What We Talk About When We Talk About Values: Navigating Discussions of Privilege and Justice in the First Year Writing Classroom, Part II: Lemme Whitesplain That for Ya

By Carrie Lee O’Dell

This blog post took me forever to write and in the end, I cut enough material to make another post and made enough notes for a third. There’s just too much to say to fit it into one post, even one that’s this long. The material kept coming at me: in his campus talk, Elizabeth and Hazel author David Margolick called Paula Jones a bimbo and Hazel Massery Bryant a cracker. A student at Mount Holyoke College filed a complaint against an English professor for racist language in the classroom; another English professor, this one from Sarah Lawrence College, took to the virtual pages of The Chronicle of Higher Education to bemoan the rise of the singular they as a personal pronoun for trans and agender students. A young man in Oregon walked into a writing class and opened fire. I was explaining to a friend why this was so hard to write about; after twenty minutes, I’d taken so many detours, gone down so many rabbit holes, that she had to ask what I’d been talking about when I started. We all have a lot to say about privilege and justice, but it’s hard to find solutions to the problems that come up when we discuss race, gender identity, sexuality, class, or ability. The conversations are important, but exhausting.

When Leslie Doyle and I first sat down to talk about this workshop, we discovered we were coming from different places, though we had a common reason for wanting to open up a conversation about questions of privilege in the First Year Writing classroom. While Leslie was considering student response to class content, I started thinking about this workshop last fall. In a paper discussing potential obstacles to achieving the American Dream, a student wrote about how hard things are for colored people and I had to stop and consider my next move carefully.

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Question of the day – Student discouragement due to grades

Here’s a new question (thanks to Mike Laser), about an issue that many of us have faced:
How do you keep students from getting discouraged and resentful when their essay grades are lower than they hoped for? A few of my students seemed much less happy by the end of the semester than they were at the beginning, because they’d worked hard but still hadn’t earned A’s. I want them to feel encouraged, not discouraged – but many of them seemed disappointed, upset, and even fatalistic by the time they saw their second and third essay grades.
How do all of you handle this?

What We Talk About When We Talk About Values: Navigating Discussions of Privilege and Justice in the First Year Writing Classroom

By Leslie Doyle

^That was the title of the workshop I ran, along with Carrie O’Dell, a couple weeks ago. I’d like to continue that discussion here, but I think the title might now be “Telling Stories and Listening.” Rather than propose a problem and discuss solutions, I would like to present a mosaic of moments from classes and readings and student comments. This blog will be more of a rumination; an invitation to swap stories and listen.

Last semester in my ENWR 106 class, we were reading poems and stories that interrogated ideas of justice and injustice. Segregated beaches in Tretheway’s “History Lesson.” Border crossing abuses in Mora’s “La Migra.” The exploitation of children in Blake’s “Chimney Sweep.” Stories that spun responsibility and casualty in complex ways—ZZ Packer’s “Brownies,” Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” So I expected, welcomed, questions and theories and different points of view. But at some point, the “different” became the “arbitrary”—“justice,” it seemed, is whatever you want it to be. If the Misfit felt that killing the family was justice, then “for him it was.”

What does that mean, I asked? Essentially, the tenor of the discussion became “justice is whatever you think it is.” I found myself hazarding Godwin’s Law—“Were Hitler’s actions unjust?” Answer: “not to him.”

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Report Back from the New Jersey Writing Alliance 2015 Conference

IMG_3388 On Thursday, May 28, 2015 a group of us from the First Year Writing Program (FYW) here at Montclair State University ventured out to Georgian Court University in Lakewood, NJ to attend the 16th Annual New Jersey Writing Alliance Conference. Jessica Restaino, Director of FYW, was able to cover our registration fees, and the group of us met as the conference started with breakfast and the keynote address.

What follows is a collaborative write-up of the conference sessions by FYW faculty members Joanmarie Kalter, Henry Margenau, Shelagh Patterson, and Jacqueline Regan. The conference is a great opportunity to bridge conversations between high school and college teachers of writing. Here’s a glimpse of what went on under this year’s theme, “From Common Core to College Composition: How Do They (Dis)Connect?” Continue reading

(How) Do you deal with sentence-level issues in student writing?

From Mike Laser

I’d like to share a problem, and ask a question.

Here are a few sentences written by my students this semester:

  1. The poem, “The Raven,” by Edgar Allan Poe is by far his most famous poem he’s written… When looking at the poem on a deeper meaning though, you can see that Lenore was his love, and she has died in some way.
  2. The author purposely associates this word (“carried”) to this new meaning to reveal how life was like for men in war, including how he once lived when he was drafted into the Vietnam War.
  3. The doll finally came to life and took charge to make a change.
  4. Neglecting to recognize the horrors those people endure allow people to go to war more easily.
  5. She’s only a plaything or maybe you can call her a doll in his mind.
  6. The similarities among the speakers and their author are illustrated differently through their speaker’s separate tones.
  7. The author thinks back at when he was at war and talks about the man he killed and how he was someone he would befriend.
  8. The money in the household shared between the Nora and Torvald contrast the idea of a happy marriage.
  9. Apart from the speakers’ terrible war experience and varied gendered perspective, the poems send out a clear message that wars should be prevented in the future by describing them as gruesome.

I understand that our job is mainly to teach students to construct coherent arguments, and that teaching grammar lessons is largely ineffective—but I’m haunted by sentences like these. I don’t expect to turn any of these writers into Susan Sontag in one semester, but I wish I knew an effective way to help them.

My question: have any of you been able to make a noticeable difference when teaching students who write sentences like these? If so, what did you do?

There may be no easy cure—there may not be a cure—but before giving up, I’d like to hear what experienced instructors have to say.

Trust, Risk, and the Gift of Failure

By Jessica Restaino

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What has it meant—what might it mean—to look at, to honor, to be still with, to see plainly our—and our students’—limits? And, perhaps most importantly, what might it look and feel like to do this together, alongside our students, with both confidence and compassion? What are the risks and what are the potential gains?

I was eight when I wrote in my journal that I was afraid of the new family moving in next door because they were from India. They’d speak differently, I reasoned, maybe not even know English at all, maybe they’d dress differently. Maybe they’d be hateful, mean. I did not write any of this, rooted as it all was in a deeply Italian American childhood, to be read by anyone. My words were confessional and, a few pages later, evolved first into an anxiety about whether the new kids next door would even want to play with my brother and me, different as we all were from each other, and next into a plan to get their attention. If, I guessed, we rode our bikes past the house a few times, maybe they’d come outside. These were days when mothers shooed kids out into the neighborhood, expecting to see us again only when they yelled from the stoop. As kids, we expected to be neighborhood companions, to wander and look for something to do.

I am still ashamed of what I wrote, childish though it was, and yet I have saved this journal all these years, shoved in a drawer among my socks.

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