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20 Posts authored by: April Lidinsky Expert

 

Economics has risen above its reputation as the "dismal science,” but it still may not seem like a lively topic for a composition classroom. However, in the spirit of inviting our students to grapple with meaningful material, let’s remember that our composition students are already thinking about economics in the form of student debt … and it feels deeply personal. While a composition class is certainly not Econ 101, a writing course devoted to understanding the ways experts make meaning is a (perfect) opportunity to empower students with tools for analyzing the financial context of U.S. education. 

 

Ask your students what they think about student debt, and they’ll have plenty to say. (I hope you will, and that you'll share their responses, below.) At my public university, where many students are first-generation, the conversation tends toward two directions: 1) Student debt terrifies them and they try not to think about it, and 2) They don’t understand why education costs so much, whether it's worth it, and how anyone could pay it all off. Why bring this negative energy and confusion into your writing classroom? Because understanding is power, and you have the tools your students need to make sense of an issue they know will affect the course of their lives.

 

I recommend assigning portions of Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream (2016), by Sara Goldrick-Rab, a self-described “scholar-activist” with a backgrounding sociology and education policy. Stuart Greene and I include her engaging writing in the 4th edition of our book, From Inquiry to Academic Writing, precisely because she models, with verve, the “habits of mind of academic writers” we cultivate in our classrooms. I will focus on two of those here:  

 

  1. Inquiring 
  2. Seeking and valuing complexity  

 

In our headnote and the “Reading as a Writer” topics that guide students in analyzing Goldrick-Rab’s writing, we dig into her questions about the history of student loans, shifting attitudes about the necessity of a college degree, and problem-solving examples of states investing in “first degree for free" programs in order to “reinvest” in communities (746). Goldrick-Rab invites us to explore the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, where the concepts she presents are being tested in innovative, scholarly ways. In Goldrick-Rab, students see an academic mind at work, using your course’s tools to understand a problem that matters to them. Goldrick-Rab sides with them:

 

         The first step in addressing the college affordability crisis is taking the problem seriously. Money matters. Lack of          financial resources is keeping students from succeeding. Suggesting that low-income students merely need to          learn how to live more frugally is usually a misplaced recommendation — and an offensive one, to boot. As Oscar          Wilde wrote, “To recommend thrift to the poor is both grotesque and insulting. It is like advising a man who is          starving to eat less.” (747)

 

When even the musical our students are humming, Hamilton, suggests punching the Bursar, your composition class has the opportunity to inspire students to apply the skills you’re teaching to an issue relevant to them – to flex their academic “habits of mind,” rather than their fists. Plenty of instructors, also burdened by student loans, will find Goldrick-Rab’s insights timely, too. 

 

 

Image source: “student loan” by airpix on flickr 6/23/16 via Creative Commons 2.0 license

As another semester begins, I offer praise for a "less is more" approach in the classroom. In particular, teaching fewer readings than you might usually assign, and teaching them slowly, can allow students to practice close reading and “close writing" in transformational ways. Think of it as "slow reading” and "slow writing” — which, let's face it, is how practiced readers and writers actually work.

 

I offer poet and essayist Claudia Rankine’s work as exemplary texts for this approach. Andrea Lunsford has blogged about Rankine’s edge-of-the-seat keynote at the 11th biennial meeting of the Feminisms and Rhetorics conference. Lunsford followed up with a post on teaching Rankine’s book-length poem, Citizen: An American Lyric (2014). Both entries reminded me why my co-author, Stuart Greene, and I include Rankine in the 4th edition of our book, From Inquiry to Academic Writing. We chose Rankine’s essay, “The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning,” as a text to slow-read on the topic of race in the U.S.

 

In this densely woven but accessibly brief essay, Rankine threads back and forth in history to provide a context for her incisive claim: “Though the white liberal imagination likes to feel temporarily bad about black suffering, there really is no mode of empathy that can replicate the daily strain of knowing that as a black person you can be killed for simply being black” (458). Rankine’s essay title comes from a friend, the mother of a black son, who captures this brutal truth: “The condition of black life is one of mourning” (458). Rankine stitches this observation to an almost identical lament in 1955, from Mamie Till Mobley, who insisted the mutilated body of her son, Emmett Till, be placed in public view: “Let people see what I see …. I believe that the whole United States is mourning with me” (460). As Rankine argues, “[Mamie Till Mobley’s] desire to make mourning enter our day-to-day world was a new kind of logic” (460). Imagine inviting students to read those sentences aloud, and to explore what it means to call this violence "a new kind of logic."

 

Perhaps because she is also a poet, the rhythm and economy of Rankine’s sentences beg us to slow down and ponder the word choices. What could happen if you give your students the space and time in class to consider (on paper, in pairs, in small groups, or in a large group) the implications for the following claim: “We live in a country where Americans assimilate corpses into their daily comings and goings. Dead blacks are a part of normal life here” (459)? What insights might emerge as your students connect these words shimmering with feeling — with other reading in your course about the media, identity, education, or any number of topics we often teach in composition classes? Imagine returning to Rankine’s rich text as a touchstone, throughout your semester, to see what emerges in the context of other texts — a practice that can become a transformational tactic for lifelong readers.

 

Rankine’s poetic prose implores us to slow down. These thick and weighty words remind us how wrong-headed the advice is that novice close-readers often receive: “Read between the lines.” No. Instead, we should urge students: Read the lines. Read the words themselves, slowly. Read them aloud. Read them in the context of another writer's ideas, and then again in the context of yet another writer. Read them, certainly, in the context of their own lives, too. See how close reading  slow reading — invites a proliferation of interpretations. That challenge, and that pleasure, is the heart of our courses, and that takes time. Give yourself and your students that gift.

 

Students came into class today on fire about the latest news of powerful men who have been fired for sexually predatory behaviors. Part of the conversational aftermath of the #metoo movement is the reminder that these abuses don’t just happen in Hollywood, journalism, or politics. This abuse happens to people who have far less power, who may have nothing to gain – and perhaps a lot to lose – by outing a manager at a fast food job they need, or a predatory president in small business that might contribute meaningfully to the local economy.  Of course, that default setting to “silence” is one way a “system of privilege” works.

 

My students have been analyzing the essay “What is a ‘System of Privilege’?’” by Allan G. Johnson. Johnson’s tightly written text anchors the chapter on sociological readings my co-author Stuart Greene and I included in the 4th edition of From Inquiry to Academic WritingBecause of the before-class chatter about predatory behavior, I led the students in a visual exercise about gender and privilege that is not original to me, but one I recommend. I wrote on the board: “What do you do every day to protect yourself from sexual assault?" I drew two columns, one for men, and one for women. I called on the men first.  “Uhhhhh….”  Awkward silence. Then laughter. A student ran his fingers through his hair in thoughtful embarrassment and said, “Uh — I keep my pants up? And I try to just … be aware?” That elicited some laughter, but by this point the women were on the edge of their seats, hands shooting up.

 

What followed was an avalanche of strategies, tactics, and survival skills that are second-nature to women socialized in U.S. culture. As my handwriting reveals, I could hardly write fast enough to keep up with the torrent of routine behaviors women use to keep themselves safe, from walking in darkened parking lots with “Wolverine keys” at the ready, to buddy systems to watch drinks and get home safely, to a range of small weapons tucked into purses. The air was charged. Women were angry, but also seemed vindicated to share this anger.

 

I made room for some silence as we looked at the evidence on the board before asking: “So, what do we make of this?”  One person immediately said: “That is privilege. Some people never have to think about sexual violence. Other people have to think about it all the time.”  Some of the men talked about how their female friends frequently ask them to serve as their “bodyguards” at concerts or at bars. Other men nodded, one noting, “Even though I’m smaller than some of my female friends, they still see me as their protector. I don’t know how to feel about that.”

 

We dove into Johnson’s essay, then, and students made connections to insights by Jean Kilbourne on “‘Two Ways a Woman Can Get Hurt’: Advertising and Violence,” and the lively analysis by Ken Gillam and Shannon R. Wooden of alternatives to toxic masculinity in animated films in the essay, “Post-Princess Models of Gender: The New Man in Disney/Pixar.”

 

With a little prompting, students could draw out intersectional insights that unpacked these simple categories of “male” and “female” behavior. As Traci Gardner reminds us in her powerful post Who Counts When We Talk about Sexual Harassment? repeating simplistic gender binaries erases the experiences of trans* and gender-nonconforming people, as well as sexual violence experienced by men. Further, an intersectional analysis reminds us that men of color receive fear responses that are often heightened, as the terrible record of police violence reminds us. Male students let down their guard as they revealed their hurt feelings when women cross the street to avoid them, or pull their purses close when they pass, or assume they are “players.” Privilege might empower some, but it warps the human experience of all.

 

At the end of class, dozens of students spontaneously lined up to take photos of the board to share on social media. Their words are now part of the cultural conversation.  #StudentsToo.

 

Photo Credit: April Lidinsky

 

Why invite an economic theorist into your composition class? Recent Nobel Prize winner Richard Thaler offers concepts that bolster what you already teach in your course about the craft of persuasion, but with some twists that students find very appealing. Let me give you a little nudge.

 

Thalers theory of choice architecture, developed with colleagues Cass R. Sunstein and John P. Balz, are the foundation of their 2008 best-seller, Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness. My co-author, Stuart Greene, and I include a generous slice of these insights in our chapter on Economics in the 4th edition of our book, From Inquiry to Academic Writing. Choice Architecture explains the way that small details in consumer displays, software design, fee structures, and more can nudge us to make decisions in ways we may not notice but that profoundly impact our behavior.

 

Thaler is just the sort of expert we go out of our way to invite into our composition classrooms because his challenging ideas stretch our students vocabularies and conceptual understanding of the world, and the impact of these ideas is immediately clear to them. After all, who hasnt felt manipulated on occasion by a mandated choice? And how many of us can resist the path of least resistance or default decision-making behind the I agree to the terms check-boxes that we often click out of resignation rather than comprehension? (These are decisions we sometimes regret.)

 

By helping students see the structures behind the thousands of subtle nudges in our daily lives, Thaler and you, as a composition instructor  can help students understand the many default settings that shape every aspect of our daily lives, from consumer decisions, to our environmental habits, to the hundreds of decisions our universities make for us (all of us!) that are worthy of closer analysis. Im willing to bet any topic you pursue in your composition classrooms could be enhanced by the tools Thaler offers.

 

Like the most effective and provocative writers you invite your students to study, Thaler models the academic habits of mind we all seek to foster in our classrooms, including asking questions that reveal patterns, and analyzing those patterns to understand their significance in our personal lives and communities. Where better than your classroom to hand students the tools to better understand the power of persuasion, particularly the nudges we dont notice, even as we reach for that eye-level candy bar at the check-out stand?

Like many of Nikole Hannah-Jones’ longtime admirers, I was thrilled to hear the New York Times investigative reporter won a 2017 MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” for her culture-shifting analytical reporting on segregated schooling and racial injustice. 

 

The award confirmed for my co-author, Stuart Greene, and me all the reasons we chose to anchor our chapter on Education in the 4th edition of our book, From Inquiry to Academic Argument with Hannah-Jones’ essay, “School Segregation, the Continuing Tragedy of Ferguson.”

 

Just as Hannah-Jones explains in this short MacArthur Foundation video, she models in her essay the method of inquiry that moves readers beyond simply reacting to a tragedy like the police shooting of Michael Brown. Hannah-Jones teaches us to ask why the neighborhood where Brown attended school was so segregated. She shows why it's important to ask about the specific policies that dismantled the very desegregation laws that benefited Michael Brown’s mother in the same school district just a generation earlier. She invites readers to examine the data comparing the vast disparities in academic proficiencies of students in the lowest-performing school district in Missouri, the Normandy district where Michael Brown attended school, with the top-performing predominately white district, Clayton, just five miles away. 

 

Finally, she demonstrates the power of asking the question we train all our students to ask: “So what?” Her response -- after weaving connections between personal, political, and historical examples -- is devastating: “Students who spend their careers in segregated schools can look forward to a life on the margins …. They are more likely to be poor. They are more likely to go to jail. They are less likely to graduate from high school, to go to college, and to finish if they go. They are more likely to live in segregated neighborhoods as adults” (This citation appears on page 451 of the forthcoming edition of From Inquiry to Academic Writing). In other words, moving from only gut-wrenching sorrow about police violence to inquiry and analysis can allow us to see systematic patterns that maintain inequality. And, seeing them, we can begin to recognize their characteristics, and act to disrupt them. 

 

While Hannah-Jones is a journalist, she models the academic habits of mind we strive to instill in our students — asking questions that reveal patterns, and analyzing those patterns to understand their significance in the lives of real people. Further, she models how to examine the implications for a nation whose pledge proclaims “justice for all," while policies deliberately work against this aspiration.

 

What texts have been particularly helpful for you in modeling habits of mind that engage your students in meaningful inquiry? Please considering sharing in the comments, below.

 

Click here to see more articles by Nikole Hannah-Jones.