Creating Community: Part 3 – Hard Conversations in an Online Classroom – ‘Heart of Darkness’

Judith_McDaniel2_80By Judith McDaniel with Tim Fraser-Bumatay, Daniel Herrera, and Ryan Kelly1

Thinking about Heart of Darkness

The questions we were left with at the end of the Othello discussion included one that came up again later in the course. I asked, how do we know what we do not know — or how do we know we have a cultural bias/perspective in order to shed it? We usually don’t, except for our relationship to others and their perspectives — when we can say, Oh, right, I missed that. And I rarely hear students say, Oh, sorry, I was thinking like a white person or thinking like a patriarch. So we need to know the context in order to think intelligently about our own constructed world-views, don’t we?

Herrera Kelly Bumatay McDaniel

Daniel Herrera, Ryan Kelly, Tim Fraser-Bumatay, and Judith McDaniel.

Along with the Conrad story, we were reading an article by a professor who advocated banning it as a racist text. Ryan found this account amusing. “While he cites the fact that Heart of Darkness is racist and offensive and because of that he no longer sees the value in teaching it, what resonates from this piece is actually his point that proves the opposite. He describes how marked up his book is and explains how each time he read the novel as a student he found new things to underline. The time, the place, the teacher, and the lens changed, and as each did he was able to look at the novel in a new way and gain a different piece of valuable insight into it’s meaning….”

“For me,” Ryan continued, “this is the true test of a novel’s worth. The reason we reread things in the first place is because we always notice more the second time around. Once we generally understand the plot of a story we can focus on other elements and find deeper meaning, and Heart of Darkness seems to be one of those stories where those deeper meanings are fluid and can change with the times. While it may be true that Conrad was a racist, I don’t think that’s enough to invalidate this text.” 

Daniel insisted passionately, “I don’t believe a book should be shelved, ever. Each book that is written is a contained treasure trove of knowledge from that time period. It is important to know why this was written, to know the story so that we can judge it fairly. In that I will take a measure of faith that to understand the future, we must understand the past. We must read and learn the painful scars that litter the body of our literature, to ensure that such pain is not enacted again, willfully or not. We need to read this so that we can judge for ourselves the value of such work. If it causes pain, then we can analyze why and find a deeper meaning to this truth.”

And Tim agreed, adding, “Maybe I’m biased because I’m in the middle of Fahrenheit 451 with my sci-fi classes, but I think censoring a book that has so much to offer shouldn’t be an option.” Generally, however, the discussion was not about whether Conrad or his story were something called “racist,” but it was the connection of this text to our own lives and experiences that the group focused on.

Stereotypes? Daniel is “frustrated by the constant demonstration of Latino characters in the media as either gang members or individuals with drug affiliation.” When he complained to a friend, he was told, “That is how your people are portrayed. That is how the media sees you. You see it every day. You should be used to it now.” Yet he admits that when he has seen films that were racist, he didn’t object, even though he is pained and offended by portraits of Latinos.

And it is a condition of our culture that those stereotypes are what represent the reality (so-called) of a group. “To have such a good work marred by racism disturbs me. It hit me during the reading of Oliver Twist how much Dickens portrayed Fagin as this immoral person with the title “Jew.” His slithery qualities, his selfish murderous ways brought more racism to a book meant to uplift the poor. The words still cause pain.”

Ryan responds to Daniel’s admission with one of her own. “I’m so sorry to hear about your experiences. It makes me wonder how many times I have read works like this and not noticed that type of thing because it didn’t directly affect me. The one thing that does get me fired up is portrayals of women, and I love that I get to teach a Women’s Lit class to address that with teenagers.”

We ended the discussion with some important literary observations: That the meaning of a book is not an either/or proposition; that a novel showing the horrible and dark side of humanity, or one part of humanity, may offer other things that we need to know about ourselves, about oppressors and victims.

Tim examined Conrad’s structure and found the novel to be an account of different journeys, though there was just one trip up the river through the Congo. We follow Marlow’s journey from civilization into the jungle to find Kurtz, Kurtz’s journey away from the moral order of society, the journey up the Thames, paused as Marlow tells a story he has been told. How the story is plotted, said Tim, is more important than what happens in the story. “By looking at how the story is framed, we capture the essence of the thing that Conrad was trying to convey. He says that the reason for the tale is simply to pass the time while five men wait for the tide to turn. But the men, themselves — a company director, an accountant, a lawyer, a pilot — represent the facets that drive European colonialism, that of profit. The setting of Marlow’s yarn also points to this, since it is a ‘string’ that connects these five men with the history of European conquest dating back to the Romans. No wonder darkness descends on the Thames as the narrative continues.”

An Online Class

The nature of online education is that it removes me, the instructor, from the center of the learning process and allows the students to learn from me and from one another. I commented during this discussion very briefly, and at the same time I was reading carefully to be sure the points being made stayed generally on the topic. But so much learning in an online class takes place away from the primary question that I never wanted to bring the discussion back to focus too early or too frequently.

I don’t think there is a question that online learning can be the equivalent of any other delivery format. And in this instance, the luxury of a week to read a text, respond to it, respond to others who are reading the same text, develop a conversation, ask questions of one another, and finally, the time and space to change an opinion — I think these circumstances provided a better overall learning experience than any one or two hour class could have given.

Reflecting on Heart of Darkness Conversations

Bumatay 2 40Tim: Reflecting on this, another aspect to online learning that comes to mind is that, although the format leaves us far-removed physically, the online forum has its own sense of intimacy. Although there was the usual concern for the quality of my responses, I had no fear of some “troll” abusing the anonymity inherent in online forums by bashing my opinions for the sake of provocation.

Unquestioningly, we were there to learn and respond, a cycle that happened between Dr. McDaniel as well as my classmates, and this helped make the course a safe environment to learn and share as evident by Daniel’s admitted frustration and Ryan’s genuine concern. That exchange shows how close we had become despite the fact that we were thousands of miles away from each other.

Ryan Kelly 2 40Ryan: I want to build on what Tim said in terms of intimacy. Even though none of us have ever met face to face we were all willing to speak candidly about our experiences, probably more so than we would have in a traditional classroom. One downside of the Internet is that it allows people to disconnect, in a way, and feel that they are free to post anything they want, which can often manifest in very negative ways (any variety of hate speech).

On the flip side, in a traditional classroom it can be easy to sit in the back of the room and disengage from the conversation, or to not say everything you’re thinking because you’re too worried about how someone might take it, but because we were not speaking face to face I think we were more willing to open up about certain things. I think this made our discussions so much more genuine and meaningful.

Herrera 2 40Daniel: Reading these comments again and remembering the context in which I wrote them reminded me of the difficulty of a genuine academic discussion in a face-to-face class. How much we connect and disconnect from each other is based on our backgrounds as well as our perspectives. Discussing my experiences with Ryan and Tim gave me a great opportunity to examine my own history with biases as well as the portrayal of Latinos and other ethnicities in culture.

These reflections permitted me to examine my own views and how I felt seeing the portrayal of other ethnicities in the media. The time to reflect upon my own biases as well as the use of the “other” in culture gave me time to see the perspectives of both Ryan and Tim. Reading Ryan and Tim’s responses permitted me to see their world. Ryan’s frustration with the portrayal of women and Tim’s experiences with racism are worlds that I have not experienced. And this is the power of our class; we had time, which is crucial, to see each other’s worlds and understand the gods and movements that create our reality.

This discussion came back to me in my studies during my Thesis class in which I read “The Cosmic Race” by Jose Vasconcelos, which I love, but I found that it contained notions about other ethnicities that were outdated. I mentioned my findings to Dr. McDaniel and she pointed out this conversation and reminded me that no work is perfect. That each work is a reflection of the writer, the writer’s own perspective, the culture it was created in, as well as the time period it was written in. This circular return gave me a greater understanding as well as appreciation for “The Cosmic Race.” To truly learn, time is quality and quantity.

* * * * *

Related articles:
box Creating Community in an Online Classroom: Part 1 – Getting to Know You
box Creating Community: Part 2 – Hard Conversations in an Online Classroom – ‘Othello’
1Tim Fraser-Bumatay, MA, teaches Junior English, Science Fiction, and the remedial course, Collection of Evidence (redubbed Comics of English) at Snohomish High School, Snohomish, Washington. Daniel Herrara, MA, is an 8th Grade Teacher at Southwest Jr. High in San Luis, AZ, and Adjunct English Professor at Arizona Western College in Yuma, AZ. Ryan Kelly, MA, teaches English at Windsor High School, Windsor, Vermont.

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