CRITICAL LIT THEORY AS PREPARATION FOR THE WORLD (2019 ALAN WORKSHOP SPEECH)

The following is the text of the speech I delivered at the 2019 ALAN Workshop session on November 25, 2019:

Thank you, Jason, for that introduction, and thank you to Steven Bickmore and ALAN for inviting me to speak today. And thank you to all of you who for some reason have not used this to take an opportunity to hit up lunch early.

PREPARING KIDS FOR THE WORLD
I often get the question-about why I chose to write about such a dark, depressing subject as the Drug War in the Philippines, which has taken the lives of over 30k people according to an estimate from the Human Rights Commission. “Isn’t it too depressing?” They ask. “Are teens ready to learn about that?”

If you work with teens, you already know the answer the that question. The real question is are we, as educators, ready?

I heard Jason Reynolds say once, that as people who write for or work with children, we’re not here to protect kids from the world, but to prepare them for it. This is the world. The Drug War in the Philippines is real, as are numerous other violations of human rights occurring all over the globe. It’s our responsibility to teach reality but also to equip them with both the intellectual and emotional capacity to process, respond, and repair the world. Because if we, as writers or educators, don’t examine challenging issues because they’re too controversial or too sad, then we’re turning our students into adults who turn a blind eye to injustice because it’s too controversial or too sad. And, in my opinion, there are far too many of those adults already.

So what’s our role as English teachers? What, exactly, can we do in our classrooms to prepare kids?

I was in the DisruptTexts session on Friday–which was absolutely amazing. They’ve articulated a fantastic framework, and I think what I’m going to talk about today fits into their third core principle: applying a critical lens to our teaching practices.

TEACHING LITERARY THEORY
Specifically, I think part of what we should be doing is explicitly teaching critical literary theory. Of course, that’s some heavy stuff and I think most of us didn’t get any of it until college–if at all. But I think critical literary theory is an essential mode of thinking for making sense of the world everyone should possess. Again, some might be thinking, “Are they ready for it?” I know they are. I’ve been doing it with my own freshmen and sophomores. Yes, these are complex ideas. But when we teach math, we don’t begin with calculus. So I believe we can boil some of these theories down to their core ideas and train learners to apply critical lenses to ANY text.

If we believe that stories shape us, that they shape our world, then literary theory is a tool for allowing us to understand the ways in which they do so. It contextualizes the reason we study stories and literature specifically. It’s about not just teaching kids to read, but teaching them to READ.

Of course, there are many literary theories, but I believe the three foundational ones we can and should start with are feminism, postcolonialism, and Marxism. Each theory presents a counternarrative of equality that stands in moral contrast to the destructive dominant ideologies that have, unfortunately, historically shaped much of our world: patriarchy, racism, capitalism. Over the centuries, these ideologies of male/white/wealth supremacy have worked together to poison so many of our systems, which, in turn, has poisoned so many individuals.

Unfortunately, stories have often been the syringe delivering this poison, convincing or confirming the superiority of one group over another, sometimes subconsciously, sometimes consciously. However, stories can also be the syringe delivering the antidote with messages of equity and love. Equipping our students with literary theory ultimately helps students figure out what’s in the syringe.

USING THEORY TO ANALYZE CHARACTERS
I believe that at its core, teaching literary theory is about teaching students to ask piercing questions. And a good place to begin is by using it as a framework for asking questions about the characters. One can look at each character in a story and ask

1.) Is the character reinforcing ideas about male, white, and/or wealth supremacy, are they challenging those ideas, or are they doing a mix of both? How so? (Evidence!)
2.) Where does that seem to come from?
3.) How does that impact their life and the lives of those around them?
4.) Does the character change in this regard throughout the story? Why or why not?

I think you can use this approach to examine ANY story. Let’s use PATRON SAINTS OF NOTHING as an example.

With a feminist lens, for example, students would hopefully understand the extent to which Tito Maning’s ingrained patriarchal thinking alienates everyone in his family and plays an enormous role in Jun’s death. Or the ways in which ideas about stoic masculinity have negatively impacted Jay by causing him to repress his sensitivity and empathy.

With a postcolonial lens, students would hopefully find much to analyze in Jay’s biracial immigrant identity. The confusion of self he experiences on a daily basis, the loss of language and culture he’s suffered through the pressure immigrants feel to assimilate. The contradictory nature of Tito Maning’s pride in Filipino culture juxtaposed with his colorism.

With a capitalist lens, one would hopefully understand how Jay’s economic privilege isolates him from injustices and makes him complicit. Or how Jun completely rejects the individualistic call to pursue economic success by caring more about the well-being of others, how he rejects the deeply capitalist impulse to ignore and devalue the lives of those lacking material means.

But I also hope they’d discover that learning more about Jun actually prompts Jay to develop. That people can change.

These are just a few examples. I hope students would find much more in the story.

Ultimately, I believe in the full humanity of every single person, so examining the ways in which these ideas play out at the human level is essential to maintaining that humanity. It allows us to decouple the person from the ideas, to understand that our true enemy is not each other, but rather any idea that proposes one particular group is superior while others are inferior. It helps us see that men are not the enemy, but that ideas about male superiority are, to understand that white people are not the enemy, but ideas about white supremacy are, to discover that economically privileged people are not the enemy, but the idea that we should value money above people is.

USING THEORY TO UNDERSTAND SYSTEMS
In the same way we can use critical literary theory to teach students to examine characters, we can and need to use it to examine the overall text itself to gain a deeper understand of how stories shape and are shaped by systems. Here the questions would be similar:

1.) Is the text overall reinforcing ideas about male, white, and/or wealth supremacy, challenging those ideas, or doing a mix of both?
2.) How so? (Evidence!)
3.) How does that impact the audience?

Again, let’s use PATRON SAINTS OF NOTHING to do so. Using a feminist lens, I hope your students would realize how the story is challenging patriarchy in a number of ways: through its depiction of the way masculinity negatively impacts the male relationships. Through its portrayal of sensitive male characters who develop into fuller human beings by learning to grapple with and articulate their emotions. Through its acknowledgment of the male-driven sex-trafficking industry that’s thriving in throughout the country. Through its inclusion of (what I hope are) fully developed female characters.

Using a postcolonial lens, I would hope that your students find my story rejects colonialist ideas in a number of ways. First and foremost by centering a story from a historically marginalized and underrepresented ethnic group (Filipinos are the third largest immigrant group in the US, but one of the most underrepresented in media). By offering nuanced depictions of Filipino/FilAm characters, by showing the joy and love that exist in the community instead of giving you one-dimensional, poverty porn. By calling out the colorism in the Philippines that holds up light skin as the ultimate standard of beauty. By understanding that the Drug War of the Philippines is directly imported from US policy. By learning, as Jay does, about the colonial history.

Finally, using a Marxist lens, I hope students would understand how the story challenges the most dehumanizing aspects of capitalism. By showing how wealth not only insulates people from exploitation, but how they benefit from that. By revealing that the Drug War is perpetuated by capitalistic principles in which police officers get bonuses for killing people and in which a whole new job prospect has arisen where one can be a “vigilante,” paid by the police to murder. By rejecting the notion that we only should be looking out for ourselves.

Again, these are just a few examples. I truly believe students using literary theory to examine the text itself would discover much more.

SO HOW DO WE ACTUALLY DO THIS?
There are endless ways I think you can actually have students engage with texts using critical literary theory. Debates, Harkness discussions, writing projects, podcasts, videos, creative nonfiction, etc. And, of course, there are endless ways to challenge students when they’re ready: secondary sources, primary sources, more nuanced understanding of these three theories as well as introducing other literary theories such as critical disability studies, queer theory, environmental criticism or others. And, of course, you can use this approach with literally any text: the dead white guy canon, MG or YA, poetry, history, movies and TV shows, even one’s own life.

Now, I don’t believe in a one-size-fits all approach to education, so my intention here is not to give you a curriculum or a textbook for teaching critical literary theory in middle school or high school. I think that would actually be a huge disservice. From my point of view, I’m proposing the WHAT, it’s up to you to figure out the HOW. The most transformative and liberational teaching requires creativity, authenticity, cultural relevancy, passion, and personality. It’s up to you–both individually and collectively–to figure out how to make the complex comprehensible for your specific communities and students, it’s up to you–again, both individually and collectively–to figure out the best way to prepare kids for the world, the best way to spread the antidote.

I want to leave you with two final questions you can equip students with as they engage with texts using critical literary theory.

1. As they analyze individual characters or the text itself from these different perspectives and they start to notice inequities playing out in different ways, teach them to ask themselves: How do you feel about that? Give them a safe space to work through and name their emotions. The soul requires it.

2. Then, after they’ve had a chance to do so, you can ask them what I believe is, at the end of the day, the single most important question that hits at the heart of why we do any of this: What are you going to do with those feelings?

Thank you.

 

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