Paulo Freire’s seminal Pedagogy of the Oppressed was published in 1968, just three years after the 1965 establishment of the Western Literature Association. Although Freire’s work wasn’t translated into English until the 1970s, the organization and the field of critical pedagogy both originated when the academy itself was changing in response to student activism in the women’s rights movement, the civil rights movement, and the American Indian movement. These movements’ intellectual aims were similar to those of Freire’s critical pedagogy: to question systems of domination in order to lead to greater critical consciousness and social change. The field of critical pedagogy assumes that “men and women are essentially unfree and inhabit a world rife with contradictions and asymmetry of power and privilege” and that the resulting inequalities are replicated in institutions of public education and higher learning (McLaren 61). In fact, the Western Literature Association was started in response to how knowledge of the West was brokered, distorted, and manipulated by relations of power, place, and privilege within the academy, particularly the dominant northeastern literary and cultural establishment.
A critical pedagogy that emphasizes intersections of theory and practice has been central to the research, teaching, and activism of teachers of western literature as a community of critical educators. While the production of knowledge in the academy and organizations such as the WLA is not free of biases and hierarchies that result in an asymmetry of power and privilege, the educational experience can promote student empowerment and transformation. Western literature teachers join a long line of progressive educators and social activists from the critical pedagogy movement, including [End Page 53] Freire, Ira Shor, Henry Giroux, and bell hooks, whose beliefs promote the possibility of education as an emancipatory enterprise. As educators, members of the Western Literature Association in the past and present aim to train students to be aware of the many sides of social inequalities and to become social justice advocates. The organization has emphasized critical pedagogy issues in relation to the West, particularly the historicity and construction of knowledge of and about the West; literature and the environment; race, ethnicity, and indigeneity; and feminist concerns about gender, women, and sexuality.
In the classroom, western literature educators posit that academic knowledge of and about the West was created in specific historical moments and traditionally understood in the context of the ideology of manifest destiny and the American Dream. To that end, from its founding and into the present day, the field of western American literary and cultural studies has questioned the dominant myth of the cultural, symbolic, and geographic meaning of the West, both in the teaching and research produced by the field. Early on, the journal Western American Literature published articles such as “West as Myth: Status Report and Call for Action” (1966) by Warren French, which, similar to Henry Nash Smith’s Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth (1950), advanced the study of the West beyond the prevailing clichés and conventional understandings of the region. Annette Kolodny’s 1992 “Letting Go Our Grand Obsessions: Notes Toward a New Literary History of the American Frontiers.” took this earlier work even further by dismantling the traditional geographic and linguistic definition of frontier literature. Theoretical developments in “critical regionalism” as applied to the field have given scholars and teachers a method for investigating issues of place, region, culture, and identity in western literary studies (Campbell 2008). Amy T. Hamilton and Tom J. Hillard’s volume Before the West Was West: Critical Essays on Pre-1800 Literature of the American Frontiers (2014) expands the time frame and content of what is considered western American literature and thereby is included in the syllabi of western studies classes in order to transform students’ established understandings of the West and western literature. [End Page 54]
Western literary studies also examines how academia reproduces the power relations of society, especially settler-colonialist dynamics that emerge out of the standard historicity of knowledge about the West. Such understandings of the West have resulted in the destruction of the natural environment and landscape of the West, leading some scholar-teachers in the organization to...