Thursday, November 6, 2014

Teaching Potentially Controversial Subjects in Literature

Teaching can be nerve wracking. We want our students to succeed, so we don't want to offend them; yet, we don't want to compromise the intellectual integrity of the subject matter and foster banal classrooms

Two of the courses I currently teach especially lend themselves to controversy: Middle East History and World Literature. For this blog post, I will just focus on my literature course, specifically the topics of Christianity and homosexuality.

I have found that many teacher companions to novels ignore Christian themes in novels. Whatever the reason, I disagree with this profoundly. As I teach my students, our identities shape who we are and thus what we write. If an author grew up in a home or a country and was raised with Christianity, it is likely that the influence will show up in his/her writing. Our hope as teachers is that students will leave our classroom and apply the lessons learned to their future endeavors. When students read other novels or are exposed to art and culture, they may need to understand Christian theology to extract meaning.

I will admit that my first attempt at this needed improvement, and I made those improvements and have been successful. For example, after reflecting and revision, my lesson on Christian themes now only applies to exactly what is covered in the novel. I limited the scope and also provided a slideshow presentation, so that what I presented was codified, with no room for misinterpretation. I also presented the lesson with and emphasis on intentionality. I explained exactly why I was teaching the material, asked for immediate feedback from students to see if I violated any sensitivities, and also asked them to limit their own questions to the beliefs, not the validity of the beliefs. (If anyone teaches Chronicle of A Death Foretold,  let me know, and I'll send you the slideshow.) Many of my students had no background in Christian theology and appreciated the lesson.

The second challenging topic is homosexuality. The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde, has homosexual themes. While I don't think it's necessary to dwell on that (just like I wouldn't dwell on the heterosexual nature of a character), it is important to raise the issue because adolescent speak can sometimes be unkind or derogatory. The classroom is a safe space for all learners, and therefore bringing this to the forefront before teaching the novel is critical to its success. I use the commercials to cover this topic. The students like them and understand the message fairly quickly. It is also important because Oscar Wilde was jailed for because of his sexual orientation, and that conversation is also compelling to the students.

I'm curious to hear from other teachers. What other controversial subjects do you broach when teaching literature? How do you mitigate or even embrace the controversy? What is the tipping point when controversy just cannot be addressed, because it will cause too much public or personal strife and detract from student learning?


  1. Racism, Masturbation, Rape, Incest, Substance Abuse, Domestic Abuse, antisemitism...all in 9th grade English - and that's not even counting the sexual punning of Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet.

    Probably the most controversial, sensitive topic though is viewing the representation of Polish people as pigs in Art Spiegelman's MAUS. That is the only time I have had a parent/student challenge the 9th grade novel choices in 17+ years of teaching.

  2. I have used that book before and would have never thought of that. It's so hard not to offend people/ and I also don't want to be offended, so I get it. Although, I'm an absolutist when it comes to reading literature. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, there is a character that is meant to be a bad Jewish stereotype. I did some research on Oscar Wilde and it turns out he wasn't antisemitism. The professor who wrote the article said that the character was meant to parody a Jewish character from another novel. I think as long as the teacher can help students read critically, great literature is critical to their development as readers and even citizens.

  3. Of course, I didn't think of it either...but the issue made me a better teacher of the piece. When I looked past my own initially biased, negative viewpoint of the pig/Pole, I realized that like most of the animals in MAUS, the pig represented both positive and negative attributes. This increased my ability to engage students in a discussion of why all of the animals used in the story are well thought out, purposeful messages.

    I have personally never shied away from teaching a book because of controversy; however, if someone threatened my job over it, I wouldn't jeopardize my career.