- Why and How I Teach Southern LiteratureA Work in Progress
to attempt to teach the whole story
"Well," I say, "I believe that the truth about any subject only comes when all the sides of the story are put together, and all their different meanings make one new one. Each writer writes the missing parts to the other writer's story. And the whole story is what I'm after."
"Well, I doubt if you can ever get the true missing parts of anything away from the white folks," my mother says softly, so as not to offend the waitress who is mopping up a nearby table; "they've sat on the truth so long by now they've mashed the life out of it."(Walker 49)
In her 1975 essay "Beyond the Peacock: The Reconstruction of Flannery O'Connor," Alice Walker describes her need to desegregate southern literature, to seek the "whole" story, which includes women and men, black and white (43). Years later, in 2000 in Dirt and Desire: Reconstructing Southern Women's Writing, 1930–1990, Patricia Yaeger describes the need for southern literary criticism to "dynamite the rails" in a similar and expansive fashion: to decenter white male modernist texts and the common tropes and discussions that accompany them (34, 60). During my graduate education, my need to follow in these women's footsteps was paramount, not only to participate in the then emergent field of the new southern studies but also to interrogate mywhite middle-class southern female identity. If, like Walker, I could go after the "whole" story, then [End Page 135] maybe I would understand more about southern cultures and my role therein. However, I neglected to fully consider how that goal would translate into teaching the "whole" story, where I am the "white folks" that Walker's mother describes, in a professorial position of authority, unintentionally—yet undeniably—"mash[ing] the life out of it."
When I finished graduate school at Louisiana State University, I felt armed with so much knowledge, so many texts, so many lenses, so much hope and belief that I could teach the "whole" story. My first opportunity to do so occurred at Columbus State University (CSU), a midsized public regional university in Columbus, Georgia. I have been teaching at CSU for almost ten years, and every semester, I teach students at all levels—in general education courses and upper level English courses—who bring an array of experiences into the classroom. CSU maintains that it has the highest number of African American students for a public regional university in Georgia, just behind the historically black colleges and universities in the state, so my classes are diverse—but not only in terms of race and ethnicity. Students identify as veterans, parents, LGBTQIA, male, female, nonbinary, first-generation, returning nontraditional. While they are mostly from Georgia and Alabama, my students have graduated from one of the best-ranked high schools in Georgia (Columbus High School), been home schooled, and served in the U.S. military. Many of them work full time, and many of them raise children or take care of their family members. While my attention to "wholeness" stems from my identity as a white middle-class southerner, it also stems from my recognition that I teach an incredibly diverse student body, some with very different experiences than my own. I want to be sure that the curriculum reflects their stories but that it also helps them to question and to add to those stories.
That first opportunity to teach southern literature and culture at CSU arrived in 2011, in the form of a general education interdisciplinary studies course that I designed and titled Imagining the South through the Arts, a course that I still teach occasionally. To attempt the "whole" story in this class, I try to widen the scope of what we consider "southern," while at the same time exposing how we construct "southernness." I have adapted this approach from my critical schooling in the new southern studies and in conceptions of a Global South. I define these terms loosely for students and for myself. My understanding of the new southern studies, which...