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