Top 4 Reasons to Teach Sherman Alexie

“Humor was an antiseptic that cleaned the deepest of personal wounds.” – Sherman Alexie, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven

When I was a college freshman, a beloved English professor first introduced me to author Sherman Alexie. I have had the opportunity to pay it forward and teach Sherman Alexie (most notably his novel Flight) to freshman students for the past 6 years. Here are my top 4 reasons you should be doing the same.

1. He’s funny.

We teach in a modern, text-filled world where laughing out loud and rolling on the floor laughing are common phrases that now appear in our inboxes, piles of essays to grade, and classroom discussions. While this reliance on slang always reminds me to make a note, ‘AVOID SLANG’ in my syllabus, I am pleased to present an author who creates a safe space for readers to ‘lol’ and/or ‘rotfl’ and aim to generate a similar environment in my college classroom.

I usually introduce Alexie with a brief biography and a lot of excitement – I affectionately create an ‘S.A. Opening Day’ complete with an interactive Prezi on the Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian from Wellpinit, Washington. In recent years, I have begun our discussions with clips from Time’s 10 Questions Series and Big Think’s Interview with Sherman Alexie below. While these videos help to promote different works, they also provide a context for young readers to see and hear from the author directly. When I ask for first impressions, students comment on Alexie’s passion about subjects like banned books, Native American history, and novel writing. They applaud his frankness and his ability to tell it like it is. Mostly, though, they talk about his humor. They continue to do so while reading his novel Flight.

2. He’s seriously funny.

In the midst of reading, students always exchange tales of laughter – they dog-ear pages to later share with classmates. Interestingly enough, students also inquire about another side of Alexie’s humor. They begin to question if they should be laughing at some of the outrageous stereotypes, politically incorrect statements, and explicit innuendos – and they dog-ear these pages as well. While they may not be aware of it, Alexie helps students become more active readers and critical thinkers. He helps them to formulate differences between types of humor such as slapstick, dark humor, and satire. Through satirical portrayals, he presents serious issues many of my students face on a daily basis such as alienation, peer pressure, and stereotyping.

In class, students create an ongoing list of ‘seriously funny moments’ from the novel, and explore these instances in their final papers. They use humor as a tool to talk about thoughtful social and cultural issues, an idea garnered from the pages of Alexie’s own work. For their final essays, they answer one or more of the following questions in an effort to explore, expand upon, and showcase their understanding of humor’s impact on society: How do humorists (like Sherman Alexie) use humor to get us to think about the world?; How does the type of humor in Alexie’s work impact, change, progress, and/or regress our worldview?; How, if at all, might this type of humor used in Alexie’s work help us to prioritize our values?; and How, if at all, might the instances of humor in Alexie’s work help us to change American society?

3. His writing is accessible.

I am a big proponent of challenging my students’ abilities – their writing skills, reading comprehension, and critical thinking – in my freshman English course. On the other hand, students often have a different agenda. With such a varied student population with an even more diverse set of skills in each classroom, I find their motivation to learn on a broader spectrum than ever before. Alexie’s writing, through culture references, simple sentence structure, and descriptive language, connects his characters’ thoughts to his readers’ world. Often, lofty diction and complicated sentence construction can alienate young readers. After a semester of trying to challenge their comprehension and deciphering skills, Alexie is a breath of fresh, easy air. Through his writing, he illustrates that language should promote critical thinking about sober, cultural issues plaguing the current American landscape.

His writing is also a great model for students. I often ask them to write and speak what they know – to avoid using the right-click feature found on their computers that allows them to replace their vocabulary with less familiar, obtuse words. I want them to focus on effectively communicating their ideas onto the page, and Alexie acts as a bestselling example.

4. He helps develop empathy in readers.

Call it what you will. Whether it is social consciousness, social awareness, or social understanding, Sherman Alexie has a true gift of facilitating empathy for other human experiences. As my freshman students study, humor, specifically the kind utilized by Alexie, helps to create a shared experience. These shared experiences produce stories, which are often told in the classroom, and build understanding and tolerance across different cultural boundaries. Alexie explores Native American stereotypes – the drunken Indian, the noble savage – and shows their harmful effects on the psyches of young men growing up both on and away from the reservation. He discusses cultural boundaries and often shatters preconceived notions of Native Americans, all in an effort not to acquire sympathy, but instead to illustrate the destructive force of willful ignorance. True understanding of another’s pain, isolation, and successes combats this deliberate cultural obliviousness. His interview with Bill Moyers, “Sherman Alexie on Living Outside Borders” is a poignant example for this discussion.

We spend a great deal of time on historical context as the novel presents it. History is important to Alexie, and it is often the place to begin a discussion on empathy. We discuss historical injustices, legendary battles, and prominent figures, such as Jackson’s dismissal of the Supreme Court ruling for the Cherokee nation, leading to the Trail of Tears, Custer’s Last Stand, and Crazy Horse. My young students grapple with an historical understanding of these cultural experiences, and in weekly reflections, they often discuss with their own values, ignorance, and biases, senses and stories of personal betrayal, alienation, and cultural seclusion. Considering different histories and perspectives aids in the development of a more informed, empathetic, and socially conscious society. While habitually reliant on bland, disingenuous phraseology regarding their emotions, twenty-first century readers learn through Alexie’s affirmation that true emotions and deep, sincere empathy builds lasting, valuable human connections.

© 2014 Tara Friedman

Tara E. Friedman currently teaches English and Professional Writing at Widener University in the outskirts of Philadelphia. She is ABD at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and hopes to complete her dissertation on female resistance and agency in select late nineteenth and twentieth century American novels and graduate in 2014 with her PhD in Literature and Criticism. While she has presented on critical thinking and writing center theory and pedagogy at the CCCC, her other research interests include nineteenth century British novels, the sixties in America, and American humor.

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