by – Rebekah Starnes

As an English professor, students sometimes ask me, “Why is everything we read so dark?” I respond that literature reflects history, which is often depressing, that it’s a way for people to process trauma or comment on social problems. I focus on literature’s transformative function as well—how authors use the power of literature to change the world for the better.

Since participating in the Globalizing Curriculum Project, I’ve been incorporating global human rights issues into my courses more blatantly, and this refrain from students has become even more common. The GC Program has been amazing—I’ve learned so much!—but month after month I hear of new ways that human beings are hurting each other. When I ask the speakers what we can do, their answer is inevitably this: you are educators; you educate. Of course, awareness is important. I want to inform students about global human rights issues, but I am starting to feel weighed down, depressed. So are my students.

Inspiration hit me unexpectedly—not in the class into which I was actually integrating my intended curriculum change for the GC program (a composition class where I was adding more global texts and centering human rights issues), but in my American Literature class. We were discussing Emerson’s “American Scholar,” part of which is about creative reading. I read this part of the essay out loud in class: “Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst…What is the right use? What is the one end which all means go to effect? They are for nothing but to inspire.”

Reading those words gave me an epiphany. I rewrote my final assignment prompt for that class, giving students the option to do something creative. They could take any kind of creative action inspired by a course reading and then write a reflection explaining what inspired them and what they learned. To my surprise, half of the class has taken me up on this option! To give a brief summary of some of their projects: they are building gardens, spending time alone in the woods, finding new jobs that don’t suck the life out of them, writing poems, short stories, screen plays, even creating shorts films and paintings. Students have told me that they love to create, but have been bogged down by school, family, and work. They appreciate this opportunity. To paraphrase Emerson, to create is divine.

What does this have to do with globalizing curricula and incorporating human rights issues? Whatever we do to educate our students on the darkness that exists around us, we need to take care of them (and ourselves) in the process. We need to emphasize not only the darkness, but also encourage them to bring their own lights into that darkness. My goal now is to try to integrate a creative option into more of my classes—to not just educate, but to also inspire students to make our world a brighter place, one creative action at a time.