Appreciating authors’ work despite allegations

The content of several English classes has become controversial with the recent issue over including authors with assault allegations in class curriculums.
American Studies classes didn’t teach the work of Sherman Alexie this year, though his poems have been taught in the past and AS classes read “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven” last year.
Though he writes from a cultural perspective that is valuable to teach in our classrooms, being one of the few published Native American authors, the sexual misconduct allegations Alexie faces were reason enough to take him off the reading list.
There is a fine line between avoiding a controversial author and cutting out one of the limited Native American voices in literature.
This year, teachers favored Louise Erdrich poetry instead, according to library department chair Erika Immel, who said, “We have this diverse population and we need to collect materials that support all the different backgrounds, voices, and perspectives that the school embodies,” when stocking the library.
For a diverse library, discussions about how balancing culture and perspective change the way we approach texts will become more important.
In research, Immel said, “we are constantly saying who’s the author, why should we believe them, why are they reputable, why do they have the credentials to write that article?”
This academic perspective fits research methods, but in considering individual authors’ backgrounds, Immel said, “There’s a difference between having a literary work on our shelves and saying we support the author. We’re looking at much more than the author when we collect materials.”
There is an important distinction between consuming art and supporting the artist. In a classroom, it depends on the context of the text and the reader’s purpose.
Teachers who believe in the value of a text separate from or despite the author’s actions are clear that they maintain the emphasis on classrooms being safe spaces. Considering the diverse (and unknown) backgrounds and experiences of a class, English teacher Brett Rubin said the department discussed that until an author is “demonstrably convicted,” teaching their works can promote nuanced discussion.
Junot Diaz is the author of “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” a Pulitzer Prize winning novel. Diaz also faces allegations of sexual misconduct and misogynistic behavior.
Some say the situation depends on the gravity of the accusations; in Diaz’s case, the allegations did not compromise his positions as a Pulitzer Prize board member, MIT professor, and fiction editor of the Boston Review, according to NPR.
Despite these allegations against the author, Rubin, who teaches Global Voices, explained that there is a place for Diaz’s text in his classroom because “we can make our way through it and leave an opportunity to talk about it, instead of deciding” any conclusions about the situation or avoiding the discussion altogether.
According to Rubin, this discussion provides “an opportunity to sit with the discomfort, navigate through it, and learn how to contextualize those we might immediately disagree with.”
Studying this text teaches students to have difficult discussions in the context of current events. The context of an author’s experience gives a book more weight when it includes similar experiences, like the published fiction and memoirs of Diaz.
Rubin’s class read articles and discussed Diaz’s sexual assault allegations before reading his book, senior Kara Philoon said.
“This definitely affected the way I read the book and shaped some of my perspectives. I wasn’t uncomfortable reading the book but the allegations were something I kept in mind while reading.”
Rubin emphasized the purpose of this dialogue: “We study art in part to better appreciate a nuance. There’s very little black and white.”
Philoon described a “gray area” of Diaz’s allegations appearing less despicable than confirmed assault. She also said, “I don’t think it can be taught without prefacing the situation before, but at the same time there’s lots of great books written by authors who aren’t in this kind of situation.”
This attitude fits with many situations where consuming art is not the same as supporting the artist. It eventually leads to the question of how much we can separate art from artists, and to what extent artists’ immoral actions can be tolerated.
Discussing stories about sexual assault that have already been told in literature forms a culture that allows people to keep telling their stories. However controversial or disturbing, it may be better that these issues come to the forefront when authors face allegations, crafting literature as a platform for cultural awareness and change.