It’s been a minute since I’ve posted. 1 My semester starts at LaGuardia this week, and with it comes my personal pedagogical ritual: taking a decent, pre-existing syllabus I conjured forth (that has been already tweaked and refined); putting it aside; and completely overhauling the content, usually within a mere week before classes begin. 2 To be clear: I am constantly reflecting/tweaking prior assignments and in-class exercises — and many of these are fairly portable and can be recycled with ease into another section of composition. But I want to teach content that I find fresh and exciting, and that I hope will engage students.
And, as stated before: I get bored easily.
Annnyyyways, I had tinkered with the idea of this Get Out syllabus a while back, and decided to revisit it. In keeping with the composition classes themed around Lemonade and the one around Black Mirror, I like teaching a film/show that is a.) popular, b.) has created smart critical commentary/conversation, and c.) my students can easily access/re-screen. Get Out certainly fits that bill. In those prior composition classes as well, I tend to use an item as a “case study,” showing how we can interrogate and analyze a pop culture item in an academic way.
We can also mull over as a class how it is just bonkers (and yet totally in keeping with Hollywood’s political and racial dynamics) that Get Out won only for Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars.
The latter half of the class is devoted to students selecting their object of study from popular culture, identifying the conversation around the media item (or the conversation applicable to the piece, if there isn’t a pre-existing conversation), and being able to make a case for its social or political relevance. Essentially, they need to answer the “so, what?” related to the piece, and convince us (using research) of a possible interpretation or method of engagement. And this project has worked quite well in the past, overall. Students aren’t limited by time, genre, or language; I’ve had students propose and work on everything from a contemporary Chinese pop song on unemployment among young professionals, to the Nepali TV show Dalan that focuses on caste, to Jessica Jones and rape culture (among many others).
For discussing Get Out, I wanted students to engage with some foundational readings on race as well as contemporary voices. I also wanted to include work done by intersectional feminists, in keeping with the critique of the film raised by scholar Crystal Boson in her fantastic Get Out Syllabus, including the “unquestioned dehumanization and erasure of Black women in the film.” It’s always a challenge to not go overboard with selecting texts; students need to be reading and engaging with texts, but this a composition class, not a survey of a field or a seminar devoted to a topic. I’m teaching the nuts and bolts of academic writing.
Thinking backwards: I wanted students to be able to identify a major theme or topic in a particular popular culture piece, and argue why this made it an important and/or relevant piece to engage with. Obviously, I needed students to not only do this with Get Out, but be able to do with by drawing larger connections between texts. Using this as my “way in,” I tried to pick readings I thought would pair well together and organically generate a comparison.
Thus, as you’ll see below, we’re starting with Audre Lorde’s poems “Who Said It was Simple” and “Power,” to compare the struggles presented by the narrator in both poems, and the question of survival (and to set up some of the major themes we’ll return to throughout the first half of the class). The excerpts from W.E.B. Du Bois’s “On Our Spiritual Strivings” and Frantz Fanon’s chapter “The Lived Experience of the Black Man” from Black Skin, White Masks prepare us to talk about double-consciousness and the radicalized gaze–both themes that are integral to Get Out. James Baldwin’s “My Dungeon Shook” and the start of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between The World And Me provide us with powerful letters to young black men, talking about how race works in the United States. Audre Lorde’s “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” and Andrea Smith’s “Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy” give us a grounding in intersectional feminism. From The Fire This Time, Claudia Rankine’s “The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning,” Carol Anderson’s “White Rage,” and Daniel José Older’s “This Far: Notes on Love and Revolution” ask us to look more deeply at activism, history, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the political moment of Get Out.
Students will write Paper 1 before we watch Get Out; in this paper, they’ll be asked to simply compare and summarize a shared theme or topic between two readings we’ve encountered. We’ll have pursued this connection-drawing this via informal writing every single class meeting, so–ideally–they will simply expand and elaborate on an earlier low-stakes writing assignment. I’m checking to make sure they’ve gotten some basic academic writing skills down: summarizing, integrating quotations, constructing paragraphs with unity and development, creating introductions and conclusions, and using good citation practices. Here’s the prompt for Paper 1.
Paper 2 will ask students to apply a common theme or thread from the earlier part of the course to a reading of Get Out. They will conduct research to find one article to supplement our earlier class readings and help them find a “way in” to Get Out. Prompt’s here. If all goes as planned, they will use the connection they established from Paper 1 to continue their analysis.
Next, students will present their readings of Get Out in a quick-and-dirty presentation to the class (not formal, no slides, less than a minute, just tell us what you’ve found sort of thing). Students will then mix and mingle and chat, choosing a colleague’s Paper 2 they found interesting. They will get a copy of the paper and the article from their colleague as well. This does not have to be a one-on-one swap, though some might work out that way. One students might have five others ask to see their paper, and some students’ topics might not garner any interest at all; that’s perfectly fine. I want them to hone in on their particular area of interest, and a topic they’d like to pursue or compare to their own reading of the film. They’ll be responsible for reading their selected colleague’s paper and the accompanying article before the midterm.
The midterm will ask students to summarize their colleague’s reading/argument about Get Out and connect it to their own (or, if connections don’t come super-easily, noting that as well). I’m not going post the prompt because it’s a midterm, but if you are an instructor type feel free to email me or hit me up on social media or whatever.
Paper 4 is the Popular Culture Project (mentioned above), where students can choose any pop culture item (not limited by medium, time, language, or place) and make a case for its social/political relevance. These papers will again be swapped and shared with classmates, giving students material to reflect on for the final exam. That project prompt can be found here.
I’m really excited to see how students will engage with this film (it’s one of my personal favorites, natch), and expand their critical analysis skills while “reading” popular culture. I sometimes say I’ll report back after I teach a class and don’t, but I pinky swear I’ll report back this time. Really.
The syllabus is below and linked here. I’ve also decided to share my lesson plans, in all their hot mess glory. While I clearly know where we’re going (as evidenced in the outline above, I hope), please note that the plans are in constant flux and might be in various stages of incompletion, due to life being a thing. I tend to build them out as I go along, and tweak/fix while we’re in the throes of the semester.
Looking forward to folks’ critiques & feedback.
- I got into an MFA program, and CUNY foots the bill if full-time employees want to take graduate classes within the system (or undergrad classes, for that matter). Yes, I’m lucky AF. It’s also a bit time-consuming, turns out. ↩
- The Black Mirror composition course (detailed in my last post, many moons ago) went quite well, and only needed some minor adjustments. I made them soon after the semester ended, and will probably re-visit that at some point again. I just felt an urge to trot out this idea first. ↩