Tag Archives: Sherman Alexie

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.

Advertisements

Teaching Humor with Multicultural Texts; Teaching Multiculturalism with Humor

Understanding humor is all about understanding context — often about understanding shifting contexts.  The more you know about the different contexts in the text or performance, the deeper (and sometimes the more painful) your laughter — especially, sometimes, when you ruefully recognize yourself or people you know well as a part of the complex target of a joke.  Of course, if the joke cuts too deep, too close, or you feel it misrepresents too much, you may “get” the joke, but not find it funny at all.

Which is why I tell students in my multicultural humor courses that if they are not offended at least once during the semester, they are not paying attention.

But, I continue, they should not consider this as a negative thing, but as an opportunity.  An opportunity to learn more about themselves and others.  An opportunity for self-examination, societal examination, historical understanding, and growth.  A chance to learn that before you take offense, you should make sure you fully understand the joke and its (usually) limited target.  Jokes with broad targets are rarely funny — it is as we understand the subtleties and nuances of the defined target that we truly understand the joke.  Own only what truly belongs to you, I tell them — don’t just assume that the joke is talking about you.

Teaching humor with an deliberate awareness of multicultural contexts, teaching humor that comes from a variety of cultural groups, is a great way of digging into the way context affects humor.  It is also a great way to explore the different ways people use humor, what humor means to them, how humor functions as a part of one’s world view, how humor affects the way people deal with each other.  Teaching humor with that deliberate awareness of multicultural humor and context helps us to see subtleties that we might otherwise miss with a singleminded focus, or a focus on humor that discounts cultural differences and similarities as significant factors.  Because teaching American humor usually means at least some consideration of Mark Twain, we can use Huck Finn as a quick example.  If we consider Twain’s humor there from the limited perspective only of a white male, we miss the ways in which Jim uses humor to negotiate position and authority with Huck, or the way Jack uses exasperated humor in order to maintain plausible deniability (and the way Huck sees and points out Jack’s intelligence, but completely misses the humor).  And we miss the opportunity to have the difficult discussion about how much Twain really understood and how much he unselfconsciously portrayed.

And how much richer our understanding of the period as a whole, and American uses of humor in general, if we read humor from Frederick Douglass, Charles Chesnutt, Alexander Posey, W. E. B. Du Bois, John Milton Oskison, E. Pauline Johnson, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and others?

Humor can also open doors for us if multicultural literature is our teaching focus.  Often, when we think of multiculturalism, we are trained to think in terms of “tolerance” or “tolerating differences.”  And yet, to stop with “tolerance” can actually serve to increase social and cultural divisiveness.  The focus on “tolerance” assumes that something different must be tolerated rather than celebrated.  Humor is one way that many cultures attempt to cross boundaries, to understand and celebrate what makes each community unique.  At the same time, the ambiguity of humor and its intended audience can expose inequities and inconsistencies, both within the community and in its relation to other communities or to society at large.  We laugh at ourselves, at each other, and with each other: each interaction presents its own risks and raises its own set of questions.  It is a risky endeavor, not one for the faint at heart, but the potential rewards are strong.

Not least of all, from my perspective, is that teaching humor with multicultural texts and teaching multicultural texts that utilize humor are great ways to broaden my own horizons and to teach my students research methods.  I cannot pretend that I understand all cultural and historical references in the texts we read together, and I do not.  I openly invite — and require — students to engage in primary source research, in order to understand the cultural contexts and specific references in the texts.  And I share my own findings with them.  This means that each time I teach a text, I learn something new.

What better reason to teach? Continue reading →

Painfully Funny

Even before I got cancer, my favorite kind of humor was the type you might call “painfully funny.”   One of my favorite short stories, to read and to teach, is “The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor,” by Sherman Alexie.  Jimmy Many Horses has spent his life “laughing to keep from crying,” as the old song goes, telling jokes to gain some illusion of control in bad situations, to claim his humanity in the midst of chaos, death, or inhumanity.  Problem is, he can’t stop telling jokes, even when telling his wife about his visit to the doctor, giving him his diagnosis of terminal cancer:

“I told her the doctor showed me my X-rays and my favorite tumor was just about the size of a baseball, shaped like one, too.  Even had stitch marks.”

“You’re full of shit.”

“No, really.  I told her to call me Babe Ruth.  Or Roger Maris.  Maybe even Hank Aaron ’cause there must have been about 755 damn tumors inside me.  Then I told her I was going to Cooperstown and sit right down in the lobby of the Hall of Fame.  Make myself a new exhibit, you know?  Pin my X-rays to my chest and point out the tumors  What a dedicated baseball fan!  What a sacrifice for the national pastime!”

Sherman Alexie Lone Ranger Tonto Approximate Size of My TumorWhile Jimmy’s wife needs him to be serious for a moment, to give her a chance to process her shock and grief, and while she might even have been willing to join him in jokes to cope later — Jimmy cannot stop and give her that time, even when she tells him she’ll leave him if he says one more funny thing.  But even in the midst of his fury at this unwanted and useless “sacrifice” that has been pressed upon him, Jimmy’s joke is brilliant, both inside and outside the context of the story.

The historical allusions to baseball and Hank Aaron’s supplanting of Babe Ruth’s home-run record (with his 755 career home runs) raise issues about the racism that plays a low-key but omnipresent role in the rest of the story.   Even in 1973, when Aaron was getting close to breaking Ruth’s record, he received about 930,000 letters, the majority of them death threats or wishes that he would die:  “Dear Nigger, You black animal, I hope you never live long enough to hit more home runs than the great Babe Ruth.”   Another letter that has been widely quoted wishes on Aaron a disease primarily connected with Africa and her descendants:  “Dear Hank Aaron, How about some sickle cell anemia, Hank?”

But cancer, as Jimmy reminds us, does not discriminate; it is not a respecter of race, class, or power.  Cancer, like humor, is an equal opportunity offender.  And cancer has become almost like a national pastime.  You can’t go anywhere without running into those damned pink ribbons and pricey pink items commodifying death and infantilizing the very personal, protracted, and agonizing fight to survive against breast cancer, a phenomenon some angry breast-cancer survivors have labeled “pinkwashing” — all purchased with the best of intentions and the hope to find a cure.   But that support ironically creates a sense of audience, of fandom and voyeurism, the pink ribbons becoming our admission tickets to the new national pastime.  Cancer itself is like a bad joke that just won’t quit.

To me, it is this kind of humor that reminds us of who we are, how little we actually control, and why it all matters anyway.  Continue reading →