When White Violence Is “The Canon”

Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks

In preparation for a group discussion about critical research methodologies in gender studies, I went back and looked at hours of footage from Rebecca Skloots, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, as well as other research about race, Black women, and medicine/science.  I had been particularly inspired by Karla Holloway’s ability to relentlessly give Skloots DA BIZ’NESS for constructing a research study for mainstream audiences that, in fact, re-enacts violence against the Lacks family, a Black family who for the most part still live in abject poverty.  Henrietta Lacks, known by the medical/science industry as HeLa, was a poor Black tobacco farmer whose cells were taken without her knowledge in 1951 for developing what we now know to be the vaccine for polio and the central tools for cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, and more.  Her cells have made billions of dollars but her family, then and now, do not even have health insurance.  Meanwhile Skloots enjoys the big dollars from Olympic-styled endorsements, media showings, and a New York Times bestseller.  Despite her economic wealth, I wouldn’t ever want to be Skloots given the criticism, rightly deserved, that she has endured by formidable critics who link the central fetishization, exoticism, violence, and exploitation of her research/methodology to the kind of minstrel show we get on Bravo television when Black women’s bodies are the subject.  Whew, so glad I ain’t Skloots! I wouldn’t even be able to wake up in the morning with a morsel of self-respect.

When I think about a message for students about research methodologies in gender studies, I got one goal they need to keep in mind: don’t let your ignorance get the best of you because it WILL SHINE all the way through. This means that I expect students to be able to critique someone like Skloot which requires a rigorous knowledge of how academic research has done VERY LITTLE good for communities of color but certainly a lot of harm (such research aids mostly in university bureaucracies of promotion). I need students to be able to dissect like Holloway before I ever embolden them to step into any community of color and collect some data on them! Now, I know that ain’t quite fair for an undergraduate. Holloway’s in-depth foundation in legal theory, biomedical ethics, and Black feminism make her a formidable scholar beyond undergraduates’ (or most professors’) knowledge.  However, any simpleton who has watched a youtube documentary on The Tuskegee Experiment, read even a mainstream blopgost about Marion Sims’ operations on Anarcha, or interacted with a super-basic slideshow highlighting U.S.-led experiments deliberately infecting soldiers, prostitutes, prisoners, and mental patients with syphilis in Guatemala (I can go on with list all day) can point out a deeply troubling history.  While some of my colleagues assumed I was vying to replace the canon by suggesting that students need to know and CARE ABOUT contemporary cases of research misconduct like Skloot’s book (and one might ask why that accusation was only hurled at the Black woman at the table), I did make an important realization: when it comes to research methodologies about communities of color WHITE.  VIOLENCE.  IS.  THE.  CANON. If you ain’t talking about that, then you are complicit. It is interesting that anyone would assume that I am attempting to take whiteness off the table. On the contrary, I think I take it into account quite explicitly.

Holloway’s critique of Skloots, like when I first began to follow it, offers the most compelling reminder that it is STILL Blacks and women who are most “readily rendered up for public storytelling” in our research methodologies.  (Holloway is often even too uncomfortable to even summarize Skloot’s book because it would mean participating in the very violation of this family’s history that Skloot exploits.) Gender studies students need to be reassured that there remains a kind of parasitic, violent relationship between academic research and the stories/family histories of marginalized groups that academics write. Canons, indeed!

The Former High School Teacher Reflects on College Teaching & Development

When I first started teaching college writing, I did so as a former high school teacher. I was told, both explicitly and implicitly, that I should not identify myself as a secondary teacher. College teaching was more intellectual and exacting; in fact, high school teaching wasn’t even respected enough to be called teaching, especially in university English departments. It was 1998; I was 27 years old and quite perplexed. I just couldn’t get my head around what people were telling me in comparison with what I was seeing at the college: the MOST horrible teaching and curriculum design I had ever encountered.

aolAt the time, Amazon was still relatively new as well as online bookstores. We were, after all, still using dial-up internet and AOL! This means that college bookstores actually ordered all of the books for students and created what were then called “course packets”— the binder that the bookstore created with the photocopied readings that you would use in the semester. That’s probably why I knew my readings and weekly course plans before a semester started… you HAD to back then. There was no possibility of finding a photocopy machine, emailing students in advance of class (not all had email), or using smartboard/electronic lecterns to share a new departure from the syllabus. At that college where I was told to never mention the fact of my high school teaching, I did what I had done as a college student: I went into the bookstore and looked at what every professor at the college assigned for the semester. That’s how I chose my college courses as an undergraduate student— who seemed to actually offer real learning based on what we would read? I remember that day at my new college teaching post very well. There was one professor on the whole campus who assigned a Toni Morrison book. I was THAT professor, the adjunct and former high school teacher supposedly so intellectually challenged by the curricular requirements of college learning and teaching that she was the only one who included Toni Morrison. If the classroom teaching and curriculum was bad, then the “official” faculty professional development was even WORSE!

NYUTo be fair, my Ph.D. is in English Education, not English, so this means my doctoral coursework was inundated, sometimes to an extreme as far as I was concerned, with research related to the preparation and professional development of teachers. To put it most simply, faculty development was treated as a science/inquiry, a history of methodologies and philosophies, and an endless journey of best practices and political critique. For those of us who were thinking about faculty development in the context of serving marginalized youth of color from impoverished backgrounds, our research was even more charged and I don’t think I am being biased here. It seems that any educational researcher— no matter where they are on the political-color spectrum— won’t really deny that intensity even though they might not focus their energies on, for instance, urban and/or impoverished youth of color.

Bad teaching was mapped unto the bad faculty development as far as I was concerned. We would have day-long LECTURES from boring speakers. We were expected to sit quietly and somehow, as if by magic alone, our syllabus and semester events would be improved.  Now it’s not like we didn’t have stuff like that as high school teachers; we did. Those were the required district-sponsored events that we tried to buy our way out of by picking our own professional development events from all over New York City. We would pack into subway trains and travel across the city to avoid the district events— which says a lot about teachers’ investment and definitions of their OWN development.

Critical_pedagogyI suppose what stuns me most given my Ph.D. in English Education is that pedagogy and professional development are not treated as CONTENT KNOWLEDGE at universities. No one expects that you will learn and/or be proficient in sociology from a one-hour lecture once a semester on let’s say “sociology development day.” It even sounds funny. That’s not how we treat the “content areas.” Because the “content areas” are treated as science/inquiry, a history of methodologies and philosophies, and an endless journey of best practices and political critique, you just don’t give the same level of nothingness. This also explains why many colleges don’t always invest in faculty development and, instead, expect that those of us who study, write about, and do faculty development will do it for free, at anyone’s request, on top of our regular research programs, heavy teaching loads, and obligatory service (or for so little money that you may as well consider yourself workin for nuthin).

I only began serious faculty development when I started graduate school. My first solo experience was as a consultant on a community grant for middle schools in Harlem where we designed multimodal history curriculum of Harlem across Humanities and Social science classes. Instead of simply handing teachers a curriculum, the teachers and I built it and its pedagogies. Unlike many colleges, this district understood that my ongoing planning + the weeky implementation of workshops was the equivalent of teaching a graduate course and paid me accordingly . . . and then more when I attended district meetings.  Though there was labor equity there, that alone didn’t humanize the process. Teachers were expected to do this professional development on site right after the school day ended. . . after being in the classroom ALL DAY! I didn’t even have the money to at least bring food to our weekly sessions since I was in graduate school. I was honest with the teachers and told them that I was uncomfortable with this set-up and that my own lack of funds prevented me from even offering snacks. I said we would start half an hour later— just long enough to take a deep breath at the end of the day and/or grab a coffee and butter roll at the corner bodega. I would call this “office hours”: students and faculty could come see me to talk at that time since I was not really “allowed” to do this under the grant stipulations. I told the teachers that I would alone take the heat for the decision if they agreed. To my mind, this blog post is the first time anyone has publicly mentioned the fact that we started half an hour later.   No one ratted me out and, in fact, someone always made sure to buy me a coffee and butter roll too (sometimes that was the only thing I had eaten that day and the teachers knew it). From what I later learned, these teachers had shut everything down before and I mean evvvvvverything. They had not allowed any previous “professional developer” to even finish a sentence if that person had not worked primarily with urban youth of color. And if the workshop leader was not offering curriculum materials that were immediate and relevant, they flat-out stopped the workshop, walked out, and/or complained loudly. Since most of them were from Harlem and were themselves drummers, storytellers, and community organizers, they would not accept just anything that you gave them. I am still friends with many of them today.

memeSometimes I am stunned by how effective the simple gesture of my opening line was: “Let’s start this thing ½ an hour later because I am too broke to feed yall and I know that you been bustin your ass all day long with the young people who this city has thrown away from communities that yall call home, and as if that weren’t enough, you have your own life/home issues to deal with, so much so that you can barely see str8 by the end of the day, and if I get in trouble for this, well then, F- it, I’m grownass woman and can hold my own.” I didn’t think much of it at the time. It was just common sense. Before I knew it, I was invited to district meetings for the simple fact that there was no fallout from these notorious “trouble-makers.” Folk wanted to know what I was doing but it wasn’t a difficult concept: DO. RIGHT. BY. FOLK. . . rather than always trying to pimp them out and they will respond.

My philosophy of faculty development hasn’t changed much since then. Those workshops were my fondest though I won’t act as if all of the teachers cared about curriculum or their students. The right combination was there though: 1) dedicated teachers who refused to tolerate foolishness whether in the form of labor equity or a lack of specific focus on race & youth of color; 2) a system of remuneration that honored the planning and time people put in; 3) official recognition and respect for the soul-energy and expertise that folk have.   Nothing in my time on college campuses has looked like that. Contrary to what people told me when I first began teaching at the college level: I can’t even imagine the limited imagination I would have today if I had only ever taught at U.S. universities. Thank goodness my origins are located elsewhere!

“You Were Meant to Be”: Rethinking Metacognitive Writing, Part 2 of 2

In a previous semester, I asked my students a question I wanted to hear their thoughts on.  They answered this question on their websites/ePortfolios as reflective essays: what was the best piece of writing that you did this schoolyear (in any class) and why do you call that your best?  The students’ answers astounded me, particularly the way in which those students most interested in social justice (and I mean social justice as a process and life commitment, not a graded school assignment) answered so fundamentally differently.

Those students who I would most call activist and conscious talked about what they learned about the world and themselves; how they had committed to social justice issues more than ever before; why they saw themselves as people who had creative and/or political agency to change the world, help their families, and/or write in a way that reached and impacted people. Some of them even wrote this final reflective essay as a letter to their mothers explaining their gratitude and respect or as a letter to a younger version of themselves explaining all that they would soon become if they could just survive that current, ugly moment.

sommersBut then there were those other students: “the good students.”  I was bored by them, quite honestly… and disgusted.  A large number of them, who had the same teacher the semester before, talked about assignments where the teacher changed every word, gave them a new research topic when the teacher did not like the topic they selected, told them what arguments to make in every sentence, changed a word almost every line, corrected every single mistake, drew arrows all over their papers showing them where each new paragraph and idea should go. Continue reading

Hell You Talmbout?: Back-to-School in 2015

Screen Shot 2015-08-22 at 12.32.40 PMOn August 15, 2015, Janelle Monae and her Wondaland labelmates gave a free concert in Washington D.C. that was only advertised on social media. Before the show, Monae and the Wondaland crew led a rally through the streets of D.C. that included a stop at the Capital. The rallying song/chant represented her new song, “Hell You Talmbout,” dedicated to the Black Lives Matter Movement, freely available to anyone on Soundcloud.  On her instagram page, Monae explained the message of the song: she channels and records the pain of her people, her own political convictions, and a challenge to those who remain indifferent.  I’ve decided to use this song as the soundtrack of the homepage of my fall 2015 English 101 course to capture how we will approach writing.

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On this Juneteenth: Black Cultural Literacy in Times of Racial Warfare

At an event that I recently attended, a high school teacher at a prominent and privileged high school told a frightening story about her students.  Her students had read a novel in her class about a young woman who was raped.  During the class discussions, students analyzed the text beautifully, said all the right, erudite things; they even composed wonderful essayist prose interpreting the book.  However, surprisingly to the teacher, the students had a whole other conversation amongst themselves in the lounge/ common space: the victim of the rape was just a dumb whore as far as they were concerned.  Though the teacher was hopeful in regard to the promise of new curricular endeavors, I wonder what it means to teach folk whose violence lies in wait this way.

I am not saying that I have never heard students blame the victims of oppression.  Yes, I have.  All the time. That’s the nature of consciousness-raising in classrooms: help students see, understand, and dissect where these soul-crushing ideologies come from and fight those ideas back.  What I don’t experience much in my classrooms are my non-privileged students (who are the targets of oppression, not the voyeurs looking from afar at it) saying what I want them to say, performing what they think is a liberal, progressive discourse for my approval, and then publicly promoting violence elsewhere.  They just say what they think and work ev’ryone’s butt to the bone to try and convince them otherwise.

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R.I.P. for the Nine Massacred at Mother Emanuel

church“It is a great honor. The Church has a very proud history and has really stood for the spirit of African Americans and I would even say the spirit of America in Charleston since 1818, a spirit of defiance and standing up for what is right and what is true… Mother Emanuel, since 1818, has stood for freedom and worship for African Americans in South Carolina. And so it is a humbling privilege that I have to serve as the pastor.”

~ Words from the Late Senator and Reverend Clementa Pinckney from  the forthcoming documentary, The AME Movement: African Methodism in South Carolina

“You Were Meant to Be”: Rethinking Metacognitive Writing, Part 1 of 2

What we sometimes call “reflective writing” is still a mainstay in many college writing classrooms.  The idea is that students think critically about the choices and strategies that they deploy in their writing.  Because “writing skills” are hardly transferable from one place to another, many have come to realize that it is awareness of what you do, how, and why that transfers; that we write and learn in communities of practice, not vacuums and dummy assignments of things that might happen later; that static skills mean nothing outside of their context, actual use, and rhetorical purpose.  I believe in these ideas wholeheartedly but struggle to get my first-year college students to write about such awareness in interesting and critical ways.  This is, most wholly, my own fault.  I wait until the end of the semester rather than filter these kinds of conversations about writing throughout the semester. I do not model critical reflection enough.  My prompts are often stale.  Most importantly, I still have not hit the right chord of wanting students to critically reflect on their writing processes at the same time that they politically deconstruct schooling’s white codes of conduct and (re)claim and (re)situate their own cultural self-actualizations.  Yes, writing happens in the context of communities of practice but what gets left out of these conversations in writing/literacies studies is that those communities most often practice racism, oppression, and all of the attending hegemonic norms. That is the kind of awareness I am interested in for my students.

This semester, I decided that I would be more deliberate and conscious about reflective writing in my classes, a requirement in my program. I focused on three things: 1) filtering stop-and-reflect moments at key points in the semester, not just at the end; 2) asking students to situate their strategies, content, and decisions in the context of the sociopolitical moment in which they were living which at the time included the uprisings in Baltimore, and; 3) opening up students’ entire first year of college writing to scrutiny rather than just my class’s assignments.  Students’ responses to the final writing prompt of the semester was most interesting (I will write about that in an upcoming Part II of this post).

SankofaI kept the final writing prompt wide open… and I did this purposefully.  Students had done enough of this kind of writing/thinking all semester so I didn’t need to guide much.  I brought back the concept of Sankofa as the way to understand why and how we have been reflecting all semester, this time using Brooklyn’s Calvin Ray’s re-mix of Ledisi as the framework for asking students to remember that they are defining the professional, intellectual, and social identities that will sustain their time in college and beyond: “you gotta know who you are, you were meant to be”! (press play on soundtrack player above).  There were three questions to answer and students could answer in any way they wanted (video, letter to a younger self, poem, image gallery, etc):

  • Think back on all of the writing that you have done this year.  What was your best and why?  What did you learn about the issue?  About yourself?
  • Now that you look back on your first year of college in general, what can you say are your greatest achievements?  What, if anything, will you do differently and why? What’s next for you?
  • Your first year of college has coincided with some of most charged political events of the 21st century.  In many ways, you have all entered that same kind of social justice advocacy with your own digital projects. Think back on all of the digital projects that you have done this year.  Why did you make these decisions and digitally participate in the ways that you have? What is the digital-justice-footprint you are leaving behind?  Why that?  What’s next for you and why?

Though these questions are rather basic, they took me a while to construct.  It took some time before I was confident that the prompts and the open-ended genre task matched what I claim to be my philosophies of critical metacognition in the context of digital rhetorics.  Ledisi’s song really shaped how I finally came to terms with what a social justice perspective of metacognition for racially marginalized groups might mean in a writing classroom: know who you are… you were meant to be!  Strategies for fulfilling college and/or work’s literacie’s requirements ALONE could never animate an important enough intervention in Black and Latin@ youth’s lives.

¡Adelante! Digital Storytelling is…


Screen Shot 2015-05-15 at 8.27.07 PMI began experimenting with digital storytelling (DS) in my classrooms last spring and continued with it this spring.  For my purposes in my own classrooms, DS is a short video (4-6 minutes) that showcases a powerful story in your life (I used Cynthia Davidson’s assignment as my initial model). I am not as interested in students’ final products as I am in their processes though.  They upload their final videos to their ePortfolios but they have many webpages along with the video (about the music, the story, their images, their process, etc).   Here are some of the questions that I also ask my students to reflect on:

  1. When we combine ALL of these elements— sound, images, video, and words— what does this achieve for rhetors?  For digital rhetorics?  
  2. What makes your work part of 21st century storytelling?
  3. Your first year of college has coincided with some of most charged political events of the 21st century (bookended by the kidnapping/murder of 43 students in Iguala, Mexico to mass uprisings in Baltimore).  Local media— largely through social media/digital outlets— insist that national news coverage got it all wrong and inserted its own voice.  In many ways, you have all entered that same kind of social justice advocacy with your own digital projects. Think back on this digital project.  Does it too make an intervention?  How and why (or why not)?

For my ¡Adelante! students (a Leadership program for Latino students who I follow for two semesters in my first year writing courses), however, I asked an additional question… a rather simple one, but one that I thought most critical:

What is ¡Adelante! Digital Storytelling (ADS)?

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