Transformative Teaching of Renaissance Literature through Intertextual Discursive Constellations

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Transformative Teaching of Renaissance Literature Through Intertextual Discursive Constellations

Several years ago, when I was asked by a colleague at Illinois State University to participate in a workshop designed to introduce multicultural teaching in classrooms across a variety of English Studies specialties, I was puzzled because my primary areas of interest and scholarship are early modern domesticity and Renaissance literature. I decided that in order for me to teach in ways that would allow for consideration and discussion of the multiple populations and perspectives which composed the early modern period in Europe, I would draw on the successful feminist pedagogy and curricular strategies that I had previously developed for other courses. 1 This decision grew out of my primary feminist commitments to teaching social privilege and textual representations of difference. In this essay, I will describe my upper-level Renaissance literature course, "Discourses of Difference in Early Modern English Texts." This course examines intertextual constellations (i.e. clusters of interrelated texts) composed of literary texts, past and present critical texts, Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century primary sources, and other cultural documents. For the sake of space, I will concentrate here on the section of the syllabus devoted to European representations of Africans, which I will frame within a discussion of the entire course's critical context and my pedagogical uses of theory.

Critical Context

Much conventional pedagogy encourages students not to question, to remain unconscious, and to assume that the various institutions of political order such as education, religion, law, etc. are public services devoted to all people's good. It is difficult to convince students that American education itself often refuses to recognize its role in maintaining dominant social structures dedicated to promoting the economic interests of white, middle- to upper-class heterosexual males. Most of us did not learn in grade school that Columbus roasted the Caribes over green wood fires; that it has always been much more difficult for an African American to find an apartment than for a European American; that not all people are content with "Johnny and Suzy sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g, first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes Suzy pushing the baby carriage." Maybe Suzy does not want a baby and might rather be under the tree with Mary.

The opportunity to design a new syllabus for Renaissance literature has been particularly appealing to me because I want to successfully teach difficult texts to students who are generally not predisposed to sign up for early modern literature courses. I want to encourage them to develop expanded understandings of multiculturalism across time, which entails more than including an occasional non-canonical, non-European author like Leo Africanus, briefly acknowledging Native American oral literacy, or reminding students now and then that women did write in the Sixteenth Century. Not only are students often bound by narrow conceptions of literature, but so are teachers of traditional disciplines or areas of specialization who may have to confront similar preconceptions, biases, and privileged categories. I also want to challenge notions of universality, truth, and the "correct" answer; the absolute authority of the teacher who knows everything and is always right; and the traditionally disenfranchised student who is assumed to know nothing. At the same time, my pedagogy asks students to be responsible for their own critical positions and learning; to develop analytical skills; and to be conscious of how they are themselves multiply constructed by a culture that does not always work to their benefit.

I teach some very traditional courses including Shakespeare, Renaissance Literature, Seventeenth-Century Literature, and a drama survey to students who are primarily middle-class, European American, junior and senior English and English Education majors with varying amounts of experience in theoretical thinking, multiculturalism, and early modern texts. …