Discomfort, Empathy, and Risk-Taking: Where Learning Begins

By Jeannette Lee-Parikh

One’s discomfort with any form of difference shouldn’t come at the expense of another person’s ability to survive and thrive as their authentic self. As humanities teachers in a globalized world, we should construct curricula and syllabi that are premised on inclusivity. No single narrative is inclusive. We should strive to be as inclusive as possible despite any discomfort that we, the curriculum designers and teachers, our students, and their parents may feel with any of the myriad types of differences existing in our culture. It is the only way to prepare students to live in an interconnected world.

Reading literary fiction is a particularly low stakes way for students to encounter differences. It is an opportunity to develop empathy, reflect on one’s place in the world, and practice navigating complex social relationships. This is especially true now that the United States is in a historical moment when those of us who have been marginalized continue to assert our voices in powerful and meaningful ways. BIPOC and LGBTQ+ experiences are an essential part of the American story that can no longer be ignored or consigned to an elective or sentence, paragraph, or chapter in a book. And this is what troubles those who yearn for an America that has never existed regardless of how mono-racial their town of origin was and still is: the accounting for a diversity that was always apparent for those who cared to see it.

The notable American fiction of a uniform middle class whiteness can no longer hold, and taking the challenge into legislatures and the courts reveals the existential fears of those who seek to ban books that explore BIPOC and LGBTQ+ experiences. The need to legislate against books and curricula that account for racial, gender, and sexual diversity as well as the United States’ long racist history and present proves that their ideas have already been lost in the education marketplace of ideas, as evidenced by the proliferation of books published, curricula designed, and the library stacks. In a sense, the culture wars have already been won, and its vestiges are only kept alive by the rapacious appetite of a 24-hour news cycle driving the media’s bottom line. Yet the vehemence of those in opposition to tolerance, true freedom of choice, and equality is not new. It has a long history that can be traced back to the religious convictions of the 18th and early 19th-century Counter-Enlightenment Movements.

While the energy of the opposition may not be novel, their bellicosity ironically reveals the wider acknowledgment, if not full acceptance, of diverse voices. Included in this ideological shift is the more terrifying nascent reckoning with privilege for its beneficiaries. Although acknowledgement and reckoning may produce discomfort, their discomfort shouldn’t come at the expense of another person’s ability to survive and thrive as their authentic selves. And this I think is the real value that those of us who are committed to a diverse and inclusive world can teach our students: our discomfort shouldn’t limit us and seek to silence others.

If we value inclusivity, our curricula and syllabi should reflect this value. We should be actively decolonizing our departments not only through book choices but also in how books are combined into a syllabus and classes into a curriculum, that is–what is privileged and why, and the narrative arc of classes, which is the context we use to frame books. Every choice and combination possesses an ideological conviction, however subtle. For instance, in an African literature class that I just finished teaching, I chose to screen a Nollywood (Nigerian film industry) rom-com. This genre of movie primarily focuses on the lives of the wealthy or upper-middle-class and socially connected. I wanted students to see another side of sub-Saharan Africa that only the visual can make tangible. They didn’t realize they have access to these films because Netflix has a licensing agreement with a significant number of Nollywood films. There were many camera pans of Lagos with its skyscrapers, cars, and keke napep (tricycle). I wanted to pivot them from an immediate identification of Africa with sad poverty and political instability to a more complex and nuanced understanding of Africans as fully realized people with a complete range of human emotions, like themselves, navigating vast wealth and class inequities, as they are in the United States.

Our curricula should not only be inclusive of American gendered, racial, sexual, classed, ethnic, and religious identities, but also encompass the international sphere because our students live in a globalized community. We should not be preparing our students to be good at high school or even college; instead, we should be equipping them with the skills to be lifelong learners in an interconnected digital world that we don’t fully know the contours of yet. Accounting for all of these differences can make our students uncomfortable. But learning shouldn’t be safe. Learning is, according to most researchers, a place of risk-taking and discomfort. While we can provide the scaffolding to enable risk-taking, we can also prepare our students for their discomfort by acknowledging it and not using discomfort as an excuse to return to an American fiction of sameness. As such, my English department crafted a statement on discomfort this fall, which we have begun sharing with our students:

We challenge our students to develop a relationship with literature that is rooted in their own lived experiences but also inclusive of difference. In this way, we hope our students will become more empathetic readers and engaged citizens of the world. Literature, like all of the arts, explores the complexities, both joys and hardships, of the human experience. At times, this exploration may produce discomfort, but we expect our students to engage with their and others’ discomfort as they mature into empathetic readers in particular and adults in general.

I challenge all humanities departments to produce a similar statement only if it is an accurate and meaningful reflection of their curriculum and pedagogy. Ultimately, our commitment to our shared humanity negotiating the existential crisis of climate change should have us do our part to create a truly inclusive and equitable society.

This post is part of the #31DaysIBPOC Blog Series, a month-long movement to feature the voices of indigenous and teachers of color as writers and scholars. Please CLICK HERE to read a recent blog post by Patrick Harris (and be sure to check out the link at the end of each post to catch up on the rest of the blog series).

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