English department taking submissions to explore social justice in literature

Matt Gad – Contributor

Meredith Sinclair, an assistant professor of secondary education in the English department, is spearheading an effort, tied into the university wide Social Justice Month, to look for books and other works of literature, with themes of social justice.

“There are powerful texts out there that can help us to understand what social justice means and why there’s a need for us to attend to it,” Sinclair said. “I’d hope that folks may be introduced to a book that they had not heard of or that they’d possibly see a new meaning for.”

In the English wing of Engleman Hall, the department will be creating a bulletin board to showcase this effort, which Sinclair said they plan to keep up through next semester. Students, staff and faculty are encouraged to submit works of social justice literature through a Google Forms document.

“We want to find some voices that are different from the mainstream that’s been fed to people through high school and often through college,” English department chairperson Andrew Smyth said. “When people talked about the top 100 books of the 20th century, The Great Gatsby came to the top in almost every list and that was a really important book but what about those books from voices who aren’t always heard so well?”

Through this effort, as well as possible changes in curriculum reading material, the department hopes to influence students in their reading choices outside of class.

“We make the argument through most of our department courses that reading and discussing and writing and thinking about works of literature that raise these issues activate people to do more in their world for social justice,” Smyth said. “How can you read and talk about such things without saying ‘I’m going to be more aware of the fact that maybe we shouldn’t be living behind gated communities?’”

So far, the department has gotten several submissions through their Google setup to bring authors and the stories they are telling, which may not be in the mainstream, to light. Smyth said a lot of the great books in American history and literature have all been written by white men.

“It’s important for us to remember that stories from authors of color and stories from other marginalized communities are American stories and should be read and celebrated as such,” Sinclair said. “Certainly our discipline at the secondary and post- secondary levels has not honored this truth.”

English secondary education majors are required to take a cross- cultural literature course that spends a lot of time focusing on the historical context of the works they read.

“It was really enriching for me,” senior and English (two majors? -eb) secondary education major Madi Csejka said. “And in my British Literature course we read slave narratives and a lot more modern works by minority authors.”

Cresjka said Sinclair is “very outspoken” when it comes to wanting and needing equality in education.

“With the amount of education majors we have it’s very important to make people aware
of the people and literature that have been marginalized,” Cresjka said. “Probably every education major does at least one placement in the inner-city and if you student-teach there it’s great to have exposure to such diverse authors in order to represent all different people to your students.”

Sinclair said the project is “less about diversity picks” and “more about reminding all of us that we must do better in naming what counts as literature.”

“We always talk about how literature applies to human nature but so much of what is taught in schools is white human nature,” Csejka said. “Professor Sinclair’s efforts are great steps in the right direction of thinking about all people when we approach literature.”

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