The Elephants in the Classroom

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Though by his own admission he's one of the department's tenured dinosaurs, he maintains he's not a salesman because (unlike his colleague and addressee Yaz McKay) he refuses to 'pander to [his] students': in the previous episode, he looks on from the back of the lecture hall with mounting dismay as she encourages the class they co-teach to approach Moby-Dick as a text ripe for political critique, costumed re-enactment, and adaptation into a parodic rap. Surely not even the most condescending purveyors of for-profit webinars could possibly deny, should they ever be persuaded to crack open The Teaching Archive, the richness and variety of pedagogical practices unearthed therein: from the classrooms of Richards and Edith Rickert, 'which centred the work of consensus-building through the step-by-step establishment of descriptive norms, [...] exposing individual idiosyncrasies to the bracing light of collective scrutiny' in order to 'demystify literary taste' (106), to the 'workshop-style pedagogy' of Josephine Miles' collaboratively taught composition classes (156), the book abounds with evidence that the study of literature has always been about much more than the big bad bogeyman of such webinars, the (gasp, unrecorded!) lecture. Witness the integrationist courses of J. Saunders Redding, the first African American scholar to hold an endowed professorship in literary criticism at an Ivy League institution, which reject the false liberal pluralist 'analogy between inclusion on a syllabus and inclusion in American political life' that is inadvertently fostered by the dutiful addition of minority writers to pre-existing syllabi: by assigning texts such as 'abolitionist speeches by Black writers and anti-historical descriptions of happy enslaved people in the work of white writers', Redding made the point that literary representation is not tantamount to political representation, thereby inviting his students to revalue writings from either side of the colour line by seeing them as answers to 'the demands of political and historical exigency' (113). Alternatively, observe the Native American Arts courses of Acoma Pueblo scholar Simon J. Ortiz, which Buurma and Heffernan argue model 'the difficulty and promise of writing a history that does not separate the practice of critique from the making of culture' (205): in response to 'the pedagogical problem of how to teach a literary historical survey that didn't position contemporary writing as belated or inauthentic', they show how Ortiz's syllabus eschewed chronology for experimentality, inviting his students to read discontinuously across genres and timelines in order to posit 'a new relation between the resurgence of Native American cultural production underway at the moment of his teaching and the millennia-long oral tradition with which the new work enjoyed an important and necessarily complex relationship' (198-9).
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages8
JournalAustralian Humanities Review
Issue number69
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2021
Externally publishedYes


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