We’ve started reading Thomas King, in my Introduction to Literature class, starting with his short story, A Seat in the Garden. It’s a story I’ve referred to before, a story I have taught on numerous occasions.
I was first introduced to this short story when I was an undergraduate. There are plenty of intertextual references, most obviously the names of white male actors who played Native characters in movies and on TV. We read this story pre-Google, pre-ubiquitous laptops, pre-mobile everywhere. And so, when we read this story, which we all could figure out was about stereotypes and racism towards Native peoples, we didn’t really get the rich level of references to 1950s-1970s iconic portrayals of Natives on the screen. And so, the entire class time spent on the story was the professor lecturing, explaining who these actors were and why that mattered to the story.
We didn’t even have an overhead projector in the classroom where he could have projected an image of the actors in those roles.
When I taught the story, I did so in the same way. As the years went on, the actors themselves became more and more unknowable, as did the movies and shows they were being cited for. But, that description that King narrates of “the big Indian” remained familiar to the students.
And unfortunately still does.
Today, my students have zero idea who any of the actors mentioned are, or even that they are actors to begin with. Only one students caught the reference for “If you build it, they will come.” One. But, all of my students have laptops or tablets or smartphones, so instead of me telling them who the actors are and why it matters, I have them use google. And find pictures. And look at the shows and history. And who W.P. Kinsella is and why he is being referenced. And then they can collaboratively annotate the text.
And so they have accomplished much of the work (with some help and guidance) themselves. And I found myself with a lot of free time, so to speak, to talk about the story in “new” ways.
And I realized, for the first time, it was probably significant that the character “Joe Hovaugh” (say it out loud) is working IN A GARDEN and ends up building a seat for a trio of Natives therein. And so instead of spending all our time talking about stereotypes and media misrepresentation (which is important, but that they got largely on their own), we were able to dig a little deeper about origin stories and the Garden of Eden, and Christianity’s treatment of Natives during the history of colonialism. What does it mean that there is now a seat in this garden?
We didn’t come up with any hard answers, but just explored theories, including one reference to the first lines of Paradise Lost that a student found by googling “garden, heaven, seat, Eden.” And many of my students are still struggling with this level of discourse around literature. But, as I told them today in an email (I know, SO OLD SCHOOL OF ME), that these readings that we did today around the setting of the garden were completely new to me, too, even after reading and teaching this story countless times. And that it has taken 20 years of practice to have a DUH moment like that one I had before class about said garden.
But the moment wouldn’t have come if it hadn’t been for the integration of technology in active and productive ways in my classroom practice. I could have the students find and collect the information needed to begin to make meaning in the text and focus on taking that process of meaning-making to the next level. They still don’t believe me when I tell them to “google it” and require them to annotate together, but I think after today we are all finally heading in the right direction.
Now if I could just figure out what the heck it means that a trio of Natives basically tricks God into building them a seat in his garden, but not too close, just on the edge, of said garden, while God still only sees a hallucination of the big Indian yelling, “If you build it, they will come.”
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