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.”

In a subsequent class, I asked students to think about these concepts as framed by current events. Freddie Gray had just died in Baltimore. The country was asking itself questions about this death, and all the other ones—a list I don’t need to write here; we all know the names. Most students were reluctant to have the conversation.

After the term ended, I received my evaluations. Overall, they were fine; students are kind and thoughtful people. But there was a trend in a few comments that I noticed: some students particularly mentioned having an issue with the topic of “race/class/gender,” that it was some sort of university “agenda,” or that they were expected to feel sorry about actions that “more ignorant and intolerant” people did. Or, to quote a comment: “White people did a lot of shitty things to black people. Thanks, Montclair.”

And so I found myself in a quandary, this summer, thinking about the reflexive non-reflectiveness, the world-weariness, the disengaging—that last comment! I asked myself questions: am I imposing values on students when I ask them to engage with issues of inequality and take positions beyond “in the eye of the beholder”? And if not (and, to be honest, I don’t think I am), then how do I move the class toward engagement without eliciting defensiveness, or worse, boredom? This was especially on my mind as I knew the Montclair Book, Elizabeth and Hazel, engages with those same issues. But I also knew that the students were writing placement essays on the transformative value of education. Okay, then.

Ultimately, I don’t have any hard and fast answers. I’m going to rely on my reliable go-to’s: Stories, Empathy, and Listening.

At heart, Elizabeth and Hazel is a story about two fifteen-year-old girls. David Margolick made that point eloquently at his recent talk, emphasizing how young they were. My students’ first homework writing for the book is to respond to this prompt: “Margolick writes: ‘Lots of students, black and white, identified with Elizabeth. Anyone who’d ever felt abused, or alienated, or lonely, or just different from everyone else—and who in high school hasn’t?—would have.’ Are there ways in which you have identified with Elizabeth? How about Hazel? Discuss in what ways one might identify with each of the two women.”*

I want to challenge them to really listen to this story.

We’ll go into some other stories, both past and present. I’m going to ask them to name Civil Rights milestones they know, and we’ll draw a timeline on the board. I’m guessing that there’s going to be a huge gap between the 1960s and now—an empty space which I’ll invite them to contemplate—does that mean we’re done? It’s all good? Or are there other reasons for the gaps (or maybe I’m wrong, and they’ll provide moments, good and bad, that cover all the decades; that would be great!). And we’ll hopefully move toward discussing the issues of today, the tragedies that keep happening, and do so with empathy, replacing defensive answers with empathetic listening.

A few years ago, our local high school, where my husband teaches, had a poster up which said “the highest result of education is tolerance.” Neither of us really liked that word. “Tolerance” has the connotation of “putting up with.” Not really our aim. My husband had that conversation with the principal, and offered my suggestion instead—“empathy.” And this sign went up outside the high school the next week:


At our workshop, Carrie and I talked about the times in our classes when words got complicated—how we see ourselves, how we define ourselves, how we see and define others. And stories about times in our classrooms that we found the navigation of issues, especially concerning identity of self and of others, to be difficult. The best part of the workshop was the sharing between everyone present of their stories, and those of their students. Even the difficult stories. Maybe especially those.

And so my invitation is, tell us some stories.

*Adapted from: http://yalepress.yale.edu/yupbooks/images/webimages/EandHQuestions.pdf


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

  1. Thanks for this post, Leslie! Here is a story. I invite people to share their advice/comments.

    Recently I had a friend, one who is teaching comp for the first time in NYC, ask me about how to deal with discussing difficult issues, specifically sexuality. Someone in her class used one of those lovely “but” statements. “I’m not homophobic, but…” During this discussion, he mentioned he was Catholic. My friend felt a bit at a loss because she didn’t want to be insensitive to his religion; she didn’t want to say the wrong thing. When she told me this, I found that I didn’t really have any specific advice for her–only that I typically assign texts that often do that talking for me. Much like conversations around Elizabeth and Hazel or the studio’s branding gender assignment, we can refer to the texts to look at their argument and our interpretation of it as a class to avoid getting too soapboxey. However, other than that, I was at a loss with specifics to tell her.

  2. Personally in this area, just as I do in virtually all other areas that have to do with pedagogy, I embrace directness and transparency. When students say things in class that are problematic when it comes to issues of privilege and justice, I address the fact that they are problematic and expand on precisely why they are so. I’m quite happy to say that some idea or phrasing is, for example, homophobic or racist or misogynist or transphobic, etc. And I am absolutely willing, using Leslie’s phrase, to impose values on students when dealing with such issues (though I’d argue, for the reasons provided below, that I’m not imposing so much as presenting them).

    Thus far, I’ve never really had negative student responses to such approaches. Part of that may be due to sheer luck, but I think there are multiple things I do which aid me in this area:

    1 – I inform students from the start of the semester that we will deal with complex subjects and opinions, which may be troubling or offensive to them, and that critical engagement is expected and required.

    2 – I make it quite clear that they are always free to question and challenge my opinions and ideas. Something I tell them, which I did in a couple of classes this week, is that while everyone may have a right to an opinion, they don’t have a right (at least not in my classroom) to have their opinions thoughtlessly accepted. They need to express, back up and think critically about their opinions and those of others in the classroom (including mine). And I’m quite happy to say that not all opinions are equal. I am not going to pretend, for example, that racist and anti-racist ideas are equally valid. They are not. And I will present that position to my students.

    3 – It’s never personal in my classroom. We will engage with each other’s ideas and take them apart, but it’s never about the person who expresses that idea. I will happily say in class, “I disagree with that idea” or “that is wrong,” but I don’t say “I disagree with you” or “you are wrong” and that tends to make a difference.

    4 – I put myself on the spot when it comes to problematic subjects (all subjects, really). Last week I told my classes that, if we are defining racism as judging or viewing people differently based on their race (a definition we then took apart so as to focus more on systemic and institutional racism), that all of them were likely racist–and started by explaining how I was too.

    Obviously, all of these elements play into each other and are reinforced by the way the class functions all the time. And, so far, they seem to enable engagement with issues of privilege and power and justice in a manner that acknowledges their complexity without requiring me or my students to be hesitant to explore the subjects.

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