Short Fiction as a Medium of Learning the Past, Present and Future.
Teaching literature as an AP class in high school provides students with an open window of other subjects that can be analyzed with a literary lens. With proper contextualization and examination of fiction texts, students can grasp the historical context of the stories they just read. Since it seems that only studying History as a single subject is not enough for modern high school generations to properly learn about their country’s past, literature serves as a support to what has been learned in other classrooms. From specific genres to particular literary periods, there are several mediums that can be used to teach literature, but using a short fiction canon provides benefits that others cannot. Due to its brevity and usual impactful message the story leaves on its reader, using short fiction as medium to teach an AP English class can help the student have a better understanding of historical periods, politics, and social movements that shaped the past and present, while also learning the basics of literature.
As the name suggests, short stories can be read in a small period of time which would give students enough time to take in the message the story is trying to send, analyze and discuss it while also providing them the benefit of already reading a full story. In contrast to reading the chapter of novel of decent length in the same period of time, only certain literary aspects could be analyzed and it would not be enough to properly understand the historical context. As according to White, “The form and content of a story enables the reader to process the information in an intelligible manner. Stories with a beginning, middle, and end create a meaningful whole. Within this framework, organized patterns of thought develop, mental images form, and a context for understanding results. (2)”. Having a full story to analyze and contextualize will be better than just a short aspect of a novel.
An AP English class should not substitute History as a subject, but rather support it since without basic knowledge of the historical context, the effort of analyzing a historical period of time through a literary lens is futile. As Pasco suggests in his article, “Since the authors of short stories cannot pause to instruct in detail, they have to assume considerable background on the part of their reader, a background that may or may not be present in a particular individual at a particular time. (446)”. Authors do not need to detail the context, but this works in favor of those analyzing their stories since they are more direct and do not spend time explaining historical facts to their readers, but rather reacting to them.
With the preposterous ban of several literary works in high school classrooms, most short fiction stories have yet to see the light of this censorship. Teachers can use this loop hole to introduce controversial topics that students need to start to identify and analyze before going to college. As an example, if several schools continue to ban Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”, teachers could use some of James Baldwin’s less known and controversial short stories to teach about legal racial injustice and segregation in the 20th century. Until they can.
One of the first steps to stop the far-right fascist rise in the 21st century, is high school properly understanding its deep history in the 20th century. In his 1968 short story “Harrison Bergeron”, Kurt Vonnegut tells the story of the dystopian 2081 where the government controls every advantage any individual may have. The protagonist Harrison Bergeron tries to overthrow this government and is killed in live television, where his parents forget the incident. “All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General. (3059)”, Vonnegut writes as an ironic critique to the government’s fight for equality and surveillance. As a timely story, students can use “Harrison Bergeron” as an element of study for the consequences of modern politics and fascist technological techniques governments are using to stalk its citizens and distract them from reality.
With future generations emerging, vivid memories from 9/11 and its aftermath now only belong to some college students and adults. Using literature that reacts to 9/11 helps students with no recollection of 9/11 understand the social context of a nation at war. The sole title of Dave Eggers’ 2004 short story “What It Means When a Crowd in a Faraway Nation Takes a Soldier Representing Your Own Nation, Shoots Him, Drags Him from his Vehicle and Then Mutilates Him in the Dust” can be analyzed as the consequences of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As Eggers writes “If a soldier was killed and mutilated in his own country, the man would not feel this kind of revulsion. (4082)”, students can read and understand the current sentiment of a nation at war.
Similar to the way Eggers’ short story can be analyzed, Cynthia Ozick’s “The Shawl” can be used to understand historical and social context of humanity’s atrocious actions. The story follows Rosa, her baby Magda and niece Stella as they march down to a Nazi concentration camp. As a brief story, Ozick manages to shock her readers by describing the anxieties surrounding the Jewish community during the Holocaust and Nazi’s murders. When Rosa sees Magda murdered, Ozick writes a breathtaking line in “So she took Magda’s shawl and filled her own mouth with it, stuffed it in and stuffed it in, until she was swallowing up the wolf’s screech and tasting the cinnamon and almond depth of Magda’s saliva; and Rosa drank Magda’s shawl until it dried. (3439)”. The story may shock some students, but it is important that future generations understand the horrors of the Holocaust, so that they are able to properly identify modern times’ characteristics that may resemble those of the Nazi regime and prevent them. As History is supposed to teach the mistakes of the past so that they can be avoided in the future, Ozick’s short story is a perfect fit for students to understand the Holocaust through a literary lens.
Morality is often questioned in capitalistic countries such as the United States, since capitalists argue that charity and altruistic actions are enough to counter the economic fatalities the system employs. With capitalism approaching its late stages, high school students can benefit from analyzing the moral consequences of such. In David Foster Wallace’s short story “The Devil is a Busy Man”, he challenges the nature of altruistic actions under a capitalistic system. Wallace writes “…not only completely emptied the generous thing I tried to do of any true value, and caused me to fail, again, in my attempts to sincerely be what someone would classify as truly a “nice” or “good” person, but, despairingly, cast me in a light to myself which could only be classified as “dark”, “evil”, or “beyond hope of ever sincerely becoming good. (3917)”, to directly engage and question the morality of the narrator’s actions. Published in 1999, students can use this short story to analyze the false promises capitalism made in the 90s and the state of the economy in the United States during the early 21st century. Wallace’s short story does not only engage with morality questions about current socioeconomic systems, but asks its reader to define “good” for the narrator as well. This can be an introspective exercise for students to do, while analyzing the literary elements of the story that present actions as “noble”.
The short story also helps contextualize the experience of minorities in the United States and give them a proper voice and representation. Sandra Cisneros’ short story “Mericans” narrates the experiences of a Mexican-American family visiting la Basílica de Guadalupe in Mexico City. While analyzing code-switching and exact contextualization of the setting, students that do not identify as Chicanx can see the Mexican-American experience and understand why Mexican-Americans belong in the United States as much as they do. As Cisneros writes to end the story, “We’re Mericans, we’re Mericans, and inside the awful grandmother prays. (3912)”. In a time where inclusion still is a controversial topic, students can benefit from studying short stories like “Mericans” that provide a glance to American cultures they are not used to see being properly represented. Freeman suggests in her article that the short stories can contextualize different cultures as she writes “One story alone, of course, cannot give a complete picture of a region, but the approach to fiction outlined for “The Ransom of Red Chief” provides one way of helping people understand those who live in regions other than their own. (287)”.
Teaching is a noble profession and one of the most important ones in the current sociopolitical climate, and should be handled as such. Using short fiction as a medium in AP English classes can help the teacher teach the students literature in an in-depth form, while also addressing social issues that are relevant to modern times. The power short fiction has to send a message in a short of period of time should be used in its advantage, with students being able to understand what shaped the past and present, and how they should act in the future.
Word count: 1544
Works Cited List:
Cisneros, Sandra. “Mericans” The Heath Anthology of American Literature, edited by Paul Lauter et al., vol. E, Wadsworth, 2014, pp. 3910–3912
Eggers, Dave. “What It Means When a Crowd in a Faraway Nation Takes a Soldier Representing Your Own Nation, Shoots Him, Drags Him from his Vehicle and Then Mutilates Him in the Dust” The Heath Anthology of American Literature, edited by Paul Lauter et al., vol. E, Wadsworth, 2014, pp. 4081–4082
Freeman, Bernice. “Teaching Short Stories”, The English Journal, vol. 44, no. 5 (May, 1955), pp. 284–287+307. JSTOR https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/809497.pdf?refreqid=search%3A16395163e4ac05654df ef6222b3869ba. Accessed December 1–12 2018
Ozick, Cynthia. “The Shawl” The Heath Anthology of American Literature, edited by Paul Lauter et al., vol. E, Wadsworth, 2014, pp. 3436–3439
Pasco, Allan H. “The Short Story: The Short of It”, Style, vol. 27, no. 3 The Short Story: Theory and Practice pp. 442–451. JSTOR.
https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/42946063.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3A750bbddfd737363e6b0ca5f94da5f7d1. Accessed December 1–12 2018.
Vonnegut, Kurt. “Harrison Bergeron” The Heath Anthology of American Literature, edited by Paul Lauter et al., vol. E, Wadsworth, 2014, pp. 3059 -3064.
Wallace, David Foster. “The Devil Is a Busy Man” The Heath Anthology of American Literature, edited by Paul Lauter et al., vol. E, Wadsworth, 2014, pp. 3915 -3917