Reading to the T

When I was in grad school, I got a small amount of instruction in pedagogy: the art of teaching. Not a lot, because grad school tends to just chuck you into the deep end of being a TA and leave you to figure out swimming on your own, but a little. And one of the pitfalls I remember being warned about is “teaching to the T.”

Imagine your students are seated in rows of desks. Two groups will fall naturally under your gaze: the students in the front row, and those in a column through the middle of the room. That’s your T. By default, you will call on those students more often, give them more of your eye contact and attention, notice more quickly when they’re dozing off or misbehaving, because they’re in the places you will most commonly look. Students on the sides of the room and at the back, by contrast, will be neglected. In order to counteract this bias and be a good teacher, you have to remind yourself to look outside the T, to keep the entire room in your mind and distribute your attention equally.

Why do I bring this up? Because in the brouhaha over the Hugos, I’ve seen a lot of accusations to the effect of “all you PC liberals are the ones Doing It Wrong, because care more about the skin color or gender of the author than you do about the story.” And the other day I thought, no: it’s just that we’re trying not to read to the T.

The publishing industry — really, society at large — is a classroom with assigned seating. And you, the reader, didn’t assign it. Somebody else decided to stack the front row and that center column with mostly straight white guys: to give them more in-house backing, more marketing support, more reviews in major outlets. If you let your gaze rest in the default spot, those guys are the majority of the ones you’ll see. And they may have good things to say! Excellent contributions to the class! . . . but so may the students who have been relegated to the sides and back of the room. The ones you’ll wind up ignoring, if you aren’t conscious of the problem and taking steps to counteract it.

These calls to increase the attention paid to minority writers aren’t about prioritizing the identity of the author above the story. They’re about being aware of our tendency to read to the T, and working to overcome it. They’re about recognizing that being seated in the back corner of the classroom doesn’t mean a person has less in the way of interesting things to say than the writer who got put front and center. You can pretend all you like that publishing is a pure meritocracy, that the authors who get the bulk of the support and attention earned that purely on the basis of their own awesomeness — but doing that requires two things: 1) ignoring a heap of evidence to the contrary, and 2) concluding that yeah, all those women and minorities and so forth really just don’t write very good books compared to the straight white guys.

Don’t read to the T. Look at the whole room. See what’s out there, that you’ve been overlooking all this time.

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