When Talented Authors Carry #Metoo Baggage: What’s a Teacher to Do?

When Talented Authors Carry #Metoo Baggage--What’s a Teacher to Do?

It was probably typically male of me to think I could simply avoid it. As a male reader, I wasn’t sure what to think when a catalogue of authors began to be named in the #metoo movement: Sherman Alexie, Junot Díaz, Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket), Jay Asher and James Dashner. Was I still going to read their books? Should I?

 Complicating my dilemma was the fact that I am a high school English teacher. Authors Dashner (The Maze Runner) and Asher (Thirteen Reasons Why) are incredibly popular. A former colleague once described Díaz’s books (like The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao) as the ones most likely to be stolen off of her shelves. Additionally, one student told me that he’d missed his bus stop because he was so engrossed in Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.  As someone who has devoted his life to trying to get young people to read, I celebrate such a reaction.

But I was troubled by the recent revelations about the authors. I told myself that there are plenty of great books — I could just ignore the issue by choosing other books. Then a new colleague approached me and said, “I am thinking of teaching Sherman Alexie’s book, The Absolutely….” At the time, a contentious Supreme Court confirmation hearing was filling the air. As well, Tarana Burke, the original founder of #metoo, was on her way to Cleveland for a talk. Obviously, I had to confront it. There was just one problem.

I was still stuck.

On the one hand, I believe in voting with my wallet. On the other hand, I didn’t know all of the facts and was wary of “trial by internet,” and I do think we should separate artists from their art. When I’d allowed author and commentator Roxane Gay to convince me to skip seeing The Birth of a Nation, I regretted it. On the other hand….you get the point: I had no answers.

I needed help, and I knew from seeing colleagues wrestle with the issue on social media that I wasn’t alone. With assistance from Erica Marks of the Cleveland Public Library, I organized a conversation.  Four people came, five if you count my mother. It was a start.

I began the discussion with the question of whether I, as the veteran voice, the de facto Department Chair, should encourage my colleague to select this book or encourage her to make another choice. I suggested that my goal was not necessarily to come away with an answer, that maybe just asking better questions was a good goal in itself.

More questions arose. For instance, for those of us who are gatekeepers when it comes to books, what is the difference between censorship and selection? What is the nature of that power? One librarian reported that there were certain authors that she’d no longer push, such as Dr. Seuss, who is known for racist work. But she had not made this decision easily. She saw herself as responsible for protecting intellectual freedom. Was this reaction to Dr. Seuss a betrayal of those values?

Another question: Should we reject Roxane Gay’s argument and separate the artist from the art? Junot Díaz has written a powerful new children’s book. Should we buy it for our libraries or not? If we do choose a book by an author who has been implicated, how should we help students understand the author’s life? One participant, Dr. Mary Weems, said if we’re going to tell a story, we have to tell the whole story.

Then the question became when we should explain the piece that relates to #metoo. If we tell it at the beginning, will that change the way students view the book? Are we deciding for them that the artist can’t be separated from the art? If we tell it afterward, is that a kind of deception? Will our Google-prone students find out about it anyway, perhaps from a less-than-reputable source?

Questions began to range more widely.  How could local resources, like the Domestic Violence and Child Advocacy Center and Facing History, support a teacher’s efforts to teach the whole story? Who has easier access to those resources? What kind of power does that involve?

I brought the group back to my initial concern about what recommendation I should give my colleague. How prepared was she, they asked, to handle difficult conversations? What would that preparation look like? What implications would the need for this kind of difficult conversation have on teacher preparation programs?

As expected, we did not find answers. Instead, we found better, more nuanced questions: What is the purpose for choosing a particular book? Is there another book that could help accomplish the same goals? If I do choose a book by an author such as Diaz, how do I frontload the author’s biography? Would I use his own “Personal History,” or would this simply give still more time to the already dominant male voice? What’s on record from the women involved? Would such a back story discussion prompt reactions from students with their own experiences? What consistent support could we have on hand for those who need it?

We all agreed that #metoo issues should be discussed upfront because we wouldn’t want the students to find out from a random Google search.  And I learned that I cannot hide behind my male privilege and avoid the question. For now, though, my colleague has chosen another book.

Our discussion demonstrated that the issue of #metoo raises hard questions, especially when we are charged with teaching young people. But such questions are both necessary and urgent. The movement’s founder, Tarana Burke, wonders if #metoo is falling prey to mission creep. Those of us who choose books cannot allow the #metoo issues to be swept aside.  We can’t let the questions fade.

However, we must keep searching for answers. Better questions are not enough.

In a session I recently attended during the National Council of Teachers of English Conference, I found some answers to a few of those hard questions. The session’s two presenters provided much needed insight.

The first presenter saw the issues raised by #metoo not as obstacles but opportunities. She taught her students how to develop and train their feminist lens on texts, ranging from the newspaper to Beyonce’s “Lemonade” to The Great Gatsby. The other presenter, equally prepared, trained his feminist lens on the reaction that students had to a partially clothed actress playing Juliet in Romeo and Juliet at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. More specifically, he addressed the audience’s response to her and the open letter the actress wrote to the students who attended the play.

Such impromptu incidents can be invaluable. For example, a few years ago, I deliberately asked students, “What is feminism?”  I was not prepared for the first response I received from a 12th grader. “It’s a bunch of women who want to be men.” I was stupefied. There was some nervous laughter. I am not sure what I said, but we moved on. I wonder now how the female students in that class felt, what they were thinking about that moment. I shouldn’t have let such a comment pass. Now, I am more prepared to address such unexpected situations. Now, I am ready to help students address them, too.

I am going to teach Diaz and Alexie. I am going to recommend Dashner and Asher. Why? I used to work for a Head of School who quoted the poet Matthew Arnold to remind us to present to students “the best of what has been thought and said” (Culture and Anarchy).  These authors represent the best of what has been thought and said. And since we’re going to examine their stories, we’re going to examine the whole of their stories. It’s my job, it’s our responsibility, to make sure we’re ready for these conversations whenever and wherever they happen.

We must be ready for the implications of #metoo no matter what we teach and no matter how long the hashtag lingers in the public consciousness. Saying #ibelieveyou is not enough.

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