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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Pairing Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing” with Richard Blanco’s “One Today”

Richard_Blanco.jpgTwo years ago, Middlesex Community College (MxCC) hosted a reading by Richard Blanco. Before attending this event, I did not know much about Blanco or his work, other than vaguely remembering his participation in the 2013 Presidential Inauguration. Named by President Obama as the fifth inaugural poet in American history, Blanco is “the youngest, first Latino, immigrant, and gay person to serve in such a role.” His reading at MxCC was both incredibly thoughtful and thought-provoking, especially during the moments in which he explored his experience with different parts of American culture. During this event, I quickly realized how much I wanted to teach Blanco’s poetry in my upcoming English 102: Literature and Composition course.

After reading “One Today,” the poem that Blanco read at the 2013 Inauguration, I knew it would fit perfectly in my poetry unit for English 102. I designed this unit for students who have not spent a significant amount of time reading poetry in the past; therefore, I assign poems with similar themes for each class period. This way, the theme becomes our class’s starting point to discuss and identify the various poetic devices used in each poem. I decided to pair Blanco’s “One Today” with Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing” when designing the following lesson plan, one that builds on this past activity, to help students further practice critically analyzing poetry while introducing them to the basics of New Historicism.

“I Hear America Singing”

I start this activity with “I Hear America Singing” because I have found its content to be very accessible to students, regardless of their previous experiences with poetry. Since reading poetry out loud can help students to hear certain poetic devices at work, I have the class read this poem out loud—as a group. This idea of using chorale reading was first introduced to me through the Teach This Poem series from Poets.org, at which Blanco serves as a contributor.

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After the chorale reading, I ask students to spend a few minutes writing down their reflections on reciting the poem together as a group. I ask them to explain how the activity has changed their understanding of the poem’s content. I also ask them to take note of:

  • Which words are repeated in the poem
  • The people who are named in the poem
  • The activities that are described in the poem
  • Their take on the last three lines of the poem

Students are quick to point out that they noticed the repetition of the word “singing.” This observation leads to a discussion of how the idea of singing makes the workers seem happy or as if they have a sense of pride in completing their work. We also discuss how the phrases “the varied carols I hear” (Whitman line 1) and “each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else” (11) show the idea of difference, or uniqueness, while the repetition of the word “singing” shows a commonality in these different workers. Students often take note that the professions named are all ones in which people work with their hands. We then discuss the implications of why Whitman may have chosen to highlight these jobs and how the idea of work is celebrated in the poem.

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“One Today”

Since the genesis of  “One Today” is so closely tied to a specific event in American history, I begin this part of the in-class activity by having my students watch Blanco read his poem at the 2013 Presidential Inauguration. While watching this clip from PBS via YouTube, I ask students to write down their observations of the actual event, how Blanco presents himself, and how he reads the poem.

Then, I have students annotate their copies of “One Today.” During this process, I ask for students to take note of:

  • Any words that are repeated throughout the poem
  • Images in the poem that stand out to them
  • Any words or phrases that evoke specific senses
  • The use of -ing words
  • Allusions to Blanco’s personal history
  • Allusions to events from American history

My goal during our discussion of “One Today” is for students to understand how Blanco constructs a depiction of America that celebrates the unique qualities of its citizens while still emphasizing the importance of unity. To do this, we spend a lot of time thinking through what language in the poem shows unity and what language shows difference. For example, I often start with the second stanza of “One Today,” which begins with “My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors, / each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day:” (Blanco 7-8). Through the use of “my face” and “your face,” Blanco acknowledges the different people living in America, yet by the second line we are “crescendoing into our day.” This shift in pronouns is a small detail, one that students new to analyzing poetry may not catch. Throughout the discussion, I make sure that students see how important these choices, no matter how seemingly tiny, are and that these choices are what help Blanco to craft his portrayal of America in “One Today.”

Analyzing the Concept of America in Both Poems

After discussing both poems, I provide my students with a brief introduction to New Historicism. Since theory is not a focus of English 102, I do not spend too much time covering the intricacies of New Historicism; instead, I share with students this overview from The Purdue OWL. I focus my mini-lesson on the questions posed at the bottom of the web page, which are designed to guide students through considering the ways in which the cultural events that occurred during a time period in which an author is writing may influence a text’s content.

To further explore this connection, I have students spend a few minutes researching, either on a computer if we are in the lab or on their phones, what was happening during the time periods surrounding 1867 and 2013, the years in which “I Hear America Singing” and “One Today” were published, respectively. Obviously, students are much more familiar with major events that happened during the beginning of this decade. Refreshing themselves on what life was like in the years leading up to 2013 helps students to have a better foundation for analyzing the ways in which Blanco portrays America in “One Today,” and if this portrayal reflects a realistic portrait of America, even with (or in spite of) the positive tone that the genre of an occasional poem requires.

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Conversely, students often possess a wide range of background knowledge on the 1860s, with some history buffs having a clear sense of the time period and other students knowing almost nothing about it. Some students are very surprised to learn that The Civil War occurred during this decade, especially when considering the fact that “I Hear America Singing” does not mention slavery. This observation leads student to question Whitman’s portrayal of America as a united country and to explore why Whitman may have made the decision to emphasize this united front in “I Hear America Singing.”

This lesson plan is designed to not only help students analyze “One Today” and “I Hear America Singing,” but to also prepare them for the next poems that I teach in this unit, Langston Hughes’s “I, Too” and Claude McKay’s “America.” These poems will help students to further develop their critical reading skills while continuing to analyze the concept of America in poetry.