127 Self-Reliance Lesson, Connection to the Contemporary and Themes/Arguments

Gabriel McSherry and Jahlan Finney

The class activity and why we did it:

The assignment that we gave the class was based on literary understanding and building deeper connections to the text. “Self-Reliance” is a really long text for what it is. Essentially, you can read the entire text and come away understanding that the author believes that people need to give themselves more credit in order to succeed. However, there’s actually a lot more to it and a quick skim through the text won’t get you to the harder questions that it’s asking. This assignment is designed to do just that. Asking students to define their thinking encourages them to be sure of something. We’re asking them to stand up for something that they believe in, even if it’s a simple idea like what courage means to them. They may be shocked to discover that not everyone in the room thinks that a simple word or idea means the same thing to everyone. That’s where it gets interesting.

Before we got into the meat and potatoes of the discussion, we gave the students a group of concepts that they then defined for later use. Those concepts were conformity, genius, innocence, imitation, greatness, and choice. Using one-word ideas without context gives the students a lot of freedom to define the terms in ways that are important to them individually.

At first glance, it may seem that the defining section was too easy and maybe even disconnected from the text; however we then asked them to read short excerpts from the text and use their personal definitions to align themselves in the room, literally standing for their ideas. It’s outside of the comfort zone but it forces an experience that they may never get otherwise: speaking openly, honestly, publicly, and persuasively. Everyone has ideas and some of them are great (as the text shows) but if you don’t share them, they die inside you. Now the students will get a chance to see how effective they can be at explaining themselves and convincing others to join them while also learning how strongly they can feel about topics that may have seemed simple to them before completing the exercise.

Actually getting to see other students walk across the room in varying amounts or choose to stand strong gives a great indication of influence. Graded papers can only do so much and they take time to digest. However, watching someone respond to what you have to say in real time is amazing, brutally honest feedback that cannot be competed with in terms of real inspiration and validation. That’s why I love this assignment. It’s real, it’s honest and it shows the students where they’re at in terms of sharing and convincing, unequivocally to standard forms of feedback.

Connection to contemporary:

Any kind of artist or trend-setter needs some form of self-reliance because their work requires risk and honesty. If a certain director or author is creating a piece to be put on Netflix, the goal would be to attract the greatest number of viewers and a lot of times it tends to be the riskier, more controversial content that gets the most attention. For example, American Horror Story is demented, yet people go nuts for it and the creators had to role the dice. It could have backfired, crashed and burned. It takes an extraordinary amount of effort and money to make these shows and if it tanks, too bad. Go big or go home.

Leaders, not just of countries but of organizations and everyday workers are put in situations that require self-reliance. Political activists that are intent on making a change use different platforms to express their views. It takes some sort of embedded morality and courage to share how one feels because the risk of it being perceived in a different way than intended is always there. It’s always personal because self-reliance can’t be anything but personal.

Even something as seemingly small as commenting on a piece of media is risky. The world is easy to offend because of media. Views are distorted through different perspectives and self-reliance becomes blurred through the screens which we spend most of our lives observing. How can we tell anymore what’s honest and true? Could there come a time where media completely dictates the way we think where we no longer want to see our reality, and just want to live what we watch? We no longer rely on ourselves, but we put ourselves in these other characters’ shoes specifically because we want society to see us in a certain way. How can someone be truly original anymore? We mimic those we admire on social media platforms. Therefore, we have lost our original selves. How do we return?

Theme and argument:

In the text there is a theme of “we’ve lost our way” and we need to find our way back to our original selves, which are more real and honest. Right now, we are just facades of others’ expectations.

A problem with this longing to return to a previous self is just as it sounds. We could strive to be more honest with ourselves and others, but change is inevitable and constant. Growing up has its negatives, such as putting up walls to protect ourselves from getting hurt. By doing that, we feel less and are left with this defense mechanism that can isolate. Therefore, we become products and victims of our projected fears.

On the contrary, it’s unhealthy to self-reliance to always think you need to find a different version of yourself. Growing up also teaches through experience. One could argue that getting older puts you through situations where change is good because you are learning more about yourself and others as well. How miserable would life be if one just stuck to their own thoughts and beliefs from beginning to end? There is no growth, no communication, and no connection. Change and the challenge to adapt is what makes us human.


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The Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature: A PSU-Based Project Copyright © 2016 by Gabriel McSherry and Jahlan Finney is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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