Where’s The On-Ramp: Teaching the Diversity of the Past

Three months ago, we put out a call for practical suggestions on diversifying the study of the past in the literary classroom. What motivated this request was the reality that the energizing critical work on race, gender, sexuality, disability, class, and other identity categories that has steadily remapped the contours of our fields hadn’t been reflected in our pedagogical training. How we’d learned to read didn’t match the traditional (even conservative) courses we’d been taught to teach. The survey Matthew TA’d at Princeton, for example, pitched itself as a “Great Books” class and included neither women nor people of color. Such courses, we agreed, offered a thin and misleading view of the past.

The challenge facing us, as we each started new positions at regional institutions, was how, both practically and ethically, we might learn to diversify our syllabi, to decolonize our instructional practices, to resist the exclusionary uses to which canonical texts have been put, and to think alongside students from a wide variety of backgrounds about the resources literature offers the present. In the wake of mounting white supremacist attacks on our fields and professions, such resistant pedagogy seems absolutely critical.

We say “practically” to emphasize the on-the-ground aspects of rethinking one’s curricula. How does one navigate the vast array of potential scholarly and primary texts to choose works and approaches that will resonate with students? What pitfalls should we expect?  And how do we frame our goals in talking to students, to colleagues, and to administrators? How do we find models for the kinds of classes that we want to offer?

Existing Resources

The best part of putting out that call, and of the subsequent two months of reading and conversation, has been learning about a tremendous array of resources that can help as we tackle these questions. Scholarly organizations such as the Medievalists of Color, the Society for Feminist Medieval Scholarship, and In The Middle have focused diversity and inclusivity aims at the center of scholarship and institutional goals, exposing inequities of representation and access, and a number of online resources and bibliographies offer valuable material for theoretical practical consideration. Most directly related to our concerns above is the extremely useful “ FEATURED LESSON RESOURCE PAGE: Race, Racism and the Middle Ages” compiled by TEAMS, the Teaching Association for Medieval Studies. I would be eager to learn about something similar for early modern studies.

Our work has been vastly aided by two bibliographies of scholarly work on race and ethnicity.

  • “Race and Medieval Studies: A Partial Bibliography” was collaboratively generated and published open-access in postmedieval by Jonathan Hsy and Julie Orlemanski.  A PDF can be downloaded here: https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1057%2Fs41280-017-0072-0.pdf
  • The #ShakeRace bibliography was originally developed alongside the 2015 SAA seminar on early modern race, ethnic, and diaspora studies by Hannah Ehrenberg, with Kim F. Hall and Peter Erickson. Located online here , it is still accepting contributions.

Kevin Gannon (@TheTattooedProf) also has collected a number of resources on inclusive and antiracist pedagogy in his own bibliography, here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1YZpOQWOTsps02k4FHVU_TG3eiHMPAinC6Cw10nyFn9g/.

The collection Teaching Tudor-Stuart Women Writers (MLA 2001) <https://www.mla.org/Publications/Bookstore/Options-for-Teaching/Teaching-Tudor-and-Stuart-Women-Writers> offers a number of useful studies of particular writers and resources, and the forthcoming Shakespeare and the Pedagogies of Justice looks promising as well.

We would also like to single out a handful of particular articles that merit special notice. Luke Fidler’s post on the Material Collective, “Teaching Medieval Art History in a Time of White Supremacy,”  offers an incredibly helpful framework for thinking about course planning, from selecting works to study through planning course discussions. Fidler revised the University of Chicago’s Introduction to Medieval Art course with three goals: “to craft a syllabus that would give my students a sense of the disciplinary conversations around medievalism and white supremacy, Islamophobia, and misogyny… to help my students develop skills that would enable them to recognize and respond to these issues in both popular and scholarly discourses… [a]nd, finally, [to help] them to understand the Middle Ages as the rich, diverse era we know it was.”

His approach offers a useful model for literature scholars, bridging from training students in a “concrete analytical skill” to asking them to “ generate their own robust, persuasive critiques.”

Likewise Sahar Ishtiaque Ullah’s account of adding The Ring of the Dove to Columbia’s “Masterpieces of Western Literature” brilliantly shows how making the absences within a syllabus visible might “unsettle” received “narratives.” Ullah offers mapping, metaconversation, shared reading aloud, and context as strategies that might bring students’ own skills of analysis to bear.

Finally, Leila Norako’s post at In the Medieval Middle, “On Courtly Love and Toxic Masculinity,” models how teaching troubadour poetry alongside the manifesto of the Santa Barbara Shooter allows students to better see the “potential subversiveness” of Bisclavret: “we talked about the fact that the entire court is more willing to believe a dog they just met than a woman they have known (and presumably respected) for years.” Norako offers a splendid account of this approach to literary study: “to learn about the past in order to figure out what we have inherited from it and, in doing so, make ourselves better equipped to identify concepts and paradigms that do more harm than good.”

Moving Beyond Resources: What Is the On-Ramp?

As even this brief catalog makes clear, the challenge of developing a diverse, anti-racist, and inclusive pedagogy does not lie solely in a shortage of resources. Critical work on race, gender, and sexuality is particularly well cataloged, and teaching resources focused on approaches to particular texts abound, particularly in medieval studies, thanks to the work of TEAMS, the Material Collective, the BABEL Working Group, Medievalists of Color, and other organizations. (Again, if similar resources exist for early modern studies, please let us know!)

What’s more difficult, particularly for new, contingent, and heavy-load faculty, is navigating and synthesizing this material into forms where it can directly influence their own classrooms. The challenge of mastering these many swift-moving fields often leads to a kind of pedagogical lip service, including a text or two by women or about race, while leaving the basic contours of traditional curricula unchanged. Alternatively, instructors may not anticipate student responses to a new text or reading, leading to troubling or problematic conversations that result in deeper classroom polarization or unexpected concerns. Teaching difference requires skills beyond reading the scholarship, and too often our most marginalized students bear the cost of pedagogical experimentation.

Given these challenges, we wonder, what are the on-ramps to more inclusive teaching? How might we make it easier for a busy teacher to find the mentors, models, and methods they need to do this work? How, in particular, might nonspecialists gather and utilize the ideas developed in the critical literature, in field-specific conferences, and Twitter threads? How, in other words, might we best share tactics for teaching the past inclusively, for decolonizing our pedagogy, and for exposing students to the wide range of difference present in earlier periods?.

We’re eager to listen to and support any efforts along these lines. Specifically, we think, there is a need for resources that help those scholars who are willing to put in time to navigate the tremendous theoretical and practical work across multiple disciplines essential to how we think about identity across the period. How might we best build on others’ insights and refine our own practices?

Sharing Contributions

To that end, we hope continued sharing of syllabi, lesson plans, lecture plans, and other classroom materials. We’re uploading the ten contributions we received to the website Teaching the Middle Ages in Higher Ed, a site operated by Kisha Tracy and open to all teaching ideas for pre-modern periods. There, they’ll join a host of other resources: syllabi, activities, and more.

The submitted tactics range from specific ideas for showing the ways scholarly editions import our own biases into the past to broader themes that can organize a survey focused on “social identities.” The contributors have a wide range of institutions, fields and titles. Some, such as the Early Women Writers project, solicit further contributions and opportunities for change and growth. We wish to thank those who donated their time to responding to our call, as well as the strong interest our project received online, and to Dr. Tracy for making her website available for hosting. We hope that TDP can be part of a broader push to make antiracist, antisexist, anticlassist, etc pedagogy a central part of all early period classrooms across the US and beyond in this deeply fractious sociocultural moment.