Confronting ‘Dangerous Subjects’ in Literature

This week’s readings address the importance of confrontation in the university classroom. Not confrontation in the angry sense, as in going toe-to-toe in an argument, but confrontation in the sense of standing to face the hard issues head-on instead of glossing over them or, worse yet, refusing to explore them. Showalter (and Wooden in the article from last week regarding The Curious Incident) even assert that addressing these issues – which include racism, sexism, disabilities, death, illness, mental illness, abuse, rape, suicide, and more – as they arise in classroom literature is not only a good idea, but a moral obligation of the college English teacher.

This is perhaps more important than ever as classrooms become increasingly multicultural spaces, with culture being defined as not just one’s race or ethnicity, but rather, as Edelstein suggested, “an ensemble of beliefs and practices … a way of life … and a whole range of cultural practices … and/or the forms through which people make sense of their lives.” At the university level, she writes, “…a revitalized multiculturalism in American education may play an increasingly important role in influencing our national and global futures.” In fact, Edelstein wrote, “multicultural education always connotes a commitment to political and social change [along with a rejection of assimilationism and of passé metaphors like the melting pot].” She also believes “that genuine multicultural education is at least as much a matter of ethics as of politics.”

Along those same lines, both Torres-Padilla and Zuba point out that racism is still alive and well in America (and its classrooms). “If Americans were honest with themselves they would agree that racism still thrives in the country, and they would confront it,” Torres-Padilla wrote. Yet, Zuba said, many students “resist talking about race because they are worried that they will inadvertently appear racist.”

So where do we begin? “Awareness of the problem is crucial,” Torres-Padilla suggests. “We all need to return to the basics of raising consciousness about racism” and become “agents of change” in the classroom. I agree with this wholeheartedly, and I try to at least cognizant of my own ignorance and biases that accompany my race, individual upbringing, and life experiences. I suppose a good initial goal, then, would be to ensure that our students are also aware that they each carry with them their own biases that they will have to overcome in the classroom (and in life).

Because of the nature of the subject matters we encounter in our classrooms, teachers of English and literature are in a unique position that educators in other subjects like math and science simply are not. Torres-Padilla wrote about using Toni Morrison’s Beloved to approach a conversation about race in his “Visions of America” class, for example, and Showalter gives numerous examples of authors and pieces of literature that approach many of the controversial and uncomfortable subjects listed above. I would argue, as these educators have, that carefully and thoughtfully approaching difficult subjects like racism, misogyny, mental illness, and more through the vehicle of literature is indeed a moral obligation of any teacher worth his or her salt.

One thought on “Confronting ‘Dangerous Subjects’ in Literature

  1. I liked Zuba’s idea, in particular. I would love to follow a trajectory for discussion starting with the fantastic, the monstrous then moving into more familiar territory. I would love to include some history, namely a discussion of the Anglo Saxon view of the far east in “Wonders of the East” and “Alexander’s letter to Aristotle” from the Beowulf manuscript. The remove of years and the fantastic nature of the descriptions of animals and peoples, both little known and only heard of allows for another safe discussion about how we construct “the other” and the varied socio/political elements involved. It would fit in nicely with both the historical and the sci-fi elements Zuba outlines. Besides, so much fun!

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