Between Universalizing and Othering: Developing an Ethics of Reading in the Multicultural American Literature Classroom

Ann-Marie Dunbar


This essay seeks to explore some of the common challenges facing teachers of multicultural American literature, particularly in the general education classroom. More specifically, I address two typical student responses to this body of literature: the tendency to see the literature as entirely foreign and the tendency to universalize or to identify in a facile way with the text. Drawing on recent pedagogy theory, I argue that teachers of multicultural American literature need to be much more deliberate in our efforts to help students develop other, more productive ways of engaging multiethnic texts. In particular, I explore the implications of whiteness studies and what Tina Chen has called an “ethics of knowledge” for the multicultural American literature classroom. Finally, I discuss several specific texts with an eye to pedagogical strategies that help students both to see and to avoid the twin pitfalls of universalizing and othering. In my experience, foregrounding some of the theoretical and ethical questions raised by the study of multicultural American literature in a (predominantly white) university classroom can help to make students more self-conscious, ethical readers, with a much clearer sense of their own positionality in relation to textual others.


Multiethnic Literature; American Literature

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