This semester I’m teaching College Writing, and I’m about to begin our second unit – “Interacting with Texts.” Seems like a typical academic type assignment—students read one-two essays from our reader and then develop a critical response. Developing a critical response—meaning a response that moves beyond pure summary and agreeing or disagreeing with the author’s main point—may be challenging for students. As a writing teacher, this is a challenge that I feel a bit more comfortable with—developing ways through writing that enable students to develop their own ideas and responses to a text.
But what I really struggle with as a teacher is not so much with the writing process, but more with the reading process. The essays in our reader have been selected to challenge first-year students and they do so for a variety of reasons. Many of the ideas raised by the authors included in Opening Conversations are complicated and complex, and combined with being unfamiliar with the different kinds of rhetorical choices these writers make in terms of form/ genre, our students may misread or misunderstand the content.
So here are a few things I try to keep in mind when I work through this unit.
What is an essay?
Many of our students may have traditional expectations when it comes to what constitutes an essay. They may expect to see a very clear and well defined thesis statement announced very early in the text. They may expect the author to be arguing either for a specific point or against it. Many of the essays we ask them to read don’t fit neatly into these expectations. These essays are meant to challenge our students’ notions of form and genre as a way to broaden their knowledge of texts. Since the audiences for most of these essays were not written directly for first-year college students, some of the essays will contain references (cultural and academic) that will be unfamiliar to our students. Our students may also bring a cultural frame of reference that differs from the author’s and our own. For example, I have to keep reminding myself that our students have grown up post 9/11. As a result, their relationship to the events surrounding 9/11 differs from those of us who are older and remember life before these events occurred. These differences can provide points of discussion as well as an introduction to research since students can research events and/or cultural references that they find unfamiliar.
Context – Mine and the Students.
One of the reasons why I wanted to go to graduate school was to have the space to continue reading challenging texts and discussing them with people who also loved discussing ideas and concepts. Many of the readings in Opening Conversations raises issues that many of us engaged in the exploration of these ideas want to discuss. However what I try to remember is that although these are ideas that I have been thinking, reading, and writing about for several years, this may be the first time our first-year students have come into contact with these ideas. Understanding white privilege, the fluidity of gender, systems of power are not learned in one 50 minute class period, or a week or even one semester. Through our own reading and writing, this is what we work through most of our academic lives. College Writing provides our students with the space to be introduced to these ideas, a space that enables them to become aware of these different perspectives and to begin the questioning process.
When I was about to enter my first year of college, my mother told me that one of the reasons she and my father were sending me to the university was to expose me to new ideas, new concepts, new experiences that growing up in our small, rural New Hampshire town could not do. A part of being exposed to new ideas means having our assumptions and understanding of the world challenged in ways they would not be if we had stayed in our “comfort zones.” Sometimes this makes us uncomfortable and resistant. Sometimes this makes us confused and unsure what to say or think. Sometimes we may say things that may appear inappropriate.
As a teacher I try to practice what Judith Johnson, my mentor in graduate school, called a poetics of generosity—the assumption that everyone is writing and speaking from a good place, from a place where everyone is open to learning. I try to keep reminding myself that our first-year students are beginning the process of understanding, and it is through the interaction of reading, discussing, and writing about these essays that will enable them to begin working through these ideas.
Building a Classroom Community
Since this may be the first time many students have interacted with the ideas raised in Opening Conversations, they may not only be unsure what to say, but unsure how to articulate what they are thinking. This may result in many uncomfortable silences in the classroom and students may make mistakes—they may say things that sound offensive. Building a classroom community based on generosity, the assumption that we are all trying to figure these ideas out, and are all speaking from a place of learning enables students to work through these complex and complicated ideas without the fear of getting it “wrong.” Many teachers find it useful to work with the class to set up guidelines for discussions. Together as a class you can develop guidelines as to what kinds of statements would be useful, what kinds of questions would be useful, and the importance of clarification. “Class Discussions Suggestions” by Amber Engelson in the Writing Program’s Resource Database is an excellent example of how to establish a classroom based on generosity.
I think the most important thing that I try to keep in mind is that in my first-year writing class, I’m opening a door to these ideas. Some students may have already taken the steps through the door, some may be willing to take a step or two through it, and some may be resistant right now to go through it. That’s all okay. They are just beginning. The important thing is that the door has been opened.