Sunday, May 17, 2009

Professor Scott Saul Wins American Cultures Teaching Award

The English Department is delighted to announce that Professor Scott Saul is this year’s recipient of The American Cultures Innovation in Teaching Award. This campus-wide award, given by the American Cultures Center, “recognizes the use of pedagogical developments to enhance the students’ learning experience in the American Cultures classroom.” Professor Saul was awarded this distinction for the ENGL 166AC course he taught this past Fall, “Race and Performance in the 20th c. U.S.”

This award is particularly impressive, since it rewards pedagogical innovation for a requirement that every undergraduate at Berkeley must fulfill. Professor Saul noted that students sometimes bring mixed feelings to any course they’re required to take, and so he wanted to create a course that would be surprising and pleasurable as well as intellectually challenging. To that end, Professor Saul designed a course that took head-on the quicksilver qualities of race in American life. As he put it, “I wanted students to grapple with the reality and unreality of race in America — which is to say, I wanted them to understand how race has structured American history through institutions like slavery and I wanted them to see race as a fiction or performance.”

Though he gave his course a generally chronological organization, Professor Saul included a number of different media – literature, music, drama and film – to show the diversity of cultural conversations which race has galvanized in America. He swung from the 19th c. melodramatic narrative of Uncle Tom’s Cabin to the music of Duke Ellington, from the short stories of Sherman Alexie and Donald Barthelme to the films of John Cassavetes. If students were learning about, say, the rise of “soul” culture in the late-‘60s, they might do so by analyzing a YouTube clip of Aretha Franklin schooling Sammy Davis, Jr. on the art of soulfulness. He even took the class on a “field trip” to see Anna Deavere Smith (whose Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 the class read) perform at the Berkeley Art Museum. Students were confronted, that is, with the immediacy of race so that they might think freely about the play of race and ethnicity in our culture. Indeed, Jeffrey Romm, the environmental scientist who presented Professor Saul with his award, testified that the prize committee was especially impressed by the course’s attention to the ephemeral aspects of performance – the energy of a gesture, the ambivalence of an intonation — that are so crucial to making a performance “work,” yet that few courses register.

To get students to see the big picture in the small detail: this was, Professor Saul said, the challenge he took up. He wanted his students “to slow down, to rein in their multi-tasking impulses, and to learn how to concentrate on concrete particulars — the choice of one word rather than another, the choice of a particular melody and a particular way of singing it, the choice of one camera angle at a particular moment in a film.” To help facilitate that act of concentration – and to assuage the academic anxiety that non-humanities majors might feel with such demands — Professor Saul also handed out detailed outlines of his lectures. This strategy ensured that his students would receive all the “major points” and, rather than scribble furiously in class, would be able to meditate on their own reactions to the course materials and the argument he was making about them.

Professor Saul shared one powerful student testimonial to the class’s success. At the end of the term, he was visited in his office hours by one of the class’s less traditional students, a man in his mid-fifties. This student hadn’t gone to college after graduating from high school; he had begun working in the budding computer industry of the ’70s and quickly hit his stride in the tech sector, rising to become the systems architect for a major corporation.

When his parents died in quick succession a few years ago, he told Professor Saul, he started reassessing the meaning of his success, and decided that he wanted “more life out of life”. He had gone to Berkeley to pursue a music major, and had signed up for the class simply to satisfy the AC requirement. What the course taught him, though, was that there was a hidden richness to every cultural text, waiting to be delved into. What began for him as a game — finding the ‘telling detail’ — became a pleasurable obsession. And what he realized, in the end, was that looking closely at details was a fantastic way to answer the doubts that had been tailing him ever since his parents’s deaths: it was, precisely, a way to get “more life out of life”.

Please join us in congratulating Professor Saul on his teaching award.

(You can hear Professor Saul speaking on the topic of worship on the syndicated radio program Philosophy Talk. He is discussing the way John Coltrane modeled a sort of preaching, and a sortof sainthood, in the way he played his saxophone.)

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