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When the professor’s plans go by the wayside, the education begins

A few weeks after the killing of eight Asian Americans at a spa in Atlanta, I did something that I suspect a number of other English professors in the United States did: I changed my syllabus and added more books by Asian American writers. It was March 2021 and there seemed to be no end in sight to the anti-Asian hate crimes that, according to a 2022 study, rose a whopping 339 percent during the pandemic.

Every other class on campus was teaching Cathy Park Hong’s superb essay collection “Minor Feelings,” so I selected “So Many Olympic Exertions” by Annelise Chen. The shape-shifting novel is about a doctoral student at NYU named Athena Chen who is writing a dissertation on the role that athletics plays in American life.

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I prepared a series of discussion questions for my class, largely on the book’s exploration of Asian American identity, but my students, much to my delight, took the conversation in an entirely different direction.

One student, a white football player — who once told me in office hours that his dream is to write a Will Ferrell-style comedy — said that he had never seen a book explore the pressure of competitive sports so well.

“It’s, like, she just [expletive] gets it, like she is living my life,” he said. I could tell he was struggling not to choke up because he did that thing many straight male students do when they become emotional: they add curse words into their sentences.

I had sort of glossed over all the parts about sports in Chen’s book. They were intriguing, no doubt, but as someone who has struggled with depression — and anti-Asian racism — I found her exploration of mental health and identity to be far more compelling. My students, though, pushed me to explore the novel in new ways, to see how she uses sports as a metaphor to explore the way American systems — be they academia, capitalism, or athletics — always insist on asking more from us, even if they break us.

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One of the joys and privileges of teaching literature is that if there are, say, 12 students in the class, I get to read a book 12 ways. And if a book is truly exceptional, as Chen’s book is, it can serve as a portal between strangers, to help two people know each other and perhaps even love each other.

I often meet students who ask me to recommend books whose main character’s identity entirely aligns with their own. I get it. I used to do that all the time.

There is, no doubt, something transformative and even therapeutic when you see your story reflected back at you, especially if you come from a group that has been shut out of American literature. But teaching Chen’s book — and hearing my students’ feedback on it — reminds me to keep more windows open when I teach, to allow for unimagined interpretations and, even better, unexpected connections.

Zahir Janmohamed is a visiting assistant professor of English at Bowdoin College.