As part of my MFA funding, I teach composition and a breakout creative writing workshop. In these classes, one of my goals is to read and discuss with my students work by voices they aren’t familiar with—in other words, not white male middle/upper class writers. While I want my students to become better writers, my main goal is to encourage empathy. As an undergraduate, my English professors sold the major as a way to develop empathy.
I believe in the power of literature to create empathy due to my conversion from a conservative to a liberal after a course on African American Literature. My small liberal arts college offered one class that specialized in something other than period-specific literature (ex. Romantic Period). Once I was presented with literature outside my perspective and knowledge-base, my empathy developed at a life-changing level.
I’m critical of academia’s lack of diversity when it comes not only to professors (all the humanities professors at my liberal arts college were white during my time as a student), but also when it comes to the texts they present to students. How can students develop empathy if they aren’t presented with diverse readings? If academia neglects certain voices, genres, and people the students’ chance to expand their worldview in those area shrinks. The books that changed my mind as a college student were written by diverse and usually female writers—Toni Morrison, Arundhati Roy, Harriet Jacobs.
As a speculative writer, I’ve sunk my soul into the personal belief that fantasy and science fiction can create empathy on an even deeper level than literary fiction (fight me). To that end, I’m an advocate of bringing more speculative work into the classroom. My goal is to help students connect the world on the page to their reality and to expand their ideas of what reality is and can be. Ursula K. LeGuin has been one of my go-to writers due to the volume of her short work, and because as a graduate student, Left Hand of Darkness blew my mind for LeGuin’s ability to comment on gender issues through science fiction. Without spoiling the ending, the change in the main character was so profound as to further change my perception of gender.
Some may theorize that a quick fix to the lack of diversity in English courses reading lists is to offer special topics courses. Don’t get me wrong, I love special topics courses and take as many as possible due to their laser focus, but it takes an interested student to sign up. College professors lose a whole swathe of students who need to develop empathy in a certain area. For example, a Literature and Gender course. A homophobic or misogynistic student isn’t going to take that class, but present this person with LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness in the gen-ed contemporary literature class, and maybe something will spark. While Faulkner and Hemingway are praised for their writing and storytelling, these are the types of voices students have been reading and hearing for decades—the white male view of the world.
As an instructor with too little time and too much grading, I get it. Finding and teaching authors outside of the usual cannon takes work, but each semester I interact with forty-eight students. If I can make them read and write about Octavia Butler or LeGuin or Alyssa Wong, I hope it’s a step in the right direction.