Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Do black men and women college students respond differently to poetry?

There are considerable reports and coverage on gender and ethnic differences related to the sciences. But for some reason or many, we have less research and writing concerning gender and ethnic differences in the humanities. Much of what we witness is anecdotal.

But even anecdotes are helpful as starting points. (By the way, one reason we have little research in this regard is because of our field's disinvestment in issues concerning pedagogy and students.)

I've wondered over the years whether collegiate black men and women respond differently to poetry. I stumbled onto the question and potential answers based on my coincidental experience of teaching a course for first-year black men over the last 9 years and a course for first-year black women over the last 5 years.

Initially, I was assigning the same poems in both classes, but I began to discover that the women and men, by and large, responded to the poems and poets with different levels of enthusiasm. For instance, all the students are aware of Maya Angelou, but the women, far more than the men, are likely to hold Angelou in high regard and express excitement about reading her poems "Still I Rise" and "Phenomenal Woman" out loud in class. The young men have had more engaging responses to "bad man" figures in poetry over the years. 

(And oh, yes, I'm aware that "gender is socially constructed" and thus so are the ways that men and women respond to poetry.)

Playing to the students' strengths and interests, while also encouraging them to step beyond typical boundaries, has been exciting. Ok, and challenging as well. "If you like those two poems by Angelou, then you gotta check out Nikki Giovanni's 'ego-tripping,'" I've said to the lil sisters the last few years. And if we're covering Giovanni, then we must cover Jayne Cortez and Sonia Sanchez, right?  

A large number of the guys arrive to the class with high rap IQs and appreciation for tales about street life. Accordingly, they express appreciation for Margaret Walker's "Bad-Man Stagolee" and Etheridge Knight's "Hard Rock Returns to Prison From  the Hospital for the Criminal Insane."   

Each semester, in both classes, we usually cover about 30 poems by 15 or so African American poets. Many students often say that prior to my class they've never covered so many black poets and poems. "I refuse to believe that," I always say.  They don't know how much I agonize over the fact that I'm limiting things to just 30 poems.

I become irritated when I think that high school educational systems have deprived the young sisters of gaining access to Margaret Walker, Gwendolyn Brooks, Giovanni, and Cortez. It's not fair that these young brothers have to wait until they're in college to read poems by Robert Hayden, Knight, or Amiri Baraka.

But beyond that, if these young men and women do view and respond differently to poetry then it suggests that we should think about alternative approaches to orienting them to the art form. Faculty and administrators in the computer science program at Carnegie Mellon University did research, including interviews with students over several years and discovered that in order to remove barriers preventing more women from pursing degrees in the field, they must consider "reforming undergraduate science education for greater participation." That includes "trying to establish through the curriculum, pedagogy and culture that there are multiple valid ways to 'be in' computer science."

Perhaps, those of us interested in engaging students in literary art must also make more serious considerations about what shapes students' impressions of and interactions with poetry. 

Collegiate Students

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