In the wake of #MeToo, how do we teach problematic pieces in the classroom?

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Abhi Sharma/Creative Commons

When my ethnic studies lecturer, Gregory Choy, announced to the class that he was removing Sherman Alexie’s short stories from our syllabus, my body flushed with dread.

As I had suspected, Choy explained that Alexie, an award-winning Native American writer, had been accused by numerous women of sexual misconduct. Since then, Alexie has issued an apology and admitted, “There are women telling the truth about my behavior.”

Alexie’s abuse of power is profoundly disappointing, especially, as Choy said to me in an interview, “given the very qualities for which Alexie’s work has been praised” — namely, his exploration of themes that include the role of oppressive legislation and stereotypes in the exploitation of Native American communities and identity.

It is because of Alexie’s strikingly moving explorations of these themes that over winter break, before the news broke, I reread Alexie’s young adult novel, “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.” The edges of my paperback copy are still sealed with the tape I meticulously applied in middle school to keep the cover from fraying. Now, I am unable to derive the same sense of emotional impact or poignancy from the novel. In order to escape into the story, I would need to forget about Alexie’s transgressions, if only temporarily. I subscribe to the belief that choosing ignorance in order to consume without consideration, however, is morally irresponsible. An easy cop-out, of sorts.

Some might find my internal conflict unrelatable and irrational; there are audiences that are able to maintain a complete separation between artist and art even when watching Woody Allen movies that star Woody Allen acting as Woody Allen. The extent of this ability to dissociate art from artist varies from person to person. Everyone should decide for themselves where to draw the proverbial line.

However, whether institutions, especially institutions of learning such as universities, are able to maintain a separation between artist and art is much trickier.

The extent of this ability to dissociate art from artist varies from person to person. Everyone should decide for themselves where to draw the proverbial line.

Historically, schools have been unable to do so. As Choy pointed out, if the belief that “a work should stand on its own merits” were truly upheld, “we would have been reading and viewing a lot more works by women and people of color for a lot longer than we have been.” But we haven’t.

Instead, many students taught by America’s education system have heard Bartleby say “I’d prefer not to” — so often that they’ve memorized the phrase, and have embarked on a pilgrimage to Canterbury multiple times, but haven’t read Audre Lorde in a class once, myself included.

It is difficult to make the justification that universities have remained or can remain totally neutral — and because of this, the argument that universities’ role is to present works of art by immoral artists as self-contained and autonomous doesn’t truly hold up. Even so, this doesn’t mean that a certain work shouldn’t be taught in a class — specifically, that Alexie’s works shouldn’t have been taught in my ethnic studies class.

When I asked Choy about his decision to remove Alexie from the course, he told me, “I removed him from the syllabus in one class where his works appeared on bCourses, but not from another class, where I had assigned a book that students had already purchased by the time I read about Alexie’s actions — I brought up the allegations about Alexie’s sexual harassment in both classes. I cannot say at this point which move was better.”

Of course, there are convincing reasons not to teach Alexie’s works that are also reasons why I wouldn’t personally return to Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.” It is Alexie’s prominent status in the literary community — especially in the Native American literary community — that protected Alexie from consequence for so long. By not teaching Alexie’s works, teachers contribute to the larger effort to strip Alexie of that status. On a more tangible level, classes wouldn’t be financially supporting Alexie, either.  

Alexie’s works should be recontextualized, so teachers and students can have discussions not just about the alienation Native Americans face in “Blasphemy” but also about the systematic sexual harassment of women in various male-dominated industries and about the separation between artists and their art.

However, as a student who has thankfully never had to make this decision and face the ethical implications of it, I believe that in a classroom setting, there is no need to choose to be ignorant about an artist’s problematic biography in order to effectively analyze and appreciate their work.

Instead, Alexie’s works should be recontextualized, so teachers and students can have discussions not just about the alienation Native Americans face in “Blasphemy” but also about the systematic sexual harassment of women in various male-dominated industries and about the separation between artists and their art. These are conversations that universities have a duty to foster.

But whether you believe teaching or not teaching authors such as Alexie is the moral way forward, both options raise a host of other questions: In the midst of the #MeToo movement, sexual misconduct is what people are primarily contending with when considering the question of separation between art and artist — but are there some crimes artists commit that, unlike sexual misconduct, are not detestable enough to elicit the question of separation between art and artist? When Mark Wahlberg was 16, he viciously assaulted two Vietnamese men, Thanh Lam and Johnny Trinh. From 2014 to 2016, he requested a full pardon, garnering some outcry against his crimes. This brief period of public scrutiny, however, would not stop him from making $68 million in 2017. He was the highest-paid actor that year.    

Some works of art themselves perpetuate a misogynistic message that contributes to rape culture. This is the case with certain paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, including “Thérèse Dreaming,” by Balthus, which depicts a young girl posed in a sexual position. Petitioners have demanded that the museum release explicit statements acknowledging problematic themes in these paintings or remove them from display entirely. Shouldn’t those works be dealt with differently than works that haven’t been criticized for the problematic nature of their content, such as those of Alexie?

In my ethnic studies class, we read excerpts of Jean-Paul Sartre’s essays on existentialism, despite the fact that Sartre sexually groomed many of his underage female students. Is it, then, simply a matter of how embedded an author is in the Western canon and how influential they are?

Choy explained that, because he did not consider Sartre to be a “feature writer,” Sartre’s writings were incorporated into the class to provide historical context and to clarify existential themes studied in the course. “Alexie, by contrast, is a contemporary author whose works would have been featured for the ways they show that American writers of color convey configurations of their worlds that are discernibly different from traditional existentialist literature, which is essentially the subject of the class,” Choy said. In many other classes that teach Sartre as a feature writer or as the featured writer, however, teachers will have to decide how to recontextualize the philosopher.       

And that is what’s essential — that there are teachers such as Choy who care enough to consider the distinction between art and artist and discuss that concern with their students. As with so many issues, there is no concrete way all teachers should approach the works of authors such as Alexie that would be “right.” Every classroom is different, oftentimes wildly so. But whether it is in a classroom or out of it, taking the time and energy to constantly question our relationship to art is not only worthwhile but crucial. After all, there are few things we interact with so frequently that are as intimately and culturally impactful as art.  

 

Contact Angela Yin at [email protected]