Eric W. Maroney
The reading of culture and the creation of culture are part of students’ everyday lives as expressed through music/lyric, fashion, television, film, social media, etc. By engaging students in an analysis of a text as a cultural phenomenon and situating that text within a cultural framework, students are able to access understandings relevant to their experiences. In this unit, students will examine a novel as a cultural artifact. They will analyze the literature and place it in conversation with a variety of other cultural artifacts from the same period to better understand its influences and meaning.
According to the Oxford Dictionary, “culture is the customs and beliefs, art, way of life and social organization of a particular country or group,” or, “the beliefs and attitudes about something that people in a particular group or organization share1.” By framing a novel, in this case The Color Purple, as a cultural artifact, students are able to apply a critical lens to the text and probe the social and political context of the work, which arises out of a rich political history, caught within the intersection of race, gender and class. Because of the mature content of the novel and the sophisticated discussion of multiple oppressions, this unit is designed for high school seniors but could be adapted for sophomores or juniors. The unit is designed for students of mixed ability within the same classroom, and provides strategies to differentiate.
The Engineering & Science University Magnet School where I teach is a 6-12 STEM themed inter-district magnet school. 60% of ESUMS students are New Haven Residents while the remaining 40% live in the surrounding suburban towns. ESUMS has a disproportionate amount of male students enrolled in the school; approximately 70% of the student body is identified as male whereas only about 30% of the student body is identified as female. This demographic provides a challenge in that sometimes female voices are marginalized in the classroom. Teaching a unit of study in which, The Color Purple, is used as an anchor text provides the opportunity to explore issues of feminism and the feminine experience which male students are less likely to be familiar with. Similarly, the unit has the potential to elevate female student voices. The ESUMS student body is fairly ethnically diverse. 8% of students identify as Asian, 44% identify as Black or African American, 18% identify as Hispanic, and 31% identify as White. Situating a study of Walker’s, The Color Purple, in a historical and cultural framework will allow this diverse body of students to access some of the political nuances of the novel they may otherwise miss.
While the primary focus of the unit remains culture, it is necessary for students to understand the material conditions and social conditions that give rise to cultural expression. Throughout the unit, students will have opportunities to explore and define culture, analyze culture and investigate the ways culture expresses the ideas of a set of people in a given time.
The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) emerged in 2009 and were initially adopted by 48 states, signaling a shift in the teaching of literature and literacy. Reviled by some and revered by others, the CCSS unmistakably harken back to the theory of New Criticism, a pedagogy popular throughout the mid-century that places an emphasis on the text alone. According to Daniel Katz, director of Secondary Education and Secondary Special Education Teacher Preparation at Seton Hall University, “In New Criticism, the text is treated as self-contained, and it is the job of the reader to investigate it as an object to be understood via the structure of the text and without reference to external resources such as history, culture, psychology or the experiences of the reader,” (Katz). Close reading and analysis of particular word choice or literary devices are examined as parts of a whole that interact to create meaning—the text itself. Katz argues that while this is an important skillset for readers to develop, it is not the only skillset necessary for a comprehensive literacy experience. In criticizing the architect of CCSS, David Coleman, Katz writes, “As a student of classical philosophy and literature, he (Coleman) is no doubt quite familiar with literary criticism, but to infuse common standards in the English Language Arts with tools for literary criticism to the exclusion of all other ways to interact with texts
all the way down to Kindergarten
is a thoroughly strangled view of the role literature plays in the classroom.” Reading is a complex act where meaning is made both on the page and in exchange with the reader and all that the reader brings to the experience. This unit is built on the belief that the skills described in the Reading and Literature standards of the CCSS should be supplemented by other pedagogical practices that allow students to critically explore the socio-political, historical and cultural complexities that lend meaning to a text. The unit doesn’t seek to abandoned the CCSS but to join the approach described in the CCSS with other critical lens in order to broadened students’ literacy experience and equip them with them ability to make meaningful connections between the world and the text.
By placing literature in the context of cultural studies, this unit hopes to expand the toolkit of the CCSS enabling students to study a piece of literature as a cultural phenomenon. In doing so, students are still able to investigate the choices an author makes and how those choices impact the meaning of a text as a whole but also to situate whole meaning in its cultural context leading students to think about the social, economic and political conditions that influenced the writer to make those choices to begin with. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill defines cultural studies as, “an innovative interdisciplinary field of research and teaching that investigates the ways in which “culture” creates and transforms individual experiences, everyday life, social relations and power….Combining the strengths of the social sciences and the humanities, cultural studies draws on methods and theories from literary studies, sociology, communications studies, history, cultural anthropology, and economics.2” The University further asserts that, “Cultural studies is devoted to understanding the processes through which societies and the diverse groups within them come to terms with history, community life, and the challenges of the future.” In essence, by using the framework provided by cultural studies, students can investigate the conditions that produce a text as a cultural phenomenon and the way a text speaks back to the cultural conditions it emerges from.
Cultural studies in many ways mirrors the critical literacy approach to the English classroom and so the following unit works to combine the techniques and theories of New Criticism with those of Critical Literacy. In an article published in the
, Robert Petrone and Robert Gidney describe a similar approach applied in their American Literature courses; “While Reader Response and New Criticism remain important components of our pedagogy, we strive to foreground historical, cultural and social issues. We ask students to seek out the history, value and functions of texts so they begin to see themselves not just as passive consumers of a tradition, but as active, critical thinkers developing skills, dispositions and habits of mind to question those traditions they are so often meant to take at face value, traditions that value certain voices over others.3 This curriculum unit guides students to think about the relationship between history and culture. If we understand that culture—and by extension, literature—arises out of concrete material conditions, then those conditions must also limit, shape and expand a particular work of literature. For instance, works of literature such as
Johnny Got his Gun
arise as cultural reactions to the first and second World Wars. Without the material conditions and shifting relations produced by the wartime psychology, the works would not exist, as we understand them today. But culture is not a passive reaction to the material conditions of an epoch. Culture reacts and reflects back on the world in a dialectical relationship and thus changes it. It impacts the same historical conditions out of which it grows.
Johnny Got his Gun
both criticisms of the irreverence the military bureaucracy shows towards the bodies of soldiers, become part of the cultural fabric of the American ethos and influence our understanding of war to the present.