Reflections on Teaching Poverty & Wealth through American Literature

PALS warmly welcomes a guest post by Leah Milne. Milne is assistant professor of multicultural American literature at the University of Indianapolis. In this post she writes about a recent literature course on the subject of poverty and wealth. Milne reflects below on the course trajectory and potential lessons for future iterations of the course.

I just completed my first semester teaching a course entitled Poverty and Wealth in Literature, and part of my preparation involved envisaging the possible student responses to the subject and texts. Learning, for example, some general facts about the student body gave me a better sense of the audience, including the percentage of first-generation college students, the median income of their parents, and so on. My particular institution, for instance, is a small, private liberal arts college where about 40% of the students are first-generation, and many receive scholarships and/or financial assistance. Despite knowing this, however, discussing such a controversial subject as socioeconomic class elicited some surprises that I hope to better anticipate in the future.

I started the semester with two poems. Asking groups to interpret a poem or two on the first day of class is an easy way to establish the rigor of a course. In this case, the course required extensive literary analysis and classroom discussion. Since the course was directed towards students in their first semester of college, none of whom were English majors, I wanted to make the work requirements of the class clear. At the same time, these particular poems—Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus” (1883) and Gary Soto’s “Oranges” (1983)—established two scales of socioeconomic class that I planned for us to tackle that semester: the intimate and personal as represented by Soto’s nostalgic “Oranges,” and the global and grandiose as represented by Lady Liberty’s call of “worldwide welcome” in Lazarus’s poem.

While these two impulses of addressing both the intimate and the grandiose in class issues certainly formed the general foundation for the course, I had to quickly guide students in directions I had not predicted so early in the semester. For instance, during a class discussion about inequality on day 2, I felt compelled to encourage students to avoid the Oppression Olympics, a term I picked up from Elizabeth Martínez in her book, De Colores Means All of Us: Latina Views for a Multi-Colored Century (1998). Martínez addresses the problem with competing for the “gold medal of ‘Most Oppressed’” when she states, “Pursuing some hierarchy of oppression leads us down dead-end streets where we will never find the linkage between different oppressions and how to overcome them” (5). In other words, suggesting that we can rank who experiences the most oppression compounds the problem of inequality without addressing or solving it.

The most useful way I found for my students to comprehend the linkages that Martínez describes was through intersectionality. The originator of the term, Kimberlé Crenshaw, gave a TED talk explaining the dilemma of linked oppressions by way of Emma DeGraffenreid, a black woman who sued General Motors (GM) for discrimination. A judge ruled against DeGraffenreid, citing that GM had in fact hired black men and white women, and thus couldn’t possibly be discriminating against black women. Crenshaw illustrates what she calls the “urgency of intersectionality” by drawing attention (at 11:00 in the video) to the “law’s refusal to protect African-American women simply because their experiences weren’t exactly the same as white women and African-American men.” Considering intersectionality allowed my students and I to contemplate privilege without focusing on one singular characteristic like race, nationality, age, or location. Thus, for example, experiences of being poor looked very different in Zitkala-Ša‘s Yankton Indian Reservation and Carlisle Indian School in the late 1800s than in the relatively egalitarian community of Shaker Heights in the late 1990s, described in all of its glorious contradictions in Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere.

Intersectionality also allowed us to complicate perceptions of wealth. For instance, the wealthiest character we discussed this semester was Dr. Jo Baker of Destroyer, Victor LaValle’s graphic novel and Frankenstein follow-up. In addition to having a name that hearkens back to the entertainer and agent of the French Resistance during World War II, Baker is also the last living descendant of Victor Frankenstein, with access to a nearly unlimited amount of wealth for her scientific and technological experiments and inventions. However, this wealth has its limitations, particularly given her status as a black woman. When her son, Akai, is killed by policemen in a shooting akin to that of Tamir Rice, Baker continues the Frankenstein heritage by using her knowledge and resources to attempt to bring Akai back to life. It becomes clear to students, though, that Baker’s vast wealth and knowledge are not enough to fully counteract her linked oppressions as a black woman.

I was fortunate enough to moderate an interview with the author at the Indianapolis Central Library and the Center for Black Literature and Culture. As an added bonus, LaValle visited my students on the day they were to discuss his comic series, and one asked him if Akai would be okay at the end. Pleased, LaValle responded that her concern was the best response he could hope for, especially given the reluctance of many to discuss intersections of race and class that differ from one’s own. In fact, empathy—most specifically, our inabilities to empathize fully with others—emerged as the central frame through which I guided many of our class discussions on inequality. Even if one of us were, say, a mother, a black scientist, or as wealthy as Jo Baker, our abilities to fully comprehend her pain at losing Akai would never completely match up. The best we could do was try to empathize while recognizing our limitations in doing so. As one student related, “I know I will never be able to truly empathize, but I will attempt to empathize more.”

I found it helpful to further complicate affective responses such as this one by discussing intersectionality through the public perceptions about the causes of poverty, the latter described in an article by Laura R. Peck, and which I summarized for the students using examples from our texts. For instance, a significant subplot of Ng’s aforementioned Little Fires Everywhere is a transracial adoption involving a Chinese-American baby named—depending on your take on the issue—either May Ling Chow (her birth name) or Mirabelle McCullough (her adopted name).

Students can characterize the poverty of the birth mother, Bebe, as individualistic—blaming her for being, say, lazy or immoral. On the other hand, they could point to fatalistic determinants, suggesting that luck or divine will is the reason for her poverty. Finally, they could highlight structural determinants, such as the lack of systemic support for new mothers and/or newly-arrived immigrants to the US, or the low wages provided to restaurant workers and others in the service industry. Analyzing their responses to the causes of poverty, students were better poised to empathize with someone whom they may have otherwise dismissed as simply a bad mother. As one student admitted at the end of the semester, “My perception of socioeconomic issues have changed as I was very unempathetic towards certain aspects of poverty. However, after reading and learning about the determinants of poverty, I am much more aware and open-minded about issues of class.” Or as another student stated, “There are so many more determinants of poverty than most people realize. In general, there is a stereotype that people in poverty do not work hard, etc. However, many factors that individuals cannot choose heavily contribute to class inequality.” Similar applications were applied to the adoptive mother, Linda McCullough, and her sometimes clumsy attempts at motherhood, with Ng providing background into Linda’s sheltered upbringing and her family’s long and honored history in Shaker Heights. In fact, Ng’s work flourishes in such nuanced characterizations; each member of the Richardsons—the white, upper-middle-class family at the center of the novel—have unique ways of dealing with these aspects of identity.

Finally, specific structural considerations of poverty resonated in ways I had not predicted. For instance, equitable access to housing—and its connections to issues such as redlining and gentrification—became a surprisingly prominent theme in many discussions. Whether it was discussions of race-based covenants in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun or observations of nearby neighborhoods experiencing gentrification, housing functioned as a concrete anchor for contemplating the material consequences of inequality. Housing also allowed me to return to the grander ideals that began the semester, highlighted in Lazarus’s “The New Colossus”: If we as a nation truly wanted “the homeless [and] tempest-tost” on our shores (13), then we would have to reckon with the conditions that they would face upon their arrival. And if we really believed that the American dream is possible, then we needed to consider how we might best help others attain that dream.

The next time that I have the opportunity to teach this course, I plan on emphasizing the importance of learning through discomfort and of thus directly confronting more concepts like intersectionality that can propel the conversation forward in a productive manner. I also hope to incorporate more opportunities for self-reflection. I believe that doing so will guide students toward a deeper recognition of the ingrained norms and beliefs they have about class and the ways it interacts with and is affected by government policy, individual responsibility, and social and cultural beliefs. Finally, in reading literature alongside these discussions, I aspire for students to see the importance of literature — and the arts in general — in providing us different perspectives on these complicated issues.

Bio:

Leah Milne is an assistant professor of multicultural American literature at the University of Indianapolis. She teaches courses on American literature, nationality, young adult novels, postcolonial literature, and women writers. Her comparative book project examines writer-characters and forms of self-care in post-1945 ethnic American novels, focusing on texts by authors such as Louise Erdrich, Percival Everett, Carmen Maria Machado, and Jonathan Safran Foer. She received her doctorate degree from the University of North Carolina in Greensboro. Her work has been published in numerous academic journals and edited collections, including MELUSPostcolonial Text, and College Literature. Find her on Twitter @DrMLovesLit.

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How to Organize a Teach-In

 

As teachers of American literature and culture, we are well positioned to bring our academic training and insight to bear on the social justice concerns of our political moment, such as women’s rights, immigrants’ rights, environmental justice, and anti-racist activism. Yet we may not know the best ways to discuss these issues with students and may wonder if it is appropriate to do so in the context of the classroom. Headlines about the weaponizing of free speech and attacks on faculty academic freedom may inhibit us from raising these concerns in our classes or on our campuses, especially those of us who are graduate student, pre-tenure, or contingent instructors. Some faculty who embrace social justice commitments may have pedagogical reasons for not addressing political issues in the classroom, particularly if the issues are not related to course content or learning outcomes.

How can we deploy our knowledge and expertise in support of our social justice investments if traditional protests, petitions, and demonstrations do not appeal to us or are not suitable for our role on campus? The “teach-in” format of the 1960s is an overlooked activist option for teacher-scholars who want to awaken their students and campuses to the urgency of the political moment. Through structured, organized educational events on campus but outside the classroom, teach-ins are an effective strategy for American literature instructors to use when the need arises to facilitate informed dialogue around social justice issues.

What is a teach-in?

http://michiganintheworld.history.lsa.umich.edu/antivietnamwar/exhibits/show/exhibit/item/86
University of Michigan students at the first teach-in. Source: http://michiganintheworld.history.lsa.umich.edu/antivietnamwar/exhibits/show/exhibit/item/86

At traditional teach-ins, a series of scholars speak on their areas of expertise in relation to a specific political or social justice concern. The first “teach-ins” on college and university campuses were organized in response to the Vietnam War draft. Professors at the University of Michigan planned a teaching strike and an off-campus “teach-out” in the style of labor movement “walkouts.” Faced with threats of retaliation, the faculty members reconsidered. Rather than strike or walk out, the educators chose to “teach in,” or “occupy” (to use the 21st-century term) the campus with their academic knowledge and pedagogical expertise. Along with lectures and discussions related to the war draft, the teach-in also included debates, movies, and musical performances. Similar campus-wide teach-ins soon followed at institutions such as Columbia and Berkeley.

Later on, teach-ins were used by the “environmental, women’s, anti-Apartheid, and anti-nuclear movements, into the 1990s and 2000s [by] the Democracy Teach-Ins . . . and most recently [by] Occupy and Black Lives Matter.” A teach-in is an opportunity to promote dialogue about current political affairs outside the classroom and regular curriculum, but still within an academic setting. Teach-ins are an occasion for faculty to model civil discourse and to demonstrate the academic relevance of social justice concerns by connecting social justice issues to the content and methods of our discipline. Teach-ins are designed to be participatory, with discussion and questions from the audience. Although the earlier teach-ins of the 1960s were sometimes disruptive, teach-ins are part of the tradition of peaceful protest and activism.

Some teach-ins may have the overt political goal of “producing knowledge for use by participants as members of an organized, politicized campus community.” Others may simply aim to raise an issue. For example, a colleague who organized a teach-in in response to the 2003 Iraq War explains that faculty did not want students to “walk out of class” in protest, yet wanted to send the message that a declaration of war “was momentous and needed to be thought about and processed” as a campus community. Faculty from across campus provided historical, artistic, political, feminist, ethical, and military history lenses to deepen the campus’s thinking “about Iraq, about war, and about the implications of U.S. actions.” By considering the issue from so many perspectives, students were empowered to come to their conclusions.

“Day Without a Woman” teach-in

day without a womanI helped organize a teach-in in conjunction with the “Day Without a Woman” strike sponsored by the Women’s March on March 8, 2017. Although many faculty at my institution were concerned about the matters related to the strike—women’s issues, labor issues, and anti-immigrant policies—we did not believe it would serve our students or the educational mission of our small, teaching-focused institution to “walk out” and not teach that day. Many of our students care deeply about social justice issues, but generally speaking, our student body is not “political.” Our students look to faculty for leadership on political activism, and we decided that a teach-in would provide a productive model of engaged citizenship and democracy in action.

We held our teach-in in the atrium of our library, a visible locale in the center of campus. Faculty from our Gender Studies program gave lectures on topics such as “Women, Science, and Feminism,” “Sojourner Truth: Abolitionist, Intersectional Feminist, Bad Ass,” and “The Value of Women’s Labor.” We also held a community reading and discussion of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Our teach-in ended with a bilingual reading by two Mexican poets visiting campus that day, Marcia Trejo and Aurora Velasco.

To create a welcoming and fun setting for students and the entire campus, we provided catered refreshments and hot chocolate throughout the day. We publicized the teach-in to students, staff, and faculty over campus email listserves; we also posted flyers and announced it in our Gender Studies classes. Many students came to the teach-in on their own, and several faculty encouraged students and entire classes to attend the various lectures, readings, and discussions.

Once we had the idea, we were able to organize our “Day Without a Woman” teach-in in just a few days. My campus is small with few bureaucratic barriers, so we were able to find faculty speakers, schedule rooms, order food, and publicize the event on short notice. We had the support of key campus leaders who viewed the teach-in as a positive demonstration of civil discourse.

Other teach-in formats: Tours, panels, syallabi, Twitter

learningisresistance.jpg-largeWhen I recently posted a query about teach-ins on Twitter, I discovered that instructors in the broader field of American cultural studies are embracing some creative and unexpected teach-in formats. Trish Kahle organizes socialist walking tours of her university’s campus that “re-narrate” the typical college admissions tour. Guy Emerson Mount has organized teach-in panels (rather than using the traditional lecture format) on his institution’s ties to slavery, a shooting by campus police, and hate speech on campus.

Rhonda Ragsdale, a history professor at Lone Star College, began tweeting about “social justice from a historian’s perspective” every Saturday morning under the hashtag “#SaturdaySchool.” She now has more than 8,500 followers and co-hosts Twitter teach-ins on issues as diverse as the present-day legacies of slavery to the importance of art. Online teach-ins and podcasts may be an option for those concerned about adversarial relationships between activists and academia or those who want to eschew their “universities’ ideological traps” and perpetuations of injustice.

Peter Sahlins at UC-Berkeley designed a semester-long teach-in on “The US Election of 2016 in Global Context.” Designed as a pass/fail course that met every Tuesday night in spring 2017, this teach-in featured faculty speakers from a variety of disciplines who discussed scholarly questions surrounding the unexpected victory of Donald J. Trump. Similarly, crowd-sourced syllabi organized around social justice and political issues such as #CharlestonSyllabus and #PostTrumpSyllabus have been designed and circulated in the activist and pedagogical spirit of the teach-in.

Considerations and recommendations for organizing a teach-in

recommendationsGiven the chaotic political news cycle, you may find that your campus needs to organize a teach-in on short notice. Consider the institutional structures and relationships that can aid you. For example, our Gender Studies program was able to provide the staff, resources, and budget for our teach-in. Individual faculty members’ rapport with campus staff made it possible for us to schedule rooms, publicize the event, and regroup when the inevitable planning complications occurred. However, if institutional logistics, bureaucracy, and politics make it difficult to move quickly and efficiently, perhaps the creative, alternative formats suggested above might be useful to you. At large institutions, organizing a teach-in for students and faculty in a single department or program, rather than an entire campus, may be more logistically feasible and effective.

Keep the education and empowerment of your students at the center of your teach-in. With students in mind, our “Day Without a Woman” teach-in was designed to be fun and interactive. My only regret was that we didn’t provide our students with opportunities for action. Voter registration or a letter writing event would have been action steps in-line with my institution’s mission of promoting engaged, democratic citizenship. There are some who argue that it is pedagogically irresponsible to bring matters of social justice to students’ attention without empowering them to do something. But other educators maintain that it is enough to raise the issue and let students come to their own conclusions and determine their own next steps.

Although the teach-in format is an alternative to more disruptive forms of campus activism and protest, it does not come without professional risk. Each instructor will need to identify and evaluate possible perils. Depending on your institutional context and your status within your institution or department, you may not feel professionally protected if you organize or participate in a teach-in. In such cases, those of us with tenure need to defend our colleagues’ academic freedom and promote free speech, the very pillar of our precious democratic institutions. We have a responsibility to wield our tenured status to amplify vulnerable voices and perspectives on our campuses and within the profession.

Teach-ins today can take many forms and are an established and pedagogically sound option for peaceful political resistance for teacher-scholars of American literature. For me, organizing a teach-in was a rewarding experience that aligned my personal values, professional ethics, and my social justice investments.

Questions:

Share your ideas, thoughts, and experiences in the “comments” section. I would love to hear from you!

  1. Have you ever organized or participated in a teach-in? What was the topic and format?
  2. Should a teach-in have an action-based outcome or is raising the issue enough?
  3. If you were to organize a teach-in on your campus tomorrow, what would the topic be?
  4. What is the relationship between tenure and academic freedom? What should the responsibilities of tenure entail in our perilous political climate?