University of Minnesota
interdisciplinary studies of writing
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Publications abstract: Multicultural Nests: Finding a Writing Voice about Literature by Women of Color

staircaseToni A. H. McNaron, English
Pamela J. Olano, Research Assistant

This project was predicated on the belief that writing about literature written by nonwhite writers must entail a radically different approach. We know by now that it is insufficient and indeed mischievous merely to alter syllabi slightly to include literary works by women and/or ethnic writers. We must design innovative assignments that encourage students to build contexts into which such fictive creations may be placed with less danger of expropriation or simple misreading.

Multicultural Nests, an honors course in Women's Studies, provided us an opportunity to design a unique multicultural literature course with an innovative writing component. Students read four fictive works, each by a woman from a different culture: Night-Flying Woman by Ignatia Broker (Native American), The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan (Asian American), Beloved by Toni Morrison (African American), and The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende (Hispanic). In the first unit, cultural information was provided to students through lecture. For the remaining three, we organized students into four "families," each responsible for reporting to the class on one area of culture (visual arts; mythology, religion, and spirituality; music; and family and state structure/governance).

The assumption behind all our writing assignments was that white students interacting with literature written by nonwhite authors require new critical criteria and modes for analyzing and discussing texts. Writing assignments were designed to empower students to find their voices, particularly by connecting the texts with their personal experience, and to deepen understanding of the texts by connecting them to their cultural contexts. We particularly wanted to block routine literary analysis and cultural expropriation ("they're just like us").

Our desire to propel students into the texts in unambiguous and respectful ways led us to design several fresh writing assignments. We first asked students to respond to an open-ended questionnaire about their attitudes, background, and self-concept. Students kept journals, reflecting on course material and on their own attitudes and experiences in relation to issues of diversity/multiculturalism. Students were also asked to write personal narratives, recount family legends, compare women's ways of knowing, select journal entries as examples of their best writing, and freewrite on provocative passages, characters, or thematic ideas in the novels. One writing assignment asked students to follow threads of their own experiences/perceptions in the personal narratives and weave a tapestry between/among the perceptions expressed by the texts they encountered in the class. At the end of the quarter, students were again asked to respond to the questionnaire.

Based on student feedback and our own perceptions, this course was very successful. The combination of contextual nests and innovative writing allowed a class of mainly white students to discover fresh and non-appropriational modes for expressing their responses to the multicultural literature. For future offerings of this kind, we would focus on two cultures instead of four, allowing greater immersion in the culture and the opportunity to study several works from each, and we would spend more time building in mechanisms to foster trust and comfort among students.