Very soon, I’ll be back on the path toward the Socratic method and collaborative discoveries. With this Spring semester, sprouts a newly developed course for my fresh faced classes. I am going to teach a class designed by yours truly, me, a young professor. I’m igniting a course called, “The Pursuit of Paradise.” In the past, for this level of English class, I taught another course I designed called, “The Idea of I.” Perhaps high from the success of the identity course, I proposed this new “paradise” course which parallels the identity course in route, but not in subject.
During “The Idea of I,” we examined current understandings and cultural connotations/denotations surrounding the use of first person as well as the term, identity, itself. The class always starts at the same point, students have a very concrete and uniform idea of what “I” is (typically, expected details such as age, culture, gender, hobbies, name etc. define their selves initially). As we read, explore and write about “I,” they sweat with curiosity and confusion; we unravel their perceived notions. It can lead us into strange educational territories that contrast but align with the straightforward territories of knowledge or comprehension; these strange territories include grandiosity, over-analysis, cockiness, distrust, wisdom, certainty, uncertainty, rigidity, fluidity, insecurity and more. Critically analyzing popular connotations of popular terms like “identity” can lead to a semblance of vulnerability within the mind, because the human is suddenly aware that he/she like everyone else has also been duped by the power of rhetoric and rhetorical devices. But like a messy birth, by the end of the course, the students have concocted their own, very individualized ideas on the notion of “I” and the term, “identity.”
The overall outcome of the course is a sense of self-empowerment as they not only walk away with their own evolving definitions of their selves, but also, they walk away with the shiny armors of writing and rhetoric as well as a new awareness of the environment’s potential impacts on a self’s development. It’s very exciting and very fulfilling. I see through a new angle of vision every class; it’s the byproduct of so many unique minds. My self grows too.
Unlike in the “I” course, which entails a lot of first person narrative, autobiography and psychology articles, the “paradise” course will deal with much different materials. I intend to start with one page-turning fictional narrative, Alexander Garland’s The Beach which also produced a popular film (at one time, I had considered the movie very hip and edgy in middle school and unbelievably most of these students have never seen it! They will definitely comment on how scrawny the hunky Leonardo Di Caprio aka the Wolf of Wall street was) that should attach their interests (hopefully).
Then we will dive into more unstable discussions of paradise which ironically take place in the mud of history. I have a thick non-fiction book on the syllabus about the history of Florida’s Everglades, Michael Grunwald’s The Swamp, which so turbulently, was/is both paradise and hell. Aspects of its historical turbulence align well with the War in Vietnam (Grunwald 45), particularly during the battles against the Seminoles. This book I hope will breed discussion on the human cost of paradise as well as the deeply disparate perceptions of paradise between cultures.
We will also watch The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden, which converse to its title, is not set in a Biblical backdrop, but in the tiny yet boisterous European society of ex-patriots during the 1920’s on the Galapagos Islands. There is a short book I came across today called, Dark Paradise: A History of Opiate Addiction in America, by David T. Courtwright. This book has inspired me to add the manifestation of paradise metaphors in reality, metaphors of paradise like art, sex, drugs, mindset, home, luxury to the curriculum. Is the act of meditation simply an aim toward paradise? Is capitalist success equal to discovering Nirvana in its sense of finding utter peace and sanctity? Perhaps it’s a stretch. Perhaps it’s not.
There are so many paths that lead to the study of paradise, most commonly, the study of religious heavens or mental states, which may tie to the students’ initial understandings of paradise. I worry that some may drive too closely to the lands of “afterlife.” Why? I’m not sure. As I strive to utilize my skills of metacognition, I examine my concerns. I am concerned with a) approaching cultural judgments or offenses as religion and faith are tightly knotted to emotion, family and self b) diving too deeply into territories I don’t know, rigid areas of the mind that do not wish to be excavated or exposed c) revealing my own ignorance and shallow comprehension of so many religions d) approaching any current political violence rooted in the divergences of cultural concepts like “paradise.”
Heavy right? I know. That’s why as the semester begins, I’m elated with the course’s potential for complex writing, analysis and argument, but I’m suddenly worried about its potential for political and religious conflict. This hadn’t crossed my mind so pronouncedly when I proposed the course last semester, so this whole post and my entire concerns about this could be the result of watching BBC’s The Honourable Woman too many hours in a row. Also, this could be the result of recognizing that my notions of paradise are innately entwined with the tropics (as a Floridian, Cuban-American surfer and sailor). While I dug around journal articles today (when I came across that Dark Paradise book I mentioned), I realized how much connotation to “paradise” is so closely associated to religious afterlife (and not a long stretch of uninhabited beach, glassy untouched waves, my dog waiting for me on the beach, as I so selfishly imagine paradise).
With this new concern in mind, I have decided to present the idea of paradise as religious afterlife initially. We will validate its big cultural mark in all of our minds with writing and prompted research, only to leave it behind. We will, however, leave it behind well-noticed and validated, so we can decipher other associations with “paradise” that don’t directly equal religious outcomes.This is simply a plan, of course, because religious and spiritual concepts will inevitably overlap or bridge closely to our topics, and because as teachers know, what’s most controversial in present time entices class discussions the most…
So, what will happen as we explore the abstract lands of paradise? What will we discover and learn about language and humans?