"I want students to get away from the 'right vs. wrong interpretation' that's so common in secondary education. To do that, I try to create space for students to be part of meaningful conversations."

What assumptions do you hold about meaning when you watch films and television? How does your identity – your race or nationality, for example – affect how you interpret works of literature?

Professor of English Anthony Stewart asks these questions in his research on the African-American novelist Percival Everett. In analyzing Everett's novels, Stewart tries to work out the relationship between the content of Everett's works and what his fiction says in a larger sense about the notion of race in society.

Everett's portrayals of racial divides, Stewart says, cause in readers an anxiety that provokes them to want to achieve a more conscious relationship with and examination of race – a society where discrimination is more closely scrutinized by everyone. "Everett doesn't want his readers to forget that he's black," says Stewart, "but he also doesn't want them to fixate on the fact that he's black, and thereby limit their readings of his work. His work creates a really useful tension between what we're used to doing, and what is possible if we get away from doing what we're used to. It helps us answer the question, 'How does society move past issues of race, and ask better questions about race?' "  

Stewart also focuses on questions of race in Canadian texts and films. In this part of his scholarship, he approaches literary material from his perspective as a black man of Caribbean descent who spent his entire life in Canada before recently moving to Lewisburg. "Canada must ask itself some significant questions about race to be seen as a mature society," he says. For example, why do first ministers' conferences in 2013 (where the prime minister and the premiers of the provinces meet to discuss the issues of the day) look the same as they did in 1983, or even 1973, when we correct for gender? And what does this persistent appearance have to say about Canadian claims of multiculturalism?

In the classroom, Stewart challenges undergraduates to become aware of how their own cultural backgrounds and societal roles influence the way they read and interpret texts – so that they can break away from habitual ways of reading. "I ask them to situate themselves in everything they read and watch, so that they can think about why they read the way they do," he says. "I want students to get away from the 'right vs. wrong interpretation' that's so common in secondary education. To do that, I try to create space for students to be part of meaningful conversations."  

Stewart chose to teach at Bucknell because he considers its liberal arts and sciences model to be "much closer as an expression of the ideal of the university, where serious scholarship and teaching are valued and supported." He says, "The university is a hopeful place where, through good will and effort, young people show their best selves and become better citizens and better decision-makers." 

Posted October 10, 2013

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