Tuesday, January 16, 2018

What about black students in African American literary studies?

Black students working on tablets for activity in an African American literature course

It's possible to spend more than a decade reading scholarly articles on African American literature and see relatively little mention of black students. Scholars will offer in-depth analyses of works by Toni Morrison, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, and others. We will write about the Harlem Renaissance and Black Arts Movement. We'll discuss feminism, intersectionality, anti-black racism, and other key concepts. Yet, concentrated attention to black students is harder to come by. If you're ever interested in looking.

There are many reasons why we have little discussion of black students in the scholarly discourse. For one, scholars think of themselves as being in conversation with other scholars, which thus diminishes the impulse to write about the interests of, say, African American undergraduates, whose interests might not be thought of as advanced by comparison. Second, with so few models writing about experiences working with African American undergraduates, scholars are less inclined to do so.

And there's more. Many professors who are positioned to attend literature conferences and publish scholarship have relatively few black students, even in their African American literature courses. Professors at elite or well-resourced institutions often have lighter teaching loads and fewer African American students than professors at teaching-intensive institutions. By contrast, professors who have heavy teaching loads and work with large numbers of black students tend to have less time and resources to attend conferences and produce scholarly works. (Of course, the template established in the scholarly discourse would not prompt them or anyone to write much about working with black students).

Those are just a few reasons. I suspect there are many more reasons why we haven't seen much writing about what professors are learning and thinking with respect to black students in African American literature classrooms. Yet, we should also consider benefits.

Off the top, we could better serve the students we have and will have in the future if we had more information on what folks (professors and students) have experienced over the last approximately 40 years as courses on African American literature began to appear. We could gain a more complex sense of the field if we had more ideas about how black student interests on canonical texts diverge from the focal subjects of scholars. Over the last 25 years, for instance, we now know that scholars have been especially interested in Toni Morrison's Beloved, Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, Richard Wright's Native Son, and Alice Walker's The Color Purple. Are those works the consensus choice of our students?

African American literature courses first began being offered with regularly after the push for Black Studies courses and programs on college campuses beginning in the late 1960s. That is to say, black students were central to the rise African American literature courses. It seems ironic, if not unfortunate, that those of us teaching African American literature are devoting so little research and writing to the experiences of black students in our classrooms.

A Notebook on Collegiate Students

1 comment:

Jerry W. Ward, Jr. said...

Perhaps CLAJ or African American Review would be receptive to publishing a special issue on this topic.