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).
I 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:
- When we combine ALL of these elements— sound, images, video, and words— what does this achieve for rhetors? For digital rhetorics?
- What makes your work part of 21st century storytelling?
- 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)?
In my first semester at my college, before we had even reached the midterm, one student talked openly about what it meant for him to be an Asian American male in the context of Stop-and-Frisk policies in New York City. He is a HipHoppa whose friends are mostly Latino and Black. While he identifies with and as them, as a man of color, he is not targeted for Stop and Frisk. What does this mean? was the question he asked frequently. This is a rather typical exchange in my classrooms. What was not typical, however, about this particular incident was that I decided to talk to colleagues about what I was witnessing, something I rarely do. When I told my colleagues about the kind of reading/writing/thinking that was happening in this class, the only response I ever heard was: but is his prose correct? How’s his grammar? And that’s it. All of these things that students are politicizing and all these fools can talk about is grammar. Even more problematically, the Asian man is a second-generation Chinese-American, but my colleagues assumed he was FOB—fresh off the boat. Based on European/Ellis Island histories of American assimilation and upward mobility, it has not occurred to them that second-generation immigrants are not living the same high life, have a critique of race, and are highly literate in American codes.
I stopped talking to my colleagues about my students and my pedagogy on that day. When I think through what I am seeing in my classrooms, I take my thoughts, excitements, and ponderings elsewhere… and I plan to keep it that way. I have talked to my colleagues across the country about this young man and unlike my local colleagues, they have been fascinated that a first-year freshman took on the research task that he did. The student decided to do a qualitative study to better understand multiracial, New York college students’ experiences of and perspectives on police profiling. He specifically interviewed (using a semi-structured protocol) white, Asian, Latin@, and Black students, a decision motivated by his quest to see and hear what it means to be allied as an Asian man not targeted for profiling. How could he understand this and more, importantly, how might he ensure that his relative privilege not block his own criticality? Like with all qualitative studies, you just don’t know what might happen when you get out there in the down and dirty…