Last fall, when the #MeToo movement became mainstream, I was not in the classroom. Yet, having taught every semester of graduate school until then (six years), I wondered how I would have facilitated conversations on the subject were I teaching. In a sense, I was not new to incorporating current events into my classroom. In fact, when I taught World Literature in English in Fall 2014, discussions about the nationwide protests in the wake of Michael Brown’s murder made their way into my classroom as we examined contemporary fiction and art, which often shared themes of racialized and gendered injustice.
But somehow, Fall 2017 felt different. Perhaps it was because, since the election season of 2016 and onwards, we have been battered with breaking news on a daily basis or, sometimes, multiple times each day. The exhaustion that minoritized students, staff, and faculty experience was much more palpable: it had spread to people whose privileges often insulated them to the realities marginalized folks face in their workplaces, schools, and communities.
In an earlier article on the #MeToo movement, I focused on what graduate students can do within our departments, institutions, and professional organizations to change the pervasive cultures of sexual harassment and assault in academia. And, today, I extend that focus to the classroom through a conversation with my colleague, Dr. Flávia Santos de Araújo, a teacher and scholar of African-American and Africana studies.
As is often the case, bringing current events into the classroom, even when highly relevant to the course material, requires reflection and care. Indeed, it calls upon numerous practices in our pedagogical toolboxes.
Neelofer: What did the conversation around #MeToo look like in your classrooms during the fall semester?
Flavia: #MeToo created an opportunity for us to contextualize a larger history of sexual violence, particularly on the bodies of black women and black people in general. The very fact that a black woman [Tarana Burke] created [the campaign] years ago, pioneering grassroots work with survivors and it was magnified to the rest of us through the involvement of celebrities. That in and of itself is formative of the kinds of silence around sexual assault and other forms of violence, especially gendered and racialized violence. #MeToo served as a platform to deepen the context [for my students] that was already present.
Neelofer: You teach in an Africana Studies department right now. What kind of texts are part of your syllabus?
Flavia: I teach primarily African American and African diaspora literature with a focus on black women’s writing. Sexual violence comes up. Different forms of violence come up as historical background, representational themes, aesthetic tools. It becomes something interesting and dicey to discuss with students. One text that I often teach is Gayle Jones’s 1975 novel, Corregidora, which has a general aspect of sexual violence for black women, in slavery and beyond. I know people who don’t teach it because of the graphic nature of the representation of sexual violence, which I understand, but I make a choice: I teach it in varying and intentional ways because I recognize that it represents and brings to light a very important conversation about history, agency, pain, and trauma. But also about survival, resilience, and healing. These are the other spheres that I invite in loudly about the healing of trauma, the survival, and using creativity. The power behind that.
Neelofer: Can you tell us more about how you create a learning environment where your students can engage these texts with care?
Flavia: From the first day to the last day, we have conversations about what it means to be teaching such sensitive subject matter. There is, of course, a paragraph on my syllabus, where I address this. Also, I am well informed about campus resources that students might use or want to engage with if they, for any reason, need to access them and that they can talk to me, for guidance or resources. I make sure they know I’m not a counselor, but can guide them toward resources. My attendance policies also allow students to be in the driver’s seat. I tell them: You will be able to make the call, decide step-by-step what are the things that you need to support your learning.
Neelofer: And, how does this practice of building trust and caring for one another support discussion of topics brought up by the #MeToo movement and texts like Corregidora?
Flavia: There is something empowering in talking about the issues around #MeToo and before #MeToo – the culture of violence, of sexual violence in particular. It is an empowering thing to do together, as a community that dismantles a culture that is not an individual. It is a history, a cultural system that we all share. Speaking about, through, or with the support of literary text allows us to turn to that story. It is somewhat easy to stay with the pain of the trauma, but I think it’s as important to appreciate and discuss (through productive intellectual conversations) about how art is made from that pain. The use of language to articulate it. Following Audre Lorde, I ask them to explore their emotions around these texts and to honor those emotions as sources of information. Sometimes – when we are all sharing – I name it to my students that this was hard for me to read even as someone who has read it several times. I put myself with them. Art touches us in very particular ways especially when we are all doing this together.
Neelofer: Do you think creating this kind of classroom environment and pedagogy is contingent on teaching at a certain kind of institution with a particular class size? Or, are there ways that this work could be done in say a lecture course?
Flavia: Big lecture courses will present challenges to a number of different things, including having these more intimate conversations about what it means to be talking about violence as a representation and as a historical fact in the experiences of black peoples in the diaspora. I’m not sure if there’s any easy way to doing that, and I believe there should be an institutional engagement with the kinds of pedagogy that are effective and productive for students approaching such matters. Institutions should be held accountable for co-creating spaces and pedagogical tools. It shouldn’t be as instructor’s responsibility only because space, seating, size – these things make a difference in how you teach, build community and trust, and how you learn.
Whereas this conversation has focused on Dr. Araújo’s work in teaching black women’s writing and African diasporic texts, she is far from alone in tackling this subject. For another conversation, check out Sara L. Hales and Dr. Arum Park in conversation on how scholars in Classics are taking up similar issues.
Has there been a disciplinary conversation in your area of speciality? Or has your professional organization or campus organized any discussion, shared resources, or invited reflection on the intersection of pedagogy and #MeToo (or incorporating current events)? Share with us in the comments!
[Image from Flickr user UN Women shared under a Creative Commons License.]