“The vast majority of our professors…used the classroom to enact rituals of control that were about domination and the unjust exercise of power. In these settings I learned a lot about the kind of teacher I did not want to become.”
— bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress
When my observer asked me about letting my students choose the text for our fiction unit, I told her two things: it was great, and it was terrifying. This semester I’m teaching second-level composition, “Introduction to Writing about Literature,” which is likely the last literature course many of these students will take. We covered Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew and Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi in our drama unit, and I asked students to choose the next text on the syllabus.
Students shared one-paragraph reading proposals in our DropBox folder, making an argument for how the novel of their choice would fit into the themes of the class and why we should read it in our fiction unit. Students proposed a wide range of texts from Octavia Butler’s Kindred to Mikhail Bulgakov’s Heart of Dog. They made arguments for how the themes of gender politics in the plays would also fit the novels they proposed.
Developing Criteria & My Big “Oops!”
After proposals were in, I divided the class into three groups to come up with criteria for choosing a novel from the list of proposals. (In retrospect, we could have done this first but then narrowing the list down to one later would still be overwhelming for some. There were 12 proposals in all.) Each group came up with three criteria and wrote those up on the board.
Here’s where I went wrong. I asked them to make a choice, and then got in their way accidentally. If we had had more time to discuss the criteria as a class, I would have loved to do that. I should have left the criteria up there and said, “here are some thoughts, take them or leave them as you make your own decisions–decide however you want,” and then left. Instead, I made suggestions for narrowing down their criteria on the board, erasing some and circling others, and I shouldn’t have. This was supposed to be student-driven, and I did not want to be the teacher who gives students freedom only to hypocritically take it away or pass judgment. A student respectfully called me out on it later, so I put on my big girl pants and owned up to it in an email to the class. I apologized for getting in their way, told them to disregard my suggestions or take them, but to ultimately make their own decisions. Instead of feeling weaker or less authoritative in the classroom the next day, it actually made me feel more respected. I said, “Some of you wanted more guidance, and some of you wanted me to just let you do your thing. Both responses are completely valid, and I’m glad you shared them with me.” That was it. Life went on.
Despite my interference, it seemed that the criteria exercise was helpful to the majority of the class. If I do this again I will simply let the class discuss the criteria as a whole and give them 30 minutes instead of 20.
Students voted via a Google Form and reflected on the experience in 3-4 sentences. This was helpful for me as an instructor to improve the process for next time (see noted mistakes above). Students appreciated being able to choose a novel for themselves and said it was a liberating experience overall. There was a range of comfort in the room: some relied heavily on the criteria, while others would have preferred to simply vote.
Students chose Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which “presents women in similar and different ways than Taming of the Shrew and The Duchess of Malfi, which could be an interesting comparison. The different ways in which men in the novel react to the inferiority and mistreatment of women could also be a point of discussion in relation to modern times” (quoted from the original reading proposal).
Was it what I would have chosen? No. I was silently rooting for Kindred but that’s not the point. I had luckily read Oscar Wao before but it had been 10 years. I bought a copy from the local bookstore, scanned the first chapter, and uploaded it to DropBox. As I started reading, I quickly remembered the toxic voice and machismo of Yunior like that of an old friend I had deliberately chosen to part ways with long ago…
But that’s actually what made the book perfect for our class: it opened up conversations about toxic masculinity, intersectionality, and it made us ask whether feminism really is for everyone…would it really have helped Oscar’s mother when she was lit on fire and left for dead in the street? My students had picked an excellent novel to open our discussions about patriarchy and sexual oppression, about rape and consent, and about male authorship and authority to new avenues for critical thinking about present day America and immigration. Many of my students are first or second generation immigrants, adding depth to our discussions.
In case you’re curious about the breakdown of their vote:
It was terrifying. It was so hard to step back and let them lead. I didn’t like it. But I turned to the comforting, welcoming, loving voice of bell hooks and I put my trust in my students and gave up control (had to pry my fingers off the chalk slowly, but in the end, I did). And it was great.
I grew more as an educator, and the process invited my students into my pedagogy in ways I didn’t expect. Stay tuned for my next post about how I learned from a student that circle discussions are not as empowering as they seem…