In the #MeToo era, teachers tackle the issue of accused authors
As the #MeToo movement continues to shed light on painful stories from women, the careers of the prominent men they accuse have taken a hit. For people in the arts, it's also changed how we view the works they've created, whether it’s comedy by Louis C.K. or movies by Harvey Weinstein.
It's also put high school English teachers in a quandary.
Some very popular authors of young adult fiction have been accused of sexual misconduct, including Sherman Alexie, who grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation and became a literary phenomenon. His young adult book “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” won the National Book Award in 2007 and has become a fixture in many middle- and high-school classrooms.
Earlier this year, NPR reported that 10 women had come forward alleging that Alexie used his power in the literary world to make unwelcome sexual advances and “lure them into uncomfortable sexual situations.” In a statement, he apologized to the people he’s hurt and said “there are women telling the truth about my behavior” and that he’s made “poor decisions.” But he said he has no recollection of physically or verbally threatening anyone or their careers.
Alexie didn’t respond to emails seeking comment for this story.
For English teachers who embraced Alexie’s work as they tried to break out of the dead-white-male canon, news of the #MeToo allegations against him felt like a punch in the gut. They say his work, which is both funny and heartbreaking, has resonated with students — who can relate to his youth as an outsider in an all-white school, growing up in poverty with alcoholic parents. It also offers non-Native people a window into life on an Indian reservation, as well as an example for Native youth who are eager to see people like them reflected in books they read.
One sixth-grade teacher in New York wrote that she was “furious” with Alexie. She said she would stand by the women of the #MeToo movement and stop teaching his book.
LOCAL TEACHERS REACT
Here in the region where Alexie lives, this is something English teachers have been discussing. What do they do with the stacks of books by him sitting in their book rooms next to copies of “Othello” and “The Importance of Being Earnest”?
Hope Teague-Bowling is an English teacher at Lincoln High School in Tacoma.
“I’m not going to lie," she said, "I was definitely disappointed” when news of the allegations against Alexie broke.
The accusations against popular authors put educators in a challenging spot, she said.
“Teachers are facing this idea of what am I going to teach and how do I wrestle with these new developments in terms of what somebody who’s creating great art is producing, at the same time, do we really want to put them in front of kids?” she said. “Is this really safe for students to encounter? How are we going to talk about those difficult things?”
Teague-Bowling said Alexie had become the go-to Native American author. She hasn't been teaching his work in recent years, but she said this is an opportunity to bring in works by other Native writers. For example, she’s used the works of poet Joy Harjo, a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.
A #METOO LESSON IN ENGLISH CLASS
Teague-Bowling's colleague, Kathy Hanawalt, said she's opted to keep using Alexie in class, but adapted the lesson in light of the misconduct allegations against him.
On a recent day, Hanawalt greeted the juniors in her Advanced Placement language and composition class and asked them to break into small groups to discuss Alexie’s “Superman and Me” essay, about how he learned to read from Superman comic books. Lincoln High School allowed us to record the students’ conversations on the condition that we not use their names.
“He just was reading everything – from the back of the cereal boxes to every book in the house,” one young man in the class marveled.
The point of the lesson was to explore how a writer's choices affect his or her relationship with readers – including personal choices. So Hanawalt brought up something she never really expected to have to address in her English class. When she asked students if they had heard of the #MeToo movement, few appeared to know what she was talking about.
“So the #MeToo movement is kind of a word to describe this time and place where more women – and men – are coming forward about their experiences with sexual assault, sexual harassment,” she told them.
She told the students that women have spoken out against Alexie, saying he used his power to pressure them into uncomfortable sexual situations.
“So the question is this – does this matter?” she asked them. “Should schools still use Alexie’s texts?”
In small groups, the students grappled with these difficult issues. One young man said his books should be read because he’s innocent until proven guilty.
But one young woman said she thinks it’s disappointing because he’s become a role model, especially for Native kids.
“But now, he sexually harassed women and it brought that down,” she said. “And being a woman, I don’t like stuff that happens like that because it just makes me extremely comfortable.”
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Incorporating the allegations into a lesson is one approach. But what about teachers who decide to drop Alexie from their syllabus? Is that censorship?
Abena Hutchful with the National Coalition Against Censorship said “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” has repeatedly wound up on the list of most frequently challenged books because of its talk of masturbation and drug use. Her group has defended the book.
“Our role is just to ensure that no student is denied access to a resource or denied access to materials just because of the viewpoints expressed in them,” Hutchful said.
But the coalition takes a more nuanced stance about teachers who want to replace their books by authors facing #MeToo allegations, she said. If there's a thoughtful process of re-examining the curriculum and as long as the school still has the books available if students want them, that's not censorship, she said.
“We think that every school district should have discretion over what they teach and if they choose to modify their curriculum to reflect other voices and to reflect new experiences, we encourage that,” she said.
Hanawalt said her aim is to help students learn how to analyze these questions themselves. Can you read the works in isolation or do the accusations against the author detract from his or her message?
“That’s ultimately the goal – that they are critical readers and that as they go through life, they’ll be in situations where they’ll have to assess the credibility of a speaker, and so that’s really the skill that I’m teaching,” she said.
Cheryl Bockus, who also teaches English at Lincoln, said there’s another lesson for students from these #MeToo allegations against popular authors.
“It’s also an opportunity to talk to students about the repercussions of their actions and how it doesn’t just affect you personally, it can affect you professionally,” she said.