The Chantal Chawaf Newsletter, Volume I, Number 4 (Winter 1998)



"Taking Risks: Teaching Redemption to Freshmen Philosophy Students"

by Kristin Switala, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, USA

Teaching freshmen philosophy in the United States entails taking risks -- such as the risk of inciting fear and anger when basic religious and social presuppositions are challenged. This is particularly true in the Southeastern United States, where conservative and fundamentlist Christian churches stand on nearly every corner.

But there is also a joy in introducting these students to new ideas, new worldviews, and new ways of understanding self, other, male, female, individual and community. In a course (Introduction to Philosophy) which emphasizes specific issues in the history of philosophy, such as metaphysics, social and political thought, and issues of race and gender, I like to include as many challenging texts as possible -- texts which open up new worlds and new avenues for thinking, such as Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse, Waterlily by the Native American writer, Ella Cara Deloria, and Redemption by Chantal Chawaf.

I remember feeling quite nervous in class during the weeks we discussed Redemption. Its unabashed violence against women frightened me as a woman professor facing 100 barely-known students. Two things worried me: first, that some of my students would be so insulted by the sexual explicitness and violence that they would "turn off" and give up on the course; and second, that some mentally disturbed student would take it into his head to act on the descriptions of Charles' murder of Esther in the novel. Obviously, the second concern was more troubling than the first!

To head off both of these possibilities, I tries to develop a teaching strategy which would keep students focused on the main point of the book, redemption, rather than getting caught up in the sexual violence. I decided that playing upon my students' strengths -- familiarity with Christian views, metaphors and symbols -- would allow them access to the philosophical issue at stake: is redemption possible for Charles? We read Redemption with a keen eye upon the characters' pas-de-deux with faith and religious forgiveness. Students were directed to seek out passages which confirmed or denied the possibility of redemption for Charles, and then to write an essay arguing whether or not such a redemption could occur.

The results were better than I anticipated. Everyone got involved in the debate over whether Charles could achieve redemption, with some students arguing yes and others arguing no. An example of this is Rachel Morgan's essay in the "Student Paper" section of this issue of the Chantal Chawaf Newsletter. As a class, we had a great time debating the meaning of redemption and how it was played out in the novel. I look forward to teaching it again in my freshmen philosophy course and highly recommend it to others.

If you would like to contact Kristin Switala about this article, please click here.

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