On Teaching Filipinx Lit to Non-Lit Majors

The above flier is for this semester’s class (which we’re 10 weeks into), and which I am already thinking about how to amend for the next round.

Is three novels too much? Especially when the first two novels are America is in the Heart, and Dogeaters, both of which call for copious amounts of scaffolding. Certainly, in the case of Bulosan, we first read a selection of his essays and poems from On Becoming Filipino, so that is appropriate scaffolding itself. With Dogeaters, perhaps I need to think about which previous writings of Hagedorn can serve as appropriate scaffolding for the novel. We did read, “Homesick,” and an interview in the Missouri Review. Still, the novel was challenging to access on its own. Anyway.

These two novels take up the entire first half of the course. “Everything else” must fit the second half. This feels disproportionate, though I get it when my (non-literary) colleagues tell me, “But those are canon,” “But those are historically important.” This is why I have been asking exactly why is Dogeaters historically important for undergrads in 2017 to be reading. And if not, then what is an appropriate substitute.

This class is an upper division course in a Philippine Studies Program (i.e. not a department). On the organizational chart, I think students can major in Asian Studies with an emphasis in Philippine Studies? I’m not sure. Anyway, so my point is that it’s a tiny little corner in any university, in the very few American universities in which Philippine Studies even exists.

This is why I worked really hard to get those CORE requirements for my Filipino and Pinay Lit classes. Even though students always voice interest in taking these classes, the largest and most insurmountable obstacle is the very real need to graduate in a timely manner, which makes taking electives in one’s personal interests impossible, unless these classes are associated with those university breadth requirements.

That said, the students who enroll in my classes are rarely (if ever) literature majors. I rarely get humanities-focused students. They are usually in accounting, business administration, nursing, et al. All of which are perfectly good majors, but then I have to shift their brains to talking about literature deeply and in detail, rather than the kind of cultural and historical sweeps to which students have grown accustomed.

Most of my students tell me on the first day of class that they have enrolled in my classes because they want to learn about Filipino culture. I always think it’s an amazing thing, that they would go about doing so via a literature class. I suspect this has to do with them needing to take classes fulfilling breadth requirements. And this is totally great; I am so relieved we got the classes plugged into the university requirements, though dealing with curriculum committees was my least favorite but necessary thing I’ve had to do in my capacity as an adjunct professor.

To add: not only must I teach literature, and all things literary. I must teach within a Philippine Studies context. Though I understand the term “Philippine Studies,” within the context of traditional area studies, what we do as a program is really more aligned with how we teach in Ethnic Studies (such as, how I teach Filipino Literature within an Asian American Studies Department within an Ethnic Studies College at SFSU). Interdisciplinary, community-based.

That said, last night, we did have a good poetics discussion, while reading To Love as Aswang. We talked about poetic lines, and the significance of poetic techniques in deepening and complicating emotional understanding. When, for example, we are reading the poems, “To Give It to God,” and “To Bless the Meek,” where we’ve got two disparate voices/speakers, are we working somehow in the figurative mode, even the way metaphor works, sticking two different things together for the reader to draw the connections between the two things.

And really, the above was my preferred method while writing/constructing To Love as Aswang, both the book itself, and the poem of the same title, the joining of multiple voices in one poem, in some kind of dialogue with one another. So my students talked about these voices, and the positions of the speakers in relation to the Filipina. Deep inside, self-representing Pinay voice? Or external, someone viewing from a distance, making assessments and assumptions of the Pinay, and these assessments and assumptions based upon whose claims?

We also had a good discussion about pronouns, specifically, the “they,” and “we,” in “To Violate Convention.” And especially when tayo/kami do not have specific English counterparts, then who constitutes “we,” in that poem? Are we a part of that “we”; in other words, are we as Americans so distant from our wars, complicit in torture and committing acts of human atrocity? Can we pick and choose which “we” we belong to as Americans?

And then we talked about “Sweetie,” and the alliterative-s in combination with the short, singsong lines. Tongue twister and nursery rhyme, appropriate forms/mediums when trying to get into a childlike mindset. But then the dissonance as the poem’s subject matter is so difficult. This is another way of thinking about the joining of different perspectives or voices in a single poem, in order to deepen and complicate a reader’s emotional understanding.

Let me back up and say that the text which preceded To Love as Aswang on my syllabus was Lysley Tenorio’s Monstress. This is a great book — to read, to teach, to talk about. The characters’ relationships with one another and with their social worlds are both complex and clear in their complexity. I had told my students before entering the book, to focus on the narrators and protagonists, and their position in relation to the stories’ central conflicts/problems. And then to think hard about the choices they make. One story that really held our interest as a group was “The Brothers,” and then just talking about why the author would title that story that way, when one of the siblings was transgender, and that the story was about rejection and possible, eventual (posthumous) acceptance. There was so much questioning of the mother’s strong sense of hiya, something that a lot of students — including many of Filipino descent — just don’t understand. While I refuse to believe that our communities have worked it out and moved past our hiya, this is such an interesting thing I’ve encountered.

I was able to take the theme of the monstress, the female monster, the wife who initially takes a backseat with her own ambitions to support her husband’s public career, but who changes into a woman in America, thinking of her own career. This is the monstress in many ways, the woman and wife who no longer puts everyone before herself. This was helpful in transitioning into To Love as Aswang, and the many ways our communities historically label women as monsters, when we decide we no longer want to comply with those rigid, self-denying social standards.

So anyway, thanks for reading this brain dump. I am exhausted. It’s week 10. Next week, we’re talking about Jason Bayani’s Amulet. I am looking forward to how my students receive and read these poems. For the most part, I think these literary discussions with non-literature majors is going pretty well.

3 thoughts on “On Teaching Filipinx Lit to Non-Lit Majors

  1. Feeling you on so much of this — the non-majors, the need to shift their brains into textual detail (and their shock when they get their midterm paper grades back), and the fact that we need to do double/triple the work in one semester because so many of our students come to us with a Western civ/Euroamerican/white supremacist perspective that’s hammered into them by their previous education and mainstream media. Please keep doing the work you do. I’m glad the class is going well, but I’m sending healing energy!

    1. Thanks so much for this, Gladys! I wonder if our community’s inability to “see” hiya is because hiya is so large and all-encompassing and normalized, that it just IS. Like, would we devote critical attention to the fact that our lungs breathe oxygen. Same with gender expectations of self-denial, and set roles. I did love that my students were so visibly interested in discussing the Filipina wife or mother outside of a static gender role they fulfill for others. That these women have their own dynamic identities and complex histories etc. This was in response to a question re: all of the naming I do in the book.

      1. The normalization of hiya re: expected gender roles makes sense. In my Asian Am women’s experience class, despite everyone basically being a feminist, we still have to work to understand how deeply normalized domestic violence is (physical, mental, emotional). These are structural problems and so permeate EVERYTHING, including our worldviews. I love hearing about the pivots and shifts your students are making.

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