A.31: Teaching Writing to Support #BlackLivesMatter at Predominantly White Institutions.
Reviewed by Tessa Brown, Syracuse University (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Chair: Todd Craig, Medgar Evers College, CUNY
Speakers: Timothy R. Dougherty, West Chester University of PA
Randall Cream, West Chester University of PA
Michael Burns, West Chester University of PA
I’d call the energy in the room thirsty—a crowd of composition instructors had gathered to fill this large section of the ballroom, and they were thirsty: thirsty for solutions, for conversation, for connections. Thirsty, maybe, for a too-easy solution to a challenge that didn’t have one: the work of teaching writing at a moment when the practice of “college writing” increasingly includes circulating petitions, writing letters to recalcitrant administrators, and decorating signs for visible campus actions. The audience wanted to know: How do we teach writing to support Black Lives Matter at a Predominantly White institution (PWI)?
Our answers, and more questions, came from three professors at West Chester University who during the previous year had collaboratively designed, taught, and researched a set of First-Year Composition (FYC) lessons designed to engage their students in the protests and debates taking place at their campus. Timothy Dougherty opened the panel by explaining the context that drew the panelists to this work. Shaken by the deaths of Black people like Michael Brown and Eric Garner at the hands of police and vigilantes, the panelists, he said, “began to participate in an explosion of student-of-color led activism” on their campus. As student activism increased, however, a backlash emerged in anonymous spaces, like the social media app Yik Yak, and in campus graffiti. The panelists’ move toward action was shaped by a feeling that “we need to support students pedagogically to interrupt and intervene, because...all the things our students have been saying about climate erupted like a geyser when normalized white space was interrupted.”
Randall Cream took the mic to describe the “lesson study,” a collaborative teaching and research methodology developed in Japan, where a team of no fewer than three instructors collaboratively and reflexively design and implement a set of lesson plans. The lesson study “focuses on teaching as observable, buildable, revisable practice” and also demands careful observation of students learning behaviors. The methodology’s cycle starts with collaborative lesson design, and then has one instructor teach the lesson while another observes. The cycle then moves through revision, re-teaching, and re-observation, with instructors rotating roles. The distance between the three instructors promotes reflexivity and critical distance. And while this methodology took advantage of the unionized West Chester policy of two peer reviews a semester, Cream admitted that the group underestimated how many meetings would be involved. Nevertheless, as Dougherty pointed out, integrating research with teaching practice made sense for researchers also teaching a 4-4 load.
Finally, Michael Burns spoke to the results of the study, which found students highly resistant to engaging with antiracist activism. The teacher researchers saw an attitude of “I got this already,” even as 75% of their students said they were not interested in joining collective actions on campus. Ultimately, the study uncovered “the resilience of this unwillingness to join,” and the staying power of the white habitus that had students paying lip service to antiracism, while racism still ran rampant in anonymous spaces on campus and on the web. Asao Inoue (2015), citing Pierre Bourdieu (1977), described the white habitus as a matrix of tastes, perceptions, feelings, and emotions that, within the context of a university, work in tandem with official valorizations of white language practices through assessment regimes. Burns discussed how the panelists arrived at a critique of the white-centeredness of their experimental lesson design, which focused on creating awareness of white privilege. Lessons included the activity where students throw paper into a trashcan at the front of the room to illustrate privilege and in/access and reading Gina Crosley-Corcoran's (2014) popular article “Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person.” Students’ continued rejection of campus activism, the panelists suggested, attested to what John McWhorter (2015) has called “the privilege of white privilege education,” and left the panelists reconsidering how their pedagogy re-centered white students instead of moving more emphatically towards creating solidarity and disrupting multiculturalism. The panelists also reflected on how their different identities as white (Drs. Dougherty and Burns) and Black (Dr. Cream) men impacted how their students read their teaching and the constraints or affordances it gave them in offering up this pedagogy.
After a necessary question about the lack of women on the panel, attention in the Q&A moved to the solidarity work needed from other faculty, and especially from administrators, if writing programs are to teach our students to engage in the real rhetorical spaces of campus life. This study was supported at West Chester, Dougherty said, by solidarity from their Writing Program Administrator (WPA), who volunteered FYC for the university’s General Education diversity requirement. One audience member, a woman of color, attested that “every day, it’s like starting over” against student resistance to her antiracist pedagogies, a resistance that becomes personal when students question the validity of her experiences and accuse her of having an agenda. She also testified for the students of color who write about their experiences but are “terrified in class to speak.” Another audience member asked whether administrative solidarity looks like an explicit recognition that student evaluations are statistically lower for instructors of color, especially women.
In their embrace of the lesson study methodology, the panelists were frank about the labor demanded of teacher–researchers and the advocacy they needed from unions, colleagues, and administrators to do this research while teaching full-time. Ultimately, the panel was a call to solidarity from faculty and administrators towards disrupting a campus whiteness that pays lip service to change but reaffirms white supremacy in the anonymous spaces of bathroom graffiti, online forums, and student evaluations. Dougherty, Cream, and Burns were reflexive and forthright in their acknowledgment that their pedagogy acquiesced to whiteness when it centered white students’ feelings instead of building solidarity with the real bodily danger faced by West Chester students of color.
Bourdieu, Pierre. (1977). Outline of a theory and practice (Richard Nice, Trans.). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Crosley-Corcoran, Gina. (2014, May 8). Explaining white privilege to a broke white person. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gina-crosleycorcoran/explaining-white-privilege-to-a-broke-white-person_b_5269255.html
McWhorter, John. (2015, March 15). The privilege of checking white privilege. The Daily Beast. Retrieved from http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/03/15/the-privilege-of-checking-white-privilege.html
Inoue, Asao B. (2015). Antiracist writing assessment ecologies: Teaching and assessing writing for a socially just future. Fort Collins, CO: The WAC Clearinghouse. Retrieved from http://wac.colostate.edu/books/inoue/ecologies.pdf/