This week’s guest blogger is Kate Litterer a second year MFA student who currently teaches in the UMass Writing Program. Kate is a member of our Resource Center staff and serves on the Writing Program Curriculum and Diversity Committees.
One of my teaching goals is to help students learn to analyze and respond to what they read so that they can ultimately learn to argue and develop their own points for their own purposes. In order to get them there we read essays from our common reader, Other Words, an anthologized collection of essays by many different writers on and in many different themes, topics, and styles. What I enjoy most about Other Words is the diversity the texts offer to me as an instructor. I don’t mean just in terms of the topics or themes, either; many of the writers are minorities and their being so offers enriching readings of the essays.
Before this year I stayed away from essays I felt were too difficult to teach. Indeed, I hope that I can find ways to teach my students how to read and respond critically to texts no matter the theme or topic, but I avoided essays that I felt might spur challenging conversations about race, gender, sexuality, class, etc. This is surprising, as these things motivate me in my own studies as well as my discussions, my friendships, my research, and my writing, but I was nervous to talk about them in my role as an instructor! However, I decided that it was the important thing to do, and starting with “My Memory and Witness” by Dean Spade and Lis Goldschmidt, I breached the topic of a personal essay about transgender identities and class inequalities.
There is no way to tell how a class will take a text; fifteen different bodies and minds from fifteen individual experiences affects the ways they will read a text. During that particular conversation one of my students spoke for the entire class, stating, “We don’t have experience with [being poor] so we don’t know what to say about the essay.” I was dumbfounded—much of my identity as a scholar (and a person) comes from my working class family background and reading an essay from and about a working-class experience is not only natural but also exciting and powerful. Of course, I didn’t expect my students to all jump on the personal experience as connection train, though; I just didn’t expect them to speak for one another, to assume they could not enter to text, or to give up on their analysis before they had begun.
What I did and do is take a step back and talk with my students. Sometimes this involves asking them questions: Why didn’t they think they could get into the text? Why did Spade and Goldschmidt write about the topic, then, if not everyone could immediately access the text? Who are Spade and Goldschmidt? Why does it matter that we are reading this text? Sometimes we take a break and they write about their response or their ideas before we chat. This has been instrumental in helping my students to enter into texts that are initially difficult, because they feel they don’t fit into the text personally or as a student (difficult texts can include those that are formally challenging, too!).
In my opinion, I can say that students enjoyed and benefited from reading difficult texts…sometimes we just had to have a class discussion in order to help them find their way into the texts. With Jamaica Kincaid’s “A Small Place,” I ask my students to share their responses (which are sometimes, if not often, viscerally harsh) before we look at the style of the text. I recognize that they bring their fifteen different feelings and responses to the text and we/they work together to talk through the purpose, style, and rhetoric of the text. What I love most about these discussions is they way students engage with one another, supporting and building on one another’s points, adventuring into the text together, and eventually hitting on the purpose and importance of the text.
If I had to say what I have learned about teaching “difficult” texts is that it is entirely worth it. Sometimes it doesn’t go exactly how I had planned and I have to extend discussions or offer prompting questions. Sometimes my students challenge one another, the author, or me. But through all of these sometimes difficult situations I have found that my students and I both appreciate our new knowledge about something that is more than just rhetoric, style, and form; we appreciate that we are learning about the world, about what matters to real writers and audiences, and about how writing can express those powerful voices to larger communities.