Instructor’s Teaching Experience

Besides being a “joy” to read, Smith’s essay provides students with a somewhat challenging non-fiction form in its winding exploration of the distinctions between pleasure and joy. Drawing on personal experience and cultural touchpoints, Smith makes a philosophical distinction accessible (though some students express frustration with her non-linear style. In general when teaching non-fiction, students may feel at a loss for how to “interpret” the writing, as they have told me in class that they feel there is less room for ambiguity when a writer is “just telling us their thoughts on a topic.” Finding moments of ambiguity or contradiction to close read in class together can remedy this, but I often find imitation and in-class creative activities are more productive to help students understand the form and stakes of creative non-fiction writing.

Classroom Strategies

Based on student’s initial understanding of the essay, I may map out Smith’s distinction between “joy” and “pleasure” on the board, crowdsourcing students’ impressions of what she “means” by each emotion. Whether at the beginning of discussion on the text or when focusing on her nightclub scene, I find it helpful to play the music videos for both “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Can I Kick It?” in order to familiarize ourselves with the music Smith references. Discussing why these two songs might evoke the feeling of joy Smith describes is a good first step after that, before allowing in-class time for students to come up with their own remix pairing two songs of their own choosing that provide an unsuspectingly joyful mashup. After they have chosen their songs, ask students to free write for 5-10 minutes about specific elements of the songs that pair well together, despite their divergent styles, content, genres, etc. Open discussion once again for students to share a few examples and their reflection on their choices, playing clips of the pairing before they explain.

Additional Resources

Nirvana, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
A Tribe Called Quest, “Can I Kick It?”
PDF icon PDF of Zadie Smith’s “Joy”