Teaching the Beats Pt. 2: Response, Feedback, and Ideas for the Future

In this blog post, I wanted to follow up with responses and feedback to the classroom activity I planned last time to introduce the Beats, as well as to discuss other potential activities I could implement to address cultural memory and history together.

After presenting my activity to the class, we took time to discuss some of the pros and cons. Fortunately for me, everyone in the class seemed to respond positively to the use of the typewriter in conjunction with the sound recording and specific “mood music” chosen for the writing task. Some of the responses mentioned that the activity was “fun,” but also “difficult” in adapting to the older medium. A few people pointed out the level of noise produced, not only from using the typewriter and music, but also coming from the students waiting in line and encouraging each other to write out their responses. I was pleased to hear that my synthesis of what it all meant—pointing out the irregular rhythms of the typewriter as a form of music that shares a level of spontaneity with Kerouac’s writing process and bebop music—made sense, providing a clear picture between the experience of using the older technology and listening to the sounds in conjunction with each other.

One of the conversations revolved around my proposed question, “What is Beat?” There was some disagreement over the effectiveness of the question: whether there could be a better way to get at the experience using a different question or if the current question was useful to fostering discussions. Someone defended my original question, saying that it allowed for students to interpret their meaning and come to their own conclusions without too much of a lead-in, developing their own ideas of what “beat” means in relation to music, literature, time period, description as noun or verb, race, imagery, etc. Although I believe a better question might be formed, I also like the idea that the question is open-ended, not signifying whether “beat” is in reference to a noun—person—verb, adjective, or any other construction or concept, left to be poked and prodded by the students.

I emphasized the use of the collective document created in class on the typewriter as the course’s first primary document, but I also thought the sound recording of Kerouac discussing beat was also a way to expose students to an auditory primary document. One of the concepts that Sam Wineburg discusses in Historical Thinking is the think-aloud, a discussion of a student’s thought process as they analyze and examine documents firsthand, describing the piece, its content, and what it means historically. Though I was unable to do so in my given class time, I would have liked to revisit the sound recording in the class, replaying it and allowing students to give me their impressions of the speaker, the scenes described, the cadence, etc., to understand what they were drawing from the experience.

Along those lines, there were many questions about what I would do with the collective class document in the future. This is a good point, and one I am still parsing out. One commenter said that bringing in more artifacts like a record player, radio, etc. that students can also engage with might also help set the stage for further work through material culture and immersion in the course. I agreed and thought bringing back the typewriter periodically, and studying the class dynamics as they become more accustomed to working with it and using it, might be a way of developing a passion for situating one’s self in the past, using the tools of the time and imagining these historical actors’ pasts as present. (One of my favorite comments was about bringing in quills and inkwells to discuss the work of women writers during the 19th century). I imagined the typewriter as a staple to the course, a symbol to analyzing and discussing the work of the Beats historically.

From this activity, I’ve thought about ways in which to draw in more multimedia work and what assignments and a final project might entail. Drawing from Gee’s concept of videogame avatars, I thought it might be interesting to structure the final project around particular actors and authors at the time in which students—whether chosen at random or chosen by me or them—would research one Beat figure—Ginsberg, Corso, Cassady, Diane di Prima, etc.—and produce a creative final project to introduce that figure historically and within context of the Beat aesthetic. Each student would be responsible for presenting a biography and context for each figure, using their own skill sets to do so, whether it is film, creative writing, visual arts, etc. Research would still need to be done by everyone, but the final product could be their own making.

A big question was how to maintain interest in the classroom after such an engaging and interactive first activity. I admit I’m still struggling with this question, and trying to imagine how best to tackle the literature and reading portion of the course without slowing down momentum and interest. I think a brief introduction through lecture of particular figures, themes, or historical moments might be integrating, leaving room more for discussion and interaction amongst the students themselves. I would think about how best to show Beat and Beat-related films, present topics on race, class, gender, and sexuality, and setting the cultural context.

Two other activities come to mind that I might like to implement in my imagined course. Drawing upon a personal class experience in undergrad in which my professor had the class read aloud Ginsberg’s “Howl” word-by-word, student-by-student, I might like to have them read Ginsberg’s “America” aloud, line-by-line, and then discuss what that poem meant at the time it was written and what it means for the United States in the present. I would also play them a clip of Ginsberg reading the poem aloud himself to give a sense of his tone and voice. Another activity draws from Wineburg again where students were asked to draw images related to words like “pilgrim” and “hippie.” Wineburg, in his book, used these drawings and materials to speak to the ways younger students conceived of history through gender bias and their own exposure through cultural memory of these types of figures. My activity utilizes the same technique, but thinking about concepts like “hipster” and “beatnik,” trying to bring in outside perspectives to the fore and developing more complex ideas of what they mean, beyond Maynard G. Krebs and the beret-wearing cool cats and swinging chicks.

There is obviously still a lot to think about, especially as I try to deal with multimedia, transmedia, and cultural memory in the history classroom. I think more research into those topics and more work on developing practical strategies to address, accommodate, and utilize those areas will be important as the class forges ahead.

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