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  • "Do I Remain a Revolutionary?":Intellectual and Emotional Risk in the Literature Classroom
  • Sarita Cannon (bio)

Near the end of her life, which was cut short by pancreatic cancer in 1965 when she was just thirty-four, author and activist Lorraine Hansberry reflected: "Do I remain a revolutionary? Intellectually—without a doubt. But am I prepared to give my body to the struggle or even my comforts? This is what I puzzle about" (To 256). Hansberry's words ring true for many academics who aim to build bridges between the classroom and the world beyond the university. Like Hansberry, I consider myself to be an intellectual revolutionary, and the work I do as a professor reflects my commitment to social justice and cross-cultural exchange. However, I also recognize that my material and bodily comfort have never been violently challenged. What am I willing to sacrifice for fervently held beliefs? How can I encourage my students to define revolution for themselves when I am still trying to determine what it means in my own life and work? Returning to the feminist foundation of my pedagogy provides the beginning of an answer to these questions. Surrendering to the impossibility of mastery may undermine my authority, and bringing my personal experiences into the classroom may leave me vulnerable to the problematic expectations that some students project onto instructors who are not straight, white, able-bodied, cisgender men. However, these two strategies help me navigate the rocky terrain that comes with teaching literature by and about historically marginalized groups in a way that demands a critical reevaluation of systems of oppression.

My own experiences as a tenure-track (and later tenured) professor of English at a state university in one of the most diverse areas in the United States demonstrate the ways in which identity (my own and that of my students) have informed my pedagogical practices in a period where the nature of the systematic oppression on which the United States is founded is being exposed in new and disturbing ways. Backlash to my pedagogy and reading lists early in my career led me to clarify my own teaching philosophy, and my recent positive experience teaching a graduate seminar titled "Lorraine Hansberry and Her Contemporaries" illustrates my continuing interest in grappling with difficulty in a diverse classroom. I draw [End Page 37] on the work of bell hooks, AnaLouise Keating, and Megan Boler, all of whom highlight the affective dimension of classroom dynamics, guided by the notion that being unsettled is central to the learning and teaching process. Hooks's articulation of education as a "practice of freedom" (Teaching 4) and her assertion that the classroom is a democratic space where "everyone claims knowledge as a field in which we all labor" undergird my pedagogy (14).1

Keating's transformational multiculturalism has also affected the way that I teach literature by historically oppressed groups. Rejecting the "safe" version of multiculturalism that incorporates "ethnic-specific texts" into course syllabi but fails to "challenge underlying knowledge structures or conventional teaching methods" (11), Keating theorizes a "transformational multiculturalism" that "require[s] nonbinary-oppositional epistemological and pedagogical methods that work in the service of social justice" (14). Central to the practice of transformational multiculturalism is self-reflection that "emphasizes both personal and communal agency, complicity, and accountability" (14). In this spirit, I build opportunities for self-reflection into my classes.

Boler's work on the "pedagogy of discomfort" has also been instrumental in the development of my teaching philosophy. Boler writes that such a pedagogy "begins by inviting educators and students to engage in critical inquiry regarding values and cherished beliefs, and to examine constructed self-images in relation to how one has learned to perceive others" (176–77). I often tell my students that learning, by its very nature, is uncomfortable, no matter the subject or the skill. However, I aim to create a comfortable space where students can take intellectual and emotional risks without being ridiculed, shamed, or criticized. Establishing this safe space means recognizing the humanity of each student, a practice that Daniel P. Liston and others (including Simone Weil, Iris Murdoch, Sara Ruddick, and Lisa Delpit) call "attentive love." Liston writes that...


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