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Teaching Problematic Literature: Home

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What is "Problematic Literature"?

Literature is considered "problematic" when it promotes or reinforces outdated or harmful ideas about or representations of race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. The obvious solution to these problematic representations is to simply not include them, but doing so would be equivalent to censorship. Additionally, there are many works that are considered problematic that also have a valuable place in the literary canon. The solution, then, is to make sure that problematic literature is taught in the proper context, and that students understand a) which parts of the works are problematic and b) why the ideas are no longer acceptable.

This LibGuide will help you navigate how to include and teach problematic literature.

What Can Teachers Do?

There are a few simple tactics that a teacher can use when including problematic literature in their curriculum:

1. Make it clear to students that the work will contain outdated, incorrect, and/or potentially offensive depictions.

2. Provide proper historical context for the work, ensuring students understand the prevailing ideas of the time and emphasizing that times have changed.

3. Encourage students to speak up if/when they find a passage that is particularly offensive, so that the class can discuss and address it directly.

The exact details of how a teacher does this will depend greatly on the work in question, but the important part is to establish clear communication, and ensure that students are not afraid to speak up if they find something uncomfortable or objectionable.

Banned Books

Many of the books that would be considered problematic have been banned or challenged in the past. Please see our LibGuide on the subject of Banned and Challenged Books for a more comprehensive discussion of that subject.

Project Gutenberg

Project Gutenberg contains thousands of free eBooks that are part of the public domain. Many of the works in their library are literary classics, and often (due to their age) contain "problematic" content.

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