Nov 19, 2017
When I assign reflection papers in a literature class, my goal is not only to teach students how to build an academic argument but also to give them an opportunity to show how they are appreciating and engaging with texts from the syllabus. In my American Jewish Literature course this semester at the Edwards Campus of the University of Kansas, in which I teach a roughly chronological survey primarily from the Norton Anthology of Jewish American Literature, I offered students several options for papers, including both traditional essay prompts and creative writing assignments.
This semester, I’m teaching at a satellite campus with a high percentage of nontraditional students, several of whom are taking my course to fulfill a diversity requirement. Many of my students are not majoring in the humanities and many have not taken humanities courses in humanities in many years. In my American Jewish Literature course, I have found that creative assignments make writing about literature seem friendlier and less daunting, while at the same time insisting that students not only read the works on the syllabus but actively engage with them. They allow students to exercise their own creativity and to gain an appreciation for the creative process of the writers whose works they are reading.
The creative prompts I offer for papers alongside traditional prompts, are consistent with the variety of approaches I offer in short-answer prompts for exams and classroom discussions and activities. During our once-a-week, two-and-a-half-hour block late on Monday nights, I toggle between traditional and creative modes. I begin each class with a lecture that puts the readings in historical and literary context, and I offer some biographical information about each author as we discuss their work. Sometimes I have students break into small groups to answer close reading questions about a text, which we later discuss as a class, or define key terms in a text, or rephrase a thorny passage in their own words, or choose a favorite passage and compose a discussion question to pose to the class. Other times I ask students to rehearse and perform parts of a play out loud, compose a letter to an author or an op-ed for a historical newspaper, or write a poem that reflects on the themes of a poetic work from our syllabus. This not only injects energy and variety into what would otherwise be a tediously long class period, but it allows students to express and exercise a variety of modes of thinking: historical, analytical, and emotional. This varied classroom dynamic gives students the room to express their personal opinions and to think about and articulate how texts relate to their own lives and feelings. It is the first time that I have taught this class, and I am still in the process of thinking through how to balance and assess these different types of assignments and ways of thinking. I am finding, however, that students express sophisticated reading insights with comfort and ease in exercises framed as creative, and that students are often creative, and express aspects of their personal experience or emotional responses to texts, during traditional assignments. I am hopeful that the wide range of assignments I offer in my course encourages these outcomes.
The most popular of the prompts I gave for the first paper was this one: Write a letter to an author whose work has appeared on our syllabus thus far. Explain to the author how you feel about their work, how you related to it personally, and offer suggestions for what else you would like the author to discuss in their writing.
What follows are two students’ responses to this prompt. I was struck by the way both students were attentive to drawing out specific evidence from the texts to support their analysis and reflections, even though they were not using the evidence to bolster a traditional argument. This shows that creative responses need not result in vague or unengaged readings. Rather, these responses integrate personal stories and emotional reactions with reflections on the plot and characters of the stories and appreciation for the major themes of the works. I am grateful to my students for granting me permission to share their work.
Student Sample 1: A Response to I. J. Schwartz’s Kentucky
Henry Barnett is a father and grandfather, a veteran, and a nontraditional student pursuing a Liberal Arts bachelor’s degree. He responds to excerpts from I. J. Schwartz’s Kentucky (trans. Dubrovsky) in the Norton Anthology of Jewish American Literature, explaining how he related to the piece on a personal level.
25 September 2017
A Letter to I. J. Schwartz
Dear Mr. Schwartz,
I enjoyed reading excerpts from Kentucky as found in the Norton Anthology of Jewish American Literature. While reading Blue Grass, I felt that you had paralleled my own wanderings in my life—although, given the time difference between our lives, I suppose I have been paralleling your footsteps. The first home that I recall more than flashes of memory—I do not intend to make a pun of the “flashes” (line 17) of individuality you wrote of—was in Norfolk, Virginia. I remember standing on the shore of the Atlantic Ocean many times during all types of weather and all the seasons of the year. All these years later the steady crashing of the waves still beckons for me to chase the horizon. I can stare out of your eyes from New Jersey and feel the mist and salt air wash over me (line 26).
When I was six my mother remarried, this time to a sailor. They honeymooned in the Shenandoah Valley. When Dad left the Navy we moved to Waynesboro, Virginia; where we stayed until I graduated from high school. When you write of Kentucky I see Waynesboro in my mind’s eye. My sister and my mother now live near Lexington, Kentucky; and when I visit them I see the land much as you describe it—justifying to me the overlay of my memories with your writings. But just as you left the “lonesome forests” of Lithuania (line 6), I left the wooded mountains of Virginia when I was eighteen. I have called Kansas home most of my adult life. The “broad, unbounded expanse” (line 34) of Kansas unnerved me for many years. Not even the desert of California with its parched openness was as alien to me as Kansas. At least the desert had mountains! Now I relish the roaring wind from atop a hill as the plains unroll before me; however, when I first came to Kansas I would have gladly traded your “expanse” for mine .
When you wrote of the way people treat each other in Again Litvaks, you once again struck a chord in me. I grew up just over the mountain from Thomas Jefferson’s home. Jefferson was more than just an historical figure to me; he was a local legend—a type of “local boy makes good” if you will. I was brought up believing—as the Declaration of Independence that he wrote said—“that all men are created equal.” This is not to say that I am in some way super-human and without prejudice. But I believe we have a duty to God and to each other to combat negative tendencies that upbringing or circumstance might have dumped in our beings. This conviction is made all the stronger by the discovery in my lifetime that there is no appreciable difference in the human genome from one individual—or group of individuals—to another. The “brotherly abyss” (line 109) that you wrote of must be eradicated. We are one people—one race. In a shrinking world we must wake up to this reality.
I was born twenty-one years after the Second World War. My grandfathers fought the Japanese in that war. I suppose with my family’s investment in the conflict and the closeness of my time to it, it is natural for me to have grown up thinking about it. I was particularly perplexed by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. I once asked my Dad why they were the way they were. I did not understand how somebody could be so full of hate.
Dad replied, “They were monsters. There’s nothing to understand.”
I pressed on. “But if you don’t understand them, how do you stop them?” After some bickering (I must have been younger than a teenager since we were talking so much) I asked, “Why does everybody hate Jews?”
Dad told me, “God told them to be separate in the Old Testament. When they go to a new place, they stay together and help each other out. But every group of people does that.”
It is unfortunate, Mr. Schwartz, that you did not meet with such a greeting when you came to the United States (line 103). We all sleep together in Death (line 121), as you pointed out. Why is it that we must nit-pick on every little difference in Life? This Jew is from Germany and he despises the one from Lithuania (line 103). Are not both children of Abraham? One Irishman is Catholic; another is Protestant. They kill each other even while claiming to worship a man who taught nothing but Peace (I find that to be one of the greatest—yet cruelest—jokes I have ever heard). Perhaps Dad thought I was too young to see how ugly people can become. I tell my children: “People oppress each other. Some people are just mean and full of hate. I have fought this all my life; you will have to fight it all of yours.”
Thank-you for Kentucky, Mr. Schwartz. You show us a world—from your homeland to your new homeland—and the people that live in it. The world is beautiful; but the people especially are beautiful for all their hope, sorrow and shortcomings (shown particularly well in Litvaks).
Student Sample 2: A Response to Rokhl Brokhes’ “Golde’s Lament”
Leah Miller is a preschool teacher and a mother pursuing a Masters in Child Psychology. She writes to Rokhl Brokhes in response to her story “Golde’s Lament” (trans. Mniewski) found in the collection Have I Got a Story for You, relating her family’s history to the title character’s dilemma.
September 24, 2017
Dear Rokhl Brokhes,
I have read your short story “Golde’s Lament” in my Jewish American Literature class. I was quite impressed with your ability to write stories in a time that was so very difficult in Russia. You were among the lucky Jewish children who were educated at an early age and you were able to take those skills to help others through a time of economic and political turmoil using your writing. The story about Golde and her husband Leybe, I am sure hit very close to home for many of the women in your community and many of the other Russian communities as well. People were not able to support themselves in Russia and were forced to send their loved ones away in order to make a living. I cannot image how it must feel to have a husband so far away with little ability to contact him. I can understand the pain Golde must have been going through to not only be sending her husband away, not knowing when she will be able to see him again, but also to send him with another woman portraying herself as his wife. It was great service you did for the women around you that were going through these trials. By vocalizing what many of these women were feeling about being left back in Russia you were creating a connection through which the women could relate to each other and lean on each other as each went through their own struggle knowing that their friend was probably going through the same thing.
I can relate to your tale about Golde and Laybe because my great- great- grandfather had to also leave Russia in order to support his family. While he was gone his wife gave birth to a baby whom he did not meet for a number of years until he was able to raise enough money to bring them to America. While left in Russia my great- great grandmother and great- great aunt went through many trials trying to survive the horrors of the Russian police and neighbors. There is a very sad story about how the police came into their home and told my aunt, who may have been only five years old at the time, to sit on the hot stove or they will hurt her mother. They made her do this for at least an hour causing her horrible burns. My great- great- grandmother and aunt had to endure this on their own without their husband and father. My great- great grandfather being there may not have changed what happened but being a family and having the support of all the people you love makes life just a little bit easier. It was very difficult for my grandmother not knowing what was happening with my grandfather in America. They had some communication but not as much as there is now. In the end, my grandfather arranged an audience with the President of the United States who wrote a letter helping to accelerate the rest of his family’s journey to America. (The letter is framed and hanging on the wall in my uncle’s house.) Once here, they were able to build a life for themselves. My great- great grandfather was a Rabbi, as well as a Mohel and Shochet. In 1922, my great- grandfather was born, in America, and served in the American Army in World War II as a dentist (another connection to Ms. Brokhes, whose husband was a dentist.)
I would love to hear the sequel story of what happened to Golde and Laybe. Did Laybe end up traveling with Peshke? If so, how did Golde fair being at home without him? Was Laybe able to get the help he needed? Medically? Financially? Did he end up staying with Peshke and her husband when he got to America, as he thought he would? We discussed in some other stories that we read that some of the immigrants would talk about America as being such a wonderful place to their families back at home in Russia, when in reality they were starving and living in tenements. Was this the case with Peshke and her husband? There are so many questions I have following your story. I am sure most of the women reading your short stories also would have loved to hear a happy ending to Golde’s sad story. We all want to see how she was strong and triumphed in being alone and taking care of her children and how in the end her husband was able to accomplish what he set out to do and was able to send for his family shortly after. Unfortunately, we know that was not always the case some of the husbands never sent word to their family and disappeared once they reached America, or it took them many years before they could send for their family. In either case it would be nice to see how you had imagined the next chapter to this tale.
Thank you again for your short story, I very much appreciated reading it.