Assembled here is a selection of final projects from ENGL 4395: Banned, Burned, and Challenged, an upper-division special topics course offered at the University of Minnesota Duluth in spring 2023. We studied frequently challenged texts from the last seventy years, including classics, memoirs, graphic novels, and young adult fiction, and we explored the controversies surrounding the inclusion of those texts in U.S. classrooms and libraries. We considered the roles of literature in cultural life and asked what the discourse around book bans reveals about the state of our democracy. Our group included a number of secondary English teachers-in-training, so our discussions often came back to questions about a text’s power to harm or heal, and the roles that educators might play in helping students and their families engage productively with those texts.
For their final project, students were asked to respond to a real or imagined controversy related to a banned or challenged book of their choice. They wrote newspaper opinion pieces, open letters, and works in similar genres combining close analysis of their chosen text with secondary sources addressing the related controversy. Those sources included scholarly articles related to the primary text; scholarly discussions about the controversy; popular press writing about the text or controversy; and interviews with authors, librarians, educators, parents, and students.
As might be expected, most of the students defended their chosen work’s inclusion in libraries or school curricula. Many of these defenses included a theory of adolescents as resilient and capable of coping with triggering material with the support of peers, teachers, and community. Almost all of them included a careful assessment of the potential value of the work itself—whether in spite of its controversial content or because of it. Indeed, some students thought deeply about how the text actually anticipates and answers a reader’s objection in its form or content, a more nuanced form of reading than those that often figure in public discourse about controversial literature. At its heart, this exercise affirms the value of close reading.
The future teachers in the class also talked about visibility as a priority for their classrooms; many of the texts we examined are controversial because of the identities or challenges to the status quo that they foreground, and pre-service teachers emphasized how valuable it would be for their students to encounter such perspectives. These students saw a social justice mission in the teaching of literature—including both the reading of controversial texts and direct engagement with those controversies.
Please enjoy the writing of the following students, whose work I share with their permission.
- Ashley Egan on Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime
- Ben Hanzsek-Brill on Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart
- Blake Oquist on Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life
- Tessa Rosa on Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
- Sophia Roesler on Art Spiegelman’s Maus
- Chloe Wiitala on Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle
Learn more about the author on our 2023 Contributors page.