Some basics for talking about racist and gendered texts in the online classroom

Once again, an inquiry from a colleague spurred my thinking about basics of online instruction. This time the colleague asked about how I prepare students for racist and gendered language in literature. It is pretty much a guarantee that students will encounter prejudicial — even hateful — language, imagery, and action in my classes! After all, I regularly teach Milton (Paradise Lost is not a politically innocent poem!) and Shakespeare (think Othello, The Merchant of Venice, and The Taming of the Shrew – all plays that Ayanna Thompson, Professor of English and Director of the Arizona Center for Medieval & Renaissance studies, described as unperformable on a recent episode of NPR’s Code Switch podcast).

So, how do we prepare students in an online learning environment to read, discuss, and analyze texts that reflect histories of bias and violence against people of color, women, the poor, and the disabled, among other historically oppressed groups? Here’s my response – which I hope will be helpful to others!

First, and most simply, I alert students that our readings include biased and violent language, imagery, and events. And I direct them to resources at and beyond my university, including Student Health and Counseling and Title IX resources, that can help them if they experience emotional, mental, and/or physical distress as a result of course materials.

Second, I draw on the expertise of colleagues at my university and in my field to ensure that I am framing texts responsibly. For example, a colleague who is a sociologist and a lecturer in Africana Studies has been incredibly helpful in her feedback on my materials. And I have interviewed early modern literary scholars who specialize on race and include those interviews in my courses.

Third, I give these thorny issues and difficult discussions the time that they require. It can be hard to make the space necessary to establish, build, and develop the space necessary to do this kind of pedagogy responsibly, especially when there’s so much ground to cover. But not doing it well, I believe, can be worse than not doing it at all. 

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