Diversity in literature: how Uni’s teachers navigate non-Western literature

The addition of diversity in literature signifies our progressive and inclusive movement as a society.  However, the addition of non-white literature to curriculums brings its own set of problems – how do white teachers teach these works while remaining respectful to a culture that isn’t their own?  We asked three of Uni’s own English teachers how they do so.

Phillip Ernstmeyer, known as Dr. E to his students, teaches Sophomore English. He is currently teaching Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid, a novel narrated by a nineteen year old girl from the West Indies. He recognizes that it’s problematic to teach African American Literature as a non-black person.

“I have certain experiences that prevent me from reading the text in specific ways; my whiteness prevents me from having cultural competencies, but that’s the same with all texts, it’s just a different set of problems when you’re looking [at race],” says Ernstmeyer.

He brings up the main issue many have with white people teaching non-European literature – how they lack the racial background that the writers of these books have, and thus can’t “teach” them as faithfully. He says that even if he may not be qualified to teach specific stories, he is qualified as a reader to “read the words on the page,… talk about the implications of those pages and the words on those pages and to frame those pages in historical context and think about what different connections emerge”. He suggests that teachers like himself should teach these novels not with the intent of explaining what the author means, but as people who have something to learn along with their students.

Along the same lines, Matt Mitchell, who teaches African-American Literature here at Uni, says that he tries to “allow the books and authors to speak for themselves as much as possible.” His own personal experience rarely comes up in the classroom – rather, it is his educational experience that allows him to facilitate a conversation through providing literary, historical, and cultural context.

“My primary aim is to get an in-depth and wide-ranging discussion going, that will allow students to explore the issues raised by the literature and to formulate ideas they can pursue further in their own writing,” he stated. “I don’t claim or even imply that my ability to lead a critical discussion of any book is dependent on my own personal experience – that is precisely the value of bringing a diverse range of authors’ voices to the table.”

Mitchell also reflected on how not once through his high school education was he taught a work by a non-white author. He’s touching on a larger issue, how black students find themselves desperately underrepresented from elementary to high school. “[Our current curriculum] is a vast difference from my own day, when all we read were works by British and American white men”. Mitchell teaches African-American literature in defiance of the mainly-European education many students still receive.

“I believe that it’s vital for anyone growing up in contemporary America to read as widely as possible in American literature, as this is one of the best ways to understand our complicated history and culture,” Mitchell expresses. He believes that it doesn’t matter who teaches these stories, as long as they are taught, especially to young minds. “White people should be made more aware of race and its role in everyday life in America, and literature again can be a great way to facilitate that conversation.”

Elizabeth Majerus, who also teaches non-European Literature in her curriculum, echoed similar sentiments as Ernstmeyer and Mitchell, expressing that no one is inherently more qualified to teach a certain type of literature because of their personal background.

If having a racial, cultural, and experiential similarity to the writer made a teacher qualified to teach a book, then the writer herself would be the very best teacher of that book. And yet, we don’t ask writers to teach their own works, and in fact, they very seldom do,” she states.

She, like many other teachers of literature, sees the opportunity for interpretation as one of the purposes of books – they are more than “solely an expression of their writer’s racial identity.” Similarly, she feels that readers’ connections with books are more complex than just racial links.

“To say that I have the authority to teach Shakespeare because he and I are the same race (even though his world of England more than 400 years ago is entirely alien to my actual lived experience), while I have no authority to teach Sandra Cisneros because she’s Latina and I’m white (even though she’s an American of the same rough generation as me, who grew up in Chicago in the same era I grew up in Chicago and with whom I share a lot of religious, geographic, and cultural experiences) doesn’t account for what the word ‘culture’ really means in our lived experience of it,” she explains.

Like both Mitchell and Ernstmeyer, Majerus agrees that her personal experience doesn’t matter when teaching literature – “assuming racial authority is not part of it. “

“A good teacher of literature doesn’t stand in front of their students and say “I know what this writer feels, I relate to their experiences, and I can help you interpret this book because I have the authority to interpret this book. A good teacher of literature facilitates a discussion, offers background, and ideally allows students to come to their own conclusions about a work,” she says.

She tells us, “I try to convey the idea to my students that I’m not perfect and I’m open to learning. I often tell my students that I’m very open to being challenged or even corrected, as long as it’s done in a respectful way”. Knowing that your teacher has an open mind to issues they don’t understand firsthand proves encouraging to students, paving the way for better discussions and learning.

Additionally, Majerus spoke on the many issues of having teachers only of a certain race teach books from that race. “I highly doubt there are many teachers of color who would feel comfortable being brought in for one book because of their race. I would feel very uncomfortable asking them to because, frankly, it would feel racist to do so.”

She also mentioned that an education system such as this would limit both the student and the teacher – if only people of a certain race could teach certain books, it would limit both students and teachers to speaking only about their race’s literature. A black teacher would only teach “black literature”, while white teachers would learn and appreciate much less about literature from other cultures. This method of teaching would also give certain people (including students) less authority to comment upon another race’s literature in a classroom setting, which discourages literary diversity and a holistic curriculum.

One issue that all three teachers struggle with is how to correct a student if they are coming to the “wrong” conclusions about race based on class discussion. Each teacher expressed in some way that it’s difficult not to try to influence students’ opinions with their own. “It’s really hard to try to negotiate the more socratic role of the teacher and the impulse to “fix” a misperception or a messed up idea,” said Dr. Majerus. A teacher’s job is to facilitate conversation and allow students to form conclusions themselves, but they all express that it can be difficult not to intervene, especially when the topic is something so important to understand correctly, as race is.

While Uni may lack faculty diversity, our English teachers understand how to not only teach but learn from both non-European literature and students’ views of this literature in their curriculum, which is greatly appreciated and greatly necessary. The biggest takeaway from these interviews is that it doesn’t matter who teaches “race-based” literature, as long as they open up students’ minds to different interpretations and ideas and convey the ideas of the author instead of speaking on their behalf.