css.php

21
Apr 17

Acting in a Composition Class

(cross-posted on the CUNY Humanities Alliance site, here.)

At LaGuardia, English 102 — the second composition course — is called Writing through Literature. We need to teach three genres throughout the course of the term: poetry, drama, and a genre of our choice (no surprise that I’m doing comic books for Prof’s Choice — Ms. Marvel, specifically).

Lately, we’ve been doing a lot of acting.

We’ve been doing a lot of reading aloud of the script of Intersections, a play written collaboratively by LaGuardia student actors and their directors. I’m actually delighted that my students haven’t had the opportunity to see the play yet (though we will later, in May — when I told them about the opportunity, they cheered almost as loudly as they did when I told them I proposed to my girlfriend over spring break. They’re a good bunch, to say the least.).

I’m delighted they haven’t seen it yet because the acting — the intonations, the gestures, the interpretations of tone, of movement, of emotion — that my students are bringing to this brilliant script is all their own.

When they read from their seats or — even more fun — when they get up in front of the class and perform from the script, my students are able to lift what’s on the page into their movements, their voices, their stumbling over words and their confident deliveries of sharp one-liners.

And this acting, this risk-taking?

It’s already making them — making us, as a whole — better writers.

We were talking in class about what happens in our heads when we read something. It’s like we’re all actors, we concluded, even (and sometimes especially) the shyest and most introverted and most anxiety-stricken among us: when we read, we’re simultaneously actors and directors and stage managers, all in our heads, as we translate what’s on the page, on the screen, into the screen, the stage, in our minds.

We take what we read and we give back to it with our own thoughts, our own experiences, our own imaginations, our own emotions.

And isn’t that what the basis of writing is?

I chose their required research assignment to come in the middle of the term, not at the end (as it typically is). I did this because I wanted my students to shake up the notion that the endgame, the goal, of writing classes is the fetishized research paper (which is inevitably what we’re arguing when we place it at the end of a backwards-designed course). I did this, also, because we are paying special attention to what we think the students (and professors) who collaboratively wrote this script had to research, had to tap into, during their own writing processes. We’ve been discussing the Intersections script explicitly as a draft, a work-in-progress, because that’s exactly what it is.

And that’s exactly what all of our writing is.

And, as they act it out, as they think through research vis a vis the performance of words on a page (pun intended), I’m already witnessing my students’ analyses get deeper, get richer. Their writing get more involved, simultaneously more clear and more convoluted.

So, acting in a composition class?

The Tenth Doctor from Doctor Who, wearing 3D glasses, in his pinstripe suit, pointing and gesturing wildly as he shouts,

The Tenth Doctor from Doctor Who, wearing 3D glasses, in his pinstripe suit, pointing and gesturing wildly as he shouts, “Oh, yes!” gif from http://gifsec.com/wp-content/uploads/GIF/2014/05/oh-yes-reaction-gif.gif

Absolutely.


01
Dec 16

Open (Accessible?) Educational Resources

Kaysi Holman and Jennifer Polish

December 2nd, 2016

CUNY IT Conference, John Jay College of Criminal Justice

As the CUNY Humanities Alliance website gets built out, it’s important to point out — especially in the context of conversations about OERs — that it’s difficult to talk about a website being built out in anything but the passive voice. Which erases the forces behind website construction. Which erases the fact that technology, including all the web resources we offer (and don’t offer) our students, is inherently, of course, entrenched in the same dynamics of power, marginalization, and oppression of the society that produced these resources.

Websites and the resources associated therewith are built out by people in the context of unequal, inequitable institutions. Naturally.

So, as we develop the CUNY Humanities Alliance site, we are going to try to reverse the game as much as we can: instead of accepting the design flaws of the current site (inherent in most basic site builds), moving forward we are going to be prioritizing optimal usage for students who do not necessarily have access to the kinds of technology (laptops, home computers) and non-mobile wifi access that make the current design run most efficiently.

Instead, we will be thinking about questions of data usage: how much will downloading a PDF that is ostensibly an OER, ostensibly freely available from the CUNY Humanities Alliance site, cost our students in terms of data plans? Watching a video on the site for homework? Will posting and commenting on extensive threads be doable from mobile phones, the device with which most LaGuardia students work with the internet? How does introducing yet another online platform (wordpress versus digication) further burden students who are already faced with the task of performing mastery of “Standard” (white middle class American) English?

On the other side of the proverbial coin from these questions — which need to be asked of all OERs and course sites — I am also curious moving forward about the way that LaGuardia students re-claim digital spaces, even and especially those that are not designed for them; digital spaces that are designed to neutralize the potential power of their voices, their creativity; digital spaces that instead favor producing a singular image of what community college student work is and should be.

In other words: How do students speak/write/art-as-verb against the power structures implicit in ed tech? How can student work radically redefine what education and access mean and what they do? And how can we make sure that the digitized spaces we encourage our students to use for our classes keep our students safe and supported in this risk-taking work, especially when our students are already so targeted for simply existing?

Earlier this week in first year seminar, a LaGuardia student was talking about career goals. Her entire face lit up when she mentioned the CW’s Supergirl and The Flash, especially after I (and several of her classmates) had a deeply visceral, excited response to her bringing the shows into the conversation. She cited very specific things she’d learned — both emotionally and intellectually — from the shows, and perfectly fit that in to the rest of her life, to the very essence of who she is and who she wants to become.

Another note about this sharp young woman: she has, between her various social media accounts, over 100,000 followers online.

How can this student’s passion and social media expertise work its way into digitized classroom spaces through accessible web design and through making resources available to her that can support, rather than stymie, her enthusiasm for superheroes and being her own superhero?

On the flip, many students’ response to this kind of online interaction is “wait, what’s tumblr again?” How must on and offline resources be arranged to teach both students, and all in between?

It seems to me that what we uphold as an “educational” resource needs to be expanded, and alongside this expansion, how we think about what is “accessible,” too, can be transformed. How can this student’s own framing of her own education in terms of fictional characters redefine what we mean by the term Open? By the term Educational? And by the term Resource? And how can this reflect in our course designs, lesson planning, what kinds of resources we post and what kinds of expectations we have of how students interact with online material?

How much more accessible can OERs truly become — OAERs, perchance — when we let students decide what gifsets, what pieces of writing on tumblr, what youtube sensation, sparks their learning, inspires their creativity, expands the way they understand the power of their own knowledge base?

The way that LaGuardia students use, refuse to use, play with, and create on, the Humanities Alliance site will certainly be telling. Not to mention transformative.


19
Oct 16

Affective Whiteness and the Rhetorics of Linguistic Mobility in Writing Classrooms

Thomas R. Watson Conference, 2016 

Mobility Work in Composition: Translation, Migration, Transformation

“Affective Whiteness and the Rhetorics of Linguistic Mobility in Writing Classrooms”

by Jennifer Polish

Presented on October 20th, 2016

Please feel free to interact with the digital version of this presentation on my website and feel free to Tweet at me @jenniferpolish before, during, or after the Q&A so that I can respond to your comments or questions. Additionally, please feel free to get in touch with me if any of this information proves inaccessible for you so that I can correct my error.

I was at a workshop at the CUNY Graduate Center last year, and to end her presentation on students who are acquiring English as a new language, a brilliant CUNY professor, Carmina Makar, asked for ten volunteers from the audience. She wouldn’t say what we were volunteering for, but ten people went up anyway, of course, and she gave us each a piece of paper to hold. Each page had a large number written on it.

The setup: two teams of five people. Each person holding a number. She would read a five-digit number out loud, and without speaking to each other, we were to arrange ourselves into showing the audience that number with our pieces of paper.

After confirming that we understood — we had to rearrange ourselves to match the number she called faster than the other team — the professor announced the five-digit number.

In Spanish.

This being a conference at CUNY — despite the unfortunate and overwhelming whiteness of the graduate student population — one or two participants-turned-contestants on each team were able to efficiently direct the rest of us into the proper places. By the time we were done (I think my team won), I (super whitegirlprofessor) was still translating the second or third number in my head.

I tell this story by way of framing my talk today, which will focus on thinking through what we mean when we talk about mono/multilingualism.

To get to this question, I will examine the intersections of anxiety and affective whiteness — the intersections of dis/ability and race — in college writing classrooms. Pulling these threads — the dominance of white middle class American English together with anxiety and affective whiteness — will help me talk about the ways that suppressing affective expression in the classroom reinforces monolingualism for white students and compulsory multilingualism for many students of color.

To start, I want to disclaim this all by saying that I am no authority on the experiences of people of color: far, far from it. Anything I do happen to know, or to be able to somewhat coherently speak on, is because I am indebted to the affective, intellectual, and life labors of people of color, particularly queer women and men of color. My position as a white professor is unethical at best if I do not — especially teaching at CUNY, where the undergraduate population, at least, consists largely of students of color — actively interrogate the violence of (my) whiteness, and attendant white supremacy, in the classroom so that I can facilitate the abilities of my students to safely and effectively dismantle it.

Diving in, then, I want to explain what I mean when I say “affective whiteness.”

According to José Esteban Muñoz in his work on Latina Affect, whiteness is “a cultural logic that prescribes and regulates national feelings and comportment. White is… an affective gauge that helps us understand some modes of emotional countenance and comportment as good or bad” (680).

In other words: whiteness is an affective pressure valve. Regulate your levels of expressivity incorrectly, and your emotional countenance can be, will be, rendered bad, rendered nonwhite. Rendered less than, rendered, even, dangerous.

Affective whiteness, Muñoz explains, is a relative dearth of emotional expressivity.

In a classroom, affective whiteness is what governs the realm of classroom etiquette: divorce your body from your mind, because being “too” emotional is unprofessional. It’s anti-intellectual and it makes (white) people uncomfortable.

The hegemony of affective whiteness pervades rhetorical constructions so deeply that it transforms white feelings into facts.

The reign of affective whiteness elevates white feelings to the level of fact so that white rage no longer looks like rage, it just looks like the heat of an intellectual discussion.

The dominance of affective whiteness devalues the intellect of people of color such that an analysis of Claudia Rankin’s poetry that includes a statement like “white people do this to me all the time” must, for the sake of this student of color’s safety in a white-dominated institution like higher education, with probably a white teacher like myself in the front of the room, be prefaced by the statement, “I’m not mad but,” “not all white people but,” “not to be racist but.”

Affective whiteness racializes depression as white — dearth of emotional expressivity, again — while ignoring POC mental health because it may fall outside the register of what mental health is expected to be like.

Affective whiteness renders students who have non-normate bodily experiences — mental health issues, say — as less than, as themselves problems, even as threats. The dominance of affective whiteness renders them unable to carry themselves with “proper” comportment, unable to meet “reasonable” classroom expectations. Affective whiteness riddled these students with anxiety to begin with, because it manifests in the pressure to check your feelings at the door, to be rendered dis/abled, to be rendered less than, to be rendered excessive, to be rendered inappropriate, if you enter with your intellect firmly connected to your emotional experiences.

These all, of course, have disproportionate impacts on students of color, who too often only see themselves as footnotes, token figures, white torture porn narratives, or all of the above, in school.

So what, in short, does affective whiteness do?

It racializes dis/ability by casting non-normate emotional/affective expressions/forms of composition/modes of comportment/dimensions of rhetorical expression as problems, as “crazy”, as dis/abled. As threatening.

We can see this most clearly, most poignantly, at work in the schools-to-prisons pipeline, which has a lasting impact on the students of color that we see — and don’t see — on our college campuses.

The expectations of affective whiteness normalize white feelings — especially white rage — as facts, literally written into the way that “rational” “argumentation” is taught and enforced. It links “rationality” with able-mindedness, and it links “rationality” with whiteness.

In doing so, it ties whiteness to able-bodiedness such that POC bodies are rendered dis/abled.

And yet the irony — one of many — here is that affective whiteness burdens students of color to somehow be “present enough” but not actually present in their bodies.

In this way, the false binary between intellect and emotion is fundamentally racialized.

And what does all this have to do with Carmina Makar’s exercise, where the numbers she read off were in Spanish?

The exercise flips the dominant script about who gets to be the expert, who gets to lead, who gets to get it right, what assets are valued, and what forms of language are problematic. Monolingualism, here, is a problem. Rather than framing multilingualism as an “issue” in teaching.

This has profoundly affective — profoundly emotional — implications.

Especially in writing classrooms.

It calls attention to the affective implications of the demands of translation: the anxiety of getting it “wrong,” the frustration of the demands of speed, the exhilaration of figuring it out, the joy of being able to explain it to others, the excitement of learning by teaching and by experiencing, the disorientation of not knowing, the shame of others knowing it better, faster, than you.

Performing affective whiteness in writing classrooms involves actively suppressing non-normate speech (multiple Englishes, for example) and bodily movements that are often dismissed and racialized as dis/abled, as “excessive”, emotional, and thereby counterproductive to “intellectual” space. Like the default white subject, then, the default able-bodied subject shapes what it means for multilingual students to have true access to purportedly monolingual writing classrooms.

Because otherwise, you’re just constantly getting it “wrong.” And experiencing all of the emotions to go along with that. But you can’t show that. You just need to keep playing the game, destructive as it is.

Because affective whiteness demands that students do not — and we surely see this in graduate classrooms all the time — stop the class to ask the meaning of a term. Affective whiteness, with its bootstraps implications, demands that students look it up themselves, because it assumes that they are alone in needing clarification of the dominant modes of knowledge-production and sharing.

Affective whiteness demands that students attempt to blend, and when the dominant course content and lesson plan design are bleached white, the anxiety starts to kick in. The anxiety of knowing that, in a classroom where the teachers usually look like me, you cannot generally blend in. You cannot contort your body into the language of affective whiteness without fundamentally surrendering something. And the anxiety kicks in, kicks down, kicks up. Kicks the underside of the desk that was designed to keep your body composed in a way that renders all bodies the same, to check all bodies at the door so that nothing can challenge hegemonic knowledge formations.

Affective whiteness in writing classrooms, then, demands anxiety management, concealment, alongside the performance of blending in.

So when we talk about monolingualism, we’re talking, really, about white students, about white American students. Because we demand multilingualism from everyone else.

And it’s about time that our pedagogical methods focus on students whose body-minds themselves challenge the status quo.

Because we’ve been teaching to students who look, talk, and compose their bodies like me for far too long.


02
Aug 16

“Cures”, Queer Pedagogy, and Affect in the Writing Classroom

When I read (and write) YA literature, I do so with a constant tendency to think of how we conceive of “cures” culturally. Whether squinting at PrEP ads on the subway (which of course is preventative rather than curative), staying up way past I-need-to-gym-in-the-morning-I-should-be-sleeping bedtime with the Magic or Madness trilogy, or flinching my way through the screamingly queer but insistently heterosexualized Maze Runner series, perceptions of “curative solutions” to power-generated dis/abilities are constantly on my mind.

So, when reviewing my notes for orals that left a scrawl of a note about Amy E. Winans’s queer pedagogical thinking next to Michalinos Zembylas’s thinking on critical pedagogy and emotions in posttraumatic contexts, “cures” streamed heavily back into my mind.

My scrawl from Winans writing was in the form of a quote, annotated just with an excited “Pedagogies and CURES” from me: she wrote, “Crafting a queer pedagogy entails disrupting binary models of sexuality in ways that engage with power, rather than obscuring such models within a language of tolerance with which we might seek to “cure” homophobic students” (107). A staunch believer that queer pedagogies are less about LGBT-ness per se (because simply “integrating” queer content into curricula for the sake of “multiculturalism” does not necessarily impact pedagogy) and more about challenging normative beliefs and practices about the creation of knowledge, Winans here highlights the affective push behind many instructors’ attempts to “queer” our courses.

Sure enough, stories and experiences abound in which professors bemoan students’ queerphobia and try to “expose them” to things that will “change their mind” — the problem with this discourse is often its positioning of (often white and cis/het) professor as enlightened and students (often POC, in CUNY at least) as unenlightened, as simply needing “better” knowledge.

And yet. And yet there’s always that ever present pit in my stomach and the tugging of my eyebrow upwards when a student, trying to be progressive, calls my people homosexuals. Only we can call ourselves homos! part of me screams, while the other part shouts right back that this student could be queer, too, and if not, that wonders which battles, which moments, can be used to critically analyze power and which will simply alienate students from an academic discourse that already strikes violently at so many.

And this is where Zembylas enters (though his analysis focuses on race, to the exclusion of sexuality), with his implications that the same disruption of binary models that Winans discusses with sexuality is a necessary component of what he considers critical pedagogy. However, while Winans pushes for analyses of power as the central analytical goals, Zembylas also uses the emotionally-tugging rhetoric of curing to refer to the “[un]enlightened” folk who don’t engage in his form of critical pedagogy (178). He argues that professors of critical pedagogy need to be aware “of the emotional consequences when they categorize individuals into ‘oppressors’ and ‘oppressed,’” because this will not advance a critique of binary logics (which Winans’s queer pedagogy encourages) (179).

Zembylas goes on to argue that Butler-esque mutual vulnerability is important in classrooms because it can open up needed discussions about which human lives are more grievable than others (184). However, in his contexts, I wonder how this mutual vulnerability can be achieved without producing a sense of false equivalency between the deep structural affective impact of white fragility and the deep structural affective traumas of racism. In trying to discuss posttraumatic contexts, Zembylas does not take into account what happens in classrooms when trauma — such as the perpetual trauma of people of color living in a white supremacist society, of queers living in a queerphobic society, and the combinations thereof — is ongoing, is persistent, is daily. Is reproduced by pedagogies that attempt to be critical by focusing largely on the feelings of privileged students. He writes that “the challenge in traumatized communities is often how to deal with the student who resists or rejects critical perspectives and who openly expresses racist or nationalist views because his or her privilege are being threatened or lost”, and he focuses largely on this imagined (and very real) student throughout his work (177).

Does this encourage a critical pedagogy that encourages a “curative” approach, whereby the affective and intellectual energy of the professor (and other students!) is largely devoted to “correcting” views rather than to teaching to, teaching for, students who are currently being traumatized by bigoted power structures?

In other words, what happens when an emphasis on teaching (in this context, teaching in the Winans-esque sense of “curing”) students who are resisting “critical” perspectives actually reifies dominant perspectives, encouraging professors to teach to white students instead of students of color, straight-cis students instead of queer students (etc.)?

Are there certain inevitable outcomes of this seeming clash between the affective energies behind normative knowledge-challenging and the power analyses that lie therein?

Perhaps these questions — and their nebulous, if not non-existent answers — are precisely what Winans was getting at when she wrote that queer pedagogy is about constantly challenging our perceived knowledge, about constantly calling both ourselves and our students to inquire:

“How do I feel and what do I know about this topic? Where does my knowledge come from? What is unknown to me? What is unthinkable to me and why?” (105).

Citations:

Winans, Amy E. “Queering Pedagogy in the English Classroom: Engaging with the Places where Thinking Stops.” Pedagogy 6.1 (2006): 103-122.

Zembylas, Michalinos. “Critical Pedagogy and Emotion: Working Through ‘Troubled Knowledge’ in Posttraumatic Contexts.” Critical Studies in Education 54.2 (2013): 176-189.


19
Feb 16

Self-Taught to Challenge Exceptionalist Narratives

I started reading Heather Williams’s Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom on day two of my bronchitis-ridden body’s stubborn attempt to trudge out into the snow and do things, after resting (eg not going to the gym) for a highly irritating four whole days. Day two witnessed the same thing as day one of trying to emerge from sickville too soon: intense dizziness, fits of violent coughing, and the urgent, urgent need to crawl back under the covers after begrudgingly admitting to my concerned girlfriend that she’d been right in the first place: I’m still too sick to be out and about.

So, naturally, I decided to get ahead in course readings. Which brings me to Williams’s Self-Taught. After getting through a page or so — quickly excited by her presentation of a methodology that necessarily runs a blade through the mandate of periodization — I realized something else with glee: I was reading through this text without a problem. My dragging eyes and utterly exhausted mind were having no problem processing Williams’s introduction. Which is when it hit me how beautifully this book is written, and how it performs the kind of access that the history that infuses its pages emphasizes.

In her own introduction of this book to us (by way of the syllabus), Carmen reminds us not to “try to sound like Grad-Student-Turned-Derrida-Extraordinaire” (which I appreciate more than I can possibly describe. No syllabus has ever made me snort with laughter before. Life seems… complete now.). This reminder is particularly apt for this text, because — while it is supremely researched and is by leaps and bounds the most powerful monograph contribution to U.S. educational history that I can think of — the text itself defies expectations of what scholars are “supposed” to write like. It does not make itself incomprehensible in the name of “sounding academic.” Instead, its poetics are of a different kind: its incisiveness is made all the more powerful by the crystal clarity and accessibility of its language.

Perhaps as important as the history it provides is the rhetoric with which Self-Taught provides it. Williams brilliantly rewrites the typical codes with which dominant historical narratives refer to freed people and enslaved people: almost always identified alongside the note that x person was a slave, freed person, or former slave, dominant histories (like the rest of society) rhetorically establish whiteness as the identity that need not be spoken. Williams, however, only ever identifies white historical actors as such, making Blackness the default identity, decentering default whiteness from her history.

With each new personal literacy journey that she portrays, Williams rhetorically forces her readers to assume the Blackness of that the historical figures she discusses (who most often go nameless in white accountings). This centralization of Blackness in her narrative style reflects the centralization of Blackness in the history she tells, which powerfully situates Black Americans as the force behind the creation of a public education system in this country.

This issue of centralization comes up for me all the time while I’m teaching. With each syllabus I design, lesson plan I write, and lesson plan I change on the balls of my feet, I am constantly considering the immense impact of my white privilege in a CUNY freshmen writing classroom. We are taught — through everything we are exposed to — that teaching generally, and teaching writing specifically, is for white people (because everything is for white people). We are taught it so deeply that I hear colleagues say too proudly, too often, that they teach Octavia Butler’s work… amidst an otherwise overly bleached literary backdrop. Always the exception, like Frederick Douglass, for example, is always figured as the exception in narratives of Black literacy history. (Except, of course, in Williams’s telling.)

So, in the interest of refusing to only tack “other” things onto whiteness — in the interest, rather, of completely decentering whiteness, as much as my white body permits in the classroom — the question I ask myself during the design of my courses is always “what will this do for my students of color?” How can I centralize the various narratives of my students of color in my courses, such that I am not teaching an imaginary white classroom? (This imaginary white classroom is what white liberals inadvertently picture when they go simply for ‘awareness of oppression’ and tokenizing teaching agendas whose backbone is in fact, always, the re-centralization of whiteness.)

Williams’s Self-Taught is an excellent enactment of narrative construction that refuses to put whiteness at the center, recreating Blackness as the default. It is therefore, now, an aspirational text for me, both in terms of sharing the history it provides with my students, but also in learning from its models of accessibility, refusal, and reclaiming.


Need help with the Commons? Visit our
help page
Send us a message
Skip to toolbar