The societal tensions that we encounter in public and explicitly political venues are likewise present in the university setting, but the classroom is one of the few places in which students have the opportunity to examine what it means to be a social being. As an instructor of language, literature, and culture, my objective is to help students interrogate how narratives construct the identities and institutions that comprise social life and, in doing so, develop the necessary skills to examine their own relationships to various communities.
To this end, I structure class discussions around representations of citizenship and social life, drawing particular attention to fiction’s capacity to deploy competing ideologies. For instance, in my “Advanced Reading and Writing” Spanish course, students scrutinize a novel’s representation of social life by writing analyses in which they interview several characters about what they perceive to be their social rights and responsibilities. I ask them to conclude with an explanation of what they have intuited from the text about the social construction of expected rights and responsibilities, as well as how these issues relate to broader narrative questions and to their own conception of citizenship and social life. This exercise focuses the students’ attention on the function of conflicting perspectives in literature and heightens their awareness of which narrative strategies they find most compelling.
Beyond the study of fictional narratives, I organize readings to guide students’ evaluation of textual authority across a variety of fiction and nonfiction narratives. In a beginning composition course, my students read creative nonfiction by immigrants followed by a contemporary political scientist’s essay on race and immigration. In small groups, they chart out what constitutes evidence in a creative literary genre. Turning to the nonfiction text, they identify the narrative strategies (metaphor, hyperbole) and claims to objectivity that the author deploys to create meaning and establish his legitimacy. In an a special topics seminar on the representation of disability in fiction, I plan to incorporate autobiographical texts by asylum patients, to be read in dialogue with medical texts and literary representations from canonical novels. In this expanded context, students practice scrutinizing narratives as historically-specific productions of knowledge, as well as interrogating the division between fiction and nonfiction genres.
Students enact the broader civic lessons of my course objectives by cultivating a classroom community in which all participants feel comfortable sharing their ideas, even as they learn that intellectual accountability is the cornerstone of productive civil discourse. Whether in a survey course or specialized seminar, I am dedicated to guiding students toward a critical engagement of different subjectivities and how expectations of civic life are socially constructed. Through these lines of inquiry, students develop skills to position themselves intellectually in diverse avenues of discussion as they go on to their academic, political, and public lives.