Viet Nam War Literature pedagogy query

phil dickinson (pdickin@BGNET.BGSU.EDU)
Thu, 16 Oct 1997 17:06:50 -0400 (EDT)

I will be teaching a lower division course on the literature of the war in
the spring here at Bowling Green State University. I'll be using a variety
of fictional/autobiographical/historical texts from Vietnamese and
American perspectives. My objective in the course is to encourage my
students (predominantly white, predominantly Ohioan/anglo, predominantly
male, many of them children of vets) to examine the war from what Renny
Christopher has called a "bicultural" perspective--no small
task given the overwhelmingly 'monocultural' nature of rural northwest
Ohio. I'm also interested in exploring the way narratives work
to re-present a remembered or imagined experience; thus, I usually begin
my course with a "straight" history of the war which we examine in terms
of it's fictiveness--that is, the ways in which certain assumptions
and values are privileged at the expense of others.

My previous experiences in this course have been generally positive;
however, I have been plagued by a persistent tendency on the part of my
students to read the literature of the era as "truthful/untruthful"--that
is, with an implicit valorization of the authenticity of personal
experience as a test of a particular text's "value." This has lead to some
interesting exhanges--anger, for example, at the discovery that Tim
O'Brien's stories in _The Things They Carried_ are *fictional* and
therefore not "true" in the sense that they read, say, Wallace Terry's
_Bloods_, or Hayslip's _When Heaven & Earth Changed Places_, as true
stories. Hasford's _The Short-Timers_ was thus dismissed out of hand
because, if it wasn't true, if it hadn't "actually happened," what on
earth was the value in reading it?

Perhaps these issues arise out of my own particular inadequacies as a
teacher of literature. Perhaps they are endemic to courses which utilize a
mixture of historical and literary genres and texts (and Renny
Christopher's brief discussion of this issue in her book convinces me of
the latter). I would be interested to know whether others have encountered
similar experiences and whether anyone can recommend a pedagogical
method/text I could use to foreground the problematic of reading
Viet Nam War (and 60s) "literature" as "history"? Thanks.

-Phil Dickinson
Instructor, Dept. of English
ABD American Culture Studies
Bowling Green State University
Bowling Green, Ohio