Sunday, November 25, 2012

Race, Language, and Identity in Students' Academic Lives: Lessons from NCTE12

Last weekend, I had the pleasure of attending my very first National Council of Teachers of English Annual Convention (#NCTE12) at the MGM Grand Conference Center in beautiful Las Vegas, NV. There were many interesting and exciting panels to choose from. My program is about an inch and half thick. My favorite panel, however, was "Connecting Lived Experiences and Literacies with Urban High Schools: Lessons for Pedagogy." Here is the program entry:
Teachers experience pedagogical struggles while students
interact in academic spaces that challenge their multiple
lived experiences through the narrowing of curricula. In
this session, presenters will critically analyze their educational research contexts,
which often miss rich opportunities to consider students’
multiple identities, positionings, and languages.
Chair: Timothy San Pedro, Arizona State University,
Presenters: Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz, Teachers College,
Columbia University, New York, New York, “Dear Miss:
Building Black and Latino Adolescents’ Racial Literacy
through Letter Writing”
Danny Martinez, University of California, Los Angeles
Limarys Caraballo, Teachers College, Columbia University,
New York, New York, “‘I Don’t Feel Like We Get to
Express Ourselves in There’: Students’ Narratives of
Resistance in a Middle School Classroom”
Discussant: Ramon Martinez, The University of Texas,
I was excited to attend this panel because I'm interested in bridging lived experiences and academic ones. Despite being suggested for a secondary education audience, the ideas shared by the panelists were important for all educators to hear. At first glance, I thought this panel would address a broad spectrum of traumas or issues students faced and how they were incorporated into the classroom. Instead, the panel focused on issues of race in interesting ways.

A Brief Recap of the Presentations

Danny Martinez was first up. He talked about the ways that Standard English still dominates the classroom and how, despite NCTE's "Students' Right to Their Own Language," evidence shows that students have not yet received a true right to their own language. Martinez did this by observing and recording classroom discussions and interviews with students. He noted that the teachers often subtly corrected students' uses of Black English during conversation by revoicing their ideas into Standard English. He also referred to the term repair, which suggests that the use of Black English is using "broken" language.

In her presentation, Limarys Caraballo discussed problematic privileging of "neutral" space in ELA, which actually translates into making white middle class language the norm in the classroom. Caraballo demonstrated ways in which students of color attempted to carve out sites of resistance through writing. Through ethnographic study and interviews, she showed that students of color often feel that their voices are not valued in the classroom, an idea that carried through the following presentations. My favorite part of this presentation was when Caraballo displayed an excerpt from a students' piece of writing that displayed resistance to an assignment. The assignment called for use of vocabulary words in a freewrite, and the student wrote something to the effect of: "It's not really a freewrite if you tell us what words to use." I saw that as an astute observation.

Yolanda Sealy-Ruiz presented the findings of a project she works on with non-traditional high school students. At the beginning of the session, she spoke about letters from students and said that we must have the strength not only to receive letters of praise but letters that admonish us if we are to be good educators. Her presentation focused on a "Dear Teacher" letter assignment that asked the young men in her nontraditional high school to address their experiences with race. I quite literally teared up as she read excerpts from the works. The young men had so much to say and quite articulately, and it was evident that they had not had many places, if any, to articulate those thoughts before within the academy. Their letters made it clear that students of color experience racism in education. In the letters, one learns that these students are marked as problem students, which has the potential to mark them as hypervisible or invisible in a classroom space; held to a lower standard, which lowers their motivation; and that they want a space to talk about these issues. How would things change if we opened up these spaces, if we considered these questions and criticisms?

The last presenter was Tim San Pedro. San Pedro spoke about his ethnographic study of a high school that stands 2 miles from a Native American reservation in Arizona. In keeping with the conference theme of "Dream.Connect.Ignite.," San Pedro started the session by asking "Whose dreams are being recognized? Whose connections are being made?" Throughout his talk, San Pedro traced the experiences of two students in particular, a white student and a Native American student. These students were both in a Native American Literature class (the only course of its kind in Arizona, due to recent legislation banning ethnic studies) and an American History course. It was particularly relevant for this conference because NCTE moved the 2012 conference from Arizona to Nevada in protest of that legislation. What San Pedro found is that both students were influenced directly by the juxtaposition of the two courses. The Native American student felt that she found her voice and that her experiences were validated by the Native American Literature course. They even gave her a way to respond to the American History course that she believed was unnecessary, being that it told history from a corrupt perspective. The Caucasian student, who was the only Caucasian student in the Native American Literature class, felt that her views were challenged by the class. She began to see American History as complex and perhaps not completely true. What San Pedro also noted was the neither student felt comfortable speaking in the course that did not validate their views. They felt silenced. It was important for these students feel some sort of authority or mastery before they felt able to speak, even when they had ideas. He referred to these places of felt-authority as environmental safety zones and internal safety zones, building off Bahktin's zone of contact theories and noted that typical education offers more safety zones for Caucasian students than students of color.

To close out the panel, the discussant, Ramon Martinez, ended by asking the big question: "What if?" He challenged us to think about the possibility of living in a world where we allowed students to speak in their own language, where we allowed students to express their struggles with race, and where we didn't view students of color in the classroom as "problems to be fixed." For many, I have a feeling it was a future not easily imagined.


I admit that I often circumvent race issues in my classroom. As a white woman, I feel unable to speak back to them genuinely, as I am in a privileged position with little experience being subjected to racism. With the exception of some clips that talk about race for purposes of rhetorical analysis (Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" and Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit," for example), I rarely bring race to the table as a topic of discussion. It's a conversation I am not comfortable having. I also have a fear of coming across as the "white savior" and belittling the experiences of others if I do. As a result, while I certainly would never squash a race conversation that my students wanted to have, I let these things happen organically, rather than creating a space for them. I constantly wonder if this is what I should be doing.

I have had students write about race on more than one occasion. For example, during my first year of teaching, one of my students wrote about his experiences as a young Black man for a Writing as Activism project. It was a privilege to be able to read it. He helped me to understand what it meant to be a target of racism without having others be overtly racist. The space is there for students to do work like this, but I do not push it on them. When they choose to take that space, however, I give students an outlet for doing something about the negative experiences that they have had with race rather than simply allowing them to express their frustration, which I believe is important.

Finally, Danny Martinez and Limarys Caraballo in particular got me wondering about my own language practices in the classroom. Do I revoice? Do I close of the space for students' right to their own language? Do I shut down sites of resistance? As a first year writing instructor, I know that I often teach SWE. On the other hand, I wonder if revoicing, at least in my case, is really a corrective device, or if it is my way of paraphrasing students, using my own language. It's complex. 

This panel, which I admit I might not have attended if it was marked with "race" in the title, has pushed me to think about these issues again.

Questions for Consideration

  • Who gets heard in a classroom and in the larger context of education reform discussion?
  • Should one/how should one make a space for discussions about race in a writing classroom?
  • Is it possible to allow students to have the right to their own language in a college writing classroom, or any classroom really? If so, how?
  • How do you feel about legislation that calls for the end of ethnic studies, naming it as anti-American and racist?
  • Does the scholarship on racial minorities as underachievers because of socioeconomic factors lead to underachievement?
  • Have you had experiences with racism in education? If so, how did you negotiate them?

Thursday, November 22, 2012

A Cornucopia of Scholarly Blessings

Thanksgiving is always a good time (despite the awful ties to colonization and violence) to remember that there are things in this life that we should not take for granted. It is a time to say "thank you," a small phrase which has a tendency to get swept away in the hustle and bustle of everyday life. So, with that said, rather than my intended post (which I'll share later in the week), I thought this would a good time to give thanks.

As a graduate student, I am thankful for:

My dissertation committee: I have the distinct pleasure of working with three scholars who I admire greatly, both as academics and as people. They have taken the time to answer my questions, encourage me to think more deeply, and calm my fears and frustrations. They lead by example, showing me how scholarship is more than just intellectual work by living according to the values that they profess in their work.

My chair, in particular, never had me as a student, but despite that, she reached out to me about the possibility of working together. I am truly thankful that she took interest in what I was doing and read my writing on her own time. There are few people, especially with her busy schedule, that would add to their own workload by choice. Since the first time we discussed the possibility of working together, she has been there for me. She has helped me shape my professional identity.

My ENG975 workshop group: We're a small group of four ladies, but having these three women there to help me pick my brain has been a valuable experience. It's nice not to feel alone or think I'm lagging behind as I struggle simply to come to terms with what it is I want to write about. I am thankful that our professor put us together and that I've had the opportunity not just to get to know their work, but to get to know these women. We've ranted about our frustrations, puzzled over our work, and had some good laughs together. I know I wouldn't be where I am now in my writing process if not for their feedback.

My D.A. peers: We've been through a lot together, the shock of first classes, the struggle with comprehensive exams, learning how to teach, and seeing our interests grow and change. I am thankful that we are a bunch of peers who help each other rather than compete for jobs and interships and push one another down. I am thankful for the opportunities I've had to collaborate with you, for the ideas you've shared in classes, and for the emails you've answered when I was terribly lost. I am sure the conversations that we have had has shaped my thinking, my scholarship, my teaching, and my approach to being an academic in general. For some of you, I'm thankful we had the opportunity to get to know each other outside of class, occasionally sharing a drink or a Facebook post. While I lived in a new city, some of you helped me adjust to the Queens way of life and made me feel more at home. I think, if you are a reflection of the next generation of scholars, there's hope for a bright future for academia.

As a first year writing instructor, I am thankful for:

My department chairs: I am very blessed to have worked for two wonderful department chairs at this point in my short-lived teaching career. Both women believe in the integrity of their employees and have given me the power to make decisions about the direction of my course, and I feel that this has helped me develop a philosophy of teaching that I believe wholeheartedly and feel excited to present to my students each semester. I am thankful to both of them for giving me the opportunity to continue doing what I love.

My students: I'm not sure what is about the students that I have taught-- at three different universities now-- but I have had wonderful classes. These students have helped me grow as a professional, have inspired me through their struggles, humbled me with the stories they have been willing to share with me, and made me laugh with their silly antics. I appreciate the patience they show when I haven't quite got something figured out yet, especially during my first semester, and their honesty when I ask them if something works or not.

My colleagues: I work with wonderful people, who, rather than being snobbish and competitive, are warm, friendly, and open to collaboration. I've learned a great deal from the tips and tricks, lesson plans, and stories about teaching that they have shared with me. I appreciate that, even when I was just  starting out, none of my colleagues ever looked down upon me or scolded me for things that I did not know. Because of this, I was inspired to take risks in my teaching and see fruitful results. 

And while I am extremely thankful for my face-to-face colleagues, I am especially indebted to my #FYCchat colleagues. It's amazing what we have accomplished with just 140-character tweets.

As a writing consultant, I am thankful for:

My SUPERvisors: I work for two amazing women, and I am thankful that they are part of my life. They are supportive, hard-working people, who will go to bat for their employees. It is obvious that they believe in the mission of the writing center and the consults and greeters who help see that mission through. I am thankful to be thought of as an asset, rather than someone who needs to be micromanaged. I am thankful to have two people who are as caring and thoughtful as they are to work with. Despite my crazy schedule, they make sure I can return to a job I love year after year, and even after taking a one-year break to pursue graduate work, they let me come back. When there is an opportunity for professional development, they encourage their employees to take it. And aside from being wonderful to those of us who work at the center, they really care about the community that surrounds the center and helping those who need us.

My fellow consultants: After several years, I've seen new consultants roll in and out, and I've got to say, there have been many wonderful people walk through the door of the writing center. I am thankful to work with such an awesome group of people. There is a general sense of companionship and collaboration in our center. Everyone seems to genuinely want to help everyone, clients or colleagues. I learn from our intellectual conversations. I laugh at our sillier ones. I'm thankful to work in a place where I can feel comfortable and supported. 

The greeters: I remember a time when we did not have greeters at the front desk, and consultants were left to manage their time and clients on their own. As a result, I know just how much easier these people make my life. I am thankful that they take the time out of their busy undergraduate study schedules to help us out. It really makes a difference in the day-to-day operations of the center, and I'm sure it contributes to the positive atmosphere, both for the consultants and the clients.

The clients: I have had great sessions and terrible sessions over the years, but regardless, I am thankful for every client who has ever had a session or workshop with me. From our work together, I was able to develop a pedagogy of writing, learn how to give feedback, and to grow as a writer myself. I learned about some of the hard sciences that I never would have had a chance to see otherwise. I had a chance to tutor grammar, even though the essay was written in French. These are things I probably never would have thought I had the capacity to do. I enjoy reading your work. I enjoy helping you improve as writers. Sometimes, I even have the pleasure to simply talk to you about your struggles as a writer, a college student, or a person just trying to make it in this world. Your experiences inspire me and remind me to be grateful for my educational opportunities. I am thankful that you give me the opportunity to do this.

And, of course:

I am thankful for supportive family, good timing, wonderful friends, the opportunity to receive an advanced degree, the institutions that have supported me, and the many experiences--both good and bad-- that have lead me to this point in my life. I am thankful for the professors/teachers/mentors that I had in the past who pushed me to challenge myself, showed me how to enjoy learning, and acted as role models.

I am also grateful to those who stood before me to make my dreams a possibility-- women who fought for the right to an education; people who showed my parents the value of education so that they would one day support my love for learning; Compositionists who made enough noise for others to start considering our work as legitimate scholarship. I know that sacrifices have been made by people, some of whom I know, some of whom I will never meet, to get me where I am today.

And finally, though I may whine about the commute and the instability of adjunct life, I couldn't be happier to be doing what I'm doing at this point in my life. Many people don't get to tell others "I love what I do." I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to teach writing and to be a lifelong learner.

I have only one question after all of this:

What are you thankful for this year?