At Saddleback, I teach creative writing and composition; I will teach my first literature class for the college in the spring of '98.
In my application for the seminar, I said that I was almost entirely ignorant of Native American literature and hoped in the course of the faculty study seminar to be exposed to a variety of Native American texts that might augment my curricula. I wanted this breadth of knowledge so that I might avoid the pitfall of making a relatively arbitrary selection of text -- a text I would pick primarily because it was Native American, as opposed to being a work with aesthetic merit that happened to be Native American. This tendency of privileging ethnicity (or race, or gender, or sexual orientation) over aesthetics is, in my view, ultimately counter-productive to cultural diversity, although I do admit that the question of "aesthetic merit" is made complex by different cultures' varying aesthetics (an issue I address in this report).
The faculty study seminar gave me a breadth of exposure to Native American writings that allows me to select texts by virtue of form and content, rather than by ethnicity alone. I expect to teach a variety of Native American works in the future. I expect that foremost among these will be the powerful, elegant (and conveniently sized!) autobiographical essays in I Tell You Now (ed. Swann and Krupat). The more general knowledge that I gained from the seminar will also benefit my composition classes. For instance, in Fall 1997 I was able to utilize Thornton's American Indian Holocaust and Survival in my English 1A's unit on consumption, within which we looked at how the American quest for the frontier translated (or didn't) into the quest for material possessions. One of our exercises was to do a semiotic analysis of "Elbow Room," one of a series of government-sponsored music-video cartoons (Schoolhouse Rock) that were widely and frequently placed in the Saturday morning children's cartoon block throughout the 70s and 80s. The video tunefully presents manifest destiny as without cost: America is literally a blank page until Lewis and Clark traverse it, and forests and rivers spring up behind them. The Indians (apart from Sacajawea) are reduced to a whizzing arrow; no other mention is made of them or their slaughter. Without the facts I learned in the faculty study seminar, I couldn't have presented the unit as well as I did. The seminar educated me, and that education improves my teaching.
My use of the knowledge I gained in the faculty study seminar in my creative writing classes is less direct but equally powerful.
I structure my creative writing classes to provide a forum for students to become aware of their own voices, and to learn to wield the tools that may allow them to refine them. So in the context of a writing workshop, texts are looked at as a carpenter looks at a chair: how is this work of art structured; how is this particular emotional and aesthetic affect achieved. There were certain texts we covered in the seminar that I will happily add to my curriculum: Opal Lee Popkes's "Zuma Chowt's Cave" (from Song of the Turtle, ed. Paula Gunn Allen), in terms of its excellent use of flat characterization and Ralph Salisbury's "Anikawa, Anikawa, and the Killer Teen-Agers" (from the same source), in terms of its use of style and indirection, for instance. But much of the fiction and poetry we covered in the seminar would be improper, in my view, for a creative writing class, unless the stated purpose of that class was to explore the experiences of various peoples (although, if I ever have the opportunity to teach a class in autobiography and memoir, I will certainly use Greg Sarris's Mabel McKay, which was, in my view, the seminar's best-wrought work of literary art).
Why the impropriety? I've given some thought to the question, and the answer lies, I believe, in the fact that indigenous American aesthetics, in all their varied and polyglot nature, are immensely foreign to the Western tradition and its current practice, much more so than, say, eighteenth-century French literature. This question becomes further complicated because "pure" works of Native American art -- art created by an entirely Native American tradition uninfluenced or inflected by a non-Native aesthetic and sensibility -- may be impossible to create, especially in fiction and poetry, whose presence in the Native American tradition seems subsidiary to dance and ritual. And thus the Native American works most appropriate for creative- writing workshops (except for those at the very highest level) are those that have the strongest (for lack of a better word) "Western" virtues, works by authors who successfully wield both aesthetics, such as Louise Erdrich, whose Love Medicine is undeniably both an "Indian" and "Western" triumph. I contrast this to the works of James Welch, which deserve their acclaim, but whose merits also are more firmly in the "Indian" tradition than in the "Western" tradition -- these are works that one must have more than a cursory consciousness of not only Native American tradition and culture, but also Native American aesthetics, to appreciate.
But when both artistic traditions are presented strongly, the conflation of aesthetics can be tremendously exciting, and well worth study -- and there's no question that several of the authors we read (Leslie Marmon Silko, in particular) would be valuable additions to a contemporary or American literature class. I will be teaching a literature class (Introduction to the Novel) in Spring 1998 and expect to teach several "conflated" novels (at the very least, Keri Hulme's The Bone People) -- but as the class will be held in England, the different aesthetics employed will be of those people who lived within the British Empire (and I haven't found any Native American works concerning England!). If I ever have the opportunity to teach literature at Saddleback's home campus, I will certainly teach a Native American novel there.
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