As instructors, professors, or graduate assistants, we are often in charge of selecting course texts, mapping semester outlines, and designing syllabi. These tasks, however, come with choice. Who do we highlight? Whose voices do share? And how could our choices affect our students who are close-reading these works for the first time in their lives?
In Margaret Atwood’s poem “Spelling,” she writes:
A word after a word
after a word is power
From a rhetorical perspective, every choice, especially word choice, inherently creates meaning—an argument, a stance, a connotation—even if we don’t mean it to. Thus, by selecting specific texts and authors, we have (whether we like it or not) an undeniable power to change the direction or trajectory of how students may perceive themselves, their work, their capabilities, and their understanding of the world around them.
It is paramount, then, to be aware of what and who we choose to read with our classes. Kenzie Allen, a current PhD student in English/Creative Writing, writes:
“I think a diverse reading list is an essential tool for decolonizing the classroom, and a way to address the narratives, preconceptions, and shorthand notions we learn and initialize.”
And what better a time to challenge traditional or homogenous notions than when students are still in their formative years, when they are getting a first-hand “college experience,” being surrounded with some 35,000 different faces, flyers handed to them left and right, and a man with a mega-phone practicing free speech?
Multiperspectivity, or exploring multiple perspectives, has actually been proven to make us smarter. In a recent study, researchers Sheen S. Levine and David Stark assigned students to either a diverse group (with at least one student of another ethnicity or race) or a homogenous group, then asked them to participate in a stock trading exercise. Findings were sharply conspicuous showing that students in diverse groups performed 58% more accurately, providing more correct answers while those in homogenous groups tended to copy one another, providing wrong or misinformed information. The researchers concluded in their New York Times Opinion article that “diversity brought cognitive friction that enhanced deliberation,” that “diversity prompts better critical thinking,” and that “diversity matters for learning, the core purpose of the university.”
These findings could extend to the company we keep in our classrooms—the pieces we read.
Kenzie Allen is Oneida and writes of her experience as a Native American writer: “For me, I feel a personal responsibility to imbue into my poems not simply the ‘dead and gone’ Native that is so often depicted in the non-Native gaze or colonial metanarrative, but to show something of our modernity, our on-going issues, and our survival.”
College is a time for reflecting on self-identity, a chance to re-invent, to step outside what has always been known, and to challenge the stereotypes or generalizations that our students may have grown up with. We can do that by breaking the monotony of Poe, Hemingway, and Hawthorne; we can introduce Maxine Hong Kingston, Sherman Alexie, Roxane Gay, and so many more.
Allen continues to explain the importance of multiperspectivity: “In a time when the marginalized are so often silenced, to speak at all can be a radical act, as is making space for those voices.”
She writes, “It’s another kind of justice, or healing. The author is always more than simply one aspect of their identity or interests, so the more diverse or multi-faceted the reading list, the more we are able to bear witness to this complexity.”
As instructors, we are gatekeepers. We are the ones who decide what will be read, what will be written, and what will be shared over the course of a four-month semester. We have an ultimate responsibility, then, to empower our students with a more diverse experience, opening their minds to who they can be.