Seeing Myself in Literature
November 17–18, 2017
New Orleans, Louisiana
Much discussion about diversity focuses on the following forms of marginalization: race, class, gender, and sexual orientation—and rightfully so, given the importance of these forms of difference. In fact, students come to the university classroom with different backgrounds, sets of experiences, cultural contexts, and worldviews.
Issues of diversity play a role in how students and teachers view the importance of the classroom and what should happen there. For example, we make assumptions about what typical students should know, the resources they have, and their prior knowledge, especially what they have read.
Students may perceive that they do not “belong” in the classroom setting—a feeling that can lead to decreased participation, a sense of inadequacy, and other distractions. Teachers may make flawed assumptions about students’ capabilities or assume a uniform standard of student performance. Further, teachers may themselves feel out of place based on their own ascriptive traits (i.e. differences based on class, privilege, etc.).
Identifying and thinking through notions of difference and how they affect the classroom allow both students and teachers to see the classroom as an inclusive place.
I teach at Farmingdale State College (FSC), located on Long Island. One of the 64 campuses in the State University of New York, FSC was chartered in 1912 as a two-year college of applied agriculture—famously nicknamed the “Aggie School.” We have come a long way in the century since our founding: today, we are a five-year college, as we have master’s degrees. Our current enrollment is slightly over 9,500 students.
Farmingdale State College ranks above average in ethnic diversity (US News & World Report). Our student body is 30% minority: 17% Hispanic and 10% African American and we have 122 international students from 68 countries (1.5% of our population). According to US News and World Report’s 2018 best college rankings, Farmingdale State is the:
- 9th best college for veterans;
- 15th best regional college in the north;
- 7th best public college in the north.
Focus on My Young Adult Literature Class
After taking the FRN Summer 2010 seminar Computing in the Humanities, I started looking more closely at ways to use technology to encourage diversity in all my classes at FSC. My first foray into diversity involved focusing on learning styles (visual vs. linguistic), which resulted in the creation of a Learning Community with another FRN member, George Fernandez. For six years, we paired two introductory classes in the first-year program: Professor Fernandez’s Visual Communications 112 class with my English 101. We focused on helping students learn the basics of college writing, with an emphasis on applying these skills to a career in the art world. Our highly successful collaboration resulted in a presentation and a publication for the Faculty Resource Network.
Last year, I turned my attention to my Young Adult Literature class. Why this particular class? First, as a college of technology, FSC does not offer an English major; rather, we are a support department. Young Adult Literature was new to the College, a class I had proposed and created two years ago to bolster our fledgling English minor. Developing classes for our minor is a significant stepping stone in our evolution, as these efforts might lead to the creation of an English major at the College. In addition, young adult literature is a natural choice for a technology-focused school, since today’s most popular authors have robust web pages and many of the books have been made into movies. Examples that my students favor include The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, The Fault in Our Stars, The Hunger Games, Tuck Everlasting, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, just to name a handful of recent popular films. Finally, young adult books feature diverse characters, as the following chart shows:
Of course, the easiest way to ensure diversity in a literature class is by selecting books from different cultures, but I wanted more: I wanted to use technology to create a platform for student voices and tap diverse student learning styles, as I had learned from Computing in the Humanities. To that end, I used a program called Weebly to create a class web page with a link for each of the five units: Dystopian YA Novels, YA Fantasy Novels, YA Historical Fiction, Realistic YA Fiction, and YA Graphic Novels. Each unit has an anchor book that all students read. In addition, I introduce each unit with the first chapter of a famous book from a subgenre (1984, Little House on the Prairie, Alice in Wonderland, etc.). Finally, I divide the class into groups of three and assign each group one additional novel per unit from an extensive list. To gather a wide range of diverse voices, I invite students to upload relevant research, reactions, and personal insights about the books. I pose some questions to guide initial responses:
By the end of the semester, students were delving deep into research and their own experiences to illuminate their readings. Below are the class learning outcomes I developed:
- Trace the historical development of the concept of “adolescence” from 1600 to the present;
- Understand the literary, historical, and psychological development of adolescence;
- Understand the full development of the YA novel from its inception to the present as well as its place in the adult literary canon, including knowing important and influential YA authors and movements;
- Read and discuss at least 10 young adult novels;
- Analyze the dystopian YA novel and read at least two examples of it;
- Analyze the fantasy YA novel and read at least two examples of it;
- Analyze YA historical fiction and read at least two examples of it;
- Analyze YA realistic fiction and read at least two examples of it;
- Analyze YA nonfiction and read at least two examples of it;
- Analyze YA graphic novels and read at least two examples of it;
- Write in-depth literary analysis that is logically organized and developed with well-chosen, relevant, and sufficient textual references, examples, and facts;
- Write and deliver a PowerPoint or Prezi presentation that analyzes YA books and places them in their context.
I was surprised that students were far more forthcoming about their experiences on the website than they had been in class, and were very willing to post their stories for others to share. This was a sharp departure from the code of my youth, where we had been taught not to share personal information in print, and certainly never in public. Below are some examples of what students wrote.
Posting: Being Gay
“Once at school this guy was bullying me, calling me a ‘faggot’ and a ‘queer.’ The administration didn’t do anything and I ended up getting in trouble because I stood up for myself and punched him. A lot of the homophobia is just ignorance, by both the teachers and the students. I just wish I could be ‘out’ and respected for who I am.
I really identified with the outside reading I chose: Vast Fields of Ordinary by Nick Burd. Being gay has been one of the most difficult experiences of my life so far. It was hard to come to terms with, something I have had to do completely by myself. My parents are very religious and I couldn’t talk to them as they won’t accept it. I really identified with the narrator/protagonist Dade Hamilton because he’s 18—my age—and has a lousy job (which I had). Dade has come out gay to himself, but not anyone else, which was my situation, too.”
Posting: Body Image
“I strongly identified with the outside reading I chose: Dumpling, by Julie Murphy. It’s a powerful novel with the most fearless heroine—self-proclaimed fat girl Willowdean Dickson. The book helped me be proud of my body.
Last summer I walked into Victoria’s Secret in search of a new bra or two. It was the summer after my sophomore year in college, and I was working seven days a week between a job and an internship, so my diet was not the healthiest and the pounds were packing on. I discovered that my bra size had moved up to a 38 DD and I was browsing the selections in my size, which mainly consisted of just plain black bras. When a sales associate approached me and asked if I needed help, I told her I was looking for something in a color other than black. After hearing my size, she said: ‘Well we don’t really have much in that size because boobs aren’t really supposed to be that big.’ I wanted to tell this girl that there is nothing wrong with my bra size, and quite frankly she pissed me off. I’m not denying that I want to lose weight and be healthy, but there is no reason for other people to make me feel ashamed of myself until I do so. I graduated from grad school and had lots of interviews following that monumental event. I had the schooling, the experience, but I was not getting hired. I would ask for feedback and it would come across vague or filtered. Finally, a close mentor told me the truth: You are tall and statuesque—your size is intimidating. That is why you are not getting hired.
I am 5’9 and a plus size woman who believes she is beautiful. It’s sad that I am thought to be aggressive and angry based on my size; actually, I am very nice and fun-loving. If I could say one thing it would be what my father would always say to me: ‘It’s what’s on the inside that counts.’”
Posting: Religious Persecution
“I identified with the novel I chose, Number the Stars by Lois Lowry. This fit with the assigned book, Maus. When I started college, my first roommate was a Christian from New Jersey. When she found out that I was Jewish, she actually asked me where my horns where. When I asked her what she was talking about she explained that she had been taught that all Jews had horns and wondered how I covered mine up so well. She was from New Jersey—not a third world country! How do people still believe that? Number the Stars is about the Holocaust. I think everyone should read it.”
Posting: Physical Disability
“I identified with the last book we read, the graphic novel El Deafo by CeCeBell, because I have a hearing impairment. I can lip read and know ASL. I recently took a plane ride home and was lucky enough to get a seat in an emergency exit row. Before takeoff, the flight attendant came around and explained the rules and we each had to agree to help in an emergency situation. When the flight attendant came over to me I asked her to slow down because I have a hearing impairment.
She said I had to get out of the emergency exit row and that there were no other seats and I had to get off the plane. I told her that I could hear if she just slowed down, but she refused. The other flight attendant came over to assist and stated that they could move me, but if no one gave up a seat, then I would have to get off the plane. Thankfully, the guy in front of me changed seats, but I was disrespected. Cece Bell is hearing impaired and she tells her own story in this graphic novel. She has a huge hearing aid, the Phonic Ear, strapped to her chest. It gives Cece the ability to hear, but also isolates her from her classmates. She really just wants to fit in and find a friend who appreciates her as she is. After some trouble, she is finally able to harness the power of the Phonic Ear and become “El Deafo, Listener for All.” And more importantly, declare a place for herself in the world and find the friend she’s longed for. That’s what I want to do.”