Posted in Reading, Teaching, Theatre, Writing

Source Conversations as One-Acts, Sherman Alexie

Since writing academic papers requires placing sources in conversation, why not begin the writing process with an actual conversation on the page in the form of a play? That’s the idea behind the assignment developed by some of my former colleagues at VCU and one that I adapted for my own UNIV 111 classes.

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993)
The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993)

Rather than requiring each student to produce a play individually, I altered the project to focus on collaboration, assigning students the responsibility of producing individual preliminary drafts consisting of one character’s lines (quotations and/or paraphrases from one source), which they collaboratively place in conversation with their group members’ characters in a one-act play that they perform in class. The final product consists of quotations and paraphrases from three-to-five sources, a character guide with a biographical note on each source’s author, and a works cited list. I encourage (but don’t require) students to include a description of the setting and stage directions as well.

It’s an assignment that many of my former students at VCU viewed in hindsight as a particularly helpful exercise in synthesizing a variety of materials (articles, essays, books, etc.). Though it involves more compiling than composing—at least in the initial stages—it’s a critical step in the process of writing an academic essay.

Returning to this assignment with my ENG 131 students at Lenoir-Rhyne, I composed the following sample as a model for their preliminary drafts. I chose as my subject Sherman Alexie’s short story “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” and its film adaptation Smoke Signals—adapted for the screen by Alexie, himself—because my students are studying the story and the film in conjunction with Alexie’s appearance on campus March 27 as part of the Lenoir-Rhyne Visiting Writers Series.

Working Title: From “This is What it Means . . .” to Smoke Signals, or Sherman Alexie’s Road Trip from the Page to the Screen

Character Guide

Gordon E. Slethaug: An American-Canadian Professor of English at the University of Southern Denmark and author of  Teaching Abroad: International Education and the Cross-cultural Classroom (2007), Beautiful Chaos: Chaos Theory and Metachaotics in Recent American Fiction (2000), and The Play of the Double in Postmodern American Fiction (1993). He also co-authored Understanding John Barth (1990) with Stan Fogel.

Slethaug’s lines for the play follow.

Gordon E. Slethaug: “Although there has been some interest in depicting a more historically authentic view of Native Americans than that presented in the typical post-World War II Western, the reality of their lives and perspectives still seems sadly underrepresented and diminished in mainstream Hollywood film” (131).

GS: “Smoke Signals provides an important step in remedying this problem [of stereotypes]. It’s “based upon the first third of his collection of short stories, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven” (131).

Smoke Signals (1998)
Smoke Signals (1998)

GS: “The film, however, presents a different perception from the short story collection [. . .] the short fiction gives a comprehensive representation of the entire Spokane reservation community and includes a typically Alexie critical and cynical view of the systemic problems of unemployment, poverty, hunger, inadequate housing, violence, drugs, alcoholism, and premature death in a culture removed from its traditional moorings; the film presents a warm-hearted, compassionate view of Victor and Thomas through the medium of the road narrative and engages the audience on the level of humor and sentiment even while it gently critiques white society and racist treatments of Native Americans” (131).

 Works Cited

Slethaug, Gordon E. “Hurricanes and Fires: Chaotics in Sherman Alexie’s Smoke Signals and The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.” Literature and Film Quarterly 31.2 (2003): 130-40. Academic Search Complete. Web. 17 Mar. 2014.

To develop this individual draft into a one-act play, I will place Slethaug in conversation with Alexie, using these sources:

Alexie, Sherman. “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona.” The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. 1993. New York: HarperPerrenial, 1994. 59-75. Print.

Smoke Signals. Dir. Chris Eyre. Perf. Adam Beach and Evan Adams. Miramax, 1998. DVD.

West, Dennis, and Joan M. West. “Sending Cinematic Smoke Signals: An Interview with Sherman Alexie.” Cineaste 23.4 (1998). Academic Search Complete. Web. 19 Mar. 2014.

Posted in Teaching, Writing

The Sustenance of Snail Mail


Even if I’d lived at my current address longer than five months, it would’ve been unusual to open my mailbox to find what was there on Saturday: a handwritten letter from a former student. I often hear from former students online, but handwritten snail mail: that’s a rarity. I cradled the envelope with the care I’d give any other endangered species.

Though I know that most of my students won’t compose handwritten letters after they leave my classroom, it’s an assignment I still require to supplement their writing practice. I don’t read the letters I ask them to write; I simply require them to submit letters mail-ready, in addressed stamped envelopes. I credit the students with the act of composing–not with what they write or to whom. Some students think it’s a pointless exercise; others ask if it’s okay to submit more than one letter. (It’s okay–no, it’s more than okay.)

I started the practice nearly fifteen years ago when I was teaching at Salem College. At the end of that school year, I received a note from a student’s mother, thanking me for the written account of her daughter’s freshman year–something she wouldn’t have had, she said, if not for all that required letter-writing.

Not all students write to their families, but many do. One of my students at VCU reported that the letters he’d written home were all posted on the door of the refrigerator. Earlier this month when my students at Lenoir-Rhyne submitted their last letters of the semester, one student handed me a stack of envelopes, each addressed to one of the teachers at her high school. At the end of her first semester of college, she was writing to say thank you.

Envelope November 2011I don’t write much snail mail, myself, though I do write a letter once a month along with my Envelope April 2013students.  And Monday I wrote back to my former student–the one whose letter arrived on Saturday.  I should write more letters, considering how much some of the ones I’ve received have meant to me. A note from one of my teachers five months before her death and one from another teacher–still very much alive and well–encouraging me to continue my writing, are ones I keep in my briefcase. Having them there makes me feel as if the women who wrote them are walking with me into the classroom. And in a sense they are–their words invigorate my teaching.

Sometimes at the end of a difficult day, I pull one from my briefcase and reread it.

The letter that I received from my student on Saturday is one I’ll carry with me as well. In it, she writes (I quote with her permission):

This semester, I took UNIV 200 in which I wrote a 15-page research paper on the importance of handwritten letters when compared to email messages. I had a great experience researching articles and now have the confidence to write a lengthy paper.

I hope your first semester at your new teaching institution has been great. Have a very Merry Christmas and a happy New Year.

Thanks, Esther. Your handwritten words have made the season brighter.

Posted in Reading, Writing

VCU’s Southern Film Festival: Screening Southern Rebellion

Frankly, My Dear (2009)

Molly Haskell grew up here in Richmond, and it’s here that she fell in love with movies. One of her most vivid childhood memories finds her standing before a magazine rack in the Broad Street station waiting for the train to Florida, and persuading her father to buy her a magazine devoted to the child star Margaret O’Brien.* The pleasure Molly Haskell took in reading that movie magazine is one she would later pass on to the readers of her own film reviews and books.” Those are some of the words that I spoke about Haskell Friday night when I introduced her as keynote speaker at the third annual VCU Southern Film Festival at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

In her keynote address, Haskell discussed her most recent book, Frankly My Dear: Gone With the Wind Revisited (2009), which expolores Gone With the Wind as the product of three strong personalities: author Margaret Mitchell, film producer David O. Selznick, and actress Vivien Leigh. Published on the seventieth anniversary of the film’s release, Haskell’s book looks back more than eighty years to Mitchell’s drafting of the novel in the 1920s, while also considering the book and film in multiple cultural contexts and reflecting on its enduring presence in our collective memory and imagination.

Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind (2011)

Haskell‘s speech led into the screening of the recent documentaryMargaret Mitchell: American Rebel (2011), which features Haskell as well as John Wiley, Jr., who co-authored–along with Ellen F. BrownMargaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind: A Bestseller’s Odyssey from Atlanta to Hollywood (2011). Both Wiley, of Midlothian, and Brown, of Richmond, were in the audience Friday night as well, and after the film they joined Haskell on stage for a panel discussion moderated by me.

At the outset of the panel, I noted that the publication of Brown and Wiley‘s book marked an important contribution to Mitchell scholarship as well as studies of book publishing and copyright. Though I was prepared to offer more talking points  about their work and Haskell‘s, I didn’t need to. Their own observations about Mitchell, her novel, and the film prompted a nearly hour-long conversation with the audience, cut short only by the announcement that the museum would close at 9 p.m.

When one man sitting near the front of the auditorium expressed his ambivalence about calling himself a fan, I was reminded of the “Seven Stages of Gone With the Wind” that Haskell outlines in Frankly My Dear:

“For those of us who fell under its spell, the range of emotions attached to the film fluctuate over time with the predictable volatility of a love affair and its aftermath, in my own case what we might clinically designate as the Seven Stages of Gone With the Wind: Love, Identification, Dependency, Resentment, Embarrassment, Indifference, and then something like Half-Love again, a more grown-up affection informed by a film-lover’s appreciation of the small miracle by which a mere ‘woman’s film’ with a heroine who never quite outgrows adolescence was tansfigured into something much larger, something profoundly American, a canvas that contains, if not Walt Whitman’s multitudes, at least multiple perspectives” (xiii).

Along with those words of Haskell‘s about the Seven Stages of Gone With the Wind, I would’ve liked to address how fans of the novel and the film have formed online communities, particularly on Facebook. That’s something that Ellen Brown mentioned back stage when the four of us–Brown, Wiley, Haskell, and I–were clipping on our wireless microphones.

In their introduction to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, Brown and Wiley write: “We do not claim to have rewritten Gone With the Wind, but we have refocused the lens” (3). Similarly, Haskell‘s Frankly My Dear refocuses the lens, and the insights of the three authors inspired Friday’s night’s audience to see the book and film anew.

*The childhood memory of Haskell‘s that I mentioned in my introduction is one that she recounts in From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies (1974, Second Edition 1987).

Posted in Reading, Teaching

Discussing VCU’s Summer Reading

The Other Wes Moore (2010)

This morning I met with twenty-five first-year students to discuss  The Other Wes Moore, VCU’s 2011 Summer Reading Program selection, as part of Welcome Week. Though classes don’t begin until tomorrow, the students I met with today–and the other members of the freshman class who met with other faculty, administrators, and staff during  Welcome Week discussions–engaged in an academic conversation similar to the ones that they will  encounter in their Focused Inquiry classes.

I was impressed by the number of students who were willing to express their ideas both in small-group and large-group discussion. (Our one-hour session included both.) I attribute the high level of participation in part to the nature of the  Welcome Week Summer Reading sessions, giving students the opportunity to engage in an academic discussion that isn’t led by someone who will evaluate their performance and record it in a grade book. Instead, the sessions offer an introduction to and preparation for the academic conversations that they will encounter later  in the classroom.

Several of the students I met with today mentioned the lines that were repeatedly addressed in the session for discussion leaders that I attended on August 15: “The chilling truth is that his story could have been mine. The tragedy is that my story could have been his ” (xi).

Those lines from Moore’s introduction also appear on the jacket–part of the book that’s the work of the publisher, not the writer. Wes Moore mentioned that fact when he spoke with the Focused Inquiry Faculty yesterday in a meeting interrupted by the earthquake. After we evacuated the Hibbs building, Moore generously continued to speak with the faculty while we stood on Shafer Court, awaiting news. In his discussion–both both pre and post-earthquake–Moore focused not on the lines that lend themselves to book-jacket blurbs, but on the crucial roles of  the people in his life–relatives, role models, and mentors–who, in his words, “kept pushing me to see more than what was directly in front of me, to see the boundless possibilities of the wider world and the unexplored possibilities within myself” (179).

The earthquake prevented Wes Moore from addressing the freshmen at convocation yesterday, but his words have spoken to many of the students I met with today. And their willingness to consider differing opinions about his book shows that they, too, are willing to see beyond their own experiences to the wider world.