February 3, 2021
Another roll out of my Gatsby unit. Another attempt to have a discussion on zoom. In the dance between chat, video, and audio, there’s a dilemma around trying to keep things moving; I am sure that I am missing kids who have simply zoned out and are not contributing much. In looking at the screen, my notes, and the chats, I know I’ve let things go.
There’s a teaching thing — doing the same lesson twice with different groups — that’s always informative. Not in the confirmation of whether it’s a good plan or not (your plans don’t matter; the state of the universe matters, and you’ll have a good day or a bad day regardless of the quality of your plans.) ut with an open-ended discussion with good questions, there’s no predicting which direction the class will go and there’s no predicting whether or not the same topics will emerge.
Again, though, we began with the idea of opportunity and what it might mean. In this class, the issue of the American Dream erupted immediately, which, much to my chagrin, did not come up at all in the previous section. (I wonder what this group was doing in history and how it might have lined up with our conversations.). Literally the first comment (M.) talked off the arrogance in much of the United States about opportunity, the chances that the next commenter (R.) pointed out were taken for granted. Many of the normal opportunities that Americans take for granted do not exist elsewhere in the world.
And the American Dream also came up here when M. declared that opportunity is about “doing better than my parents.”
We also explored the idea of whether opportunities are deserved or not, whether they are earned or given, whether they are about luck or something else. The word privilege comes up now in ways that it had only started to ten years ago and it’s one I’m sure we’ll continue to unpack as we wind our way through Gatsby.
With this class, we managed to get to authenticity. The conversation quickly split along two lines: personal ideas — being true to yourself and what that might mean — and then at the end of class we got to the role authenticity might play in music and style. I thought this question would elicit more of a response, that the debates that come up about who gets to make which style of music would provoke some debate. N. chimed in to remind us of commercial pressures and how that changes the nature of art (am I making a song because it’s a true expression of who I am and what I see or am I making a song to make money; sometimes (most times?) the answer is both. I hope we get back to this idea, too.).
M. brought up The Beatles, which was awesome because I got to deliver my “Little Richard changed the world” speech, but it’s funny how that was the band brought up, as opposed to Eminem or Elvis, both of which offer their own debate points. S. did bring up Kurt Cobain singing Leadbelly, but Leadbelly is his own story. At some point, I’ll invoke notions of “selling out” to see if that draws any fire. There’s a statement about music I’ve heard before — “also all music stems from black culture” — that I’ll have to return to. I made the usual point I make about music — it’s a big river fed from multiple sources, some bigger than others, none of which can be discounted — but that’s a conversation for another day.
Given that we just finished having super-rich conversations about Ta-Nehisi Coates’s work, I’m sure the racial dimensions of Gatsby will be the subject of at least a few papers. And the personal pieces about one’s identity and “remaining true” will give us a good starting point with all of the characters.
Coda: Min Jin Lee’s new introduction to Gatsby on the NYRB…I’d like to pair it with the abstract from this article, Deflecting Privilege: Class Identity and the Intergenerational Self, which I found on reddit of all places. Even the opening line of the second essay’s abstract — Why do people from privileged class backgrounds often misidentify their origins as working class? — could make for a long conversation by itself.