John King Used Books, Detroit, Michigan -- Photo by Michelle Conklin-Kusel (formerly Michelle Conklin)
Empowering Versus Proselytizing:
Making Room for Multiple Viewpoints in a Composition Classroom
July 13, 2020
Right now, this moment in time, with a raging pandemic, a severe economic depression (yes, with a “D”), re-intensified racial tensions, and unparalleled government corruption, might be the greatest amount of social and political polarization America has experienced since the Civil War.
Given the volatility of this moment, those of us who teach writing at the secondary or college level, must carefully thread the needle so students who have differing viewpoints can express them, yet we must make sure students back their positions with logic and evidence. We need to avoid the trap of projecting our personal beliefs and agendas onto our students, although in the name of disclosure, we may need to share them. The title of one of historian Howard Zinn’s books is “You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train,” which seems particularly appropriate right now. How do we balance our desire to support social justice without alienating students whose views diverge from ours, who may not be aware of all of the ramifications of the policies they might embrace because they have not been exposed to all of the relevant facts? The age of a traditional college freshman is between 17-19 years old. These students have frequently grown up in information bubbles, courtesy of their parents and other family members, and bring with them a very narrow view of the world. One of our chief responsibilities as educators is to expose students to a multitude of opinions. Another responsibility we have is to foster critical thinking. Creating a space for students to test their assumptions, re-examine their attitudes, and reconsider their beliefs may require us to model such behavior. This means we will need to be willing to be challenged, but if we expect students to take risks, we can do nothing less. In light of this daunting task, exactly how do we accomplish that in a manner that will ensure respect for all? Furthermore, how can we accomplish this in an online-only environment? According to UCLA Professor Emeritus of Psychology Albert Mehrabian’s 7-38-55 rule, 7% of communication occurs through spoken word, 38% occurs through tone of voice, and 55% through body language.
Although Linda Flower discusses teaching students how to participate in the public sphere through community-engaged learning (often referred to as service learning) in “Community Literacy and the Rhetoric of Public Engagement,” some of her principles may prove useful in guiding educators how to teach students to tackle controversy through research: “To begin, standing in common cause against something can produce comrades in arms. But dialogue with culturally different others must start in inquiry. It takes an active search for diversely situated knowledges and experiential meanings to understand not only one another but also the social problems we face together” (underline shows my emphasis 4). For those unfamiliar with this term, situated knowledge, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Human Geography, is a term coined by science historian Donna Haraway that refers to the social conditions present at the time of knowledge creation as well as the social position and identities of knowledge producers. This is not to be confused with relativism, a position that purports “that all statements about the world -- cognitive, ethical, or aesthetic -- are relative to the world views of those making the statements” (Oxford Dictionary of Human Geography). While we cannot deny that our beliefs may in large part be shaped by the people who raised us and the environment in which we grew up, education should force us to re-evaluate those beliefs to ensure they are valid in the context of facts. I had an experience in which a teacher tried to indoctrinate my class into embracing a damning idea. When I was in sixth grade, I had a teacher who told my Catholic school class that Jews were condemned to hell because they do not recognize Jesus Christ as the Messiah. I was deeply disturbed by this statement, so I rushed home and told my mother what this teacher had said. “Your teacher is an idiot. God would not do that,” my mother said. I was relieved. Even though I didn’t know anyone who was Jewish at the time, I had just read “The Diary of Anne Frank” and I didn’t want to believe after enduring the torment of a concentration camp that Frank would be subjected to unending suffering in the afterlife. I was fortunate in that my mother refuted this anti-Semitic remark, but what about the children whose parents supported this view? When such children grow up and meet Jewish people in their classes and perhaps befriend them, will they cling to that belief in order to avoid cognitive dissonance or dive into philosophical and theological tracts to test that assumption? As educators, we cannot guarantee that such a student will choose the latter option, but by exposing students to more opportunities to test their beliefs, we can help them better understand how logic and evidence will make them well-informed citizens and critical thinkers. When I was older, I purposely read texts from other religious traditions and theological texts to have ideas I could use to refute such bias as an adult.
Flower explains that community-engaged learning, through which students perform work in service to a particular group such as increasing literacy or helping the homeless, provides an opportunity to create a local public sphere (p.5). Given that the pandemic severely limits our ability to place students in community service settings, perhaps we can create a micro public sphere in our online classes. We will need to create conditions that emphasize respect for individuals and that while one may object to a premise, the discussion must be rooted in the viability of the idea rather than assailing a person -- in other words, avoiding ad hominem attacks. Drawing on Paolo Friere, Flower asserts that “the purpose of dialogue is not to achieve a warm feeling of mutuality. It is a search for understandings that can transform reality. In this context of posing, interpreting, and acting on problems, speaking for commitments becomes a transformative rhetorical act by drawing a public into a new discourse of cultural inquiry” (p. 4).
A lot of students might feel alienated at this moment. Black students might feel more vulnerable to police harassment. International students, considering how President Donald Trump is trying to force them back to their home countries if their courses are online rather than allowing them to remain in the United States, may feel unwelcome. Students whose parents have lost their jobs might be considering whether or not to take out student loans to continue their studies rather than seek a job to help their families. Other students might be experiencing increased anxiety and depression due to prolonged isolation -- especially if they already have mental health issues.
The social instability our nation is experiencing is creating barriers and stresses for all of us. It has been said nothing unites a people like a common enemy, which in this case is COVID-19. There is a minority of people who underestimate or deny the potential lethality of this virus, and hopefully we will be able to convince such skeptics the threat is real to protect their health. However, if we look at this pandemic as an opportunity to work from a position of shared interest, coupled with teaching students how to seek out reliable information, we can progress to discussing what separates us and seeking common ground.
Collegiate Colonization of Communities:
How Academics Risk Taking More Than Giving
July 6, 2020
One of the frequent criticisms from much of the public about colleges and universities is their insularity from the communities that surround them. Academics are accused of being elitist in our attitudes towards residents of the towns where our campuses are located and disconnected from these community members and their concerns, providing little to no value to the cities and towns in terms of tangible benefits. This is referred to as the “town and gown” problem, and it’s nothing new. My mother, who spent most of her collegiate career at Indiana University’s Bloomington campus, told me stories about how the “townies” would demonstrate their contempt for students by giving them the worst service possible at restaurants, which in turn led students to retaliate by leaving a one-penny tip. This, of course, confirmed the residents’ attitudes that the students (and by extension, the faculty and administration) felt entitled, and firmed their resolve to provide poor service in the future. While this example may seem petty, it is minor in comparison to what can happen when faculty and students venture off-campus and attempt to use community members as research subjects without taking into consideration that these residents -- unlike lab rats -- have concerns and needs that must be taken into account before the research plan is finalized to prevent exploitation, resentment, and doing more harm than good. In short, it is a local version of what academics have done when they have travelled to indigenous communities to propose conducting research without first talking with members of those communities to gauge their needs and receptivity to being in a research study: it is the difference between having research done on a community rather than conducting research with a community.
Eli Goldblatt, who recently retired as an English professor from Temple University, spent much of his time with students and community members to increase community literacy in Philadelphia. He argues in his chapter, “What is Community Literacy?” in the book “A Rhetoric for Writing Program Administrators,” that “[o]ne of the central tenets of community literacy among most practitioners is that principle of reciprocity -- sharing power in developing a program and sustaining a collaborative spirit throughout the project -- should inform any university/community partnership. To manage such reciprocal relationships, I have argued, each party involved must recognize their own shared interest in the partnership” (p. 341). In other words, everyone involved must share in formulating goals of the research or service and define the responsibilities and benefits of the research or service. This sentiment is echoed by Linda Tuhiwai Smith, who describes the ramifications of early English researchers in New Zealand on the native Maori people:
“Those observers of indigenous peoples whose interest was of a more
'scientific' nature could be regarded as being far more dangerous in that they had theories to prove, evidence and data to gather and specific languages by which they could classify and describe the indigenous world. So, for example, skulls were measured and weighed to prove that 'primitive' minds were smaller than the European mind. This was the 'science' of crailiometry. Other stories are told of burial caves being 'discovered' and examined for the precious 'artefacts' which were left with the dead, of caned houses being dismantled and shipped to England, of dried and shrunken heads sold and exported back to museums. This side of the research encounter, with the inducements that sometimes went with the exchange of 'artefacts', has left a long lasting resentment among indigenous peoples, who are now attempting to have items and the remains of ancestors returned to their own people” (pp. 82-83 of “Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples”).
Crailiometry has long since been debunked as a pseudoscience -- part of a collection of disciplines that used to be given scientific credence to justify racial superiority or inferiority, alternatively known as scientific racism or biological racism. While these pseudodisciplines that were popular between the 17th through mid-20th centuries enjoyed a fair amount of support, the long-term damage persists and people in both indigenous communities and the inner city have been long mislabeled and misunderstood, leading both the public at large and academics alike to make erroneous assumptions about their needs and capabilities. As a result, the people in these communities have been given little to no agency by the public, all levels of government, and academia in matters of public health, education, housing, economic opportunity, research, or social services.
Paula Mathieu argues in her book “The Tactics of Hope: The Public Turn in English Composition” that academics need to rethink their relationship with the communities that border their campuses: “When teachers and students move from the classroom into the streets, many questions arise or should arise: How well do we know our local communities and how well known are we in them? Are those outside the university eager or reluctant to work with us? How prepared are we to go through the process of learning how to understand and respond to local needs? Do we know how to frame questions in useful ways and listen for answers, even ones we might not even like? How well do we understand how public discourse operates in our communities? How well can we present or represent local issues in our classrooms? In short, how can academics see beyond our own good intentions to assess how our work resonates with those in the streets?” (p. xi). An example Mathieu provides when this type of questioning and collaborative research design did not occur is a book of stories and poems written by 26 homeless people, but the credit for this work was stolen by a professor who was only meant to serve as an editor. Instead of the proceeds from the book going into a fund to help homeless people in the community with varying needs (such as equipment for jobs and obtaining state-issued identification), the profits went to a community non-profit. As a result of the professor usurping the copyrights of these authors, many contributors became despondent, leading one to retreat back into alcoholism and subsequent incarceration, and nine other writers died either during the publication process or shortly afterwards. The professor received notoriety while the homeless authors experienced a crash-course in the ramifications of plagiarism. If this professor had pilfered from a colleague, he would have been fired. Because these homeless individuals (and the volunteers helping them) were purposely kept in the dark about the hijacking of the project, he received undue credit (pp. 122-124).
When considering a project involving any group outside of campus (and, to be fair, inside of campus as well), we need to collaborate about the expectations and outcomes on all sides. Perhaps we should also adopt one of the tenets of the Hippocratic Oath: do no harm.
Our Nation Needs Some Serious Storytime
June 29, 2020
One of the great joys of reading is that it can transport a reader to another place, another time, or both, and provide a glimpse into a life the reader would otherwise not experience. One of the most influential books I read in elementary school was “The Diary of Anne Frank,” which I read when I was a year younger than she was when she wrote it. I kept re-reading it, hoping for a different outcome, hoping in vain that she would not perish in a concentration camp. It was a lesson in inhumanity, in cruelty -- in hate. It resonated with me and solidified my belief that the most vulnerable of us must be protected by the rest of us from danger and exploitation.
Songs, films, and television shows also provide some much-needed perspective on other lives and can be powerful in their own right. This pandemic has caused many people to seek escapism through these media, but how many people have used this opportunity to read, listen to, or watch accounts of other peoples’ lives? In a June 10th story by Kelsey Sutton for Adweek, she explains that “Netflix has selected more than 40 titles in an effort to amplify Black storytellers and highlight its bench of TV shows and movies reflecting Black experiences. The effort comes at a time when national interest in racial injustice has spiked due to the wave of worldwide protests against police violence and racism . . . ‘We believe that one of the ways Netflix can have a direct positive impact is through our stories,’ a Netflix spokesperson said. ‘The Black Lives Matter collection speaks to racial injustice and the Black experience in America, and we hope that highlighting these titles can help increase empathy and understanding.’”
While literature, songs, films, and television shows can help us better understand the challenges, circumstances, and viewpoints of others, what we might need most right now are the real-life accounts of people who are different from ourselves. Politically speaking, Americans live in a system based upon divide and conquer, the message from the puppet masters being that anyone who doesn’t live where you live, doesn’t look like you, doesn’t talk like you, doesn’t believe what you believe, constitutes a threat and should be avoided at all costs. The powers that be have a vested interest in preventing poor rural whites making common cause with poor urban blacks, because their combined numbers and their geographical distribution -- especially important in the context of the role of the Electoral College -- pose a threat to Republicans and Corporate Democrats alike. Part of the reason this tactic has been so successful is that too many of us have avoided taking in stories about people who differ from ourselves, resulting in a national dearth of empathy. In her book “Changing the Subject: A Theory of Rhetorical Empathy,” Lisa Blankenship repurposes one of Jesus’s parables, “The Good Samaritan”. Blankenship explains the rationale Jesus had for telling this story: a lawyer is trying to find a way to avoid Jesus’s command to not only love the Lord with all of his being, but to do the same with his neighbor. Desperately seeking a loophole, the lawyer asks for a definition of neighbor. Blankenship describes Jesus’s persuasive strategy: “The rhetoric in this passage is common in the Gospels: Jesus turns to story rather than syllogistic dialogue, a strategy that functions to disarm the arguments of his interlocutors and make his ethical commands personal” (p. 41). What Blankenship omits is how the example of the Good Samaritan has even more rhetorical power than she ascribes when taken into the context of what we refer to as identity politics. During Jesus’s time, Samaritans were outcasts of Jewish society because some Samaritans (who were Jews) intermarried with settlers from Mesopotamia and Syria after being conquered by the Assyrians. This in turn led to acts of violence on both sides, deepening their division despite their shared religious beliefs. Because a Samaritan saved the life of an assaulted Jewish man left for dead and overlooked by both a Levite and a priest who simply passed him by -- both fellow Jews -- the parable has added rhetorical power: even those who are considered enemies must be treated as neighbors by those who want to follow one of Jesus’s key teachings, often referred to as the Golden Rule. However, Christians do not have a monopoly on this philosophy, Blankenship points out: “The Golden Rule of using care for oneself as a guide to ethical treatment of others is a common thread running through all major ethical and religious traditions. Its close analogue in Chinese rhetoric and ethics is the notion of shu. In the Analects, Confucius’s disciple Zigong asks him, ‘Is there one expression that can be acted upon until the end of one’s days?’/‘The Master replied, ‘There is shu: do not impose on others what you yourself do not want’”
(quoted in Blankenship, pp. 41-42).
Part of the process of ending apartheid in South Africa was the formation and convening of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which heard testimony from numerous South Africans about how their lives were harshly shaped by racist policies and actions. Many of these accounts were included in Volume 6 of the commission’s report. One witness, Mrs. Leonilla Tenza, whose family was politically active in resisting apartheid, explains in her testimony how she had miscarried a child while running from police and falling, how she witnessed her nephew being hacked to death by an axe, how she is trying to raise his two-year-old son along with her four grandchildren, whose mother -- her daughter -- died from AIDS, all while trying to manage her heart condition (pp. 124-125). In its report, the commission admits it cannot catalog all of the horrific acts and outcomes that sprang from apartheid, but that collecting at least some stories was essential: “The stories below have not been chosen because they represent specific categories of the consequences of human rights violations and the issues they raise for reparation and rehabilitation. They are not and cannot be representative. They simply try to offer a context, a way to bring us back to what sometimes risks being obscured in the process of amassing and interpreting so vast a body of material. In so doing, they provide an opportunity to remember why we began this long and difficult journey into our past … a chance to hear once again the voices of some of those who spoke to us along the way” (p. 120).
As writing instructors, we can help students learn to tell their own stories. In the December 2019 College Composition and Communication article “Relating Our Experiences: The Practice of Positionality Stories in Student-Centered Pedagogy,” Christina V. Cedillo and Phil Bratta chronicle how they used their life stories to help dispel the myth that all who teach in college come from a privileged, middle-class background so that their students who also fall into marginalized groups will better understand that success in college is not only for those who had more advantages as children and adolescents. Bratta explains how his father explained to him when he was helping repair a car that his father instructed him to become familiar with a wrench because it would play a major role in how he would someday make a living. Bratta explained to his students that his father didn’t even allow for the possibility that his son would attend college. When Bratta (who at the time was a doctoral student) was approached by one of his students, Mike, to explain how Bratta’s personal story inspired him, Bratta then realized the importance of helping students put their own positions into context: “He said something along the lines of ‘if you can overcome such an obstacle and go on to get advanced degrees and teach, then I can definitely overcome such an obstacle.’ I hesitated to chime in at this moment, not because I didn’t think he couldn’t, but because this ‘overcoming’ was not so simple because of our racial differences. Mike is a nineteen-year-old Black man from Detroit, and the class-based assumptions he contends with are intertwined with other social pressures, specifically racial stereotypes and discrimination, that I do not have to deal with. In other words, I thought about how we may each face some similar challenges, but also significantly different challenges. After listening a little more about his background, as well as his enthusiasm to be in the class now, I responded, ‘yes, you can work against such obstacles,’ and we continued to chat about a variety of other topics and interests over the next twenty minutes or so” (p. 229).Bratta shared his story, prompting Mike to listen, and in turn, shared his own. This led Bratta to think carefully about what Mike was saying, recognizing the additional challenges Mike would encounter, but nonetheless feeling able to authentically encourage Mike to work to fulfill his goals.
All of us want to be heard, particularly when we are experiencing hardship or suffering. The stories we share with others tend to be accounts that describe extreme conditions and actions, chronicling humorous, joyful, inspirational, painful, horrible, frightening, and despondent moments. The most compelling tales incorporate most or all of these moments. Perhaps the most meaningful act we can perform in this time of great economic, social, and existential threat is to renew our commitment to fully listen to one another, to truly take in what others are saying about why they feel what they feel. Academia, especially with the elevation of STEM, has overly-emphasized the importance of statistics and studies focused on experiments. Math and science do play crucial roles in these crises, especially when we try to determine how many people have been affected and may be affected if we don’t make wise policy choices. However, the stories of doctors and nurses witnessing suffering that could have been largely prevented, videos and accounts of blacks and protesters of all colors who have been injured or who have died at the hands of overaggressive police, and the tales of those who find themselves jobless and homeless because of the stay-at-home orders, will do far more to convince people that systemic change is necessary. Recognizing a problem exists is the second step to change and cannot happen until we tell each other our stories why the status quo isn’t working while really, truly, and deeply listening.
Presence, Present Tense and Tension
June 22, 2020
How much information exists in the world?
This is a question that is impossible to answer at present because we do not have a means to measure it. The closest approximation we can get is to attempt to measure the amount of data in the world. Lexico.com, the joint venture of Oxford University Press and Dictionary.com, provides some much-needed clarity about how to define these terms. While information is defined as “facts provided or learned about something or someone,” data is “facts and statistics collected together for reference or analysis”. The distinction is difficult to make until one realizes that data also includes “the quantities, characters, or symbols on which operations are performed by a computer, being stored and transmitted in the form of electrical signals and recorded on magnetic, optical, or mechanical recording media.” In other words, not all data is easily digestible information for humans’ use (most people do not read pages and pages of code for leisure reading), but all information constitutes some form of data, whether it is audio, visual, or textual in nature.
In the context of a classroom (and I intend to focus more specifically on a college writing classroom), it is important to distinguish what is, generally speaking, useful from what is not useful for the average person because we want to encourage students to steer away from churning out empty prose that lacks substance to complete an assignment, a.k.a. phoning it in. In her book, “Prolific Moment: Theory and Practice of Mindfulness for Writing,” Alexandria Peary explains why mindfulness -- which she defines as “the observation of ever-changing phenomena as they occur in real time using a detached and non-evaluative outlook” (p. 2) -- is essential in the writing process to produce meaningful text because: “writing happens on autopilot whenever students are unaware of the moment in which they write” (p. 11). The resulting output can make less sense than tweets produced by a bot -- and contain even less relevance or wisdom.
What college writing professors want students to do is to synthesize different types of information by infusing their own perspective (and oftentimes their own experience) to produce new knowledge. To differentiate knowledge from information and data, knowledge is defined as “facts, information, and skills acquired by a person through experience or education; the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject” (lexico.com). In short, knowledge has a value that data does not: it is something that one attains through study, struggle, practice, or application. For example, consider the recently popular Tide Pod Challenge, which consisted of teenagers eating Tide Pods when dared by their peers and posted the consumption of the pods on YouTube and social media. Obviously, anyone who was foolish enough to consume laundry detergent in this form intentionally learned firsthand why it’s a bad idea, which becomes knowledge. Proctor & Gamble, the company that makes Tide, immediately collaborated with YouTube to take down these videos to discourage this harmful behavior once company officials became of the trend, with the act of learning about this issue as acquiring information. The number of views the videos accrued before they were taken down constitutes data.
To extend this example further, a college student who wanted to discuss why young people would engage in such risky behavior could conduct research regarding the particulars of this phenomenon in conjunction with academic literature about the psychology of peer pressure and the desire to attract a following online. Given the decentralized structure of the Internet and the potential for difficult-to-calculate distractions online that could interfere with the mixed process of research and writing, teaching mindfulness in the composition classroom has great value. A major obstacle in doing so might lie in the instructor’s familiarity and comfort level in doing so. While it is tempting to criticize those who grew up with the Web as lacking focus (often referred to as digital natives) to those who remember using a card catalog at the library to get homework done (known as digital immigrants), it would be highly unlikely that someone who has had internet access for at least a week hasn’t been caught at least once by click-bait. We are all vulnerable to distraction online. Because we are surrounded by diversions more than any other era of human history, learning to be mindful might be more than a valuable skill for becoming a more intentional writer, but might prove as a survival skill as well. Before I am guilty of going on the tangents I have been railing about, allow me to loop back to the application of mindfulness in writing.
One aspect of mindfulness Peary discusses is how one’s concentration on what is happening in the present moment can be broken by two types of distraction: mind waves and mind weeds, a concept she mined from Shunryu Suzuki’s “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.” Peary describes a mind wave as “[r]esembling a wordless pulse or sensation, a ripple across the surface of emptiness” and can manifest themselves as “the passing urge to switch the position of one’s legs, fleeting irritation at a noise, [or] quick registering of an aftertaste” (p. 117). A mind weed, on the other hand, is much more intrusive and challenging to dismiss: “Mind weeds are more three-dimensional than mind waves because they’re discursive, evoking a detail-laden storyline that draws a practitioner away from the moment, and thus they occupy more time in the mind, putting down their roots in the silt of the mind -- a daydream that lasts for a minute or a fantasy conversation with a person who is not around” (p. 117). Although on the surface these interruptions can appear to interfere with composing, Peary argues that mind waves and mind weeds can provide mindful writers with an opportunity to accept the emotions that occur during the writing process rather than engage in overly-critical self-talk that can result in negative feelings one will associate with the act and product of writing (pp. 118-119). Examples of mind waves and mind weeds during the writing process can include memories of awful experiences with academic writing or writing for pleasure, which materially interfere with a student’s confidence in approaching other writing occasions. Peary argues the composition field’s minimization of the role of emotion in writing is counterproductive and illogical, “given the unavoidable signs of these emotions in our first-year classrooms -- from the body language of students, their underlife grumblings before a class meeting starts, the box of tissues used during office hours, worry about grades and failure of a required composition course, the quiet flush of pride or relief at a task well done and turned in on time” (p. 120).
If we can help students recognize those negative emotions during the writing process and attend to them in a positive fashion, we can help them become knowledge creators who are engaged participants in the ongoing academic conversation. One method Peary suggests is purposefully placing students into emotionally-fraught writing situations (starting on a small scale and gradually increasing the intensity) so that students can pause and reflect on their feelings in terms of cause and effect. By reflecting in the moment about what he or she is experiencing on an emotional level as a result of writing, the student can learn to accept these emotions in a less-judgmental (and hopefully, over time, non-judgmental) manner (p. 140). In addition, we can teach students that experience does not dictate future outcomes: they can create a new soundtrack to play in their heads to learn how to accept that writing may trigger complex, layered emotions that may not occur while studying and applying mathematical formulas.
While we cannot determine how much information exists in the world, we can help our students produce knowledge that will, hopefully, help them understand the world and their place in it, adding some meaning to the estimated 40 zettabytes of data humanity is expected to help generate by the end of this year (or put another way, 40 trillion gigabytes).
Feeling through One’s Writing
June 15, 2020
Recently, one of my former students, (who I shall refer to as Will) posted the following to Facebook in response to the protests against police violence perpetrated on blacks:
“I have this constant hovering nagging that I don't do enough, and the anxiety of feeling that way keeps me paralyzed.”
He said what many of us are afraid to say but feel. I assured him that asking the question about his level of engagement is an excellent start, to begin by informing himself about the issues and talking with his immediate circle, and going from there.
I realize that as one who teaches at the college level, I am supposed to maintain a certain emotional distance, but I spent the first eight years of my teaching career as a secondary teacher. The protective instinct kicks in because I sense how fearful my students are when they contemplate taking risks, which is something they are unaccustomed to thanks in part to constant reminders in their K-12 education about the ramifications if they fail to perform well on any number of standardized tests or attain a certain grade point average to qualify for admission into college. It’s ingrained into me to scaffold, to teach my students to start on a new endeavor with small steps, carefully watching where they walk so as not to stumble and fall. At the same time, I do want them to venture out and see what is in the larger world, to right the wrongs they encounter. These are conflicting desires, much like Will’s are: he wants to be more involved, but because he hasn’t been in the fight as much as he thinks he ought to be, creates a feeling of guilt that often leads to inaction.
As a teacher, as a writer, and as a fledgling activist, I understand Will’s perspective all too well. We in academia are -- at least initially -- trained to implement that Cartesian disconnect of mind and body, that what we think is supposed to be bifurcated from what we feel. The same applies to the objective tradition in journalism. If we are honest with ourselves, that is not practical. We feel before we think and the mind (theoretically) reminds us not to act impulsively. The optimal middle ground is taking a calculated risk, but knowing what that entails is a skill developed over time through ample practice and knowing one’s self. Given that brain research shows that people do not fully appreciate the consequences of their actions until age 25, findings from the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) reveal that “more than two-thirds (69%) [of surveyed college students] consider it ‘essential’ or ‘very important’ that college enhance their self-understanding, and a similar proportion (67%) rate highly the role they want college to play in developing their personal values” (quoted in Christy I. Wenger’s book, “Yoga Minds, Writing Bodies: Contemplative Writing Pedagogy,” p. 133). Contrary to popular belief, self-confidence (which requires self-knowledge) plays a more important role in students’ successful academic performance than motivation (Reinhard Pekrun, Andrew J. Eliot, and Markus A. Maier, “Achievement Goals and Achievement Emotions: Testing a Model of Their Joint Relations With Academic Performance,” p. 118, p. 129). In addition, Wenger contends that the HERI study demonstrates that we must “support the pragmatic mission of contemplative education to teach the whole persons in our classrooms, taking an integrative approach to students’ outer and inner lives—in precisely the ways they are asking that we attend to them. To learn in their bodies, students must consciously approach their thinking, feeling and being as joined” (p. 133).
In short, we cannot separate what we think from what we feel nor what we feel from what we think. A student who has experienced police harassment, homelessness, bullying, or any other type of injustice frequently discussed in college classrooms will bring a very different perspective than her or his counterparts who merely label it as a social issue that affects other people. This is connected to the concept of felt sense, originated by Eugene Gendlin. According to the Good Therapy website, “Gendlin characterized the concept as a combination of emotion, awareness, intuitiveness, and embodiment. The felt sense is often unclear; people cannot specifically verbalize what they are feeling, but often describe it as a vague awareness of things ranging from old psychological traumas to burgeoning ideas” (https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/psychpedia/felt-sense). This helps explain another reason students experience anxiety when writing, particularly when we ask them to write from a personal experience or a personal perspective: we want them to tap into that emotional aspect of their identity, which can manifest itself in one or more physical reactions. Among the reactions students have reported to me that they have experienced while writing for my classes include heart palpitations, crying, and a sense of dread or outrage. I tell them if writing a piece moved them, then readers are also likely to be moved in a similar manner because those emotions are bound to be infused into their work. I also try to remove the pressure from other students that not all writing will produce such a visceral reaction in a writer or reader and that is perfectly acceptable.
Part of maturing into adulthood is finding one’s own voice and another is learning to work productively through one’s emotions, even if it means only learning to sit with uncomfortable feelings. We who teach writing need to be mindful that what we are asking students to do may require more than what is specified on the assignment guide and that we are here to guide them through all aspects of the writing process -- even the messy parts.