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Loving the Questions in American Literature

I’ve just finished my twenty-fifth year of teaching, which probably deserves its own blog post. But I’ve also just completed my second year teaching American Literature, a body of literature I love. This is what I’ve been thinking about for the last several days — the many ways I’ve learned, in the last two years– teaching American Literature. I teach at Gonzaga College High School, near the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C. It’s a school I love in a city I love. In the photograph above, (which you might need to click on to see in its entirety) you see the Eye Street side of our school. St. Aloysius Gonzaga Church on the right, behind it in darker red brick is the Rectory, to its left sits Dooley Hall (the cream colored building), then a whiter building, Kohlmann Hall, the oldest building at Gonzaga and the home of the English Department. The brown brick building at the far left of the photograph is Forte Hall, also part of Gonzaga. Kohlmann Hall is where I teach, on the second floor. These past two years, that corner of Kohlmann Hall has been a rich and meaningful place.

The English curriculum at Gonzaga puts American Literature in the hands of juniors, eleventh graders. I teach seniors too but for the last two years, I’ve savored teaching American Literature to juniors. I teach a chronological survey of American Literature, with lots of essay writing all through the year. We start with “Columbus’ Letter Concerning His First Voyage” and we end with Lucille Clifton’s haunting poem, “slaveships.” These two works create the perfect bookends for our course. Columbus, in his efforts to sell future voyages to the King and Queen of Spain, praises God for bringing him and his men safely to this “New World” which, he very plainly tells their majesties, will be easy to seize and enslave. Those about-to-be-enslaved” never speak in Columbus’ letter, but they do in Clifton’s poem. She laments that the actual slaveships named “Jesus,” “Angel,” and “Grace of God,” in spite of their religious christening, conduct horrific crimes. While Columbus asks the Spanish monarchs for money for future voyages, Clifton merely asks “can this sin live?”

Along the way, our course explores the Puritans’ poetry of Anne Bradstreet and Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”  We dive into Emerson’s Self Reliance, Thoreau’s Walden, and Frederick Douglass’ “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” We spend several days with Emily Dickinson’s intense psychological poetry. “I like a look of agony because I know it’s true.” We take a couple of weeks on Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” and “I Hear America Singing.” We dive into T.S. Eliot’s “Prufrock.” We read Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. We take a couple of weeks with Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and James Baldwin. Along with many more, we eventually get to living authors Sherman Alexie, Martin Espada, and Naomi Shihab Nye. We close with Lucille Clifton’s “jasper, texas 1998” and “slaveships.”

I’ve learned a great deal about my country, its writers, its thinkers, its victories and its failures through the lens of our literature. We see the American desire to belong, to make “one” out of the “many.” We see the haughty clinging to privilege, often trying hard to not widen the American circle.

In class discussions, I’ve seen students challenged by harsh views of religion, trying hard to make sense of their own religious beliefs. At times you see students rejecting religion as they navigate their own questions. I see students struggling with their American identity as they confront America’s history of slavery and white supremacy. Some become defensive, not wanting to condemn their own country’s past. Some find the healthy place of admitting America’s faults while loving its ideals. This is not always an easy place to find.

I consider it a great privilege to read what students write in essays and to hear their thoughts in class discussions. I am fortunate to have many students who read the assigned literature carefully, trying hard to unpack its ideas, unafraid to take up its questions. When they bring those questions to class and offer their own reflections, , the classroom becomes the transformative place I’ve known it to be. This year, I watched students savor the angry passion of Frederick Douglass. I saw them marvel at the keen observations of Emily Dickinson. I saw them tangle with the ideals of Ralph Waldo Emerson. I saw some intrigued by the luxurious life of Jay Gatsby and I saw some disgusted by its shallowness.

Just over the last few days, I read several final examinations in which students chose to answer an essay question which asked them to explore the role of music in Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing,” Langston Hughes’ “Dream Boogie,” and James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues.” Some of these essays dug deeply, looking at the desire music voices in each of these important American texts.

To be part of this in a classroom, to ask the questions and watch the responses take shape– this is a great privilege. I wonder if I’ll be doing this for another twenty-five years. I hope so.

 

Photograph Credit: www.gonzaga.org

 

10 Responses to Loving the Questions in American Literature

  1. Jeanne May 25, 2014 at 8:07 pm #

    Beautifully written!!!!

  2. Consuelo Hernández May 26, 2014 at 3:23 am #

    Joseph, thanks for sharing this experience with us. It is so moving for us poets in the profession and for students. Congratulations!

    • Joseph Ross May 26, 2014 at 11:21 am #

      Thanks Consuelo — I appreciate your comment and hope you are doing well. As an experienced poet & teacher you know just what I mean! Best to you – Joseph

  3. Rosemary May 26, 2014 at 12:34 pm #

    HI, Joe, this is a terrific expression and tribute. Very moving , so good you are teaching literature! Your course sounds exciting. Our nephew will be a junior at Gonzaga year after next and I know he just has to study with YOU! All best for continuing–Rosemary. And hope to catch you one of these times giving a reading of your own work.

  4. Janet Aalfs May 26, 2014 at 2:40 pm #

    Dear Joe,

    The passion you bring to your work is so contagious! Those lucky students –and here’s to the love of the Quest, and its Quest-ions! When the root of the teaching is love, that’s what grows — thank you for all your beautiful work — may you thrive!

    Love,
    Janet

  5. Joseph Ross May 26, 2014 at 2:46 pm #

    Rosemary – Thank you so much for responding to the blog. I appreciate your words. Let me know your nephew’s name– maybe via email at writingalife@yahoo.com and I’d love to say hello to him. I hope he’s had a good year there.

  6. dw May 27, 2014 at 12:50 pm #

    hi friend. so good to know you are happy and in love with your work. lucky students. I wish I could send our benjamin to your school for his senior year. love. dw

  7. Michela May 27, 2014 at 1:43 pm #

    JR,

    I am, as always, inspired by your words, your vision, and your passion for teaching. I feel lucky to have been teaching alongside you for some of those twenty five years! Your teaching and writing is a continual source of inspiration for me. It is because of teachers like you that students will indeed thrive and make a difference in this world. I am blessed to know you!

    My best always,
    Michela

  8. Diamond Williams June 2, 2014 at 6:34 pm #

    Mr. Ross,

    This made me analyze my teenage psyche. I was a rebellious mess, but I thank you for instilling a foundation and appreciation of and for American Literature. I do not want to get too nostalgic on your site, so, I will end on this note: you have changed my life. My memories of your teaching will always be a constant in my life, and the lives of those I touch through my writings. I will always strive to be one of your biggest supporters, because you were mine when I needed one.

    Highest regards,

    D. Williams

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