Teaching Postmodernism

Last semester I had the pleasure of TAing for an “introduction to the novel” class (as apposed to once again teaching English 101). A thoroughly enjoyable experience made much better by a very strong selection of novels by the professor, Michael Olmert. One of the final novels we read was The Life of Pi, a thoughtful, funny and engaging novel about a young Indian boy who is shipwrecked and forced to spend several months at sea sharing a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. The novel raises a good many questions, particularly in the area of how science, belief, and religion get mashed together in our contemporary world in such a way that disentangling them becomes not only impossible, but also undesirable.

During his lecture, Professor Olmert described The Life of Pi, quite rightly, as a “postmodern novel.” He then gave a brief definition of what postmodernism was and then moved on to other topics. Not surprisingly, one of the first questions my students asked during the discussion period was, “what exactly is postmodernism?” Given that I spend the better party of my undergraduate career trying to answer that same question, I demurred and told them I would prepare a short lecture on the topic for the following week.

As I considered how to make accessible this most unwieldy of terms, I decided that in order to understand postmodernism what one needs is a larger historical context, to understand why we use the word “post” in the term at all. To that end, I created a powerpoint presentation that traced the broad artistic movements in literature over the last 200 years and showed how they culminated in a postmodern aesthetic. I also built on art history discussions I’ve had with a visual artist friend of mine and paired the literary developments that lead to postmodernism to their counterparts in painting and visual art. I highly recommend this approach as the immediacy of the visual object makes apprehending the shifts in style and aesthetics over time much more accessible. Even given proper time for study, one can obviously view a number of paintings much more quickly than read, say, a series of short stories from various literary periods. This immediacy allows the viewer to more easily juxtapose the various styles against one another and see how they form a dialogue of sorts, one style building on/reacting to another.

This approach, and particularly my slides, may offend certain theoretical sensibilities, and is probably antithetical to the very project of postmodernism itself. After all, by creating a timeline of aesthetic theories, what am I doing other than re-inscribing the “grand narrative” of artistic development that postmodernist theory would have us interrogate? Such concerns are all well and good for the English major or graduate student, but keep in mind that this was a class for non-English majors who were encountering these terms for the first time. So, with apologies to the many artistic movements that get flattened out in my overly simplistic narrative of art and literary history, I give you: What is Postmodernism.

I would welcome any thoughts on either the slides themselves or the method of introducing students to the concept of postmodernism.

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6 thoughts on “Teaching Postmodernism

  1. Porter,

    Your slide stack is a dandy crash course. The transitions in painting are a good way to quickly encapsulate the changing concepts behind man-made, artsy stuff. Good job!

    Not that I know anything. 🙂

    jack

  2. I think this is great, Porter. Clear, visually enticing, and an overall good way to “track” literary movements for the uninitiated. I hadn’t thought much about postmodernity as a brand of nostalgia, but, man, I think this is a great way to view it. It is a nice counterpoint to what some people describe as postmodernity’s temporal hubris: the dismissal of “all” historicity.

    If it wouldn’t disrupt the clarity of this presentation too much–or send your students into a panic–you could point out how postmodernism can be thought of as both achronological (by eschewing traditional notions of narrative / by demonstrating inherent instability in meaning across ‘many’ eras of writing) and nonexistent (as an extension of modernity, not a break from it–I’m thinking Jameson and Habermas). Perhaps these are things that are only “care to know,” though. For the purposes of understanding the genre, they could be left unsaid.

    Also, this is dick, but Toni Morrison has an “i.”

    Good stuff.

  3. You’re right, Jamison, that is dick. Naw, just kidding; thanks for catching it. And thanks for you comments. While I think for this particular audience your suggestions might be a bit beyond them, it’s well worth thinking how one could modify this conversation for, say, an upper division class of English majors. And questions of chronology (as I say, a very problem of this set of slides in the first place) and postmodernism’s relation to modernism would be critical elements to include, as you point out.

    Thanks for the comment.

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