I did these sketches (above) many years ago. When I first drew these, I was trying to capture what the women in my family look like on any given Church-Sunday. I remembered this sketch today in thinking about Mother’s Day and so added some words: Today I thank every woman who ever kept me… [Yes, this post is a re-mix of previous mother’s day posts. Click here for those.]
I have strong memories of being a little girl when adults, especially my family and close neighbors, asked me: “who keep you when your momma work?” OR “who keepin you right now?” (the second question was when I was on a part of the block where I wasn’t supposed to be or at the corner store without permission). Who keep you? That’s always been one of my favorite expressions. No one in my family or immediate kin network ever asked “who babysits you?” I was never babysat. I was always KEPT.
With all of the different committee and administrative roles I have had in academia in the past 13 years, I have reviewed a whole LOTTA syllabi. Across multiple institutions and departments, the most dominant and lengthy prose that I have seen on these syllabi revolve around policy:
- if and what you can eat and drink in the room
- when and if you can go out and pee during class
- when and if your mobile devices can be used or seen
- how long your papers must be (with descriptions of their dullness— i.e., western styles of paragraphing, language, etc)
- how to make headings on the page (usually of the bad 8th grade variety)
- what happens if your body or your work is late or absent
- who to call for this and that and when to call them
- who to email for this and that and when to email them
- numbers of all kindsa offices on campus, including the professor’s, and anyone else students can be pushed off on if they have life-difficulties (i.e., leave your personal problems at the door)
- the horrors of plagiarism and the threats of what can happen
- the campus’s cut-and-paste language/legalese around disability (rather than genuine care)
- the department/program’s cut-and-paste list of learning objectives that a small group of faculty have gathered to write, usually for the purposes of assessment rather than a political investigation of what the hell we are teaching and how and why.
This bulleted list of PUREEEE boringness makes you wonder: who would actually want to read this mess? And what are students even learning? And you know what is significantly short? A discussion of the CONTENT STUDENTS ARE LEARNING! In fact, if you look at most syllabi, what students are mostly learning is the particular college’s and the classroom’s disciplining of their body movements. When you do get an actual course description, what you really see is the university’s neoliberalist discourse that appears in the course bulletin— more of a coded doctrine than any kind of readable prose because the course description is always really tight (in terms of words and characters allowed) and confined by the tastes and politics of the mostly white faculty who had to approve it. In fact, if you took a good look at most college syllabi across the country, you’d be hard-pressed to argue that any real student learning is happening at all… or that words mean and do anything but CONTROL students’ bodies.
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).