This past October, I travelled to Boulder, Colorado for the Conference on Community Writing (CCW). The tone at the conference was celebratory, seeming to announce that community writing/partnership practices had “arrived” as an important element in Composition and Rhetoric programs. Indeed, during the conference, there were numerous panels where speakers discussed how they had transformed their upper division writing courses into sites of community inquiry and investigation.
I wondered, however, what about the community writing/partnership work being done in First-Year writing? Does “community” only belong in the upper division? Placed within a special niche separate from our historical role in supporting marginalized/non-traditional students?
I would argue just the opposite.
I have always believed that “community” should be a central focus in any required freshman writing course. One of the central elements of a community writing course is an investigation of how ‘academic’ and ‘everyday’ knowledges both rely upon argumentation, sources, and persuasion. Community writing focused courses enable students to understand the affordances (and limitations) of each individually, and ask them to find ways the two can be brought together for greater insight and effect.
Moreover, in such a classroom, students come to understand academic knowledge itself as a community literacy. That is, academic writing is the name of a particular community literacy, with a history, a set of practices, and participants. By putting academic and everyday communities into dialogue within a classroom, students learn, hopefully, the power of such communities when joined together. And in the process, students come to understand the potential value of their home community’s literacies in their own college education.
Yet too often, students are immediately asked to imagine themselves as “in the academy,” either entering with a deficit and needing ‘skills’ or being asked to take on the role of a historian or other discipline-specific identity. In both situations, their home literacies and knowledges are too often framed as unimportant for the educational journey that lies ahead. And in such scenarios, it is too often the literacies of marginalized students, from differing heritages and legal statuses, that are ushered out of the classroom. Too often, that is, the dismissal of community leads to a re-instantiation of standards which benefit white, middle-class students.
If we want to remain true to the legacy of open access education, of advocating for all literacies and languages, then I would argue that freshman writing is one of the most important places in which to invest in a community literacy/partnership framework. And I would further argue that such an investment does not necessarily mean the creation of actual community partnerships – work which while important is not always possible given the often burdensome-workload placed on first year teachers.
As one way to begin such work in our classrooms, I might suggest the following:
- Assign students a short essay where they discuss the intellectuals in their own communities. Ask them to not just describe the individuals, but to describe these individuals’ sense of how the world works – what justice means to them, why there is injustice, how their community attempts to foster equality. Consider how these essays might provide some key terms from which to understand subsequent academic readings.
- After reading a scholarly essay, ask the students to identify the key research questions addressed. Break them into small groups focused on answering how those questions would change if located in their home communities. Ask them to revise the research questions accordingly. Use these questions to enable students to see how “community-based research” might provide a way to value academic-based research.
- Before writing an academic response to an assigned scholarly essay, ask students to imagine themselves as someone from their community who they consider to be an “intellectual.” Have them write a short essay about how this person might respond to both the writing and content of the essay. Use these essays to discuss any limitations in the academic essay, particularly in how it imagines its reader as well as the “community” to which it is speaking. What might a writing that brings these two community insights together look like?
Clearly these examples are not exhaustive. (See Writing Communities for other such assignments). And without too much effort, a community partnership could be embedded within each assignment. For instance, a meeting might occur in a neighborhood-location where community intellectuals engage with students on a topic previously studied through an academic essay.
The most important point is that through investigating the relationship between community and academic practices, students are simultaneously thinking about how knowledge is produced in each community, how “facts” are deployed to convince their specific audiences, and why certain ways of speaking are being used. In short, students are learning about the nature of research communities and what it means to join in their work. Which is, to my thinking, one of the primary goals of freshman writing.
It is time, therefore, to see community literacy/partnership as existing within (and supporting) the historical legacy and current ambitions of freshman writing courses. Such an integration of insights and efforts would truly be a cause for celebration.