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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