The Student Movement


Diversity in the English Classroom

Dr. Vanessa Corredera, Chair, Department of English

Interviewed by Alyssa Henriquez

What does “diversity” in the field of English mean to you?
If we're talking about making fundamental systemic change, diversity in the field of English means making sure that you have diverse faculty. And that's a challenge for a number of reasons, especially at Adventist schools where our pool of candidates is even smaller than other universities and we can't hire as frequently. Diversity in English means making sure you have all sorts of people, especially black and indigenous persons of color (BIPOC), teaching English, so that English doesn't just become the purview of one type of teacher, one type of professor with one type of background. And then diversity also means shaking up the canon, being really intentional about having all sorts of different voices when you teach a survey or lit class. And if you're going to be teaching, you know, the dead white men, like a class on Chaucer or Shakespeare, it means making sure that you're using them as tools. So that the goal is not to say, okay, if we're just going to keep holding up Chaucer or holding up Shakespeare or Dickens as these great authors, though they may be that; how can we approach them to think about matters of inclusion and exclusion, of nascent nation, of empire, all of those things that help us understand the history of the West and how it is not just white men who have been the main players in that history. Even if there's a moment where that is the case, then we can think through how we can make it relevant to students' lives and make it more diverse.

Growing up, were there times that you noticed a lack of diversity in the field of English? Did you feel represented in the literature that you studied in high school and college? How did your background and life experiences align with what you learned?
I'm Cuban American, and even if you were to take that more broadly and just say okay, someone from a Latinx background, my identity was just never represented at all, even a little bit. And what we studied, I mean, I'm not asking for the Cuban poets to be translated into English, but I'm just saying that the rich tradition of having indigenous authors from Central America, South America, Mexico, Puerto Rico––which is part of the United States––it really shouldn't have been that hard. I really just got Shakespeare, I got the Odyssey in snippets, I read a random capture narrative by Mary Rowlandson in the early Americas––and we never had a Latinx voice. So all of that kind of made it seem . . . not necessarily like literature wasn't for me, I was a voracious reader and I never felt like that––but I never thought Shakespeare was for me. My family's first language was Spanish. That was at one point my first language, although you’d never know it now. So when I was reading Shakespeare, that wasn't something that my family was upholding or it was never a reality to say “oh, we're going to go see a Shakespeare play together,” because that just wasn't going to happen. Even now, I can't get my parents to go see Shakespeare even though that’s what I do. And the language issue is part of that, I'm not going to deny that; Shakespeare is hard at the best of times, but it's also a cultural issue. So I would just say that I never really thought about literature applying to my identity in that way, probably until I got to college. And so I want to offer my students something better than that. I can't, in a class, make sure that every single student's particular background is represented–that's really tough. But wow, do I try to make sure that when I think about the Intro to English studies class, I think about how many different voices can I include, and that I make sure to include Latinx voices, African American voices, voices from the African diaspora, voices from different places in Asia. And I want to make sure that even if students can't necessarily see themselves, they see people who are somewhat like them.

As you pursued your graduate education, did you encounter other issues with diversity in your field? Did you find that people were more conscientious of these problems at higher levels of education?
I think people try to be more politically correct about these issues at higher levels of education, especially in public settings. My experience wasn't great––like I'm really grateful for the friends that I made, and I'm really grateful that I have the degree that I have because I get to do wonderful things that I love and teach my students, and I love them. But my graduate experience was very much about “let's try to be diverse but without any intentionality in it,” so let's accept students of color, but not realize what it's like to have a bunch of students of color who don't have professors like them teaching them. Let's accept students of color and first generation students and not understand how much extra work it takes for all these students who have never had an academic parent. I can't even explain what a big deal this is. When you come from academic families, you just know the in’s and out’s in ways that you don't if your parents didn't get some sort of graduate degree.

The first day that we had our orientation, our cohort was together--and our cohort was small--and they pulled three of us aside and were like “you're going on a different tour.” And so our group is already like eight people and three of us are gone and it's super awkward. And so they're like, “we're gonna take the three of you to look at the African American collection in the library,” but two of us were Renaissance Scholars and the other one was doing Chicanx lit. So, that's what I mean, it’s this kind of tokenism––it was great to know that [the collection] was there, and I did end up using it––but the lack of thought can actually make you feel less integrated and it can make you feel more sidelined. And I will admit I am white, even though I'm Latina, I'm white. And so I'm not going to say how it was for other people, but given how things are, it was probably easier for me than it was for some other people who were not white. But then even then, when I went to do my specialty at the end of the first year, where we had our big meeting in front of a bunch of people, they're like, “well, you're Spanish, so why don't you work on Spain.” And I'm like, “I don’t want to work on Spain,” and they said, “well but don't you think you might find that more interesting?” I was like, “No, I don't think I would.” I didn't say it like that because I was terrified; my heart was pounding in my chest, but it makes me so angry now to think about it because that's a ridiculous thing. So it's those sorts of things; and my experience isn't just anecdotal. You start to figure out that this is actually a systemic problem in academia, shuttling people into areas that administrators or department chairs or advisors think fits their identity. I think that no one tells white men to do [Jane] Austen, nobody says that to them. So, it can be really harmful to have this experience that's marketed as diverse, but is done without care.

Why do you think it’s important to not just study a diverse body of literature, but to have a diverse professorship as well? What benefits does this bring to the classroom?
You know, I think there are some people who think the personal doesn't have any place in the classroom, but I think that's super disingenuous. The personal is always going to shape the classroom, because you have biases that you carry with you, and I don't mean biases as in prejudices, there are just things you like more than others. I like certain genres, for example, better than I like a lot of poetry so I tend to not to teach poetry as much unless I have to. That's just a lowkey example. And so, I think it's important to have teachers with diverse perspectives because you need those connections, and there are going to be things that people bring to the table because of their backgrounds that other people aren't going to be able to bring. Let's say we're reading Sandra Cisneros and she's talking about being a Mexican American. Well, there are going to be certain elements that someone else with who might be Mexican American might understand in ways that even as a Cuban American I can't. I don't want to suggest that you can only teach the one thing that you are; I just said you shouldn't do that, but I think it's important to have different perspectives, because someone who grew up poor is going to teach class differently because they're going to be attuned to issues of class in ways that the privilege of someone who's very wealthy may not make them attuned to. And then the rest of us who don't fit whatever category it is, we just have to commit to doing the work. 

The Student Movement is the official student newspaper of Andrews University. Opinions expressed in the Student Movement are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors, Andrews University or the Seventh-day Adventist church.