Saturday, October 2, 2010

Composition and Accountability: Addressing the Side-Effects of Bullying

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).


Janet said...

Writing from trauma--who would have thought that a incident at Rutgers would force us to think in those terms? My first thought upon hearing another tragic case of cyberbullying was: Do we have to teach students to be decent human beings? But, maybe you've come up with something. By teaching students to use their technologies responsibly--repecting and having empathy for both audience and subjects--perhaps writing/composition teachers can make a difference. At least we won't be standing by watching another talented young person destroyed.

Abdul said...

As a student myself, I strongly believe that Teachers and Professors should try and communicate with their students a bit more. Sometimes it's hard for a person to share something about themselves with their friends or family because they're afraid of what they would think. A lot of students feel more comfortable sharing their thoughts and ideas with people they feel won't judge them (in this case, a Teacher.) I can safely assume, that in almost all suicide cases, including this case, there has always been a sign that we all tend to ignore or overlook things that could have helped us to prevent one from killing themselves. Aside from learning how to write “a good report”, I agree in the fact that students should learn to express themselves using different types of media through writing and literature. I also think however, that students and teachers should learn to detect these hints when people try to reach out for help. In many cases, a person who’s depressed and emotional finds it very hard to go to someone else for help because at that point, their mindset is different. They might even think they’re not worth your time. That’s why I believe it’s up to us to seek out these people and detect these hints because believe it or not, they really need and want our help and we can’t stop ignoring their signs. A great book I read was called “Thirteen Reasons Why” by Jay Asher, and it had a really powerful impact on me! READ IT IF YOU CAN! It really gives you a feel of what a person goes through before they commit suicide. (If anyone reads it, let me know! It's a pretty easy read anyways!)

Shari Green said...

Thanks for this heartfelt post. I'm not a teacher, but as a writer and blogger, maybe I can and should be doing something. The potential for writing to be a means of empowerment for kids is really exciting! Thanks for the food for thought.