Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Teaching Latino Lit: a Letras Latinas Exclusive

Maria, it was you who first gave me enthusiastic "permission" to teach Latino literature, clarifying for me that it was indeed American literature, written for American readers in English.
                                                         —Ann Hostetler

The “Maria” referenced above is Letras Latinas friend Maria Melendez, who graciously accepted the assignment of interviewing Goshen College professor and poet Ann Hostetler. During the years I resided in South Bend, IN full time, I had occasion to forge cordial professional ties with Ann, and the pleasure of interacting with Goshen College students during a visit there a few years ago. The idea for this interview was forged at the last AWP conference in Chicago, where Ann shared with me what sounded like a transformative experience for her: teaching Latino literature for the first time. A biographical sketch for her appears at the end. But first, to ease our way into this stimulating conversation, Maria Melendez has some opening remarks.  —FA

It takes a village to read a work of US Latino literature. Written primarily in English by US writers from a range of Latino backgrounds, the contemporary poetry, fiction and nonfiction broadly categorizable as “Latino” needs the life and light that a variety of readers can bring to it.
         As a way into this “needy lit” train of thought, let’s back up and look at a universally needy genre, perpetually thirsting for its audience: poetry. As one who has made some of the stuff, I can truly say: poetry needs friends. And that’s something I came to love about it. Without its professors, open mic organizers, bookstores, publishers, libraries, festival impresarios, multimedia advocates and dreamy book buyers willing to traffic in poetry’s spark-bearing goods, it would never be able to catch all the way on fire...poetry lives most dangerously and most vitally in those shared spaces between its point of origin and its audiences. This can be true of all literatures, of course, but aw, shucks, poetry, you’re just so...wee, in the great din of everything.
         Poetry needs people to create secluded spaces—a classroom, a stage, a page, a screen—where it can be deeply heard, felt, and responded to. Used. As fuel, as grist, as catalyst. So, too, Latino Literature. When I taught Latino Literature on college campuses, I had the sense that we were diving into something that was going to take time, and care—since we were entering a territory bearing all the richness of any literature, in terms of the psychological magic of symbolism and structure, etc., but which also bore evidence of the wounds in our society. And some of those wounds were mine.
         Thinking back on my teaching experiences, I can see how I may have been too constricted around fear...fear that there would ensue more salting of sore spots as we discussed immigration, linguistic equality, etc. True, those moments did happen, but re-reading this interview I conducted with Professor Ann Hostetler, I’m reminded that real transformation happened, as well. Ann talks about how she had Latino students who were exposed to these, their own literary traditions, for the first time, and how she had non-Latino students proceed through humanizing encounters with Latino characters, thinkers, and creators. Her approach to shared dialogue through blogs and other means, and her insistence that she couldn’t have taught this course without being in continual dialogue with colleagues, illuminates how the real potential in literature is in the new kinds of thinking and feeling it can bring into the world.
         And this requires new kinds of teachers and learners, and opportunities for cultivating the newness in us all, as a village. We are going to encounter the “triggering points” Ann speaks of in our lives together on this earth, ready or we may as well groom ourselves for them with heart and beauty and reflection and openness...the very things literature calls us to. One concrete place campuses (and communities) can begin, Ann notes, is to “start by inviting Latino writers to speak, read, teach and give workshops” and “to actively engage in conversation with students and faculty.” Indeed, you can easily find an all-white faculty at a writer’s conference near you any season of the year, or attend a reading series of all-white presenters. But why be complacent or complicit with that approach any longer, when a critical mass of tremendous literary voices awaits its audience?
         I would add to Ann’s prescient suggestion a caution about gender equity: one man of color does not equality make, in any slate of authors.
         The beauty of an academic setting for the study of literature is that it creates a boundaried space, holding the rest of the world at bay, to provide time for the thoughtful taking into ourselves, and making something of, what writers and their muses have given us. Ann’s use of films, guest speakers, and others’ scholarly and political commentary to hold this space for Latino Literature reminds us that it is a literature in need of many hearts, many voices, and many media, to help it along the way to fulfill its true potential to become “a way of happening.” This is what Auden names as poetry’s highest function, and it is a vital function for all of literature, to be “a way of happening.”
         As creations of the earth, we are the earth, alive and aware, through the enlivening and quickening of our hearts, through our writing and thinking and speaking and creativity sprung from the creativity of literature. The more we open to these processes through literatures and voices and viewpoints that have been marginalized, the more ways we are happening, against and around the forces that seek to still us.

Maria Melendez
Pueblo, CO


Maria Melendez:
Speaking as a writer of “Latino Lit,” I have to say that the idea of making ANY kind of categorical overview about the field can feel both restrictive (in that expectations for my writing may be predictable or predetermined, to some extent) and comforting (when I see myself engaged in shared aesthetic efforts, I realize that successful coverage of any one theme is never up to any one poet, alone).
Speaking as a teacher and reader, I have to say that the practice of a certain kind of “pattern recognition” across the work of numerous Latino poets has been particularly satisfying, in the primal way that any kind of pattern detection can be.
Is there, within US Latino poetry, a kind of “rota”—a set of themes and/or sites that a mature Latino poet can be reasonably expected to address, at some point or another, in her oeuvre?             
Themes shared across Latino poets include: labor, language, sexuality, gender & power, and the relationship of the individual to any of the following: family/church/city/nation(s)/natural world/spirit world. Significant spaces might include: labor site, church, prison, school, kitchen, border. I’d also like to include “the past” and “the economy” as significant spaces. Does this mesh with discussions you had with your students, and/or did your discussions flow in other directions?

Ann Hostetler:
Playfully, let me begin with "yes."  All of the themes you mention show up frequently not only in the poetry, but also in the fiction and creative nonfiction. I would add to your list the related themes of identity, cultural and linguistic mixing, indigenous influences, religion, and code-switching. 
Identity as a theme took on multiple dimensions as writers explored threads of culture, language, history, and contemporary popular culture. Not only did we recognize common themes, we discovered the variety of forms these themes took in the work. An exploration of identity, for instance, can be expressed in the mixing of various registers of vocabulary as well as through different languages.  As readers come to know a poem and decode its lexicon, they participate in re-shaping their experience through reading.  
You allude to the ways in which a category, such as "Latino literature," can feel restrictive to a writer.  I agree.  Added to this is the tendency in our current political climate to reduce the term "Latino" to "undocumented Mexican."
One of the principles behind the design of my course was to bring out the variety and complexity of literature that might be classified as Latino.  I remember one of my early conversations with you about the possibility of teaching Latino literature, and my own reluctance to do so because my Spanish was not very advanced.  "Latino literature is American literature, written in the U.S. by people of Latin American descent for English-speaking readers," you told me.  Your broad definition helped me to see a place for myself as a teacher of this literature, for which I am immensely grateful.
Within the definition of Latino Literature as a form of American literature, there are multiple themes and genres as well as varied histories and relationships between cultures.  One thing my students understand for sure, now, is that a Cuban writer creates out of a different context than a Mexican writer because of a different relationship to culture, history, and the border.  Yet within those categories of Cuban-American and Mexican-American there are still a huge variety of voices and perspectives shaped by gender, education, age, class, relationship to various strands of the heritage, etc.
A common theme among Latino writers from various backgrounds is cultural transition. Above all, the human imagination is alive and at work within these fields of possibility, shaping distinctive visions of reality. Like you, as a poet I don't like to be restricted by someone else's ideas of what "my group" should write about.  Yet I also find critical explorations of group identity to be stimulating, both from the perspectives of reader and writer. As a reader I, too, look for patterns.  
As to your inquiry into the "rota" that Latino writers address (I'll say writers rather than poets, because much of our time was spent on five novels and one work of creative nonfiction, short stories and essays, as well as poetry), I'm wary of making any proscriptive statements. However, my students were asked to choose a theme in the works we read, to respond to that theme as it emerged in various works we read, and to write a final synthesis paper on the ways that this theme was explored in various literary contexts.  Themes they chose to focus on included identity, family, gender, magical realism, religion, border crossing, parent-child, and intergenerational relationships. 
These themes work well across the varieties of Latino literature we studied but also reflect the experiences and developmental interests of 18 to 22-year-olds. The themes of cultural mixing and the creative act of articulating an identity between cultures crossed literary and cultural borders and appeared in every work. 

As a practicing poet yourself, what role did you find examination of “pure” prosody taking, in your classroom? Did the “nuts & bolts” of form, meter, etc., play into your semester at all, and if so, when/how?

Poetry was a thread woven throughout the course. We used it in the introduction to our three units: 1) A new view of American Literature and History, 2) Mexican American Writing, and 3) Island literatures, subdivided into Puerto Rican, Cuban, and Dominican American literature. We also used poetry as the focus of a major project on contemporary writing. So the range of poetry was quite wide in historical and cultural terms, from the work of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz to Brenda Cárdenas.
We looked at form as an element of poetry, but spent more time talking about theme, imagery, and line breaks than about prosody as such. For many of the students, the prose poem was a new concept. Concurrently with this course, I taught an advanced poetry class that focused almost entirely on prosody—but that was a very different course.  
In the Latino literature class, I wanted students to understand just enough about form so that they could appreciate the ways in which linguistic and formal choices contributed to the whole effect of the poem. In the mid-point of the class I asked students to choose a poet featured in The Wind Shifts, the anthology of contemporary poetry edited by Francisco Aragón, and to teach that poet's work to the class through several discussion activities and a presentation (some of these can be found on the blogs students kept for the course).  Because the poems in this anthology offer such fresh, contemporary voices, students really connected with the poetry.
Many found themes in these poems (contemporary settings, sexual orientation, experimental approaches to language) that enhanced those we had encountered in our historical and Mexican-American units (borders, indigenous beliefs and practices, family, gender, code-switching).  Students found many instances of the latter themes in the poetry as well. Because the contemporary selections in The Wind Shifts were so inviting to the reader and our poetry unit was short, I emphasized theme and imagery over form.  If this had been a course focused on the genre of poetry and poetics, I would have included much more on prosody.

This question has to do with the gap between the real and the ideal in today's literature courses. I wonder: are ethnic literature courses necessarily best for doing what we want them to do? Would a multicultural infusion approach, throughout many literature courses, better send the message that Latino lit (and an understanding of Latino cultural contexts) is an essential component of U.S. culture? Does the perpetuation of ethnic lit courses, originally launched as corrective gestures, implicitly leave other courses off the hook, with regards to inclusivity? Or if you feel a Latino Literature course is a good-of-its-kind, what were some "bright moments" in your classroom that might not have happened without the semester-long intensive focus?

This is such an important question, and I think the answer depends on context and emphasis.  At Goshen College, our American literature survey classes treat "American" as a broadly inclusive term, taking a "multicultural infusion" approach.  Yet surveys cannot look at the literature of particular groups in depth, so I think it's important to offer more focused "topics" classes in addition.  
If the classes are focused by genre, such as contemporary poetry, or detective fiction, or memoir, I think it is even easier to get swayed by a racially "white" meta-narrative in the selection of texts if the teacher is not mindful of diversity from the very beginning. If classes are focused on an ethnic or cultural group, the tendency is to emphasize history and sociology more than the literary, and yet such a class offers a rich opportunity for uncovering the wide variety of imaginative productions within the context of the group, as well as specific themes that resonate across literatures.
The course I taught was designed to display a range of Latino Literatures—half focused on Chicano literature, the other half on what I call "Island Literatures": those from Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico. Students could see by comparison that the historical and geographical contexts varied greatly, as did the relationship of the parent cultures to the "Latino" literature.  While each country of origin has a distinct relationship to the United States, immigration to the US (or the shifting borders of American expansionism), has created the category "Latino" in all cases.
A course focused on Latino literature allowed students and professor to create a space of discourse in which Latino was the primary focus, and thus to view American history, literature and culture through that lens, which provides an alternative to the dominant U.S. cultural vantage point.  To be able to make comparisons between Latino texts for an entire semester felt much richer in terms of exploring the culture than, say, just reading one Latino text in the broader context of a contemporary American novel course.  
Some of my students enjoyed finding the mythic, or "magical realist" themes that reappeared across the variety of books we read.  Sometimes the mythic was juxtaposed to Christianity, such as in Bless Me, Ultima. Other times the mythic was a way of narrativizing political dislocation, as in Dreaming in Cuban or The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. This led to discussions in which we juxtaposed "magical realist" styles of Latin American writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez with those of Latino writers.
Choosing a theme and following it through the various literary works we read turned out to be a great pedagogical tool for helping students understand subtle differences between texts. Students were also asked to examine this theme in terms of windows and mirrors—if a student was focusing on the theme of “family,” she could reflect on the ways in which she saw her own ideas of family in the text as well as new and unfamiliar aspects of family.
One of the really interesting moments for me was when several of the non-white males in the class voiced a powerful identification with Junot Diaz's critique of normative hyper-masculinity in Dominican culture in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.  
Another powerful moment was towards the end of our Mexican-American unit, when we viewed 9500 Liberty, a documentary about racial profiling laws that were instituted and then rescinded in Prince William County, Virginia, and then read The Devil's Highway by Luis Urrea.  Together, these two works served as a "triggering point" that helped many students shift their points of view on immigration and the Dream Act, and helped them find empathy with those who are driven to cross the border without documentation.  

What were the most frustrating moments in your classroom, and how did you get around, use, or transform them? I ask because I always feel completely stymied, in teaching Ethnic Lit, when I hear comments like "Langston Hughes is just whining about white people." My blood boils to the point of leaving me speechless!

Having students keep weekly blogs quickly revealed a diversity of opinions and values among students. At the same time, these public blogs made students take more responsibility for their comments and forced them to spend time articulating them. While we had a lot of in-class discussion, the blogs gave some “wait time” to students as they processed their thoughts about controversial issues for a wider audience.
I noticed some surprisingly conservative opinions on immigration on some of the blogs, and occasionally questioned or challenged students in my comments. Sometimes students challenged each other. I wanted to give students tools that would enable them to push beyond their comfort zones, and yet I did not want to force confrontation.  
About a quarter of the way into the class, I asked students to write down all of the prejudices about Latinos they had brought into the class, and then to share in a small group one thing that they had changed their mind about since participating in the class.  I deliberately did not have students share all of the prejudices they had brought into the class with the entire group, because I did not want to set up a finger-pointing situation.  I wanted students to encounter and process their own prejudices on their own terms.
At the end of the class I said that students could turn in their sheets of prejudices to me if they wanted to. Only one student did. Later, one of my non-white students expressed disappointment that we had not more openly discussed these prejudices in class. I deliberated about this, but after some discussion with colleagues, decided not to put anyone on the spot, but to offer students more tools for talking about white privilege and cultural blind spots. I did notice as the class progressed that a few students began to be more forthcoming about prejudice and their willingness to change. Close to the end of the class, I revisited the assignment in small group discussion circles, with more success.  
One of the things I'm studying in a current research project is the "triggering points" that emerge in ethnic literature classes, which have the potential to either "erupt" or to move the group forward in their ability to handle difference, reveal prejudice, and to develop skills in talking about sensitive topics. For me, learning how to negotiate this sensitive process is still very much a work in progress. I am continuing to study this class, exploring how students develop critical consciousness in ethnic literature classes and identifying the triggering points that encourage critical consciousness to develop 
One of the interesting dynamics in this class was that a number of students in the class had studied in Latin America, and many of them had studied, or were even fluent in, Spanish, so many of them came to the class eager to learn and well-prepared, and could serve as resources for me and each other. Thus some of the white students were more fluent in Spanish than the Latino students. 

Do you envision differing "critical consciousness goals" for students from different backgrounds? In other words, how much different is/should the development of critical consciousness be for a Latino student, a multiracial student, or a white student in your class?
And to welcome a variety of readers to this discussion, can you talk about what YOU mean by "critical consciousness"?
What are your preliminary/initial thoughts about these "triggering points," and would it be helpful to you as a teacher if more Latino writers engaged them more consciously?

When Paulo Freire developed the term conscientização, translated as "critical consciousness" or "consciousness raising," he was referring to his work to educate members of Brazil's poorest, illiterate class. Freire, who had spent part of his childhood in poverty, was sensitized to the unfair stigma against this group of people, and insisted that they be treated with respect, as fully developed human beings able to participate in their own liberation.  This included, for Freire, students taking ownership of their own education as well. Thus Freire, through a dialogic method, enabled these students not only to read and write, but to critique the culture that had oppressed them.  
I am using Freire's term in quite a different context. I use “critical consciousness” to denote an awareness of the systems of power and privilege that form our world and shape our positions in it. As to different kinds of critical consciousness, I thought a lot about this in relationship to the variety of students in my class. Without presuming too much, it was clear that some members of my class, particularly white middle class students, had a very different kind of learning to do than the Latino or non-white students. And yet, as I reminded my students, they were ALL privileged to be sitting in a college classroom at a private liberal arts institution.
In the situation I described above—the discussion in which most white students were unwilling to reveal their prejudices in a racially mixed classroom—I became aware that I needed to introduce more discussion of privilege, especially the privileges of citizenship, English language mastery, and whiteness. For white students, acquiring critical consciousness involves developing an awareness of their own privilege—but also their attendant cultural blind spots.   Yet one must be careful of generalizing.  Some white students in my class were very rich in story and access to family history—something we often discussed in relation to the literature.  And yet, other white students had almost no sense of story or family history at all. These students were the most disadvantaged in this class. While they may have had "white privilege," they were in another sense culturally, or "story," deprived.
My non-white students were full of stories and rich experiences of cultural crossing that enabled them to be articulate on topics that white students found more challenging. For instance, they were much more ready to discuss immigration issues, and they were in some cases better informed. My Latino students found the strongest connections with the literature, but this class was also their first encounter with most of these texts. The class was designed to help them develop critical consciousness, but it actually revealed to me that their critical consciousness was already highly developed.
What was less developed among Latino students was an awareness of the rich literary production from their own cultural background. Once exposed to the literature they were able to quickly connect, and to reflect on and recognize aspects of their own experience they had not articulated to themselves before. This speaks to the importance of teaching Latino Literature in the curriculum, whether integrated into an English curriculum or offered as a stand-alone course.
Perhaps the strongest influence from Freire was on my pedagogy. Throughout the class, I structured learning situations in which students would become co-creators of knowledge in this class. This was where my own status as a "learner" was helpful. Although I have taught multicultural American literature for years—with a focus on African American and Native American Literature—this was the first time I had taught Latino literature.
I had researched and prepared the books I was teaching, and had done much background reading, but my Spanish was in a fledgling stage. (In fact, after reading Bless Me, Ultima and creating a glossary of the Spanish in that book, I figured I knew more dirty words than regular words in Spanish.) I had taken no graduate courses in Latino literature. So it was natural to ask the students to become collaborators in the learning process.
Besides keeping weekly blogs (responding to the texts as windows into another world and/or mirrors of their own experience), students gave group presentations on each major work in the class. The student presentation would introduce the text with historical and cultural contexts, critical responses, and pose discussion questions. By working together to present the material, student groups took ownership of texts and invested energy in creating discussion.  
We also used a lot of small group discussion and I gave several short evaluation questionnaires throughout the course to get a sense of student responses.  There still remained a great variety among student perspectives at the end of the class, but all of the students had a broader understanding of Latino imagination and culture, and some of them had shifted out of their own blind spots (white students) while others felt empowered by a greater acquaintance with literature that reflected their own experience (Latino students).  
In response to your question about Latino writers and triggering points—I found all of the texts I taught full of triggering points ripe for discussion. One example would be Ernesto Quiñonez's brief descriptions in Bodega Dreams of two teachers at Julia De Burgos Junior High which his protagonist Chino attends without ever learning that Julia De Burgos was a great Puerto Rican poet. One white teacher tells the Puerto Rican students they will never amount to anything, and one Puerto Rican teacher who demands a lot of his students shows them how to work the system. This scene enabled a Latino student to recognize a learning situation from his past, which he shared with the class. Another example occurred in The Devil’s Highway by Luis Urrea, which draws readers into the vicarious experience of hyperthermia and disorientation. That novel also surprises students with a complex and accurate portrait of the Border Patrol as an organization staffed by human beings.  So I think the lesson here is for readers and teachers to recognize and use these triggering points as teaching moments in their classrooms.  The triggering points arise naturally in the work of writers embedded in and writing out of a cultural matrix.

What were your three most valuable resources beyond the texts, themselves? Did you use Key Terms in Latino Studies or other sourcebooks, or did you cherry pick excerpts from among a number of resources?

AH: My resources for this course fall into three categories: 1) Latino writers and scholars who encouraged and informed me, 2) syllabi and suggestions shared with me, and 3) texts that served as helpful resources. 
First of all I'd like to offer thanks to Rafael Falcon, a writer and former colleague who helped me with many Spanish references as I began to read Latino literature in earnest, and who instructed me on the finer distinctions between Latino groups. His book of stories, Mi Gente, provided a great resource for our students. I am also indebted to Latino writers and scholars who visited Goshen's Campus and who encouraged me in this journey to read, research and teach Latino literature. For this, I thank the English Department, the S.A. Yoder Lectureship, the Office of Multicultural Affairs, and the Center for Intercultural Teaching and Learning who often collaborated to bring guests to campus.
Writers who have personally opened up the world of Latino literature to me and to our students include Francisco Aragón, Brenda Cárdenas, Carlos Cumpián, Maurice Kilwein Guevara, Manuel Martinez, Luis Urrea and you, Maria Melendez. I have also had the privilege of meeting Orlando Menes several times at conferences and have conversed with him about Latino literature and his award-winning poetry.
My colleague Paul Keim in the Bible and Religion department has invited scholar Hector Avalos to Goshen College several times. Hector teaches a course in Latino Literature in the Religion Department at Iowa State, and has written extensively on the subject. He kindly shared his syllabi with me, as did Brenda Cárdenas and others. Maria, it was you who first gave me enthusiastic "permission" to teach Latino literature, clarifying for me that it was indeed American literature, written for American readers in English.
I've discovered that a Spanish dictionary, along with colleagues fluent in Spanish, are essential to getting the most from the reading. Conversation with Spanish speakers from different Latin American countries is a great way to learn about the variations in vocabulary from one group to the next. All of this points to the collaborative nature of learning about Latino literature.  Teaching such a course greatly rewarded me for going beyond my own comfort zone by giving me new friends and acquaintances as well as new pathways for thinking about the big conglomerate that is America and American literature.
I encourage those who want to open up the study of Latino literature on their campuses to start by inviting Latino writers to speak, read, teach and give workshops on their campus  and to actively engage in conversation with students and faculty.
As far as useful resources go, I examined a number of major anthologies in the field, but found many of them prohibitively expensive. The Latino Reader by Harold Augenbraum and Marguerite Fernandez Olmos (Houghton Mifflin 1997), which I ordered as a course text, is both reasonably priced and particularly strong on historical sources.
Students particularly appreciated the historical dimension, since few of them had had any historical context for the literature. Augenbraum and Olmos have also written a critical guide, U.S. Latino Literature (Greenwood 2000) that is quite helpful, even if both are a bit out of date for contemporary selections.
I found Hector Avalos' Strangers in Our Own Land: Religion in U.S. Latino/a Literature (Abingdon 2005) to be remarkably useful, not only for its comprehensive summaries and critiques of many works, but for addressing the variety of religious heritages reflected in the literature from Christianity to Judaism to Santeria. 
Latino Boom by John S. Christie and Jose B. Gonzalez (Pearson Longman 2006) offers succinct background on literary genres and places: its maps and section on "Latino Landscapes" suggested the structure for my course, which focused half the time on Mexico and the border, and the other half on Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican.
The new Norton Anthology of Latino Literature edited by Ilan Stavans (2012) is an impressive resource, but I felt I could not ask students to buy both the stand-alone novels and this large anthology, so I put it on reserve. I asked students to read Stavans's Latino USA: A Cartoon History (Basic Books 2000) to enhance their knowledge of Latino history. It’s packed with information in a graphic novel format, which makes historical background appealing to students without compromising too much of its complexity. I supplemented the history with an Argentinean film on Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (I, the Worst of All) and several excerpts of her work, which was missing from the anthologies I used. Key Terms in Latino Studies looks like a great resource—I've just ordered it to add to my collection. 
Concurrently with the Latino Literature course (Spring 2012), the Latino Student Union offered a film series that greatly enhanced my and my students' knowledge. The series focused on the Dream Act and attitudes towards immigration, and each film was paired with an invited guest who discussed the context and content.  Memorable films in this series included 9500 Liberty, Dying to Live, a film about border crossing that invites viewers to consider their faith in relation to attitudes towards immigration, and Papers, about the Dream Act. To this I added the comedy, A Day Without a Mexican, by Mexican director Sergio Arau. This satire explores blatant stereotypes in a way that forces white students to confront blind spots, even though they tend to laugh off some of the "B" movie aspects of this film. The gorgeous but mis-advertised (as lesbian eroticism) film, I, the Worst of All helped introduce my students to Spanish colonialism in Mexico. El Norte is a film I would consider the next time I teach the course.  Films have a way of focusing "triggering points" for students—the manipulation of religion to disempower an intellectual woman, the effects of unexamined privilege on decision-making, the blatant confusion in people who regard Mexicans as the "illegal aliens" responsible for 9/11, the ways hate groups permeate local elections, the ways communities can organize to counteract such hate groups. Films can also involve students who have trouble extracting the nuances of a written text and create a class experience.

Are you creating the notion of “triggering points” as you go along, or is there already a critical discussion under way in conference presentations, literature about teaching, online discussion boards, etc.? What would be most helpful to you, moving forward, in terms of community? (e.g. online listservs, Facebook pages, conference sessions, published papers, online roundtables, etc.? Think ideally!)

When I was first thinking about critical consciousness as it relates to what happens in college-level ethnic literature courses, I reflected on the "uneasy" moments that often arise in such contexts when a prejudice is suddenly unmasked and students find themselves confronting a conflict with each other or with their own belief systems.
What if we could isolate these moments, understand them, and articulate their potential for opening up the classroom as well as for shutting it down? I wanted to understand these moments better and I'm still in the process of doing so. "Triggering points" seemed to be a good way to describe this phenomenon.
It's a term I've seen used in science to describe a reaction, such as an allergy, set off by the presence of a certain element, chemical or otherwise. As I've scanned the interdisciplinary literature on this topic it also comes up in the context of sociology and social work. It seems that it would be more prevalent in the educational and literary context, too, and perhaps it is already being discussed on discussion boards, etc, but I have yet to find it.  
I'd love to have a cross-disciplinary conversation about this term, as well as to survey teachers of classes on ethnic literature to see what they would describe as "triggering points" in their classes. I hope to do that with the new Identity, Culture, and Community class we are introducing to our new first-year "core" program at Goshen College this fall.  
As far as community is concerned, it would be great to be part of a listserv that addresses issues about triggering points in the teaching of ethnic literature, or even more specifically, Latino literature. At ALA this year I learned about and joined the new Latino Literature and Culture Association, and gave a paper on my critical consciousness research with Latino Literature at a MELUS-sponsored session. MELUS has long been active in Latino Literature scholarship and pedagogy. I also attended a number of Latino Literature and a Diasporic literature session at AWP in Chicago in the spring of 2012. This area of literature and critical studies is burgeoning with creative material—it would be great to find a way to continue the conversation electronically, such as on the MELUS listserv.
Invited roundtables or symposia could be one way that institutions could foster the discussion. Special issues of journals—both print and online—would be another good way to invite new scholarship on the topic, especially since edited collections are hard to market these days. I hope we find a way to continue the conversation, Maria. It has been a pleasure.


Ann Hostetler is Professor of English and Chair of the English Department at Goshen College in Goshen, Indiana where she teaches American literature, with a focus on multiculturalism, and Creative Writing. She is the author of Empty Room with Light: Poems (2002), editor of A Cappella: Mennonite Voices in Poetry (2003), and co-editor of the online Journal for the Center of Mennonite Writing at A recipient of a Wisconsin Arts Board Grant and a residency at Soul Mountain Retreat, Hostetler is both a poet and scholar. Her essays have appeared in PMLA, ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissanc, and The Mennonite Quarterly Review, and her poems in The American Scholar, Nimrod, Poet Lore, The Valparaiso Poetry Review, Washington Square and Making Poems: Forty Poems with Commentary by the Poets (SUNY Press, 2010).  She is currently conducting research on critical consciousness in the college-level literature classroom and learning Spanish.


Francisco Aragón said...

Thank you, Ann, for your sharing these insights with us. And thank you, Maria, as always, for framing these questions in such a way so as to deepen the discussion.

kjp said...

Thank you both for this important discussion, which I will admit, is full of "triggering points" for me, largely because of my personal and professional trajectory with both Chican@s and Mennonites; (I was surprised that it never came up in the interview that Goshen is a Mennonite-affiliated school). In my experience (growing up on another Mennonite campus) and studying creative writing--poetry and then Latino literature in grad. school and teaching in majority Latin@ classrooms, most of the last 20 years, living in Chican@/Mexican descent communities &/or Mennonite ones most of my life, the breakdown of "whiteness" allows all sorts of resonances between Mennonites (and of course, there are many "varieties") and the many Latin@s including, of course those with mixed heritages (meaning like Mexicana and Cubana or PR, or even Mennonite). I carry somewhat different experiences with teaching Latin@ literature and cultural studies and want to introduce poesia en los calles into this discussion. Poetry in the streets, in politics, en la lucha/ struggle may mean you rarely get to teach a "legal" Latin@ literature class, but you use the writing and the experience around you--yes, pedagogy of the oppressed/ Freire... and share the work and connections that you have studied in your PhD program because codeswitching is prohibited in the grade schools on the border where Mexican American literature is rarely taught although it is read across the country now in higher educ. (I will say kudos to Goshen for teaching Latin@ literature and culture. I proposed such a course at Bethel (another Mennonite institution in KS) some years ago, I needed a departmental sponsorship and English Dept. would not do it, so it was doomed, but ultimately the course was accepted by the college curriculum committee but I was never advised of that fact, thus it was never scheduled or taught. My own trajectory goes downhill--through over a decade of continguent faculty positions to the point that, this weekend, I was told to leave the (Mexicana Catholic) liberal arts university, six blocks from my house, where I was watching the white egrets and herons (of Aztlan) because I was a resident of the neighboring barrio and not a student or faculty of that university. Historicization of both form and content is important in any literature/ cultural studies course, imho, thus eliminating the (false) divide between whatever is deemed "classic" literature and "ethnic" literature, univ and community.... It is all living and putting itself out there with its own particular loyalties & deciphering that to the best of our abilities is a whole classroom project...Would love to hear other comments though I dislike typing into and reading out of this little box... If anyone has read this far in this rambling comment and want to hire me to teach, I am job-searching (have to make job contacts as un-employment (sabbatical that contingents never get) requirement. I am usually more cogent, but this piece really hit a lot of triggers--love that term, but not sure about it simultaneously in the current gun-crazy society context...