Friday, May 17, 2013

Semester's/First Year's End + Congratulations to 2013 Graduates

It seems hard to believe, but as of today I have concluded my spring semester and first year teaching at Rutgers-Newark. I've graded the exams, read, reread and assigned grades to the final papers, signed off on MFA theses and an undergraduate honors thesis, and reviewed the work of my independent study student. CONGRATULATIONS TO ALL THE GRADUATING STUDENTS! I now have only to complete an assessment for my department and the undergraduate college, and I believe I will be fully done until this fall, a few administrative tasks notwithstanding.

On Twitter I described the experience as "exhilarating", and it was, though I also feel mentally and physically drained as I do at the end of every term, the spring/summer ones perhaps even more so than the fall ones, since no matter where I have taught, far more occurs from January to June than September to December. I designed and taught four new classes, which is unsurprising considering that this was a new job, but as anyone who teaches regularly will attest, new courses, especially at a new institution, require a tremendous amount of work, and since none of these was a repurposed course from my prior institutions, they entailed even more work and planning than ever before.

I have already written about the fall courses (an undergraduate Afro-Latin literature course, and a graduate course for English and American Studies under the Topics in Post-Modernism rubric on post-humanism and trans-humanism), so I'll say a little about the two spring courses, one a jointly listed course in English and African American and African Studies (AAAS) on the Black Arts Movement, and the second the spring half of the year-long, introductory survey course for AAAS. I enjoyed both, though I must admit I particularly loved the literature class, which took place at 8:30 AM and meant very early Sunday and Wednesday nights for me, as well as arriving in Newark when almost no one was on the street. My first morning I tweeted how shuttered everything was at 7:30 AM, and my colleague Tayari Jones, though on sabbatical, helped guide me via Twitter to a spot where I could grab coffee.

In the literature class I taught more poetry than I have ever taught in a single, non-survey course, as well as more drama (four plays, two by LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, and one each by Ed Bullins and Kia Corthron), a film, and rap music (three different artists, also a first), with a good helping of historical, critical and theoretical material. One of the most powerful moments for me was when I read the students' creative pieces (they wrote 6 short essays, a creative piece, and a final paper), and could see how fully nearly all of them had engaged with the course materials, in aesthetic, theoretical and personal terms. Their final papers represented an extension of this engagement.

The survey course was a huge challenge, as I had not taught such a large class in a few years, and I realized while planning it that I would need to create a narrative for the students to bring the disciplinarily disparate materials together. As an undergraduate I studied history in its various forms (including social history, which became my main approach), and into my historical narrative I tried to weave, to varying degrees of success, works of literature, sociology, political science, and journalism, to present the students with a way of understanding the rich and complex stories of African America from 1865 to the present. Based on the final exams, I think I succeeded, though I also know what to work on to improve the course, and my teaching of it, for future versions.

I want to note in particular how energizing it was to once again read Booker T. Washington's Up From Slavery, which I read as an undergraduate and only recalled in pieces, and W. E. B. DuBois's The Souls of Black Folk, which impressed me no less this time than it had before. I had never finished LeRoi Jones's/Amiri Baraka's The Blues People, but did for this class, nor had I ever read beyond a few chapters in Nelson George's The Death of Rhythm and Blues, which together provide excellent overviews of Black music, and thus by extension, African American culture and society, from the mid-19th century through the end of the 20th. Their narratives provided a second scaffolding for us to follow as we proceeded chronologically from the Emancipation period to the election of Barack Obama. To teach this class in the year marking the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington (both of which we talked about) was also energizing.

I also have even deeper appreciation for the work of so many former colleagues, including Robin D. G. Kelley, Darlene Clark Hine, and Aldon Morris, whose work I taught and from which I, like the students, learned a great deal. Among the exciting moments for me was when I had the chance to discuss with the class Robin Kelley's exploration of working-class and poor African Americans' day-to-day battles in the mid-to-late 1940s, the innumerable acts of resistance, self-protection and self-assertion that constituted "small war zones," in public transportation in Birmingham, Montgomery and other Southern cities, that helped prepared the ground for the Civil Rights movement struggles and victories that would soon come there and elsewhere. The poet and scholar Geoffrey Jacques has noted more than once how badly we in the US could benefit from a careful and thorough study of the history of African Americans, and this course underlined how important and pressing Geoffrey's suggestion continues to be. Most of us--including African Americans--still don't know enough, beyond some significant historical facts and anecdotes, about our past, and how much that past continues to inform our contemporary--which is to say, American, and global--experience.

These courses unfolded as Rutgers itself has faced a significant institutional crisis, which began before I started last fall and which continues to unfold as I type this blog post. In both classes I was able to note how significant the social, political and cultural activism we were studying had proved in the past fortunes of our campus; in 1969, black students occupied Conklin Hall for a week, thus provoking changes that helped to create the vibrant, racially, ethnically, economically, and culturally diverse campus--the most diverse campus in the United States--Rutgers-Newark is today. I also was able to point out to them that one of the sources of the university's current crisis, the forced integration of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ) into Rutgers as the "new" medical school, had an antecedent in the state's rezoning and forced clearance, using eminent domain, of an African American Newark neighborhood in 1967, in order to build a new campus for UMDNJ, and which led to the 1967 Newark Uprising, that profoundly scarred and changed the city. How fitting that these earlier history has been all but buried in the discussions about Rutgers's transformation, but how powerfully it resonates in the threats Rutgers-Newark (and Rutgers-Camden) and the university as a whole face as the changes unfold. I tried my best to let the students know that they could and must be agents of change, as their predecessors were.

I must add that at this point over the last 10 years (with the exception of 2006, when I had a spring leave yet nevertheless had university business to address) I would still be in class, in the final weeks of the spring quarter, so I continue to feel a bit unsettled, as if I am leaving classes full of students hanging in the lurch. I remind myself: the grades are in! It feels good to be done before the end of May, and I imagine that by next year this time, I will feel as if an earlier start to the summer is the way things have always been. Once again, congratulations to all the 2013 graduates!

No comments:

Post a Comment