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Academics re-evaluating how to teach Munro's work after daughter's abuse revelations

Professors are re-evaluating how they approach teaching the work of Alice Munro following revelations the writer protected her husband after learning he had sexually abused her daughter.
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Some teachers are re-evaluating how they approach the work of Alice Munro following revelations the writer protected her husband after learning he had sexually abused her daughter. Munro is photographed at her daughter Sheila's home during an interview in Victoria on Tuesday Dec. 10, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

TORONTO — Professors are re-evaluating how they approach teaching the work of Alice Munro following revelations the writer protected her husband after learning he had sexually abused her daughter.

Many readers began reckoning with their relationship to the Nobel laureate after Andrea Robin Skinner published a first-person essay in the Toronto Star detailing the abuse at the hands of her stepfather, and Munro's inaction, but the issue is more immediate for those who typically teach Munro's work.

"This news came as I was contemplating my Canadian literature syllabus for next fall and I am struggling to absorb it," said Manina Jones, the chair of the English and writing studies department at Western University, Munro's alma mater.

"Over the coming weeks, I will grapple with the complicated process of assessing what it means for Alice Munro's legacy. I intend to discuss that process with my students, but I genuinely don't yet know what form that discussion will take."

Until then, she said in an email, she is "attending to Andrea Robin Skinner's story."

The London, Ont., institution where Jones works is also in the early stages of processing.

"Ms. Skinner has our unwavering support and our thoughts are with her as she navigates this painful journey of healing," the acting dean of the faculty of arts and humanities wrote in a statement.

"In light of this, we are taking time to carefully consider how this may impact Alice Munro’s legacy and her ties to Western."

Those ties include an Alice Munro Chair in Creativity, a position created in 2018 to "lead the creative culture" of the arts and humanities faculty.

Celebrated author Sheila Heti currently holds the position. Her representative did not immediately respond to an interview request.

But even those whose professional ties to Munro are looser have been forced to reconsider the role she plays in their work.

Robert Lecker, an English professor at Montreal's McGill University, has long included Munro's work in his syllabuses, but last year taught a class entirely focused on her for the first time.

He has a graduate-level course about Munro set for January, and has found himself wondering how to proceed after reading Skinner's account over the weekend.

"I feel so deeply divided," he said.

"It makes me feel anxious. It makes me wonder whether I should continue with that course. But not to continue with the course is to deny the quality of what she produced."

Ultimately, he said, his job is to help students learn from Munro's work and there is still value in that.

Previously, he didn't lecture much about Munro's life. The works stood on their own, he said.

"I don't think that most members of the reading public — particularly the Canadian reading public — ever had much access to Munro's personal life. It's not so much that it was off limits, it's just that she was a very private person."

But that will change this year, as students reckon with what it means for an author to write stories about women who make hard but good choices against the odds, while failing to do so in her personal life.

"I can tell you exactly what I'm going to be talking about on Day 1 of that class, which is exactly the issue we're talking about now. How does the elephant in the room here -- this story and what we know -- change our reception of the author we're about to read? And how should it change our reception of the author we're about to read?"

He has his own ideas, but ultimately it will be for his students to answer.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 10, 2024.

Nicole Thompson, The Canadian Press