How I Wish I’d Taught Frederick Douglass:
An Examination of the Books and Conversations We Have in Classrooms
Being asked to teach Douglass’s Narrative in a course on the modern personal essay, I was being asked to do what most schools in America do—teach certain texts by black authors that check the right boxes during Black History Month. Instead of devoting a proper lesson plan to Douglass and his work, he was being folded into a different lesson plan, one where it seemed he didn’t totally belong. In doing this, students would be given a simplified understanding of Douglass and his writing that will never become more complex. Much in the same way, we teach young children digestible narratives of other revolutionary figures such as Rosa Parks, Helen Keller, or Martin Luther King Jr. that prevent many from ever learning that Rosa Parks was an more than a sweet old lady on a bus, the extent of Helen Keller’s trailblazing feminist and disability activism, or that MLK held views on racial equality that are still considered radical by today’s standards. When I was handed Douglass’s Narrative to teach, I had only a week to reread the text and incorporate it into my lesson plan, and as someone who doesn’t specialize in the era, I felt I lacked the resources I needed to properly teach the text. Click here to continue reading.
One semester, I was assigned to teach on the third floor of a building. Given the ebb and flow of my fibromyalgia, there was no guarantee on any given day that I could climb the steps. I discovered upon a pre-semester visit to this classroom that this particular building had no elevator. I had to put in a request for a room change with my department chair who had to put in a request with some office or dean until my course was finally moved to a different building. This was not the last time that I would have to seek a room change. As the instructor, I had enough power to change the room, but not so much power that one blanket request worked for every semester. What, I wondered, would happen to students assigned to such an inaccessible room who had signed up for my course? Would they be told they couldn’t take the course? Would they only make this discovery on the first day of classes? Would the class be moved?
In Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education, Jay Timothy Dolmage poses the question “Could we live in a society in which the accessibility we create for one person can also lead us to broaden and expand accessibility for all?” (10). I would further specify this query: How can radical inclusion and access for disabled people transform creative writing education? By putting the fields of Creative Writing Studies and Disability Studies into conversation with inclusive pedagogy scholarship, we might begin to examine how disability and resulting marginalization are treated within academia, creative writing classrooms, creative writing programs, and the literary world. Click here to continue reading.
Another Didion essay I bring into just about every class is “Goodbye To All That,” Didion’s 1967 essay about leaving New York City. I don’t assign per se; instead, I put it up on the projector and I tell the story of how, when I was writing my own essay about leaving New York City, I obsessed over this Didion essay for years. I wanted to know what made it successful, how it seemed to be universal and specific at the same time. So I broke it down, sentence by sentence, often diagramming the more important sentences on the board. It’s all a bit of professor theater, of course. The larger point is to model the kind of slow reading and re-reading that gets lost in classes where hundreds of pages need to be covered each week. Click here to continue reading.