Native Values: Teaching the Sins of our Forefathers
Teachers are supposed to be saints, but in the three short years I’ve been a professor, I’ve sinned plenty. Not caring enough, seeking revenge for shoddy work and showing preferential treatment are a few of my common transgressions. Though admitting that might call my values into question, it doesn’t challenge my humanity. Rather, I make those mistakes because I am human. All higher education warriors—whether adjunct or tenured, first semester or fortieth, community college or Ivy League—will admit to this humanity, albeit behind closed doors. Also telling is that I try not to do those things, but some days I am more human than others.
There are other transgressions, less humane and less justifiable, that we do not admit to. No, I’m not talking about anything like that. I refer to the battleground of curriculum and lesson planning, that sacred, yet bloody field where we determine the destiny of our classrooms. We strive for the justice of all, many times massacring the fate of the course itself.
But these decisions have to be made. As an adjunct teaching American Literature, the process isn’t all that mysterious: the textbook is God, followed closely by the fact that it’s a survey course. You can almost boil it down to a formula. How many texts can I manage to talk about in the allotted time given? Of those texts, how many am I familiar enough with to talk about? Divide that number by the number of class meetings and voila! Magically, I have my syllabus.
Because I’m primarily a writing teacher, which means I devote about a third of any class I teach to the instruction of writing essays, the planning is a bit more complicated than that. Because my teaching philosophy is student-centric, I also try to build in “creative” class sessions, a well-meaning but ultimately fruitless accounting for those students in the class who will have absolutely no interest in anything they read, much less anything I say—a small group here, a scavenger hunt there, a few multicultural lesson plans for bonus. Still, I’m constrained by reality. There just isn’t that much time.
This semester is my second pass at teaching American Literature I—from Columbus to the Civil War. That particular constraint is the one that demands the most fear. Before teaching this class, I’d likely never spoken the phrase “before 1865.” A year ago, my first time, I had neither the experience nor the time to adequately plan a multifarious curriculum. My planning was more like crash-coursing; the entire weekend was spent surrounded in bed with books I hadn’t opened since college. This semester, however, I already had a syllabus to play with, and I had enough knowledge to know that cramming in as many authors as possible is boring, particularly when the majority of them are—sorry, I have to say it—dead white men.
Of particular concern to me this time around was diversity inclusion scholarship. I’d spent some time researching it out of personal interest and was also planning diversity as a “theme” in another course at the same school. It seemed an easy enough tweak: Focus on the way Americans have always treated “the Other,” also known as the cruel reality of “The American Dream” gone bad. Or as one literary scholar put it, “the ‘melting pot’ is a crock.”1 As part of my new approach, I determined to spend more time on Native Americans. Maybe even a whole week!
Through this Native American “unit,” which—by dictation of the chronological textbook—came at the beginning of the semester, we focused on the very important difference that Native American literature follows an oral tradition. What this means for the modern passing-through student and the adjunct who relies on a textbook, both for cost and simplicity reasons, is that there’s a practical reason we don’t study more Native American literature—it isn’t written down. In fact, out of the entire 2,310 page textbook, there are fewer than 10 pages containing Native American text. Compare this to Ben Franklin’s 42, or Hawthorn’s 71, or even Emily Dickinson, who at least had the compulsion to write things down, despite balking the convention of publishing. She gets 31 pages.
Who is to say what should and shouldn’t be taught? Any survey course, especially one that spans 200 years, offers very little autonomy for an adjunct professor. The textbook is King, the course outcomes my map, and I, a mere explorer, trying only to avoid another botched assignment, which mostly involves just staying alive.
Then why do I feel like I’m failing?
There’s an underlying moral here, and I’ve been struggling to figure it out. Too simplistic or fatalistic is the view that anyone who is different doesn’t make the cut. Sure, the canon is alive and well, but there are enough variances in the textbook that the publisher’s ass (along with my own) is pretty well covered. Still, I’m uncomfortable with all the usual excuses. I’m just an adjunct; how much research do they expect me to do? The students could care less about the ethics behind text choice; they just want to pass the class. And, perhaps the most frightening as long as I keep referring back to the Native Americans at various intervals, I AM teaching, if not them, than at least their culture. The truth behind those statements isn’t the point. They don’t reflect my values, which include eccentric expectations like social responsibility and personal accountability.
When it comes to course design, from daily instruction to out-of-the-classroom assignments to the presentation of my teaching persona, I’m given more decision making power than any Native American had over their moral fate in colonial times. Their biggest obstacle was not being a part of the discourse taking place with those in power, except through subversion or violence. The foe I must overcome is much greater: A primal, priapic cowardice exists within me. I’m innately uncomfortable in dealing with the Other.
To address this, I need to stop confusing my own lack of interest with a lack of resources; my ineffectuality at choosing good texts with my reliance on an incomplete textbook; my weakness at being diligent with my frustration at the faults of an entire educational system. Sure, the world is a complicated mess, ethically speaking. Since when did that keep me from doing the right thing?
As an American, it’s my moral duty to fight like Hell until any weakness within the ranks is gone. I’ve never been much of a patriot, but I’ll allow that America was founded on fortitude. Thankfully, I don’t have to agree with the philosophies of our founding fathers to learn something from them. Notably, it takes some time to bring about change. More importantly, as a literature teacher who still believes in the authority of the text, I’m able to interpret our literary past with a heavy dose of subjectivity, something I can put to good use in a class like this one. As my knowledge about American literature expands, which invariably begets renewed fervor in American history, my ability to talk about, explain and defend the literary traditions of the first, authentic Americans will also rise. With knowledge comes power, and, although sainthood requires a humility I’ll probably never have, power—as history often shows—can institute atonement.
Two thoughts: there is no liberation that only knows how to say “I’; there is no collective movement that speaks for each of us all the way through. –Adrienne Rich
1Jay, Gregory S. “The End of “American” Literature: Toward a Multicultural Practice.” College English. 53.3 (1991): 264-81. Print.