Illinois State University Media Relations

February 2012

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Fleisher uses literature as spark to social justice conversations

Photo of Kass FleisherWhen asked to teach English 229: Introduction to Literary Genres, Associate Professor Kass Fleisher knew she wanted to tackle issues of social justice, and she knew she wanted to do it in an unconventional way.

“English 229 is for non-majors, so there is a chance I could be choosing six books for them to read that may be the only literature they are assigned in their entire academic career,” said Fleisher. “I’ve taught classes where I used classics like The Sun Also Rises to approach concepts such as racism and anti-Semitism, and simply had no reaction from the class. I wanted to get a reaction.”

Fleisher decided to use books by modern activists that would spark discussion, such as Rent Girl, a graphic memoir of a lesbian prostitute. “From day one, BAM, they are talking,” Fleisher said of her class. “We use the books as a way to confront all those ‘isms’ and ‘obias’ we possess.”

Coming to terms with preconceived notions can be jarring for students, noted Fleisher. “It’s tough for a gay student who experiences prejudice to understand that he can also be responsible for microagressive acts of racism,” she said. “Yet all the 'isms' and 'obias' – sexism, racism, classism, homophobia – are all interconnected. You cannot address one without the others. And everyone gets implicated in the approach.”

In an effort to help students confront their own issues and gain a deeper understanding of the literature, Fleisher interweaves conflict management training into the classroom. “We’ll do some classic exercises, like splitting the class in half and having them walk toward each other slowly, maintaining eye contact,” said Fleisher, who became certified to work in domestic shelters when she lived and taught in Colorado. “When they get close enough, they begin giggling and looking away. Then we make the point that for those who are being subjected to acts of power abuse, such as rape, beating or prostitution, there is no escape from that feeling of invasion.”

Fleisher has long been an advocate of infusing activism into the classroom. Her book Talking Out of School: Memoir of an Educated Woman has been called a “feminist critique of higher ed.” “I teach from a third-wave feminist approach,” she said, referring to the concept of feminism as an outgrowth of the first wave – the suffrage movement – and the second wave – the 1960s equal rights movement. “In many ways, in this class I act as a diversity facilitator.” 

Challenging students to become “allies” is another aim of the course, explained Fleisher. “It shouldn’t always be up to a student of color to answer questions or comments about racism, or a lesbian student to respond to comments on homophobia,” she said. “There should be a responsibility of hetero students to talk to other hetero students about homophobia, white students talking to white students about racism. There should be allies within a group who can talk about issues.”

She added there can be a resistance to creating allies on each side. “There is an assumption that if you are a student experiencing oppression, that you are the best one to answer questions about it, but the next step comes with people outside your defined group being able to answer a question or comment.”

Each time she teaches English 229, Fleisher said it takes on a different personality. “Depending on the reaction of the students, the class can take on the aura of diversity training or of a kind of activism,” she said, noting she lets that organic growth dictate assignments during the last few weeks of the class. “After we finish the books, I say, ‘Where do you want to go now?’ Sometimes they want more conflict management exercises, other times they say,'‘We’ve done enough reading, let’s go DO something.’”

Last semester, students requested time to talk to the budding Occupy movement on campus. “I gave them several class periods to visit the people on campus in the movement, and then asked them to write a paper on it,” Fleisher said. She also asked them to keep a running list of incidents of ‘isms’ they came across over their Thanksgiving break. “That one kept us talking for two class periods,” she added.

The overall goal of the class is to awaken students to the idea of social justice. “It can be uncomfortable to challenge your perception of yourself, to discover your own subjectivity map,” said Fleisher. “But that is one of the roles education has to play in the lives of students, to get them to see their own boundaries and perhaps push past them.”

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