Friday, April 15, 2016

Motives: Why Do Politicians and Some Parents Think They Know Better than Teachers How and What to Teach? #AtoZChallenge Letter M

During April I'm participating in the A to Z blogging challenge.
Each day, sans Sunday, offers an opportunity to write about a
letter of the alphabet with the goal of writing 26 posts.
April is also National Poetry Month.
Yesterday Professor Robin Bates of St. Mary's College and the Better Living Through Beowulf blog penned a brilliant response to Virginia state senator Richard H. Black who sent a caustic email to AP Literature and Composition teacher Jessica Berg challenging Berg's teaching of Toni Morrison's Pulitzer Prize winning novel Beloved

Professor Bates argues that Black's opposition to Beloved stems from his own discomfort with women having autonomy over their bodies, especially African American women. It's an excellent analysis of Black's motives. 

Black characterizes Beloved as "profoundly filthy" and "smut." He says the novel depicts "such vile things" and tells Berg she should read "select passages" on the senate floor. That is, Black advocates extrapolating from the novel rather than examining the context and understanding the book as a complete work. Extrapolative reading and using the mechanical claw to retrieve the most provocative passages ignores important themes in the novel. 

Berg responded to Black, and received a follow-up in which he blatantly challenges her expertise: "The idea that you would oppose allowing parents the opportunity to be better informed about what their child is reading is appalling and arrogant. You do not know better than the parents."

Yes, in addition to wanting to control women's bodies, Black's book-banning agenda further undermines professional standards and expertise in teaching. That he thinks he knows more about teaching AP Literature and Composition than AP teachers also motivates the trigger laws Black supports. 

Actually, Jessica Berg does know better than politicians and parents. She and most every other English teacher knows best what to teach in an AP Literature and Composition course. 

We understand that our task as AP Lit and Comp teachers is to instruct high school students as though they are taking a college literature class. That's the design of AP courses. The benefit to students is that they have the opportunity to earn college credit while in high school. They receive an economic and time benefit. Before her students can take the AP Lit and Comp exam, which this year will happen on May 5, AP Lit and Comp teachers submit their course curriculum to the College Board for approval. 

By challenging Berg's right and obligation to teach literary fiction and poetry students could expect to encounter in college courses, Black undermines the academic integrity of all AP courses in Virginia, and such actions can have a ripple effect. 

That is, we are on a slippery slope when we allow politicians and parents who lack the requisite expertise to dictate the curriculum in high school literature classes. 

Black's incompetence to judge Berg resonates in his email. An article in Gawker describes Black's sources: SparkNotes and CliffsNotes. Please. I suspect he has not read nor studied the novel. 

Black's inability to comprehend Toni Morrison's place in American letters begs for her inclusion in AP Lit and Comp. Perhaps Black's close-mindedness results from his not having studied enough literature during his lifetime. As Berg says in her justification for teaching Beloved, 

How are you going to deny students an opportunity to read a Pulitzer-winning book, by a Nobel-winning author, who was recently given the Medal of Freedom by the U.S. president? It's astounding.

I've often referred to teaching as the only profession in which people consider themselves experts because they sat through X number of years in school. I find this attitude insulting. 

As my brilliant student Maddison tweeted to me after reading Professor Bates's post: "Yet Another Gross White Dude in Position of Authority Trying to Control Literally Everything." I couldn't agree more. 


  1. Beloved was serialised on Radio 4 earlier this year and although I didn't get to hear each part I did hear this interview with Toni Morrison on Women's Hour - which you might like to listen to?

  2. The whole world these days seems to be sound bites taken out of context. And usually the bite that is chosen is one to excite. The whole thing drives me crazy.

    If a student is not ready for the subject material in an AP lit class perhaps that's not the right place for them to be.

    1. I agree! I bet "Beloved" isn't the book Berg begins the year with but one she uses toward the end of the course. My AP lit students and I talked about this yesterday as we began reading "Song of Solomon."