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)

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)

 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:


 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:

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

Zhang Hongtu

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,


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


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,

“Portrait of Maud Cook.” Wikipedia, 15 Nov. 2017,

Weinberg, H. Barbara. “Thomas Eakins (1844–1916): Painting.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New                       York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–.               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

On Grit

[Nicholas Wright reviews Angela Duckworth’s study of “grit.” Nicholas is a graduate student in the Bard MAT Program in New York and teaches for the Bard Prison Initiative.]

Duckworth, Angela. Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Scribner, 2016. 333 pages. $28.00.

We have all achieved something in life, but few have thought deeply about the topic of accomplishment. Francis Galton, Charles Darwin, William James, and Angela Duckworth represent that second category. In the 1860s, Galton suggested in Hereditary Genius that overachievers or “outliers … are remarkable in three ways: they demonstrate unusual ‘ability’ in combination with exceptional ‘zeal’ and ‘the capacity for hard labor’” (qtd in Duckworth 20-21). When Galton’s cousin Charles Darwin read the above findings he expressed surprise, writing “I have always maintained that, excepting fools, men did not differ much in intellect, only in zeal and hard work; and I still think this is an eminently important difference” (qtd. in Duckworth 21). In the 1900s, William James wrote “The Energies of Men” and posited that “the human individual lives usually far within his limits; he possesses powers of various sorts which he habitually fails to use. He energizes below his maximum, and he behaves below his optimum” (qtd. in Duckworth 23). In the 2010s, scholar Angela Duckworth updates and complicates the topic of achievement.

Instead of referring to high achievers as outliers, she calls these people paragons of grit, a characteristic that melds being passionate with persevering. She also replaces the idea of ability, zeal, and hard labor with a belief in that magic that happens when talent and effort work together. Yes, Duckworth thinks, “talent—how fast we improve in skill—absolutely matters. But effort factors into the calculations twice, not once. Effort builds skills. At the very same time, effort makes skill productive” (42, italics in original). Grit is a blend of biological determinism and social construction; also, grit changes with age and the cultural era we grow up in. All paragons of grit have four psychological assets: they have interests; they practice to a level of mastery; they believe their passions are purposeful; they have hope that circumstances will improve (90-91). So closes Part I “What Grit Is and Why It Matters.”

Part II, “Growing Grit from the Inside out,” explores how we learn, acquire, and cultivate each asset. I found Duckworth’s writing on mastery most appealing. In the seventh chapter, we learn that gritty people practice differently: They create a stretch goal, “one narrow aspect of their overall performance” (121). Educators could easily adapt this approach when we discuss grades and goals with our students. We can discourage them from just wanting to do better in our classes and encourage them to find a specific way to improve. Is it by participating 25% more? Is it by writing longer and more thoughtful extended paragraphs? Is it by completing more mathematics problems in a shorter time?   Gritty people, then, practice, observing the 10,000 hours dictum. Educators might need to take this wisdom in spirit, not in law, showing students how fifteen minutes of intense and focused practice over a month can improve any skill. The math here works out to 450 minutes or 7.5 hours of dedicated practice. Lastly, gritty people seek feedback from experts who emphasize, “what they did wrong—so they can fix it—[over what] what they did right” (122, italics in original). Here too is a chance for educators to modify the approach, because offering praise is equally important to criticism. We would need to learn about our students’ temperaments to best get them to continue to be gritty people.

In Part III, “Growing Grit from the Outside In,” Angela Duckworth offers some practical advice. We must be authoritative and supportive. We should encourage students to try an extracurricular that interest them and follow through by doing it for at least a year. Duckworth is most brilliant when she explains her Hard Thing Rule. In her household, everyone chooses something difficult to do, everyone can quit at a “natural stopping point” (241), and everyone picks the hard thing for herself/himself. Educators can model this behavior by talking to our students about the challenges we still have in learning and choosing a goal. For me, I always do the writing assignments along with my students and offer to show them my progress as I work on the project. I also try to teach at least one to three new texts each term, telling them about this explicitly and making my lessons during those times more of a workshop in how one scholar approaches a new text.

If we encourage our students to practice the Hard Thing Rule, we can change the way they think about genius. “If you define genius,” Duckworth writes on the last page of book, “as being able to accomplish great things in life without effort, then he [her father] was right: I’m no genius, and neither is he. But if, instead, you define genius as working toward excellence, ceaselessly, with every element of your being—then, in fact, my dad is a genius, and so am I, … and, if you’re willing, so are you” (277).

With fluid, coherent, and cohesive prose Duckworth presents her findings. Her technique with the rhetorical model of multiple examples and illustrations, though at times overdone, helps readers understand the various theories she presents. Overall, Grit deserves the praise it has received.

Observing and Understanding the Child

[In this essay, Courtney Kaufmann writes, “Arguably, we live in a society in which people—teachers included—listen to respond rather than listen to understand.” Courtney is a graduate student in the Bard MAT Program in New York. She wrote the blog for the course Language, Literacy, and the Adolescent Learner.]

Early in the week, I sat in my one-year old son’s bedroom, leaning against the crib, watching him play. I couldn’t help but glance at my phone and browse Pinterest. After all, I was throwing his very first birthday party in just a week, and there was still much planning to be done. Besides, we had been at this for an hour and a half. How many times could I repeat, “Wow! Great book, Oliver! Look at the animals. What sound does a cow make?” without hearing any sort of response? The conviction had left my voice a while ago. As I was browsing pins full of DIY instructions for making snowflakes and high chair banners (whatever that was), Oliver came running to me with a red square-shaped block in hand. He pointed to the accompanying box, with a top that had shapes cut out of it. He knew that the square block went into the box, but he couldn’t figure out how.


I took the box from him and put the square block in the square hole. “See, easy peasy!” I said to him, then kissed him on the forehead. Try as he might, he could not figure out how to align the square block with the its matching hole and let it go of it. Instead, he put it in sideways, or tried to put the block through the star-shaped hole. I slowly got distracted again by the website, but the moment he caught me looking away, he would tug on my shirt and thrust the block at me once more. With all of the patience I could muster, I would show him how to do it again before turning back to party planning. We went back and forth like this for some time.

Later in the week, I was at work at the Writing Center at a local college where I tutor students in writing, when a familiar student walked into my office and requested a session. I recognized her from the semester before. She requested help on an assignment for her first business class. Her group was supposed to write about the company Target and analyze its role in the retail industry in various ways, and she was given ‘politics’ as her category. She had already submitted the assignment to the professor, but he gave the students an extension after he realized that he never mentioned that they should look at the retail industry as a whole, and to his dismay, the students did very specific case studies on their company. Despite the fact that her essay was nearly complete, the girl had a worried look on her face. “I want to talk about the Trump administration, and NAFTA. But I don’t want to get political. I don’t want it to be like, ‘Oh no, Trump is going to deport me,'” she worried.

I smiled politely, but asked myself, “How do you write about politics without ‘getting political’?” As we began to piece the paper together, adding outside information about the retail industry as a whole, the effects of both foreign and domestic policies, and the entire policy that is North American Free Trade Agreement, she kept repeating, “I don’t know if I should get political.” After some time, I honestly began to panic because the clock was ticking. I felt that we did not have time to worry about getting political. Honestly, her writing was good. She just needed some help refining her ideas. I told her that, very simply, she needed to describe the policy, its potential repercussions economically, and then what kind of changes the industry itself or a particular company would have to make if the Republican administration were to abolish NAFTA. After describing this, I suggested we pick up the pace and move to the conclusion of the paper.

I could not help but reflect on these two experiences and question my role as a teacher in both as I read the writings of Loris Malaguzzi and Maria Montessori for homework in my education class at Bard College. Simply put, these educators believed that the teacher cannot help the child learn and succeed unless he or she understands the child. In his work, “Your Image of the Child: Where Teaching Begins,” Malaguzzi explicitly says that “there’s a difference between the environment that you are able to build based on a preconceived image of the child and the environment that you can build that is based on the child you see in front of you — the relationship you build with the child […]” He also suggests that in order to create success, adults should create an appropriate image of the child that fits the child and not the adult. The combination of these two elements create a customized experience for the child, rather than, as Malaguzzi describes, the standardized experience which consists of “rapid assessments, tests, [and] judgments.” Finally, Malaguzzi suggests that the educator should attempt to strike a balance between assisting the student and encouraging self-learning.

I found these ideas particularly useful when looking back on my experience with the freshman student. Why hadn’t I alleviated her fears of being ‘too political?’ This notion is elementary, and was a perfect excuse for me to teach her how to approach the difficulties of appropriately portraying politics in formal writing. Why didn’t I tell her what I was thinking, that she had to be political to a certain extent? I pride myself on building relationship with students, especially ones like this girl, whom I have seen multiple times. How could I have helped her learn her material even better, rather than imposing my edits on her paper in order to complete the assignment within our allotted time? Understanding her needs, alleviating her fears, and creating a safe space to talk about these issues could have helped her more than a completed paper would have. I am sure that either I or one of my colleagues would see this student back for the same kinds of issues.

Malaguzzi’s philosophy was also eye-opening in relation to my experience with my son. Specifically, Malaguzzi asserts the idea that children need adults to be present all the time, and not just in the final results of their success, but in their journey. From the perspective of the child, he writes, ‘“If only you had seen all I had to do.’ The child wants this observation. We all want this.” Many of the parents that I have talked to with small children worry about similar things in today: ‘Do I work too much?’ ‘Am I on my phone too much?’ ‘Am I not involved enough?’ While it is both difficult and exhausting to engage with a little human who has limited language skills, it is important, as Malaguzzi says, to be constantly involved, and to observe the child all the time. Oliver looked to me for the exact response that Malaguzzi identifies; he did not just want me to show him how the block went into the box, he wanted me to watch him try. He wanted me to see whether he succeeded or failed. If I had only put the phone down and observed him, I would have, as Malaguzzi says, drawn an image of my child, one that is appropriate to him and not to me or my ideas of him. I did not truly consider his capabilities in this action. Rather, I assumed I understood them. By observing him more often and putting in an effort to truly understand him, I can become a better teacher, a better parent, and a better learner myself.

Finally, this brings me to Montessori. While her piece, “Methods for the Teaching of Reading and Writing” is perhaps more of a case study on the effects of her approach to teaching reading and writing to young children, Montessori assumes something that Malaguzzi is attempting to instill in the reader: she already understands the child. More importantly, she acts as a sort of in-between, between the world of the child and the world of the adult. She is a translator. In the first paragraph of her piece, she regards the vertical stroke as the first one practiced in writing. She regards this stroke as entirely pointless. In fact, she compares the notion of children learning strokes before they learn letters to studying “infinitesimal calculus” in order to seriously consider the stars. She recognizes that children this age heavily rely on sensation, and uses this tactic in order to teach them both reading and writing before the age of six years old.

This observation and understanding of the child is not only something that applies to younger children, but to older ones as well. Arguably, we live in a society in which people—teachers included—listen to respond rather than listen to understand. In an effort to maximize the child’s knowledge in a set amount of time, perhaps the teacher loses his or her way. With this mindset, it is easy to drown in one’s own voice. Rather, if one were to build relationships with and observe the child, he or she could better customize a lesson and identify key problems that the child is having. This does not just mean that one should be aware of certain theories, such as Erikson’s stages of psycho-social development. In my education class, we have talked about how, sometimes, the role of the teacher and the parent seem to have a blurred line. Understanding older children, especially, requires walking that blurred line in order to, ultimately, help an individual self-learn and become entirely autonomous. And, as Malaguzzi suggests, we might just realize how little we actually know.

Review of For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood

[Nicholas Wright reviews new work by Christopher Emdin. Nicholas is a graduate student in the Bard MAT program and an instructor in the Bard Prison Initiative.]

Emdin, Christopher. For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood … and the Rest of Y’all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education. Beacon Press: 2016. 220 pages. $25.95

For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood … and the Rest of Y’all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education is a mouthful title by Christopher Emdin, associate professor in the Department of Mathematics, Science, and Technology at Teacher’s College, Columbia University. His thinking brings to my mind no other writers about urban education or reality pedagogy, even though I am certain his thoughts connect with Brazilian thinker Paulo Freire (Pedagogy of the Oppressed [1968]) and American thinker bell hooks (Teaching to Transgress [1994] and Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope [2003]). These texts wonder about the relationship among student and teacher and society, education as the practice of freedom, and what mindsets work in the classroom to end racism. Emdin’s basic premise that guides For White Folks is as follows: “Students have to first connect to a classroom/school that welcomes their brilliance, celebrates it, and makes them realize that they have a natural ability [by virtue of their neoindigineity] to be academically successful” (176).

Since Emdin is cautious about using jargon in his twelve chapters that run on average fifteen pages, readers need to understand only the meaning and differences between neoindigineity and indigineity. In creating his neologism neoindigineity, he reminds us of the Carlisle Indian School in the 1870s and cites the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. Neoindigenous people, according to this record, “see themselves as, or hav[ing] been positioned as, separate from those who are politically or socially in command of the region” (8). Indigenous people meet this qualification and are “people whose existence in a certain geographic location predates the region’s conquering or occupation by a colonial or imperialist power” (8).

His early chapters offer a few more foundational and simple concepts. Emdin reminds teachers that we tend to be more comfortable with students who conform to our ideas of particular virtues, making those conforming students in a sense visible. We will also not give these students a hard time because they reflect our own schooling. This practice is problematic for many urban youths, making them invisible. Emdin gives the example of the different ways that urban students and white teachers perceive being on time for class. To see students—to make them visible– he suggests allowing students to articulate their understanding of how walking toward the classroom door as the bell rings is for them being on time. That is, he is calling for a reversal of roles, a linchpin for reality pedagogy, and differences of understanding. In “Courage,” Emdin tracks the damage the “don’t smile until November” imperative creates. It assumes that students are innately unruly and must be civilized by fear, a similar situation to the historical period when “Europeans settlers in their first interactions with the indigenous, shar[ed] observations of their unrefined culture and violent nature” (33). Emdin argues that we need courage to engage students, to deliver creative, quirky lessons, to unpack our own indoctrination to schooling and race. Refusing to smile simply pushes students away. By practicing camaraderie and courage, we help students find value in their education. Emdin does some impressive thinking in his third chapter, “Chuuuuch,” where he encourages us to think about how Pentecostal preaching’s preference for call and responses exchanges is like teaching. I leave it to you to discover the details.

Before concluding, I must mention where Emdin’s work on reality pedagogy and urban education falls short. First, I think new readers to this topic would benefit from an appendix or two that describes the research endeavors he mentions throughout the two-hundred odd pages, as well as a brief history of reality pedagogy as a practice, alongside a set of objectives for this type of teaching. Cohesion arose as my next concern when I saw the helpful epigrams, helpful to me at least, fall to the wayside after the first chapter. Since I am approaching this form of pedagogy with fresh eyes, as I imagine many are, those distilled quotations gave me something to mull over, think, and write about before reading the chapter.

Lastly, the organization of chapters four through ten—“Cogenerative Dialogues,” “Coteaching,” “Cosmpolitanism,” “Context and Content,” “Competition,” “Clean,” and “Code Switching”—needs an overhaul. Since one of Emdin’s goals in studying reality pedagogy is for teachers, young and old, to practice his concepts, it seems best to place the easily implemented techniques (tweeting, metalogues, and videos) well before more authentic practices (cognerative dialogues, considerations of aesthetics, and allowing students to teach an entire lesson) would be feasible. With a new organizational strategy in place, I think Emdin would succeed quicker in answering these four commonly asked questions of him: “How do we get disinterested students to care about themselves and their education? Why are our students not excited about learning? Why aren’t they adjusting well to the rules of school? Why are they underperforming academically?” (2).

All in all, Emdin’s work deserves space next to other new pedagogical considerations like Angela Duckworth’s 2016 Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance and Monique W. Morris’s 2016 Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools. With new insights, short sample lessons, and authentic student-teacher exchanges, Emdin not only theorizes “reality pedagogy” but also offers practical steps to improve urban education.


Race, Science Fiction, and the Classroom

[ How might studying science fiction encourage students to examine their assumptions about race?  “Monstrosity and the Majority: Defamiliarizing Race in the University Classroom” by Clayton Zuba helped Ian Taras think about that question. His review of Zuba’s essay was an assignment for Victorian Spaces, a course in the Bard MAT Program. Ian is a graduate student, preparing to teach English at the secondary level.]

While I suspect a number of the texts we read in “Victorian Spaces” could be successfully taught in a secondary education classroom, The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells stands out as the most likely to be well-received by an audience of young adult readers. Not just for its accessible language and straightforward plot, but for the intrinsically interesting topics it causes us to consider–both at their surface level (e.g., futuristic technology, alien invasions, the threat of human extinction, etc.) and for the social and philosophical questions they raise (e.g., how do we define human progress, organize socially, and justify our prejudices?). In this regard, Wells’s text is emblematic of the science fiction genre, which often couches charged political and social commentary in thrilling and outlandish subject matter. Done well, this clever recasting of our social conditions can throw fresh and startling light on issues whose apparent intractability leaves many of us complacent or defeated. Of course, not all storytelling needs Martians and ray guns to help readers gain new perspectives on the social ills to which many of us, unwittingly or not, contribute. But the heightened use of allegory that is the province of sci-fi is at a unique advantage to introduce young readers to the ways literature defamiliarizes our everyday experience—making the familiar strange and the strange familiar. In so doing, it can alert us to our blind spots and, at its best, disabuse us of our sense of powerlessness over improving the everyday experiences of all.

In his article “Monstrosity and the Majority: Defamiliarizing Race in the University Classroom,” published in Pedagogy’s April 2016 issue, Clayton Zuba, a literature professor at Arizona State University, offers an inspiring case study in how literature (and science fiction in particular) can be used in the above described manner. Zuba was especially interested in using sci-fi texts to help students interrogate issues of racism and white supremacy. With bell hooks’s pedagogical maxim that teachers motivate students “[to] learn to think critically and analytically, not just about the required books, but about the world they live in” as his lodestar, Zuba tailored a course that would guide students to approach racism from the unexpected vantages science fiction affords. He chose to begin his reading list with works of 19th century British sci-fi, given their historical coincidence with the “twin booms in Western global imperialism and scientific innovation” (359). Both events had serious and lasting influences on our thinking about race and imperial conquest, and Victorian writers were around to observe, record, and contemplate their effects as they were occurring.

In his first year composition class, “The Monstrous and the Human,” Zuba sought to make defamiliarization the central pedagogical tool. Having taught composition courses at several universities whose student ethnic populations varied considerably, he identified among middleclass white students a troubling deficit in their understanding of how destructive ideas about race remain deeply entrenched in present times. Zuba clued into this urgent need for remediation while conducting a routine visual literacy exercise during his first term at a largely white, middleclass college. He had tasked students with analyzing how the composition of images in advertisements “uses rhetoric and symbol to influence” consumer choice (357). While most students excelled at this visual analysis initially, Zuba observed that their skills fell abysmally short when faced with an image from the cover of a top tier fashion magazine featuring a famous black male basketball pro alongside a white female model. With one arm dribbling a ball and the other wound possessively around the model’s waist, the basketball player “bar[es] his teeth in an ape-like facial expression” (358). At the time of the issue’s release, the magazine disclaimed any suggestion of racial stereotypes on its cover, and, to Zuba’s disappointment and concern, this was how the majority of his nearly all white class had decided to view it. Their reaction, he notes, was in stark contrast with that of a more ethnically diverse class he taught at another university. Among a class of mostly Latinx and black students, the image’s offensiveness was instantly recognized. The white majority class, however, had proven alarmingly unreceptive to this point even when Zuba challenged them with well-reasoned arguments. This experience became the catalyst for his idea to approach issues of race indirectly, specifically through defamiliarization (358).

A vital concern when Zuba designed the course was to ensure that students would be blind to his intention of using the texts they would study to obliquely tap into ideas concerning race and imperialism. To that end, he wrote the course description free from any language that would suggest its ultimate goals. Rather, the stated aim would be to use reading and writing to respond to the following questions: “How do our stories define the monstrous and describe the human? Where do these apparently opposing categories converge or invert” (360)? By way of these prompts—broad yet undeniably relevant to “the foundations of Western racism and imperialism”—students would indirectly examine “racially constructed discourses of savagism and civilization used to justify genocide and enslavement of Native Americans and Africans in North America or orientalist discourses used to justify European global imperialisms” (361). Ideally, students would come away from the course with “insights about…the language and thinking underlying problems of race without confronting the issue of race in American society directly” (361).

The class began by studying three seminal examples of early sci-fi: Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and The Island of Dr. Moreau. Students were instructed to identify and consider how these texts characterized monsters, with particular attention paid to the ways they were distinguished from humans (361). Through in-class discussion and group work, students generated lists for each novel, as well as a master list, recording common traits authors used to establish a monster/human dichotomy. Essential course questions were also addressed through written assignments, which featured prompts such as: “Some of our class discussions have questioned whether monsters have essential, static qualities that make them monsters, or if they develop into monsters. How do The Island of Dr. Moreau and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde answer this question” (362)? Zuba sees these questions as offering alternative access to “the topic of racial representation…point[ing] students toward an awareness of the problems of race that these science fiction texts sought to explore beneath their generic surfaces” (362). Through such discussions and short analytical essays, students gained a gradual awareness of how monsters were differentiated via superficial attributes and, crucially, otherwise shared many similarities with humans. Moreover, they began to understand it was often human characters in these novels who behaved most abominably. For instance, one student remarked on Dr. Moreau’s “pointlessly cruel” experiments, while another questioned whether Frankenstein’s monster would have acted so reprehensibly had his human creator, Victor, treated him humanely (362-3).

Having grasped a basic understanding of how monsters were conceived of and represented in 19th century British literature, the class moved on to more recent examples of American literature that borrowed from conventions of the Gothic and Victorian eras in their own treatment of race as a “social construction” (363). Zuba assigned Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which examines racial attitudes and mores of the rural 1930s American South, as well as Sherman Alexie’s story collection, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. A central topic of Alexie’s text is the internalization of attitudes about “racial authenticity” by Native Americans (364). Through frequent discussions, students drew thoughtful connections between the texts from the different units; for example, noting Lee’s inversion of the monster-like Boo Radley–viewed among the townsfolk as frighteningly “pale, reclusive, and mysterious”–into a heroic savior, and comparing the hateful behavior of the novel’s white villain, Bob Ewell, to Wells’s wicked Dr. Moreau (363). This juxtaposition of genres helped students recognize tropes, dramatically more visible in later literature, that Victorian authors had used “to repress and displace anxieties over contact with racial others” (364). Finally, Zuba had students study two contemporary examples of science fiction, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Ridley Scott’s 1982 cinematic adaptation of it, Blade Runner. Both works complicate the meaning of humanness by blurring the lines between humans and futuristic “synthetic human beings” called “replicants” (365). Tying in the visual literacy exercise that inspired the course’s creation, Zuba’s students performed close readings of scenes from film adaptations of texts they had studied, in which they identified and analyzed how filmmakers “used image and sound to portray monsters” (365).

To assess the effectiveness of his use of defamiliarization to help students better understand the role of race in society, Zuba asked the class at the end of the term to share their thoughts on possible reasons for reading the texts in the order they did. While he does not include every anonymous course evaluation in his article, he highlights some very favorable feedback. One student, for example, wrote about how it was not until her latest reading of To Kill a Mockingbird (in Zuba’s course) that she grasped Lee’s use of monster motifs to illustrate racial categorization or the prominence of “issues of racial purity in establishing white family lineages” in the novel (366). Another student compared the plight of the replicants in Blade Runner to the dehumanizing treatment of African slaves in the antebellum American South. Still others, while not drawing such salient connections, expressed that they felt their critical thinking skills honed and their interest in literature measurably increased.

Defamiliarization has been a critical tool in our own close readings of the texts we covered this term. We have used a familiar geographical or domestic setting as a novel point of entry to investigate the prevailing anxieties and obsessions of Victorian culture. And while we have also tackled issues of race, alienation, and othering head-on, we have noted how authors themselves have employed defamiliarizing tactics to puzzle over their own ideological questions and concerns. The War of the Worlds is the most obvious instance of such, in which Wells confronts readers with a vision of imperial rule from the perspective of the colonized. He repeatedly draws comparisons among humans, animals, and other life forms, illuminating the surprisingly porous boundaries between these categories, much like authors did in the texts of Zuba’s “The Monstrous and the Human.” At first, I was skeptical of the defamiliarizing technique. It struck me that most college and even high school students would be sensitive to the roles race and imperialism–topics so intimately entwined one cannot fairly address one without other–hold in contemporary society and receptive to a forthright conversation about them. But Zuba’s presentation of the evidence has convinced me that a more innovative method is warranted and chastened me to reassess the value of a purely didactic approach—especially when interacting with learners from an ethnic and socioeconomic background similar to my own. Perhaps this is what I respect and admire most about Zuba’s effort. He observed a troubling event in his own classroom and sought to create, through reading and writing, a socially responsible way to rectify it. In short, he’s offered those of us seeking to become professional teachers something to emulate and aspire to.