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Stephen Parks

Podcast: Pedagogue

Posted by Stephen Parks Expert Aug 2, 2019

Today I'd like to highlight Shane A. Wood's podcast: Pedagogue


Pedagogue is a podcast about teachers talking writing, dedicated to building a supportive community, committed to facilitating conversations that move across institutions and positions, and designed to help celebrate the labor teachers do inside and outside the classroom. Each episode is a conversation with a teacher (or multiple teachers) about their experiences teaching writing, their work, inspirations, assignments, assessments, successes, and challenges. The podcast is meant to promote diverse voices at various institutions and help foster community and collaboration among teachers of writing. 


Recently, I was fortunate enough to have several conversations with Shane: the first (Episode 4 of the podcast) building on the ideas developed in Writing Communities - building community partnerships and teaching within a social justice framework, and the second (the first Bonus Episode) discussing whether graduate education is meeting the aspirational goals of the new generation of community-engaged graduate students. I invite you to take a listen, as well as to explore Shane's other episodes!


What are your thoughts on building community partnerships? How do you incorporate social justice in your classroom? Find me on Twitter (@StephenJParks) to let me know, or reply in the comments below!



Image and Pedagogue description courtesy of Shane A. Wood.

Stephen Parks

Sueños y Pesadillas

Posted by Stephen Parks Expert Oct 31, 2018

Hearing the Voices of the Immigrant “Caravan”

Over the past several weeks, the Trump Administration has been attempting to create an atmosphere of fear around the “caravan” of refugees fleeing the violence of their home countries. Their political and personal suffering has been recast in terms of a “takeover” of our country by “violent and dangerous” individuals. There have even been calls to increase military security along the border. 


I want to use this space to simply remind us of the humanity of those attempting to reach safety. Last year, I had the opportunity to publish the memoir SUEÑOS Y PESADILLAS/Dreams and Nightmares by Liliana Velasquez, who left her home at 14 to come to the United States. I am providing an excerpt of her story as one small attempt to remind us of the courage of many of those in the “caravan” and the strength they are bringing to our nation. (Proceeds from Dreams and Nightmares are used to pay for Liliana Velasquez’s college education.) 




I Got Rid of My Fear

When I was fourteen, I decided to come to the United States alone. I told myself, I’m going to get rid of all of my fear, if I never strive, I won’t accomplish my dream. When I made that decision, I was ready for anything. What was going to happen to me wasn’t important, because many things had already happened there in Guatemala. I made that decision out of desperation, out of the anger I always had, from seeing my mother and father suffering, from seeing parents in my village who didn’t care for their children, from seeing the violence within families and between neighbors—from seeing my poor country. And, as I suffered some of that, I decided to go far away without fear. When I came here I did many things that I couldn’t imagine, without knowing anything. I didn’t have a plan, like where I was going, who I was going to meet up with or stay with, if I had anything to eat or a place to sleep, or where I was going to get money. I didn’t think about those things. I only told myself, I’m going! I didn’t know what I was doingit was insanity and bravery at the same time.


Fulfilling My Dreams

In Guatemala, I wanted to go to school and continue my studies, but I wasn’t able to. I wanted to be someone and overcome what had happened to me, and I decided to make a different life. I didn’t want to get married and have children, like the other young girls in Guatemala, and I had to escape the violence there. My dreams were to live with my brothers in North Carolina and work and help my mom and my sisters. 


When they captured me at the border, I felt like my dream had ended. I said to myself, If they deport me, I don’t know what will become of me—I will be destroyed if I return to Guatemala. When I was caught, destiny took me down another path beyond my imagination and changed my life. I came to the United States only to work and be with my brothers. I had no hopes of living with a foster family that would love me, I had no hopes of continuing with my studies and living like a regular girl, of having papers, of having more freedom and respect and opportunities, of not suffering from violence, or of finding so many people who would help me. 


Thinking about the future, I am going to keep on fighting and taking advantage of the opportunities that I have. Right now, I’m only focused on my present goals. Eventually, I want to go to a university and study nursing. I will be the first person in my family who has graduated from high school and gone on to the university—who has a career.


This hasn’t been easy, it has cost me a lot. In one sense, I’m achieving the American Dream, but a part of me—the part that I love the most—I left in Guatemala. I’m separated from my family there, from the place that I was born. I’ve had to get used to a completely different culture and to new people and have had to determine my own path. It’s been hard, but it’s worth it. 


Finally, I Have Told My Story

 Since I was a thirteen-year-old girl, I have wanted to tell my story. When I cried in my house in Guatemala, I imagined that the house was a witness to my suffering, and that someday it would testify about what had happened to me. I wanted to express everything that I felt—how I cried because of the separation of my parents, or the abuse and torment that I experienced, and my lack of education. I didn’t think about including my dreams in my story—I only thought about the ways I suffered.


I decided that I had to tell my story. It was very important to me, because there are many people who can’t express themselves, who don’t have the opportunity to tell their story, who have suffered like me. It is my story, but it’s also the story of all the others who have come to this country.


Also, I’m telling my story for the people here in the United States who don’t know anything about the life of immigrants—the poverty and violence and lack of opportunities in our countries, and the risks that we take to come to the United States in order to have a better life and help our families. They can’t imagine how we live here, how we suffer, how we try to get ahead and struggle by the sweat of our brow to get what we want. I hope that people who aren’t immigrants see the great difference between their life and the life of immigrants—that they reflect a bit and change their attitude. They haven’t suffered from hunger, they haven’t suffered rape or abuse, they have opportunities to get an education, they don’t live in fear of being arrested and deported. We immigrants came to fulfill our dreams—I want them to understand our dreams.



Photos courtesy of Stephen Parks.

A Discussion with Ashanka Kumari, University of Louisville, in Preparation for the Watson Conference


Community is a fraught term in our field. It is used for all manner of purposes. We speak of our classrooms as communities, attempt to foster inclusive communal practices in our graduate programs, and establish equitable community partnerships. It is less clear, however, that we enable either our undergraduate or graduate students to possess the skills required to actually build communities – the nuts and bolts of organizing strategies and practices that turn community from a noun to an existing space.


At least, this is what I have learned through my discussions with Ashanka Kumari, a doctoral student at University of Louisville and an Assistant Director of the Thomas R. Watson Conference, which will be held this October. Our conversation began when I came to campus to share a draft of my Watson essay, then extended into my revision of that essay, and eventually resulted in multi-authored piece. The talk itself initially focused on my efforts to build Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ), a human rights documentation center based in Istanbul. (Bassam Alahmad, Director of STJ is also an author in the piece.) STJ stood as an example of the conference theme of what it meant to engage in “producing truth.” In our discussion, Ashanka highlighted how graduate education often did not provide the requisite skills for such community building – whether something large, like STJ, or small, like a community gathering. The assumption of graduate education seemed to be that everyone would end up working in the academy as a researcher, teacher, or both. She noted that for first-generation students like ourselves, with few safety nets, such an assumption could be alienating – what if no academic job was found? Why not, we came to ask, imagine graduate education as preparing students to engage in the meaning of “community” through a multiplicity of skills, through a multiplicity of career paths?


In several weeks, Ashanka and I will present our essay, which includes just a small audio segment of our extended discussion. My sense, however, is that this discussion with Ashanka not only enunciates a new way to imagine graduate education, but also a nuanced way to imagine the students in our seminars as possessing a diversity of heritages and ambitions. It is a conversation that points to what a “community-based” graduate education might require. For that reason, in a blog focused on the intersection of community and the academy, I am happy to provide the full discussion here with a transcript of the discussion here.


Finally, if you are at the Watson talk or joining us virtually on Twitter (#WatsCon18) at 10:30 AM EST on Saturday, October 27, I hope you will come to our session and share your thoughts on how graduate education can be infused with “community-building” strategies/skills that are useful not only in our “field” but in the neighborhoods in which it exists.

Almost all community-based projects engage in a consistent discussion about the need for resources. Often those discussions become focused on strategies to raise grant funds. Our disciplinary training, however, doesn’t often provide the tools or frameworks to work through such issues. In what follows, I hope to provide a process to structure conversations about resources and community-based projects.


Listening for Partnerships

  • Values Driven Process

A central element of any successful community/university partnership are common values. Prior to seeking any grants, partners should discuss the values that should inform the process of seeking, holding, and distributing funds. A conversation beforehand will ensure a common ground is in place if funds are received. Otherwise, the introduction of funds could bring conflict and weaken the partnership.


  • Alliance Building

Before seeking funds, projects should analyze if existing organizations already undertake the work for which a grant is sought. It is better to broaden your partner alliance than try to rebuild what already exists. Foundations are more likely to support a partnership among allies than to fund you to “reinvent the wheel.” Such partnerships can also soften or even eliminate the need to seek funding at all.


  • Organizational Networks

Alliances not only strengthen a project, they also expand the types of grant funds available. If your only partner is a small non-profit, then you can only apply for grants that support such institutions. If you include a public school or health service organizations in your project, if appropriate, each will bring their own fundraising networks. In this sense, projects that exist within a broad alliance also exist within a stronger network of funding support.


Listening to Funders

  • Solving Foundation Defined Problems

Foundations do not provide funds to solve our problems; they provide funds for us to solve their problems. When writing a grant application, then, you need to address the foundation’s primary issue, showing you understand the moral imperative of this work. This shows you want to be part of their mission and join their alliance. If you understand a different problem as being more important, then you should look for a different foundation.


  • Write in Simple Language

Grant officers are deeply embedded within the complexity of their set of issues. They are not necessarily embedded in our particularized academic writing. When writing grant applications, you should not use academic discourse. Instead, write from the moral/ethical impulse which brought your project to this work. If you begin within that language, you are more likely to avoid terms like “counter-hegemonic publics” and convince the foundation you can actually converse with your community partners.


  • Provide a Concrete Plan

This is often the most difficult part of the grant application. To be convincing, the proposal has to offer realistic steps toward completion. This often means very dry prose, such as “will hold four community meetings per month” or “10 Participants will be trained to conduct 200 door to door interviews.” The funder should almost be able to see how one step will logically follow to the next. It is the ability to see concretely see how the project moves from beginning to end that demonstrates the plan can actually be enacted.


  • Produce Results

Be humble in claims about what will change as a result of this project. Assume that the grant officer has been reading applications for decades. She can sense what is feasible versus idealistic. So be specific: “The project will produce a new curriculum for a middle school, introducing extensive writing/revision practices, to be used by over 100 students.” A concrete result is worth more than claims about changing broad-based systemic injustices. Indeed, humility will actually enable you to get funds to undertake difficult social justice work.


  • Ask for Less

Never ask for the total amount available for a grant. Imagine a room of grants officers attempting to dole out the allotted funds. Their goal is to fund several valuable projects rather than one expensive project. By coming under budget, you support this goal. You also show that the request is driven by the needs of the project, not the size of the possible grant.


Listening for Sustainability

  • Don’t Over Raise Money

Universities often highlight large grants received by faculty. This can lead to faculty exclusively seeking large grants. When a project is built upon large grants, the project often vanishes when the money is gone. It is better to slowly build grant support, making sure what is built can withstand the loss of funds. Eventually you might need to seek large grants. Seeking large grants at the outset, though, builds your project on very shaky ground. (NOTE: Large grants often also take you away from the actual project and into a morass of paperwork.)


  • Don’t Chase the Money

Finally, as projects grow, there will be a widening pool of grant possibilities. It is tempting to start applying for grants for which “you could qualify” but which are tangential to your project. This is known as “chasing the money” because the goal becomes securing grants, not the work of the project. When considering any grant, a project should first project its’ goals for the next three to five years, then discuss whether the potential funds support or distract from that trajectory.


Jessica Pauszek is an Assistant Professor of English and the Director of Writing at Texas A&M University - Commerce. She is a co-editor of Parlor Press' Best of Independent Journals in Rhetoric and Composition series and Working and Writing for Change. She is also the Director of New City Community Press. Her work explores community literacy practices in connection to labor and class identity, using archival and interview methods. 


Vincent Portillo is a University Fellow and a PhD candidate at Syracuse University in Composition and Cultural Rhetoric. His research interests include standardized English, ableism, and labor. He is completing his dissertation, which is an archival project on the history of the Ford English School (1914-1919) at Ford Motors. Vincent is the Consulting Editor and Project Profile Editor for Community Literacy Journal.


Note from Steve Parks: Over these next months, I hope to expand the voices who speak about their community partnership/social justice work. To that end, I have invited Vincent Portillo and Jessica Pauszek to talk about their work with the FED to preserve the publications of Federation of Worker Writers and Community Publishers. In this short essay, they build on themes of writing communities, engaged partnerships, and course/program design to discuss a community literacy-archival project showing what can be gained through community collaboration and preservation.

In doing so, they remind us of the importance of community-led projects, the insights students can gain, and the role of archives in preserving the powerful voices of working-class writers.


Preserving Working-Class Voices in the Archive and in the Classroom

In a moment filled with tensions surrounding race, class, gender, and nationalist politics, we argue for the importance of representing/preserving inclusive histories of working-class writing communities, both for students and for the working-class writers themselves.


The FWWCP Archival Project began with the goal of preserving writing produced by the Federation of Worker Writers and Community Publishers, an organization founded in London in 1976. Once told their working-class writing had “no solid literary merit,” founding FWWCP member Roger Mills noted, “We wrote despite people sneering at us, and we created a community.” This community became the “FED,” a network of local, working-class, writing/publishing groups. Throughout its 40+ year tenure, the network expanded to over 100 writing groups across four continents. At the core, the FED was committed to producing social change for disenfranchised working-class writers. Through the FED, members fostered a collective vision of working-class expertise, literacy, and agency. They navigated issues of immigration, language differences, changing economies, social unrest, and identity politics; they challenged a white/male working-class base, pushing the FED to redefine working-class as an intersectional community representing immigrant, women, LGBTQ, and ethnic, and non-English writers.   


The FWWCP Collection - Collaboration in the Archive

With the help of students and other sponsors, community members have developed an archive of FED publications. Today, the FWWCP Collection is housed in the Trades Union Congress Library (TUC) at London Metropolitan University. The Collection has been brought together through the collective energy of FWWCP/FED members, interdisciplinary scholars, filmmakers, artists, librarians, archivists, undergraduate, and graduate students. (Read more on students’ work here and here.) Throughout, community members and project partners have been gathering publications from under beds, basements, garages; finding a site to house the publications; sorting, indexing, and boxing publications; and finally, this summer, developing reading guides for use with the Collection.


The preservation work is incredibly valuable to members of the FWWCP/FED community. Member George Fuller describes the Collection as a form of “cultural protection.” Aligning with the TUC Library enables the FED to be seen as “not just as a hobby, but . . . as a strong source of power.” Roger Mills describes the need to carry out this cultural protection as a collaborative effort: “[The FED] needed some sort of energy, someone from the outside to say come on, get it together, pull this stuff together physically....Although everyone in the federation valued it was lying unrecorded.” Through collaboration, FED writing is now preserved for community groups and university courses to explore intersectional understandings of working-class identity, community-led education, vernacular literacies, and more.


Students and the FWWCP Archive - Learning in Community

Collaborative preservation informs our approach and the design of our writing courses. Since 2015, Syracuse University Study Abroad has hosted a Civic Writing course connected to the FWWCP/FED. The course uses FED texts to engage students in a conversation about the goals of “civic” life. We read social and political history of England, theories about literacy, civic engagement, and social change, which helped us consider the impact of FED groups. Further, we attended FED writing workshops with some foundational groups in the greater London area, including Newham, Stevenage, and the East End.


Student Ana Gonzalez described her connection to FED writing and social justice: “[Many FED texts] shared the theme of dealing with and overcoming oppression in day to day life. Most authors that I read were Black and their feelings of isolation and self-doubt in a society that is predominantly White made their words relatable for me.” Other students echoed a felt need for preservation of FED writing. After reading LGBTQ members’ accounts, Michelle Tiburcio wrote, "Preserving works like these can help other people – maybe future students – feel represented and not alone.” The work was also valuable to our archivists and librarian students. For example, Andria Olson describes literacy as a human experience. She noted, “[Literacy] is not bound by the walls of an institution but rather by a lifetime of experience in resourcefulness, determination, and overcoming adversity.” The Collection showcases how marginalized communities can, and certainly have, developed rhetorical spaces to give voice to their struggles, working toward a more inclusive and just vision of writing in community. Further, this community literacy project pushes students to consider how we might value vernacular literacies, knowledges, and “ordinary” lived experience. As we see from student testimony, community literacy belongs in the classroom.


The FWWCP Collection contains numerous English and multilingual publications that explore class, food, gender, mental health, race, sexuality, war, work. You can learn more by visiting the TUC Library. The FWWCP/FED is also on Instagram (fwwcp_collection) and has a Digital Collection.

Recently, I gave a webinar on community partnership pedagogies and writing across the curriculum (mentioned in my previous post, Writing Across the Curriculum and the Importance of Writing Communities, leading up to this event). Some of you may have attended - if so, I hope the discussion offered insight on how you can utilize community partnership projects in your classroom, department, or institution.


If you were unable to attend, you can review the recording below.



I hope this will begin a dialogue, and would love to hear how you integrate writing communities and teach across the disciplines. What projects have you undertaken with your students and colleagues?

For the past several weeks, I have been meeting with faculty from across our university. The meetings have been part of an effort to build a Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) emphasis at our institution. When originally asked to be part of this effort, I was a bit surprised. WAC was not a term I typically applied to my teaching or my own research on community partnership/literacies. Yet as I talked to faculty from Geography, Psychology, and Mathematics, I was struck by the overlap in our goals as teachers committed to creating classrooms where writing was an important part of the learning process.


In fact, it seems that my emphasis on Writing Beyond the Curriculum might actually be deeply enmeshed with the goals of Writing Across the Curriculum. As a result, I found myself rethinking how key frameworks from community partnership/literacy might allow me to more freely build amongst courses and programs across the university.


Research Communities

One of the tenants of community literacy is that every community has its own unique way of studying and framing solutions to problems. The belief is that if we listen deeply enough to how communities cite evidence, we will see patterns of argument and action through which we can form productive partnerships. Our work as teachers is to enable students to hear these latent community strategies, instead of imposing their own viewpoints. These same pedagogical values of rhetorical listening can frame research within classes across the curriculum. Instructors in every class need to find ways to teach students to hear the strategies of their disciplinary community, to see how evidence is gathered, and to develop a productive conversation. Indeed, unless such an engaged conversation is developed, it is not clear the student has actually come to understand the values and goals of that discipline.


Writing Communities

As students engaged in community partnerships continue to work in a community, they must also consider what forms of writing are seen as important to a particular neighborhood. In the process, they must think through what types of questions those genres support as well as how they might work with the community to expand genres and conversations to create new possibilities. Similarly, for university faculty, a key goal becomes demonstrating to students the affordances of the genres which mark their discipline, the questions such genres support, and how those questions push the limits of convention. Indeed, teaching students how to both inhabit and expand the possibilities of a discipline’s ways of writing becomes the way to initiate them into the creation of new forms of knowledge.


Addressing Communities

Producing writing designed to circulate and be read in a community necessarily implies a sense of audience. One of the struggles students in community projects often face is that for most of their academic careers they have not actually had to address a real audience. Instead, they see writing as something transactional between the student and the professor. The reality of real readers in a ‘real’ community causes them to take much greater care with their writing, develop a much more nuanced sense of language, tone, and style. There is a sudden need to make sure each sentence produces the intended results, functioning in harmony with community goals. It could be argued, however, that university classrooms should offer a similar sense of urgency and importance to writing. Students are not so much addressing a professor, but addressing a field, a discipline. Often, this is not the framework of a typical assignment. If classroom writing was reoriented along a community partnership axis, assignments could be restructured in ways that ask students to develop a sense of the community being addressed – the issues and stakes in using one term over another, how each term locates them differently in a community debate. Bringing in community partnership/literacy pedagogies, that is, might enable such an attention to writing to emerge within any university classroom.


Changing Communities

Inherent in almost any community partnership/literacy effort is a sense of needed change. Whether the change is as small as a tutored student’s manipulation of sentences or as large as a struggle against gentrification, there is a sense that the status quo is incomplete. That a better world is possible. Lessons learned by students in community partnerships include how to understand what type of change and scale of action is necessary, what skills need to be brought to the task, and how to assess success/failure. These lessons are also inherent in any university classroom – an attempt to demonstrate the value of endlessly seeking a more accurate sense of the issues at hand, a constant learning of the skills required for this to occur, a need to assess the success of the effort. So if “producing change” became a framing narrative of the course, students might be able to better understand the stakes, the scale of the work at hand, and find value in the work being asked. They might see themselves as part of a collective effort, no matter how small their role, to create change dedicated to a deeper sense of truth, a better framework from which to guide their actions outside the classroom.


Of course, there is much more to say on these connections, more time needed to connect community partnership pedagogies to the work of writing across the curriculum. And in a discussion devoted to learning with and from communities, a single authored blog post seems a bit of a contradiction. It is out of this context that on Thursday, April 19th at 3pm EST/12pm PDT, I hope you will join me at a Bedford/St. Martin’s sponsored conversation on this very issue – how writing communities can support writing across the curriculum. If you are interested, you can register for the webinar here.


I would love to learn from your insights and to begin a dialogue which can bring these seemingly distinct parts of our field into productive alliance for our students.

How to Choose a Doctoral Program

Over the next several weeks, students will be deciding what doctoral program to attend. This decision follows from months of researching potential programs, talking to faculty, and often visiting the campus. For students who hope to make community engagement a central part of their work, the decision takes on added complexity, as factors beyond curriculum and faculty must be considered. In this short essay, I want to highlight some of those factors.


Existing Partnerships

When coursework is taken into account, most graduate students only have about two to three years to engage in a community partnership. Effective partnerships, however, take significant time to develop. For this reason, many students would benefit most from choosing a doctoral program where a project has existed for a significant period of time. Working within this project will allow the student to understand the complexity of such work, witness what collaboration entails, and begin to understand the range of work possible. In the process, they can also learn the skill sets that were used to initiate the project.


It might seem to be a more attractive option to attend a program where you will be “allowed to develop your own project.” Certainly, a lot can be learned from such work, particularly if you also learn how to build a program that will continue after your departure. The graduate program will also benefit from your labor. It is doubtful, however, that such a scenario actually prepares you with the skills/insights necessary to take on such work in your next institution. This can lead to early mistakes which can create long-term issues for junior scholars.


So, while I would never discourage someone from beginning a partnership as a graduate student, I would encourage students whenever possible to learn by attending programs with existing programs that can model the fullest articulation of such work.


Funding Strategies

A central part of any community partnership will be resource development/allocation. Within a project, partners will often have to assess what internal resources are available, and what outside resources are required. One of the reasons to attend a program with existing partnerships is to take part in such conversations, to gain a sense of how such planning occurs. Within this context, students can also learn how to develop, apply for, and manage grants.


Learning how to write grants is often portrayed as a mercenary skill. In fact, grants written for community partnerships are a central way of thinking through issues of power, leadership, and collaboration. Grants directly confront who will control the requested funds, how decisions will be made, and how the funds will be distributed to ensure work is achieved by all those involved. To some extent, grants are the mechanism to establish the working patterns of partnerships. For that reason, graduate students interested in community partnerships must engage in such work.

In addition to gaining experience in partnership development, the language of grants helps students clarify their own sense of the work. Grants are morally-based enterprises. In writing a grant, you are being asked to consider how your ethics intersect with another institution – often in language that is more direct then academic discourse. As such, they force the writer to make clear his or her beliefs and values. As students begins doctoral work, such clarity will allow them to build projects which they find personally and politically sustaining beyond the specifics of any degree program.


So, when choosing a graduate program, I would explore what opportunities are available for engaging in grant work, what faculty have expertise in such work, and whether other students in the program have gained such experience.


Interdisciplinary/Intercommunity Partnerships

Community partnerships are necessarily interdisciplinary. It would be arrogant to assume that our discipline of composition and rhetoric provides all the tools to navigate the dynamics of a neighborhood or community project. For this reason, students should explore whether a doctoral program has aligned faculty from other departments. Students should also consider whether the doctoral program has non-university-based community scholars who can act as advisors as well. Finally, students should inquire whether there is room within the required curriculum to take courses outside of their “home department” and enroll in internships with community partners.


Here I should add that any successful project I have undertaken in the past twenty years has always been informed by Anthropology, Education, Women/Gender Studies, and Geography professors among others. I have worked with religious and labor leaders; block captains and community elders. Without this consistent dialogue among a broad range of faculty, the work would have been inadequately theorized and enacted. For graduate students intending on taking on community partnerships as a central part of their career, Gramsci’s insight that “everyone is an intellectual” needs to be experienced from the beginning of their education.


So, in considering the advisors/faculty within a doctoral program, students should make sure the list includes more than ‘names in our field,’ but also names other disciplines, communities, and individuals as necessary to gain the education required to engage in community partnership work.


One final note: Mentorship

While not directly related to community engagement, I recommend asking current students within a doctoral program the following questions: How often do you meet with your advisor? How quickly is work returned to you? A doctoral program can have all the opportunities in the world to engage in community work, but it if fails to take care of the intellectual development of its own community members, then I would not attend.


(My answer to those questions: In-person meetings no more than 8 days apart; written work commented upon and returned within 10 days.)

I have always considered myself to be a “professional writing” teacher.


I have, however, almost never taught a course called “professional writing.”


I would argue, though, that in any community partnership course, there is a significant amount of writing that replicates the work of the traditional professional writing course. For instance, through community partnerships over the past year, my students have worked with local Syracuse residents as well recent immigrants to Syracuse. They have corresponded with individuals and students in Algeria, Tunisia, Turkey, and the United Kingdom. Collectively, they have produced dialogues concerning women’s rights, educational access, and global conflicts.

While doing this work, they have also produced the following documents:

  • Business Letters
  • Executive Summaries
  • Strategic Proposals
  • Budget Proposals
  • Grant Proposals
  • Partnership Agreements
  • Power Point Presentations
  • Book Manuscripts
  • Author Permission Letters
  • Workshops


The list could go on.


The point is that community partnerships necessarily draw students into the genres which are the typical focus of a professional writing course. Yet to some extent, professional writing courses are considered distinct from the field’s focus on community as well as community literacy. Nor have community writing/partnerships courses readily adopted professional writing as an informing and important source for their work.  


My own sense for this seeming divide has to do with the politics associated with each set of classrooms. While community literacy might be critiqued for its noblisse oblige, such courses are often seen as being on a “progressive” side of our field. And while professional writing has deep roots in the non-profit world, I would argue it is too often seen in the service of corporate interests – too often, that is, its emergence in the field is seen as a sign of the corporatization of the university. Each characterization is necessarily a caricature, but one that carries weight in our field. And similar to our current political debate, there seems little space to draw these opposites into a constructive dialogue.


Ultimately, I would argue, this lack of dialogue, this disciplinary divide, hurts how our students understand the possibilities of writing – in all its forms – to inform and enable active public debate focused on real change.


With the hope of enabling conversations that allow greater nuance and alignment across courses, I suggest the following practices:


Archive of Community Writing

While community literacy projects often produce quite a bit of writing, this writing also seems to vanish at the end of the term. With that in mind, departments might consider creating a digital archive of student work. Rather than be organized by project (“after-school literacy program”), the work might be divided by professional writing genre (“strategic proposal”). Such an archive has two immediate benefits. First, teachers are able to see the types of common writing that occur across their specific community projects. Second, professional writing teachers will have examples to their students of how “professional writing” can emerge in community projects. And perhaps more importantly, all teachers will begin to see how their work might both intersect and mutually support each other.


Common Project Among Courses

One common feature of community projects is that they exist within a particular teacher’s classroom. As a result, most community projects fail to take full advantage of the resources within an entire department. It might be useful, then, to consider how one particular project might be integrated across a series of classrooms, such as a professional writing and advanced literacy course. Elements of the project could be divided among the classes, with several group meetings designed to show how seemingly different writing “genres” and “writing theories” when brought together enable a stronger set of work to be produced. If the first suggestion, the archive, was to highlight to teachers the ways their work might intersect, this suggestion is to help students see how the emphases of their coursework intersects.


Forums of Community “Business Writers”

Public events can also be used to work against a perception that professional and community writing are two different enterprises. Invite individuals who do work in community-based issues – such as gentrification, education, and the environment – to share all the ways in which they engage in “public writing.” Here the idea is to show that the work being assigned by teachers has a “real life” purpose that can support students’ civic or communal values. As with the other examples, the goal is to show that what are often seen as oppositional forces within a minor, major, or discipline have common ground that speaks to important public purposes.


Of course, I recognize that in the current political moment, fraught with divisive racist rhetoric and economic disparity, finding common ground between two courses, two elements of a field, might not seem the most important of tasks. Yet if we imagine such work as demonstrating to students how seemingly rigid boundaries can be brought together through nuanced engagement, then, perhaps, they might be able to transfer such work to the civic space, which is clearly in need of such lessons.

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.

Global Partnerships, Local Acts

During the past year, my students have worked with students and activists in the Middle East/North African region. For many of them, the act of corresponding and writing with students from this region has enabled them to hear from communities at the center of today’s public debate, such as Syrian refugees. As a result, the student writing for my classes has demonstrated a larger global framework through which they now understand public rhetoric about this region and, often, has produced personal connections with individuals from that region that humanize the harshness of our current public rhetoric.


Yet global partnerships are more than just student interactions. Such partnerships are also structures designed to provide a platform for teachers, students, institutions, and communities to build a transnational space for dialogue.  In the final post for the year, I want to offer three tactics to insure any such partnership can reach its potential, as well as survive challenges emerging from the current political context.


Participant Safety

In a global partnership, the political context of public speech will necessarily be fraught. This is particularly true when there is actual violence occurring amongst the nations in which the project is situated. In such an environment, there needs to be increased awareness of how participation in a project is not an “innocent act.” Indeed, participating in a project located within Trump’s United States will necessarily impact how any dialogue is understood, no matter how seemingly innocuous.


Given this situation, there has to be a clear understanding among the partners on how student privacy/anonymity can be ensured. This might mean that students are provided with pseudonyms when they interact online; it might mean that certain types of private/personal information are placed “off-limit” in “student-to-student” conversations. There will also need to be regular dialogue with the global partner to understand how the public framing of student participation in the project might differ within each national context. While we might frame a discussion around “human rights” in the United States, that same discussion might be framed differently within the partner’s national context. Which is to say, the partnership must be consistently aware of how differing national rhetorical contexts must be navigated to ensure the safety of participants and the continued possibility of dialogue.


Institutional Awareness

Given the current political context, global partnerships need to be fully discussed across a set of university sites, including departmental, collegial, and, possibly, university-wide offices. There are several reasons for this discussion. First, in my experience, global partnerships necessarily are perceived as “university projects.” It could well be that the administrative figures above your specific global partners reach out to your university about a certain issue, believing it to be the appropriate response. For this reason, it is best that your university understands both your partnerships and the structures you have put in place for its success. This will enable productive dialogues with your university. Second, given the current political context where publicly engaged programs are facing political attack, you want your university to have overtly or tacitly approved your partnership so you have a backstop to any seemingly random criticism. Essentially, then, the more a partnership is understood and supported by your university/college, the better.


Circulation Protocols

All partnerships produce materials that speak to the work done. Often these partnerships also have the goal of circulating these materials publicly. In a global partnership, it is important to have in place protocols which have layers of approval – from the author, to the partners, to perhaps partnering organizations. (It might also be important to have policies on how authors will “mask” elements of their story for anonymity.) In addition, any discussion with the authors will need to be overt about where their writing will intentionally circulate (based on the partnership plan) as well as how it might circulate unintentionally (through social media). Such discussion also have to occur with partnering organizations, who will need to decide how/if to publicize their participation across printed/digital products which emerge from the project. And unlike other projects where students might be given a strong editorial role in any publications (for experience, etc.), here such decisions should be made by those partners responsible for the project. This is a case where faculty expertise needs to outweigh student learning.


I recognize that, to some extent, the tone of this post seems ominous. Given such a tone, who would ever want to initiate such global partnerships? One response would be that such a short post is unable to capture the excitement and interest students feel about such opportunities. (See earlier blog posts.) Yet perhaps a more important response speaks to the current political moment. At a time when public rhetoric is so divisive, so bigoted toward different Middle Eastern and North African cultures, I believe it is morally and ethically necessary to create partnerships which can provide opportunities for transnational dialogues, premised on trust and pointed towards greater understanding. If we truly believe in the public power of writing and rhetoric, then we have no other choice.


When Things Fall Apart – But the Work Must Continue

When the semester began, my students were going to work with a colleague of mine in the Middle Eastern/North African (MENA) region on a project to support local schools combatting ISIS recruitment efforts. The same political turmoil which would allow such ISIS recruitment, however, ultimately pulled the project under and, more tragically, led to my partner and friend being the object of political persecution. In response, the project had to shift to working with another set of schools, also in the MENA region, where a discussion was held on human, political, and gender rights.


This reframed project then encountered complications locally in Syracuse. The project had intended for about eight high school students at a local community center to join the emerging discussion about human rights. Instead, almost twenty students from all ages joined. This provided more input and interaction, but also changed the work my students would be undertaking at the center, and significantly altered the planned discussion with the MENA students.


All this affected students’ individual and group work. Our imagined “prompt” group, for instance, had been assigned the task of developing discussion questions for all the partners. Given the disruptions, they had to create questions for a different type of audience than initially imagined. And, once younger students in Syracuse joined, prompts had to be replaced with more activity-based work. Mid-way through the course, then, their group mission shifted significantly, as did that of each working group in class, in response to every transformation of the process.


Given this experience both in the current project and in projects past, I have come to believe that the key to any assessment of a community project is to embed it not in the successes of the partnerships, but in moments of struggle and collapse. Not only are such moments more common in any community effort, but they also ask the students to place themselves in the work of praxis – connecting theory and strategy to produce a desired goal. I always tell my students the moments of disruption/change are the “teachable moments.” My assessment of their work, then, focuses in on how their individual and group praxis enabled the project to move forward. And as a class, we’ll produce a set of materials and discussions to gauge this aspect of our work.


What is Community? How did you help to create/sustain it?

At the outset of the term, the students read theoretical works about how communities emerge and gain power, and historical pieces about the specific communities/regions in which they would be working. For one of their final assignments, students test how these theories stood up against the community work they undertook this term. How did the difficult daily work of our project enable them to develop their own theories of what makes communities emerge or fall apart?


I am also asking them to generate a portfolio demonstrating the concrete work they did to support the community conversation. This might be emails to other students, drafts of prompts, discarded website projects, etc. The goal is to create a map of their involvement and the particular strategy that emerged for them and for their group’s project. Here the question is not so much a theoretical “What is community?” but an organizational question of “How is community created?” Students will write a short essay describing their emerging sense of community organizing.


How did we work together?

Our work occurred as a collective that attempted to move toward the same goal. During our final class, my hope is to begin with the “strategic maps” created by students to retell the history of their work, referring to how our theoretical understanding was altered by experience. Specifically, the students will have to collectively consider how our original goals were tempered: What can we reasonably have expected individual students or groups to have completed? What might we have done differently? This will lead to the creation of a “collective rubric” on which individual/group products can be understood. The goal here is to show that in such work, assessment is about how to understand not only what happened but what needs to happen next.


How do we value the work?

Hopefully through the work of the class and these final assignments, students have come to understand that they are being assessed for their ability to theorize and strategize towards a collective goal within a dynamic environment. Here the “point” is not so much being “correct,” but working through specific concrete issues with tactical moves and conceptual continuity. It is the overcoming, not the denial of obstacles and set-backs, that will ultimately earn them the “A.”


In this way, a student that can theorize about community, but cannot document the specific tasks they took to actually instantiate or rebuild that community, would not receive an “A.” Nor would the student who can list multiple tasks, but has no conception on why they were done. It is the student who can weave both together, who has learned to work through disruption to enable continued progress, that has truly understood the nature of praxis in any community project.


Final Note: The Community Response#

In the vast majority of such projects, I invite the community partners to attend final class discussions about problems faced, work achieved, and next steps. The global nature of this project made that difficult, to say the least. In my next and last post of the year, I will talk about strategies for community input within a global context.

This semester my class is partnering with organizations in Syracuse, NY, as well as with schools in the Middle East/North Africa. Our goal is to foster a discussion on the meaning of human rights, religious freedom, and democracy. Much of this work is taking place in the context of our Middle Eastern student partners being confronted by ISIS on a daily basis. To prepare for these dialogues, my students have been reading, discussing, and considering the history of the region and its political contours. Indeed, this past week, we were just on the cusp of beginning our conversations.


Then one of our Middle Eastern partners vanished.  


A scheduled Skype call with my class never materialized. We still have not heard from him. My students feared the worse might have occurred. My sense was less ominous. For the moment, I am thinking that the absence is one of the typical partner issues any project faces. “Time will tell” if I’m being naïve. Still, in the immediate moment, I had to figure out how to move the class forward. It was at this moment that I realized the value of having multiple partners in any community project.


Often, when forming community partnership projects, teachers are advised to keep it simple – work with only one partner. When that partner is unable to keep their commitments, however, the project will often falter, if not actually fail. By itself, this possibility is an argument for creating projects with multiple partners.


Yet the more important reason against the strategy of the “single partner” is that it misrepresents the ways change occurs in a community.  Change is a collaborative coalitional project. To create change within a community is to work within a space where a network of committed organizations share resources toward a common goal, constantly amending plans as organizations encounter difficulties fulfilling their promises. Change is an alliance in constant flux.  If our goal is to show how change occurs then our community-based classroom projects need to demonstrate this fact for our students.


Here are some guiding principles:


      1. Your Classroom Should Exist Within a Coalition

When designing a community-based project for my students, I try to think of all the different actors who have a stake in a particular issue. Out of that set of organizations and individuals, I then consider with whom I have an existing partnership and an ongoing effort on a particular issue. Once I have a set of partners willing to join their existing efforts to the possibilities of my class, we develop a plan to distribute required work. (For advice on how to develop “work plans,” see Writing Communities, p. 233.)


      2. Each Coalition Member Should Have Unique but Integrated Tasks

The purpose of having multiple partners is to create a set of projects and tasks that are interrelated in that they support a common goal, but are not necessarily dependent on each other. For instance, community projects often find it useful to develop informational sheets on an issue to distribute in a neighborhood; community forums are also considered important, yet one is not dependent on the other. If one partner is unable to follow through on the forum, the other partner’s information sheets can still be produced in alliance with my class. This allows the project (and the class) to keep momentum going despite setbacks.


      3. Student Work Should Be Distributed Among Partners

Multiple partners create the possibility of different types of work for students. Rather than just tutoring, for instance, the students might also run workshops with parents about the goals of education; create short videos featuring students reading their work for a local community access station; produce policy papers for use by community organizations focused on school reform. That is, a partnership network allows students to not only experience ways in which collaboration can produce actual change, it also allows them to bring their particular strengths to this collaboration.


      4. When One Partner “Vanishes,” Redistribute Work Among Other Partners

If a project exists among many different organizations, when a partner has to drop out (or can’t fulfill its tasks), you can move students to other ongoing projects. This both demonstrates the value of coalitional work when creating change and insures that students have continuous work to do in the class. Such moves are not possible when a class is premised on a single project.


In arguing for our classrooms to be distributed among a network of community partners, I can imagine an argument that this creates more work for the teacher. My experience is that this is just the opposite. Each person’s individual workload shrinks and becomes more focused as collective resources are brought into alliance, and each person can witness greater impact for their efforts when placed within a collective movement. This is a powerful lesson for our students to learn.


As I conclude this post, I continue to hope that soon I will hear from my partner and friend in the Middle East. Yes, partners vanish, but we are all always wishing for their safe return.

(A Sample Writing Prompt from Philadelphia-based Project.)


It is the second week of class. Students’ initial enthusiasm about working with Syrian human rights activists and North African students on confronting ISIS recruitment efforts has turned to apprehension, confusion, and concern. (See  my previous post on the teaching challenges of this topic and approach.) The political theory and regional histories have both emphasized the complex reality of the work and seemingly positioned such work as impossible.


As a teacher, it is at these moments that I have often turned to the drafting of writing prompts, which is an important way to shrink the project into a manageable size. The work becomes solely focused on that initial conversation with a community partner.  While initiating a conversation with communities who are in Syracuse and in North Africa might seem particularly difficult, the process of using writing prompts as a tool to explore hidden assumptions remains pretty much the same.  In general, I ask students to develop the prompts through a series of drafts.


1. The Prompt as Summary of Assigned Readings

As students begin to complete the assigned readings that provide a theoretical framework for the class, I ask them to draft a writing prompt that will begin their conversation with one of our community partners. Almost by default, the students tend to draft prompts that echo the terms of assigned readings and, really, are versions of writing assignments they might receive in other classes. We use these prompts to talk about the difference between ways of speaking in an academic community versus “everyday” communities. They are then tasked, in groups, to keep the intellectual framework in class intact but to revise one student’s writing prompt into more ordinary language. I also stress the variety of possible genres – poetry, memoir, photography, etc.


2. The Prompt as Rhetorical Invitation

As the students begin to revise a prompt for an “everyday” audience and share them in class, the language begins to reveal how they imagine their relationship to the community. Students often imagine themselves in the position of providing a service to an “impoverished community.” The prompt questions will ask partners to share hardships – not successes, positioning the community partner’s neighborhood as full of problematic issues – not as possessing attributes of collective insight and actions. Students are then asked to return to drafting the prompt, paying attention to how the community is framed.


3. The Prompt as Equal Invitation

As prompts are being revised into gestures of respect toward the community, the students must also turn their attention to choosing a topic which can begin to open up a dialogue with the community. The goal is to frame a conversation where the full life and school-based experiences of all those involved are seen as valuable to the work at hand. In a university environment premised on “expertise,” finding appropriate language to create this space is a particularly challenging task.


4. The Prompt Completed

Once the language of the prompt is completed, design becomes a key issue. Handing out photocopied sheets full of blank ink shows disrespect for everyone in the project. For that reason, once the writing is done, images need to be found that echo the stance of the prompt. As with all other elements of this process, choosing an image is also an opportunity for students to question their cultural assumptions about the community and their own relationship to it. Images of “urban poverty,” a typical first suggestion, might ultimately be replaced with images of collaboration, collective work, and visions of progress.


5. Community Review

Finally, any completed prompt will be reviewed by the lead community partner – the ally with whom the project was initiated. This might involve the partner attending a class session to point out where the language/images could be unintentionally insulting or misrepresenting the community’s self-image. This is a vital step and, as with all other moments in this process, demonstrates what it means to establish a partnership in terms of equality and respect – where everyone is working together on the issue to be addressed.


There is one final point to make about writing prompts: students should not be the only source. Rather, prior to the first common meeting, each partnering group should develop their own prompts. This ensures that everyone is in the position of “asking questions” and that each group goes through the same process of testing their cultural assumptions about other communities while practicing language that invites full participation by those communities. (As the partners take on such work, I often find it useful to be there as well.) The community’s creation of prompts may not be as time intensive as the students, given they will often have life responsibilities, but it is just as important.


When all the partners finally talk as a collective, one prompt from each group will be used to begin that conversation. This process can be as organized as directly assigning the prompts to specific selected groups. It can be as improvised as allowing individuals to choose a prompt then forming groups according to what prompt was selected. In both cases, the opening session should include individuals reading the results of their work – enacting the moment when community dialogue begins. (If possible, all the writing produced should be collected, as it provides insight into how individuals are imagining their emerging community as well as material for any possible publication.)


As I write this, my class and our community partners are still actively producing their prompts, exploring cultural assumptions, and thinking through that opening moment of conversation. It is difficult work, often frustrating to students. Still, my students also seem to be finding comfort and security knowing that the immensity of the work to come can become as focused as the conversation through which the work will emerge.



The accounts below are from survivors of torture conducted by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s police and military. (Warning: Graphic Testimony/Images of Torture in the links.)


Nothing Else But Non-Violence

A Child and A Bird (video)


These testimonies were collected by Syrians for Truth and Justice, a human rights organization that I have been part of creating over the past several years. In addition to collecting testimonies from survivors of human rights abuses by Assad, ISIS, and proliferating militia, STJ also works with a network of human rights activists based in Syria who document on-going human rights abuses, including a recent report on the chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun.


Engaging in such work quickly teaches you that Jalal Nofar’s testimony represents just one of many moments of torture and human rights abuse, just one voice among the many that were told to be quiet but continued to speak. It is a lesson I want my students to also learn.


Over the next several months, then, I will be asking students in Syracuse (university and community-based) to join in the work of STJ as well as support high school students in North Africa attempting to work against ISIS recruitment in their community. As a collective, we will be thinking through how to produce print, digital, and performance-based artifacts that can support this important human rights work – work occurring in local moments across the Middle East and North Africa but with resonance for our own communities in Syracuse. Throughout, they will be working at forming a transnational conversation on their responsibilities and role as human rights activists.


It is, perhaps, one of the most challenging community projects I have ever undertaken.  


Already, some of the individuals in our network of international partners have faced government repression and threats. Elements of the project has been hampered by our need to have individuals or messages cross international borders in a time of restrictions and travel bans.  And the imagined promise of a fluid digital culture across space and time now seems a bit naïve. My students are already beginning to recognize how such work has real implications, real effects, in spaces to which they may never travel.


And I have had to recognize that the scholarly  work on community partnership and publication on which this course is premised is primarily situated within a certain understanding of U.S. culture. There is a latent faith in the right of individuals to speak, a latent faith in the safety of engaging in such speech, and, perhaps, an optimism that such actions will produce change. The challenges made by movements such as Black Lives Matter have been important interventions in asking all of us to reconsider how we are situated differently to such a faith. Still, with broad brushstrokes, I would argue much of our scholarship swims in such waters.


How, then, to position community literacy paradigms, skills, and practices within contexts that seem to trouble such beliefs? How to provide students with frameworks that do not romanticize the United States (brushing over the marginalization many populations feel) or present individuals in the Middle East/North Africa as victims to be saved? Tentatively, I intend on taking the following disciplinary/pedagogical steps.


1. Create a Complex Historical Narrative

Given the current political debates around the refugees and conflicts emerging from the Middle East and North Africa, I decided to begin my class not with rhetorical theory, but with historical research. I used academic research, online news sources, and current affair blogs, to situate my students popular culture understandings within a history of collective struggle by activists in this region for democracy and human rights. In doing so, I am also indirectly highlighting how such rights have histories outside the context of the United States.


2. Provide Models of Political Change

Within public discussions of the Middle East/North Africa, there are critiques/concerns expressed about a continual failure to establish democratic states. For this reason, I believe that my students need a model of political change, a theory through which they could test how public discussion was framing the situation in a country such as Syria, but also test the theory against their own work. (Here I am latently making the point that many of us inhabit a model of political change of which we are not always fully cognizant.)


3. Understand the Risks Involved

Speaking out always carries risk. Yet often in community publishing contexts that risk is not fully understood, articulated. Perhaps the university is seen as a guarantor of safety for all those involved. After warning about the graphic nature of STJ’s work, I will ask students to explore the site, taking note of the risks each of these individuals faced in their own lives for their public work. We can then discuss how such risks exist for everyone in the United States, though differently situated depending on individual identity. Here I want them to gain an overt understanding of the real-life context of this work and that while I would step in when necessary, they were entering projects where actual risks are involved.


Only then will we turn to the field’s work of community partnership and publishing.


I recognize that discussions of Syria, the Middle East, and human rights might seem far afield from the typical work of our writing classrooms. Yet what I have learned from this “exceptional” class is that any class which engages in community partnership work needs to create a complex historical context of that community, provide a model of social change to frame the work, and enable students to understand the risks being asked of community members. It needs the insights of other disciplines, such as history and political science. Our community writing classes might be about writing, that is, but more than writing theory is necessary to make our work successful.