Academic journal article English Education

Teaching Global Literature to "Disturb the Waters": A Case Study

Academic journal article English Education

Teaching Global Literature to "Disturb the Waters": A Case Study

Article excerpt

Within an increasingly globalized world, the decades-long call for the inclusion of global literature1 within English language arts curricula has taken on renewed urgency (Liang, Watkins, & Williams, 2013). In light of exhortations to build walls and efforts to close borders to refugees, many educators see teaching with global texts as a "necessity, not a luxury" (Short, 2016, p. 3). Arguments for the teaching of global literature include its potential to foster respect for different people and cultural traditions (Bond, 2006; Jewett, 2011; Martens et al., 2015); to help students acquire dispositions necessary for global citizenship (Choo, 2014; Short, 2011); and to enhance children's "cognitive, emotional, moral, and social" development (Lehman, Freeman, & Scharer, 2010, p. 6).

Despite testaments to its possibilities, many empirical studies exploring the incorporation of global literature reveal the complexities of teaching it. These complexities emerge in relation to both the content of the books as well as students' responses to them. Research suggests that students from dominant groups in the United States can become disengaged with global texts because of unfamiliar names and settings as well as a lack of compre hension of the distinctive experiences of the characters within their unique social contexts (Bond, 2006; Montero & Robertson, 2006). Soter (1997) refers to this disengagement as an "aesthetic restriction" in which a reader may reject a global text because of its presentation of different value systems and social practices, thereby foreshortening a potentially transformative aesthetic transaction (Rosenblatt, 1982). Creating instructional contexts that take students beyond a focus on the external manifestations of cultural identities-or what Meyer and Rhoades (2006) refer to as "food, festival, folklore, and fashion"-can also be a daunting task (Jewett, 2011; Short, 2009). Depending on their literary quality, global books can leave students with reductive and superficial understandings of other cultures (Stewart, 2008; Xu, 2015). This is a particular concern with the global texts available in the United States, the majority of which are written by American authors (Stewart, 2008). Commercially successful books such as The Breadwinner (Ellis, 2000), for example, have been critiqued for perpetuating stereotypical or distorted representations of the Middle East, especially in depictions of girls and women (Sensöy & Marshall, 2010). Global texts available in the United States can reinforce hegemonic notions of U.S. power and privilege (Desai, 2011; Xu, 2015), positioning non-Western peoples as destitute, with Western readers as their "saviors" (Sensöy & Marshall, 2010). They can also run a risk of perpetuating an "us/them" duality and what Stewart (2008) calls a "we're fortunate syndrome," where readers assert "how lucky we are to be Americans" (p. 103).

These studies identify many of the ongoing tensions and conundrums that need further exploration related to the teaching of global literature, especially in culturally homogenous and affluent U.S. contexts. How do teachers create environments where students-accustomed to seeing their own lives, beliefs, and experiences represented in texts-are willing and prepared to engage with texts that contain unfamiliar customs, settings, and situations? How can teachers build on students' initial responses to global texts that may reflect disinterest, judgment, or derision to deepen engagement and cultural understanding?

In light of these persistent questions, some scholars have questioned the relevance and utility of transactional theories of response (Rosenblatt, 1982) to inform the teaching of global literature, questions that Cai (2008) also explored when considering if transactional theories could be a "valid and viable guide" (p. 212) for the teaching of multicultural literature. Reflecting on American students' responses to Red Scarf Girl (Jiang, 1997), Loh (2010) calls for pedagogical models that "encourage critical distancing rather than mere aesthetic involvement" (p. …

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