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How BU Professors Are Integrating the #MeToo Movement into Curriculum

Students are “hungry to have a place to talk about these issues”

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In their advanced Spanish conversation classes, College of Arts & Sciences lecturers Maria Datel and Elena Carrión-Guerrero explored the connection between the #MeToo movement and #NiUnaMenos—Not One [Woman] Less—a feminist campaign against gender violence started in Argentina.

Students in the Reading American Poverty freshman seminar of teaching fellow Emily Gowen (GRS’16,’21) grappled with how they felt about studying the fiction of prize-winning authors Sherman Alexie and Junot Diaz after women emboldened by #MeToo accused both of sexual harassment.

And in the School of Law seminar Gender, Violence, and the Law, Naomi Mann and Julie Dahlstrom, both clinical associate professors, asked students to consider how #MeToo might lead to new legal remedies for workplace sexual harassment.

Across BU, from LAW to CAS to the School of Social Work and the School of Public Health, as at other colleges and universities across the country, faculty are integrating #MeToo and related themes into courses—even as the movement still plays out in real time across social media and in everyday headlines. In many instances, it’s students who are driving, even demanding, the discussion. It’s an example of how social media is impacting higher education and helping to integrate real-world, sensitive conversations, from #MeToo to #BlackLivesMatter, into coursework with more immediacy, rather than waiting years or decades to reflect back on changed times.

“They’re hungry to have a place to talk about these issues,” says Gowen, describing the debate over Diaz and Alexie as one of “the liveliest class discussions” she’s ever had.

And from Datel: “I’ve never seen students so engaged.”

New territory

Graduate student Derek Curley (Wheelock) says there have been meaningful discussions about #MeToo and related themes in all his classes at Wheelock College of Education & Human Development and in the CAS English department. “The classroom is much more conducive to rational civil discourse than a Facebook page or even a rally,” says Curley, a College of Engineering IT staff member.

Such classroom discussions, faculty say, are layered with complexity and nuance, raising questions there are no easy answers for.

Kaci Tavares, Maurice Lee and Christina Dobbs

Senior Kaci Tavares (CAS, Wheelock) (from left) welcomed the discussion of #MeToo and authors Junot Diaz and Sherman Alexie in Teaching American Literature, a class cotaught by Christina Dobbs, a Wheelock assistant professor, and Maurice Lee, a CAS professor of English. Photo by Cydney Scott

Oscar Wao by itself—it’s brilliant,” says senior Kaci Tavares (CAS, Wheelock), referring to Diaz’s Pulitzer-winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Diaz’s work—and the accusations against him—was part of the discussion in her Teaching American Literature class last fall. “But is it possible to separate the author and their work?”

At Kilachand Honors College this spring, Carrie Preston, a CAS professor of English and of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies and Kilachand director, included Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America on the reading list for the course on Global Health and HIV/Aids she taught with Muhammad Zaman, an ENG professor of biomedical engineering, and Chris Gill, an SPH associate professor of global health.

Preston recalls students’ interpretation of a particular scene where two men role-play a violent, but consensual sexual encounter in a park. “I think it reads in a way that’s different in the #MeToo era,” she says. “Students are attuned to the potential of violence in sexuality in a different way….We have to engage some of these conversations around sexuality and consent in a different way in this era.

“It’s such new territory for everyone,” she says.

Race and #MeToo

Faculty like Preston are not simply engaging students with questions about #MeToo—they are pressing students to think critically about it.

“It’s important to be talking about race and the #MeToo movement,” says Angela Onwuachi-Willig, dean of LAW and a professor of law, an expert in racial and gender inequality and civil rights law. “If you think about the people who are most vulnerable to sexual harassment, it’s been women of color. Women of color are sexually harassed and assaulted at the highest rates.”

In the Gender, Violence, and the Law seminar, students read Onwuachi-Willig’s essay “What about #UsToo—The Invisibility of Race in the #MeToo Movement” (Yale Law Journal, June 2018), where she calls for #MeToo and the anti–sexual harassment movement #TimesUp “to embrace intersectional and multidimensional understandings of sexual harassment and sexual harassment law.”

Grad student Kritika Tara Deb (LAW) says the seminar expanded her view of #MeToo. “There are a lot of biases that need to be broken down,” she says. “We looked at race and gender violence and it goes back to the antebellum period, when women of color were not believed by society when they were raped. People who were black were mainly blamed for what was happening. Their stories were not heard properly. Slavery doesn’t exist anymore, but these biases still exist.”

School of Law Dean Angela Onwuachi-Willig

Angela Onwuachi-Willig, dean of LAW, is the author of the 2018 Yale Law Journal essay “What about #UsToo—The Invisibility of Race in the #MeToo Movement.” Photo courtesy of Onwuachi-Willig

Students and faculty looked back to slavery—and forward to Anita Hill and the Kavanaugh hearings.

In her Feminist Jurisprudence course, gender and the law expert Linda McClain, a LAW professor, included a unit comparing Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings last fall with the hearings for Justice Clarence Thomas in 1991.

Emotional conversations

Last October at SPH, grad student Julia Campbell (SPH), enrolled in Emily Rothman’s seminar on sexual violence, asked if they could discuss the Kavanaugh hearings—and the anger Campbell was feeling about them—in class. Rothman, an SPH professor of community health sciences, responded by convening a public forum on the hearings for the entire Medical Campus.

Across campus this spring, in a CAS basement classroom, senior lecturer Rita Coté and the students in her advanced Italian class touched on Kavanaugh—and Harvey Weinstein, R. Kelly, and Bill Cosby—as they discussed the #MeToo movement, in Italian. Coté wrote vocabulary words on the board: a la Corta Supreme (the Supreme Court), lo stupro (rape), una societa maschilista (sexist society).

The subject has also entered the discussion in SSW classes on trauma taught by Ellen DeVoe, an SSW professor, and lecturer Kathleen Flinton.

But perhaps no #MeToo conversation sparked more debate locally than the one involving Junot Diaz, because of his ties to MIT. The literary and academic communities were divided over the issue. MIT, where the author teaches writing, announced in 2018 that an investigation into his behavior toward students and staff had found no evidence of misconduct, and that he would remain on the faculty.

Referring to the outcome of MIT’s investigation of Diaz, Saida Grundy, a CAS assistant professor of sociology and of African American studies, said by email: “Past that, it’s really the discretion of the instructor to ask if the work has merits worth teaching, given the predilection of the author. But also, such predilections can be fully acknowledged, discussed, and even used to critique authors. Syllabi are not constitutions. They are not canons. They are open invitations to critique scholarship and its creators.”

What makes the cases of Diaz and Alexie especially problematic for professors who discuss their works is that ignoring them would mean ignoring two present-day writers who have garnered huge audiences of younger readers and been celebrated for telling stories about marginalized communities.

Teaching tomorrow’s teachers

“That is the particular difficulty with Diaz and Alexie coming under these accusations,” says Maurice Lee, a CAS professor of English. “These are authors of color who have really broken boundaries in getting included in high school and college syllabi.”

Both authors were on the syllabus for last fall’s Teaching American Literature, a course Lee coteaches with Christina Dobbs, a Wheelock assistant professor of English education.

The course is aimed at Wheelock students and English majors who are thinking of becoming teachers. In addition to Alexie and Diaz, they read a range of authors—Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs (Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl), Maxine Hong Kingston, Jhumpa Lahiri (GRS’93, UNI’95,’97), Carmen Maria Machado, and Sandra Cisneros. They consider which writers are appropriate for high school students and what criteria should be used for making such decisions.

Kellie Desrochers and Naomi Mann

Grad student Kellie Desrochers (LAW) (left) is helping Naomi Mann, a LAW professor of law and an expert on domestic violence, sexual harassment, and Title IX, develop a new Access to Justice clinic, which will include material on #MeToo and intersectionality. Photo by Cydney Scott

Dobbs and Lee reminded their students that being a high school teacher, with all the demands involving curriculum and time, means constantly having to make choices about what to teach—and what to leave out. “There is no perfect choice,” Lee says.

While Diaz and Alexie remained on the Teaching American Literature syllabus, Dobbs says she felt it was important not to ask students in the seminar to “support the authors” by requiring that they purchase their books.

Should the two authors still be taught to high school students? That was a question Dobbs and Lee put to their class.

“The general consensus among a lot of the students was, ‘I don’t think they’re right for younger people,’” Dobbs says. Students cited a number of other authors, whose work also reflects the lives of marginalized people, who could be substituted on high school reading lists for Diaz and Alexie, she says.

A grad student in the class, Ta Xiong (Wheelock), read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian several years ago. “I loved this book,” she writes in an email. “As a person of color myself, I thought it reflected truths that I had rarely seen in books before….When I heard about the allegations of sexual assault against [Alexie], I felt betrayed and conflicted. On the one hand, I enjoyed reading his work. On the other hand, I felt morally obligated to stop supporting him.”

If she were to teach Diaz and Alexie in high school, says Xiong, she would want to raise with her students some of the same questions Dobbs and Lee posed to her class.

“Teenagers make tough judgments all the time in their personal lives,” she says. “With social media and the prominence of the #MeToo movement, this is a topic that many of them either have already heard of or will hear more about later on in their lives.”

In Gowen’s Reading American Poverty class, meanwhile, the students were evaluating Diaz and Alexie for themselves, as readers. After a lengthy discussion, Gowen says, they decided “they would rather be exposed to challenging texts written by challenging, complex people than have their literary educations restricted.”

Freshman Abigail Hulick (CAS) is still wrestling with questions about Alexie and Diaz. “They’re both important voices, but by buying their books, are you also supporting, indirectly, their actions?” she asks. “It’s just very complicated, and I don’t know if there’s a clear-cut answer, but I’m glad we’re having conversations about it.”

Sara Rimer can be reached at srimer@bu.edu.

1 Comments

One Comment on How BU Professors Are Integrating the #MeToo Movement into Curriculum

  • Ashley Slay on 05.09.2019 at 10:57 am

    As conversations about sexual violence become more common in public discourse it is important that we consider survivors of sexual trauma and their loved ones. Engaging students in conversations about sexual violence that challenge rape culture can be beneficial to many students, but for some students these conversations are personal and can be triggering when brought into the classroom. The addition of content warnings to the syllabus and an advanced reminder of when this content will be covered are responsible ways of giving students the option not to engage.

    -SARP Staff

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