Troubling Sympathy: Teaching Refugee Narratives

By Macdonald, Michael T. | JCT (Online), September 1, 2018 | Go to article overview

Troubling Sympathy: Teaching Refugee Narratives


Macdonald, Michael T., JCT (Online)


Introduction: Assigning Narratives of Human Suffering

I always recited speeches from MacBeth and Julius Caesar, as those were the adults ' favorites. I was always eager and excited to read for them, because it made me feel that I was really good at speaking the English language. (Ishmael Beah on his experience with English literacy at seven-years-old, A Long Way Gone, p. 105)

Stories about refugee experience have been popular assigned READING IN BOTH COLLEGE WRITING COURSES AND COMMON READING PROGRAMS. Examples include non-fiction books like Outcasts United: An American Town, a Refugee Team, and One Woman's Quest to Make a Difference by Warren St. John (2009), War Child: A Child Soldier 's Story by Emmanuel Jal (2009), and A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah (2007). Others could also be fictionalized accounts, such as What is the What by Dave Eggers (2007) and Weeping Under This Same Moon by Jana Laiz (2008). Based on survey data compiled by Barbara Fister (2015) and the National Resources Center for First-Year Experience and Students in Transition (2015), refugee narratives have been used in first-year common reading programs by at least twenty-six different colleges and universities between 2007 and 2015. Beah's child soldier memoir was also the most read book by high school seniors in Michigan (O'Keefe, 2014), the state where I currently work. As schools continue to articulate a global mission to incoming students, programs look outward for ways to develop community on campus.

With increased media coverage and an amplified, divisive rhetoric on the "vetting" of various refugee groups from certain parts of the world, the experiences of refugees are a common object of public discourse. What purpose, then, does assigning such narratives serve? In my own classes, I have developed assignments on stories of refugee experience as a way to help students foster a global perspective. But, the decision to assign these particular kinds of narratives also raises questions about the "ethics of reading" (Gallop, 2000) and the politics of representation (Trinh, 2004). By drawing on sample student writing in response to those stories, this essay attempts to understand how readers might question and reflect on their own consumption-and exploitation-of human suffering.

The range of ways readers, students and teachers alike, might respond to refugee narratives can be limited and speaks to what Luc Boltanski (1999) terms "distant suffering," which describes the relationship between the "spectator" and representations of human suffering. A framework of "distant suffering" helps describe a paradigm in which there is a "spectator who views the suffering" and is able to do so "without being directly exposed to the same misfortune" (p. 114). Analysis, Boltanski has argued, has often focused on the "spectator's internal states," that is, on how a spectator feels or is moved to action. Instead, he proposes that more attention be paid to "the formation of statements about suffering" (p. 41). In an effort to understand statements made about refugee experience in a classroom setting, I apply this theory of "distant suffering" to student writing collected from two college writing courses in which I asked students to read and respond to the above refugee narratives.

Although many of the student excerpts in this case study reproduce discourses of sympathy and reinforce the kind of distance between spectator and subject Boltanski describes, a close reading of student writing also shows that students might trouble sympathy, or work toward a critical engagement with the text. I think of "troubling" in this case as having a double meaning. As an adjective, expressions of sympathy can be described as troubling when they are unreflectively informed by economies of aid and charity. They reinforce rather than question global attitudes of condescension that cast refugees as passive objects of aid (MacDonald, 2015; Malkki, 1995). …

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