Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Teaching Laura Ingalls Wilder As A Major Author

Here at my university, we have an upper-level class, Major Authors, focusing all semester long on one writer.  I've taught Octavia Butler in this class; other professors have taught John Steinbeck, or Toni Morrison. The criteria is deliberately vague, but in general you're supposed to teach someone who is important enough to have major influence on the field of literature or on the culture itself.

This semester I taught Laura Ingalls Wilder.  I first conceived the class after reading this post on Wilder over at Historiann (and the comments!).  I got the Fellman book which is mentioned in the comments, and then several other books from the bibliography, and then more books from their bibliographies, and soon I was reading Wilder scholarship like a boss.

You would have thought I was one of those research professors, not a Creative at all.

Anyway, when it came time to propose classes for this Fall semester, I put forth for Major Authors: Laura Ingalls Wilder, and our chair loved it (happily).

I anticipated a few possible problems for the class -- either that students wouldn't sign up, because it was a class about kids' books; or that they would come into the class having only seen the execrable 1970s TV show.  (Directly responsible for electing that fucker Reagan, by the way.  Okay, indirectly.  But see the end of this article.)

Students signed up, y'all!  Only a few of them had read the books as obsessively as I had, as a kid; more had -- as I fear -- been fans of the awful TV show; but not that many. More than a few had never even heard of Wilder.  (WTF.  Kids today!)

The class went brilliantly.  I converted nearly all of them to Wilder fans.  We didn't read any of the critical books, but there are just tons of excellent articles, and we used several of those, in particular  Sharon Smulders' "The Only Good Indian: History, Race, and Representation in Little House on the Prairie," in Children's Literature Association Quarterly; Anita Clair Fellman's "Don't Expect to Depend on Anyone Else," and Claudia Mills' "From Obedience to Autonomy," both in Children's Literature).

The books teach really well, you will be glad to know, and since about half the class were English Education majors, we were able to approach the books from that standpoint as well -- how these books might be used in the elementary classroom.

We spent a lot of time talking about the history of the books --  the time they were about (1870-1880); the time they were written in (1930-1940); and the time of the TV show (1974-1982) -- as well as the political history / impact of the books.  This meant a lot of time talking about The New Deal, and Libertarianism, Rose Wilder Lane, Ayn Rand, FDR, Frederick Jackson Turner, and what all this had to do with a seemingly innocuous children's series.

We read all eight books.  If I had the semester to do over again, I'd skip Farmer Boy, I think, since we were rushed for time here at the end of the semester.  Or maybe not assign presentations.  Those ate up a lot of time.

OTOH, the presentations were great.  One of the students presented on the Dakota War of 1862 (which appears in Little House on the Prairie as the Minnesota Massacres); another researched the music Pa would probably have been playing and its history, and another taught us to dance the dance at Grandma's house.

I'm also getting just excellent papers.

All in all, a successful class.


The Mortgage Slayer said...

Did you include "Farmer Boy" in the course readings?

Without doing literary analysis on the books, my favorite was "On the Banks of Plum Creek."

delagar said...

I did! I taught it second, right after Big Woods, in the order the books were written.

It's hard to say which book is my favorite. TBH, I love them all so much. I do see their flaws, mind you, and I can (very clearly) see the political agenda Lane and Wilder were pushing. AND YET.

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

I LOVED those books when I was a kid. This post reminded me of that, and I still have my complete set. I think I should read them to my kids for their bedtime books.

I imagine a class on LEW would be a fantastic amount of fun. How awesome! I'm glad it turned out so well!

Anonymous said...

Oh! What fun and what a great way to talk about constructs of feminism and race and .... between time periods. What she left out to make the stories child friendly (domestic abuse, alcoholism babies dying) is just as interesting. When my child was 3-6 grade she read all the books and we went on a caravan tour to the sites and pageants in the north (including Iowa) and visited the Kansas and Missouri sites a couple of years later. Great memories. I would love to take your class.

Historiann said...

Delagar, thanks so much for posting this and for the shout-out! I am so impressed by your energy and your students' proportional response. Congratulations!

I've been considering teaching Little House on the Prairie alongside Louise Erdrich's The Birchbark House. I may just have to do it next year, because of your inspirational example! (It seems like it's worth a week or two on my women's history syllabus, no?)

delagar said...

Historiann -- I wanted to teach The Birchbark House! If we'd had more time I would have. It would definitely make a great parallel.

I also wanted to use Pioneer Girl in the class, but sadly the publication was delayed and delayed and delayed. It just now came out, on November 20th, reaching me in time for the very last week of the semester.

delagar said...

Anon -- My students desperately wanted to go on a field trip, up to Independence and then Mansfield, which are both relatively close to use here in NW AR.

Sadly, we lacked the funding. :(

I've only been to Independence, a few years ago when my kid was nine or ten. I'd love to go to more of the Little House sites.

Bardiac said...

If you come up to the Pepin site, I know someone who can provide a place to stay and show you the corn and soy fields!

Anonymous said...

Laura and the Bloody Bender Murders ...with interesting comments appended.

Anonymous said...

I'm sure the elementary ed angle was really useful for the teachers-to-be; great that you had a critical mass of those students in class.

Also, thanks to you and Historiann for the Erdrich suggestion. I can see how those would work well together (and will add to my own reading list, should I again venture into the Little House books).