I teach American literature in the public university system of Missouri, the state whose admission to the union as a slave state caused a national crisis, the state where Dred Scott was judged to have “no rights the white man is bound to respect,” the state where Michael Brown’s murder turned Black Lives Matter from a hashtag into a movement.
What resources can literature from the past offer when confronting the urgent present-moment reality of climate crisis? What function should the humanities classroom serve when the future of human life seems increasingly precarious? Anne Raine’s post, “Modernism, Eco-anxiety, and the Climate Crisis,” helped catalyze these questions for me by challenging us “to find ways to make climate change our job.” I’ve been trying to figure out how to meet this challenge in a course I’m teaching on literature and climate justice.
I had not heard of ProctorU software until October 1, 2020 when I noticed that several folks on Twitter, whom I follow for their thoughts on pedagogy, had retweeted and responded to the same upsetting TikTok video I had come across earlier that same day. The video shows a young woman, crying, explaining that she had just failed an online exam not because she had been unprepared but because her professor’s surveillance software flagged her as “talking” out loud while taking the exam.
This is about failure: my own failure to think forward, my own failure to see the future. Perhaps this piece can provide an opportunity to reflect on what can emerge from individual failures as well as our field’s reckoning with its wider failures: failure to grapple with racism and white supremacy, failure to support emerging scholars, failure to intervene meaningfully in the dismantling of the university as a site of serious thought and the generation of transformative ideas.
In 1994, Renaldo Hudson was on death row in Illinois. As we became friends, I knew where I stood in relation to the place where the plan was to kill him. I was not interested in starting a book club there or teaching a class. I was not interested in writing an essay on the literature of resistance.
“I did it again,” confesses Megan Quigley at the beginning of her introduction to “Reading The Waste Land with the #MeToo generation.” Teaching is, of course, an art of doing things again: we repeat assignments, advice, corrections; we repeat our own mistakes and the prejudices we’ve absorbed from our education; we reflect, revise, and begin again.
In the fall of 2019, I taught an advanced undergraduate course I had not offered for three years: “U.S. Poetry from 1900-1950.” Even in previous versions called “Modern Poetry,” my agenda was to decenter the version of modernism handed down to me; in this project I felt fellowship with feminist scholars I read as a graduate student in the early nineties. Decentering involved, at the time, remixing white female experimental poets into the company of male modernist giants.
How did people learn to be queer in an era before stable identities, lifestyles, or representations of sexual outsiders were readily available or, for that matter, before they even existed?
In my first stab at drafting an inaugural post as the new editor of this forum, I went the Raymond Carver route, writing “What We Talk About When We Talk About the Discipline” across the top of a blank page. When that imagined dialogue hung fire for several weeks, I ventured greater specificity, replacing “We” with “I.” Pronouncements still unforthcoming, I searched my hard drive for toeholds. What have I talked about when I’ve talked about the discipline? My Documents folders returned zero hits for the phrase “the discipline.” I tried again, deleting “the” from the search, which revealed that I have only ever used the word “discipline” as a verb or an adjective—most often to describe the reading and writing habits and practices of the subjects of my first book (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein, Henry James, and Nella Larsen). This lacuna was perhaps predictable: in my early career as a graduate student and then an untenured assistant professor, I was more concerned (and more comfortable) with proffering granular descriptions of literary activity in my field than with scaling up grand claims about the literary institution my studies were constituting
Austral summer on the Antarctic Peninsula. Eight of us climb out of our zodiac onto the shore of Petermann Island. This place dazzles and overwhelms the senses. The luminous blue icebergs, granite streaked pink with penguin guano, the weakly green cryoplankton spread across the snow. Antarctica is not the white continent of popular imagination. And it isn’t quiet either. The plangent groans of glaciers crawl across the landscape, reverberating through our bodies. Gentoo penguins squawk atop their stone nests, staring helplessly skyward at the skuas eying their young. We are unwelcome, unneeded guests.