Sherman Alexie or How does #MeToo affect the Texts We Teach?

The recent events surrounding Sherman Alexie, first the accusations and then his kind of admission and sort of apology, started a conversation among a few of us at PALS. When the news broke, I was mostly indifferent. Should I have been surprised? Should I have been upset? Should I have been enraged? Should I have had some sort of pause about it all? Probably. But that wasn’t the case. I was bummed, disappointed.

My Positionality (in the world/in education)

Before I go on, I would like to take a minute to set up my perspective and the elements that influence my response to Alexie.

    • I am not a creative writer, nor am I writer of color. There is a wonderful and painful reflection about Alexie’s betrayal by a writer who identifies as both of those and as a woman. For me, however, Alexie has not had an impact on who I am. This isn’t just Alexie; I do not connect emotionally with any writers or written texts, or any “famous” people.
    • Amending point one: I am not devoid of emotion. There has been the discussion of how literature helps heal trauma. That was not the case for me; it never had that opportunity. Literature always functioned as escapism, a place not only to escape my situation but to escape all my emotions.
    • Based on my research interests, I spent years submerged in both critical race theory and criticism about representation of sexual violence in literary works, and sexual violence more broadly. So when revelations like Alexie’s come to light, I move them through a variety of frameworks to rethink how we understand it all.
    • Amending point three: this informs what I do in the classroom. My initial reaction is not to remove Alexie from the classroom. So now I am wondering, how might students benefit from reading Alexie’s work with this new information about the author?
    • Alexie’s works only makes it onto my syllabus every three years or so, and he is rarely the only Native American writer represented. Since I don’t teach Alexie heavily, not teaching his work doesn’t impact my courses nor does it serve as some sort of protest. This last part I say without judgment. If Alexie is the only Native writer you teach, there is no time like the present to remedy that. For those interested in exploring more Native writers, here is a starting point. (Note: This list is not complete. There are Native writers I teach who are not on it.) Also, we have had multiple posts here on several Early Native American writers, like Handsome Lake and protest literature, poet Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, and Haida poets.

When the question was raised among the PALS editors of whether or not we needed to make some sort of statement or amend our posts that include Alexie–Repurposing the Captivity Trope and Bookending the Survey Part 2–or to suggest alternative texts, my initial response, in my head of course because I do have a filter sometimes, was “Why?” I was confused by the discussion. Why wouldn’t we continue to teach Alexie’s works after this revelation?

My indifference isn’t because I don’t care about sexual assault and harassment because I do. It’s because it is such a normalized experience for me as a woman that I really had to take some time to figure out my relationship with authors I teach whose personal histories are deeply problematic. Also, because I am me, I took it to the streets—in academia this is also known as the classroom.

My Students’ Responses

I am currently teaching as a part of the San Diego City College CCAP (College and Career Access Pathways) program which involves teaching college courses at high school campuses, specifically targeting students who are undecided about pursuing college. I had these high school aged college students do some in class writing on a broad prompt to get us started on a discussion that took the entire hour and a half class period:

Should a person’s personal behaviors have an effect on their professional lives/achievement? Why or why not? Explain.

I intentionally kept the prompt extremely vague for two reasons. First, we had just finished a unit on social media use where students were adamantly against the practice of potential colleges and employers creeping on perspective students and employees’ social media accounts. Second, we read Sherman Alexie’s “The Joy of Reading and Writing: Super Man and Me” just weeks before he was called out for his sexual misconduct.

Of course my students, in all of their good faith in humanity and their buying into the American promise that hard work pays off, answered “no” to the question and followed with seemingly innocuous examples. People partying or getting a little crazy in their personal lives should not take away from their hard work or achievements in their professional lives. Because social media was on their minds, I had anticipated this response. Sexual assault and other crimes did not enter their thoughts on the subject.

I put the NPR article about Alexie up on the projector and read a few of the victims’ statements. My students were shocked and sad. They really liked Alexie’s essay. I changed the prompt to get at the question I have been trying to work through:

Should these revelations about Alexie’s personal behaviors keep me from teaching his creative writing in my classes?

Like me, this took a lot longer for students to process. There were a couple immediate “stop teaching him” answers. I was asked if I knew about his actions before I had them read his essay. Others said if they had known that going in, then they would not have read his work. Another student asked about the time frame, because if he had changed his behavior, then shouldn’t we give him a second chance?

Then the conversation shifted into one that involved understanding sexual assault. Not a single student in the room knew the name Harvey Weinstein or anything about the #Metoo movement. So we pulled up a list of films he has a producer credit on and the list of his accusers. Again, my students were surprised at how many of those names they recognized. This led down the road of how it happened to so many women over such a long period of time. Eventually we discussed the attitudes that dismiss or make light of women’s experiences and how all of it is compounded with race, class, and sexual orientation among other factors. And somehow we ended up talking about the back log of unprocessed rape kits and other logistical elements involving sexual assault.

We went down this long road in order for students to ask the question, “If we stop reading Alexie, does that mean we don’t watch any of Weinstein’s 300+ films?” I offered a few more comparisons for consideration: Bill Cosby and R. Kelly. Even though I know my audience, I wasn’t sure if those examples were going to hold up, especially R. Kelly. But my students still listen to R. Kelly and still watch at least short clips from various Bill Cosby shows on Youtube, knowing about the allegations and charges against both of them. Why? Their answers: Because they still find enjoyment or connection with the art.

Do We Still Teach Alexie?

Bringing it back to the educational space, I asked them the question that particularly nags at me. Why Sherman Alexie? Why not others? Who else do we consistently teach despite their problematic behaviors and attitudes?

Ahem. Is it Thomas Jefferson, Founding Father? Or, Thomas Jefferson, Racist? Or, Thomas Jefferson, Rapist? Does Sally Hemings’ posthumous #Metoo count? What about Jefferson’s musings about race in Notes on the State of Virginia? Did I miss the memo about no longer teaching him in early American literature or history courses?

The first time I read parts Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia was in a southern history course among texts of white male southern historians. However, that wasn’t the first time I was exposed to the content of it. I first read about Notes in David Walker’s Appeal. And this is the way I teach Jefferson. Since I structure my courses thematically or by genre, teaching texts chronologically doesn’t come into play that much. So I teach Walker and include the excerpts from Jefferson along with it to enable students to see in writing what Walker is calling out. Students get a lot out of seeing this side to Jefferson that is sadly entirely new to them.

In grad school I did a research project for a film pedagogy course that involved D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. I strained a muscle from the amount of eye-rolling I did as critic after critic tried to downplay Griffith’s racism. I’ve read Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman, and Griffith added his own racist elements to the adaptation, in addition to claiming the film as representational of historical fact. Why is there the need to suggest Griffith wasn’t an awful person in order to acknowledge what he did for cinematography during the time period? Back to the classroom, I would not teach this film in an intro to film studies course. I might pull clips from it when teaching cinematography. I would possibly include it in an upper division film course. I would probably include it in a course that focused on the representation of race in film, along with proper set up and DJ Spooky’s remix Rebirth of a Nation.

Lakota woman

Likewise, I wonder about the importance of teaching Alexie in different ways. In another course, I often teach excerpts from Mary Crowdog/Bravebird’s Lakota Woman, primarily “Aimlessness.” Students LOVE her memoir. The chapter I bring in focuses quite a bit on the sexual assault of Native Women by both Native and white men. Perhaps one approach is pairing Alexie with narratives like Bravebird’s and bringing his sexual misconduct into the conversation of the course. What does it mean that Alexie is writing against power structures as he participates in and uses them himself? How many of his characters try to do that, and to what success? We don’t need to sing endless praise of those whose texts we choose to teach or try to explain away their transgressions in an attempt to make ourselves feel better about still finding merit in them. We can change the way we teach them. And, we can choose not to teach them.

Let’s not forget the presence of sexual assault on college campuses and all the times it has gone ignored or been swept away by the power structures that be. As a college student, I also saw plenty of inappropriate behavior between professors and both undergrad and grad students with respected professors looking the other way as though the power structure at play there didn’t exist or wasn’t a problem. Sherman Alexie who makes it a point of identifying as teacher and mentor in “Superman and Me” also opens up this conversation.

Whether or not we continue to include Alexie on our syllabi is an individual decision. But we should all take a moment to reflect on the personal backgrounds of all the writers we teach and continue to make purposeful decisions in our course designs.

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To Read or Not To Read: Teaching Students How and Why to Read Through the Boredom

This post was inspired by a Twitter thread from a couple weeks ago where @seeshespeak inquired,

I love this question, but I also feel that I am a bit of an outlier–maybe just among academics or literature professors–because I have zero guilt when it comes to not committing to or finishing books I begin. I don’t think twice about returning a book to the library or deleting it from my kindle account no matter how canonical it has been deemed to be. If I were to tell people I stopped reading Twilight after 25 pages, who outside of Twilight fans, would care? Within the field of literature, it is blasphemous to admit to not finishing any one of hundreds (perhaps thousands?) of canonical or “literary” texts. Why?

So my responses to the questions followed as

Yes, I have read the end of many a novel that I have not read the middle of. Sometimes reading the end makes me curious as to how the book got there, so I push onward; other times, I read the end and am as equally underwhelmed with it as with the beginning, done and done!

At some point in my education, I was taught that the “what happens” matters less than the “how it happens” in literature. This may have made me a more avid reader of endings up front–even without reading the endings first, I mostly see them coming. While I would agree that the how weighs more heavily on the ways we study literature, it is not something that incentivizes me outside of required reading situations. I want to be enthralled. I want to love my reading experience, or at the very least enjoy it.

However, I was an English major and an English grad student for a combined total of 12 years. I am quite capable of reading books that don’t engage me, books that I don’t care about, books that put me to sleep, and books that make me wonder what else I could be doing at that moment instead. Let’s dissolve the myth that just because we chose the field of English, we should want to read every “worthy” book out there. We learn to keep reading as majors. But how did we learn that? How do we teach that to our students? How do we approach it differently for majors versus non-majors?

While there are big differences when teaching majors versus non-majors, I’m not sure that this is necessarily one of the big ones. While majors may (or may not) have a deeper commitment to reading, taking three or four literature course in one semester puts a big strain on how majors divide their time for readings. So some sort of tangible payoff can play equally for majors and non-majors alike. There are also many non-majors who choose literature courses to fulfill requirements because they enjoy reading. As I stated above, I want my reading experience to be a positive one, always. Should we be surprised when students want that too?

For the most part, students’ relationships with their readings are individualized, so multiple approaches to teach students how to make their way through texts that they are less than enthusiastic about is important for us to consider. I engage in three main approaches: the first two are very common, while the third one is less so. But I am sure if I observed myself in my lit classrooms, I would come up with many more subtle ones. I have also begun literature courses by reading Noah Berlatsky’s “Readability is a Myth” to start a conversation of what we choose to read and why and to acknowledge that like and dislike are entirely acceptable reactions to texts; in literature courses, however, we keep on reading.

The Salesman Approach

Sometimes I sell the text to my students. I work to get them excited about it. I convince them they are really going to miss out on something if they don’t read. The “what happens” is a big motivator for students when they read. Playing off of that force, rather than suggesting the what happens doesn’t matter, can be beneficial. There are different ways to do this:

    • “You all are not going to believe what happens next!” We could make this statement with any text, even if nothing really happens next. It is just about building some tension and urgency for students. We could think about this as the gossip column approach.
    • “Our answer to today’s main discussion question is going to look a lot different with next class’ reading.” After spending a class period analyzing a piece of the text, students have put in a lot of work. A statement like this both helps focus their upcoming reading assignment on the same topic we have been discussing and suggests that all that work they have done so far is going to pay off.
    • “If you are really interested in X, pay attention to Y. Or, if you are really into A, look out for B.” Paying attention to some of the main elements students are most engaged with, we can offer alternative payoffs for their continued reading while encouraging their varied intrests.

These statements are fairly easy to do with books we are passionate about ourselves.

The Reward/Punishment Approach

Reading quizzes!

I don’t like reading quizzes. Writing the superficial questions that make up reading quizzes bores me; I also have no desire to grade them. It all feels very punitive and not the greatest use of time. Writing more complex or analysis driven questions brings into question the nature of teaching. Should I expect my students to already know and understand the materials I am teaching them? While I do challenge my students all the time, reading quizzes are not the places I want to do that.

The problem: Students have been conditioned for over a decade of their k-12 educations to respond to grades. I dislike re-enforcing this practice. All this isn’t to say I don’t fall back on reading quizzes, but I really try other methods first.

Discussion Questions

One alternative to reading quizzes are discussion questions. Having students contribute 2 discussion questions each class period, either going old school on 3X5 cards or techy with the school’s LMS’s discussion board. In order to write the specific questions, students will need to do the reading. I give students credit for these questions, like I would a reading quiz, and then use them to guide our class conversations. It takes some time to teach students how to write productive questions, but they can keep the class discussions fresh from their many perspectives.

Quotes from the Text

Much like the discussion questions, I have had students bring in quotes that stood out to them in the reading as a starting place for class discussion. I ask the student to frame the context of the quote, reminding us what was happening at the time and then why they felt it was important to discuss together. It is hard to answer either of those questions without doing the reading. The benefit is we have a page number to turn to and students interests are one again guiding the focus of the class.

Student Presentations

Taking the discussion questions and quotes model a step further, I have courses where the students were responsible for teaching the texts in a more formal way. This was a great learning experience for students, but they also got burned occasionally by classmates not doing the readings. If it wasn’t their day to present, what was their motivation for reading? Students would put together interactive lessons and be overtaken with silence. That’s where those pesky reading quizzes come in handy to keep everyone honest and respect the work students put into preparing to teach their text.

The I’m-In-It-With-You Approach

I know many professors that will put a book on their syllabus that they have not yet had the time to read and use their relevant course to make the time for it. They experience it for the first time right alongside their students. This changes a lot about the reading experience and how the classroom conversation develops, especially when students know it is a first read for everyone. I am doing that this semester with Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele’s When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, mainly because it was released a week before my semester began.

What I did not tweet in the above exchange was that I assign texts to my students that I have never made it through on my own. That is the secret option that responds a little differently. Instead of forcing myself to read something I’m not into or calling it quits altogether, I relocate the material and slug through it with my students’ support. Why do I do this? Because those texts have been deemed important and I need my own incentive to read all the way through them. The first two approaches provide incentive. This approach humanizes us by having honest and real conversations with students about their struggles with certain texts.

Last spring semester in the second half of the British Lit survey, I read Jane Eyre all the way through for the first time. I had made four previous but failed attempts. In high school I made it through the first 5 pages and gave up. In undergrad, I made it a bit further, maybe through the 1st chapter. In my MA program, I ended up somewhere in chapter 2. Finally, during my PhD program, I read to (SPOILER ALERT) where Helen dies. Why the struggle? In high school, the vocabulary was beyond me, looking up nearly half the words on each page became overwhelming too quickly. My other experiences had to do with my dislike of our narrator and protagonist; I did not care about her at all, and would have preferred to read the novel that starred Helen, who actually was a compelling character. I was 100% honest with my students about all this from the beginning. Some of them made daily arguments about how fabulous the novel was and why I should change my mind while others felt camaraderie in their similar dislike of the novel. But we were all reading it!

I’m sure you have been waiting to hear that I actually succeeded in reading Twilight, the entire series, and its fanfic counterpart Fifty Shades of Grey. I mention this now because reading the pop phenomenon series that my students read gives me some backup discussion possibilities that values their outside knowledge and reading interests. One class period of Jane Eyre, we took a brief detour into Twilight and Fifty Shades as fanfic of Jane Eyre. This was a fruitful conversation in terms of character analysis and brought forth some very lively discussion. And guess what, they had an new purpose for reading: seeking out more evidence for this claim.

 

I was once given the advice to prep every class with the assumption that no students had done the reading, and I would have successful, functional classes. While this was not meant to be negative and the purpose was to be able to teach all students regardless of their preparedness, I reject this at every level. If students are not doing the readings, I don’t know that I would be able to classify the class as successful. Most importantly, I have no desire to expect the least out of my students. I know life happens, but I prefer to give my students the benefit of the doubt that they are doing the work of the course outside of the classroom. Finding ways to support and encourage that is my goal.