Nov 13 2020
TIDE Keywords in an undergraduate seminar on “Movements, Migrations, Memories”

By the time I completed planning the semester-long arc of an undergraduate seminar on ‘Movements, Migrations, Memories’ for The Ohio State University’s English course on ‘Studying the Margins: Language, Power, and Culture,' I was sure I wanted to use TIDE Keywords in my class as testaments to the changing valences of words we think we know, but which have multifarious and sometimes surprising histories of usage. I wanted my students to take away that language is not neutral, that it has a history, and that that history is not unconnected from prevailing ideology.

My course was designed for students to ‘consider contemporary texts in a variety of genres as we examine how movements, often at the intercontinental and planetary level, form and inform our current sense of human inhabitation of the earth and our responsibilities towards each other in an era of unprecedented mass migrations and human influence on the natural world’ (from the course description in my syllabus). The course goals were: a thoughtful sampling of a variety of contemporary works exploring movements, migrations, and margins; developing awareness of and empathy for familiar and unfamiliar ways of longing and belonging in the world; inculcating methods and strategies for interpreting complex ideas and language, and explaining those interpretations in precise oral and written work.

Most of our readings were in recent or contemporary writings: Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do (New York: Abrams, 2017); Amitav Ghosh’s Gun Island (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019); Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West (New York: Riverhead Books, 2017); Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2017); Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (London: Vintage, 2008); and many of the Refugee Tales from the three volumes edited by David Herd and Anna Pincus (Manchester: Comma Press, 2016, 2017, 2019). In addition to these readings which would eventually lead to the term papers (on research questions of the students’ choosing), however, there were also short readings geared towards oral presentations. That is where TIDE Keywords came in. Students were asked to read the TIDE Keywords Introduction for an orientation of why the keywords warranted a close look, and to pick one keyword to read thoroughly about and present on. The goal was to collectively hear about as many keywords as possible in the class—a class of seventeen—and we therefore didn’t want to “repeat” keywords. The questions that each presentation had to address were:

  • - what is the history of the keyword in question? (i.e., please provide a summary of what you read in your Keyword chapter.)
  • - what in the history of the keyword you read has been surprising to you, as you encountered that history from a 21st-century perspective?
  • - having read the keyword of your choice, what contemporary examples/issues/matters come to mind, and why? (i.e., how would you connect what you read to the world around you today?)
  • - and finally, open-ended-ly: what questions came up for you?

Each student would present their keyword for fifteen minutes, with up to fifteen more minutes for subsequent comments and questions. After the day’s presentation, the student would also summarise the main points of their presentation into a single-page document and submit it to me through the class website on Canvas. In my evaluation, I would grade along the following criteria: the student’s ability to address the assignment prompt; the student’s clarity of comprehension and presentation (i.e., their care about the comprehension of the rest of the class); their engagement with what they read and their ability to make cogent and thought-provoking connections with the world they lived in; and their ability both to ask substantive questions of their classmates and to field questions that they received. Students were welcome to bring PowerPoint slides for their presentations, if they wanted to.

As my students picked their keywords, the choices varied between what they thought they knew, and what they knew they didn’t. For instance, if ‘Foreigner’ was an apparently known concept, ‘Denizen’ was not; if ‘Jew’ was potentially known, ‘Blackamoor’ was not; if ‘Merchant’ was possibly known, ‘Mercenary’ was not. Since the editors of the TIDE Keywords have provided such a rich array of known-unknowns and almost-knowns, and since the appearance of the keywords on the web page encourages scrolling and browsing, my students had no trouble picking seventeen different keywords on the day of the sign-up. The choices came accompanied with comments such as ‘I know what this word means now, or I think I know—but I wonder what that word meant in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries,’ or ‘I mean, it’s still English, but is it the same English?’ or ‘I’ve never heard that word before, I want to know what it means!’

The presentations occurred over a period of five weeks, with up to two presentations in each class meeting, and the class meetings themselves held twice a week. Owing to the US lockdown over COVID-19 in spring 2020, a couple of presentations carried over to online formats. Whether the presentations happened in person or online, the students consistently demonstrated both genuine curiosity and engaged attention with one another. I see this as a testament both to the intellectual integrity and generosity of my students, and to the accessibility of the keyword chapters themselves. The students wanted to do the reading and did do the reading. And, in a few cases, students also ‘read along’ with their classmates even though they were not themselves responsible for presenting particular keywords. This, of course, only led to richer discussions, with the work of a few helping to propel the whole class into deeper conversations and more thoughtful back-and-forth. In keeping with my pedagogical principle of facilitating situations where students can and even must teach each other, I usually held back for the first ten minutes of the q-and-a unless specifically asked (when I was specifically asked, it was usually where a student wanted to double-check with me about historical context). I knew, and my students knew, that the weight of the class discussions was on them—and they carried that weight beautifully.

Here are some of my favourite instances from the questions and comments I heard, and also had the pleasure of responding to or building on over the weeks of the TIDE Keyword discussions: ‘You know, being a denizen sounds like being a second-class citizen—like if you’re from Puerto Rico [and in the US]. We like your taxes, but we don’t like you.’

  • ‘You’re saying that being a pirate was actually legal?!’
  • ‘I knew that people couldn’t have been calling themselves pagans—it was the Christians calling them that. Which explains some of the things they [the Christians] said about them [the pagans].’
  • ‘I’m seeing that Merchant of Venice speech about an ‘alien’ plotting against a ‘citizen’ now in a whole new light.’
  • ‘The word they’re using is ‘rogue,’ or even ‘gypsy,’ but really, they’re using these categories to define disability, in a way. Otherwise why go on about the ‘sturdie’ beggar or vagabond?’
  • ‘The way we refer to people, that is, the terms we use, has consequences for how people are legally treated.’
  • ‘Wow, I didn’t know that passports were something that not everyone could get!’
  • ‘Can one become a stranger in their own home/country?’
  • ‘So, the nervousness about the alien is a nervousness about their allegiance, isn’t it? And I also thought about how we hear a lot of ‘yes, please bring your diversity to this country [the US]’ but at the same time, ‘now please learn English and perform your belonging’.’
  • ‘That reminds me, did you know that a study found that a whole lot of US citizens could not pass the US citizenship test?’

One fallout of this emphasis on discussion was that we often spent half the class period on the presentations and the lively deliberations and debates that took off. In a class time of 80 minutes, we frequently spent 45 minutes on two TIDE Keyword presentations. I don’t regret this, because as the days passed, I inculcated some important skills myself: of explicitly building aspects of the students’ discussion into my own lectures (for instance, of an ‘alien’ condition as having parallels in the lives of unaccompanied minors crossing the US-Mexico border, as Valeria Luiselli’s book discusses); of offering some summative comments and remarks to further contextualise the keywords for the class (for instance: yes, ‘Indian’ remains a very fraught word, especially in the US, with this country’s history of Native genocide); and of generating keywords-related study-questions for texts we were about to read (for instance: in Amitav Ghosh’s novel, what picture do we get about the belonging and loyalties of a global ‘citizen’?). It is also—always—a joy for me when the point-following-point kind of discussion that I have modelled for my class is actually taken up and emulated by my students—and I can sit back for a while and just steer. But when I do this TIDE Keywords assignment again, I shall provide a bit more scaffolding—telling students, for instance, how much time to spend on each part of the presentation (I shall recommend no more than 3 minutes), and asking each student, before their presentation, to send on to the rest of the class a paragraph of about 300 words outlining the thrust of their initial interest and findings (something along the lines of ‘I started this research because I thought I knew or wanted to know X, I found out Y, and I shall talk in class about the connections with Z’).

In a mid-term check-in, and in end-of-term reflections, students documented how valuable they had found their engagement with the keywords. One student wrote: ‘Much of my learning in this class came from our in-class discussions that followed our keyword presentations. The presentations were great because they allowed me to learn the origins of key English words and how those words were used to push ideologies and oppress marginalized groups. And with this, our class discussions that followed allowed us to address tough questions regarding these topics of oppression, and receiving varying viewpoints on these questions helped open my mind to various possibilities.’ Another wrote: ‘[Without the TIDE Keywords assignment] I would have never seen parts of history repeating itself again and again, I learned so much from my own keyword project that I would have never expected to learn.’

I shall close with a mention of one final and valuable aspect of the TIDE Keywords: that they are free and open-access. I teach on a campus where students often struggle to purchase or rent textbooks. To me, to them, the TIDE Keywords functions as a gift.

Amrita Dhar