Consider the author’s backgrounds before assigning literature in class

Julia Zaksek

I was excited to read “Heart Berries” — a new memoir by young Native American author Terese Marie Mailhot. The day before we were told to bring the book to class, I had already read the foreword. It was written by prominent Native American author Sherman Alexie. It was good and heartfelt. I was glad I’d bought the copy that included it. Until the next day in class.

My professor asked if we had the copy with Alexie’s foreword. Most of us raised our hands. She then told us that most newer versions removed the foreword. Why? Unknown to me, Alexie was accused by several young female authors of sexual coercion and harassment. Despite the allegations, my professor said that reading Alexie was essential for understanding Native American literature.

Even though reading the foreword had not been required, I wish my professor told us about the allegations before many of us had bought the book with his name on it. His work was not more important that the allegations against him.

UT professors need to critically review the social and political backgrounds of the creators whose work they assign and inform students if the creator has a history that could make students uncomfortable purchasing their work. Students should not feel pressured to monetarily support creators whose beliefs and actions they morally oppose. If there is potential a student could be uncomfortable purchasing an author’s work, the material should not be a focal point in the classroom.

“I have the choice to not buy things from businesses or people with values I don’t agree with,” said Samuel Stafford, a Plan II and business freshman. “I should have that choice in an educational setting too.”

Stafford said he was upset when he was required to purchase a book containing poetry by Ezra Pound. Pound, an esteemed literary figure, was also a fascist. He worked as a radio broadcaster in Italy, and for 20 years, he disseminated propaganda in support of the actions and policies of Mussolini and Hitler.

The same man who spoke beautiful lines of poetry also once said, “Hitler was a … saint.”

Clearly, Pound held views that are unacceptable for many students.

“I don’t want to be forced to support somebody who holds ideals that I cannot agree with,” Stafford said.

Admittedly, different students have different values, as do professors. However, if a professor can reasonably foresee buying a source’s work will make students uncomfortable, the professor should not require students to purchase it.

Some professors may assign the work of controversial authors, because they believe it still has value. Assistant instructor Emily Harring said while she knew of the accusations against Alexie, she believes knowledge of Alexie is vital to understanding Native American works, such as “Heart Berries.”

“I think even though Sherman Alexie has done terrible things he’s still very important in terms of thinking about Native American literature,” Harring said. “If you’re talking about Native American literature, you can’t not talk about him, whether or not you agree with what he’s done.”

Nonetheless, even when a professor strongly believes that the work of an author is important to students’ education, they should not put students in an uncomfortable position. Students should never have to choose between their education and their values.

Zaksek is a Plan II and womens and gender studies freshman from Allen.