2018, Archives, February 2018, The MFA Years

Why We Need Diverse Syllabi

Image: John Nakamura Remy

In the second year of my M.A. program, I’ve had the opportunity to teach my own introductory fiction course to undergraduate students. Creative Writing courses tend to draw a diverse group of students, especially because my intro course fulfills a general education requirement. I have students from all different disciplines, not just English— biology, engineering, poli-sci, agriculture, you name it. My students also range from freshman to so-called “super seniors.” Moreover, the UC Davis student population is racially diverse (only 26% of the freshman class of 2016 was white), and my classroom reflects the wider demographics of the school. With that in mind, I’ve needed to craft a syllabus that will both fit my students’ needs and fulfill my learning objectives. To do this, I’ve made a concerted effort to focus on readings by writers of color and women on my syllabus.

In my course, my students read Junot Diaz’s story “How to Date A Brown Girl (Black Girl, White Girl, or Halfie)” to discuss 2nd person point of view. They read Yiyun Li’s portrait of a retired art teacher in “A Man Like Him” to discuss character-based stories. James Baldwin’s story “The Man Child” teaches them about masterful beginnings and endings. They enter the science fiction universe of Charles Yu in “Standard Loneliness Package” to understand how stories can make metaphor reality.  They explore the rich language of Angela Carter’s feminist fairy tale “The Bloody Chamber.” This is just a sampling of the stories I teach, but what ties them together is my overarching goal of representing the experiences of many different types of people, instead of just a few.

This isn’t to say that I’ve banned white male writers from my course, or purged them entirely from the syllabus. I pick the readings for each week based on a craft element that we’re going to discuss: for example, setting, character, or point of view. For some of these craft elements, I have a favorite story by Raymond Carver or George Saunders that I use. But I’ve realized that if I just rely on my “go to” short story classics, the ones I was taught in undergrad, I would end up with a syllabus with a lot of white writers and not much else.

We have to be able to acknowledge that yes, white male writers were formative to the genre of the short story without presenting their work as the only models for storytelling. My solution is to make their voices present in my syllabus, but in the minority, while bringing people of color and women writers to the forefront. By doing this, I believe that my students gain more from the class than they would if I were not specifically picking diverse readings. Here’s a list of some of the reasons why I think it’s important to expose my students to a diverse pool of authors.

  1. Representation matters. This phrase has almost become a truism because it’s repeated so often, but it bears repeating. Representation matters. Many of the “classic” short stories are written by white middle class heterosexual people about problems that white middle class heterosexual people face. Students who do not share that background may feel alienated if these are the only stories we have them read. If, however, students can see themselves in the stories, through stories with writers and characters that share their background and understand their experiences, they will connect to the stories. They will also be able to see themselves as writers if they have role models who are like them.

I know this certainly happened for me. In my first writing workshop in college, my professor Fae Ng, who was a badass writing role model herself, introduced me to the work of Sigrid Nunez, a mixed-race writer whose stories feature mixed race characters struggling with identity issues. As a mixed-race woman myself, (I identify as “hapa,” since my mom is Chinese-Hawaiian and my dad is white), I connected with Nunez’s writing and I realized that I could explore my own experiences with ethnic and racial identity in my work.


  1. Reading diverse works helps students expand their worldview and practice empathy. Even if you don’t share anything in common with a POC or woman writer, reading stories that center their experiences will help you learn about what it is like to experience the world through someone else’s eyes. I know I have learned a lot about my own culture and other cultures through reading literature. I love reading stories about people who lead entirely different lives than me and who have different experiences because it helps me understand other people’s motivations and struggles. Especially in the current political climate, it’s important to try to understand other people’s point of view, especially the perspectives of marginalized folks including immigrants, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ community.

Science has actually proven that reading literature increases empathy, but I wonder if those studies take in account whether it increases empathy for the typical subjects of “literary fiction,” aka white middle class heterosexual people, or if the benefits of increasing empathy extend to all people. I have a suspicion that it’s the former, not the latter, in which case, we need to make sure that marginalized people are included in the literature we have students read, so that our students’ empathy is directed at many different types of people.


  1. Students can use literature as a way to understand systems of oppression that don’t directly affect them. In addition to being able to see through the point of view of someone different from themselves, students who read stories by writers of color and women will be able see what the experience of discrimination and marginalization is like. A lot of these writers not only show characters experiencing oppression in its multitude of forms, including racism, sexism, etc., but they also use their platform to unveil the sources of such oppression: institutionalized racism, bigoted attitudes that hide behind talk of “fairness” and “merit,” implicit bias, etc.

Most of the stories on these topics are not didactic. They don’t lay out the issues and tell readers the way to fix them. Instead they give complex portrayals of flawed characters and ask readers to dig deeper to draw their own conclusions. One of my favorite stories to teach,“Paranoia” by Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, has a white narrator who cannot see his own biases or understand that his paranoia of being mugged in an urban neighborhood is unfounded. At the same time he dismisses his undocumented friend’s paranoia of being deported, which is actually justified by the narrative. This story, while not actually told from a POC’s perspective, still unlocks a new understanding of bias in my students, who can clearly see the narrator, while well-intentioned, is bigoted without realizing it.


  1. Stories by and about people of color and marginalized folks cause us to question our own “default” settings when reading fiction. Because of the way we privilege white writers in most of our schooling and in our literary canon, my students walk into my classroom with the assumption that unless the text says otherwise, the story is told from a white person’s point of view. They also often assume that the writer’s gender will be the same as the narrator’s. Whenever we read a story that breaks these rules, my students start to realize they have underlying assumptions about texts because of how society has taught them to read literature.

For example, when we read “The Man Child” by James Baldwin, I ask my students how many of them noticed that the characters were white. Most of them shrug; they take it for granted that the story was about white characters. I point out that James Baldwin is a prominent African-American writer who almost exclusively writes about black characters. “The Man Child” is the only Baldwin story I know of that is solely about white characters. When my students find this out, it makes them examine his choice of race for his characters more closely. Is there a political message in the story?

Of course there’s a political message. First of all, James Baldwin always has a political take in mind, but also, as my students discover during my class, all writing is political. Not writing about politics or race is a political stance of its own. I hope by the end of my class, my students understand the political power that literature holds. Short stories might not be the deciding factor that sways an election, but words are still powerful nonetheless.

Teaching carries its own political implications, too. Whether or not you specifically center race, class, and gender in your syllabus is in itself a political statement. I choose to focus my syllabus on diverse writers. My syllabus is not perfect, nor is my class, but keeping my goal of having a diverse syllabus in mind motivates me to continue reading a wide range of writers so I can include even more voices in my course.

I hope that by introducing my students to diverse writers at the beginning of their writing careers, it will have lasting impact on their reading and writing habits. Call me naïve or idealistic, but I do believe that literature can make a difference to my students and to the world.