Some notes on the rationale behind the L.A. Lit website
by Scott Bryson
In Shadow and Act, his collection of essays on American literature and culture, Ralph Ellison admonishes his readers that, "If we don't know where we are, we have little chance of knowing who we are, that if we confuse the time, we confuse the place; and that when we confuse these we endanger our humanity, both physically and morally." Much of the idea behind the LA Literature website was to create an educational exercise that would offer my students and myself the opportunity to better understand our place, Los Angeles, and thus to better understand ourselves and our time.
The ultimate goal of this project was to produce an exercise that benefits my students, myself, and the reading community. Having completed our first few "pilot" semesters, I'm ready to say that it's doing just that.
What students get out of the project:
The website is created by students in a Freshman English course, "Writing about Los Angeles Literature," that examines a number of writers who both wrote and set their stories in Los Angeles. In putting together the website, students improve their skills in close reading, writing, literary analysis, research (both traditional and more contemporary), and critical thinking. If all goes as planned, students leave the course with a strong general knowledge of themes often explored in fiction about LA, as well as extensive specific knowledge about at least one text in particular. My hope is that this knowledge of texts will not remain strictly "academic" but will enter the personal realm and help students more fully interact with and know this strange city they live in.
What I get out of the project:
As a native Texan who originally wanted to live anywhere but Southern California, the L.A. Literature project has been a way for me to begin to get to know this city that I'm growing to love. Until recently, my scholarly research has been centered on nature writing and ecocritical approaches to American literature, with a special emphasis on contemporary nature poetry. I'm still wondering how my work with environmental literature will translate in my new world and with students who grew up as "children of the asphalt"; in the meantime, though, I'm growing increasingly interested in what's now being studied as "urban nature." I'm hoping that these new directions in my scholarship will dovetail with my past and present research.
What visitors to the website get out of the project:
We're designing the pages with an eye towards an audience of what we're calling student-scholars. Each student page is dedicated to offering in-depth knowledge regarding a work of Los Angeles literature, and we envision the site as a good beginning place for someone researching, for example, a book like Nathanael West's Day of the Locust. However, the pages should also be seen as an attempt simply to help readers enjoy these books in ways they normally wouldn't be able to. For instance, visitors to the pages dedicated to Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays will find a videotaped L.A.-freeway excursion that students put together so that viewers of their site could experience second-hand how Maria Wyeth, Didion's main character, spends much of her time in the novel. In the future, we will not only increase the number of LA texts, but we will also branch out into other genres, examining plays, poetry, essays, and films.