Mosaic / February 27, 2019

Literature seniors interpret whiteness

This year’s small class of nine literature majors were faced with the difficult question: how to define whiteness and its formation in literary history. With one week left before they present, there are no easy answers and each have the difficult task of sharing their takes with the rest of their peers.

On Tuesday Mar. 4, the Literature department will be holding their annual Literature Symposium. This 300-level English class serves as a capstone for graduating seniors majoring in the field and an example of the work they’ll produce as literary scholars in the future. Senior Lauren Kaltenecker sees it as a progression of the work she’s already done.

“The process is similar to any other literature class,” said Kaltenecker. “We read various texts, we discuss them, we analyze them and then we pick one of them to write about. The only difference is we have to present them at a symposium.”

This year’s Symposium topic, a discussion on race and the construction of whiteness in the literary canon, will be one of the more controversial topics covered in recent years. For senior Libby Croce, this complex issue has served as a challenge.

“In previous years the senior symposium topic has been more concentrated,” said Croce.

This, however, is exactly why literature professor and instructor for the Symposium this year Rob Smith chose the topic.

“I did senior seminar on ghosts, what’s called hauntology and most of the students ended up writing about race and whiteness,” said Smith. “So this year I thought, we’ll start there and see where it went.”

Over the course of five weeks, the group studied four books from various points in history and analyzed the different ways writers and academics have dealt with the issues of race and how the discussion has evolved. Issues raised ranged from colonialism to the use of derogatory terms and how to handle them when quoting texts and everything in between. Along with the rest of her classmates, senior Sally Butzer struggled in her writing with handling these issues with responsibility.

“I think the challenge we will have is conveying the ways we were talking about whiteness, the contexts of that and how that’s essentially different from conversations we have about whiteness in culture,” Butzer said.

As a diverse group of students, each with wildly different experiences, their struggle lay in taking the difficult conversations they had in class and translating what they learned to others who weren’t a part of them. Their desire wasn’t an attempt to give concrete answers but instead an exercise in understanding for everyone involved.

“We’re teaching whiteness and I’m the only white male in the classroom, so I would expect I would be learning something as much in that situation as they would,” Smith said.

Though they’ve struggled with the topic over the course of the term and are nervous about the questions they’ll have to answer next week, senior lit majors are all excited to see what their peers have come up with and how their discoveries will be received by those attending.

“We really want people to come out, because it’s not only about literature. It’s something really relevant to today,” Kaltenecker said. “Race is such a complicated topic and you see it everywhere in real life, as well as literature.”

The greatest takeaway Smith emphasized was the importance of these discussions and his desire for those both in and outside the department to listen and engage with the topic, especially in relation to discussions of race and identity taking place in today’s culture.

“I think it’s impossible to understand recent elections without understanding identity politics and the way whiteness is constructed,” Smith said.

Jessica Beckman

Tags:  English Department interpretation literature race race in literature senior symposium Senior year whiteness

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