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Seniors Dive into the 1980s and 1990s
LiAnn Yim, digital communications manager

For seniors, English class is a smorgasbord—a panoply of teacher obsessions and expertise. There’s a class on adaptations, taught by Alexa Hart. Pearl Bauer is teaching a class called “Victorian Seriality.” Jen Neubauer is teaching memoirs. Gretchen Kellough is teaching Afro-Caribbean literature and film. Lillian Howard has a class centered on the “transgressions” that occur when boundaries—set by society, family, the law, the environment, or even boundaries that are self-imposed—are crossed.

This menu of diverse classes are, by design, not offered to students as a choice, which makes it somewhat of an oddity at Nueva; students are placed into a seminar that best suits their schedule. Across all three divisions, students are given so many choices in what they want to dive deeply into that their 12th grade English seminar is seen as an opportunity for them to explore a genre that they might not have chosen on their own. In the past, seniors have expressed that they were surprised by how much they liked the topic—whether it was about monsters in literature or Gothic literature—and that being in a class they didn’t get to choose stretched them. 

This fall, two of the newest advanced English seminars being offered are the 1980s and 1990s classes taught by Allen Frost. In these literature and cultural studies courses, students spend the semester reading, viewing, and listening to texts of all kinds (novels, poems, short stories, television shows, films, and popular music) from that respective decade. In examining these cultural products, students probe the question, “To what extent is art the product of its time?”

“I think it’s incumbent upon me to make sure that all students get to do something that’s interesting to them within these decades because they didn’t get to choose the class,” said Allen, who met with every single student to ask them what they were interested in and wanted to study in the 80s and 90s.

In selecting a theme for his two classes, Allen wanted to make sure that there were enough good core texts that would offer students opportunities for rich close study, analysis, and discussion. In the 80s and 90s, he noted that there was “a lot of innovation” in literature that came from a number of different sources.

“In the 90s, for example, we finally had an explosion and recognition of authors from previously marginalized voices,” Allen explained. “There’s this boom, long overdue. It’s when Toni Morrison wins the Nobel Prize in Literature. Junot Díaz and Jhumpa Lahiri are producing work, as well as a number of gay writers, because of the AIDS crisis that’s taking place. There’s also a sense in a lot of the literature of the 90s of being on the precipice of something major that is going to happen, of ‘What’s going to happen in 2000?’”

Although the class is focused on the United States, there’s “a lot of global flavor” to the writing of the 90s.

“Because of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and globalization, writers in America felt like they could no longer just write about America. There was a sense that they needed to write about how this echoes in the broader world,” Allen said. 

The 80s seminar read White Noise by Don DeLillo, and is now reading David Henry Hwang’s play M. Butterfly. In the 90s class, students have read Native Speaker by Korean-American author Chang-Rae Lee. They recently began reading Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America by having a number of guest teachers join the class to act out the first four scenes. 

Riyana Srihari, a senior in the 90s seminar, described the class as “one of the most beautiful English classes I’ve ever been in.”

“It’s a class that is very intimate because of the topics we are discussing,” Riyana said. “We’ve had a lot of discussion around immigration and immigrant identity, and for me, that has been really valuable, because I’m first generation [American] in my family, and reading novels like Native Speaker has been really cool because it kind of subverts the dominant narrative we see in the media about immigrants. This novel is so different and edgy, sometimes cynical about his immigrant experience. And I think that is really beautiful and speaks to the complexity of that experience.” 

A lot of experimentation is taking place in both the 80s and 90s seminars. One such experiment is an ongoing immersion project, where students sign up to consume a TV show or a music album from that decade.  

“They’re meant to consume it in a kind of ambient way,” Allen explained. “There's no assignment on it, nothing is due. The experimental part of this is to investigate the question, does listening or viewing this on your own help you understand or illuminate some of the texts we're reading in class? What themes were people obsessed with in the 80s, in the 90s?”

Students are listening to podcasts on the O.J. Simpson trial, watching Twin Peaks, listening to the music of Alanis Morissette, among other things. On a recent in-class assessment on one of their core texts, they compared the novel to the other things they were studying on their own. 

Another class experiment is what’s called “teacher provocations.” For 10 minutes at the beginning of class, Nueva teachers or staff members have been invited to talk to the students about something from that particular decade that was important to them—a historical moment, a work of literature or media, or some other keystone moment—and how these cultural texts and moments influenced their lives.

"It's fun to hear from other people in our school who have their own connection to the history and culture we’re studying,” Allen said. “People can be conversant in this in a way that, if we were studying the 1800s, they couldn’t be.”

In the 90s seminar, Director of Enrollment and Strategic Engagement Taryn Grogan and teachers Jen Neubauer and Rob Zomber came to talk about the O.J. Simpson trial. English teacher Alexa Hart talked about the TV series My So-Called Life, and how important it was for her to see a teenager (played by a teenager) who was grappling with issues that were relevant and universal to her life at the time. Neuroscience teacher Luke De talked about the Human Genome Project, which launched in 1990, and how he thought that once they solved it, all the world’s problems would be solved. And in the 80s class, upper school Associate Director of Admissions Elise Maar talked about Top Gun (1986), while physics teacher Mark Hurwitz talked about the Challenger explosion and how it not only devastated the country but affected the work he was doing at the time as a graduate student.

Another experiment Allen has undertaken is to make the learning visible. 

“That’s one of Nueva’s principles of practice—making learning visible,” Allen said. “It can be hard in the humanities, so I wanted to think about how we do that. How do you make research in the humanities accessible beyond esoteric academic articles?”

To that end, students in the 90s class are creating a map on the wall that attempts to draw connections and themes between some of the art and literature that was produced to history-defining moments. Viewers are invited to examine the wall and see the ways in which the cultural products might illuminate something about the historical, political, and social movements that shaped the decade. Stop by the second floor outside the WRC to take a look!

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