Tuesday, November 26, 2013

an apple for my students

I ended up teaching two non-credit continuing ed classes this fall: "Montana's Native American Writers" and "The American Short Story, 1900-present." I've taught before, but usually in more of a training environment-- I did on-the-job software training back in the 80s, and I taught community college business software classes for three semesters not long after we moved here.

But these classes were quite different than that. As any teacher can tell you, between preparing for the class and interacting with your students, the teacher learns more than the students do. It was a great experience for me. Two weeks into the first class, I was so stressed that I decided it was a one-time deal and I would never do it again. But the course was already underway, and the second one was already scheduled, and by the time I was halfway through the second one, things were better. I've already signed on to do two more next semester.

The number one thing I learned was not to underestimate your students. In planning the classes, I kept trying to keep them small and manageable--not require them to buy a book, not make them do a lot of reading, not ask them to do any extra work outside of class. But what I found was that the kind of people who sign up for continuing ed classes are excited about it, they're looking forward to engaging with the material. Bring it on.

They wanted to do the reading. In the short story class, every week I had three stories that were more-or-less required (you can't really require anything in a non-credit class), and then several more that were optional reading. Every week, everyone had read the first three stories and usually at least half of the class had read everything they could find. It was great. They arrived at class raring to go--full of opinions and interested in what I had to say.

The things I learned specifically about short stories are mostly in yesterday's post. I'm still thinking about that stuff and probably will be for a long time. But the things I learned teaching the Indian Writers class--lord, I could write a book.

First off, most Indians don't like the term Native American. It was made up by white people during the politically correct 80s. In all the reading I did to prep for the class, I don't think I ever saw an Indian use the term "Native American" unless it was sarcastically. The preferred term, if you need to use one, is their tribe, if you know it, otherwise, just Indian. When you think about it, it makes sense--after all, the Lakota, Blackfeet, Cherokees, Apaches, and dozens of other tribes were spread out over a far larger area than central Europe, and no one assumes that being Dutch is the same as being French or Polish.

I named the class ("Montana's Native American Writers") before I knew that, and it went out in the catalog that way. But I'm not sure I would have called it "Montana's Indian Writers" even if I'd known, because then some people would expect eastern Indian writers. Not that we have any, at least that I know of. (and there's another thing I learned while teaching--I never know as much as I think I do. Teaching is just about humbling enough to make you quit teaching.)

The thing I was dreading about the Indian writers class was the white guilt. There's no way you can avoid it if you study Indian history. In my Sociology 101 class thirty years ago, the professor spent about six weeks talking about Indian history, and over the years we've been to the Cherokee museum in North Carolina and the buffalo jump museum in Alberta, and various other experiences along the way, so I knew some. Enough to know we would need to tread carefully, lightly. But you know, however bad you thought it was, the more you study, it's worse. And then you read some more and it gets worse. It's just appalling the way Indians have been treated in this country. They aren't always blame-free, but even if you factor that in, it's shameful. The fact that many reservations are becoming vibrant, interesting places is a testament to the resilience and strength of the Indian people, all tribes.

We talked on the first day of class about how we would handle this, because there we were--seven middle-aged white women, about to embark on the study of people who have been marginalized and trivialized by people exactly like us. There is almost no way to do it and not be offensive. But the alternative is to not know, and I think it is better to know. To bear witness, as it were. We can't go back and change what happened, but we can acknowledge that it did happen and not try to sweep it all under the rug.

I guess this is an appropriate conversation for Thanksgiving week, isn't it?  If you want to do some reading yourself, try reading Sherman Alexie, a Spokane Indian who now lives in Seattle. He's fairly controversial, but he's fascinating, honest, often funny, and he is a remarkably generous writer. There's a 40-minute interview between him and Bill Moyer here, and his story "What You Pawn I Shall Redeem" is here, just to get started. I also found North American Indians: A Very Short Introduction by a couple of North Carolina professors to be a useful and well-balanced brief history, and Everything You know About Indians Is Wrong by Paul Chaat Smith is a blunt, witty introduction to how white culture still trivializes Indians today.

Tonight was the last class for this semester, and while I'm relieved to be done with it, I will miss the fun and the intellectual stimulation. It was a great experience.

1 comment:

  1. Quelle surprise! I'm behind, and trying to catch up. Again. (Pretty sure this will be the way of my holiday season.......)

    But I wanted to say, even if you don't go back and see this, that I love so much that you did this! And, I'd wager, did it WELL!

    Also? My half "native american" Nana never called herself that either.