On Wednesday, March 14, more than 50 people gathered in Union 227 to share perspectives on recent news stories concerning the author Sherman Alexie, such as the one published with NPR on social media, such as the one by Deborah Miranda.
Faculty, staff, administrators, and students from across Kansas State University, as well as local pre-service and current high school teachers, joined the conversation. Together, we talked through possible responses to a long-standing question: What is the best way to respond, in the words of English Department colleague Traci Brimhall, to “the art of problematic humans”?
Lisa Tatonetti (English) and April Petillo (American Ethnic Studies) provided some context to start the conversation, given their areas of expertise.
Lisa shared her own history teaching and writing on Alexie, his position as an early advocate for queer Indigenous rights, and the painful nature of his abuses of power. Noting the importance of Indigenous women’s voices in the conversation, she concluded with Choctaw/Seminole filmmaker Tracy Rector’s blog post in which Rector recognizes “the all-too-familiar trauma response that is a result of colonization, systemic racism and pervasive toxic masculinity that supports misogyny and male privilege.”
April spoke about the ways the concerns of the conversations intersect directly with the concerns of American Ethnic Studies. She noted the particularly embodied nature of the events and addressed what it means to approach these questions of toxic masculinity when, in this case, Alexie, they arise from a particular colonial history.
We then started a conversation that ranged across a number of topics, raising more questions as we answered others:
~ Under what circumstances should we stop teaching an author’s work? Is it better to teach the author’s work with acknowledgement of the author’s life, or to remove it from the conversation?
~ What does it mean, for Indigenous readers in particular, to lose a hero and role model in this way? How does one heal from this very real and very personal pain?
~ Can an author be separated from the work produced, or are author and work inextricably linked? This thread pointed to the many white creative writers and theorists who are regularly taught in high school and university classrooms even as Alexie is being pulled from such spaces.
~ At what age should we start talking to younger audiences about authors’ lives, in all their complexities? What are the parameters of such conversations in the K-12 classroom, given the constraints placed on teachers by some school boards, principals, and parents?
~ If the author is still alive, will teaching the work bring financial gains such as book royalties to the author, monies that could be invested elsewhere? For example, could we teach works like Elissa Washuta’s My Body is a Book of Rules, Erika Wurth’s Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend, and Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves rather than An Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian?
~ How can we support and mentor developing artists to minimize imbalances of power?
~ What other authors whom we should be reading and discussing so we can be sure to experience diverse perspectives on our world? This question was of particular interest to the high school teachers and in-service teachers who noted the difficulties they encounter having books approved and purchased.
~ How can we support teachers in the K-12 classroom, as they make decisions about using available works and purchasing new ones? Teachers noted that in some cases it had been ten years since there had been funds for new book purchases, which led to a conversation about the numbers of books needed (400 or more copies depending on school and class sizes) and the possible role of K-State in helping to get diverse books into the hands of Kansas students.
As the above list suggests, at the end of the hour, our discussion could be summed up with the phrase “It’s complicated.” It’s complicated because the relationship between life and art is complicated, and because we, as humans, are complicated — in our relationships to our communities, to each other, and to our pasts.
Some noted they will continue to teach Alexie among the array of diverse authors they teach, but will also teach the realities of his actions, while others said they can no longer include him in their curriculums. There were also K-12 teachers who brought the fiscal realities of Kansas classrooms to light, pointing to the fact that English Departments, English professors, and others need to do more than support a #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag — we need to partner with K-12 schools and teachers to help facilitate the change we want to see in curricula and the publishing industry, as the WeNeedDiverseBooks project encourages us to do.
We’re looking forward to continuing these complicated conversations, as we make plans for the future. Most immediately, here in the English Department, we are eager to support colleagues and students in the K-12 classroom as they work through these questions in their local schools. If we can assist, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.