The Politics of Book Selection

For the past two years, I have served on the selection committee for the book that all first years in our introductory writing program read.  The book is always on some sort of broad public controversy that informs the writing assignments and discussion that happens in class.  The graduate student committee puts together a short list from which the department powers that be select a winner.  I am not going to disclose the name of the book that got picked this year, because if people one day find this blog, I can only imagine the comments saying “WHY DON’T YOU LIKE THAT BOOK THAT BOOKS IS AWESOME YOU ARE TERRIBLE,” to which I can only respond: I know.  It is a good book and I have nothing against it or its talented author.  It’s just that given the history of books selected over the past 5-6 years, this particular selection turned what was possibly a coincidence into a trend.

The book that was picked is on environmentalism.  That’s great.  I love the environment.  I’m all for sustainable living and alternative energies and all that.  It was written by a straight white dude and focuses on his white dudely experiences with the aforementioned.  Fine.  That’s just fine.  I have no issues with white dudes.  Some of my best fathers and uncles and grandfathers are white dudes.  It’s just that, well, last year, the book—which was on sustainable agriculture and the locavore movement—was also by a white dude and centered on his white dudely perspective, as was the book before it.  In the past six years, all of the books picked for this program have been written by straight cis-gendered men, and only once–when the author was bi-racial white/Latino–was the author not whitey whitey white white.  That seems like a problem to me, especially in a program that seems to strive for inclusion, that put Zitkala-Sa (a Native American woman) and Gloria freaking Anzaldúa on our Ph.D. qualifying exam.

And it’s not that books by women and non-white and non-heterosexual cis-gendered people haven’t been nominated before.  They have.  I’ve even nominated them myself.  A select few have made the final short list, but for whatever reason, they don’t get picked.  I have a theory about why this keeps happening, and it is not that my department is run by smelly old white dudes (the chair is a dude, but his hygiene seems fine, also young, and the co-chair is a lady).  I think it’s just risk averseness.  These texts keep getting picked because they are “safe.”  We live in a world in which the voices and perspectives of non-white/straight/cis/male people just seem, well, inherently more “political” and therefore more likely to piss off the conservative state legislature, students, parents, and confirm that our school and department are, in fact, the stuff of David Horowitz’s fevered nightmares.

The thing is that the controversies that have come out of these books have tended to be, well, boring.  Like I said, I think sustainable living and ethical food production are very, very important topics, worthy of discussion, but from the perspective of instructors, it was difficult to sustain a semester-long discussion about them.  Students just did not stay engaged in the way we would have hoped, and I think that’s understandable.  It also doesn’t help that many of the recent controversies suggested by the selected books tend to be fairly typical lefty issues, issues that graduate students and professors in English may feel passionate about, but feel simultaneously alien and overplayed to eighteen year olds.  Furthermore, for students who aren’t already inclined to be sympathetic to their positions, these books (which were not without problems) must have felt easy to dismiss.

The first year I taught in this program, we used Luis Alberto Urrea’s The Devil’s Highway (I feel comfortable mentioning it by name since I’m about to give a glowing review), and it was fantastic.  Most of my students had an opinion about immigration, and because this university is in a border state, many of our students had first-hand experiences that they were able to bring to the table.  It was awesome.  Minds were changed.  Simplistic, entrenched viewpoints were reshaped to become either more principled or radically different.  Fantastic discussions occurred.  Beautiful papers were written.  Urrea’s book, if you haven’t read it, doesn’t present a standard left or right viewpoint on the issue but praises the Border Patrol while lamenting the human rights issues that plague the border.  But from what I have heard from graduate students who were on the committee that sent up that book, the department powers that be got really sweaty about it.  The person who nominated it had to fight for it, and I’m sincerely glad that she did.  Urrea’s book isn’t perfect either.  There is a lot of gender fail in there for one thing, but in terms of introducing a compelling, relevant controversy and a well-written, engaging argument that did not center the experiences of white men who can afford to shop at Whole Foods, it was an unqualified success.

So, I’d really like to see more of that and less of what we’ve gotten the past three years and the years before Urrea, but as a member of the selection committee I’m sort of sitting in a big glass house here.  When it’s come time to vote on the short list both years I’ve been on this committee, I too have been persuaded by the idea that X book on sexual issues affecting teens and twenty-somethings (what could be more relevant than that?) will be too awkward in the classroom and potentially get us into trouble, or Y book by a Muslim woman will be too incendiary, even though it calls for mutual understanding between the cultures by speaking directly to young people and is more critical of Iran than of the U.S.  There is always a reason not to champion books like that, especially if you’re already sort of inclined to find one.  It’s always possible to imagine nightmare scenarios in the classroom, and in an age in which non-tenured instructors have become increasingly vulnerable to political backlash, there are reasons to want to protect ourselves.

But pandering is dumb, and it consistently feels like we are designing our curriculum around the most irrational, reactionary student we can possibly imagine, instead of considering that the vast majority of them really, really will be able to handle this and stand to benefit from the kind of lively debate a rhetoric and composition class is supposed to encourage.  In the end it’s insulting to young people and to people who might hold different views than those held by graduate students and professors in English to think won’t be able to cope, though I do get why we think this.  And we certainly shouldn’t be returning to the “safe” white straight cis-dude well as a default response to our fear of controversy.  It’s deploying casual racism and sexism as an antidote to potentially overt racism and sexism, and that’s messed up.

We (I) need to do a better job of fighting for the texts we want to teach.

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