Academic journal article MELUS

Resistance and the Pedagogy of Ethnic Literature

Academic journal article MELUS

Resistance and the Pedagogy of Ethnic Literature

Article excerpt

The whole sobby immigrant thing is starting to get a little old and I am having trouble feeling compasion [sic] for every story.... I would enjoy a story of success, or something completely off the personal level.

These words are taken from a student journal entry made about three weeks into a course titled "Literature and the Moral Imagination: Fiction of the Immigrant Experience" in response to the short story "Eileen" by Mary Gordon. We discuss the moral, political, social, and economic issues raised by immigration in the United States and examine fictional representations of that experience. Additionally, we consider the question of why fiction is an appropriate vehicle for such content--that is, as opposed to reading other "nonfictional" genres such as memoir, biography, or history.

While teaching this course, I found myself puzzling over resistant, even hostile, responses, such as the one quoted above, to a number of works we read for the course; equally troubling to me as a teacher were my own resistance to and impatience with such responses. I think of Flannery O'Connor's "The Teaching of Literature," in which she cites the response of a frustrated reader communicating a critique via O'Connor's uncle: "Tell that girl to quit writing about poor folks.... I see poor folks every day and I get mighty tired of them, and when I read, I don't want to see any more of them" (131, my emphasis). As a serious teacher (in a nod to another of O'Connor's essays, "The Tired Reader and the Serious Writer"), how should I respond to this emotional and intellectual fatigue?

In "Empowering the Reader: Literary Response and Classroom Learning," David S. Miail explores the "clumsy" teaching methods that inhibit rather than encourage meaningful literary experiences. He concludes by speculating on the benefits of negative response in the literature classroom:

   Perhaps a part of the function of literature is to arouse our
   negative emotions. It is obvious that the negative emotions we feel
   in everyday life are much more likely to be suppressed than the
   positive; they are socially less acceptable, and to express them
   might result in socially disruptive or damaging consequences ...
   [thus,] literature induces us to reflect on the nature of such
   emotions, to explore their implications, and perhaps to rethink them
   in productive ways, within a symbolic context that is one remove
   from the actual world.... If we thwart this process by clumsy
   methods ... perhaps we do so at our own peril. (476)

Thus, in this paper I present a number of speculations about both kinds of resistance (student's and reader's), as well as, I hope, a number of workable, practical solutions to making resistance a useful tool in teaching ethnic literature.

So, back to "the whole sobby immigrant thing." When I built the journal requirement into the course, I set out very general guidelines, and told the students to respond to whatever struck them about the day's assigned reading. I expressly encouraged them to explore their responses, even if negative--the only rule was that they had to examine the reasons for that reaction. "I really liked this story," or "I hated this assignment," or "This was so boring" would not be acceptable. I wanted them to get more critically involved with exploring their response to the text, to uncover the expectations, values, and assumptions that inform their reading process. The resistance I encountered to this requirement took several forms: outright but unexamined negative response, refusal to respond at all (this form I saw also, as most of us do, in the averted gazes and roaring silence during class discussion), or use of plot summary as a substitute for reflection and analysis.

One rare exception to these forms of resistance was a young woman responding to Grace Paley's "The Loudest Voice":

   OK, I have to admit, this girl [Shirley, the story's narrator/
   protagonist, a six-year-old Russian Jewish immigrant who has been
   chosen to star in her school's Christmas pageant] was getting on
   my nerves by the end of the story. … 
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