Whereas “diversity” within English literature classrooms has often emphasized revisions to the canon, diversity shapes both the content and the form of my teaching and research. My commitment to diversity is not limited to the subject or objects of study, but rather extends to the very approaches I take to “diverse” texts themselves. I challenge students to consider the way diversity can become both a perspective attuned to differences, and a methodology of engagement in the classroom and beyond.
As a perspective, diversity asks us to consider the way that impressions of difference arise inter-relationally, and implicates students themselves. This pedagogical perspective is mirrored in my research, which similarly places diverse texts and authors into dialogue. My intention here and elsewhere is not to flatten out differences between voices, but rather to deepen the understanding of abstract or broad concepts—power, race, resistance, language, gender—without replicating a model of diversity that results when “other” voices” are paired with “canonical” ones. The content of my courses reflect this commitment; for example, I assigned an anthology of African writing in my World Literature class and designed the syllabus to reflect writing from a variety of African countries—especially Morocco, Mozambique, Ghana, and Egypt—that are not typically represented on syllabi with a postcolonial or global Anglophone focus. Assignments asked students to analyze these writers’ approaches to issues like the politics of writing in European languages, or the structure of publishing in a global context. We read Laila Lalami’s “Politics of Reading” and considered the essay’s connections to Chinua Achebe’s “The African Writer and the English Language.” In class, I asked students what Lalami would say to Léopold Senghor or Aimé Césaire, whose writings on négritude we had also discussed. In this way, students were required to center these writers’ voices first before considering how they were themselves positioned in relation to these conversations.
I strive to make diversity a methodology as well as a perspective by considering the assumptions and values we (I, and my students) bring into the classroom space. With reference to texts from Nigeria, South Africa, India, and the Caribbean, I ask students to complicate the markers of diversity that they might be familiar with—class, gender, sexual orientation for example—with alternative cultural constructions and discourses of diversity (such as caste, ethnicity, and histories of sexuality and race as inflected in contemporary postcolonial societies). To uncover the contradictory norms governing The God of Small Things, for example, I asked groups of students to codify into “laws” five social and cultural norms ordering the novel’s world. As the groups promulgated the laws to the rest of the class, it became increasingly clear that caste, gender, sexuality, and race intersected and compounded to affect disproportionately characters like Velutha and Ammu over Chacko and Sophie Mol. This exercise and others like it ask students to read the texts on its own terms, without reference to their own experiences in order to make it more familiar. Here, diversity is an approach to texts and questions that resists the centering of American discourses of difference; my commitment to diversity, in this way, impacts the form as well as the content of our class conversations.
My experiences teaching at both UMass and Westfield State deepened my sense of diversity to include the varied relationships student populations have to formal and higher education. I was challenged to teach World Literature to different student populations, which had diverse relationships to formal education, varied prior experiences with so-called canonical texts, and mixed socioeconomic backgrounds. As a result, I needed to adjust my teaching of the course material without compromising scope and depth, as well as to develop extensive strategies for facilitating class conversation—not only for drawing out student participation, but for working with a group of students that has not done the reading, struggles with reading comprehension, or has encountered concepts in other contexts and is enthusiastic in sharing those insights. My future goals for teaching include developing courses that are accessible to these diverse student groups, and to design my syllabi with this less visible, or marked, diversity in mind.
By privileging diversity as both a methodology and a perspective, centering the authors and texts in classroom conversations and then introducing students and their relationships to these questions second, I value the heterogeneity of the students within my classroom as well as the authors and texts we study.