“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

“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).

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Witness to the Archive

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From One Black Home…

Since my father (unlike many of my OTHER family members) does not read this blog or any blog and hates the internet, I can tell all his biz’ness here with impunity.  I will use him here to think about digital archiving and its implications for my classroom.

DuctWorkAs I seem to always stress, my father’s working class status and disposition have never meant intimidation or lack of confidence, as many seem to associate with working class folk of color.  As a heating and A/C specialist, he works in many homes/churches/companies to install heating ducts, central air, etc.  If it has a motor, engine, or some such, he can fix it …BUT if you start telling him what he should do when it is obvious that you have NO knowledge or scientific background with the task at hand, he will nod, tell you to do it yo-damn-self since you know so much, pack up his stuff, and walk right back out the door. If you can’t see that he has knowledge and a skillset that you NEED and do NOT have, he ain’t dealin with you.  Ever. If you don’t know how to talk or respect someone like him, well then he ain’t gon give you the time of day.  He will watch you freeze to death, quite literally, without a morsel of regret.  It should go without saying: I think this is one of my father’s greatest attributes. I aspire to be like him each and every day!

And this is where technology comes in.  Just so he won’t forget your dumb behind, my father will add you to his archive, a routinely UPDATED database (names and all possible phone numbers) of people who shouldn’t get any answer when they call. He prints these out and posts them by the phone and at other strategic locations. He has other uses for technology like keeping up with sports stats and staying in touch with his 14 brothers and sisters, but maintaining his database is a main priority. I love to dig through the database rather than just read the posted lists because it gives so much more detail.  I am wildly entertained by the new names and the things folk have pissed off my father about.  I even like to issue warnings: “watch out now— you bout to get on the list.”  Hours of entertainment right there!  I don’t have a database like my father’s, but these days, I am certainly considering it and have plenty names and attributes ready.

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…to Other Black Homes

aretha-franklin-ebony-2As a child, I often went on jobs with my father.  Yes, I enjoyed when he would get mad and leave because, then, I could do my special dance on the walk to car: a bop to match our walk, quick pause every now-and-then for an “in yo face” side-to-side head bap, and then bop to the car door some more.  On the occasions where we stayed, I loved that too. I got to sit down and read Ebony, Essence, and Jet magazines and, since I was appreciative of the content, I was always given access to the stash of back issues that were always stored somewhere close by.  No one threw these out— they were archived as data of our lives.  And, yes, I consider these archives, NOT collections, ones that were freely accessible.  What was the point of collecting black wisdom if you weren’t going to share it?  I loved flipping through the well-worn pages and seeing which articles were the most read.  That’s where I would sink in.  Of course, those times do not match the politics of these magazines now, but they once offered dynamic polemics of and representations into black life.jet-1960-08-25

With every fix-it job that my father did, I was immersed in some kind of an archive.  It is a memory that I would like to carry with me as I imagine how to re-frame the annotated bibliography that is part of the freshman comp curriculum in my program.  While the digital component of my assignment was clear enough (students had to create e-pages for different kinds of websites, articles, videos, etc), I didn’t make the scope and purpose critical enough.  Archives help you live your daily life; they are not just the purview of privileged digital scholars who use the newest tools to (re)center the same white actors of history and aesthetics.  I needed to offer my students the opportunity to create their own archive of knowing and I needed to allow them more control of what that should look like and do.  Once again, it is a black framework that gives me this new approach and disposition.  I am never without a model in this newly technologically automated world, even for alternative archives.

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Value of Self-Reflection/Self-Honesty: No Greyhounds Here!

It’s been a rough few weeks moving to a different job, meeting new people, learning a new cultural system (otherwise called a college or university), figuring out where things are, setting my codes for the phone, printer, scanner/copy machine.  My new colleague, Sara, has been wonderful—we started this year together and we have pretty much vowed that this will be a place we really like because we are just too damn old to be doing all this re-locating and starting all over again.  Despite the fatigue, I am quite happy, value my new colleagues, and just love the students who I get to teach.

fyw course

Please look for this image in the right-hand column for a link to the website.

The very first assignment for the semester was pretty low-key: write me a letter with comments about the website, syllabus, and general feelings.  For my 101 class, I asked students to do a “Mic Check”, an assignment inspired by Tribe Called Quest’s “Buggin Out”. For my 201 students, I asked students to connect their work in the previous semester of 101 to the new course in 201, an assignment inspired by Erykah Badu’s “& On.”  These assignments were created as eTexts on the course website with the music playing in the background.  I was so pleasantly surprised at how self-reflective and brutally honest my students were.  They were critical of the things they believe they do well in their writing and writing processes AND what they need to work on.  It was a wonderful reminder just how much of a vital skill this is, one that not many folk have.  It was an important reminder to me to fuse this kind of thing into the semester all along because, like I just said, it is a skill not many possess.

italian-greyhound-pairMaybe this is an academic/professor thing but I am often perplexed by self-aggrandizing and conceited college faculty.  I remember when I first started on the tenure track and was surrounded by folk who thought their scholarship was the most impressive and deepest thing ever.  It was perplexing because these folk weren’t the least bit interesting to me, much less offering some kind of new Kuhnian shift to the world.  It was like these folk had no sense of themselves, what they did well and what they didn’t do well.  It became very dangerous because you could end up working on a project/committee with someone who claimed an expertise on the subject at hand, only to find out they didn’t know/do jack! The folk who I actually thought were brilliant scholars and teachers NEVER spoke of themselves, name-dropped their famous advisors, patted themselves on the back for the comp exams they took 10+ years ago, quoted from their unpublished/old dissertations, or sent emails/tweets announcing the brilliance of their newest publications/talks!  They were somewhere writing, organizing, working with students, and actually BEING brilliant, not talkin about themselves.  The lack of self-awareness could even extend beyond scholarship. I remember once talking with a colleague who had spent hours shopping, picking an outfit, doing her hair and make-up, and getting ready for a campus event because she needed/wanted to aesthetically compete with one of the women in the program.  Here’s the thing: the woman who was the mark is a former model with a wardrobe/collection of labels rivaling Michelle Obama’s… and also one of the nicest people around (I knew her outside of the campus from common friends).  She is one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen and yet she doesn’t think of herself this way nor is she the type to compete with women for men’s attention.  Now here’s the real twisted part.  The woman who saw HERSELF in competition is a dead-ringer for an Italian Greyhound dog.  Yes, I know I am being triflin’ and mean, but I just gotta call it like I see it.  DEAAAAAD-RINGER!  ItalianGreyhoundI realize that people love greyhound dogs and I mean them no offense; greyhounds do seem quite unique but you gotta admit they are some scraggly, weird-looking things. The point remains: if you look like a greyhound dog on your best day, what makes you think you are a shining star next to one of the most beautiful women in the world?  Really, how does someone anoint themselves as Miss Universe when in actuality they could be racing around a dog-track chasing a fake rabbit?  Maybe these folk just need some black friends because ain’t no way I could even walk out the door so falsely convinced of my superflyness without my peoples setting me straight real fast (my family talks about you BAD to your face for much LESS than the examples I have offered). Just this summer, I tried to purchase some $8.99 finger nail polish and the 19-year-old black male sales clerk assured me  that it made no sense to spend THAT much money for a color that had NO chance of looking good on my toes. I put it back and saved myself that 10 dollars.  When black folk offer constructive feedback, they really CONSTRUCT!  My toes can’t even make it out the stores in my neighborhood without some real honesty.  Academics don’t choose their profession because of their good looks so this kind of vanity is a REAL strange and misplaced thing anyway. If you think this greyhound-dog-woman had an inaccurate sense of something as irrelevant and materialistic as physical beauty, well, honeychile, you need only imagine how delusional and impressed she was with something serious like her scholarship.  If women get away with these levels of fantasy, conceit, and delusion, imagine what men in such patriarchal structures do.  In fact, at every “third-tier” university where I worked/interviewed, male administrators stayed proclaiming the university’s similarity to the University of Illinois.  I have been to UI campuses: there are NO similarities. The last time I saw such grand delusions of grandeur was when I lived in Hollywood, Los Angeles for a summer in my 20s.  This is why self-reflection is important: if you are convinced you are the BOMB, then you don’t ever look deeply at yourself, at what you are doing, at who you are, and why you are making the decisions you are making.  You just walk around proclaiming to be one thing when you are another altogether and stay STUCK on stupid forever.

Maybe it’s because they are students and they are getting a grade.  Maybe it’s the concrete goal of getting an A in the class and making a life for one self via a college degree. Or maybe it’s because they are working class people trying to survive in a place like New York City at a public university and so are not cocooned in the kind of privilege, elitism, and stupidity that defines mediocrity and sub-mediocrity as the hallmark of greatness.  I don’t know.  I just know that my students get it.  There are no greyhounds here.

Semester Begins to End…

Ida B. Wells "The people must know before they can act, and there is no educator to compare with the press."

Ida B. Wells
“The people must know before they can act, and there is no educator to compare with the press.”

Tired, Tired, Tired…It’s the end of the semester and I am just wiped out.  The tank was inching towards empty a long time ago but now, it’s just fumes.  Part of my fatigue, I believe, comes from the amount of work and time it took to try and make my rhetoric class a richer multimedia experience.  I was doing that at the same time that I was reading an extensive amount of my students’ writing.  I assign writing for each reading, which means I assign writing for every class.  I don’t give quizzes and exams because I am collecting the equivalent of 4-5 pages, at minimum, a week per student (a combination of blogs, vlogs, and print).  I do not grade these weekly writings as finished, polished essays; it’s just for ideas and articulation (there are final writing projects where I do that more traditional thing).  In weekly writing, I am not looking at format, organization, coherence, or even logic… just ideas.  With 30 students, that’s at least 150 pages of student writing per week for one class.  And, yes, I still read and comment to each page, and not with that bland, white liberalist discourse that constitutes most of what gets called response theory in the still-white-dominant composition studies.

Rosa Parks "I have learned over the years that when one's mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear."

Rosa Parks
“I have learned over the years that when one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear.”

I don’t believe students will actually do the writing unless I comment to it and I don’t think peer critique is enough.  Peer dialogue is a vital part of my class but for the most part, the content here is all new for students so the person who DESIGNED that content has to be present in a student’s progression of ideas and feelings (I can always rest assured that students have not learned much about or read much of anything by black women at my college).  If you don’t have time to read what your students write, I say stop assigning so much of it or, in the least, we have to stop being disappointed when students don’t give us what we are looking for because we haven’t built in enough of a feedback system to articulate our curriculum.  I get that students need to write a lot and do it on their own, but, really, that jus ain’t gonna happen.  I had graduate teachers who followed this liberalist philosophy and assigned us writing that they didn’t collect. Guess how much of that writing I did?  NONE OF IT.  Had NO time for that.  That kind of thing only works for avid journalers; I am not one of them.  The only substantive writing that I do now (I am not talking about texting, etc… I said SUBSTANTIVE) is for public: this blog or print publications.

Judith Jamison "Learn the craft of knowing how to open your heart and to turn on your creativity.  There's a light inside of you."

Judith Jamison
“Learn the craft of knowing how to open your heart and to turn on your creativity. There’s a light inside of you.”

For those students who are like me when it comes to journaling, I KNOW that if I don’t collect their writing, they will not do it; and if I don’t respond to their writing, they will not do it earnestly and they certainly will not fully learn the content.  Most importantly, it is really in the responding to students’ individual writing that an individual and consistent relationship with each of my students forms.  Those kinds of individual relationships don’t happen deep enough in class lectures and office hours alone.  This is all pretty simple.  After all, I’m a compositionist and writing teacher and this is how most of us teach;  however, even those that write and present about pedagogy seem clueless—most folk in the field who I see and hear are some of the worst and most boring teachers around.

Assata Shakur "Freedom in the right to grow, it's the right to blossom, Freedom is the right to be yourself."

Assata Shakur
“Freedom in the right to grow, it’s the right to blossom, Freedom is the right to be yourself.”

Here’s the caveat with all this responding to student writing: by the time the semester ends, you will be wiiiiiiped out.  This particular rhetoric class that I have right now really just OD’ed on this writing stuff.  In the last reflective assignment, what I called Neo-Soul Ruminations, I asked students to stop and pause and piece together the second half of the semester’s learning.  Knowing THESE students, I gave them a five page MAXIMUM!  Yes, no more than five pages!  I just can’t read more than that right now.  But don’t you know some of them hustled that?  Figured, well, she didn’t say double-spaced or size 12 font so they went and gave me tiny-print, single-spaced writing that, yes, met the five page maximum.  Again, that’s one day of class.  Imagine that for 30 students, for one class.  They killllllllin me!  K.I.L.L.I.N. me! Sometimes I wonder about these college teachers who say things like: my students will just agree with what I say or say what they think I want to hear; my students won’t write much or won’t veer from traditional formats, 5-paragraph essays, or standardized Englishes.  Could somebody send some of them squares my way, please?  Cuz I don’t see nuthin like that in front of me this semester and I could really use a break!

Audre Lorde "It is not our difference that divide us.  It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences."

Audre Lorde
“It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.”

The other issue that I am reluctantly admitting is that I live in a severely delusional state by nature of spending so much of my time around 18-22 years old.  It makes me forget that I am old and can’t do the things they do.  All that staying up late at night to write and read and work on problem sets?  Puhlease!  Ain’t no way I can do that anymore. The other week I was in our main student building where my classroom is housed and at 9am, I saw two, little, itty-bitty skinny ol’ things, all of 19 years old, eating an extra-large pizza all to themselves with supersized Mountain Dews, talkin about schoolwork.  At 9am!  I didn’t even know you could buy pizza at 9am in the morning.  By the time I passed them on my way after class, that whole box of pizza was gone and they were talking about potato chips, M&Ms, and French Fries.  I think I gained five pounds, increased my blood pressure, and raised my bad cholesterol levels just listening to their conversation.  You can easily get caught up in a delusional reality in these settings because this is just NOT what you can do when you are my age.  Just because your 20 year old students have energy at the end of a semester, do NOT assume you can hang with that!  Last night I was part of a panel for the sociology honor society.  The students were of course, amazing, and I suddenly realized I was the “deadbeat” that I had always called my aunts, uncles, and parents.  Here we’d be at the family reunion dining hall (it’s a large family so we need a hall when we come together) and all they ever did was sit around and talk, just sittin there, and talkin.  That’s it.  Buncha deadbeats.  Well, last night, after the event, the students were running around, cleaning up, making plans.  Nope, not me. By the time 8:30pm came around (my commute to work starts at 8am), guess what I was doin?  Sittin… and talkin… and THAT’S IT.  Now it’s official: I am a deadbeat.

Eunique Jones All photos here are by Eunique Jones and part of her project at: becauseofthemwecan.com.

Eunique Jones
All photos here are by Eunique Jones and part of her project at: http://becauseofthemwecan.com.

On a more serious note, no one cares about my fatigue, nothing in my life is about to slow down, none of this stuff ever really lets up— not the bills, not the work that still has to be done, and not the dealings with the “unsafe”/self-proclaimed-radical white racists at the job.  The best thing about being a teacher though is the energy of undergraduate students.  On Wednesday, Christina sent me the link to Eunique Jones’s photography project that E.M. Monroe introduced to me during Black History Month. Christina’s email to me featured a collage of these children’s photos who represented all of the women we have talked about in my course (the photos on this post are some of the photos in the email Christina sent me).  Christina’s email gave me a new realization about Eunique Jones’s project: only a black woman could capture the beauty and deep aesthetic diversity of black children, guide black children in positioning themselves—both literally (i.e., the photo shoot) and figuratively (i.e. the racial memory)— as inheritors/heir of black traditions, and give that back to black people with texts that reach the masses. Yup, I said it: ONLY A BLACK WOMAN.  Now essentialize THAT! The next morning, Christina brought a spoken word poet, Parlay, to class who attends a neighboring university to introduce the day.  Afterwards, by the time the late afternoon rolled around, Karina came to my office with the best damn, homemade empanadas I have ever had.  To riff off of Eunique Johnson’s campaign: because of my students, I can… tired and all… with an avalanche of students’ writing to respond to.