Teaching the Hard Stuff

Last week, we discussed Caryl Churchill’s Far Away and her intriguing writing style. Today, we showed a version of Churchill’s “Seven Jewish Children” to our students (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oWKGbjJ7LxE) in order to discuss (among other things) the idea of structure and how things are said/framed.

Although not on the syllabus, Dr. Solga wanted a way to segue into a discussion about Suzan-Lori Parks’ Venus.

Like many students in the class, this was my first time viewing the 9-minute performance. This version, unlike others, involves only one woman speaking to an unseen person about a “her” that is most likely the woman’s granddaughter.

While watching the video, I found myself growing more unsettled by the minute. I was warned prior to the viewing that many critics, especially in the Jewish world, took issue with this play, declaring it to have an explicitly “Anti-Israel” (and anti-Semitic) message.

While I have much to say on my own reaction to the piece  (which I have here), this post focuses primarily on navigating one’s way through particularly difficult, and potentially problematic, mediums of art (which includes literature, film, theatre, paintings, etc). That is to say, how to approach and debate difficult texts without walking headlong (or causing) an explosion.

While attempting to keep my own calm (my own invested interest in the issue took its toll, so I made sure I kept quiet), I took notes of what the students had to say when they were asked to respond to the film.

The first student to raise his hand provided a number of useful responses.

He referred to the piece as both polemic and incendiary. He acknowledged that Churchill was clearly a talented writer, and that the first few monologues effectively discussed particularly convoluted historical events (such as the Holocaust) and then went on to say that the piece seemed to begin with the idea that the Jews were once the oppressed, but transitioned into saying how they are now the oppressors.

He emphasized that the film made him angry, but I could clearly see how carefully he chose his words (and raised his hand again later on in the discussion in order to clarify something he had previously said).

In fact, this one student set the tone for the entire conversation. Roughly five other students raised their hand, all responding to each other in a constructive and respectful manner. Some students discussed the idea of manipulation, others cognitive dissonance, their feelings of sadness, and even the concept of dehumanization.

One student even made a pop culture reference to Lord of the Rings and how the scene reminded her of the unsettling sequence in The Two Towers depicting Gollum/Smeagol at war with himself over what to do.

Of course, subjects such as the Israel/Gaza conflict may not always play out in such a civilized and calm manner. I have no doubt that in some political science tutorials, students may go after each other and accuse each other of every “ism” under the sun.

“Hot topic” discussions call for delicate navigation since everyone has their own opinion on any given situation. The conflict in the Middle East, in this situation, is certainly a very immediate example of how a spectrum of opinions may present themselves.

I have to wonder if there were other students who felt entirely different from the reactions voiced in the classroom. A few expressed anger, outright disagreement, sadness, along with feeling uncomfortable, but none came out and said anything in line with what might be construed, to some, as the opposing side of the spectrum.

Can the classroom ever be a place to express what some may deem as racist or Anti-Semitic views?

As an academic who happens to be Jewish, I tried to imagine what might occur if a student said something along the lines of “Well, Jews have killed a lot of people.”

How might I, as a teacher, respond to this?

To be quite frank, I have no idea at this point in time, and I am glad that I wasn’t responsible for leading today’s discussion. Instead, I watched Dr. Solga skillfully navigate her way through what otherwise could have been a minefield of a discussion.

In the past, I have seen professors assert their own political opinions onto class readings which either resulted in much amusement or, on the opposite end of things, extreme anger or noticeably unsettled body language.

But Dr. Solga, on the whole, took herself out of the discussion altogether. Although she led off her closing thoughts with an anecdote about her parents, she carefully maneuvered her way into a critical discussion of shame as well as Judith Butler’s critical work on Bodies that Matter which circled back to the initial idea of framing.

I think no matter your true opinion on any politically-charged subject, there are a multitude of ways of ensuring that no student feels uncomfortable and that all aspects of a subject are explored, no matter how difficult. Certainly if any student raised their hand and said “Israel/Gaza is right and the other is wrong” this post would have turned out a lot differently.

Yet from watching Dr. Solga approach such a difficult subject, I feel more confident that there are a critically/scholarly ways to avoid emotionally-charged language which result in incredibly productive and instructive class discussions.

That all being said, your experience teaching the “hard stuff” is entirely dependent on the students in your class, so it is best to tread carefully and “feel out” your students before diving head-long into the more politically-charged discussions.

As for myself, I was pointedly reminded that a good teacher, with effective teaching strategies, makes all the difference in the classroom.

MB

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About Madison Bettle

English PhD Candidate working towards a career in the academic world. I love Austen, Rand, and Meatloaf (the band).
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