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2019

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Last week, I wrote about the remarkable work Jeanne Bohannon is doing to help her often deeply conservative students reach beyond their own boundaries and engage with differences. I’m writing today about another remarkable teacher, Maria Roberts, whom I’ve known for a very long time from the Bread Loaf School of English but who also responded to my call to survey students about what they thought helped—and hurt—their ability to engage with people who held differing views than they did. And Maria was gracious enough to speak with me, at length, about her experiences (as a potentially vulnerable but also fearless and indomitable part-time instructor), her students (80% white with small percentages of African American, Hispanic, and international students), and her school (small, and in a rural area of Colorado). The students of color and international students tend to live on one side of campus; the white students on the other side. And last year at Halloween, some white students came in Klan robes and one faculty member in blackface.

 

In this atmosphere, Maria says, being able to speak is “all about courage.” In her classrooms, she strives to create a safe space where such courage can be seen and engaged and rewarded. She says that if she provides a place that is understood to be a safe place to talk, they do talk, open up, and are honest with one another. But doing so requires constant work and vigilance on her part—she must be aware of where everyone is, literally and metaphorically, all the time.

 

For Maria, the connection between teacher and students is key and it takes time to establish the trust that will allow that connection to grow and solidify. Clearly, she and many of her students have such relationships—and she is always reaching out, opening doors, and hoping to reach others. After our conversation, Maria shared a message she had from a former student who was reflecting on her experiences engaging with difference.  Here are some of her extraordinary remarks:

            I’d say in general I was uncomfortable talking to people who “looked” different from me (i.e. minorities) because I really had just never done it before. Our school is pretty homogeneous and a lack of exposure to other cultures puts people at a disadvantage. Mostly, though, I was afraid of saying something wrong or coming off as racist. Now [that] I’ve moved to one of the most diverse areas of the country, it’s gotten easier. I still catch myself being intolerant of other people’s experiences because I don’t understand: like a person of color talking about being treated unfairly, I might think “that doesn’t happen now.” BUT I then try to think from the other person’s perspective and recognize my blatant white privilege. When it is to politics or religion, I absolutely don’t feel comfortable talking about those things to people I don’t know and often not even people I do know. There’s too much hate and intolerance of differing opinions today. I would love to have productive conversations about these topics, but it seems impossible to do so.

For me, it’s a little more complicated because as a journalist I’m supposed to portray a façade of neutrality. I recently was assigned to write a story about comments some parents made during a public meeting essentially saying that Black and Hispanic students couldn’t perform at the same level as whites. Since that story was published, some people said it sparked important conversations and changes, but other people were hurt and offended and mad. Without having these conversations, I don’t think people can understand these are real issues in today’s society. Rather, they assume the issues are just legends and they don’t “happen here.”

 

 

In fact, Maria said, the backlash against this young journalist was severe, requiring her to have protection.  This former student shows the kind of courage Maria described earlier, courage that often or always comes with a cost. But this student knew one safe haven she could always turn to: her former teacher. Hence a lengthy conversation, back and forth, as Maria listens, encourages, and most of all understands.

 

I think of Maria and teachers like her every single day who are slowly but inexorably making a difference in students’ lives. Yes, it is all about courage. But before that, it is all about listening and all about trust. About building a place that is safe.

 

Image Credit: Pixabay Image 3488861 by congerdesign, used under the Pixabay License

When I think back to my high school writing instruction, I remember red ink, error codes, rules written by hand (it was the early 1980s) ten times in an effort to earn back half the points deducted for rule violations on initial drafts. By my senior year, I had great confidence in my ability to deploy semicolons correctly, avoid phrasal verbs, and resist the urge to write a fragment for effect. I could generate error-free writing with very little trauma. But I was terrified to say anything creative or unexpected, because the secondary lesson of my instruction was that writing presents a million ways to make mistakes, and mistakes should be avoided above all.

 

It’s difficult to explore ideas and meaning—doubting and then believing yourself in turn (Peter Elbow had not yet made an impact on secondary writing instruction at that point) when you edit each line as it appears before you, even before a proposition has reached its final punctuation, to ensure that subjects and verbs agree.

 

I had not yet understood (or could not verbalize) that writing concerns meaning—and identities, relationships, and social expectations, among other things. Implicitly I must have known something of these concerns, for I recognized that writing “correctly” would open academic doors for me, as it eventually did – doors that bypassed first-year composition courses. But “correctness” for me entailed writing without a number of language resources that could have been helpful in clarifying meaning for different audiences and purposes: passive voice, phrasal verbs, first and second person pronouns, some sentence-initial conjunctive adverbials, and there is/are constructions.

 

My current composition classes are working on revisions to literacy narratives, and I am working to create classroom spaces for metatalk about writing and grammar, encouraging students to consider their language and writing resources, the choices they have made in this particular paper, and how they are assessing the effectiveness of those choices.  Similar to my own concerns in high-school, much of their talk revolves around rules and errors—and the fact that I have told them they can violate “rules” they learned in previous courses, as long as their decision to do so fits the purpose and evolving meaning of the paper (which requires them to think about purposes and meanings and how language might either align with or work against them). I am trying not to restrict their writing or language resources in any way.

 

But an upper-level student challenged me on this “no linguistic restrictions” policy during a discussion in my advanced grammar class recently. We were looking at the functions that be plays in English, particularly in the progressive aspect and the passive voice, as well as in there is/are constructions. Students were exploring the rhetorical and discourse purposes of these constructions—backgrounding/foregrounding, creating cohesion, denying or reducing agency, introducing topic shifts, etc. I casually mentioned that I hated to hear that be verbs were restricted in some composition classes, given what be-based constructions can accomplish within a text. Why would we ever want to restrict students from using legitimate linguistic resources, especially when avoiding those resources might lead to less than optimal prose?

 

One of my students suggested that he had found a restriction on using be verbs helpful to his development as a writer. When not allowed to use be in a paper, he became aware of the extent to which he did use be verbs. And in the course of our conversation, it became evident that not using be might help a student develop skill at using other structures—just as an athlete or musician might restrict the use of a dominant hand in order to strengthen a weaker or less-practiced hand. When assignments are framed strategically, as exercises designed to target a particular linguistic “muscle,” then such restrictions might make sense.

 

Indeed. I have done such exercises—framing them as ways of playing with language, especially at the paragraph level. To the extent that these exercises highlight and illustrate language-meaning relationships and the ways in which language choices can affect a reader’s experiences, they also support my goal to expand and explore metatalk in developmental and first-year writing courses. 

 

The student’s comments challenged me to consider yet again the way I frame instructions for assignments—both major papers and smaller classroom exercises; the nature of the framing language can either make my purpose clear or leave students bewildered, sensing that they’ve just encountered another idiosyncratic and arbitrary rule. The advanced student’s comments—and the lively metalinguistic and pedagogic discussion that followed—also reminded me of the value of opening spaces for first-year writers to talk about their writing with each other, not just with me.

 

What language restrictions do you give student writers? Are these restrictions part of a specific assignment? What is your purpose in restricting linguistic choices in that assignment? Do you explain that purpose explicitly to students? How?

Shannon ButtsShannon Butts (recommended by Creed Greer) received her PhD in English with a concentration in Rhetoric and Writing Studies at The University of Florida in August 2019. Shannon teaches courses on digital rhetoric, multimodal composition, professional communication, technofeminism, and first-year writing. She also serves as the Assistant Coordinator of First Year Writing and mentors graduate instructors. Shannon's research examines how digital and mobile writing technologies, such as augmented reality, locative media, and 3D printing, author new literacy practices for public writing and community advocacy.

 

How does the next generation of students inspire you? 

 

The students coming through my courses seem to have a hustle that understands the larger ecology of work, play, and education. College is not necessarily their end game but part of a growing skill set that will position them for more opportunities in the future. And that looks different for different students. People coming in from high school are hustling to make grades, get internships, start businesses – hustling to participate in an economy that has diversified the paths that people can take to make money and be successful. Similarly, students coming back to school or working on graduate degrees are hustling to build a portfolio of experiences that will help them advance in their current careers or start new ones. The hustle can be tiring, or seem disorganized. Yet, most of the students that I see are working to create a well-rounded set of skills to be not only competitive but happy in their work and life. The hustle includes physical fitness, growing plants, joining clubs, taking days off, having families, developing apps, caring about public issues, and fighting for equality and balance in new ways. The students I see now inspire me to hustle for both myself and others. 

 

What is the most important skill you aim to provide your students?

 

I want the students in my classroom to understand that writing is a process that grows and changes throughout their lives. As such, I want students to develop analytical skills that evaluate the nuances of any rhetorical situation or ecology. If students understand the complex components of an issue, then they can best evaluate how to respond and make change. Learning how to analyze arguments, identify evidence, and trace the connections between conversations can help students actively participate in the public sphere—where they not only receive or disseminate information but understand how to assemble new publics, to read and write for change, and to evaluate information for accuracy as well as applicability. If writers can map rhetorical ecologies and trace the relationships between evidence and argument, then I think they are better prepared to understand the complex systems that we all read, write, and participate in.

 

What is it like to be a part of the Bedford New Scholars?

 

Participating in the Bedford New Scholars programs provides a look behind the curtain of educational publishing. More than merely understanding how to test or market a text, the program has shown me how Bedford works to identify what is important to students, writers, and teachers in different schools and demographics. Through online resources, publishers have new opportunities to create platforms and curate content that works for diverse groups of students and instructors. While institutions may adopt one central text or program, Bedford has shown us how to work within the larger system to find what can best help students and instructors meet their goals for a classroom or course. By showing us multiple texts and platforms, the Bedford staff creates a forum for helping us understand the publishing process, but also gives a voice to the people who are in the classroom everyday. They not only wanted my feedback on existing projects but my critique and suggestions for change, and Bedford New Scholars offers an opportunity to participate in shaping emerging resources. 

 

What have you learned from other Bedford New Scholars?

 

I found the Bedford New Scholars experience empowering. Not only did I get the chance to meet some incredible teachers and scholars from different fields and institutions, but I also was challenged to continually evaluate my own teaching strategies and tools. By sitting down around a table and discussing the different dynamics of each Scholar’s school and experience, I was able to consider how my pedagogy might change while also affirming many of the common issues that instructors currently address: How can I make my classroom more inclusive and accessible? How can I empower my students through public writing? What kinds of emerging tools can help address inequality in the education system? The Bedford New Scholars offered a range of experience and insight and created a small community where instructors could share methods, critiques, tools, and camaraderie.  



Shannon’s Assignment that Works

During the Bedford New Scholars Summit, each member presented an assignment that had proven successful or innovative in their classroom. Below is a brief synopsis of Shannon’s assignment. You can view the full details here: Know Your Meme: Finding the Exigence

 

The “Know Your Meme” activity draws on research, analysis, evaluation, and remix skills to transform popular memes into detailed claims. Composing arguments requires an attunement to exigence—understanding an issue, problem, or situation and how best to address a public to motivate a response. For this activity, students are introduced to several popular memes asked to find the first time the meme was used as part of an argument. Instead of focusing on the isolated image, students should look to the rhetorical ecology of how a meme responded to a particular issue or idea. By asking questions like “What are the basic elements of the issue?” and “How does the meme engage a key component of an argument?,” students begin to define the exigence for the meme and the specifics of the rhetorical situation. Practicing good research skills, students can analyze the different arguments surrounding an issue and evaluate how their meme engages specific viewpoints.

 

After analyzing how a specific meme has responded to arguments in the public sphere, students gain a familiarity with the media as well as the details of the involved arguments. Memes are fairly simplistic in construction and can reduce complex arguments to pithy forms. The next step has participants evaluate memes for missing elements or logical fallacies and rewrite the media as a more complex claim with supportive details. Focusing on one specific use of their meme, students can ask, “What is missing to create a detailed response to the issue?” Drawing on their own research, students can then address the exigence of an issue by rewriting a meme as an argumentative claim with supportive details. Paying attention to research, exigence, and arguments, students learn to map the larger rhetorical ecology of public issues and craft detailed claims that participate in evolving conversations.

 

Learn more about the Bedford New Scholars advisory board on the Bedford New Scholars Community page.

 

Jack Solomon

The Panopticon 2.0

Posted by Jack Solomon Expert Oct 3, 2019

Michel Foucault's application of Jeremy Bentham's panoptic proposal for prison reform to the modern surveillance state has become a commonplace of contemporary cultural theory. And heaven knows that we are being watched by our government, by our computers, by our phones, and televisions, and automobiles, and goodness knows what else. It is also no secret that current and prospective employers monitor the social media imprints of their current and prospective employees—all those promises of airtight privacy settings and Snapchat anonymity notwithstanding. As I say, all this has become a commonplace of life in the digital era.

 

But a new wrinkle has entered the picture, a fold in the space/time fabric of modern life if you will, whereby the pre-digital past has come to haunt the digital present. For as the governor of Virginia and the prime minister of Canada now know to their cost, what goes into your school yearbook doesn't stay in your school yearbook. And thanks to an array of yearbook-posting alumni websites, anyone with an Internet connection can access virtually anyone's yearbook and immediately expose online those embarrassing moments that you thought were safely hidden in the fogs of time.

 

(A parenthetical autobiographical note: I would be highly amused if someone dug up my high school yearbook—yearbooks, actually, because I was on the staff for three years, the last two as editor-in-chief. The first of the three was a conventional celebration of football players, cheerleaders, and homecoming royalty, but I changed all that in the next two when I got editorial control, dedicating the first of them to the natural environment— including two photo essays complete with an accompanying poetic narrative—and the second devoted to a contemplation of the mystery of time itself, which included repeating reproductions of El Greco's "Saint Andrew and Saint Francis," which were intended to convey an ongoing dialog between a wise man and a seeker of temporal wisdom. You get one guess as to why I don't have to worry about any embarrassing party pics in my yearbooks.)

 

So it isn't enough to cancel your Twitter account, max out your privacy settings on Facebook (good luck with that), or simply take a long vacation from the Internet, for the Net's got you coming and going whatever you do. I expect that one's reaction to this state of affairs (which is itself of semiotic interest) is probably generational; that is, if you grew up with the Internet, none of this is likely to be particularly alarming, but if you remember the days when personal privacy was at least a value (if not always a reality), then it could be disturbing indeed. And there is no escaping the situation, for just as it is impossible to avoid the consequences of major cyber hacks by refusing to conduct any of your business affairs online (if you have any sort of bank account, credit/debit card, health record, or social security number, you are vulnerable no matter how hard you try to live outside the Web), there is no controlling what may surface from your past.

 

Photo Credit: Pixabay Image 4031973 by pixel2013, used under Pixabay License

 

This summer I surveyed students at a range of colleges and universities, asking them to tell me about what they saw as barriers to communicating with people different from them and about what they saw as the benefits of being able to do so. I’ve written a bit about what the students had to say and will write more in time. But this week I want to talk about a follow up to this research with students, because I had an opportunity to interview some of the teachers whose students responded to the survey about these same issues.

 

I came away from these interviews deeply impressed with the work teachers across the country are doing, first to broach difficult and controversial subjects in the classroom and second to help students engage with them—and with each other. All of the teachers I spoke with recognize the urgency of this work; all feel the strain of teaching in a time of intolerance, misinformation, and deep divides. The two teachers I want to talk about today, both of whom have given me permission to quote them and to share their ideas, are heroes to me, courageous and absolutely steadfast in their belief in young people and in their determination to serve them well by, among other things, raising their awareness of—and the importance of—difference and diversity.

 

One of these teachers is Jeanne Bohannon, who teaches at a public university in a bright red state. During last spring term, several events targeted African American students for harassment and threats, acts which led some white students to defend the offenders and to harass anyone who spoke out against them, including faculty. In this atmosphere, Professor Bohannon continued her work: “The kind of work I do is civil rights rhetoric and working with the Atlanta Student Movement. And sometimes it is really tough, so I really started to embed a lot of my primary research with the Atlanta Student Movement into our first year writing courses.”

 

I took a deep breath and then asked, “So how’s that going?” Here’s what she had to say:

I have lost two students so far, and one of the students I lost because she didn’t feel like the work was valid, in her words. Another student I lost because she was afraid that her parents, who were supporters of Donald Trump, would see her work, and she would get in trouble. But everyone else has been wonderful… I have to tell you, this course is drawing students across different majors. I have communication majors. I have English majors. I have STEM majors who seek out this class so that they can work on this civil rights research.

 

Jeanne has been teaching this course for several semesters now, with equally good results. What specifically did she do, I asked her, to establish a classroom ethos of respect and openness?

One of the things I do first off is I talk with the students about how I practice democratic pedagogy, how I do contract grading with students. What that means for me is every semester on my syllabus, I have a community expectation statement that was written by me and students back in 2015 and every semester we tweak it depending on the class. We spend the first couple of days in class with everyone talking through what it looks like to be a part of a community. And we set out the ground rules of what it means to be respectful. And we stress that you can disagree, but you must think of people as your community members. And that is part of the syllabus and that is part of the contract they sign, saying “I’m staying in the class and this is part of what I am going to do.”

 

Here’s a brief description of the research project on which the course rests:

This course engages undergraduate student scholars in public, digital humanities research centered on the roles AU Center students played in the struggle for civil and human rights in 1960-1962. Student scholars are expected to conduct their work based on a contract model, where they will work in teams to produce public texts that they negotiate with each other and the professor.

 

And here’s the community expectation statement that the class co-constructed and revises term by term:

Community Learning Precepts

Writing and learning are methods of communication that are inherently dialogic, democratic, and sometimes digital. We practice democratic learning in our course, as a matter of community-building. What this means for you:

  • You are a vital and respected member of our community.
  • You will participate authentically in our work as a stakeholder in your own rhetorical growth AND the growth of your colleagues in this class.
  • Your voice is important because it drives our interactions as a group.
  • You will design and curate your own learning and work experience in this class as a "contract" with both your colleagues and your instructor.

 

Later in the interview, we talked about problems that can arise as students work together on what to some are very “touchy” subjects and about how they negotiate differences.

I wish I had a more codified, concrete strategy for managing conflict. But what we do when that happens, and it does happen—it especially happens with some of my white male students who really want to engage with the project, but who feel awkward or feel like they can’t join because they feel guilt or they feel some other emotion. They want to engage but they just can’t. And so what is important for me is to pair them up with some of the lecturers who come to campus [to talk about the Atlanta Student Movement] and to make sure that I’m always engaging with them and that their fellow students keep engaging with them and pulling them along. We do a lot of experiential learning. So we’ll take fieldtrips down to different museums and archives. And it is all about inclusivity. This is in our community precepts that we practice all semester. Everyone in the community has value. It is difficult content we work through, but as scholars, as professionals, and as community members we do this together. And that is how I embrace it. I just keep articulating it all semester long to them.

 

What stands out to me as I revisit this interview is that Professor Bohannon—Jeanne—doesn’t have some magic elixir that she uses, or some abstract theory she is working with to help her students engage across difference. What she has is openness to others, the ability to listen rhetorically, the goal of making students full partners in their classroom community, and the time to work through problems calmly and fairly and openly. What gifts! If you’d like to see some of the work that Bohannon’s students have produced during the course of this project (some of which was supported by a grant she won), you can find it here.   

 

I know that teachers all across this country are carrying out similar work in their writing classrooms in which they help students deal with some deep-seated biases and prejudices as they struggle to engage with people who are unlike them in some ways. And I know that the importance of this work cannot be over-estimated. It is urgent. It is real. And we must keep doing it.

 

Many thanks to Jeanne Bohannon for allowing me to share some of her experiences and some of her strategies. I had intended to write about another teacher, but you’ll have to wait for another week to read about her!

 

Image Credit: Pixabay Image 3380192 by Fun_loving_Cindy, used under the Pixabay License