– Ellen Foster
I spent the 2014/2015 academic year teaching English at the University of the Virgin Islands (UVI) St. Thomas campus. As a veteran professor assigned a typical load of first-year writing and introductory literature courses, I expected my courses to be much the same as they had been at Clarion University, and they were – unless they weren’t. The introductory literature course focused on world literature, embracing American, British, European, Asian, and African literatures with a particular emphasis on Caribbean writers. The Caribbean experience is intensely global: the region has been a crossroads for travelers, for exchanges of goods, currencies, bodies, languages, and cultures for as long as humans have visited or inhabited the islands. The Caribbean experience is also intensely local: these are very small places, and each island has its own unique culture, economy, dialect, geography, and so on.
Immersed in a new place, teaching a new-old course, I found that while I had very little experience of the Caribbean or Caribbean writers, I had very good teachers—my students, experts on Caribbean culture. What resulted was one of the most rewarding teaching-learning experiences I’ve ever had — a mutual exploration of new texts—new to me, new to the students — and a reciprocal teaching: what they didn’t know, I tried to supply, and they returned the favor.
A few examples.
It’s a “given” to most readers that the four distinct seasons of spring, summer, fall, and winter are used symbolically, and teachers of literature often see or represent these as “universals.” But, as it happens, William Wordsworth’s spring daffodil and Robert Frost’s snowy evening are not universals. As far as the Caribbean is concerned, these seasons are practically non-existent. Slight light and temperature fluctuations over the course of the year? Sure. A hurricane season? Yes. Drastic alterations such as autumn leaves falling or spring leaves appearing or snow falling? Not so much. How, then, to explain the colors and textures and temperatures of the seasons in ways that my students would understand and appreciate? How, then, to show students the ways that these markers enrich a text, telling readers something in often subtle ways? Not so easy. I could make comparisons – cold like the freezers in the grocery store – but it didn’t feel adequate. It still doesn’t. Students who had experienced the seasons offered their comparisons, too, and I think that we patched together the ideas that make the seasons such useful symbols in literature – but it was one of those instances of realizing just how dominant Euro-American literatures have been in shaping my (our?) thinking about literary symbolism and its “universality.”
One of the joys of encountering a new literature is discovering what it can reveal to its readers. In the familiar Anglo-American texts, it’s easy enough for me to see such things – after all, that’s what I have been trained to do, and I have read enough and lived enough to recognize cultural references, to distinguish among these references, to get the historical context, to understand how all of these are part of the texture and substance of the text. But, in a new place, I needed a guide as much as I needed to be a guide to the territories that were unfamiliar to my students. This was especially true of the contemporary Caribbean texts (gathered together in A Concert of Voices from Broadview Press) – not the larger themes of identity, marginalization, assimilation, resistance and revolution, etc. or the historical moments embedded in the texts – but the small details that tell the alert and knowing reader something important, whether that’s about authenticity or subversion or something else.
Such details could easily escape a reader like me – FOTJ (fresh off the jet) – but they did not escape my students, who were close readers and observers. They tested the texts for authenticity; they teased out the differences across islands—essentially, they used their expertise in Caribbean culture to find their past or present in the text, much as I have used American texts to understand what makes something “American.” For instance, in a poem in which a narrator returns to her island after a long absence, the poet evokes details of place that distinguish THIS place from other places in the Caribbean: her home, a unique landscape and seascape, with particular sounds, smells, and sights.
When we read an Anancy trickster tale, students from different islands compared their islands’ Anancy stories to the side-by-side versions of the story in our textbook, one in a Jamaican Creole and one in standard written English, both written by Louise Bennett. Students from Jamaica and Antigua and St. Thomas and St. Kitts and Dominica compared the ways that the words might be said or how the details might differ on their island. Students questioned the authenticity of a Trinidadian speech pattern in Nalo Hopkinson’s “A Habit of Waste”: DID Trinidadians say “doux doux”? That seemed, to many of them, an error on the part of the author because it didn’t match their experience of Trinidadian speech patterns. Would I have caught this? No. Did I find that my students’ alert reading enriched my experience of reading and discussing the story? Yes.
When we read “Theresa, A Haytien Tale,” first published in 1827 and prepared for the classroom by the Just Teach One: Early African-American Print project, the students identified the female heroism and agency in the story (set in the Haitian Revolution) as something that is too often absent in stories of women of color; they identified the importance of religious and filial faith in the story and in Haitian and Caribbean culture. They brought with them a knowledge of Haiti that enriched our discussion and also filled in, for me, a more local understanding. As we explored the 19th-century text’s resistance to the dominations of slavery and colonialism, we saw the centrality of Caribbean experience to understanding the world.
Along the way, we also found those universals that we professors so often say distinguish “enduring” pieces of literature. The daffodils may not be universal, but a flower that evokes a particular sense or season? That can be a universal. Human relationships – also universal. And that brings me to what is, to date, the best classroom experience (and one that is going to stand for awhile).
Following a colleague’s suggestion for an assignment, my class created a Readers’ Theater – developing a 10-minute performance from one of the plays that we’d read together: Shakespeare’s Othello, Chekhov’s A Marriage Proposal, and Milcha Sanchez Scott’s The Cuban Swimmer. Students asked how much latitude they might have in their versions. Could they take the scene to a different time period, for instance (like a modern Othello), or could they Caribbean-ize the scene? Of course!!! And thus resulted the kind of melding of the local and the global, the specific and the universal, in which Chekhov’s characters became Caribbean as students re-wrote the dialogue to Caribbean rhythms and re-shaped the particulars to the island – Rasta farmers instead of peasants, for instance – while remaining true to the plot of the crossed proposal and its ultimate conclusion.
Through these experiences, my students and I created a reciprocal teaching and learning, trusting in each others’ knowledge and using our individual strengths and experiences – wide-ranging – to achieve deeper understandings and interpretations of the literature than we might otherwise have. Creating reciprocity in the classroom requires that we first be open to revealing our own vulnerabilities, namely, revealing what we don’t know. The state of not-knowing happens to us all in the classroom, and we have some choices about how to deal with it. We can pretend to know what we don’t know, we can find out in advance (though that means that we have to know what we don’t know), we can look to our students as guides – lots of options, and more than these three. I try to be as transparent and honest as possible in my teaching practice: I know what I know, and I know what I don’t know. I also am willing to share my not-knowing with my students. That establishes a mutual ground of wanting to learn and broaden our experience and perspectives. From that common ground, we shared our expertise and arrived at a richer understanding of our readings.
I ask my colleagues: What are the rewards of stepping out of our comfort zones? What are the rewards of taking a risk in the classroom – such as admitting that we don’t know? What are the rewards of encouraging our students to take the lead in showing us, the professors, what they know?
Ellen Foster is an associate professor of English at Clarion University. After ten years of teaching and learning at Venango College, she is now based at the Clarion campus. In her Caribbean travels, Ellen learned yet more about the universal languages of kindness, generosity, and laughter and honed her abilities to travel light in all ways. She shipped all of that back to the mainland, and soon she’ll finish unpacking it all.