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Late to the Party


Robert Delaunay, 1910, La ville no. 2, oil on canvas.

In his insightful contribution to “In These Times,” James Gifford takes inspiration from Woolf to state that on or about November 2016 something fundamentally changed (or rather should fundamentally change) in our teaching of modernist studies. That the election marks a shifting moment in the ways in which we, as pedagogues, approach modern literature is a thought-provoking claim, and certainly I noticed that even in the weeks leading up to November, Orwell’s 1984 taught better in my 2016 classroom than it had in previous years. There seems to be silent agreement among faculty (and in some cases, outright departmental edicts) that the texts we choose to teach should speak to our present political crisis; that we ask authors like Hurston, Orwell, Ellison and Ionesco, or philosophers like Mill and Arendt to provide a blueprint for understanding and combatting the denigration of women and their bodies or the rampant nationalism that sees difference as imminent threat. As an example of this shift, my World War II course was unsurprisingly selected by my department over my more traditional modernist one for the fall 2017 schedule. But as much as I welcome the position that studying modernism can be tied to intellectual and even social activism, I also acknowledge that we are late to a party that we should have been at long ago.

This claim may feel like an attack to many who in response will say, “but we are here now.” This is true. And to be here now is better than not being here at all. But there is a sense in which our quest to find newness in the ways we teach modernist literature in light of the election and the tremendously harmful Executive Orders that have been passed in quick succession these past few weeks should lay bare our own privilege that has kept us from taking such explicit and collective pedagogical action against many of these problems that existed in America prior to November 2016. This is not to deny that there is an urgent need for activism through pedagogy, in part because the devastating impact of this administration has already proven to be widespread. However, if this activism comes without reflection on our own privilege as academics and a wider call for more intersectionality within the field through the texts that we choose to teach and the instructional approaches we take, then any potential for a fundamental shift within modernist studies will have failed. By way of an example, I’d like to share some of my own experiences (and failures) as a first-year Assistant Professor in the CUNY system. What follows is not meant as finger pointing, but rather as a reflection of my own belatedness in this regard; it took my move to New York City to make central to my teaching of modernism the urgency of social action. The City University of New York has been heavily impacted by the recent Muslim ban and the anti-immigrant position of this administration, and this has been especially true at my institution, which is a historically black and brown college in Queens.

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In fall 2016, I was tasked with teaching critical theory. As I gleefully crafted the syllabus (my first syllabus for my first permanent job, hence the excessively exuberant response), I kept in mind that we were on the cusp of a historic election in which the glass ceiling was certainly going to be shattered. I decided to frame the course around female voices and agency, and selected novels accordingly. I wanted my students to meet Mina Harker as scrapbooker-turned-author in Stoker’s Dracula, Lily Briscoe as tortured artist in Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Janie Crawford as storyteller in Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Antoinette Cosway as reluctant revolutionary in Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, and Susan Barton as historiographer in Coetzee’s Foe.

The semester was going as planned. By November we had made our way through four novels and nine theories from structuralism to feminism to ecocriticism. My students were surprisingly quick to gravitate toward post-structuralism’s non-binary thinking as a means of approaching feminism and sexuality in Woolf and were even more adept at discussing the intersectionality of gender, class, and race in Their Eyes Were Watching God. During our discussions and in their writings, the students focused on female agency and power as expressed through art and began to connect it to the progress women had made in the past 80 years.

And then November 8th happened.

I saw my students on November 9th. We had to finish Wide Sargasso Sea and discuss Critical Race Theory. Unlike many faculty across the US who gave eloquent speeches in their classrooms about the election and the reinvigorated need for the humanities (or so their Facebook posts and Twitter feeds would have me believe), I walked into the classroom, sat down, and listened to what my students had to say. Many were shocked. They were lifelong New Yorkers who couldn’t believe people had fallen for “Don the Con.” Some spoke about this man’s comments on gender and race and disability. Some wondered what it would take for a female to become President. Some spoke about actions to be taken: donating, protesting, signing petitions. But some were not surprised. These students reminded me that this world of racism, homophobia, and misogyny was one they had always lived in; this was the America they had always known. And I knew that it was a sign of my own privilege that it was a world I had for the most part avoided. To put it another way, whereas I had always identified with Lily Briscoe and admired Janie Crawford, many of my students identified with Janie and admired Lily.

The outcome of November 8, 2016 changed the tone of the course. Empowerment gave way to frustration and defeat and I can’t help but think that J. M. Coetzee’s Foe was the perfect text for this post-election moment. I had chosen to conclude with Foe because in its avoidance of the oppressive realities of Apartheid (a feature many criticized Coetzee for in the 1980s) the novel is perfect for questioning the identity theories we had already examined. And while we had these conversations, the real significance of reading Foe in December 2016 emerged as one student very colorfully, but accurately stated: “nothing fucking changes.” She was right. For my students, the politics of Foe emerged around gender and race and who could claim power and speak in 2016. The politics of Foe made the texts of Woolf and Hurston seem very much like fiction. For them it was as if Lily had never finished her painting, as if Janie never got to tell her story.

As a reimagining of Robinson Crusoe, Foe answers the unasked question of what would the island have been like with an annoying female go-getter on it (Susan), and how that female—who only wants the true narrative of the island told without any embellishments or lies—fails miserably. My students really disliked Susan. She’s a pragmatist who lectures about facts rather than giving in to the seductiveness of marketable fiction. She has a troubling relationship with the mute Friday that speaks to the overt and structural racism that existed then as well as now. She both plays the woman card and fights back against men who would silence her throughout seven-eighths of the novel only to have a man (Coetzee) take her voice away at the end. Susan was my students’ least favorite character, and yet by the end of the semester she was the character that most epitomized 2016. Susan embodied so many of the characteristics that people disliked about Hillary Clinton and, like Hillary, she had lost.

This fictional and very real loss got my students thinking about the need for a “new feminism” as I could have never imagined. On the last day of class the conversation organically turned from the theme of the course to their own version of feminism, which for many of my students was now inseparable from the modernist women they had loved reading (Woolf, Hurston, and Rhys) and loved reading about (Lily, Janie, and Antoinette). They talked about the power of escaping binary thinking as provided by post-structuralism, but the need to keep identity politics — a “buzzword” of 2016 — at the forefront. For them the combination of reading Woolf, Hurston, and Rhys offered a glimpse of intersectionality that they see as the answer for moving feminism forward. They talked about making a feminism that celebrates the sexually fluid Lily’s diplomacy, the biracial Janie’s determinism, and the colonizer-turned-immigrant Antoinette’s revolutionary fearlessness as she literally burns the patriarchy down. And despite our dislike of Susan as Coetzee wrote her, the students agreed that she was still needed for feminism, not as the center nor as the white savior, but for her pragmatism and drive that a new feminism will continue to need.

My students didn’t always agree in their readings of Woolf or Hurston or Coetzee and they actively disputed one another in class. They also didn’t all agree on what a new feminism should look like; although the consensus was that it should be inclusive. But watching them freely debate Lily’s sexual feelings for Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse or openly discuss the election and its aftermath, and how modernist women’s writing offers a path forward, suggested to me that my decision to actively listen to them at moments of crisis (and non-crisis) rather than speak was the right choice. Listening seems a hackneyed proposal for teaching modernism today. But it works. And in a historically black and brown college, where I am often the only white face in the room, I see it as an essential part of my work when teaching modernism. At York, I’ve taught survivors of domestic abuse, which changes reactions to Their Eyes Were Watching God, and I’ve taught a student from Dominica, who brought historical knowledge to our reading of Wide Sargasso Sea that highlighted the significance of Christophine. I made time for these stories in class and I think our readings of modernism and, indeed, our move toward political engagement, were the richer for it.

Most of my students will be the hardest hit by this administration. They were also the hardest hit by the last administration and the one before that. Yes, my students have been affected by the increasingly anti-Muslim rhetoric and actions of the new administration, but they were also impacted by the hostilities that emerged in the post 9-11 era and the continued military campaigns by both Bush and Obama in the Middle East. My students are certainly exasperated by the ignorance and outright racism of POTUS when he tweets about black culture or the civil rights movement, but they also continue to fight locally in very blue New York City against unjust policing practices and structural racism that didn’t just emerge in November. So yes, it is a good thing that we as academics are here now and are taking steps towards a more politically and socially aware pedagogy. But for my students, and any of those who are most vulnerable, it will mean nothing if this shift disappears following the next election cycle, or impeachment, or even a permanent reversal of the Muslim ban. If I become complacent — if I stop seeking to invite my students’ frustration with modernism’s whiteness, colonialness, and maleness; if I fail to imagine the radical potential of modernism with them through discussion of intersectionality and privilege; if I fail to listen to my students even when what they have to say is hard for me to hear — then my being here now, in these times, will not matter. 

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