- Failures and Successes
Among physicians, morbidity and mortality conferences are essential learning tools. While I cannot imagine the terror of being questioned about medical choices that lead to the death of my patient, only through transparent discussions of errors, willful or not, can bad practices or judgments be driven out and successful paradigm shifts created.
We teachers are perhaps too often loath to publicly admit failure, perhaps for fear of showing a lack of credibility or control in a political and social climate that leaps on any sign of weakness. Even when high school and college teachers get together, as I do each June for the Advanced Placement Literature and Composition Exam grading, there is often not enough of a focus on what doesn’t work in the literature and writing classrooms over what does. Teaching the Works of Eudora Welty: Twenty-First-Century Approaches offers both failures and successes, both what led to student disengagement with Welty’s works and what led to stronger critical thinking and writing skills.
The collection’s essays are lean and to the point, and the book is quite useful in this regard as it gives instructors a wide range of approaches to this important writer. The book is broken into seven sections, and each section contains four or five short essays, each about eight pages long. The initial section covers elements of Welty’s biography, but from there, each of the sections engages a different aspect of approaching her works: through region, race, the body, international perspectives, the First Year Writing Classroom, and then a concluding section on teaching Welty through broader contexts outside the literature classroom.
The writers’ backgrounds skews largely towards professors from southern universities with some from the high school level and a few international [End Page 147] scholars and Welty biographers/curators. This regional imbalance is perhaps to be expected, and several contributors note that teaching Welty outside the South can be challenging as there is a perception that non-southern students cannot understand her contexts, and that the questions of race and the depictions of racism can be quite difficult for non-southern teachers to deal with.
Such concerns are understandable, but the strength of the collection comes from the pedagogical discussions, particularly the approaches that did not work, often for trying to avoid these presumed difficulties. For example, in her essay “Teaching Welty’s Narrative Strategies in Delta Wedding,” Sarah Gilbreath Ford says, “One approach that did not work was discussing the scholarship detailing the dense allusions to other texts that occur on every page of the novel” as “the students felt left out of the conversation” (32). Ford writes that she “was not starting from [her] students’ own interests or expertise” (33). To bridge this gap, Ford says that she then assigned each student a character from the novel “to follow when reading the novel,” tracking “appearances, descriptions, and opinions” and building a visual reference to the character through sticky notes as textual markers (33). All students became invested in their characters, which Ford says “led the students to the intertextuality that I had wanted them to see,” including seeing allusions to the Persephone/Hades myth which in turn led Ford to recommending that students explore the extant scholarship (34).
In another example of a failed strategy, Christin Marie Taylor describes how her students came to Welty through social movements—in this case the story “A Curtain of Green” through the Civil Rights Movement—and became comfortable with literature “about political rebellion, racial oppression, and social change” alongside Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “Sympathy,” and Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die” (72). But “Curtain” was met with “faint scowls and averted eyes” because Welty offers them no sure footing—no “champion, no victim” (72). Taylor says she abandoned lecture to employ a “jigsaw” method: students break into small groups, assigned “sets of questions, related images, background information, and instructions that will help them arrive at unique...