Teaching Against the Mainstream

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I just turned in my book list for the courses I will be teaching in the Spring. Both are composition courses, so their default texts aren’t particularly interesting outside of an academic interest, but one of those courses (ENC 1102) is a research writing course, which means I get to teach some literature!

Every time I teach these courses, I try to make the readings accessible and relevant to the present day. Previous renditions looked at war (past, present, and imagined), social media and technology, and, most recently, etc.. Most of my ENC 1102 courses this year have been explicitly political. It’s hard not to be. A lot of writers have talked about trying to be creative in the present political climate. As a teacher, I find that the best way I can deal with what is going on beyond screaming obscenities at my friend on Skype is to turn my courses into productive explorations of our present world. Over the summer, I explored fascism/totalitarianism in literature and the connection such ideas have to our present situation (it’s complicated).

This coming Spring, I’m going to change things up by looking at the U.S. colonial situation. After all, it’s hard to talk about Puerto Rico (right now or ever) without also recognizing the complicated history with the United States. We have to keep talking about Puerto Rico’s “American status” because of a long history of confused, colonial history and self-induced ignorance. It’s not just Trump’s apparent ignorance. It’s U.S. ignorance (by design). As a postcolonial scholar, this conflict of identity and meaning is always part of the conversation when it comes to the U.S. I’m pretty much married to the idea that the U.S. has had a quiet empire for at least 100 years — not so quiet before that, despite protests to the contrary (read McKinley, ffs).

Puerto Rico is one of many conflicted relationships within and outside of the continental United States. By building a course that looks at these conflicts, I hope to spark conversations about indigenous identity, the relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico, and the relationship between the violence inherent in the relationship between colonizer and colonized. It’s literary provocation, if you will. But it’s also an opportunity to make students think about how our present culture is often incapable of actually dealing with these conflicts, either by deliberate design or apathy, etc.

To do that, I’ve decided to assign Flight by Sherman Alexie, The Meaning of Consuelo by Judith Ortiz Cofer, and The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin. I’ve taught two of these books before, one in a class on American Empire (Le Guin) and one in a class designed to challenge the concept of “American Literature” (Alexie). Both are fascinating works for what I hope are obvious reasons, but they are also accessible for students who have little in the way of formal literature “training.” They also take on their subjects fairly directly. The third reading (Cofer) will be a new experience for me as a teacher, since I have not formally explored Puerto Rico in my teaching.1 I’ll couple all of these readings with non-fiction about colonialism, Puerto Rico (past and present), indigenous rights, etc., which will hopefully give students a well-rounded understanding of the issues these groups have and continue to face.

I’d say it’ll be fun, but that’s probably not the right word. Informative, yes. Terrifying, definitely. We shall see!

  1. My research focuses on the Anglophone Caribbean (specifically, the British West Indies), so while I have talked about Puerto Rico in small doses, I’ve yet to really delve into its literature and its political history with students.

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric and Writing at Bemidji State University. He received his PhD in English from the University of Florida and studies science fiction, postcolonialism, digital fan cultures, and digital rhetoric.

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