Academic journal article MELUS

Pedagogy of a Radical Multiculturalism

Academic journal article MELUS

Pedagogy of a Radical Multiculturalism

Article excerpt

A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.

--Franz Katka, letter to Oskar Pollak, 27 January 1904.

I went to college in 1991 to read and discuss great books. The idea seems trite and, at worst, it reveals bourgeois pretensions of dilettantism, but having been a poor and gay white boy in rural Missouri with a small demonstration of intelligence, I discovered that reading books provided a source of beauty, a temporary stay against oppression, and the possibility that other worlds and ideas existed, worlds into which I could go ill could just bide my time. College literature courses would be liberating, I thought, and they were, but the liberation they offered was of a very limited sort. They taught me to think, to see the world differently, but they did not teach me to see through the farrago of master narratives and the morass of contemporary and historical bigotry. They failed to help me to connect with the world around me and to discover more about myself. My undergraduate literature courses were not multicultural. The American (US) literature courses focused almost exclusively on the works of heterosexual white men and/or hegemonic systems of oppressions as they are inscribed in literary texts. This is not atypical of contemporary education in literary studies; stories of this sort abound.

Having completed my undergraduate education continuing to wonder about books, I went to graduate school, and here I began to piece together the seemingly disparate parts of my thinking. I had studied feminist and Marxist theories as an undergraduate and planned to continue on this path, but I was unable to reconcile the two with each other and with my developing consciousness about what I already knew but had not been able to articulate all my life: the machinations of racism, heterosexism, classism, sexism, ableism, ageism, nationalism, regionalism, and environmental destruction. It was in discovering multicultural literatures--on my own and with some help from friends and, later, from professors-that I began to read critically, to understand and value a range of aesthetics, to see the connections between oppression and institutional power and, finally, to understand my pain and that of others and to piece together those not-so-disparate pieces of my thinking.

Bell hooks writes that she found her place to heal through theory: "I came to theory because I was hurting--the pain within me was so intense that I could not go on living. I came to theory desperate, wanting to comprehend--to grasp what was happening around and within me. Most importantly, I wanted to make the hurt go away. I saw in theory then a location for healing" (59). I see that my students feel the way that both hooks and I felt (and perhaps still feel) at times. They come into nay classes at the conservative community college where I teach, and many, many of them are looking for help, not just academic help but healing, the sort of healing about which hooks writes in her Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom.

Because I emphasize that the personal is political in nay teaching, this kind of healing can be a positive outcome of the intellectual inquiry about multicultural literary studies that is required in my courses. It is a healing that comes from the conviction that self-actualization against oppression, the way to interrogate and reconnect with the world in which we live, will lead to freedom. Students can embark on an intellectual endeavor and also begin an emotional healing process in studying multicultural literature if the course is radical, serving simultaneously to fill the gaps created by the purposeful-historical erasure of minoritized peoples' experiences and to offer all students the chance to engage in rigorous studies of literary, cultural, and historical realities that shape not only the study of multicultural literature but also affect their lives and the lives of others. …

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