Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Diverse Discussions, or How I Fumble Through Faulkner

Class has officially started. I'm one week into classes, and so far, so good.  The first day was disastrous (there was rain, copier issues, no parking, and a sopping wet ballet flat involved), but I recovered.  And yesterday, I got to give my first quiz, and it was glorious.  I'm not afraid to admit the giddy feeling I had when I told them to take out a sheet of paper and number to five, and they all groaned.  (At least I gave them warning.)  It was like every childhood playing-teacher role play come true.  And after three semesters of grading nothing but papers, grading quizzes this morning was easy peasy.  Now I have the rest of the morning to read and plan for tomorrow (and make up another quiz! YES!)  Lest you think I'm totally heartless (no, you're right, I am), I did give out fun size candy bars to students who answered difficult questions in discussion.  So that's cool, right?  Even super-cool college students like sugar and chocolate.

Look at those beautiful quizzes waiting to graded.

The best part of the class so far (aside from it being second semester freshmen instead of first!) is that we get to sit around and talk about short fiction (at least for the first half of the semester), picking it apart, talking about it in historical context, looking for clues about the more ambiguous parts of the story.  Fun, fun, fun.  I even like to kid myself that the students who claim only to love Nicholas Sparks-style happy endings (their term, not mine) are having a little bit of fun with "A Rose for Emily."  Maybe not.  And fingers crossed on finding a way to get my back row lurkers talking and participating (not even chocolate is working on them.)  They better enjoy the peace and quiet now because once I have everybody's name down, their anonymous corners of quiet will be no more.

This is my first time teaching this particular class (or any literature class at all, for that matter), and there are still some rough places I'm working to smooth.  While we certainly read stories, poems, and essays in my other classes, the discussion of those pieces was different than in a literature course.  We're talking about the stories/poems/plays less in terms of the mechanics of the writing and more in terms of the content, the meaning.  While I'm totally up for these kinds of discussions, there is one area where I really fear incompetency, and that is race.

In case you didn't already know, I am a white, middle class, American woman.  The only way I could be more systemically privileged is if I were male and had a bad combover.  I try to embrace diversity. I am conscious of what I read in my personal life, searching out authors who are women and people of color.  I try to find news stories that go beyond our contiguous 48 and understand that the Western perspective is not the only perspective.

And yet, when we read a story set in the deep South during Reconstruction or encounter a character who uses racial slurs or discuss women's roles in the Victorian era and realize I mean white women, I know I have to address these things in class.  I see my minority students and am seized by fear that I'm handling the discussion clumsily (I am).  I worry that I sound like some clueless white woman pretending to understand centuries of systematic oppression (I am that too, unfortunately.)  And I just feel inadequate to the task.

Thinking back to my time in college, I can't remember professors addressing these things, how they handled them --- not because they didn't, I'm sure, but because it wasn't something I had to think about.  It didn't affect my life; those dead white guys looked like me.  And the instances of slavery and racial slurs and bigotry in literature were just something you shook your head at and thought smugly I would never do that.

But I realize now that being internally angry or appalled at historical injustice is not enough.  And I can't just sit on my hands and hope that my students (particularly students of color) bring up the topics in discussion either.  That's not their job. The question then becomes how to address these issues without making any students feel singled out or resentful.  In the past, I've heard white students address issues of race and find myself cringing internally at their tone-deaf proclamations, frantically replaying my words, praying I don't sound so sure of an experience I'll never have.  (Most of my students, however, look as terrified as me of saying something stupid or ill-informed.)

I don't yet have any answers.  And this little post isn't a search for a pat on the back or reassurance that my own soul-searching is noble.  I know that it is not enough.  I know that despite my best intentions, we will read more dead white guys this semester than women or people of color.  I know that I am unable to fully understand the complicated feelings some of my students may have about some of the pieces we will read.  I know some of you will read this and find it to be a lot of unnecessary hand-wringing.  Allow me to respectfully disagree.  Literature is vital piece of our history and culture, and in a nation whose racial/ethnic make-up is constantly evolving, so must our consumption of literature evolve.  Reading increases empathy, and so we should model that empathy for students and readers of every background.

No comments:

Post a Comment