Composition, as a subject, seems powerful, though somewhat benign to many of us. What I mean by that is that we recognize writing's power to help students become self-aware and to help spark change, but we don't see how what we teach in our classrooms can also be hateful, hurtful, or ignorant.
I am sparked to speak of this because of Tyler Clementi, a freshman at Rutgers University (New Brunswick, NJ), who took his life on September 22, just last week. Clementi's roommate, Dharun Ravi, and a female student, Molly Wei, taped two of Clementi's sexual encouters and broadcast them via the internet, exposing Clementi as a homosexual. Ashamed and troubled, Tyler jumped from the George Washington Bridge. Sadly, Clementi's story is horrific, but not entirely unique. Kids are bullied everyday, and many teenage suicides are linked to histories of being bullied. 15-year-old Phoebe Prince of Massachusetts comes to mind here. Harassed, especially online, by two boys she had dated and a group of girls dubbed "mean girls," Phoebe took her life. Asher Brown, only 13, came home and shot himself after being tortured at school. In the last incident before his death, happening only the day before, his mother recalls Asher telling her that the kids knocked him down the stairs and then kicked his books around.
Why does this become a Composition classroom issue, aside from the obvious response that we should have "Anti-Bullying Policies" in our classroom? Most of these kids were writing. Tyler Clementi kept a blog, which, according to ABC News, stated that he believed his roommate was spying on him, but also about that authorities couldn't stop it from happening. Phoebe was clearly writing on social networking sites, but she was also recording her pain in school essays. She wrote a book report on a book about cutting and expressed empathy for cutters. She also wrote about her desire to wash away the pain she felt with music.
This calls much of what we teach into question. Firstly, should we be asking students to write to the test, to prepare five paragraph essays about the exploits of the Iliad, if they are experiencing real and difficult things that they clearly have a desire and a need to write about? Should we give them the outlet to both speak to their traumas and to explore them instead? Secondly, if we do allow writing from trauma, what do we do to help them rise above these traumatic events? I don't want to use the term cope because I don't want students to think that they must "deal" with their trauma and get over it. If I'm going to make them write about trauma, I want them to somehow wrestle with these demons and own them. These kids show that expression isn't enough; they still killed themselves, though they had an outlet for ranting. They need empowerment, agency, action, and/or guidance.
Furthermore, if we recognize the effects of bullying or personal struggles in students' writing, we cannot ignore it. It is the feeling of isolation that, more than anything, leads a person to doubt themselves. We cannot allow our students to continue feeling that way if we read their calls for help.
I would also say, though, that this points to a need for addressing multiple literacies. Perhaps before the advent of email and social networking sites, it was not necessary to teach students how to write for many different audiences or mediums (video, internet, podcast, etc.). In their world, however, the multiple literacies/venues/audiences/mediums/etc. are a reality. If we aren't teaching students better ways to use these technologies to compose and communicate, then aren't we at fault as Composition "experts"? If they don't know that they can use writing to perfect a letter to congress to help prevent anti-gay legislation, that they can use writing to create content for a website supporting Muslim Americans, that they can use writing to compose lyrics to a song about racism in their community that they can post to iTunes, that they can use writing to create captions for a photojournal of the oil spill in the Gulf on Facebook, that they can use writing to script a podcast about their frustrations with bullies at their school, how can they be expected to use these outlets for anything more than peer-against-peer combat or overexposure of their personal lives?
Note: Most of the event-specific information I have in regards to the suicides of Tyler Clementi, Phoebe Prince, and Asher Brown is from ABC News, though I cross-checked these same stories across multiple sources. They have an incredible collection of video collection about these recent, horrific suicides. Ellen Degeneris also speaks about these tragedies, which she calls no longer a tragedy but a "crisis" (Click her name to see the video).