New KPU English course focuses on ‘Beats, Hippies, and New/Gonzo Journalists’

Students will learn about the effects postmodern American literature had on civil rights

Steve Weber, KPU English instructor. (Submitted)

Starting next month, Kwantlen Polytechnic University English instructor Steve Weber will be teaching a course on Beats, hippies, and new and gonzo journalists in American literature. This is the first time the course has been taught in 10 years. 

The fourth-year course will focus on various writers of political movements through the 1950s to 1970s, such as the civil rights, LGBTQ+, and the women’s rights movements. Weber previously taught the course at the State University of New York at Albany.

 He says some of the writers that will be featured in the course are Maya Angelou, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Jack Kerouac, and James Baldwin.  

“It’s basically a compilation of my favourite writers,” Weber says. “I’m making this argument about how important all this literature was for the civil rights movement … a lot of this literature was really changing how people thought about America.” 

The course will be divided into four sections: the Beat Generation, new journalism, Black autobiography and nonfiction writing, and postmodern American literature. 

The Beat Generation, also known as the Beat movement, was a literary movement where authors challenged the norms of literature in the 1940s and 1950s. 

“They effectively ended censorship,” Weber says. “Why that’s important is because the stuff they were writing about was parts of human life that weren’t being embraced by American culture at the time.” 

“My argument for the course is that the Beat Generation, the new journalists, and the civil rights movement are what create American postmodern literature, that American postmodern literature is a product of these various movements.” 

New journalism follows a similar narrative to the Beat movement, where writers challenged the boundaries of traditional journalism and nonfiction writing in the 1960s and 1970s.

He says that new journalism focuses on writing articles with a more factual narrative approach, such as using characters and telling a narratively-driven story, which the writer becomes a part of. 

The course will also touch on autobiographies written by Black authors and postmodern American literature, which challenges using traditional narrative techniques and came around after the Second World War. 

Weber adds that these writers played a crucial role in shaping U.S. society today. 

Another example he says is when Martin Luther King Jr. wrote letters from Birmingham Jail about his defence of civil disobedience and “civil disobedience as its practice today is largely influenced by the rules that MLK laid out in that essay.”  

To add as much information as he can to the course, Weber says each student will create a five to six slide presentation that will showcase additional material relating to the course and teach the class what it’s about and what they learned from it. 

“One thing I really like about it is it might be students’ first encounter with some of [these historical figures]. In a Canadian context, it’s very possible to go through education without reading MLK, Malcolm X….” 

He says it’s important to teach these topics to not only show history but also what is happening in the modern-day as well. 

“I think at any moment, it’s important to teach literature that’s related to the civil rights movement or any other rights movement,” Weber says. 

“The major complaints that BLM has, is the same complaint that MLK had in the 1960s. That communicates like, ‘Maybe we haven’t made progress in certain areas, or maybe things have gotten worse in certain areas.'” 

Weber hopes students will take away from the course with a more historical perspective on the production of literature and an understanding of how literature progressed from the 1950s to the 1990s. 

“A lot of these writers will be familiar to students, but a lot of the writers won’t be,” he says. “Part of the fun of the course is just explaining to students why these writers are so good and why they’re so important.”