On 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.
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).
Though I have had some reservations about ePortfolios, I am more turned off by the ways ePorts get used rather than with the actual ePortfolio technologies available. These platforms are already pre-packaged and pre-formatted so I am deeply disturbed when faculty create a master template where students (or staff) just input data. It amazes me that ePortfolios can become just another 5-paragraph formula so quickly. Here is what I mean by a template:
The box wrapped in a gray line is called the top navigation bar of an ePortfolio. You click on a word/item and then you get a series of corresponding ePages that have another series of left navigation options. What happens in many of the classrooms that I see is that teachers set the topics of the navigation bar to match the requirements of the department, state standards, etc. Students just load in their work, almost like sifting recyclables into the correct bin. While that kind of automated sifting is an important task for one’s daily household chores, it most certainly does not qualify as digital literacy or even LITERACY. For me, it is simply tragic that this sifting passes mustard for writing classrooms.
This sifting into digital templates is yet another kind of standardization and corporate cloning. That kind of ePortfolio robs students of even minimal levels of digital design in already pre-formatted platforms. The technology actually allows you to remove the line around the box, thicken it, shadow-box it, color it, round its ages, make buttons, add a background color, etc. You can do the same with the left navigation (click here for my own ePort as a sample). You can have multiple backgrounds in all of these spaces. The examples are so countless that you need an actual design plan. In fact, most websites start with a sketch, a practice that stirs significant conflict since far too many teachers do not see sketching as composing and writing. I am always so wonderfully surprised when I hear web designers talk about their design choices in the same way that an interior designer does. It makes sense since we are, in essence, designing a space. So if students are not allowed to think about any of these design elements for themselves, then can we really call their work an ePortfolio? I remain stunned that writing teachers do not think design has any part of literacy in the 21st century. While that fact alone is not shocking, such teaching practices are especially violent for students of color.
The images of smiling, happy students of color are masterfully manipulated in college marketing for every brochure, poster, and college webpage— images that, once again, are not controlled by people of color. The overall saturation of images in a multimedia era has not meant anything positive for people of color. When you do not control the resources, you certainly do not control how your image is portrayed. I am talking about decolonization here: what might it mean for people of color to (re)imagine their image inside of the violence of a visual/media culture that denies them this kind of self-determination? Self-determined visual cultures will be vital for digital literacies in the 21st century, all the more so given the stunning number of college teachers who use educational technologies to strip students of their own cultural-visual rhetorics.
Giving students control of their own visual image has meant that I have had to introduce a little CSS in my class. It’s not that difficult. While many of my rather crotchety colleagues might seem to think that the sole focus of college writing in the 21st century is grammar in print texts, I know better than to trust such systems and teachers. I am disappointed by how many remain intent on denying my students the REALEST and most basic of human rights/literacy in the 21st century… self-determination.
A year ago now, I created this website. I wanted a space to do the online work of my classrooms off the grid of a university’s corporate vibe— a space that would offer a more sonic and visually dynamic course organization. For the most part, that is still the primary goal. Blogging became the way to think through things and the public nature of this practice has meant that I actually do it, consistently, even if no one will read it. Blogging feels like the teaching journals I once kept, back when I could actually write on paper. I like the steady stream of short pieces rather than the longer, extended writing that I often do for publication. It keeps me writing in the in-between time. These are very simple practices in terms of the kind of work that happens in online spaces today but that’s where I am for now.
Other things happened though that I didn’t anticipate. I began to articulate a very particular position on public writing and multimedia spaces where all that I know about the Black Radical Tradition and all that I disdain about neoliberalism began to converge. That has been the single-most benefit to my thinking in the 21st century, a place where everything is digital and everything is commodified: from the continued hyper-spectacle-making of black bodies TO the new century versions of the socially networked Leave-It-To-Beaver family/nation. Any conversation about digital spaces that does not include these levels of analysis is anti-political.
I use the term, “public,” very loosely though when I reference this site. I never even bothered to open the comments section because I don’t foresee anyone wanting to comment. Couple that with spam and the many trolls who piss me off and the commenting feature becomes more irrelevant. Only very recently, I finally did the necessary work to put the “follow” button on this site. Like I said, “public” is a really generous adjective of this website: I ain’t the academic version of Tyler Perry’s Madea and we don’t live in a READING CULTURE, not even for academics, so I ain’t never been fooled into thinking any large group of people is really interested in me or my work. It’s just me and my closest girlfriends really up in this.
What I did not anticipate, however, is that my students would visit me here at this site, like graduate students of color who KNOW they are not included in the intellectual organization of their programs given their experiences, interests, mouths, and proclivity against being white folks’s tokens and lackeys. Those kind of folk in the academy are few and far in between… but the ONLY ONES who really matter to me! White graduate students are also here with me, ones who want to actually think about racism rather than perform some kind of touchy-feel guilt or intellectual chic (those kind always go back to not noticing and, thereby, maintaining racism at the institutions that anoint them with degrees and tenure). These students have been a pleasant surprise… I am honored that they are interested and are with me here. Truly honored. They make up the kind of academy worth being in.
My international colleagues also embolden me. I can see what countries visit each day and I can guess by the hits on a specific post who might be visiting that post. What international comrades remind me, those who visit here and email me about my articles, is that internationalism is NOT the whiteness that white scholars in my field construct. I have been told by editors, time and time again, that people outside of the U.S. will not understand my language and references. It becomes clear from these people that blackness is to be consumed globally but not politicized; no one questions whether people outside the U.S. know Miles Davis or contemporary black musicians… but now, all of a sudden, no one understands our language and cultural references. Black is International, no matter how much white scholars in my field would suggest otherwise and keep us out.
I must say though that my undergraduate students have surprised me most. I never imagined they would find this website interesting and would tune in so often to this blog, students who cut across the last 15 years of my college teaching. They have changed the way that I think and the way that I write. I feel bolder now in what I say and how I will say it. These students have always been more interested in social equality, social action, black feminisms, and radical thought than my colleagues. I am reminded of a white-skinned Latina in my class recently who told me about a professor who proclaimed his shock at her heritage by saying out loud, “wow, I didn’t know you are a wetback.” That departmental klansman didn’t even get a slap on the wrist but this young woman sure had one helluva critique of all the white men at that college who co-sign such violence. We sat and talked for hours at a local coffee shop where we caught one another miscalculating the weight of the system we were in. My former student was surprised that the departmental klansman actually copped to calling her a wetback when confronted; I assured her promptly— why wouldn’t he? It’s his world right here, he knows he can do what he wants. On the other hand, I was surprised that no minimal action was taken against him. The student caught ME that time: why would he be punished? This campus is his world, not ours. Like I said, we talked for hours about our experiences, things I have NEVER discussed with a colleague in that space. Meanwhile, many colleagues in my field are too busy stroking their egos for being accepted at elite, privileged institutions and organizations that do not enroll or register many folk of color to even really notice what is happening to such racially subordinated masses in higher education; others just think the example I gave is an individual act of meanness, not the systemic racism they benefit from. Buncha dumb-asses.
In this next year, I plan to write with undergraduate students even more clearly in mind. If I write with the student in mind who I just described, my content and rhetoric will carry a whole different kind of momentum and weight in what Mecca Jamilah Sullivan has so brilliantly called “THE IMPOSSIBLE FUTURE” at the Feminist Wire.
As for more mundane goals, I also plan to vary some of my vocabulary here. I tend to over-rely on the word, fool— I think this is a good word and keeps me from cussin too much but it can become redundant. I have decided to take it Old Skool, maybe even borrow from Aunt Esther on “Sanford and Son” and diversify my vocabulary: old buzzard and jive turkey come immediately to mind. The terms, Klansmen and Grand Wizard (KKK terms), will become vital new additions and I already know who these terms fit best. It’s gonna be a good year!