“Don’t Sell Me the Enemy’s Literature”: A Self-Study of Teaching Literature in Politically Fraught Contexts

From Section:
Teacher Education
Mar. 02, 2016

Source: Studying Teacher Education, 2016 Vol. 12, No . 3, 267–283


This article describes a self-study pursuant to a clash between a lecturer and a student concerning the teaching of literature in a politically fraught context. The learning group is composed of Arab and Jewish teachers at a college in northern Israel. The work read by the group expresses a Palestinian perspective. The incident, discussed with reference to the concepts of ethical reading and in-between space, is explained against the background of the lecturer’s professional views and the complexity of teaching literature in a polarized and conflicted society.

Analysis of the incident, accompanied by a look at the professional literature, reveals the lecturer’s blind spots as well as the complexity of the situation in which she was acting. Details of the case and the process of its interpretation may serve to enrich the perspectives of literature teacher educators who believe in ethical reading and in constructing an in-between space in their lessons, providing them with insights regarding teaching in contexts fraught with cultural tensions.

Analysis of my experience helped me understand that challenging students, asking them to critically examine the complex reality they live in, should be done through rich, complex, multi-faceted texts. Such texts will challenge the students’ tendency to defer and evade any attempt to use what they see as a problematic perspective, using the excuse of a debatable literary quality. Such an invitation creates difficulties for students who are not skilled readers, but preserves respect for the learners and appreciation for their abilities, as well as feelings of achievement and satisfaction that they had been able to overcome the difficulty and have enjoyed a complex, multi-faceted, multi-voiced experience.

Lily presented me with a challenge that threatened me and caused me to feel defensive due to my lack of preparedness. I do not feel the same way now. Her claim that my lessons were a political rape is unacceptable to me, as they did not contain an attempt to move her over to my side, but rather an exercise of the ability to try out the other’s or the enemy’s perspective. This Lily refused to do. However, Lily taught me much about the power of students’ expectations concerning the essence of literature learning and about the need to discuss my approach and beliefs concerning the role of literature teaching with the students. Such a discussion about the lenses through which the text will be discussed could create mutual understanding as well as a mutual language to further converse regarding the text being taught. The experience with Lily strengthened in me the understanding that literature teaching cannot be disconnected from decision-making regarding social-cultural-political issues. Politics are present in the literature classroom. A learning process examining how language is influenced by and in turn influences these issues is a critical look at the connections between language and political views. I know now that I have to be prepared to face students’ resentment or defiance, because the critical approach is not easy to adopt and is not always welcomed in the context of my teaching.

Updated: Feb. 07, 2017
Literature | Multicultural classrooms | Research | Teacher education