The Benefits and Drawbacks of Specialized Survey Courses
It is entirely possible to complete an Associate’s Degree in English without ever taking a single “specialized” survey course—that is, a course built around identifiable characteristics of the authors, such as Chicano Literature or Queer Film. At Yuba College, for example, the required, “mainstream” courses include composition, critical thinking, and American and English literature surveys. Degree completion also requires six additional units chosen from a list of electives. Of the eleven possible choices, only two are specialized, Women’s Voices and Ethnic Voices, which reinforces the perception of specialized courses (and by extension the works they discuss) as unimportant. This perception is one of many ways that the practice of offering specialized literature courses can be harmful—however, there are just as many ways that it can be beneficial. The solution to the problems this practice raises is not to stop offering specialized courses, but rather to alter the overall curriculum in such a way as to maximize their benefits and minimize their drawbacks. The best way to do this is twofold: one, make mainstream courses more inclusive, and, two, change the way specialized courses are presented.
The most damaging effects of specialized literature courses are that they contribute to othering, the lack of mainstream representation for minorities, and the devaluing of the literature. They contribute to othering because they set minority works apart from the mainstream, the default—and so, by definition, identify them as explicitly “other.” Even the term “minority” in this context is problematic. Specialized courses also contribute to the lack of mainstream representation for minorities because, while many professors still fail to include minorities in their mainstream courses, specialized courses allow them to feel justified in their failure. After all, if there are already designated spaces for minority literature—entire classes devoted solely to it—why should bother expanding required readings beyond works by white, able-bodied, neurotypical, cisgender, heterosexual men, and the occasional female equivalent? This, “they’ll get exposure to those ‘others’ elsewhere” rationalization, allows for the continued exclusion of diverse authors.
In turn, this lack of diverse readings both denies many students’ representation (which studies show has damaging psychological effects, including feelings of alienation, hopelessness, and low self-esteem) and simultaneously perpetuates the already ever-present othering. The devaluing of the literature results from precisely this: professors excluding minority works from the mainstream courses. When material is excluded from the mainstream courses, or included to a lesser extent, it is perceived as less important, less technically skilled, and ultimately less valuable—surely, if it mattered at all, it would be included as prominently as the rest of the greats, and we would read Margaret Atwood alongside Ray Carver, Langston Hughes alongside Theodore Roethke. If we don’t, people assume there must be some failing in the work itself—and so the work continues to be devalued.
The most straightforward way to offset these effects is to make the curriculum in mainstream courses more inclusive. Ideally, this ratio would be as close to equal as possible—“equal” not meaning fifty percent works by cisgender, heterosexual, neurotypical, able-bodied white men, and fifty percent by various minorities, but rather a more accurate reflection of society. In a literature survey course, for example, this would mean selecting works based on trends within eras, and on their influence, with an emphasis on variety among authors. While these criteria might not result in the ideal ratio, they would certainly result in more inclusivity. For example, studying Aphra Behn in as much depth as John Dryden, and Jupiter Hammon (whose work I did not read in the early American literature course I took) in equal depth as, say, Benjamin Franklin (whose work I did read in said course). This increased inclusivity would re-define “minority works” as less explicitly “other.” It would also, by definition, prevent professors from excluding minority works from mainstream courses (intentionally or otherwise), and thus break the cycle of exclusion. This would enable more students to see themselves in literature, reducing the negative effects created by othering and invisibility (lack of representation). Additionally, presenting so-called “minority works” as equal in importance and technical skill would give them credibility in a way that specialized courses do not.
Beyond reducing the negative effects of specialized courses, making mainstream courses more inclusive would make them more academically valid. Surveying a broader range of literature would mean surveying a broader range of perspectives; students would discover opinions, trends, and writing styles that traditional courses overlook. For example, increasing the number of works by writers of color studied in conjunction with postmodernist literature would provide a number of these benefits. It would highlight common sub-trends of postmodernism, such as magical realism, which can be found in many Latin American works, including Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. It would also highlight common themes of discrimination, identity, and solidarity, present in works like Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and in the process showcase valuable, often-overlooked perspectives relating to said themes.
Including such perspectives would result in a richer understanding of literary eras as a whole, and a richer understanding of historical nuances. It would also give students a more accurate view of literature—and history—because they would be surveying multiple narratives rather than generalizing truths from a single narrative. For instance, reading an excerpt of Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery in an Intro to American Literature course gave a classmate of mine a deeper understanding of what newly-freed black people went through in the period following the Emancipation Proclamation, and the class as a whole gained a better understanding of the literary conventions of the time.
There is another, much simpler way to make mainstream courses inclusive: provide more information about the authors, specifically, information about the “invisible” identities so often glossed over. For example, I had a professor assign a piece by James Baldwin, and in the overview of his life neglect to mention that Baldwin was gay. While perhaps not strictly relevant to the work, making Baldwin’s sexual orientation visible would have made a world of difference in terms of inclusivity. There are also cases where providing information about “invisible” identities is relevant to the work. For example, when teaching “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s emotional disorder can provide useful context. However, it is important to note that in order to avoid furthering the stigma and stereotyping that arises from the intersection of mentalism and sexism, discussing the mental illnesses of male writers is equally important—for example, highlighting Hemingway’s mental illness alongside his experiences in the war when discussing his works. A bonus is that revealing this aspect of authors’ identities can help students with emotional disorders feel represented. Additionally, doing so can help lessen the stigma surrounding mental illness because open discussion provides students with context and insight.
Jennifer Zobair discusses this tendency of fiction to enable empathy at length in her piece “The Truth about Multicultural Stories.” In it, she says, “[Multicultural fiction does not exist simply to speak truth to bigotry. And still this is, for me, part of its importance. It is not as good as actually knowing someone, but it is close.” Her principle holds true for more than just multicultural fiction; it applies to any work that enables readers to view groups more complexly, to empathize not only with an other’s experience, but to see them as individual people. This empathy, in turn, can result in a lessening of stigma, bigotry, and othering. I’ve witnessed this myself, both inside and outside of the classroom. For example, after taking a women’s literature course that assigned a number of works by Western feminists, a classmate of mine developed an increased appreciation for their writing—despite previously expressing disdain for the relative triviality of their views and ideals. Outside the classroom, a young cousin of mine, despite previously expressing homophobic views, became much more accepting of LGBT+ people once she read Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments series, which includes a few LGBT+ characters.
It is important to remember there are benefits to specialized courses, even if we build more inclusive mainstream courses. First and foremost, they offer the opportunity for more in-depth study than mainstream courses (which, regardless of increased inclusivity, are often survey courses, designed to give an overview of broad trends and particularly influential works). Specialized courses enable students to reach further, to explore trends within subcategories, and to read more than a scant few authors. In a women’s literature class I took, for example, we were able to look more closely at specific works, explore certain trends in women’s writing and read a broader range of female authors than I had ever previously done in an academic setting.
Secondly, specialized courses typically offer safer discussion spaces for issues raised by the literature. This is the case regardless of whether or not safe discussion spaces are explicitly required by the teacher or syllabus. Specialized courses attract people who have an active interest, and who are therefore less likely to complain about the subject matter, deny the validity of the discussion, or otherwise make having the conversation at all feel unwelcome. This often results in more in-depth, nuanced conversations, ones aware of the complexities of these issues or at least willing to explore those complexities.
The voluntary nature of the specialized courses (which are typically electives) also helps create a sense of community which invites honesty. Junot Díaz speaks about the need for this type of community when describing The Voices of Our Nation Workshop he helped create. In his New Yorker piece “MFA vs. POC,” Diaz describes the writing workshop as: “Something right out of my wildest MFA dreams, where writers of colors could gather to develop our art in a safe supportive environment. Where our ideas, critiques, concerns, our craft and, above all, our experiences would be privileged rather than marginalized; encouraged rather than ignored; discussed intelligently rather than trivialized. Where our contributions were not an adjunct to Literature but its core” (Diaz). This sort of community and discussion space is invaluable in more than just MFA programs—it is an integral part of specialized courses, and largely absent in even the most inclusive survey courses.
For instance, a discussion of Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” would feel very different in a specialized course than it would even an inclusive survey course, as I discovered firsthand. In the survey course, the story’s portrayal of sexism was a focal point of the discussion, but the discussion itself was relatively brief, very past-centric, one-dimensional, and devoid of personal opinions. In the women’s literature course, however, the discussion was longer, and the resulting analysis connected to contemporary concerns, touched on the intersection of sexism and mentalism, and included personal opinions. In short, the conversation was both more nuanced and more engaging than the one I experienced in the survey course—due entirely to the increased depth of study, the sense of community, and the open discussion environment. These are the benefits that specialized courses provide when they are at their best, benefits that academia cannot afford to lose—because losing them means depriving students of invaluable information and insight, as well as depriving students of safe spaces for discussion and the representation that is so beneficial and necessary for mental health.
The easiest way to expand the benefits of specialized courses is to change the way they are presented with respect to the literature sequence. Frequently, they are presented as separate from the required courses for the major, or even dismissed as non-essential electives. In all my time at Yuba College, I never had anyone (counselor, faculty, or peer) recommend that I take a specialized course. I never had anyone so much as mention them to me—though I was strongly encouraged to take introductory Shakespeare and creative writing courses. Experiences like this only reinforce the perception of specialized courses as unnecessary or without value. If, instead, they were portrayed as deeper looks into a specific segment of mainstream survey courses (in the same way that Intro to American Poetry classes are seen as deeper looks into a fragment of American Literature classes, for example), it would normalize specialized courses and emphasize their value as areas of in-depth study.
One way to achieve this effect might be to homogenize course titles. Something as simple as adding “Intro to” to the beginning of specialized course titles, so that they match mainstream course titles, could make a world of difference. Another way to achieve this effect might be simply adding more specialized courses where financially feasible (in particular, I’d love to see a queer literature class added to Yuba College’s course catalogue, or courses for individual ethnic groups, rather than having all writers of color lumped into Ethnic Voices). This would enable students to study in even greater depth, potentially in a sequence of courses (because, really, how can women’s literature be reasonably covered in a single semester?).
Utilizing these options in community colleges would greatly benefit students, in that doing so better enables students to view diversity as an integral, valuable part of a literary education. If diversity is presented as a given, students are less likely to dismiss it as unimportant. If it is absent or tokenized, however, it is easily dismissed, and students are less likely to explore specialized courses following transfer—because they have already seen them devalued and portrayed as unnecessary. Utilizing these options would also benefit those students whose goal is an associate’s degree—if only limited diversity is included at the community college level, these students experience only limited diversity throughout the entirety of their college education. Expanding the benefits of specialized courses would give these students a more rounded, equitable education.
Another way to expand the benefits of specialized courses is simple—openly presenting the courses as safe spaces for students. Some specialized courses already do this, but some do not, and standardizing the practice would go a long way in terms of making students feel comfortable and building a sense of community in the classroom. I took a speech class where the teacher was very outspoken about providing a safe space for LGBT+ students, and as a result multiple students felt comfortable enough to talk at length about LGBT+ issues during their presentations, using their personal experiences as anecdotal evidence for their arguments. It was a small gesture, but it had a major, positive impact. I have no doubt that, in a less vocally accepting classroom, some of those brilliant speeches would never have been made—or, had they been, the speakers would have been considerably more wary giving them. Though this was a speech class, a similar effect can be created in literature classes as well, with anecdotal evidence being used in discussions of literary works, rather than explanatory or argumentative speeches. In point of fact, a similar effect can be created in any class, regardless of subject matter—and should, for the best quality of discussion and acceptance for all students.
Not all of the changes outlined above are so minor—some are more major, and would take considerable effort to implement—but they would all have a positive impact on students. Morever, they would positively affect the way we approach the study of literature. They would enable us to view literature, history, and humanity more accurately, to imagine both literature and groups of people more complexly, and to value literary works regardless of authorial origin. These changes create a more ideal learning model, one involving both more inclusive literature survey courses and specialized courses presented on an equal footing—as deeper examinations of areas survey courses have to skim, rather than irrelevant electives. In short, these changes would take the best aspects of both mainstream literature surveys and specialized courses and combine them for maximum benefit while minimizing the drawbacks—and in the process change the status quo for the better.
Faith Denny is an English student at UC Davis. She earned her Associate’s in English from Yuba College. When she isn’t buried under a pile of essays, she spends time taking pictures of her multicultural family, dabbling in creative writing, and wading through the Doctor Who extended universe. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.