- Frontline Teaching:Ruminations, Sober and Hilarious, of an Ethnic Literature Professor
When I was notified that MELUS would honor me with the 2015 Lifetime Achievement Award, my first reaction was, "Wow, I didn't know I'd been kicking around for a lifetime already!" Accompanying this realization was the idea that, before I become a total relic, I should share a few thoughts with present-day practitioners in the field. So, here I am, and I certainly appreciate the chance to talk to MELUS folks about the ongoing complexities of teaching ethnic literature in America.
In 2005, I coedited a special issue of MELUS on pedagogy that garnered significant interest. Readers welcomed the opportunity to process their own practices and experiences teaching ethnic American literature at a range of predominantly university-level institutions. Prior to this, I coedited a collection of twenty-five essays by faculty across the nation titled Race in the College Classroom: Pedagogy and Politics (2002). I undertook this project partly because an essay I had written on course evaluations could not find a publisher—in fact, a major journal on pedagogy (with its claim to speak on behalf of "equity in education") had refused to send out my piece to be refereed. I had no choice but to take on a book-length project on pedagogy. The twenty-nine contributors in the collection provided reflections and insights on race in their teaching, and the book won two major awards.1
The present MELUS special issue on pedagogy can be considered an update of these previous efforts. Collectively, the essays consider where we are and where we need to go. In participating in this conversation, I have decided to cut to the chase and address several thorny issues that bear consideration. When it comes to writing about pedagogy, literature professors must share anecdotes to make a point. After all, most of us do not have the resources to undertake nationwide studies on pedagogy, and we are not social scientists who can conduct empirical studies. What we have are stories of our various teaching experiences, related through anecdotes and combined with candid, in-depth analyses shared for the purpose of learning from them. By sharing my thoughts and firsthand [End Page 20] experiences, I hope to be of service to colleagues working in the trenches of teaching ethnic American literature.
My ruminations will address the following topics: (1) the fallacy of relegating ethnically identified literature to stories of oppression/victimization, (2) the teacher/scholar's subject position, (3) how we approach an ethnic text, (4) ethnic humor and the role of laughter, (5) text selection and coverage in a multi-ethnic literature course, and (6) institutional politics and the ethnic literature professor. In my discussion, one's comfort-level—the reader's and my own—is not of top priority. I have settled on "straight talk" because the stakes are high, and I am conversing with MELUS colleagues. Maxine Hong Kingston once said in an interview with Bill Moyers, "Oh, we [Chinese/Asian Americans] know how to be charming!" Exotic Oriental, model minority, gracious host—Kingston's comment alludes to these stereotypes, all the while noting that, at some level, this is an act, a strategy for survival in an inhospitable society. This act—any performance or mask—maintains distance, and, thus, there is minimal engagement with the Other. Forfeiting the posture of self-protection/self-defense in order to get at truths regarding the frontline teaching of ethnic American literature, I will not hide behind theoretical jargon to maintain my own comfort level.
To begin, I would argue that anxiety is not only a general feature of our contemporary times but also an especially prevalent condition in practitioners of multi-ethnic literary studies. A quick perusal of recently published articles and essay collections on ethnic literary pedagogy indicates that many teachers continue to feel embattled. As they work hard at and show real commitment to their profession, literature faculty who teach ethnic texts can easily find themselves in an uncomfortable, resistant, or combative classroom environment. Strong emotions can erupt at any time, especially if one's pedagogical style is decentered, discussion-oriented, and active...