The OF Blog: March 2015

Sunday, March 08, 2015

When "101" just doesn't cut it anymore

Most students who've attended an American university have experience with an "101":  an introductory survey to a discipline that is meant to provide a broad parameter of that discipline's general features.  As a survey course, it focuses much more on a bigger picture than it does on exploring any particular detail in course.  For some, 101 courses are a gateway to more advanced, specialized training, while for others they either provide only what they were seeking in the first place (broad, general knowledge) or they were just requirements that were endured and best forgotten.

The "101" can also be an analogy for certain discussions, particularly those that are meant to be a general challenge to social assumptions.  It's been a couple of weeks since I've had the time to blog about anything, but I've been vaguely aware of the number of debates spawned by an article/challenge by K. Tempest Bradford last month regarding the challenging of her readers to spend a year not reading white, straight, cisgendered male writers.  As such challenges typically go, it provoked more than just a challenge to read differently; it made several react against the very notion that they needed to be challenged at all.

In thinking about the uproar caused by this modest challenge (I say "modest" in that it is not a materially onerous goal), I found myself thinking about certain survey course debates.  One salient example is that of how much coverage should be given to certain civilizations vis à vis others.  It is an enduring, important debate in social studies and there are several valid arguments made by various sides, not all of which are in total opposition to the others.  When it comes to Bradford's challenge, several made various iterations of this particular debate, although often it was used to excuse those people from participating (as though not going whole hog on this were somehow a horrid thing!).

However, there is an inherent weakness to challenges such as Bradford's, namely that they have to be general surveys and not in-depth explorations of certain topics.  By merely saying "read more X writers," which is basically what this challenge boils down to, the reader is challenged to participate foremost in a quantitative process (increasing number of books read in the target group/s) and not so much in a qualitative assessment of why certain works should be read.  After all, it is easy to read a set number.  It is much more difficult to process what was just read and apply that to other literature read over a period of time.

Last month, I began a re-read of the two-volume Library of America collection of nine novels written by writers of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s.  So far, I have only reviewed one book, Jean Toomer's Cane, yet I found myself thinking about certain issues of identity expressed in that marvelous work.  Of particular interest was the author's own self-identity; he did not want to be identified as either black or white.  In knowing this, the language of the poems and vignettes there reflects this particular self-view.  It was also interesting, when doing background research on the book's initial reception, in how divided the reactions were among the black writers of the time, as Toomer's use of the then-revolutionary Modernist approach to narrative threatened, in some of their minds, the fragile equilibrium achieved in balancing white and black audience expectations for then-contemporary black literature.  In reading Cane and then beginning Richard Wright's posthumously published first novel, Lawd Today (then labeled as Cesspool), while sampling other writers of the Harlem Renaissance, there were some interesting fault lines that emerged when it came to social customs, religion, sexuality, and political views.  And through it all, threading a fine needle, was the central question of identity: "Who am I and how do I make it in this world around me?" 

This is what crops up repeatedly in the readings I've done over the years of authors who were of various skin tones, genders, ages, abilities, and faiths.  There are some interesting intersections, such as thematic resonances of the works of William Faulkner and the writers of the Latin American Boom Generation, as well as some expected (and yet sometimes surprising divergences).  This is what a reader can experience if s/he chooses to read widely, not just along the parameters of Bradford's challenge, but also across genres and non-fiction fields (W.E.B. Du Bois's 1896 history, The Suppression of the African Slave Trade, is a captivating read nearly 120 years later).

However, this analysis of writers and how their thoughts reflect or oppose the espirit du temps is not "101" material.  It involves more than just saying, "I've read 30 books by X group of writers" to accomplish anything.  Anyone can read assignments and pass certain tests, but it takes much more self-reflection to integrate what one has read and make it a part of their own self-identity.  Challenges are well and good, yet they often don't go far enough.  Yes, it would be great if more people read works by writers who are not part of the dominant social group/s, but if they aren't talking about or debating these works' merits with others, then is the full benefit of such exercises being reached?

I have my doubts about this.  I do worry at times that such important things can be reduced to a sort of competition or status of belonging.  "Well, you need to read more of this!" can easily be construed as an attack on another's value/priority systems, even if such was never intended.  While I certainly don't think this is ever the intent of such challenges, it certainly can devolve to such in the minds of those who feel there is no real encouragement to discuss the merits of this works, but instead ponder if it may not be worth it.  It is difficult to combat these perceptions, honest as they are (errare humanum est, after all), unless there is a mutual willingness to go beyond "101" and delve into a host of related issues together to find, if not commonality, then at least grounds for further exploration and discussion.  It is only then, I suspect, that the true fruits of diverse reading and writing can ripen and be enjoyed fully.
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