Books vs. Guns

Literature and language professors will use the tools of their trade to protest a new Texas law.

January 5, 2016

Lobbying by higher education leaders didn't prevent Texas lawmakers from passing a new law to allow people to carry weapons on campus -- including in classroom buildings and dormitories. Some students are planning a protest involving dildos (which apparently one can't carry openly on Texas campuses) to draw attention to what they see as the absurdity of the new law.

Later this week, the Modern Language Association's annual meeting will draw many thousands of professors and graduate students to Austin. And MLA members -- together with local groups against the law -- are planning an unusual protest of their own.

On Friday, MLA members and others will gather at one of the convention hotels for a rally. Then they will march to the Texas Capitol, and instead of carrying weapons, they will carry books. When they reach the statehouse, they will use books to build "a symbolic gun exclusion zone," and standing in that structure, they will read texts that they have discussed in their classes and that they believe need to be taught in gun-free zones.

The underlying idea of the protest is in contrast to the conventional wisdom that humanities professors all want to protect their students from uncomfortable ideas. The MLA protest is based instead on the view that students and their professors should discuss books that challenge their beliefs and on which many will hold differing views.

Roland Greene, the MLA's president and a professor of English and comparative literature, is among the MLA leaders who will be speaking at the event.

Asked about the books he would teach that need to be taught in a gun-free zone, Greene said he would turn the question around. "What book of any force in the culture should we be reading in the presence of guns?" he said. "Our members are in the business of provoking discussion. Learning to give voice to an unpopular opinion, to challenge a consensus and to disagree constructively and respectfully is an essential part of education. We believe that guns discourage that kind of learning."

But he said that one example of the kind of book the protest may highlight is on the syllabus of a course he teaches with a colleague, Ramón Saldívar, on Literature of the Americas. Greene said that the syllabus features "a number of books that offend present-day sensibilities," such as Columbus’s letters, or "represent radical, marginalized voices," such as Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. He added, "Our discussions of such books are never easy, but it’s impossible to imagine that the presence of guns would encourage the exchange of views we’re trying to achieve."

Greene said he was realistic about the challenges of overturning the law, even if many lawmakers privately have indicated that they oppose guns on campus. Regardless of what happens now, he said, it is important for the MLA to speak out.

"From the MLA’s vantage, we want to show our allies in Texas, our members and the public that the association is fully engaged with this issue and will provide a national perspective. If similar laws appear elsewhere, it’s important that the issue be addressed not just locally but nationally," he said.

Members of two groups that have supported the new law -- Students for Concealed Carry and Come and Take It America -- did not respond to email messages seeking comment on the MLA protest plans.


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