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Ted Atkinson, Mississippi State University
At the 2002 Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference, Houston Baker recounted an exchange between Stokely Carmichael and a professor in a graduate seminar at Howard University in 1961. The professor, much to Carmichal's dismay, had assigned Faulkner. In response to Carmichael's vehement protest, the professor declared, "There are times and places . . . for all things. To everything there is a season. Here, in my class at Howard University, on this day, it is time for Faulkner." The professor was Toni Morrison. Inspired largely by Baker's account, one of the best literary anecdotes I had come across in quite a while, I decided to "put his story next to hers," to adapt the words of Morrison's Beloved, and offer a major American authors course on Faulkner and Morrison.
As soon as I walked into the classroom on the first evening, I noticed a clear divide. On one side of the room were several African American women students, the majority of them nontraditional; on the other side of the room were several white students, most of them male and nontraditional; in the middle row sat a lone student, a young woman who had previously said that she wanted to take the course because of interests in southern literature and women's studies. She was, as it happened, the only student who had signed up for the course because she was interested in Faulkner and Morrison rather than Faulkner or Morrison. The self-segregated (by race and author) seating pattern established on the first evening proved to be a harbinger of the frustrating, often debilitating, pedagogical challenge of trying to engage a class divided.
During the first two weeks of class, we alternated between Faulkner's As I Lay Dying and Morrison's Sula. While studying the former, Team Faulkner contributed to class discussion, with comments coming exclusively from one side of the room. When we turned to Sula, Team Morrison came to life and the class discussion shifted to its side of the room. The student in the middle watched one side, then the other, as if she were a spectator at a tennis match in which it takes the ball a week to get from one side of the court to the other.
I decided to take action. When we—Team Morrison and I, that is—were wrapping up our discussion of Sula, I said to the class, "Next week, we'll be taking up The Sound and the Fury and, you know, even if you signed up for the course because you like Morrison, you can say something about Faulkner's work. The same goes for you Faulkner fans: when we get to Song of Solomon in two weeks, you can have something to say about it." You could have heard a pin drop. We had several minutes left in class, so I decided to press the issue further, hoping that we could acknowledge the proverbial elephant in the room, escort it to the door, and then open up a more constructive, interactive dialogue for the rest of the semester.
I would like to report, in the manner of one of those heroic teacher movies meant to inspire us but more often than not leave us feeling inadequate, that my frank talk about the class divide enabled us to find reconciliation and that we moved on to have stimulating discussions of Faulkner and Morrison for the remainder of the semester. The truth is, the divide lessened only somewhat. Team Faulkner and Team Morrison did have members who ventured onto each other's turf, often with insightful results. More often, though, our discussions were vexed—full of impassioned analysis, guarded commentary, and awkward silences. In the immediate aftermath of the experience, acting on my chronic perfectionism, I replayed the semester in my mind, wondering what I could have done to bridge the divide and to make the students on both teams more comfortable—more to the point, to have disbanded the teams altogether. As I reflect on the experience now, however, I am less inclined to dwell on what might have been than on what was. Faulkner or Morrison, Faulkner and Morrison—either one, both of them confront us with the most highly charged and complex American and human issues that continue to engender division. Perhaps the very fact that we acknowledged the division and pressed on with the material that made us ever mindful of it, painful as the experience was at times, is what transformed a course that I initially considered to be a failure into what I might call in Faulknerian fashion a "splendid failure."