Guest Post: Dr. Rachel Dean-Ruzicka from The Georgia Institute of Technology Discusses YA Literature in the Education Classroom
In this series of guest posts, a variety of experts in children's and YA literature from state system universities will discuss their perception of the role of children's and YA literature in state system higher education curricula.
This first post in the series is brought to you by Dr Rachel Dean-Ruzicka of The Georgia Institute of Technology in the University System of Georgia.
[Views and opinions expressed here are the authors' own, and not those of the Universities or any other organization.]
Rachel Dean-Ruzicka received her PhD in American Culture Studies from Bowling Green State University. She researches young adult literature and comics and is desperately trying to move on from terrible topics, but they keep sneaking their way in to her research. Her book, Tolerance Discourse and Young Adult Holocaust Literature: Engaging Difference and Identity was published with Routledge in 2017. She is currently a Lecturer of Writing and Communication at Georgia Tech.
Making Space for Children’s and YA Lit in the Gen-Ed Classroom
There are a lot of scholars of children's and young adult literature out there who aren't fortunate enough to be able to regularly teach in their field. While we might get the opportunity to do a class or two every few years, many of us are on the generalist/composition track, and we work with the type of learning outcomes and requirements you see below:
It's worth thinking about how we can sneak children’s and young adult texts into our gen-ed classes, in order to maintain that important connection between our teaching and research. On that note, you will notice these texts are weighted towards Holocaust books, which is where much of my research over the last decade has been focused.
Here, I want to highlight three approaches I've used to bring in children’s and young adult lit to build content and skills in line with course outcomes that are relatively universal for gen-ed classes.
T4: A Novel in Verse—Ann Clare LeZotte
T4 is a short book about the Nazi program to euthanize the disabled population, or the so-called “useless eaters.” The main character is deaf and she faces the knowledge that her life has been deemed unworthy of living by the Nazi regime. I’ve used this book in a second-semester composition sequence course titled “Cosmopolitan Imagination.” In this class we read and discussed Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers and how fiction can help us build empathy. My use of T4 includes a necessary discussion of form, as we consider what it means to be a “novel in verse.” This allows us to consider purpose and audience, essential elements of any introductory composition class. Why tell the story of T4 in verse? LeZotte is deaf herself, and her poetry mirrors language conventions of American Sign Language, allowing us to consider why the form becomes essential to the purpose of the text. I haven’t found another book that is better at asking readers to think closely about disability, identity, history, and form than this one.
El Deafo—Cece Bell
Bell’s El Deafo is a children’s graphic novel about the author’s hearing loss. I didn’t actually set out to highlight deafness here, but it looks like I have! At any rate, I’m currently teaching El Deafo in an Autobiographical Graphic Novels course, which is a first-semester composition sequence class. I’ve paired it with other more or less canonical graphic novels: Lewis and Powell’s March, Spiegelman’s Maus, and Forney’s Marbles. All these books deal with identity and discrimination in some way: segregation in the USA, Nazi persecution of the Jews, and stigmas attached to mental illness. El Deafo makes a nice addition to this group (if only it started with an m, things would be perfect) as it allows us to consider what it means to tell the same type of memoir to a considerably different audience. What concerns does Bell have to consider in order to reach an audience of children? Why choose that audience, rather than the all-ages approach of March or the much more adult approach of Marbles? In addition to our discussion of identity and visual communication, purposefully including children’s literature is an excellent opportunity to bring in a nuanced discussion of audience.
Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl
Frank’s diary is one of the most often taught Holocaust books, and one of the most weirdly underutilized, I’d argue. It’s worth reading, teaching, and discussing explicitly not as a book “about the Holocaust.” Truly, one doesn’t learn much about the Holocaust (or being Jewish) by reading it, but instead one does learn a lot about growing up in hiding. This is intentional on Frank’s part, as she crafted her work to be a document for people to read after the war, inspired by a radio broadcast asking for war accounts from Dutch listeners. I’ve taught the Diary in Women’s Studies classes and reframed it as a document about gender and girlhood, rather than one about the Holocaust. Teaching the Diary outside of its traditional context lets readers really dig in to the richness of the text, considerations of gender and sexuality, as well as Frank’s skill as a writer. It’s a good text for an intersectional analysis: discussing Frank’s gender, age, and religious identity as points of discrimination, but we can also discuss her class privilege. Asking college students to revisit a text they read in middle-school with fresh eyes is a useful experiment in its own, especially if you can help them see different readings of the same book.
You can see here how children’s and young adult literature help highlight the critical thinking skills that belong in our gen-ed classes. Students can learn to closely analyze purpose and audience by considering the rhetorical choices the authors make, with the added bonus of reminding students of the richness and complexity of children’s lives. These three examples lend themselves to formal and genre discussions as being exemplars of very particular types of texts: poetry, graphic novel, diary. Perhaps most importantly, each text allows us to grapple with ethical questions that are the foundation of the critical thinking skills humanities classes are tasked with building.
Jen is an Instructor of English at East Stroudsburg University. Views and opinions expressed here are her own, and not those of the University or any other organization.