Teach This, Not That–Marissa Landrigan

imageI don’t remember the moment I noticed my syllabi were not diverse. Perhaps it was the result of a friend posting an op-ed about inclusivity in the creative writing classroom. Perhaps it was the year Claudia Rankine’s Citizen was published, and I realized I’d never taught a single work by her, one of our country’s most significant living writers. Perhaps I heard my students complaining about the overwhelming whiteness of their literature classes. More likely, it wasn’t a single moment but a dawning realization spurred by all of these factors and an effort to expand my horizons as a reader.

However it began, once I started looking closely, I couldn’t not see it: my syllabi, especially my creative nonfiction syllabus, was unbearably white and male. As someone ostensibly committed to social justice and equality, I was ignoring these principles in one area over which I had complete control. Here was my chance, every single semester, to make sure the students I came into contact with were hearing from people not like themselves, were practicing the radical empathy I espoused in the classroom. I knew I had to fix this.

It’s been a gradual process. I used to require students to purchase The Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction, a collection of essays (edited by two white men) which has only a sprinkling of voices of color. Losing that anthology as a required text was the first step. Then, I had to build a reading list of my own, and I realized while doing so that my own exposure to writers of color, queer writers, and disabled writers was shockingly limited. Off the top of my head, I could only name a small handful. I had to work on myself first.

I started asking for recommendations from my fellow teachers and writers of creative nonfiction, and, crucially, started following their recommendations on social media. Jennifer Baker, Ashley C. Ford, Sonya Huber, Thomas Page McBee, Ijeoma Oluo, and many others like them were invaluable resources as they promoted and encouraged other marginalized writers. I followed all of them and then followed every other writer they mentioned, every suggestion that came across my radar, immersing myself. I haven’t fixed the problem; challenging my own bias is something I have to work at every day, and every time I build a syllabus. But I have better ideas now than before, and I add new voices to my syllabi every semester.

So when, a couple of weeks ago, I read an op-ed by Yvette DeChavez calling for professors to  “decolonize” their syllabi, I decided it was time to make the change more dramatic, more permanent, and hopefully, more impactful. In the Spring 2019 semester, I won’t be teaching any straight, white, cis-male authors at all.

The most surprising thing about making this change is how relatively easy it’s become for me to imagine all the other writers I will have the space to teach; it doesn’t feel like a major loss to eliminate white male voices anymore. It turns out, there’s not a single thing a straight white male writer has done that women, writers of color, queer writers, Native writers, and disabled writers aren’t doing, too. And since white men have been the focus of the literary canon for centuries, I think it’s time we tip the scales in the other direction for a while.

So I’ll be replacing the sprawling, lyric meditations of David Foster Wallace with those of Eula Biss, Lia Purpura, and Ira Sukrungruang, the classical outward-facing personal narratives of Phillip Lopate with those of Zadie Smith, Kiese Laymon, and Esmé Weijun Wang. If I want poignant and insightful pop cultural criticism, instead of John Jeremiah Sullivan, I’ll be reaching for Roxane Gay, Hanif Abdurraqib, or Hilton Als. If I need to make them laugh and cry simultaneously, I’ll give them Samantha Irby, Megan Stielstra, or Daniel Mallory Ortberg instead of David Sedaris.

Ander Monson used to be my go-to for experimental or hybrid forms; now my students will read the collage work of Maggie Nelson, the hermit crabs of Silas Hansen and Randon Billings Noble, the memory excavations of Christine Hyung-Oak Lee. When it comes time to discuss the ethics of facts in creative nonfiction, I’ll happily abandon teaching excerpts of John D’Agata’s The Lifespan of a Fact, an intellectual exercise so removed and self-serving it sounds eerily like Trump team’s “alternative facts” talking points. I’ll replace D’Agata with the searing intermedia work of Karrie Higgins, whose “A Tape Doesn’t Change a Goddamned Thing” reminds us that speaking the truth matters even if no one pays attention, that lies can have devastating consequences.

Not all the white male authors I’ve taught are problematic. (Though I took special glee in replacing Gay Talese after he reportedly couldn’t name any female contemporaries he admired; the old guard of creative nonfiction is represented on my syllabi by Joan Didion and James Baldwin instead.) And certainly, there are writers from other groups who are problematic, too, which is why all the Sherman Alexie essays I teach will be replaced with works by Elissa Washuta, Winona LaDuke, and Terese Marie Mailhot.

I will miss a few writers dearly. It’s hard to imagine not sharing Brian Doyle’s stunning micro-essays and nature writing, or to skip the thoughtful craft essays of Dinty W. Moore. I imagine both those men, and others, will eventually find their way back into my course reading list. But for now I’ll teach nature writing with Chelsea Biondolillo and Meera Subramanian and J. Drew Lanham. My students will read the fierce flash essays of Amy Butcher and Melissa Ferrone and Kelly Morse. Writers like Matthew Salesses and Lily Hoang are doing amazing work reimagining the teaching of craft, and I’ll draw heavily from their work as I think about how to run a workshop, and how to teach revision.

In the Spring 2019 semester, my creative nonfiction students will purchase Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How it Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions, because nonfiction writers ignore their social and political context at their own peril. We’ll talk about the role of the speaker, the failings of memory, the art of the braided narrative, and the limitations of our own perspectives. Honestly, I’d be surprised if many of my students even notice this change. But I’ll know. I’ll know when we read the graphic work of MariNaomi or the fragmented lyrics of Amy Leach. When we read Sarah Sentilles’ “We’re Going to Need More Than Empathy,” and I urge them to think beyond likability or relatability, when I tell them not to shy away from or erase differences, I’ll know that my syllabus matches my rhetoric. Starting now, and every semester moving forward, I’m asking more of them, and of myself, and all of us.

Marissa Landrigan is the author of The Vegetarian’s Guide to Eating Meat, a memoir, and her essays have appeared in numerous journals including The Atlantic, Creative Nonfiction, Orion, Guernica, The Rumpus, Barrelhouse, and elsewhere. She is currently an Associate Professor of Writing at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown.

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