As I was teaching a research lesson to an AP literature class the other day, a student raised her hand and asked, “Why is this list mostly dead white males?” She had been looking over the chart of author choices for the Novelists of the World project in which the students choose authors, read one of their novels, and use literary criticism to write a thorough paper on a well-researched thesis.
Though the canon may have lacked diversity in the past, it has evolved to include authors from all races and cultures. The AP English teacher and I had worked hard to add diverse authors to the NOW list throughout the past several years. Still, we knew that we were limited by the lack of literary criticism for authors who did not fall into the outdated canon. It remains a dilemma: How do we diversify the author offerings while continuing to teach critical thinking and advanced research skills?
As a librarian who collaborates with English teachers on projects that call for in-depth analysis of literature, I often struggle to find material available for authors including (but not limited to) those of Latinx, African American, Caribbean, Asian, Jewish, and Native American roots. After processing the student’s question that day, my colleague and I took turns explaining to her that we were limited by the lack of literary criticism available for some authors and that she would have a hard time fulfilling the assignment if we allowed her to choose any author.
When teaching high school students to navigate literary criticism on various databases, it’s important to show them how to do extensive searches that yield dozens of results. How do we continue guiding them through this path of literary analysis and information literacy while also expanding their field of subjects? The few times we allowed students to choose a less-studied author, I had to search through outside databases or call academic or public libraries whose research specialists helped me track down a few appropriate articles. Though this helped students get useful material, it did nothing to teach them searching techniques during which they could experience the frustration and satisfaction that comes with doing individual research.
There are academics who are addressing this critical issue. One of them is Stanford University Professor of English Paula Moya. In her book The Social Imperative: Race, Close Reading, and Contemporary Literary Criticism, she examines the works of multicultural writers and literary critics. In addition to discussing the importance of analyzing diverse literature, she provides tools to help readers learn how to read texts closely. In an interview about multicultural literature Moya says, “Literature is one of the most sophisticated ways that people have to both create meaning and to explore meaning” (2015). By encouraging readers to examine texts closely using the context of race and culture, she hopes to expand the field of literary criticism to help people understand the world around us better.
Until we generate more multicultural literary criticism in our society, it’s imperative to be open and honest with students. We can outline the skills they will be gaining by doing an assignment, while also highlighting the limitations that still exist. Most important, though, is to expose students to every kind of literature and create independent assignments that closely analyze the writing of diverse authors. We can also help them find secondary sources that critique these works, if not on the databases, then in reputable newspaper book reviews and other cultural magazines or online sites. Ultimately, we want to communicate to students that the work of authors from every imaginable background is worthy of inquiry.
Moya, Paula M. 2015. “Defining the Humanities: Multicultural Literature.” Stanford Humanities Center. https://paulamoya.com/871-2/.
Moya, Paula. 2015. The Social Imperative: Race, Close Reading, and Contemporary Literary Criticism. Stanford University Press.
Author: Karin Greenberg
Karin Greenberg is a library media specialist at Manhasset High School in Manhasset, New York. She is a former English teacher and writes book reviews for School Library Journal and Woodbury Magazine. In addition to reading, she enjoys animals, walking, hiking, the beach, and spending time with her family. Follow her book account on Instagram @bookswithkg.