Are Classics Always the Answer? 

Alicia Dyer (’25) discusses the implications of lack of representation in the literature we read. “In school, the general assumption is that you learn about significant things and people. So, if you don’t learn about something in school, it must not be as relevant.”

Lately, I’ve been reflecting on an English class where my assignment was to analyze some of Edgar Allan Poe’s poems. The first one wasn’t bad, but the more often I read them the more tired of them I became. His writing wasn’t bad, in truth, it was pretty good. It was the point of view that was tiring. Each time, without fail, the main character was a white man, and if there were a secondary character, they would also be a white man. Identical identities and struggles were represented each time. There was nothing new to learn and I couldn’t connect with any part of the writing. Reading all of these stories felt completely pointless. While there are so many beautiful identities that they can’t all possibly be represented in a single poem, it’s not fair to anyone to only chose to consistently show one when there are so many others out there.

Don’t get me wrong, classics can be beneficial — showing different types of writing styles and conflicts. But one thing that they don’t have is different identities. Throughout school, people learn important skills. No, I’m not just talking about math and science. I’m talking about empathy and kindness. How are you supposed to show empathy for a group of people that you never learn about? In school, the general assumption is that you learn about significant things and people. So, if you don’t learn about something in school, it must not be as relevant. The issue with that mindset and with our current curriculum is that not everything important is included. So many people’s stories aren’t told. Education is power, and the more we know about people the more understanding we can be toward them.

It’s time to stop emphasizing classics and start emphasizing diverse books. It feels like the majority of the books I read are all dominated by white men and the struggles they go through. An article from The Stanford Daily says that in one student’s case,” …even on the rare occasions BIPOC authors were included in the curriculum, they were confined to the summer reading and only a couple days would be spent analyzing and discussing them. On the other hand, weeks and months would be spent reading and analyzing ‘the same old, tired ‘classics’ that don’t represent the people, time or experience of its audience.’” Let’s diversify our lessons and make everyone feel represented. You’d be surprised at the difference seeing yourself in something you’re passionate about can make. 

I read a really interesting article by Tricia Ebarvia called How Inclusive is Your Literacy Classroom Really?  In the article, she talks about assimilation and not seeing herself in the stories she learned about. One thing that stood out to me was the eight questions she left at the end to help teachers understand whether or not they’re being inclusive. These questions are:

  • How inclusive is the media you consume, personally and professionally?
  • How inclusive is your curriculum?
  • How inclusive is your classroom library?
  • How inclusive are your mentor texts for writing?
  • How often do you use gendered versus non-gendered language?
  • How equitable are your student discussions? In what ways do you ensure all student voices are heard?
  • How often do you show (think aloud) inclusive thinking when discussing your decisions and responses to texts?
  • In what ways—and how often—do you and your colleagues reflect on your practices to ensure all voices are recognized and respected?

In the article, she also has more questions to go further in-depth into each of these topics. While I’m not a teacher and I can’t answer all of these questions exactly as they were meant to be received, I can think about the impact of these questions on the lessons I’m learning. Teachers aren’t doing badly with most of these, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. And I’m not saying it’s easy, because it’s definitely not, but there are steps we can take to make things better. 

In The Chicago Tribune, they made a helpful suggestion about something we can do. 

“For example, a discussion of To Kill a Mockingbird opened with questions about why the book is widely taught: ‘For what reasons might teachers include this text in their curriculum? What is the value in teaching this text? Do you have to teach this text — why?’” Simply by asking questions like these and getting comfortable with being uncomfortable, we can begin to make things right.

Yes, the classics have been taught for ages. Yes, they can be great books. Yes, they can be helpful to read and analyze. But who are we leaving out? Are there other books that teach the same things but showcase different identities? I guarantee you there are. 

To end this blog post, I don’t want to leave anyone feeling hopeless or like they don’t know where to start. So, here are some resources to look into alternatives to classics:

Good luck and know that I, along with the rest of the Writing Center, believe in you. 

On The Topic of Romance Novels

The erasure of representative characters from assigned stories and assignments that aren’t inclusive dishearten minoritized youth.


By: Sophie Reznick (’20)
First-Year Tutor

When I was little I loved to read. I would stay up far later than I should’ve reading in the dull lamplight on my bed. As I grew older the books I was reading grew up as well, my interests would always shine through what I was reading; from Junie B. Jones to Dear Dumb Diary, those characters developed just as I was. But there was always a disconnect with me and that main character, always something missing when I was reading that made it hard for me to relate. All of these characters had their high school crushes and practically modeled for me what they should be like, but I never liked any of that. I never liked boys at all. I thought I was weird. I thought something was wrong with me, and I wanted to keep that a secret. I would pretend to have crushes on all of these (unfortunate) boys, yet never explore why I got butterflies in my stomach every time one particular girl would sit near me during our reading circle at school.

The lack of LGBTQ+ characters in literature creates a disconnect between the reader and the story, and makes it hard for some to really develop an interest. A common motto throughout many writing centers is, “Any student, Any project, Any stage” (Reich). This motto touches on the idea of acceptance, and in a way paints the Writing Center as a safe space. But we don’t need something that touches on the idea of acceptance, and we don’t want it to merely paint a picture of the Writing Center as a safe space. It should be known fact that anyone of any race, sexuality, and belief can walk through those doors and be embraced for who they are. 

Academics are supposed to help students grow their minds in healthy and productive ways. The erasure of characters from stories that are representative of all students is already disheartening for anyone, but the fact that there are even assignments that fall more towards the discriminatory side than inclusive makes the assignments counterproductive. As an LGBTQ+ youth, I found some of my growth stunted while being given assignments that always fell towards the heteronormative side. Teachers constantly would poke fun at me when I found a joke that a male peer said funny, asking me to stay focused on my schoolwork and not “silly boys, regardless of how cute they may be.” Teachers with these mindsets assigning work to students can be detrimental. “Empathic Tutoring in the Third Space” by Nancy Effinger Wilson and Keri Fitzgerald gives a vivid example of a university student coming in for help on his paper, when presenting the assignment the struggle is more deeply ingrained with the concept of the assignment and less with the academic side. The student was asked to find women from articles that he found attractive; yet he was not attracted to anyone of the opposite sex. The overwhelming examples of a disconnect between students and academic reading materials is saddening, and is yet another example of the dire need for inclusivity in academic settings, like that of the Writing Center. 

When reading a novel in a classroom setting, the characters and settings in the books are in need of an update. Enough of these heteronormative characters, and that is implied in every meaning of the word. Not only their sexuality, but their lifestyles. Their lifestyles of white skin and privilege, a mother and a father, a home with food that they know will be there everyday, enough of these assumptions being shoved down student’s throats on a day to day basis. Enough of writing a pretty motto and calling it a day. There will only be inclusivity for all when it is everybody on board, checking their privilege, checking in with each other, and opening their minds to the world around them. And we can start that trend here, in our very own Writing Center.