It’s still a week until June yet I’ve completed all syllabi for the fall. It’s the earliest ever that I’ve done, all the more surprising because I will have three different courses rather than the usual two preps. True, I’d taught them before: Great Books I for four times; Great Books V: Special Topics for the first time this past semester; and the first-year seminar (FYS) Asian Immigrants in America three years ago. However, I have overhauled the last two courses so much that they are virtually new ones. The biggest difference has to do with reading lists. While Great Books I remains largely the same, Great Books V sees a list of mostly new readings and the FYS has an entirely new list.
As a result of these changes, there is going to be a lot of fiction in Great Books V and FYS Asian Immigrants. When I taught the former in the Spring, there were only two novels: Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. They were assigned along with five non-fiction texts. It is the reverse this fall: five novels and two non-fiction texts. Only two texts remain from last semester, Things Fall Apart and The Wretched of the Earth. I’ve added Gandhi’s autobiography and a quartet of novels: A House for Mr. Biswas, The Hour of the Star, Howards End, and a different work of Zadie Smith, On Beauty.
Why these selections? Since Great Books V is Special Topics, a faculty can have different themes and emphases in different semesters. Last semester, I decided on the theme of postwar ideologies. Besides Achebe and Fanon, the reading list included Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom on conservatism; de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex on feminism (yes, we read almost all of this thick tome); Foucault’s Madness and Civilization on critical cultural theory (a disaster, I fear, and I should have followed my initial instinct on Discipline and Punish); Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring on environmentalism (which everyone loved); and White Teeth on multiculturalism. Colonialism and postcolonialism were represented by Things Fall Apart and The Wretched of the Earth. This time, I will focus more squarely on them along with multiculturalism. The selected texts, I think, will illustrate these interlocking themes well enough.
I am pretty sticky about dead authors in Great Books courses. It isn’t an absolute since Smith appears on both lists. But she is the only exception, and I didn’t even include Toni Morrison in Great Books IV until after her death. (I have since included Song of Solomon as well as Sula.) In other words, I’ve assiduously avoided living authors for the most part. That being said, White Teeth, flawed that it is, is almost perfect for the theme of multiculturalism, the last theme of last semester. The same is true about On Beauty, which will be the last book on next semester’s schedule. Besides, I’ve always wanted to include Howards End in a Great Books course. This is a very good opportunity because Smith, well known for her admiration of Forster, wrote On Beauty as a tribute to Howards End. I hope that the parallels will enhance the different settings, backgrounds, and characters in both novels.
When it comes to postcolonialism, The House of Mr. Biswas is an easy choice to make. This tragicomic story illustrates very well the alienation experienced by the colonized within their own society, who were constantly in search of their identity. The legacy of colonialism was further complicated by segregation from the Indian culture that affected the main character and his environs. In addition, I hoped to include at least one author from South America. One Hundred Years of Solitude is an option, partially because colonialism and post-independence are seen as portions of a bigger and longer history. That said, I wanted to have another female author besides Smith and settled on The Hour of the Star by the Ukrainian-Brazilian Clarice Lispector. Besides having a powerful perspective on poverty, it is scheduled right after the lengthy Mr. Biswas and therefore carries the virtue of brevity. We’ll see how students receive these works.
Turning to the FYS on Asian Immigrants, the next few years will see some large changes regarding the core curriculum at Pepperdine. Next semester may be my last chance to offer this course, which I’d previously taught as a history course. Since I plan to offer Asian American history as an upper-division elective in the new core, I thought of this FYS as an opportunity to do something different before the changes.
Like Great Books V, there are many options for a reading list about the Asian American experience. Or, experiences. The plural is deliberate. Different Asian ethnic groups have experienced certain things in common, including anti-Asian discrimination on the one hand and the model minority stereotype on the other hand. But they came from different countries and carried different backgrounds and experiences. Their initial encounters with American society have also varied in some aspects. Even the experiences of prejudice might be different. Chinese immigrants, for instance, faced the harshest level of discrimination during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries than their Japanese and South Asian counterparts.
As a result, I compiled a list that indicates the variety of ethnic backgrounds and experiences. It’s also helpful to have a chronological trajectory reflecting the historical waves of Asian immigration. Since this class is for first-year students–and carries three units rather than four for Great Books–there would be less reading than Great Books V. Over last week, I considered the options while weighing various goals in mind. I revised the reading list several times before settling another quartet of novels along with two collections of short stories.
They are scheduled according to the chronological trajectory that I’d used in the history course.
- Ruthian Lum McCunn, Thousand Pieces of Gold (1981), on nineteenth-century Chinese immigrants in the West Coast.
- Toshio Mori, Yokohama, California (1949), a Japanese community during the 1930s and 1940s.
- Kim Ronyoung, Clay Walls (1987), Korean immigrants from the 1920s to the 1950s in Los Angeles.
- Carlos Bulosan, America Is in the Heart (1946), immigrants from the Philippines in the West Coast from the 1920s to the 1940s. This semi-autobiographical novel is the longest by far on this list.
- Jhumpa Lahiri, Interpreter of Maladies (1999), immigrants from India living in the Northeast.
- Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (2019), refugees and immigrants from Vietnam in the Northeast and Midwest.
There are other works worthy of inclusion such as Younghill Kang, East Goes West (1937); John Okada, No-No Boy (1957); Louis Chu, Eat a Bowl of Tea (1961); and Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club (1989). They tend to be longer, which, again, played a role in my final decisions.
In all, there will be nine novels and two collections of short stories in these two courses during next fall. Over this summer, I will be rereading them alongside a good deal of scholarship about them. As I was about to complete the syllabi, I came across a nice quotation about reading literary fiction from, of all places, the Harvard Business Review. Well, it actually makes sense since this quotation is about potential employers of college graduates. I have inserted this quotation on the first page of the syllabus. Will it motivate the kids to read well? I hope so but, again, we shall see.
First, though, is a complete break from all things related to teaching.
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