Identity Politics in the Classroom

Introducing and teaching complex, and sometimes controversial, issues relating to race, gender, sexual orientation, and nationality can be a difficult task for a teacher. The politics of the classroom don’t always allow for a feasible approach to such topics. With that in mind, I strongly believe, as teachers, it is our responsibility to not only educate students but also foster their growth as individuals and develop caring, open-minded members of society. Finding creative ways to incorporate issues of identity, such as through literary criticism, can provide students with a different perspective on identity. It will also provide opportunities to discover identity issues that exist, relate to characters that may struggle with these identities, and also develop and understanding and open-mindedness. Through introducing identity issues, students are given the opportunity to develop an understanding of social justice, which is very important to teach in a society that still consists of racism, discrimination, and a distorted view of what it considers different.

Despite society’s constant changing of norms and opinions, politics still exist in every aspect of our lives. Identity, just like everything else can be very political. Discussing issues involving identity such as race, gender, and sexual orientation can be politically driven and can often be influenced by the views of teachers and schools. I teach at a school that over the past few years enrolled several transgender students. The transition was difficult in the beginning but the school community took an approach that promotes equal rights for all students and establishes a caring and accepting environment where students are treated equally despite their gender preference. At first it was difficult for some students to accept but through the establishing of clubs like Gay Straight Alliance and teaching principles of social justice, transgender students are viewed as students rather than by their gender preference. I think it’s crucial to be able to separate our own personal beliefs, opinions, and gender preferences in order to provide students with an unbiased perspective on literature and issues of identity. This is a difficult challenge that is easier to accept when we personally agree with the philosophy of what we are teaching. For example, I would find it easier to teach feminist literary criticism compared to psychoanalytical criticism. As a professional though, It is my job to provide students with an unbiased perspective on both perspectives and allow them to understand that they are both lenses we can use to analyze literature and let them construct their own opinions on which we prefer.

I strongly believe that the culture of a school plays a major role in fostering open-mindedness and acceptance when discussing various issues relating to identity. Given my school has already established a culture that allows for discussion of issues of identity, I feel comfortable using literature to introduce and discuss issues relating to identity. Feminist literary criticism, for example, would allow me to teach my students to read texts through a lens that allows for understanding of the philosophy and perspectives of feminism in the literature we read. Feminist criticism allows for the understanding that the relationship between men and women in society is often unequal. Through this perspective we can think critically and analyze various aspects of a text like the gender of the author or reader, portrayal of female characters, and stereotypes of women. Although our society has come a long way, this inequality between women and men still exists. Using texts like Jane Eyre, we can explore literature through a feminist critical lens and grasp an understanding of the inequality that existed in Victorian England. Reading Jane Eyre through a feminist lens allows for understanding of Jane’s journey through a society that consisted of many patriarchal obstacles. Jane exists in an oppressive society that undervalues woman and marriage exists as their only path to social mobility. Analyzing the female character in the novel also sheds light to their roles in society. Jane is a governess, which had ambiguous status at the time. Miss Temple, who is described as with the upmost qualities, also knows her role in society and dares not speak up to Mr. Brocklehurst. Adele is a perfect example of society’s hand in the construction of a woman. She displays a sense of instilled vanity and what is expected of a woman. Through these aspects and perspective Bronte allows us to take into consideration of the role of women and the inequality that accompanies it.

In teaching my student to analyze texts through a feminist perspective I would incorporate activities like those of Deborah Appleman. In doing so I would teach my students to think about the portrayal of male and female characters in novels, their relationships, and also the attitude of the author. Learning to analyze a text through different perspectives, such as a feminist criticism of Jane Eyre, allows students to think critically and uncover identity issues that exist. Issues relating to identity are very difficult to navigate in a classroom but through literature I believe we can establish an outlet of discovery and understanding.

Identity of an Author

Reading and analyzing Foucault’s “What is an Author?” and Barthes’s “ The Death of the Author” allowed for an understanding of a Post-Structuralism approach to analyzing text and also an understanding the role that the identity of an author can have, or not have, on a given text. When critically analyzing texts it is important to take into consideration a variety of perspectives in order to create a well-rounded interpretation. Taking into consideration the author’s identity, as well as disregarding it, allows for different perspectives of the same text, which students can use to think critically and become critical readers.

Post-Structuralism literary criticism takes the approach of disregarding the author’s identity and opposes the analysis of literary text based and centered on the author of that given text. Both Foucault and Barthes believed that literary criticism should focus on the reader and their culture and society instead of focusing on the author’s biographical, personal, or cultural circumstances. In “The Death of the Author” Barthes states “The image of literature to be found in ordinary culture is tyrannically centered on the author, his life, his tastes, his passions, while criticism still consists for the most part in saying that Baudelaire’s work is the failure of Baudelaire the man, Van Gogh’s his madness, Tchaikovsky’s his vice. The explanation of a work is always sought in the man or woman who produced it, as if it were always in the end, through more or less transparent allegory of the fiction, the voice of a single person, the author ‘confiding’ in us” (Barthes, 1322). Barthes argues that literary work should not be analyzed by the information about the person who created but instead should focus on a reader response critical theory. “Thus is revealed the total existence of writing: a text is made of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation, but there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader, not as, was hitherto said, the author” (Barthes, 1325). Teaching students to disregard the author will teach them that writing can have many interpretations and doesn’t need to be limited by the biographical, personal, or cultural circumstances of the author.

Although, Foucault pointed out that some types of texts have not always needed authors and were accepted and circulated without the need of knowing the author’s identity, the identity of the author can greatly impact the interpretation of a text. Authorship matters and is not only used for classification but an author’s biographical information can also be used to interpret a text and help put it into context. In Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte’s biographical information has been used with several different literary critical theories, which have resulted in many interpretation of Jane Eyre. In “The Father, Castration and Female Fantasy in Jane Eyre”, Dianne Sadoff uses Bronte’s family history, especially her relationship with her father, to connect and critically read Jane Eyre from a psychoanalytical perspective.

As an instructor I feel that it is important to allow students to understand that there are multiple perspectives to critically analyzing and interpreting a text and that knowing the identity of an author and the author’s background can lead to an interesting, new, and different perspective. Student’s can learn a great deal by understanding the gender, race, or nationality of an author and how it ties into the context of their work. Understanding when, and when not, to take and author’s identity into consideration and the perspectives that come with the decision will help students’ develop into well-rounded critical readers.

Integrating Controversial Critical Theory into the Classroom

Implementing controversial and ideological charged concepts into classroom curriculum can be a challenging task for teachers, especially when dealing with controversial topics such as Marxism. I believe we must take into consideration several aspects when making this decision and try to find the best method to incorporate these types of ideology. We must look at the complexity of the material and find ways to make it easier for students to comprehend. We must also establish an environment for learning that fosters critical thinking and open- mindedness. Critical thinking is a very important tool for high school students to learn and teachers should strive, not only to educate students, but also to help develop well-rounded individuals that are capable of thinking for themselves and developing their own ideas about particular material, despite how controversial it may be. When developing and teaching a unit in literature and class, that incorporates critical theory like Marxism, I believe it is my duty, as an educator, to find a middle ground, in which, I am able to provide material and instruction objectively using outright terms but also subtle enough to avoid overwhelming students.

Before incorporating these concepts and introducing them to my students, I believe it would be important and necessary to first introduce literary theory to them. It is very important for students to understand that various theories exist and that literary theory is a means of understanding the various ways people read texts. Students will grasp the idea that “All literary theories are lenses through which we can see texts”(Appleman). Students will also understand that theses theories, controversial or not, are the proponent’s ideas and using these theories we can read texts through different perspectives regardless to whether we agree with them or not.

Critical theory is important in implementing critical thinking in literature and when teaching my students about controversial topics, such as Marxism, I wouldn’t be afraid to use Marxist terms, despite them having negative connotations. I would give students background information on Karl Marx and think it is very important for students to have an understanding of his background and his contributions. I believe vocabulary is very important in understanding Marxism/social class theory and simplifying difficult terminology is a crucial in helping students learn content, but we should not shy away from using Marxist terms. When thinking of the best way to integrate this critical theory, I believe I would take more of a subtle approach. Instead of diving deep into “From the Communist Manifesto”, which students would find very overwhelming, I would introduce main ideas that Marxism, such as class structure, capitalism, and the allocation of power in different groups of society. Discussion on how these terms would apply to the world we live in would allow students to make connections. In the society we live in today students are already aware that their exists a separation of classes and a culture of the haves and have- nots. Taking this into consideration, we could discuss why this exists and Marx’s thoughts were on it. Reading material from Deborah Appleman displays different methods and alternative ways of introducing this type of controversial material. Reading passages from Hamlet and The Great Gatsby, through a Marxist lens, are perfect examples of how we can integrate this critical theory for high school students in a more subtle way. By introducing literary criticism and controversial concepts we accomplish the task of opening student’s eyes to different perspectives while teaching them to think critically.

Jane Eyre: Religion, Class, and Love

Jane Eyre is a coming of age story about an orphan who, through her struggles, attempts to find her place in life despite the obstacles she encounters. Throughout the novel we are given insight to the development of her character as she balances her beliefs about religion, love, freedom, and her position in life. Charlotte Bronte’s Jayne Eyre addresses several important themes that high school students can relate to or may have experienced themselves. The novel incorporates themes of religion, class, and love that allow for a connection to real life situations, thoughts, ideas, and feelings.

Religion is a difficult subject that must be navigated carefully in a classroom setting. In the novel, Bronte incorporates religion as a theme, which aids in the development of Jane’s character but also, in my opinion, represents the choices we have as individuals. Her spiritual journey allows her to encounter several different types of religions and in the end allows her to develop her own beliefs and understanding of God. Bronte uses characters such as Mr. Brocklehurst, to represent Evangelicalism, and Helen, to represent Christianity, as symbols of religion that Jane encounters. Jane finds Mr. Brocklehurst hypocritical and Helen to passive and submissive and eventually finds her own spiritual balance and faith in God. Jane’s spiritual journey is one of choice and understanding that students can learn from.

Social class is also an important theme in Jane Eyre and Bronte sheds light on it through the ambiguous social class that she places on her protagonist. Jane is a governess and is educated, sophisticated, and cultured like her aristocrat counterparts, but is also an employee and looked upon as a servant. Jane’s relationship with Mr. Rochester displays the importance of social class at the time. Jane, in societies views, is capable of being Mr. Rochester’s intellectual equal but not his social equal due to her social class. Social class is an interesting theme that students can pull out of this book and question whether culture or wealth should define who we are as people.

The protagonist’s search for love and freedom in her life is a major reoccurring theme in the novel that many students can relate to. Throughout the novel Jane displays a strong desire to be loved and accepted, while at the same time displaying a longing for her freedom. Jane’s desire for belonging and love is a direct result of her childhood and the cruel treatment she suffered at the hands of her Aunt Reed and her cousins. Throughout her childhood she was alienated and exiled by her family, which left her lonely and created a desire for belonging and acceptance. Jane displays this feeling of wanting to be loved and accepted, at all cost, when she is sent to school at Lowood. She admits to her friend Helen that she would gladly accept physical pain if it came with acceptance and affection from her or Miss Temple. Jane also desires romantic love, but believes that acquiring it and getting married comes at the cost of sacrificing her freedom as an individual. Jane’s views of love are directly connected with her growth as a character and as she becomes self-sufficient she also learns to love and be loved without sacrifice.

Jane’s character develops and becomes more aware of thoughts, ideas, and feelings associated with the three themes of religion, class, and love. Jane learns who she is spiritually, understands her place in society through class, and learns to love and be loved without sacrificing herself. Life is a complicated thing for students to understand which includes these three themes of love, religion, and class. Understanding Jane’s struggle and growth with each theme, in my opinion, gives students not only an example of these three concepts but also explains how finding balance and understanding of love, religion, and class may help their own lives.