Reading Resilience

Over the past two months, I have read and outlined the primary and secondary texts for the Synthesis course on resilience I’m planning to propose and hope to teach next spring or the following fall. In Teachers as Intellectuals, Henry Giroux argues that it is the responsibility of teachers to practice a critical pedagogy that directs student attention not only to the text but also to the process of production of cultural meaning and to the politics of the educational institution (86-107). My efforts at organizing the course readings and writing assignments around the idea of the quest for a documentable past have led me to the decision to frame each of the readings with questions. In the past, I have given students the questions I want them to wrestle with and answer, but for this upper-level, capstone course, I am planning to try a new pedagogical approach. To the extent that I’ve framed the curriculum of former courses thereby implicitly shaping the questions, I realize now that my doing so in a Synthesis course may produce an enormous chasm between my hope for a natural, critical learning environment. To bridge that gap, to reach the students educationally, my goal is to find ways to link my disciplinary concerns and interests with those of the students (and their various) as a means of modeling for them that all of the answers may not be found in one discipline alone. To that end, I will be  framing some questions only as a way of inviting students to raise their own thereby capturing, hopefully, their imagination while also challenging some of their most cherished paradigms. Since my plan is to anticipate questions about resilience that will already be on the minds of the students. At the outset of the semester, I plan to ask the students, “when/where did resilience originate?” With this question, I intend to subtly shift the agenda from the issue of resilience to one of history. I want to raise questions that will help my students reason through the process of examining the complex layers that inform the characteristics and study of resilience and to think about how to answer them.

Besides my awareness of and sensitivity to students’ weighty questions about identity and resilience and my goal of promoting deep learning approaches that will help my students learn inductively, moving from fascinating and important questions to general principles of the conversant disciplines out of which our classroom engagement with the texts and each other will grow, the course readings will be structured around three five-week units. Students will meet for 80 minutes twice a week and will be required to read approximately 100 pages per week. Although the reading load is heavy, the pace fast, and the syllabus ambitious, the course objectives are achievable.

For Unit 1: Theological Revelation and Resilience, students will read The Odyssey, Inferno, the Bhagavad Gita, and the biblical stories of Joseph and Job as a means of probing the ancient roots of human resilience and reflecting on higher theological and metaphysical realities. Relative ideas about the spiritual attributes that helped people in the past master change successfully and bounce back when the tough got going as well as actions that enabled them to grow, thrive and experience higher levels of well-being will be explored through questions centered on religious revelation.

In Unit 2: Adversity and Resilience, the focus will be the inseparable connections between failure, suffering and modern concepts of grit; the role of self-examination in the journey to what psychologists call “personal hardiness”; and trans-generational attitudes toward personal responsibility. Readings will be from Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, Jhuma Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, Derek Walcott’s epic Omeros, and Gloria Naylor’s Linden Hills.

Unit 3: Eastern Visions of Resilience will re-cast the enduring question as a means of finding out what happens to beliefs and practices when they are represented, re-imagined, and performed in ways that challenge the dominant beliefs of a culture. Students will read Amitav Ghosh’s In an Antique Land, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones and Tao Te Ching, a cross-cultural circuitry of texts that recount Egyptian, Zen and Chinese stages of awareness leading to fortitude and enlightenment. The possibility of the sustained study of resilience being invested with new significance is immense due in great part to the global spread of insights that work together to convey a strong message over a vast span of time. Moving persistently between local and transnational contexts, students will have many opportunities to discover the personal matrix of virtues and character that can be nourished by ongoing interaction with diverse cultures along global circuits of exchange.

The bi-weekly sessions, based primarily on the assigned readings, will involve teacher and student crafted questions as I mentioned previously. For the questions I pose, students will be given 15 minutes during our Tuesday sessions to write their responses. There will be three formal essays, the last involving research, and two exams: one midterm and a final. Both exams will be comprised of one critical essay and one close passage question taken from the texts.

Over the last decade, the revival of interest in resilience in the field of Positive Psychology, founded on the belief that people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, has spawned widespread discussion. Some of the best insights have come from psychologist, Angela Lee Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania who defines grit as the quality that enables individuals to work hard and stick to their long-term passions and goals. Given many students’ general familiarity with grit as a modern concept, I have reached out to Dr. Duckworth, asking her graduate students to serve possibly as consultants during the grant period and give a campus lecture, perhaps as an Experience Event, which will be well advertised, free to the public and aimed at sharing the prevailing ethos of grit that enables individuals and communities to thrive. Since I want my students to experience at least one instance of Homer in performance, I will invite members of the Curio Theatre Company in Philadelphia to campus to present a dramatization and meet with students to discuss the “grit” of theatrical performance and translation as a bonus.

My hope is that this new course will provide a forum for students, scholars, activists, and community members interested in participating in the critical conversation about resilience. I envision the ongoing development of this course in light of my evolving, multidisciplinary research on the subject. Above all, I plan to teach the course very enthusiastically for at least the next few years.

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