Monday, May 4, 2015

Discontented, but in love with content: The #Rhizo15 paradox

So, today is really the FIRST DAY of my summer... Monday: but no school! And the first thing I wanted to do when I sat down at my computer was get to work on the Indian Epics UnTextbook. That is a good sign!

For this post, I want to explain more about the specific situation I find myself in with a class titled "Indian Epics" and what kind of UnTextbook experience I want to create. In the Rhizo15 posts from the past week, I see a wide range of reflections on content. Insofar as there are content camps, I am in what might be called the "discontented" camp, but in this post I hope to show that it is not that I am anti-content but rather that I am intensely aware of the difference between student-centered content and a traditional, top-down approach in which content is assigned by the instructor.

No Force-Fed Humanities, Please

In my case, I am teaching Gen. Ed. Humanities courses which are required for graduation, on the assumption that there is some diet of Humanities content that is "good" for the students, content food that I can feed them (by force if necessary) because the consumption of that content will benefit them. That force-feeding approach makes me very uncomfortable. It's not that I don't love the content; I'm the one who created the Indian Epics course at my school because when offered the chance to design a new Non-Western Gen. Ed. course, this was what I most wanted to do. I do indeed love these epics, and they have been a hugely important part of my life since I discovered them, thanks to Peter Brook's Mahabharata as shown on public television way back in 1989.

But for all that I love the epics, I don't expect the students will necessarily share that love, and I certainly don't want to try to force my feelings on them. Instead, I want to create an environment where the students can explore the epics freely and have their own experience of them, responding to their own curiosity and values, an independent experience, not just an awkward imitation of my own experience. So, while I think it's great that the Indian Epics UnTextbook will be free of charge, reducing costs is not my main goal (indeed, the paperbacks I was using previously were so cheap to buy used at Amazon that all four books cost less than $25). Instead, my goal is to do a better job of responding to those challenges by taking a student-driven approach.

Some History

When I first started teaching the Indian Epics class online in 2003 after having started teaching online with Myth-Folklore in 2002, I was really in a bind. From the very first semester of Myth-Folklore, I was able to give students a choice of reading (two reading options each week) and build the course in a modular way; the online resources were a small fraction of what they are now, but given the immensity of Myth-Folklore as a topic, it was easy to take a student-centered approach to the content from the start. With Indian Epics, though, everything was different. These were epics, not topics I could just "modularize" with weekly units so that every week was an independent choice. Plus, there were no readings available online (not even at Sacred Texts Archive); that meant, like it or not, I was going to have to make choices about books to buy for the class.

So, for the past ten years I had taken a very traditional approach, although one that I hoped would inspire my students to think about the content in a fluid, changing, subjective way: each semester, we would read TWO versions of each epic, the Ramayana as told by R. K. Narayan (Indian writer) and the Mahabharata as told by William Buck (American writer). In addition, the Ramayana books were themselves based on two different originals: Narayan was working with Kamban's Tamil Ramayana while Buck was working with Valmiki's Sanskrit Ramayana. And that was good so far as it went: by reading multiple versions of the epics like that, it helped the students to see that there was no "objective" epic, but only versions of the epics, interpretations, stories told by particular storytellers for particular audiences, just as they would be telling their own versions of the epics, their own stories. This multiplicity was a real surprise to the students, and disorienting in a good way, especially for those students who come to the class with assumptions about the Bible as a monolithic text (and teaching at the University of Oklahoma, that is not an uncommon assumption).

Indian Epics and the Myth-Folklore UnTextbook

Then, last year, I was able to break up my Indian Epics reading list thanks to the UnTextbook I had created for the Myth-Folklore class which had a lot of options from India (Buddhist stories, regional folktales, etc.): 12 different India units to be specific. In Myth-Folklore, those units provide one or two weeks of reading, along with similar modules of reading from Africa, Asia, British Isles, Europe, Middle East, and Native America.

So, for the Fall semester in Indian Epics, to make room for the UnTextbook option, I made Buck's Mahabharata optional so that the students could choose units from the UnTextbook for those four weeks if they wanted. It was a huge success! The UnTextbook option went so well in Fall that  in the Spring I also made the second half of Buck's Ramayana optional. As a result, students had six weeks of epic reading and six weeks of optional reading from the UnTextbook, looking at other Indian storytelling traditions.

I should note, however, that most students actually still chose to read the Buck books. I suspect this was because many students are still most familiar with reading actual books for school, and the assumption that books-are-the-course is very strong. But here's the thing: because of the social nature of the course with students reading each other's work all the time, even the students who stuck to the books got to learn about the UnTextbook by looking at the stories written by the students who explored the other reading options. So, that was great: the class ended up being a richer reading experience for everybody because of the UnTextbook options woven into the mix. But it was, admittedly, a more diluted epic experience because the materials in the UnTextbook were mostly folktales, very much connected to India, but not necessarily to the epic tradition per se.

Summer 2015: An UnTextbook for Indian Epics

So, for next year, I want to take the idea of the UnTextbook while keeping the focus on the epic tradition, along with the ancient storytelling traditions embodied in the Panchatantra and Buddhist jatakas which were taking shape at the same time as the epics (and, indeed, you can see those stories told by characters in the epics themselves, which is very cool). That means I will be making a specifically Indian Epics UnTextbook this semester, one which is fully focused on the incredibly rich storytelling tradition preserved (miraculously!) in these ancient texts.

For the first few weeks of summer, I am focusing on the Ramayana, hoping to finish that by May 23 (I'm out of town for one week in there to see my dad). Then I will work on the Mahabharata for the rest of May and all of June, hoping to finish that by July 1 (I'm out of town for another week in there to go to the DML conference). And then by July 25 (and I'm guessing another trip to see my dad will take up part of July), I want to finish up the epic-related readings that I also want to include: stories about Krishna, stories of the gods and goddesses, plus Buddhist storytelling traditions. That will then give me the last week of July to make sure everything fits together before my husband's daughter and grandson come visit in first week of August, followed by a frenzied few days of getting everything up and running for students to start on August 11.

All told, I've got 14 weeks, of which 4 weeks will be travel/family weeks where I might get some reading done, but probably not much of that. So: 10 weeks. It's going to be a tight squeeze to get all the work done in that time, but I need to keep in mind the bare MINIMUM I need to get done... and not get distracted by the infinite possibilities. And really, especially when it comes to the Mahabharata, the possibilities are not just infinite but so tempting (I personally far prefer the Mahabharata to the Ramayana). So, it's good I am start with the Ramayana, ha ha, because I will be able to set more reasonable expectations that way.

I'll be keeping a diary here of my progress, so in addition to the Rhizo15 tag (where appropriate), I'll also be linking to Summer15 posts. And now.......... bring on the epics! My goal today is to write up the reading guide — but really a watching guide — for Nina Paley's GENIUS animated film, Sita Sings the Blues. It's in the public domain. It positively WANTS to be embedded in the UnTextbook.


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