive sides of feminism, an educator should also present what the author calls “crises” of Western/white feminism, especially its insistence on the unifying aspect of gender alone, disregarding race and class. Marji learns about her class in regards to womanhood in the vignette about her family maid, which ends with the intriguing phrase, “We were not in the same social class but at least we were in the same bed” (37). This shows Marji dealing with the juxtaposition of her personal connection to, and cultural separation from, her close friend and maid. Secondly, instead of only presenting the negative aspects of being a woman in Islamic countries, an educator should investigate the role women play in contemporary Islamic movements. As discussed above, the way Satrapi presents this role involves much more agency than a Westerner might assume, and makes clear that Iranian women fight for what they believe in. Thirdly, the educator must present the “complexities of representation” of both Islam and feminism. In Satrapi’s text, no two Muslims are the same, no two Iranians are the same, no two Austrians are the same, no two men are the same, no two women are the same; they are all complex renderings of believable people, operating in and out of these greater schemas and still maintaining an individuality. With the help of Satrapi, the Western reader can take in the complicated existences of these well-realized characters, instead of planting them firmly in one religious, ethnic, gendered camp or the other. Gurel claims that “[…]Persepolis is a […] nuanced text that does not give Western colonialism a free pass, even though it powerfully narrates the tragic consequences of extremism in post-revolutionary Iran,” and it is in this liminal space between Western and Iranian views that Satrapi acts as an educator herself, helping Westerners take a look at their previously-held beliefs in a new light.

In a 2005 blog post on the New York Times website, Satrapi describes her first experience visiting the U.S. in 2003 to promote Persepolis. Lack of French support for the war on terror meant that France, Satrapi’s country of residence, “was an unofficial member of the axis of evil. At least that’s what I thought: day in and day out, French TV and newspapers were talking about Americans changing the name of ‘French fries’ to ‘freedom fries,’ about the boycott of French products and Americans emptying expensive bottles of French wine in the street” (Satrapi). As with Americans’ view of Iran, the French view of the U.S. was twisted by the media. And this worked both ways, as Satrapi describes an experience during her own book signing in New York at which a woman asked, “Can you explain to us why the French hate us so much?” (Satrapi). Oversimplified, ‘othering’ understandings of each other’s culture, driven by the media, led to fear and confusion on both sides. Experiencing both places, however, and interacting with the actual people, instead of a construction of them, allowed Satrapi a unique way into the situation, and she was able to see that both assumptions were simplistic. She tells the woman at her reading that it is Bush’s policies, not the American people themselves, that the French had an issue with, and at a New York restaurant she was surprised to see that with her steak she “was served these famous French fries and a glass of Bordeaux” (Satrapi). ‘Othering’ affects all cross-cultural relationships, and Satrapi seeks to combat this reality in Persepolis. She gives people unfamiliar with the realities of Iran, primarily Westerners, an opportunity to think transversally, challenge their cultural assumptions, and educate themselves on the shared humanity of people across the globe.

 

Annotated Bibliography

Botshon, Lisa, and Melinda Plastas. “Homeland In/Security: A Discussion and Workshop on Teaching Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis.” Feminist Teacher, vol. 20, no. 1, 2009, pp. 1–14. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/femteacher.20.1.0001.

While the teaching notes from Perin are centered around teaching transnational feminism and suggesting Persepolis as a possible resource, Botshon and Plastas’ piece is focused on teaching Persepolis itself, and the benefits seen in their classrooms resulting from such a choice. They teach the book for two reasons, the first being the fact that “it provides a creative venue for classroom discussions about nation, citizenship, gender, and war,” and the second being the fact that the book “offers a transversal space in which students can question Western notions about the Middle East” (2). Leading their students towards transversal thinking, in terms of gender and nationality, is their main focus throughout the essay. They first address teaching the book in a post-9/11 classroom and the benefits it holds for such a situation, then move on to discuss the ways in which the book allows their students to discuss the oft-ignored topic of the ways that war is gendered.

Their argument to teach Persepolis in the classroom is absolutely a sound one (though perhaps I could be biased on that front). By combining analysis of particular sections of the book and student responses to said sections, Botshon and Plastas weave an argument guided by ideas and evidence from the classroom. Though touching on some theory, especially when it comes to transverse thinking, the entire argument is grounded by quotes from actual students, making it a very effective argument indeed.

This piece is a great companion to Gurel’s piece on teaching transnational feminism, as it takes the ideas and brings them into the classroom itself. Its nitty-gritty student response details will bring the latter half of my argument, the part about the book’s solution to cultural close-mindedness being education, to life. The article will connect the more theoretical pieces to the very real classroom.

Ghadishah, Arash. “Questions for Marjane Satrapi.” ABC News, ABC News Network, 22 Feb. 2008, abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/story?id=4332648&page=1. Accessed 17 Jan. 2018.

In this interview given shortly before the 2008 Academy Awards, at which the film version of Persepolis was nominated for Best Animated Feature Film, Satrapi discusses her reasons for writing her book and her concerns regarding her newfound fame. She focuses on the concept of humanizing her people, and keeping the West from continuing to view Iranians as “abstract concepts,” rather than human beings.

Though it does not carry a single argument, the personal nature of interview allows Satrapi to communicate her point, that of humanizing Iranians, in way that humanizes her as both the little girl in her book and as the adult woman who now writes and directs movies. The explanation of Persepolis’ aim is very clear, and the allusion to Bush’s infamous “axis of evil” statement again places the interview, if indirectly, in the very real political landscape.

The interview, especially her stated aim of humanizing the Iranian people, fits right in with her earlier blog post and the teaching resources especially. It is rare, also, to get a real description of the aim of a written text from the author themselves, and so this interview provides a window into the mind of the artist, illuminating the text.

Gurel, Perin. “Transnational Feminism, Islam, and the Other Woman: How to Teach.” The Radical Teacher, University of Illinois Press, 1 Dec. 2009, www.jstor.org/stable/20710519.

Gurel’s article focuses on teaching transnational feminism in America, especially in regards to Islam. She describes the assumptions and simplistic claims about Islam from both the academic and personal sphere, identifying the fact that Westerners often view women in Islamic countries as powerless victims of their oppressive culture. In fact, Gurel argues, women in such situations who wish to become respected voices in the West must denounce their culture in that way as well. Essentially, Gurel champions transnational feminism and guides educators who wish to teach about women and Islam in a way that does not fall prey to such assumptions.

Gurel suggests that any such educator “should strive to do three things: historicize feminism, historicize Islam, and highlight the complexities of representation” (67). Instead of only presenting the historical successes and positive sides of feminism, an educator should also present what the author calls “crises” of Western/white feminism, both its insistence on the unifying aspect of gender alone, and its inherent connections to imperialism. Instead of only presenting the negative aspects of being a woman in Islamic countries, an educator should investigate the role women play in contemporary Islamic movements. And thirdly, an educator must present all of these differing versions and constantly highlight the complexities of representing Islamic culture in the West.

Gurel’s article is based on teaching, which will provide both good fodder for my unit plan but also provides a solid basis for my investigation into the educative aspects of Persepolis. Most importantly, however, Gurel’s article focuses on Western assumptions about the Muslim world, and, specifically, how to combat those assumptions through education.

Leservot, Typhaine. “Occidentalism: Rewriting the West in Marjane Satrapi’s ‘Persépolis.’” French Forum, vol. 36, no. 1, 2011, pp. 115–130. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41306680.

Leservot’s article begins as a response to Naghibi and O’Malley’s. While he states that their claim that Satrapi challenges the oppositional relationship between East and West is convincing, Leservot believes that they take “Satrapi’s images of the West at face value” (115). His focus is the way in which Persepolis portrays the West, and how those representations, or Iranian Occidentalisms, reflect the political realities of Persepolis’ timeframe in Iranian history. He first gives an overview of the concept of Occidentalism and its historical contexts, then moves to a focused analysis of Satrapi’s text, identifying the different representations of the West in each of the book’s four sections, and analyzing the meaning of each.

Leservot’s argument could not exist without the historical background of Occidentalism that he provides in the first body section. Identifying the sheer variety of definitions that have been applied to Occidentalism makes it clear that while Orientalism has been studied heavily as a result of the lasting, visible effects of colonialism, Occidentalism is much harder to track. It is important, however, that Leservot does not dwell on the theoretical for too long, and his analysis of Occidentalisms in Satrapi’s text is the heart of the argument. This results in an examination of the book as a reflection of its history, rather that a theoretical argument on the exact definition of the term. I believe this choice was the right one, as it is much more manageable and convincing this way.

Leservot’s article saliently provides both a counterpoint to and an extension of Naghibi and O’Malley’s, confirming their hypothesis that Persepolis challenges Western notions of the East (Orientalisms) while also suggesting that the characters in the text, including Marjane, construct similarly incorrect notions of the West. He goes even further, and describes the ‘why’ of each such construction, showing the relationship between Occidentalisms and the oppressively anti-Western regime of post-revolutionary Iran. This interaction between sources would provide a richer understanding of this aspect of the text.

Naghibi, N. & O’Malley, A. “Estranging the Familiar: ‘East’ and ‘West’ in Satrapi’s Persepolis.” ESC: English Studies in Canada, vol. 1 no. 2, 2005, pp. 223-247. MLA International Bibliography, doi:10.1353/esc.2007.0026. Accessed 4 December 2017.

In their article, “Estranging the Familiar: ‘East’ and ‘West’ in Satrapi’s Persepolis,” Nima Naghibi and Andrew O’Malley focus on the ways in which Persepolis presents both the West and the East, especially in regard to that presentation in the West. The authors list similar works being produced in Iran and by Iranian women, yet state that only two, Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran and Satrapi’s Persepolis, have enjoyed renown. Persepolis’, the authors argue, comes from its constant challenging of Western views of the East, of childhood experience, and of the assumed universality of that experience, thereby ‘Estranging the Familiar’.

Naghibi and O’Malley approach their argument by first addressing the other similar text of renown, Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran. The authors state that this text’s renown comes from the way it fits into Western assumptions of Iran. As they put it, “While Persepolis forces the Western reader to work hard to understand the complexities of contemporary Iranian political and social dynamics, Lolita serves up the usual fare of the oppression of Iranian women under a fundamentalist state for the uncritical consumption of Western readers” (224). The authors then move to the ways in which Satrapi challenges the Western reader through her text’s resistance to fit within any single genre, her use of both cartoonish illustration and the graphic novel format, her simple language and color palette, and the content of the text itself. Naghibi and O’Malley effectively argue that Persepolis constantly resists easy consumption by Western readers.

The article’s rich engagement with the East/West divide makes it prime material for both analysis and teaching of Persepolis. Because the authors engage with both form and content in so many different ways, they provide a solid basis for further investigation into most, if not all, aspects of the text, including the memoir form, the history and culture of Iran, the influence of both the form and history of comics on the text, and the experience of childhood. They also center much of what they argue on a concept from Gayatri Spivak that Naghibi and O’Malley paraphrase: “the radical difference of the other is defused by its absorption into the normative center, the West” (226). This idea is a rich way to get students thinking more deeply about the consumption of Eastern media from the position of Western readers.

Satrapi, Marjane. “Defending My Country.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 28 Nov. 2005, satrapi.blogs.nytimes.com/2005/11/28/defending-my-country/.

In this short blog entry from 2005, Satrapi describes her first trip to the U.S. in 2003, a portion of her tour promoting Persepolis. She outlines her initial nervousness and assumptions about what she would see, a few specific interactions while on her trip, and a related experience upon her return to France. The blog entry is also illustrated, and Satrapi uses her characteristic artistic style to illustrate her experiences in some places, and to give life to her fears in others.

Satrapi’s main focus is her own experience of assumptions held by members of one culture about another culture. She feels the she must defend Iranian and French culture to Americans, and the variety of American viewpoints to her French colleagues. Much of what she writes about here is framed by the anti-Iran and anti-France foreign policy of George W. Bush, as he had been freshly re-elected the year before the post was published. The post is not a critical one, and makes no specific argument, which makes its argument hard to assess. However, the personal nature of the piece gives us insight into the experience of Satrapi’s multicultural existence into adulthood.

Though not a critical source, Satrapi’s post gives insight into the idea of one culture’s assumptions about another’s, and how those can be combated, or, at least, questioned. Persepolis itself touches on these ideas, but bringing in a later perspective from the author herself would provide a broader investigation of these ideas, both in the world of Persepolis and in the real world. Also, the illustrations, while clearly similar to those in her book, still hold some slight variations that might be useful to analyze.

 

Resources for Teaching about the Personality Cult of Chairman Mao

[In this post, we publish an excerpt from the academic research project of Angelica Maldonado, Bard MAT history student and pre-service social studies teacher. For a description of the project, see the note from Bard MAT History Professor Wendy Urban-Mead at the end of the blog.] 

Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung:

 

Designer: Shanghai Fine Arts Academy Work Propaganda Team, Revolutionary Committee collective work (上海市美术学校工宣队, 革委会供稿)
1970, October
Long live chairman Mao! Long, long live!
Mao zhuxi wansui! Wanwansui! (毛主席万岁! 万万岁!)
Publisher: Shanghai renmin chubanshe (上海人民出版社)
Size: 53×77 cm.
Call number: BG E13/701 (Landsberger collection)

https://chineseposters.net/posters/e13-701.php

Originally published in 1964, Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung, popularly known as the “Little Red Book” due to its appearance, was widely distributed during the Cultural Revolution. The original publication consisted of 200 quotations covering 23 topics, such as “Women” and “Communists,” compiled by the PLA Daily, but was later revised to include an endorsement by Mao’s appointed successor at the time, Lin Biao. The finalized edition would ultimately include 33 topics and 427 quotations. By the time the CCP ceased publication in February 1979, at least one billion copies had been printed. In this propaganda poster, a group of people are at Tiananmen Square in Beijing waving “Little Red Books” during what appears to be a rally lead by Chairman Mao. The group at the forefront of the poster consists of young men and a woman in People’s Liberation Army uniforms and a young peasant woman in the front; notice the Chairman Mao badge on the shirt of the young woman to the right of the image.

Chairman Mao Badge:

 

British Museum

Circular badge (57mm)

Obv: Profile of Mao in silver (head and collar) on red sunray background.

Inscription in gold below.

Rev: Hollowed out form of Mao’s head and collar.

Inscription (obv): 敬祝毛主席万寿无疆 (Jingzhu Mao zhuxi wan shou wu jiang) Respectfully Wishing Chairman Mao an eternal life Inscription (rev): 毛主席万岁 (Mao zhuxi wansui) Long live Chairman Mao

Note: The inscription on the reverse is in Lin Biao’s calligraphy. CM 1990,0204.17

Although the first rudimentary Chairman Mao badges were created in the 1930’s, and helped foster the Mao Cult in the 1940’s, their popularity soared to epic proportions during the Cultural Revolution. At the height of the Cultural Revolution, badges were feverishly traded, gifted, sold on the black market, and even stolen. An estimated 3 billion badges were produced. At the end of the revolution, badges were officially ordered to be turned in to be melted or destroyed, but many hid their most precious badges, and to this day, there are collectors who boast tens or even hundreds of thousands of badges in their collection. Although the badges usually featured Mao’s profile (purposely to the left), rarer ones also depicted landscapes, revolutionary leaders, and other communist leaders. Together with the Little Red Book, badges (worn on the left breast) were the most visible way to display loyalty. The highly-coveted badges were primarily distributed to workers, soldiers, and students, so badges could often be traded for services and other goods, as they were expressly forbidden to be bought or sold.

Chairman Mao swims across the Yangzi:

 

Designer unknown (佚名)
1969, July
Closely follow the great leader Chairman Mao and forge ahead courageously amid great storms and waves – Celebrate the Shanghai movement to swim the Yangzi river to commemorate the third anniversary of Chairman Mao’s good swim in the Yangzi river on July the sixteenth.
Jingen weida lingxiu Mao zhuxi zai dafeng dalang zhong fenyong qianjin – Qingzhu Mao zhuxi 7.16 changyou Changjiang san zhounian Shanghaishi changyou Changjiang huodong (紧跟伟大领袖毛主席在大风大浪中奋勇前进-庆祝毛主席7。16畅游长江三周年上海市畅游长江活动)
Publisher: Shanghai 1969 Swim the Yangzi River headquarters (上海市一九六九畅游长江指挥部)
Size: 77×53 cm.
Call number: BG E15/289 (Landsberger collection)

https://chineseposters.net/posters/e15-289.php

 In 1956, Chairman Mao, a lifelong ardent advocate of the benefits of swimming, swam across the Yangzi River for the first time. On July 16, 1966, an event was organized in Wuhan to commemorate the event. Mao joined the throngs of people swimming, exchanging jokes and pleasantries. The swim, widely covered by the media, demonstrated that Mao was still physically fit, contrary to rumors suggesting otherwise, and was still able to lead the revolution. This demonstration was beneficial in Mao’s struggle to regain power during the Cultural Revolution. Mao’s swim became a major annual event in which thousands of eager swimmers would swim in the sea, and rivers and lakes across the country emulating Chairman Mao’s impressive swim.

Bombard the Headquarters:

全国第一张马列主义的大字报和人民日报评论员的评论,写得何等好呵!请同志们重读这一张大字报和这个评论。可是在50多天里,从中央到地方的某些领导同志,却反其道而行之,站在反动的资产阶级立场上,实行资产阶级专政,将无产阶级轰轰烈烈的文化大革命运动打下去,颠倒是非,混淆黑白,围剿革命派,压制不同意见,实行白色恐怖,自以为得意,长资产阶级的威风,灭无产阶级的志气,又何其毒也!联想到1962年的右倾和1964年形“左”实右的错误倾向,岂不是可以发人深醒的吗

 Translation: China’s first Marxist-Leninist big-character poster and Commentator’s article on it in People’s Daily are indeed superbly written! Comrades, please read them again. But in the last fifty days or so some leading comrades from the central down to the local levels have acted in a diametrically opposite way. Adopting the reactionary stand of the bourgeoisie, they have enforced a bourgeois dictatorship and struck down the surging movement of the great cultural revolution of the proletariat. They have stood facts on their head and juggled black and white, encircled and suppressed revolutionaries, stifled opinions differing from their own, imposed a white terror, and felt very pleased with themselves. They have puffed up the arrogance of the bourgeoisie and deflated the morale of the proletariat. How poisonous! Viewed in connection with the Right deviation in 1962 and the wrong tendency of 1964 which was ‘Left’ in form but Right in essence, shouldn’t this make one wide awake? 

“Bombard the Headquarters – My Big Character poster” was a short document written by Mao Zedong on August 5, 1966 and publishedin the Communist Party’s official newspaper, People’s Daily, a year later on August 5, 1967. The poster is believed to have been directly targeting and criticizing President Liu Shaoqi and senior leader Deng Xiaoping, notably for attempting to contain the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. After the publication of the poster, even greater violence and chaos spread throughout the countryside, resulting in the death of thousands of “class enemies,” including President Liu Shaoqi, who died in 1969 after two years in prison, of mistreatment, abuse, and failing health, which was further complicated by being denied medication.

Mao Pop Art:

LAST BANQUET
Laser prints, pages from the Red Book and acrylic on canvas
60 x 168 inch, 1989

Zhang Hongtu

http://www.momao.com/

After decades of artistic suppression, during the “era of Deng Xiaoping” there was a period of relative liberalization and greater political and artistic freedom. In the early 1990’s, which marked the centenary of Mao’s birthday, the personality cult resurfaced, albeit in a much more openly satirical and “tongue-in-cheek” manner. During this period, known as Maore or “Mao craze,” Mao’s image had been repurposed by a myriad of artists into sacrilegious pop art. In this image, we see a pastiche of Leonardo da Vinci’s mural, The Last Supper. Instead of featuring Jesus and the twelve disciples, however, we just see multiple Maos. One of them is holding a Little Red Book, and instead of bread, they have bowls with chopsticks. The painting is made of pages from the Little Red Book as well, which would have been unheard of and considered traitorous and blasphemous during Mao’s reign. Notice the chamber pot and the bowl of rice spilling over.

Textbook Critique:

 Based on the 10th grade global history textbook, World History: Patterns of Interaction, Mao Zedong, and China in general, is mentioned quite briefly. The majority of the chapter on China is focused on the Chinese Civil War and the founding of the PRC. Mao is first mentioned in the context of Marx and the Communist Manifesto:

Published in 1848, The Communist Manifesto produced few short-term results. Though widespread revolts shook Europe during 1848 and 1849, Europe’s leaders eventually put down the uprisings. Only after the turn of the century did the fiery Marxist pamphlets produce explosive results. In the 1900s, Marxism inspired revolutionaries such as Russia’s Lenin, China’s Mao Zedong, Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh, and Cuba’s Fidel Castro. These revolutionary leaders adapted Marx’s beliefs and arguments to their own specific situations and needs. (p. 649)

I thought this little excerpt was interesting considering Mao is usually aligned with Stalin rather than Lenin in terms of their execution of communism (no pun intended), but here Mao is aligned with Lenin, Ho Chi Minh, and Castro ideologically. In the final sentence of the excerpt, it is made clear that these different leaders applied communism differently in their respective countries. I thought this was interesting because it seems to be distancing these leaders and their practices from communism – maybe hinting that there is indeed some merit in Marxist principles? I also thought it was interesting that Mao is defined as a “revolutionary,” that may have a positive connotation, which reminds me of Crane Brinton’s, Anatomy of a Revolution and his examination of the different actors found in revolutions.

The next section Mao is mentioned in is in a section about Stalin and the Soviet Union. In this section, there is a table on totalitarianism:

Patterns of Change: Totalitarianism
Key Traits Description
Dictatorship and One-Party Rule ·      Exercises absolute authority

·      Dominates the government

Dynamic Leader ·      Helps unite people toward meeting shared goals or realizing a common vision

·      Encourages people to devote their unconditional loyalty and uncritical support to the regime

·      Becomes a symbol of the government

Ideology (set of beliefs) ·      Justifies government actions

·      Glorifies the aims of the state

State Control Over All Sectors of Society ·      Business

·      Family life

·      Labor

·      Youth groups

·      Housing

·      Religion

·      Education

·      The arts

State Control Over the Individual ·      Demands total obedience to authority and personal sacrifice for the good of the state

·      Denies basic liberties

Dependence on Modern Technology ·      Relies on mass communication, such as radios, newsreels, and loudspeakers, to spread propaganda

·      Builds up advanced military weapons

Organized Violence ·      Uses force, such as police terror, to crush all opposition

·      Targets certain groups, such as national minorities and political opponents, as enemies

 

After this table, Mao is mentioned in the following excerpt:

Other totalitarian governments besides the Soviet Union emerged in the twentieth century. In the 1920s and 1930s, two other European dictators – Hitler in Germany and Mussolini in Italy – were shaping their visions of a totalitarian state. After Communists formed the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Mao Zedong used tactics similar to Stalin’s to establish totalitarian control. The North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung ruled over a totalitarian Communist state from 1948 to 1994. (p. 776)

Although in the later section on the Cultural Revolution, the personality cult isn’t explicitly mentioned, the section, “State Control Over the Individual,” could perhaps be comparing it. However, as we know now, it isn’t as clear cut as merely stating that the state “demands total obedience to authority and personal sacrifice for the good of the state.” As analyzed by scholars such as Melissa Schrift and Daniel Leese, the Mao cult was a largely grassroots phenomenon that surpassed the original expectations of party leadership. Here we see the more common association with other totalitarian leaders.

The passage entirely devoted to the Cultural Revolution is very short – only two paragraphs long. The passage bolds “Red Guards” as a key word, which is quite important, and notes that the militia units comprised high school and college students. Perhaps it’d be interesting if they had noted that even middle school students were quite active in other youth leagues during the Cultural Revolution. The passage states: “The goal of the Cultural Revolution was to establish a society of peasants and workers in which all were equal. The new hero was the peasant who worked with his hands.” I thought this sentence was interesting since this is not how I would necessarily describe the goal of the Cultural Revolution. In much of the scholarship concerning the Cultural Revolution, it’s stated that the Cultural Revolution was both a political endeavor for Mao to purge non-radical comrades, as well as an effort to drum up popular support after the failures of the Great Leap Forward left many feeling disillusioned. The passage also states, “The life of the mind – intellectual and artistic activity – was considered useless and dangerous.” Although the Cultural Revolution was largely anti-intellectual, it was predominantly ambitious in purging “capitalist roaders,” and persecuting class enemies.

However, in regards to the peasantry, they could have mentioned the “Down to the Countryside Movement,” as a means to quell the violence of the youth. There is also no mention of how many turned their backs on not only communism but also government in general, and the events signaled a turning point for the Chinese Communist party that paved the way for China to become the global power it is today. In this passage, they also fail to mention the results of the Cultural Revolution. They could have cited how agricultural production stagnated, as well as the “Lost Generation,” who suffered from years of not having any formal education, or how ideas and different products spread throughout the countryside when Red Guards traveled around the country.

Interestingly enough, there is no mention of the Little Red Book, or Chairman Mao badges, or anyone other than Mao – squarely placing all the blame on Mao’s shoulders. No mention of the Gang of Four, or the Lin Biao incident, or Mao’s right-hand man, Liu Shaoqi. There is no mention of struggle sessions, as well. The sentence, “Civil war seemed possible,” is also pretty interesting considering many have defined the factionalism that ripped apart the country during the time as a civil war. There’s also no mention of factionalism at all, or of the infamous Tsinghua University incident.

Next to the section on the Cultural Revolution, there is a little excerpt titled “Daily Life: The Cultural Revolution.” This little excerpt is an anecdote of what a man named Chihua Wen witnessed when he was eight years old during the Cultural Revolution. Wen recounts his neighbors’ home being ransacked by Red Guards, who sacked books and lit them on fire, and insinuates that the couple and their child were killed by the Red Guards:

[The Red Guards] returned to the apartment and emerged carrying two heavy sacks. As they raced off with the sacks in the back of the truck, Wen heard sounds of gagging. “No one ever saw the couple or the child again,” he said. And Wen never forgot what he had seen.

Although I am not necessarily calling the authenticity of the passage into question, I think it would be important to have included a citation – who conducted this interview? When was it taken? Also, perhaps it would be interesting to have included an excerpt from a former Red Guard instead.

New Textbook Entry:

[Assuming section before is on the Great Leap Forward, the Sino-Soviet split, and the period of moderation in economic policies]

After the catastrophic failures of the Great Leap Forward, resulting in the greatest famine in history of the world, Mao Zedong stepped down as State Chairman of the People’s Republic of China in 1959. Mao’s successor, Liu Shaoqi, and senior official Deng Xiaoping began to move the government away from Mao’s radical policies. As a result, Mao lost his prominence within the party.

This period of moderation troubled Mao, and fearing that he was losing power in the Chinese Communist Party, Mao proclaimed the beginning of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in May 1966. In the “May 16 Notification,” Mao called for an effort to purge the remnants of bourgeois and feudal elements in both the Chinese Communist Party and in society.

The Cultural Revolution quickly escalated after the publication of Mao’s big-character poster “Bombard the Headquarters” in August 5, 1967. Mao’s call for a purge within the Chinese Communist Party instigated the Cultural Revolution by accusing people within the party of being influenced by bourgeois elements, creating a “bourgeois dictatorship,” and subverting the Chinese Revolution.

Millions of high school and college students responded to Mao’s call, forming militia units called Red Guards. The radical youth rampaged throughout China, ransacking homes and pillaging libraries, terrorizing civilians, torturing, beating, and executing people, especially teachers, principals, intellectuals, and those with bourgeois backgrounds. Many “class enemies,” including former President Liu Shaoqi and senior official Deng Xiaoping, were subjected to humiliating and painful “struggle sessions” – a form of public criticism, humiliation, and torture to shape public opinion intended to persecute, sometimes execute, supposed class enemies who were forced to confess to a series of crimes in the guise of “self-criticism.”

The young Red Guards were swept up into the personality cult of Chairman Mao, and there was even violent rivalry between rival Red Guard groups who would fight over who was more “red,” and more loyal and faithful to Chairman Mao. The factionalism between Red Guard Groups, reached critical mass in the spring and summer of 1968 at Qinhua University in Beijing, when a “war” broke out between factions where they bombed rivals’ dormitories, burning several students alive.

While Chairman Mao initially supported the feverish violence enacted by the Red Guards, when the nation was ultimately threatened with the prospect of anarchy, Mao suppressed the widespread violence with the “Down the Countryside movement.” During the campaign, the rampant violence and anarchy was eventually calmed down when thousands of students were sent to the countryside in an effort to re-educate the intellectual youth through forced labor. These students were deprived of a college education and taken away from their homes and families, and as a result they became disillusioned and cynical, losing faith in both Mao’s leadership and the Chinese Communist Party.

The period of violence ended with the death of Mao Zedong on September 9, 1976. Soon after, the political group known as the Gang of Four was arrested, thus officially ending the Cultural Revolution. This political faction consisted of Chairman Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, and her cronies, Zhang Chunqiao, Yao Wenyuan, and Wang Hongwen. The Gang of Four, threatened by the power struggle concerning who would become Mao’s successor, further radicalized the Cultural Revolution, censoring and defaming their enemies, such as Deng Xiaoping and Zhou Enlai. Ultimately, they were arrested and put on trial, and were blamed for the excesses and atrocities that occurred during the Cultural Revolution. Although Mao ushered in the revolution, the Gang of Four were condemned as responsible, serving as scapegoats.

In an effort to put the Cultural Revolution in the past and move forward, the Chinese Communist Party published the “Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of Our Party since the Founding of the PRC.”
The resolution was developed in the summer of 1981 by 4,000 party leaders, including Deng Xiaoping, who had been slandered and purged during the Cultural Revolution. The party felt it was important to preserve Chairman Mao as a symbol of both revolutionary and nationalist legacy, despite his failures. The resolution praised his success in the revolutionary struggle against the Guomindang and economic successes at the beginning of the creation of the PRC. However, the resolution criticized Mao extensively for the mistakes during the Great Leap Forward; his disregard for Leninist principles by supporting the Maoist cult; and the grave errors of the Cultural Revolution, which were condemned as largely his fault.

It would take decades for China to recover after the Cultural Revolution. The period of intense political mayhem affected every aspect of Chinese society – millions were persecuted, hurt and killed; schools and universities were shut down for students to criticize teachers; spouses reported each other; children spied on their parents; and the state halted many of its functions until 1969. During this tumultuous decade, Mao’s personality cult reached its climax, and thousands wreaked chaos in his name, resulting in a civil war that ravaged the nation, stunting the nation’s economic, educational, political, and artistic growth for years.

[In the history academic research project, students pick a topic of interest that is also included in the NYS secondary school social studies curriculum. The completed project has three sections. The first section consists of a synthesis essay, assessing the scholarship represented  by a selection of eight academic monographs on the subject. The second section offers a curated collection of related primary source materials that the student has selected and edited, and for which they have composed context-setting headnotes.  The third section engages with a secondary school textbook. Students write a critical review of the textbook’s treatment of their chosen subject, and then, pretending that they have been charged with editing or revising the textbook chapter, compose a new section for the textbook. The newly composed section of textbook reflects the scholarship mastered in section one.

In her project, Angelica Maldonado examines the Cult of Personality of Mao Zedong, especially as seen during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. In the excerpt provided, we see Angelica’s curated section of primary source material, the textbook-account critique, and her own newly composed account of Mao for secondary school readers. I am proud of her work here, which is based on the excellent study of the historical literature that appeared in section one of her project. As a cultural studies student from Pratt, Angelica has a well-trained eye for the visual arts, and her selection of materials reflects this.–Wendy Urban-Mead]

Self-Directed Learning Portfolios in American Literature

For Professor Jaime Alves‘s American Realisms, a course in the Bard MAT Program also offered to Bard College literature majors, students complete a Self-Directed Learning Portfolio—a series of assignments in which they augment the assigned reading list by selecting relevant texts not on the syllabus and considering them in relation to texts that are. Students may choose literary or cultural artifacts from the period under study, or read critical or theoretical texts about the period. The aims of the assignment are to allow students to personalize the course to their own interests and deepen their exposure to the written and artistic output of this fertile period.

In the following examples from the Fall 2017 course, Anne Burnett and Molly Schroeder pair paintings with texts by Stephen Crane and Theodore Dreiser. Anne is a fourth year at Bard College. Molly is a graduate student and pre-service teacher in the Bard MAT program in literature.

Molly Schroeder’s SDLP

 

George Bellows, New York 1911

George Bellows was an American realist painter who specialized in depictions of urban life. Born in 1882 in Columbus, Ohio, Bellows would eventually move to New York to study at the New York School of Art under Robert Henri, a prestigious realist painter with a notable sphere of influence over the realist art movement of the day (Encyclopedia Britannica). Bellows is known for his renderings of prizefights (see Stag at Sharpie’s), but he was also important for his revolutionary techniques in depicting the realities of urban life at the turn of the century. For this SDLP, I have chosen to study his 1911 work, New York, an ambitious and turbulent urban vista that essentializes the force of the commercializing and industrializing city in one impossibly hectic and impressionistic work. When I first looked at this piece, I was struck by how I could read the narratives of three very different literary lives all within the same scene. To me, this painting corresponds to the realities of three very different characters who all experience the overwhelming sensation of being swept away by city strife: Stephen Crane’s Maggie, Theodore Dreiser’s Carrie, and Lily Bart from Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth. Bellows’s techniques in this painting also raise questions about the defining characteristics of realism. His impressionistic style and construction of this urban scene are not so exact as to render a completely accurate depiction of the minute details of New York City in 1911. As opposed to other styles of painting and the rise of photography during this era, Bellows’s realism asks the viewer to expand their notions of what a realist work should be like. In so doing, the work begets a kind of emotional reality that reproduces the sensations of city life just as accurately as a photograph.

One expects realist art, literary or visual, to render some kind of social reality with acute accuracy and an obvious dependence on the source material. For example, the photography of Jacob Riis in How the Other Half Lives captures with stark and unsettling truth the visual realities of poverty in urban tenement housing. Bellows is doing the same thing – he is representing faithfully the realities of a rapidly-growing New York City – but his methods differ dramatically from Riis in this painting. According to the National Gallery of Art’s article on New York, “Although the viewer looks uptown toward Madison Square from the intersection of Broadway and 23rd Street, Bellows did not intend to represent a specific, identifiable place in the city. He instead drew on several bustling commercial districts to create an imaginary composite, an impossibly crowded image that would best convey a sense of the city’s frenetic pace.” In effect, Bellows expands the understandings of realist conventions in this piece. While the painting is situated in a “real” place, the impossible construction, congestion, and confusion is an invented amalgam of the most realistic aspects of city life at this time. Bellows was not concerned with depicting a specific scene of New York’s bustling commercial activity, and if he were concerned with tying the portrait to a specific place, the painting would likely lose some of its power over the viewer. In allowing his creativity to render a perhaps unlikely scene, Bellows gives viewers a more realistic emotional experience, akin to sensations of turn-of-the-century New York City. As one critic noted, in this painting, “you feel the rush, you hear the noise, and you wish you were safely home” (National Gallery of Art).

Bellows’s style is also an interesting resistance to typical understandings of realism. His impressionistic techniques in this painting are not what one would immediately think of when considering contributions to the realist style. However, it is exactly in this inexact form that creates a more honest depiction of city life. The undefined faces of the throngs of people demonstrate the anonymity and invisibility of the working masses at this time. The smudge-like brush strokes used on the buildings and in the sky create a sense of dreariness that literally darkens the masses below, an allusion to the oppressive quality of city life. Indefinite advertisements rise above the city streets, and in their unrecognizability the viewer is not enticed by their offerings but rather made weary at their light and color in such a drab scene. Color is used to emphasize this kind of contrast, for example the colorful ladies in the bottom right corner seem almost out of place against the throb of black and brown-clothed people. The light in the piece seems to be coming from the spaces between skyscrapers, moving diagonally across the painting, starting with the colorful blue and red women in the lower right, extending to the cart in the center of the piece, and expanding to the middle-ground where a patch of snow-covered ground on the upper left side of the piece marks the boundary between the ground floor of the city and the growth of the highrise buildings in the background. The piece is evocative and real because of the impressions it captures, thereby depicting the city in a more honest way; the imprecision of its details reflects more truly the experience of feeling lost in this mob of people and movement and industry. In this way, Bellows work expands my own understanding of realism beyond simply objective studies and reproductions of the world and society. Realism works to instil in its viewers the reality of experiencing a scene or a social relation, by any and all means available.

In this one scene, I can see Maggie, Lily, and Carrie, each on their respective trajectories. Carrie’s feelings of being overwhelmed and sustained by the city throngs as she searches for her opportunities to rise above her station are expertly included in Bellows work, just as Maggie’s degradation and anonymity are woven into the indiscriminate mass of workers flurrying by. Lily’s improprieties and unreal expectations about her abilities to sustain her high-end lifestyle are reflected in the poignant contrasts between these masses and highlighted figures in red and blue, and the incomprehensibility of the advertisment’s messages mixing with the clouds. Lily’s inability to see the impossibility of her expectations in life are laid out clearly for us in Bellows work. We can see how the accident of light has merely highlighted a few choice figures, whereas Lily Bart believes wholeheartedly in an imagined destiny of wealth and luxury. New York has the capacity to embody each of these different literary iterations of the American urban environment of the early twentieth century because of his realist motivations. Bellows’s project was to recreate the daunting confusion of any bustling city, and in his ability to do so, the realities of myriad stories and experiences are clearly visible.

Works Cited

The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “George Wesley Bellows.” Encyclopædia

Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 5 Apr. 2017,

www.britannica.com/biography/George-Wesley-Bellows.

 

Bellows, George. New York. National Gallery of Art, 2017,

www.nga.gov/Collection/art-object-page.69392.html.

 

Anne Burnett’s SDLP

In an essay on the painter, art historian Barbara Weinberg (who is curator of The American Wing at The Metropolitan Museum of Art) describes Thomas Eakins as “America’s greatest, most uncompromising realist.” Born in Philadelphia in 1844, Eakins would spend most of his life in the city. He did leave to study in Paris in 1866, however, where Weinberg explains that he became a part of a vanguard of painters who would shift the focus of American art from landscape to the figural subjects favored by European artists. Returning to Philadelphia in 1870, Eakins’s work began to reflect his own lifelong love for sports: His painting depicted scenes of athletes and outdoor activities. Also during this time—and in somewhat of an unlikely synchrony—he was creating intense, brooding images of women and children in quiet, shadowed interiors. While on faculty at the Pennsylvania Academy for about a decade beginning in 1876, he provoked much controversy after his insistence that the study of nudity was an essential element of academia. From 1887 until the end of his career, Eakins focused almost exclusively on portraiture, working at life-scale and renouncing outdoor light to focus on his subject in isolation. Compared with the stylistic glamor and artiness of his peers, Eakins’s portraits were notably more pensive and muted. His subjects were almost always friends and acquaintances—he rarely received commissions for his portraiture. Weinberg notes that, “Although few critical voices actively promoted Eakins’ vision, the sheer steadiness of his quest to center art on the accurate portrayal of the human figure had won him a position in the art world.”

This example of Eakins’ portraiture was finished in 1895. It depicts a young woman named Maud Cook who was the sister of another of his subjects, Weda Cook, in an earlier 1892 painting called The Concert Singer. At the time of the painting, Maud was supposed unmarried and in her twenties. Given Eakins’s characteristic lack of interest in fashion or beauty in favor of activity, robustness, and form, critics often note that this portrait of Maud is distinct for its fairly conventional “prettiness.” Cook herself apparently recalled that, at the time it was being composed, Eakins himself referred to the painting as “a big rose bud.” Eventually the painting was acquired by Stephen Carlton Clark, a famous American art collector, who subsequently bequeathed it to Yale University Art Gallery where it has been in the collection since 1961.

I’m most interested in thinking about Eakins’s aesthetic use of light and his framing decisions in this painting. It appears that the these two details work in tandem to direct the viewer’s attention to Maud, but also to a question about her gaze. When this question inevitably arises, I think the painting truly becomes more about itself than about Maud. Eakins apparently staged Maud so that she cheats to his left—he does not paint her from a straight-on perspective. This position affords the intuition viewers will have that she is looking at something: Her gaze appears to be fixed upon something that’s out of the frame of the portrait, so the question arises, “What is she looking at?” Eakins’s composition and this possibility that Maud is looking at something out of the frame also gives the sense that she wears an expression of pondering or thoughtfulness, and then viewers might begin to think that she might not be looking all but passively gazing or staring blankly, lost in thought. And then viewers will wonder not only what she may be looking at but what she may be thinking about. Yet, upon further consideration, this appearance that Maud is really looking at and/or wondering about something could veritably be a kind of illusion produced by the composition of the portrait—Maybe the way that light seems to be coming from the place where her gaze is directed merely produces a kind of visual effect that only gives the impression that she is thoughtful. It wouldn’t be impossible to imagine the rather bare, dimly lit, spacious studio where in the center was situated Maud with a light directly in front of her and Eakins with his canvas and paints set up slightly to the right of his subject. In other words, maybe it’s not Maud at all who gazed to the left—maybe it was rather Eakins who decided to paint his subject from her right side, and this is what gives the impression that she could be lost in thought and what produces that faint, translucent glimmer in her eyes that often indicates a person does not see what they’re looking at. If the former situation is true and Maud is looking askance in the direction of the light, then the composition assumes an almost literary undertone because viewers will undoubtedly associate the light with Maud’s thoughts—the composition becomes a cue of sorts that establishes the subject of the painting as, effectively, Maud’s thoughts. However, the very possibility of the latter threatens to destabilize the sense of meaning the painting implies, and it creates a sense of mistrust towards representation— that representation it could give an impression of thoughtfulness that Maud hadn’t really expressed.

The role that light and composition play in this portrait of Maud made me think a lot about the role they play in any form of representation, but their specific effect here reminded me very much of Henry James’s Daisy Miller: A Study. The two things that I think really make the connection for me are the ways in which Daisy’s gaze becomes such a prevalent gauge for Winterbourne’s interpretation of her, and the ambivalent way in which his interpretation transitions from one thing to another. Most obviously, it seems that Maud and Daisy are similar subjects in and of themselves—if only because they are both unmarried young women. When Daisy and Winterbourne first meet and Winterbourne slowly wins her attention, the recognition that she is opening up to him is made distinct through a description of Daisy’s gaze: “…she gradually gave him the benefit of her glance; and then he saw that this glance was perfectly direct and unshrinking. It was not, however, what would have been called an immodest glance, for the young girl’s eyes were singularly fresh and honest” (7). This unabashed directness of her gaze quickly becomes a staple of Daisy’s personality, and it is subsequently conveyed—not only through Winterbourne’s interpretations, but as an ambivalence that pervades the narrator’s descriptions and those of other characters—as either enticing for its innocent unsophistication or something rather contemptible that should be avoided. When she is at the park in what to some may have been a somewhat imprudent situation with both Winterbourne and Giovanelli, for example, the narrator comments, “But Daisy, on this occasion, continued to present herself as an inscrutable combination of audacity and innocence” (33). It strikes me that the way in which people’s opinions of Daisy in James’s narrative seem to inconclusively oscillate between admirable independence and disreputable frivolity is not unlike Eakins’s portrait of Maud Cook in that viewers or readers in both cases are left constantly guessing as to these two women’s inner-workings: It’s never revealed whether Daisy is naïve or fiercely independent, and, similarly, it’s not possible to know whether Maud is a pensive person or kind of an inattentive person or whether viewers have the right to consider between either one of those judgments at all. I think light has an especially interesting role to play in this suspension of judgment because, in both Eakins’s portrait and James’s narrative, it is largely the culprit. The light in the portrait of Maud is what gets viewers thinking about Maud and her thoughts, and the ease with which people see Daisy in different “lights” quickly prevent any one of them from holding true. Light is about perspective, and perspective is everything—especially if you’re trying to get to a sense of what’s “real.”

I took a couple darkroom photography courses my freshman year at Bard, and I can still remember something Stephen Shore said in a seminar: “Photography is an inherently analytic medium.” What he meant is that in the while wide world of infinite things, whenever someone takes a photograph they are inevitably choosing some things from that infinity to the exclusion others. And, I take it, whatever that person does choose to photograph will inevitably be influenced by that person’s interests, tastes, etc. Both Daisy Miller: A Study and Eakins’s portrait of Maud Cook seem to foreground this seemingly constant role of perspective—of personal taste or interest—in determining anything at all, so that something claiming to be “real” or “realist” could not fail to include whatever perspective(s) contributed to the representation thus produced. I think people often try to separate perspective from reality with the idea that somehow reality is objective, meaning it doesn’t have perspective or something. But I get the sense that realism and perspective aren’t mutually exclusive at all—in fact there’s something very intimate and real about foregrounding the presence of perspectives.

Works Cited

Eakins, Thomas. Maud Cook (Mrs. Robert C. Reid). 1895. Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven. Yale                University Art Gallery, artgallery.yale.edu/collection/objects/52619

“Portrait of Maud Cook.” Wikipedia, 15 Nov. 2017, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Portrait_of_Maud_Cook.

Weinberg, H. Barbara. “Thomas Eakins (1844–1916): Painting.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New                       York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/eapa/               hd_eapa.htm (October 2004)

 

Principles of Principals

[Dr. Rana Surkhi describes a workshop series that she and her colleagues have developed for building leaders in Palestine. Rana is Director of the Master of Arts in Teaching Program at Al-Quds Bard College in East Jerusalem.]

The Master of Arts in Teaching Program in cooperation with the Center for Teaching and Learning and in coordination with the Palestinian Ministry of Education launched a continuing education workshop series for 25 school principals among its graduates. The series consists of 5 day-long gatherings during the 2017/2018 school year. Among the attendees were school principals from the various directorates, MAT faculty, and a representative from the Palestinian Ministry of Education Main Supervision Department. The first workshop, titled “Effective leaders: exploring first assumptions about the principal’s role,” focused on creating a community of learning and sharing among school principals. Activities focused on the “principles of principals”, seeing themselves and their teachers as continuous learners, and how to promote a growth mindset among their staff.

This series of workshops comes under the effort to create a “Continuing Education” component planned in alignment with the Palestinian Ministry of Education qualification systems. Under the CTL this component will work with MAT alumni after graduation and will be designed to promote further work with alumni in the field as well as interested teachers/supervisors/principals from other programs.

“My Last Duchess” in Fiction and Classroom

[Molly Schroeder writes about Margaret Atwood, Robert Browning, and the EngageNY lesson plans for “My Last Duchess.” Molly plans to be an English teacher and is a graduate student in literature in the Bard MAT Program. Her essay was a response to an assignment in Victorian Spaces, an MAT literature course.]

Margaret Atwood’s “My Last Duchess,” from her 2006 collection, Moral Disorder, is not only an example of a contemporary space based on one of our Victorian texts, Robert Browning’s poem. Atwood’s story is also eerily connected to our conversations on teaching poetry in high school in the context of EngageNY’s eleventh grade lesson plan.

Essentially, “My Last Duchess” is about an unnamed, female narrator’s experiences being taught the famous Robert Browning poem by “the best English teacher in the school,” which also includes her navigation of the tumultuous world of adolescence (4). In the context of learning about Robert Browning’s famous poem in her high school English class, the narrator describes the pressures of students in an exam-focused school environment (the exam scores of students would be published in a newspaper, and Browning’s poem “was an important poem, worth…a full fifteen marks on the final exam” (5)). The narrator mimics the rhythms, distractions, and dread of high school classes with keen accuracy, reminiscent of a student’s meandering mind during an afternoon class: she glances over “the brand-new classroom,” dives into tangential meditations, which are interrupted by Miss Bessie’s fear-inspiring questions and the narrator’s own note-taking (1). The narrator’s journey with the poem is not only limited to the classroom; it also affects her relationship with Bill and prompts her to consider the limits and restrictions of her environment. She is attuned to the gendered expectations of her town as well as the notion that excelling in education is a way out: “The boys were expected to become doctors, lawyers…As for us girls, we weren’t sure where we were headed. If we didn’t go on [to university], we’d have to get married, or else become old maids; but with a good set of grades, this dismaying fork in the road could be postponed for a while” (5). While the narrator is aware of her aptitude for literature, this capacity is qualified by Bill, her boyfriend, who says that the narrator is “really, really smart, in that way at least” (7, emphasis mine), and also by herself. Whether it’s because of the stress of Miss Bessie’s classroom or the narrator’s own insecurities about her somewhat radical interpretations of the poem, she never speaks up in class to offer her own reading of Browning’s work. In fact, the only instance of her discussing her opinions of the Duke openly ends in an argument and subsequent breakup with beloved Bill (13-14).

This story is particularly interesting in light of the EngageNY lesson when considering Miss Bessie’s motivations and tactics in teaching her students. “Nine times out of ten she simply answered her own questions,” but other times she would wait for a response to her hanging question, and the narrator describes “the suspense, the looming danger – the threat of being pounced on, called by name, forced to speak” (2). Miss Bessie is demanding, exacting, and has extremely high expectations for her students with the clear and repeated goal of preparing them for success on the ever-looming, fate-determining final exams. “Line by line, she hauled us through the poem,” the narrator writes, just as is required in the EngageNY lesson plan (5). Test-focused, emphasizing objective analysis and “correct” answers, Miss Bessie’s method is comparable to the state-mandated lesson plans. “She described our task of learning as a race, as sort of obstacle course” that she expertly ushers the narrator and her classmates through and is considered an exemplar teacher for her efforts (4). However, her methods aren’t totally sound, as Bill is completely frustrated by the poem while the narrator is dissuaded from offering her own insights into the poem because of the limitations of the intended purpose of the lesson.

Bill and the narrator contrast hopelessly in their reactions and interpretations to the poem, perhaps foreshadowing the end of their relationship, but certainly demonstrating two different kinds of students who were both failed by didactic methods of English instruction. Bill “wanted everything to be clear-cut, as in algebra, a subject he was good at,” and naturally finds frustration and difficulty in juggling the multiple meanings and complexity of Browning’s poem (7). Meanwhile, the narrator breezes through Miss Bessie’s questions in the safety and privacy of her notes and, upon further and deeper meditation on the poem, reaches interpretations of the poem that go further than the readings of her classmates and some that are not at all supported by the majority. While Marilyn suggests that the lines “as if she were alive” suggest that the Duchess is dead, the narrator surmises that the Duke “bumped her off,” integrating her own interest in detective stories in her Victorian literature lesson (3). The narrator also becomes sympathetic to the Duke upon further investigation. She compares the Duchess’s smiling to “girls at school who smiled at everyone in the same earnest way…usually coming to rest on some boy” and justifies the Duke’s reaction to the Duchess (10). She rejects the accepted view “that the envoy was horrified by what the Duke had told him and had tried to rush down the stairs first in order to get away from such a twisted nutbar” and argues the Duke is “merely showing consideration to the envoy” to pass along the message to the new Duchess about how she should act (11). Her unpopular interpretation has “all three of them in cahoots – the Duke, the envoy, and the Count,” demonstrating an awareness of the larger patriarchal structures demonstrated in the poem (11). The climactic final scene of the story – the argument between the narrator and Bill – demonstrates the limitations of Miss Bessie’s teaching and the goals of English instruction: Bill cannot enter the poem because of its immoral cruelty and his personal objections to authorial intent and choice, while the narrator cannot escape the poem because of its complexity and her inability to effectively articulate her interpretations to others. Even though the narrator is a model student, her intellectual abilities are stifled by such restrictions, just as Bill is stifled by feeling pushed out of the poem.

Atwood’s story suggests the potential benefits of allowing students to respond to a focused freewrite invitation: imagine what the classroom discussion would have been like if the narrator was allowed to freely associate with the poem, as she demonstrates in the narrative structure of the story, and then read those findings aloud to the class. It is not clear if her interpretations reached anyone other than Bill, and the finality of their argument suggests that she was discouraged from pursuing them further. While Miss Bessie was certainly an effective teacher, the narrator understands the limits of such teaching; in recognizing these limits, she begins to understand her own role and agency in her learning. In questioning why Browning’s “My Last Duchess” was chosen by Miss Bessie and other teachers, as well as other texts that feature “hapless, annoying, dumb bunny girls” the narrator states, “They got together, they had secret meetings, they conferred, they cooked up our book list among them. They knew something we needed to know, but it was a complicated thing – not so much a thing as a pattern, like the clues in a detective story once you started connecting them together. These women – these teachers – had no direct method of conveying this thing to us, not in a way that would make us listen, because it was too tangled, it was too oblique. It was hidden within the stories” (15). The short story is the narrator’s, and presumably Atwood’s, attempt to articulate that “complicated thing”, by examining the narrator’s reaction to the poem in her specific context of being an adolescent girl in a gendered and patriarchal society. Atwood’s story suggests that the reason for the persistence of Browning’s poem and of Victoriana in general in the English curriculum lies not only in its instructional value, but also in its ability to engender useful resistance and multiple interpretations for students: to encourage students to take on different perspectives and to make these isolated texts somehow relevant to the lived experiences of the students who study them.

 

 

 

Altered Books

[Bard MAT graduate and high school English teacher Bridget Ryan shared examples of her students’ Altered Books Project. Bridget writes, “After reading three contemporary novels that exhibit postmodern techniques (Song of Solomon, The Handmaid’s Tale, and The Things They Carried), my students had to create their own postmodern works. For this project, they made an altered book version of one of the works that we studied during the year. The works ranged from Much Ado About Nothing and The Awakening to the more contemporary works.” Bridget teaches at the Academy of the Holy Angels in Demarest, NJ.]

Writ in Water

Denise Maltese teaches English Language Arts at Onteora Middle School in Boiceville, New York. She is also a mentor teacher for the Bard MAT Program and a fellow of the National Writing Project–both the South Coast Writing Project in Santa Barbara and the Hudson Valley Writing Project in New Paltz, NY.  Denise believes that the best way to help her students overcome their anxieties about studying poetry is to have them read and interact with a wide range of poems. During National Poetry Month, her students chose a line of poetry and represented it visually in an ephemeral medium. The goal is to interpret the line by both the choice of medium and the way the line is visualized. Some fine examples are in the gallery below.

 from “Mongrel Heart” by David Baker

 

from “My World Within” by Erin Hanson

 

 

 from “Barbie Doll” by Marge Piercy

 

from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufock” by T.S. Eliot

 

 

 

from “Offering and Rebuff” by Carl Sandburg

 

 from “Death Dragoness” by Jess C. Scott

 

 

 

from “Mountain Stream” by Karl Stuart Kline

 

 

 

from “Darling Coffee” by Meena Alexander