Teaching Identity Politics: Guiding students to a genuine sense of awareness

In order to introduce students to issues relating to identity, I would have them read the novel Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan. Many different types of identity are addressed in the novel: class, race, gender, and nationality. Students would be drawn in by the exciting events of the story line, which has the feel of a movie packed with drama, action, and the potential for romance. Esperanza is a dynamic character who must endure many trials in order to discover her true potential in the new life that she and her family choose to live. In Esperanza Rising, Esperanza and her family flee Mexico due to tragedy and hardship brought on by political corruption. Once in America, Esperanza must work hard and be strong for her family, leaving behind a memory of affluence in her home country.

Esperanza Rising is a fiction novel that could be the narrative of many people who immigrate into America, escaping oppression and/or extreme conditions in their country of origin. Yet even with so much freedom here, there are still issues, controversial subjects, and hotly contested topics, many of which do not stay in the home. Instead, we see them everywhere we look, on the news, in court, and during political debates. For example, what a couple, whether they be heterosexual or homosexual, does in their home is nobody’s business. Yet, this has been a huge political topic for years, resulting in each state voting whether to allow gay marriage to be legal. The same issue arises regarding abortion. Women should be allowed to choose what is best for their own bodies, but again politics, and even religion, become involved and stifle our feelings of freedom and our rights as citizens of America.

I feel that once you teach students, or anyone, about identity and the politics associated with it, social justice is an eventual step. Let me explain why I feel this way. Identity politics and social justice go hand in hand due to the realization that one does have a great deal of freedom in regards to who one wants to be. With the freedom to be whoever you are, he/she will express him/herself, which leads to self advocacy, as well as a potential to advocate for the rights of others. When an individual or a group feels that his/her rights, or the rights of a group, are not being respected, then social justice will come about. This can happen in many ways, but the key is to be heard.

Although individuals can choose to be apolitical in their own lives, the issues of identity in the public sphere tend to become political. Those who are opposed to the rights that others are trying to hold onto, trying to create, or are trying to make aware to others, the opposed have their own rights. They create their own identity politics, but their mission is one of restriction of freedoms and rights. All citizens in the American society have a right to be heard.

For example, even though I am a white man, I can advocate for the rights of other groups in our society. If I were to teach a unit on identity, with one of the sections focusing on feminism, I would make the point above clear to my students from the onset. I would state that although I am not a woman, I can still teach literature that reflects the views of feminism and advocate for the rights of women. I could select sections of Jane Eyre to build a strong case that Jane as a character is unique, in that she is strong, for a man or woman, and that she chooses an untraditional path for the majority of the novel. Jane is a character that gets into situations that would be difficult for anyone to handle, regardless of gender. It is only at the very end of the novel where Jane takes on a more traditional role in regards to family.

It is possible that my own gender could get in the way of teaching literature that deals with identity, but the best approach is to be aware of the self. I would be sure that I am always conscious of my craft, which includes practices such as mindfulness. By being aware of how one presents material to his/her students, the main points of identity, and why such issues are important, can be carefully laid out and received by one’s students. The hope is that it will allow his/her students to become aware of diversity and to be able to genuinely participate in our democratic society.

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The Significance of the Author: It All Depends

There are many points of view and schools of thought regarding the importance of the author in relationship to the work which he/she has created. Some would say that the background of an author should be made known to those who are reading the work of a particular writer; while others would say that the reader should let the individual works of the author stand alone, allowing the language to speak independently. After reading Roland Barthes’ essay “The Death of the Author” and Michel Foucault’s essay “What is an Author?” I have come to a synthesis of these ideas and would have to say: it all depends.

What I mean by this, is that there are times where a great work can stand alone, be significant, all without a bit of information about the author. Yet there are times when this is just not the case. Many pieces of literature can be enhanced once a reader becomes aware of an author’s personal life, struggles, triumphs, and historical context. These aspects can add to the enjoyment of reading the work, shed light on the themes which are present in the work, or even help the reader to understand why the author choose to write a work regarding a particular topic.

For example, if one is to read The Dairy of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, one would not be able to separate the significance of the author with the work itself. The reader is with Anne, hiding from the SS, during a dark period in world history. The work and the author are one in the same. A similar experience would occur if a reader were to read Elie Wiesel’s Night. One cannot help but to take the journey with the author and come as close as anyone would want to regarding such an experience of horror and atrocity. If the reader was unaware of the elements of WWII, he/she has now been informed.

I recently read The Giver by Lois Lowry, and I enjoyed it very much. I knew very little about the author, but the work had a significant impact on me. In this case, I didn’t know much about Lois Lowry, but by reading The Giver, I would like to know more about her, and also read the remainder of the works in The Giver Quartet. There are times when a great work can spark your interest in the author. I would say the same regarding a writer like Sylvia Plath. If a reader had never been exposed to Plath’s poetry, once in, you are in and going for a ride. Any reader would be hard pressed to let a poem like “The Rabbit Catcher” just stand alone, with no background information on the author. The two are too intimately interwoven. Once a reader has read “The Rabbit Catcher,” he/she can move on to Ted Hughes, her husband’s response poem with the same title.

I like the idea of presenting individual chapters of a work to my students, and not letting them know anything about the author. I feel that a good book to try this ELA experiment with would be Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman. Each chapter of the book introduces a different character who slowly becomes involved in a community garden in urban Chicago. The diversity of the characters is the key here. I believe that my students would speculate many possible backgrounds for an unknown author. It would be interesting to see what they come up with, and why.

So in the end, yes, it all depends. Can a great work of literature stand alone, without a connection to the author? It is possible and it does happen. In each great work, there are elements of who the author truly is. He/she may not write him/herself as a character in the work, but to one degree or another, the author is present. A piece of writing given birth by one’s brain, experience, education, and passion. How significant is the author to the reader? It just may bring one’s experience of the work to a new level of appreciation. It all depends on each of us as a reader.

 

Justin J. Gallagher

March 2016

 

Integrating Critical Theory into Classroom Curriculum: Providing Worthwhile Ideas to help Students gain Perspective

As an educator, I am currently on a path to teacher students in a middle school setting. Having studied both English and Philosophy as an undergrad, and now being well into a Master’s learning the theories, approaches, and application of teaching, I am aware of the deepness, complexity, and often time controversial elements in Critical Theory and modern thought in general. I believe that it is important to have as well-rounded of a personal perspective as possible. There is much to be gained by exposing one’s students to aspects of Marxism and Phenomenology and Cultural Studies. In this essay, I will present some terminology, concepts, and historical, as well as modern, personalities that apply to, and can accompany, the teaching of literature that relates to class.

In order to introduce the ideas behind class and class struggle, even before delving into literature, I would begin with concepts related to today’s world, for instance, capitalism. Even at the middle school level, students have heard the term and have most likely been exposed to its development in Social Studies. I could ask my students to help me to develop a list of the pros and cons of such an economic system as the one America, and many counties in the world, are involved in. It could be possible to allow students to think about our culture’s current trends regarding consumption of goods by touching upon some of the ideas laid out by Horkheimer and Adorno in Dialectic of Enlightenment. Students would be able to begin to think about the consumer habits of themselves, and those around them, in a very different light.

This opening of the door to new ways of thinking can make other terms, concepts, and important figures less intimidating when they are introduced. Some students may even be asking themselves: “How did we get to this point? I love Disney, Sony, and my latest cell phone upgrade. Should I fear this concept of Cultural Industry?” Not all students will have such an existential reflection while in the classroom or during the bus ride home, but why not start to talk about some background on class, the proletariat, and the alienation of labor? For it is hard to imagine that anyone will start out working their dream job. Everyone has to work their way through jobs that generate frustration and angst in order to get to a place where one can find more meaning and fulfillment.

This is the place where concepts, like class struggle, set forth by Karl Marx in The Communist Manifesto, can be addressed. The majority of students in today’s public schools should be able to relate to how difficult it is to get by and rise above economic hardship and a sense of exploitation they are witnessing in their own families on a daily basis. Students are aware that their parents work multiple jobs, go back to school, and can’t afford health care. They know, firsthand, because it directly effects their own lives and wellbeing. I want my students to be aware that there are many ways to address these social ills, and by looking back to history to see what has worked, and what has not, is a good approach.

Although communist has become the king of dirty words in politics, a brief discussion of the pitfalls, and current successes, of its application in recent history should be addressed. Such developments from communism, like fascism, should also be touched upon. From this discussion, socialism can be introduced. I would help my students to see that there are benefits to not only capitalism, but also to aspects of socialism, by discussing examples that apply in a global sense. Universal health care in many European countries would be a good starting point. My students would then be able to see that many programs, even our own current health care system, have a foundation in socialist thought.

The time for Critical Theory in the classroom, even controversial topics like Marxism and Phenomenology and Cultural Studies, is here. As a culture, we need it now, more than we ever have. Our students are living in times of struggle, alongside of their families, neighbors, and communities. They are aware of what is going on. They are listening. They hear that their father has lost his job, their mother is going to get less hours at work, and that the cancer treatment for grandma just isn’t going to be possible. They are listening. At night when the T.V. is on and the American people are using their best judgment to decide between a capitalist business man and a socialist democrat for president, they are listening. Let’s help them to learn, grow, and keep on listening.

Justin J. Gallagher

March 2016

There are many ways to view Jane Eyre

   One of the first literary lenses that I would have my students view the novel Jane Eyre through would be that of Feminist Criticism. As a character, Jane interacts, and sometimes befriends, a great number of female characters and a few male characters as she lives her life. I would ask my students to keep track of each of the characters as they are introduced in the novel. I would ask my students to think about how each of these characters help or hinder Jane’s experiences and whether a particular character is a positive influence, a nuisance, or neutral.

 

For instance, Jane has a great relationship with Bessie, who is a positive person in her life, but she does not greatly affect Jane’s course in life. Then when you look at a character like Misses Reed, whom Jane despises, she is a character who sets Jane on a path to gain an education and then employment. I want my students to be able to see the way in which each character plays simple and sometimes significant roles in the journey that Jane is on throughout the novel.

As Jane goes on to the Lowood School, and then to the Thornfield Estate, she connects with other female characters, like Miss Temple, Helen, and Mrs. Fairfax. These characters symbolize strong and equal female companionship and support for Jane. Most of the males that Jane encounters, like Master John and Mr. Brocklehurst, are not very supportive of Jane. There is not a positive male character for Jane until she encounters and gets to know Mr. Rochester. Although he continues to be snooty as a person, he opens up to Jane and befriends her in the best way that he is able. Again, I would want my students to look closely at the way each of these characters affect the choices Jane makes and how she navigates through her life. I could even have my students try to match up and identify people in their lives that have similar personalities and traits as a number of the key characters in the novel.

One of the themes that I also feel is important in the novel is class. This could be examined through a Marxist lense. Jane is an orphan who is taken in by an Aunt and help of the house in which she lives. She is able to see how the well to do live, but does not experience it for herself. I would want my students to examine how Jane as a character with intelligence and determination, is able to remain strong and humble, even when placed in some very trying situations over long periods of time. I would want my students to consider Jane’s journey and imagine each of them going through similar experiences. I would ask them if they believed that they would be able to handle the various trials that Jane is faced with. I would also have my students connect the idea of classes to our society today and generate a discussion regarding our country and how these ideas are still alive.

Along these same lines is the theme of Existential thought. This philosophy and way of thinking and viewing the world runs through the novel. I would want my students to examine the journey that Jane goes on. Many times she is alone, left just to her thoughts. She encounters many challenges and many challenging people. I want my students to realize, in their own way, that Jane is a very resilient individual, who is able to overcome adverse circumstances and still carry on. I would ask my students to come up with reasons why Jane is able to do this.

  • Justin J. Gallagher February 2016