Pedagogy Under Fire; Or, When Community Members Want A Say Over Your Classroom

I enjoy discussing pedagogy, hence my participation in this site. At the start of every semester, as I go over the syllabus with my students, I create a space for us to discuss why I have made the decision I have for our course. We discuss text choices and order. We discuss assignments and scaffolding. In other words, we don’t just go over the syllabus, we discuss my pedagogical rationale. Students generally feel comfortable engaging with me right of the bat, and they question some of my decisions which leads to further discussion.

I will talk teaching and pedagogy all day long! Why not? It makes us better instructors. This semester, however, I discovered my limits. While I’m happy to partake in these conversations with my students, with other colleagues, and even with parents scouting community college courses for their high school students, I am not compelled to respond to random requests from community members.

The Email

A few weeks into the fall semester, I received the following email:

Concerned Citizen Email

My chosen focus for the class in question is loosely based on an approach I have used before: Narratives of Historical Revision and Historical Recovery. I have written two PALS posts about texts I have taught in various versions of this course: M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! and Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition. This past semester, Chesnutt’s was not one of the texts under fire; though this email’s reference to literature appreciation took me back in my mind to my earlier Chesnutt piece. My most recent line up for this course, and the texts with which this citizen was concerned, was Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider, M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong!, Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera, Luis Valdez’s Zoot Suit, and Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club. 

I thought about different possible responses to address this person’s inquiry, but there were too many factors involved. First, I was teaching 18 units, so all my extra time was already committed to my students. I didn’t have more than two minutes to commit to this odd interest in my course. Second, based on the rhetoric of this email, there isn’t a response I could have provided to appease the writer; going back to my first point, I didn’t have the time for the lengthy back-and-forth debate about my teaching choices that would almost inevitably ensue. Third, this person wasn’t actually interested in my course and didn’t have any knowledge of it. Finally, this email isn’t really about my class per se but about the larger backlash towards higher education.

So I chose not to respond.

Student Activity

Instead, I turned this email into a teachable moment because we just can’t get enough of those! In honor of the American Library Association’s Banned & Challenged Books Week, I put the content of the email up on the board for my students to respond to (and I removed all the sender’s identifying information, like I did here because I’m anti the practice of doxing). At this point in the semester, we had just finished reading the first two texts, the Lorde and the Philip.

I asked them to:

  1. Write out their own initial reactions to the email.
  2. Respond to the concerns based on their knowledge from those first two texts.

My students had endless questions about the email to nearly all of which I answered, “I don’t know.” I did know, at least nothing beyond my own informed speculation. They wondered many of the same things I did. How did this person know what books we’re reading? Why would someone be so concerned about a college class they aren’t taking? But really, the questions suggest they don’t know what the class is about at all, so they can’t have the syllabus; where did they get the list of books from? Who has this much time on their hands? And my favorite, why you? Why are they trying to come after you of all teachers?

For the second question, the response was pretty standard across the board–Ahem. Thank you M. NourbeSe Philip. A paraphrase of all the responses goes something like, if this person had opened Zong!, they would not question how it promotes critical thinking. A direct quote from the in class discussion that was also shared by the room was “I have never thought about something so hard or so much in my life!” I also share those sentiments every time I read Zong! Always to my surprise, however, they also discussed how much they were learning about history. This is one of the purposes of my course focus, but I guess I am always hoping that at some point students will arrive from high school with more knowledge of these huge pieces of history like the middle passage.

Getting Political

Moving back to the first question, because this is where I would like to spend the remainder of this post, the responses varied much more. The similarities were that they spent a lot of picking apart of the email itself in an attempt to address the questions they had about why the person had written it in the first place. For instance, many students pointed out that it wasn’t an American literature course, so why would American classics be the go to texts? They were close reading (yay!) the email to try and figure out how much information its writer was working with.

Where the responses differed had to do with my students political identities and affiliations. I know! I have finally made it to the elephant in the room. This email was really all about politics. And by politics, we are talking about actual politics. When I wrote about Chesnutt as mentioned above, I framed it in terms of literature being political. That can be taken very literally by talking about political parties which sometimes fits the literature, but I normally approach it much more broadly which is how I have always interpreted the concept. This is what seems to be missing from one of the many current wars on education that has encouraged things like the Professor Watch List.

But what exactly was it about these texts that “represent [the] liberal leftist agenda and ideology” my emailer was so concerned about? All five writers were people of color. More than half of the writers identify as LGBQT. There are Lorde and Anzaldúa’s calls to fight the patriarchy. Author’s names and title words appear in languages other than English. The writers challenge dominant historical narratives. These are the assumptions that my more politically liberal students identified. Nearly all of these things would require more than just a glance at the course’s list of books. They would require a bit of research, wouldn’t they? Research where the emailer would also learn these books aren’t obscure and my teaching choices aren’t as radical as they are being treated in the email.

My politically conservative students’ responses were much more nuanced. They too were trying to process some of those go to assumptions, like writers’ race or sexuality being the emailers issue, but were filtering it through their own conservative identities. The challenge they faced, and still face, is America’s dominant two party system where conservative equals Republican and everything that stands for, while liberal equals Democrat and everything that stands for, despite the fight put forth by numerous other political parties.  So my conservative students who support gay rights struggle with it positioned as liberal, which has been recorded more widely about the younger generation. And my conservative students who support DACA and clear paths to citizenship for immigrants of various documentation statuses struggle with the valuing of marginalized voices and experiences as liberal. These values are also apart of their conservative identities.

Ultimately my conservative students were, at the very least, annoyed that their agency was being taken away by the emailer. There were some hypothetical concessions in the form of, “yes, I guess Sister Outsider can be considered liberal because Lorde talks about her lesbian identity and the patriarchy a lot.” The follow ups to this were a whole bunch of buts: “but we aren’t mindless drones,” “but we are in college to be challenged,” “but our political positions aren’t being attacked,” “but we don’t have to agree with every single point; we’re just learning about other perspectives.”

I would place a large part of these students’ responses on who we were reading. Lorde and Anzaldúa are very friendly to readers; I mean, after rethinking the erotic with Lorde, they are ready to engage with her anger. The other part of students’ responses has to do with my pedagogy. I present them with the challenging texts and contextualize the material, but they have to figure out what to do with it.

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From CRLA 2017: Synthesizing Primary Texts, Secondary Texts, and Protest Songs

Screen Shot 2017-11-12 at 9.02.46 PMFrom November 1 through November 4, I attended the College Reading and Learning Association’s 50th National Conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. As stated on their website, the College Reading and Learning Association (CRLA) consists of “a group of student-oriented professionals active in the fields of reading, learning assistance, developmental education, tutoring, and mentoring at the college/adult level.” As an organization, CRLA serves to “provide a forum for the interchange of ideas, methods, and information to improve student learning and to facilitate the professional growth of its members.” In honor of Pittsburgh’s iconic geography, the theme for this year’s conference was “Celebrating 50 Years of Building Bridges.” All of the sessions related, in some way, to the idea of “building bridges” between teaching, tutoring, and other support services in order to help students succeed. The majority of the sessions that I attended focused on best practices related to teaching reading, writing, and critical thinking skills.

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One session, however, provided a perfect “bridge” between my role at MxCC and the topics I cover for PALS. Jessica Slentz Reynolds and Stephanie Jarrett’s “Using Protest Music to Increase Students’ Awareness of Fake News” (Session 32) was the first session I attended at the conference. Both Jessica and Stephanie are students in Texas State University’s Graduate Program in Developmental Education — Jessica is a third-year doctoral student and Stephanie is finishing up her master’s degree. Their presentation included an overview of the theoretical and practical rationale behind their assignments before describing three specific projects. For the first project, students analyze primary and secondary sources as well as protest music in order to write an expository essay on some aspect of the Civil Rights Movement. In the second project, students select a similar topic that has recently been the subject of “fake news” to analyze in an oral presentation and a written reflection. The final activity involves analyzing a visual image to help students understand the importance of considering audience when consuming a text.

These projects were developed for an Integrated Reading and Writing course, the highest level of Developmental Reading at Texas State, and, specifically, to pilot teaching the course as a co-requisite with a history class.  While I am eager to use all of these assignments in the future, the first project from Jessica’s class can work especially well as part of an introductory literature course. The rest of this post will outline Jessica’s assignment in detail before describing an in-class activity that uses similar strategies to help students better understand the time period in which A Raisin in the Sun takes place.

Joan_Baez_and_Bob_Dylan.jpg
Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. During the presentation, Jessica said that students especially responded to Dylan’s songs.

For the second major project in Jessica’s course, students write an expository essay on one topic from the Civil Rights Movement, using one primary source, one secondary source, and one song as evidence. She includes a comprehensive list of topics for this project on its assignment sheet; some ideas include “looking at the experience of African American college students in the South (or in the North), what life was like for Migrant Farm Workers in California and Texas, and Native American/American Indian experiences during the Civil Rights Era. Jessica also includes a comprehensive list of where to start researching this era’s music, including articles from NPR, NewsOne, and AXS.

Students then work on this assignment over three weeks of their accelerated ten week course. During the first week, students are introduced to the Civil Rights Movement, important reading strategies, and an overview of primary and secondary sources. Jessica then models this assignment through a separate activity on grit and discusses how to use sources to help develop an essay’s main idea throughout the second week of the project. Students spend the final week outlining their essays, completing a peer review, and developing the assignment’s rubric as a class. Through this process, Jessica has found that students will effectively synthesize multiple sources when writing an expository essay.

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The original cast of the 1959 Broadway production of A Raisin in the Sun, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

This project can easily be adapted to help students analyze sources in an introductory literature course. To do this, I plan on assigning an in-class activity that still focuses on finding and analyzing a secondary source and a protest song, but that uses A Raisin in the Sun as its primary source. While other short stories, plays, or poems written during the Civil Rights Movement could be used with this lesson plan, I chose A Raisin in the Sun because it was first produced on Broadway in 1959 and because of Lorraine Hansberry’s own connection to the Civil Rights Movement.

Sam_Cooke_in_the_recording_studio_1961
Sam Cooke, whose “A Change is Gonna Come” could be one song used in this project. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

During the class period before we discuss the play, I will have students, in groups, research one of the following topics: housing (de)segregation, Black feminism, and race riots in Chicago during the 1950s. Then, as a group, they will be responsible for finding one article from our library’s databases that addresses their assigned topic and one protest song that relates to the topic in some way. Each group will create a brief oral presentation in which they use quotes from the article and the protest song’s lyrics to help present information on their assigned topic. These oral presentations will become the starting point of our larger class discussion on A Raisin in the Sun; that way, students will have a clear understanding of what was happening during the time period in which the play takes place before discussing its content. 

After spending multiple class periods discussing the play in depth, students will return to these groups. Together, each group will write an approximately 500-word response paper that uses quotes from all three sources as evidence for an analysis of how their previously assigned topic influences one character’s actions in A Raisin in the Sun. For example, students who presented on housing desegregation could analyze Mama’s purchasing of the home in Clybourne Park. I hope this activity leads to the same outcomes that Jessica and Stephanie saw with their assignments, so that students finish the unit with a better understanding of the time period in which Hansberry was writing and how to engage with a variety of sources.

After attending CRLA 2017, I returned to Connecticut with so many ideas for how I can better teach and support my students. Thanks to Jessica and Stephanie’s inspiration, I already have one new activity ready to go. I’m now counting down the days to Albuquerue, and, in the meantime, look forward to applying what I learned in Pittsburgh to my work at MxCC.