Choosing Inclusive and Empowering Texts — Part II

This is Part 2 of a post on choosing inclusive and empowering texts. See the first post here.

In “How to Tame a Wild Tongue,” Lesbian Chicanx writer, Gloria Anzaldua, shares her personal experience with reading LGBTQ+ Chicanx writers for the first time: “In the 1960s, I read my first Chicano novel. It was City of Night by John Rechy, a gay Texan, son of a Scottish father and a Mexican mother. For days I walked around in stunned amazement that a Chicano could write and could get published. When I read I Am Joaquin, I was surprised to see a bilingual book by a Chicano in print. When I saw poetry written in Tex-Mex for the first time, a feeling of pure joy flashed through me. I felt like we really existed as a people” (82).

In our September Community of Practice Blog, our colleague Miguel Reid shared his experience: “Although I failed almost every class throughout high school, I do remember reading two books: The Color Purple and The Autobiography of Malcolm X – nothing else. Despite being a young man who didn’t care about school, I somehow found interest in those two texts that highlighted the African-American experience.”

When I first read Anzaldua’s work, I felt how Miguel felt reading the work of Alice Walker and Malcolm X. Here was an actual published book, being taught in a college class, validating not only my people’s history and struggles, but my own identity in a space outside my home, that captured mine and my family’s experiences, our traditions, our values, our language. I had never even considered the idea that I was allowed to speak both English and Spanish together anywhere outside my home and my family. But here was a well-known scholar, telling me exactly that: I was allowed to exist in the world as I was. And I have to wonder, how many of my students have had the privilege of feeling this experience of validation? Which have not? And of course, what can I do to make sure that they all do?

From all the wonderful Community of Practice workshops we’ve had in the last year, we know that culturally responsive pedagogy means fully engaging with our students by finding creative ways to integrate student interests, identities, experiences, and knowledge into the classroom. Part of this work in our discipline requires strategic and intentional (as Kathleen mentioned last spring) incorporation of texts that also reflect who our students are, their experiences, and the types of knowledge they value.

As we know, the new language for the first SLO in the ENG 1A COR emphasizes that students learn to “analyze rhetorical strategies, content, and contexts in a variety of non-fiction texts written by authors representing and reflective of students in the classroom, including those written Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and People of Color and the LGBTQ+ community,” which really requires us to not only include a wide variety of voices in our text choices, but also revise and switch texts out as needed to reflect who are students are.

In Equity Talk to Equity Walk, McNair, Benisimon and Malcolm-Piqueux give an example of how to go about (and not go about), experimenting with new texts in a classroom, when discussing obstacle #2 (Not being able or willing to recognize racialized consequences) in blocking the path toward racial equity (24).

This is a huge task, but a necessary one. Dr. Jeannine L. Williams discusses in her article “Representations of the Racialized Experiences of African Americans in Developmental Reading Textbooks,” how historically, “ ‘reading material was used to inculcate dominant ideologies as common sense’ and how ‘books written for African American students were designed to reproduce dominant ideologies as natural, commonsensical, and universal’” (Williams 41). These dominant ideologies, that so commonly contained racist (and surely also sexist, classist, and homophobic) foundations, didn’t give students of color many choices beyond acceptance or rejection of the texts that perpetuated those ideologies. And many of these students of color rejected them (Williams 41). This rejection further emphasizes the obstacles our institutions have put in place impeding their success, which is why Williams suggests that “instructors should assign readings that speak to the students’ experiences” (Williams 40). Though William’s study focuses primary of African American students and African American representation, I see her argument informing the experiences of other students of color as well.

Al Weyant-Forbes mentioned in an equity-related workshop during fall FLEX, that often times equity feels like a loss to those in power. It feels like something has to be given up, and they are right, but that doesn’t mean what is being gained is not as valuable or more so, than what is being “lost.” RCC is a Hispanic Serving Institution, for example, which means that if we are really reflecting our students in our text choices, then a good amount of texts we teach should be written for and by Latinx voices, right? How many can you name? How many contemporary Black writers can you name? African? Native American? Middle Eastern? White? Chances are, many of us can probably name more white writers than any other race. Maybe it is time we examine this, and substitute what we’ve been taught to value as traditional literary texts (predominantly white texts seeped in racism, capitalism, and white supremacy, as Williams mentions) with new texts that the majority of our students can see themselves in and gives us insights into perspectives we didn’t even realize we hadn’t considered. Williams argues that often “college faculty ignore the role of race and its systematic complexities … further disadvantage[ing] students of color. Emphasizing the importance of reading curriculum and pedagogy that reflects the racialized identities and experiences of African American students,” along with other students of color, is a great tool for getting students engaged in our classes, in their own college experiences, and in their overall success (Williams 43).

As Rob mentioned in his post, this anti-racist work goes hand in hand with anti-capitalist work because racism and capitalism are when Dr. Ibram X. Kendi calls the “conjoined twins” in his book How to be an Anti-Racist (163). Dr. Kendi argues that “the actual foundation of racism is not ignorance and hate, but self-interest, particularly economic and political and cultural…it is impossible to know racism without understanding its intersection with capitalism” (56). He then adds that “to love capitalism is to end up loving racism. To love racism is to end up loving capitalism. The conjoined twins are two sides of the same destructive body” (Kendi 163). To me, this speaks to the importance of acknowledging our students lives experiences in the texts we choose, not only because most of our students are student of color, but because they are predominantly working class, our “essential workers,” the ones who are most vulnerable to what Angela Davis calls “super-exploitation.” If we hope to contribute to the process of liberation and dismantling oppressive structures concretely, we have to give students the tools to engage with critical thinking and critical imagining, as Rob encourages. Our text choices can help them not only better understand the systems that shape their daily lives, but how to begin imagining a world where these systems are no longer in place.

I’ve begun this work by gauging students’ reactions and thoughts on the texts we read each semester (though projects, critical reflections, discussion posts, and in-class conversations.) When checking in with my students this semester, I asked them about the importance of exposing students to texts that reflected who they were, their identities, values, experiences, and knowledge. Here is what just a few of them said:

1) “I think it is important for students to see themselves in the stories because this allows them to relate to the situations that are happening in the stories. It also builds confidence in the reader because if student sees the character in the story doing something exciting, important, and adventurous, then the student will understand that they could do it too!”

2) “I think it is very important for students to read texts that reflect who we are and our identities because if we’re just being thrown random text that we have no connection to, we start to become less interested. Therefore, less attention will be given to the subject by us and we leave the class without learning a thing. However, I think it is important to read articles to read articles such as the one we do for this class because it brings a lot of relevancy to our lives that keeps informed.” 

3) “I think it’s crucial for students to read texts in an English class that reflect who they are because visibility makes students feel like they’re not alone. Reading shared experiences makes students feel included and like they belong in certain spaces. It’s especially important now because academic spaces have historically been predominantly White, cisgendered, heterosexual males and the texts that higher academia tend to study are usually eurocentric. Having that representation makes the learning environment feel a lot safer and more inclusive of experiences that are not centered on the White cis, het male perspective.”

4) “I believe that it is valuable for students to read texts that reflect who they are, identities, experiences, etc. because the student can most likely relate with the text. Making it easier for them to make strong arguments in their writing. For a long time schools have had students reading books that are heavily based on white characters. Not showing any cultural representation when it comes to minorities and POC’s. By having representation students will be able to relate to what they are reading.”

5) “I truly believe that it is important for students to read texts in an English class that reflect who they are, their identities, their experiences, and their knowledge. I think this because doing so makes meaningful connections between what students learn in school and their cultures, languages, and life experiences. These connections help students develop higher academic skills and see the relevance between what they learn at school and their lives.”

As we can see, our students themselves KNOW that higher ed. has been a white-centered space for a long time. They get it. They are counting on us to disrupt this tradition.

Here are a few anecdotes pulled from critical reflections in both my English 1B class and English 1A class that further exemplify this point. Student are asked, as the final question, what they learned this unit and why they find this lesson valuable:

“I learned a lot in this unit, I learned to appreciate poetry a lot more. Before I was not a huge fan on poetry because I could not understand it. That is because I always over thought it when I had to read poetry. In high school we had a unit based on poetry and the main poet we had to focus on was Sylvia Plath. She had many good poems, but I could never understand them and frustrated me to not like reading poetry. After this unit I got to read some really good poems that I enjoyed and understood. I also learned to appreciate for who am and love my culture even more. Life is hard and many of us complain, not understanding the struggle others face and we tend to take that for granted. I plan to embrace my culture even more in the future and to not feel shame for who I am.” (referring to Eduardo Corral’s “Border Triptych” and Ada Limon’s “The Contract Says: We’d Like the Conversation to be Bilingual”)

“I have always understood the importance of literature and its impact on the world. That being said I have never really felt that impact or actually been involved in it too much. When writing this essay I felt like I was a part of it and the impact it has on the whole world. My topics are something that is looming in today’s world and only seems to get worse or avoided. I feel like a voice even though I know not many people will get to read this and it is not as good as some top writers out there. But I see as it’s not a topic that should be read by important people alone but everyone. We can all add things to literature and make an impact which I feel I did or could do.” (referring to Natalie Diaz’s “Why I Hate Raisins” and Jericho Brown’s “Bullet Points”)

“During this unit i learned a lot, the two pieces that impacted me the most were “White Privilege and “ The New Jim Crow” because as a black person it important that someone is speaking up for us as a whole, there are a lot of bad things going on right now with racial injustice and as a black person when people speak out no matter their race or background, to help our cause we notice it and we appreciate it. I’m glad i read two pieces that i can relate to because in high school the only type of black people we would read about were Martin Luther King Jr and Rosa parks. I’m glad that [we] read current pieces that everybody can relate to in their own way.”

Are we listening? Are we really listening?

Choosing texts, as I mentioned above, is difficult, and it does require a lot of time and effort. Most of us probably began teaching using texts we were familiar with, texts we read in college, or for fun on our own time. But, if we are still teaching only the same texts we did when we started teaching, chances are we need to make some changes, and with change, comes push back. Part of our anti-racist work as equitable instructors, however, is to change and adapt to the needs of our students, and as the research above indicates, our students need us to do just that. To be anti-racist, anti-capitalist, and an ally to marginalized communities, we need to acknowledge their lived experiences. If we don’t know what those lived experiences are, we need to educate ourselves. We need to take initiative to read texts outside of our own comfort zones by voices different from our own. As Professor. Taylor said in the last blog post, we need change now, and this is just one way we can do something concrete, here and now, to further our anti-racist and equity work.

Not sure where to start? Last year, our wonderful colleagues Star Taylor, Miguel Reid, Jon Anguiano, Tucker Amidon, and James Ducat took time to compile a list of culturally responsive text ideas for our English classes. They have been gracious enough to share this list and allow all of us to continue building upon this collaborative work for the years to come.

Here is a link to the editable Google Sheets. This is a living document that we can all contribute to collaboratively and revise as needed. I have begun organizing the original text list on this document, but still have a long way to go. If you are interested in helping transfer what we have on other various other lists, into this one master list, please feel free to reach out to me. I can use all the help I can get.

In our workshop, Rob and I will spend some time sharing techniques we use to choose empowering, inclusive texts for our classes that are not only culturally responsive, but also allow for critical thinking and critical imagining. We look forward to having you all there!

Sources:

Anzaldua, Gloria. “How to Tame a Wild Tongue.” Borderlands/La Frontera, Aunt Lute Books, 2007, pp. 75-86.

Kendi, Ibrim X. How to Be an Antiracist, One World, 2019.

Williams, Jeanine L. “Representations of the Racialized Experiences of African Americans in Developmental Reading Textbooks.” Journal of College Reading and Learning, vol. 43, no. 2, 7 July 2014, pp. 39-69, DOI: 10.1080/10790195.2013.10850366, Accessed 7 Oct. 2020.

Questions:

  1. What is one text you read in college that was of particular interest to you and why? What impact did that text have on you and why?
  2. How often to you reflect and challenge yourself to change texts you’ve been using for a long time, to better meet student needs and interests?
  3. How do you decide what texts you will include in your course? What criteria do you use? Where do you go to search for them?
  4. If you have not already, how might you set up a system in class to gauge how the students feel about your text selections, to allow your students to have a voice in text selection?
  5. Does your text selection tie to your anti-racist work? Why? How?

Choosing Inclusive and Empowering Texts — Part I

In thinking about antiracist practices, as a white professor, before I work through my thoughts on choosing antiracist texts (which I hope will be helpful to you), I first need to acknowledge and credit the Black and Latinx thinkers who have informed this process for me. 

First, I need to talk about the framework I use. I call the framework “critical thinking/critical imagination.” It comes from a talk I attended given by two Latinx professors, Genvieve Carpio and Juan D. DeLara. Both professors had written recent Marxist histories of the Inland Empire. I am relatively new to the Inland Empire. During the Q&A, I asked what I as a 1A professor could do to empower my students. Carpio said “Have your students question why things are the way they are,” (critical thinking) and DeLara said “Ask your students to imagine the way they want things to be.” (critical imagination). 

With that being said, I also need to back up in time a little bit. I’ve been practicing antiracist andragogy for 10 years now. This antiracist practice has recently, in the last 5 or so years, also become anticapitalist. This is due, in part, to Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (1983). One of its arguments builds on the idea of racial capitalism, and argues that capitalism needs racism to function. Capitalism needs groups of workers to be utilized for, as Angela Davis argues, “super-exploitation,” and we construct race to figure out which workers meet that criteria. And as Robin D. G. Kelley explains, “There is no such thing as non-racist capitalism.” 

Over the years, when I review my antiracist/anticapitalist text selections and the units in which they exist (and by text I am referring both to written articles and multimedia) one thing I have noticed is that some units speak to something universal and unchanging about racial capitalism, while others speak to specific moments and therefore need to be changed out when that specific moment changes. This is because, as Robinson argues in Forgeries of Memory and Meaning (2007),  “racial regimes are unrelentingly hostile to their exhibition,” and

are subsequently unstable truth systems. Like Ptolemaic astronomy, they may “collapse” under the weight of their own artifices, practices, and apparatuses; they may fragment, desiccated by new realities, which discard some fragments wholly while appropriating others into newer regimes. Indeed, the possibilities are the stuff of history.

And I realized, as I moved from my Spring to Summer classes this year, that we were moving into a new historical moment after the public execution of George Floyd. As Angela Davis argues: “This particular historical conjuncture holds possibilities for change that we’ve never before experienced in this country.”  This change includes demands not only for the police who murder to be brought to justice, but for things like police defunding and prison abolition, for a re-imagining of social relations which would empower workers, especially Black and Latinx workers. 

But if we look at the current bourgeois sanctioned political landscape there is very little for our Black and Latinx students to feel invested in. They are forced to watch, powerless, as one political party is determined to march us into a fascism crafted onto an existing structure of white supremacy, and the only other viable political party is unable to ultimately stop that march because they have been forged inside a tradition which refuses to understand the racialization of the liberalism they desperately want to save, caused by a cognitive dissonance regarding race identified by Charles W. Mills in The Racial Contract (1997), which produces “the ironic outcome that whites will in general be unable to understand the world they themselves have made.” So, as instructors, how do we begin to change that? How do we select texts which will create a site of struggle for our students which will leave them empowered rather than defeated? 

To begin this journey for myself at this particular historical moment, I returned to one of the many texts I’ve been reading over the past few years to familiarize myself with California, Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (2007) which charts the whys and hows involved in California becoming the largest carceral state in the largest carceral nation on the planet. And while this text is too advanced to use in class, it is a place to start in thinking about my criteria for new 1A selections because its arguments are related to this particular historical moment.

One argument stood out to me: Gilmore’s argument regarding how labor functions within the spaces of the prison industrial complex. She argues that the super-exploited under racial capitalism have suffered “organized abandonment” as their jobs have been displaced or replaced by forces like globalized capitalism and technological change. This abandonment stems from the government at all levels who, in this current iteration of neoliberal capitalism, see their role, as Reagan so famously put it, as getting “out of the way of business” so that money can be made. (We can see this in the two major political parties today: Republicans see it as the state’s sole purpose while Democrats see it as the primary purpose). Of course, because surplus value can only be derived from labor, this then is at the cost of the worker. 

And as more workers’ livelihoods evaporated in the name of increasing profits for less owners, there are two groups of workers who emerge and fuel the rise of prisons: those excess workers who have been convicted of “crime” engaged in to survive and are now being housed in prison, and those workers who, desperate for any job that will provide them with something close to a middle class existence, are in charge of transporting, housing, monitoring, and disciplining those caged excess workers. I then thought of my relationship to this second group of workers, as the first stop in college, or in the human capital development they need to ultimately find employment within one of the many and overlapping areas of the prison industrial complex, which include policing and healthcare. I had found my starting point. 

Once identified, the first step for me is to problematize the issue. I try as much as I can to put as many of the things “on the ground” for students using texts which contain narrative elements and, whenever possible, are local. I came across “Somebody’s Gotta Help Me,” a ProPublica investigation into the 2017 death of a Latinx man from Indio while in Riverside Police Department’s custody and in the care of the Riverside University Health System. All of the boxes are checked here: it presents the problem, it is local,  and it uses narrative elements. 

Once the issue has been problematized, I move onto critical thinking. One place I like to go for this is NPR, especially its “Hidden Brain” podcast. And in looking through them, I found one, “In the Air We Breathe” which deals with implicit bias within the framework of policing. One thing I like about “Hidden Brain” is that it shows students how to work through critical thinking; it shows them that exploring different angles on an issue, and even questioning your own thesis, is not only okay, but should be encouraged. But while it is good for critical thinking, it is not good for critical imagination. And now we are at the point where our Black and Latinx students may feel ultimately defeated within a framework that offers no viable solutions for them other than “reform,” which can at its best only aspire to a performative version of actual change. 

To move on to critical imagination, I turned to the thinkers who are engaged with these issues and returned to Gilmore who, because of this new historical moment in which our conceptions of race are being reworked, has been doing interviews on prison abolition, something she and others like Angela Davis have been arguing for since at least the 1990s. One podcast in particular “Ruth Wilson Gilmore Makes the Case for Abolition” stood out to me for three reasons. First, you have two African American scholars, Chenjerai Kumanyika and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, in conversation. This is very important. Not only should our Black and Latinx students consume texts by and about people like them, they should see people like them in the academy, especially if we as instructors are serious about diversifying our own ranks. Second, they talk about issues already talked about in the last two texts, so connections can be made by the students. Third, Gilmore not only critically imagines a new future but also discusses different areas we can work on right now to move towards that future. 

To finish out the unit, I am using the concluding chapter “Abolitionist Alternatives” of Angela Davis’ Are Prisons Obsolete? (2003). I like to use concluding chapters of works in my 1A, especially towards the end of the semester, because it shows students that a conclusion can be complex and that it can span more than one paragraph. Davis’ work here, like Gilmore’s interview, frees itself from the confines of what is to imagine what could be and offers some concrete first steps to get there.  Both this work and Gilmore’s interview model critical imagination for our students; and while some may reject it, others will be empowered by the model to build their own solutions from the first steps outlined by Gilmore and Davis, free of the confines of racial capitalism, which we are taught to regard as inescapable. 

When the two were collaborating on the original Rainbow Coalition in Chicago, Hy Thurman of the Young Patriots, a white street gang, was given the following advice on organizing by Bobby Lee of the Black Panthers, a radical organization which had evolved into multiple chapters across the country and was administering different types of mutual aid programs for its communities, including free breakfast for children to maximize their education: “If you don’t know where to start organizing, you walk to your front door and you look in front of you, you look behind you, you look to the left, you look to the right, and then you pick a direction.” This is, ultimately, the kind of empowerment I want my students to have when they leave my classroom at the end of the semester. And one of the first steps towards that empowerment is my selection of antiracist/anticapitalist texts. 

Below are a few questions to get you thinking about your own practice:

Questions

  1. Have you been resistant to making changes like this in your classroom, and if so, why do you think that might be?
  2. What sites of struggle do you want to set up in the classroom for your students?
  3. What areas of critical imagination do you want your students to engage with and why?
  4. Looking at your current text selections, are there any that could be used for critical imagination?

This is Part I of a post on choosing inclusive and empowering texts. To read Part II, click here.