to pack or unpack: teaching literature

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Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, supposedly written in 7 weeks while Hurston was researching in Haiti, turns 75 this year.

I love this novel. I love it so much that Gregg and I featured an adaptation of one of the final quotes on our wedding programs. Hurston’s original text: “Love is lak de sea. It’s uh movin’ thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore” (191). We married on the shores of Lake Michigan, and featured a water ceremony. This quote seemed particularly apt given the setting and our respective ages (first time bride and groom, just under and over 40 years old).

I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve taught Their Eyes Were Watching God; I own multiple versions of the text, copiously underlined and dog eared to suggest that the text has a regular spot in nearly any literature class.

My Multicultural American Literature class finished the novel on Tuesday. We’re a small group of 10 students, with a mixed range of vocal and silent participation, so I’ve worked hard to find ways to engage the class. I also try not to practice what Nancy Chick calls “professorial packing.” This process, Chick argues,

“[Inverts] the common metaphor for the essential disciplinary act of ‘unpacking’ a literary text and its meanings. Unpacking a text connotes opening up something, sifting out what’s inside, and exploring the contents. There’s a sense of anticipation, delight, and wonder in the process. In contrast, professorial packing occurs when a professor presents his or her fully formed interpretations to students—in essence packing the text (and the students) with the professor’s own interpretations, rather than teaching the students themselves to unpack texts” (Chick 42-43).

I’ve committed plenty of professorial packing in the past, but since reading Chick’s article and discussing teaching literature with fellow scholars of teaching and learning, I’ve moved toward the unpacking model that Chick articulates.

My pedagogical approach on Tuesday worked particularly well. Knowing that students would be eager to discuss the climactic ending of the novel, I started class with a freewrite, asking them to write their interpretations of the ending. Each student then summarized his/her freewrite for the class, and we tracked key similarities and differences in interpretation. I then shared a series of interpretations I had either read (a quick survey of several scholarly articles the night before provided material) or heard from previous students. What happened next was awesome: students argued with these readings by referencing specific passages in the text…all without my prompting to refer to the text (which is often a challenge). A vigorous and passionate discussion ensued, and we grappled with the ambiguity of the ending and the multiple readings of the ending, and, not once did I offer my own interpretation (and you know I have one or three or five:))

I’m fortunate that my small class engages with our readings whether verbally or through writing. The small class size allows me to involve each student in discussion in a way that minimizes discomfort. And stumbling on an outlandish reading of the novel certainly gave me an excellent opportunity to stir controversy. And, admittedly, Hurston’s stellar, compelling, deceptively simple text opens itself up to these multiple readings. And yet, this sequence of activities seems applicable to many more class sessions, even in classes with more students.

I’d much rather facilitate unpacking than forcefully pack, any day.

Works Cited

Chick, Nancy. “Unpacking a Signature Pedagogy in Literary Studies.”Exploring Signature Pedagogies: Approaches to Teaching Disciplinary Habits of Mind. Eds. Regan A. R. Gurung, Nancy L. Chick, and Aeron Haynie. Sterling, Va: Stylus, 2009. 36-55. Print.

Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. NY: Harper Perennial, 2006. Originally published 1937.

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