Academic journal article Honors in Practice

Hearing the Marginalized Voice in the Great Books Curriculum

Academic journal article Honors in Practice

Hearing the Marginalized Voice in the Great Books Curriculum

Article excerpt


At the end of a two-year Honors Civilizations sequence based on a Great Books curriculum, students at the University of Maine write a reflective essay that describes their personal and intellectual journey with the texts they have encountered over the previous four semesters. In the creation of this "intellectual portfolio," the students can describe a theme or narrative that has emerged in their thinking, using not only the texts but the classroom dynamic, weekly lectures, and assignments to demonstrate what they have found most beneficial and/or frustrating in their journey. The first year I read these essays, I encountered deep disappointment in the absence of voices: students wanted more women, more texts produced by people of color, more non-European narratives, more attention paid to class systems. In short, students wanted more than the white Western European male narrative.

As a long-time instructor trained in women's, gender, and sexuality studies, I had already begun to incorporate various pedagogical exercises into the honors classroom to make room for marginalized voices. The essays, however, struck a deep chord. The Great Books curriculum is the historical and pedagogical backbone of many honors programs, yet it has significant limitations in opening doors to underrepresented populations I had always strived to make my honors classroom a space for intersectional learning and, with each passing year, have constructed a set of pedagogical tools that encourage students to hear voices in the texts that otherwise might be silenced.


Faculty in the University of Maine Honors College have long believed that the reflective essay at the end of Civilizations is not just an intellectual portfolio designed for student reflection but also a learning tool for faculty to determine both the breadth and depth of students' desired outcomes for the sequence. Over the years, in addition to staples such as Homer, St. Augustine, Shakespeare, Locke, and Darwin, the curriculum has incorporated more and more texts to represent larger populations. The first semester now includes Inanna, Laozi's Tao Te Ching, and Dawnland Voices, a collection of essays and letters by New England's Native populations. Religious texts in the first two semesters address the three major monotheistic religions with the Torah, the New Testament, and the Qur'an. The third semester begins with a collection of Michel de Montaigne's essays to accompany either Othello or The Tempest and ends with Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. The final semester covers the end of the nineteenth century to the present, including weeks dedicated to Primo Levi, Frida Kahlo, and a unit on climate change.

The steady increase in appreciation for these notable changes among students' final reflective essays does not imply a simple "add and stir" approach to the curriculum formula. When marginalized voices are relegated to a special week, students tend to express empathy or pity and to distance themselves from the person, identity, or experience central to the narrative. For example, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl might become a narrative in which slavery becomes a historical tragedy that happened a long time ago rather than an oppressive system that shaped the experiences of many generations after abolition. This isolation of a voice speaks more to privilege and less to the need for a more nuanced understanding of difference as a series of complex interactions between "history, power, culture, and ideology" (McLaren in Multicultural Education 43).

A text such as Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl readily lends itself to incorporating McLaren's notion of difference. In my classroom, we begin with a discussion of what each person learned about slavery in high school and then move on to what voices they did and did not hear in their past education. …

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