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


Mar 17

Anti-Ableist Pedagogies and You

Cross-posted from the Teach @ CUNY project Visible Pedagogy, here.

This blog post is coming later than it should be. My BPD (borderline personality dis/order), my depression, my anxiety, hit peak levels during the time I was supposed to be writing this: a perfect storm of mental health cacophony.

When I emailed to say, simply, that I was having a rough week mentally (in the same way that I might to say I have the flu), the response was simple: I’m so sorry you’re having a rough time. Please take care of yourself, and when you’re ready, it would be great if we could get the post up next week. The response was simple, and the response was meta: the response demonstrated the kind of pedagogy I’d like to dedicate this blog series to fleshing out.

Anti-ableist pedagogy: what might that feel like? How does anti-ableist practice in your classroom extend beyond providing alt-text, transcripts, and captions, and leaving space when configuring desks for people with various mobility needs and body types to navigate optimally? How can anti-ableist pedagogies transform your syllabus and seep into your assignments and shape your assessment strategies? How can anti-ableist praxis interact with and bolster your goals to actively practice anti-racist pedagogies? (Because surely—in this country in which white people who shoot people are labeled “mentally ill” and brown people who shoot people are labeled “terrorists”; in this country in which the school-to-prison pipeline and special education systems actively seek out Black and brown children and label them as irreparably less than—racism and ableism cannot be unlinked.)

This post is the first in a series that will explore these questions, both theoretically and very, very practically, by identifying approaches to everything from lesson planning to assignment design and assessment that challenge the dually ableist and racist assumptions that too often shape our classrooms, and that certainly shape our institutions. (If you want to contribute to this conversation, please comment and click the link here for more!)

Before we begin, though, a bit of background.

When I write about dis/ability, I put a slash between “dis” and “ability.” I do this to unsettle the deficit model that defines much of dis/ability discourse (and our classroom pedagogies). The slash reminds us, literally interrupts us, before we assume that people with dis/abilites are defined by what we cannot do; what we struggle with; what we must do differently. But the slash doesn’t completely interrupt the word, because our struggles are, in fact, deeply real. Deeply embodied.

But here’s the thing—and no matter whether we’ve been teaching for twelve years or none, a little Dis/ability 101 is never a bad thing—dis/ability isn’t only in the body. It isn’t a deficit, a problem, something to be uncritically cured (erased, exterminated) or that exists only within individual people. All dis/abilities exist—indeed, are created and defined and therefore given shape and meaning—within broader environmental contexts.

I often ask my students to think about a society in which everyone who needs them has equitable access to glasses. Is short-sightedness, for example, in an imagined society like this considered a dis/ability? Why not? How does access to glasses shape what we define as a dis/ability? More broadly, how do the structural components of the access (the environment of power and oppression and privilege) shape how we define dis/ability? What about a society in which break rooms with minimal noise and soft lights and plenty of space to lay down were commonly available and accepted as a requirement for people simple going about their days? How differently might we interpret social anxiety, or depression, or autism, in such a society?

Environment shapes dis/ability.

And our classrooms are environments. Surely, they exist within broader environmental constraints, but the act of dedication to constructing dually anti-ableist, anti-racist pedagogies (again, can’t build one without the other) can re-constitute dis/ability so that we are not continuing to define our quiet students as problems; not continuing to pathologize students who do not conform to white supremacist norms of classroom communication; not banning depressed, anxious, bipolar (etc.) students from our classrooms when we uncritically demand the same kinds of attendance, the same kinds of participation, the same kinds of presence, from everyone in our classroom.

This blog series will explore how to design our classes for all kinds of learners, not just for able-bodyminded white learners. The thing to keep in mind here is this: once we make the needed perspective changes—once we commit ourselves to becoming aware of our bodymindedness and that of our students in the classroom—anti-ableist pedagogies do not necessarily “create more work” for already exploited laborers.

Instead, fundamentally reshaping our classrooms to be as universally designed and power-aware as possible involves a perspective shift, a literal redesign of our pedagogies. But as committed educators, aren’t we supposed to always be redesigning our pedagogies, anyway?  Just as the response to my late blog post—I’m sorry you’re not doing well. Take care of yourself, and it would be great if we can get the post up by next week—embodied an empathetic, anti-ableist pedagogy that still held all involved to a high standard, it didn’t increase anyone’s workload.

But it sure did increase the health and affirmativeness of the work space.

Committing to doing this with the goal of creating anti-ableist, anti-racist learning spaces seems worth it to me. I’m excited to join you on the next few months of exchanging ideas about how to do exactly that.

Sep 16

Compulsory Affective Labor in Comp Classrooms

I often chortle way too hard, and way too long, at my own jokes. Especially at my own puns. So when in the title, I write of Compulsory Affective Labor in Comp Classrooms, I do intend the pun: comp meaning composition, but comp also meaning compulsory.

Because our comp/osition comp/ulsory classes are usually gatekeeping classes: and these gates, as Carmen Kynard writes brilliantly in her Vernacular Insurrections, are designed specifically to keep students of color out.

It is through this mechanism, among too many others, that white institutions like higher education conflate dis/abled bodies with bodies racialized as non-white. If composition (composing oneself in a particular way) is “basic” and necessary to go on to take other courses (compulsory), then those for whom comp poses a barrier are written off as less than capable.

I have written about this a lot, and I think about it each time a colleague or friend shows me a syllabus. I have come to flinch at the tiny yet insurmountable fences within the larger gates: fences like “participation” defined in only one way, like “presence” defined as only one mode of attendance, one mode of interaction.

Margaret Price has written extensively — and powerfully — in Mad at School about the tremendous hostility of the very nature of the (current) academy toward mental dis/abilities (actual or perceived). Because hers is such a powerful text for me, I will trust it to pop up in many other places, and will not dwell on it primarily here.

I want to, now, focus on the affective aspects of all of this: the compulsion to compose oneself in a particular kind of way. In a white, able-bodied kind of way.

Price discusses the immense and often insurmountable amounts of affective labor involved in navigating the academy’s many hypervalued kairotic spaces; here, I want to pull back from the implications of that affective labor to pull out what, even, affect is.

According to Gregg and Seigworth,

“Affect arises in the midst of in-between-ness: in the capacities to act and be acted upon. Affect is an impingement or extrusion of a momentary or sometimes more sustained state of relation as well as the passage (and the duration of passage) of force or intensities. That is, affect is found in those intensities that pass body to body (human, nonhuman, part-body, and otherwise), in those resonances that circulate about, between, and sometimes stick to bodies and worlds, and in the very passages or variations between these intensities and resonances themselves” (1).

Affect, here, reminds me of quantumstuff that is neither waves nor particles: affect cannot be pinned down, cannot be defined. It is always present, but only when acknowledged does it seem to take on a tangible form, a definition of sorts. Indeed, as they go on to state, “the real powers of affect, affect as potential: a body’s capacity to affect and be affected” (2).

I focus on capacity here because this is often understood as a trigger word to mean dis/ability. How does bodily capacity impact one’s ability to affect and be affected in a classroom? If a student — or professor, for that matter — simply does not have the energy to engage in traditional ways, but rather must keep their head down and avoid more than the barest of smiles when the rest of the class laughs, how does the affective capacity of the body that is the course content and the classroom atmosphere change around this student? Likewise, how does an unpermissive classroom atmosphere which looks down upon students who are not currently able to look up, to “seem like” they’re paying attention, impact the rest of the class? How might a classroom that encourages students to engage their own bodies in ways that make them comfortable and best able to learn during class differently form an affective mold around said student or professor?

All of this, of course, has centralized on presentation, on performance, on bodies navigating what kinds of bodily composure are considered acceptable, and which kinds of bodily composure compulsory.

When pressed, I’ve found that largely, the affective impact of a student slumping down, for example, rather than putting their eyes front and sitting up straight — especially if the reason for this is unreported and unexplained — will be reported as an aesthetic issue. ‘It just feels like they’re not paying attention. It’s distracting because… because it brings the mood down.’

This burden of affective impact being placed on a person navigating the constraints of hegemonic expectations links very deeply to Sara Ahmed’s thoughts on ‘melancholic migrants’, ‘feminist killjoys,’ and ‘unhappy queers’: the feminist who calls attention to casual sexism, for example, is deemed responsible for bringing the mood down, rather than the responsibility being placed with the sexist act/patriarchal structure itself.

Seigworth discusses this non-tangible nature of these affective stances — of how bodies impact each other in classroom spaces — when he writes about affect in a narrative way, as a concept; his form mirroring and reinforcing his content. He describes reading a piece by Lawrence Grossberg, recalling that it

“was written in a vibrant but rather unwiedly theoretical language that detailed this passionate thing called “affect” in ways that I could not always quite follow, although fortunately the musical references were immediately recognizable and that helped me to roughly intuit the theory” (19)

This is a powerful statement about “vernacular” theories and knowledges existing outside of dominant academic discourse: here, Seigworth validates the knowledge involved in felt senses of things based on felt and familiar cultural references.

Gregg, for her part, finds these kinds of felt senses and cultural references in the constraining nature of “scholarly affect.” She writes that “the corporate university culture consecrates a kind of compulsory convivality in the workplace… from the smiley faces of office email to the team-building exercises of after work drinks — which defines the landscape of affective labor in the information economy” (24).

I’m particularly interested in this notion of compulsory affective labor — what Price writes about in terms of compulsory collegiality — because I am curious about how the burdens of this affective labor is differentially distributed across the academy. When a new professor has a 5-4 course load, for example, how does the incredibly large amount of affective labor involved in this teaching get discounted? How do our syllabi, our course designs, our classroom setups and activities, place differential amounts of affective labor on certain students?

Gregg proceeds to highlight the ways that workplaces limit affective range by dictating what forms of affect are acceptable and which are not:

“For if it is clear that this networked world without enemies cannot really ease the loneliness of the office cubicle or writer’s garret, affect theory may help us fight the limited range of subjective states available in the contemporary workplace, and in doing so, help us identify and denounce the distribution of winners and losers in contemporary society” (24)

In our classrooms, how does the fine line between ‘proper behavior’/’acceptable participation’ and ‘apathetic’ operate differently for different groups of students or, indeed, for different professors? If affective expression is limited to the realm of affective whiteness — which, in short, is a dearth of affective expression, unintentionally alluded to above, that José Esteban Muñoz wrote about — yet mandates that students appear to be active, but not too active, with participating in lessons, what affective labor do different students endure to walk the tight rope between these requirements?

What happens, in other words, when students cannot or will not compose their bodies in the ways they need to in order to perform this tight rope act?

Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara. The Promise of Happiness. Duke University Press, 2010.

Gregg, Melissa, and Gregory J. Seigworth. The Affect Theory Reader. Duke University Press, 2010.

Kynard, Carmen. Vernacular Insurrections: Race, Black Protest, and the New Century in Composition-Literacies Studies. SUNY Press, 2013.

Muñoz, José Esteban. “Feeling Brown, Feeling Down: Latina Affect, the Performativity of Race, and the Depressive Position.” Signs 40.1 (2014).

Price, Margaret. Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life. University of Michigan Press, 2011.

Feb 16

Anchoring into Richardon’s African American Literacies

Kai Davis says it, as per always, so much better than I ever could.

Kai Davis, here again taking three minutes and one second to drop word bombs that pack just about the same punch to white supremacy as all those pages of academic theory on navigating Blackness in classrooms that most white professors swear doesn’t exist (Elaine Richardson’s African American Literacies, for one, talks and testifies against that for sure [yep, a pun to honor Geneva Smitherman, because it’s necessary]).

Kai Davis, without my words to mince hers, because she doesn’t need an introduction from some white girl professor (and yet I guess I just wrote one. *sigh*).

That says it all. I am almost tempted to write nothing more. It was all just said.

“Yo: why these books never be about my peoples?”

Jamila Lyiscott says it all, too (thank you, Carmen, for the gift of linking this video on our class blog!).

And yet I’ll write anyway, because today Carmen wants us to find an anchor in Elaine Richardson’s brilliant African American Literacies; an anchor to “ground [our] thinking, reading, and research”; to haul the thick piece of iron in our pockets with us, bring it to class so we can process how to use it not as an add in, not as a tack on (at the end of term, “if there’s time”), but rather, to use an anchor from Dr. E’s work to fundamentally reshape our own pedagogies so that we, too, can make sure we’re centering Black literacies instead of shredding them with red pens and white books.

“Any approach that does not seek to facilitate liberatory literacy is detrimental as it is subtractive,” Dr. E tells us.

Among the most radically important one-liners in this entire text, Dr. E here answers writing instructors who understand Black literacies as “extra”, as something they “don’t have time or space to add into” the curriculum. Flipping the script completely — as Heather A. Williams did in Self-Taught, discussed here last week — Dr. E suggests instead that liberatory literacy engagement should in fact be the very fabric of all writing courses, rather than “add-ons” or extra. It’s not extra — I mean this colloquially as well — quite the opposite. Any course that does not engage literacy in these ways is actively harmful to students. This reframing of the norm as destructive rather than simply a “netural” engagement with what students “need to know” is extremely powerful, especially in the face of the abundance of white (women) teachers of college composition (and K-12 ), who all too often object,

“But I don’t know how to do this,” and “there’s just no room in my curriculum.”

Yoda from Star Wars shaking his head as he says,

Yoda from Star Wars shaking his head as he says, “Do or not there, there is no try.” Gif from http://www.sharegif.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/7-star-wars-quotes.gif

Dr. E reframes this refusal to centralize minoritized discourses and literacies as actively harming students (which, of course, it is). It is this reframing that needs to be taught in every intro to the English PhD class and every teaching practicum.

To address the “but how?”, Dr. E espouses learning, learning, and learning. She writes,

“To make literacy education relevant to the lives of Black students, an effort must be made to confront unethical educational practices, such as cutting Black students off from investigation and appreciation of their classical culture.  When we cannot facilitate students’ participation in investigating and exploring their literacy traditions, we’re actually teaching them that the world cannot be changed and rhetoric ain’t nuthin’ but rhetoric.”

So we must learn how to facilitate such participation, which — for white teachers like me, whose bodies and classroom presence inherently represent an active threat to the mental health and learning goals of students of color because my body and classroom presence inherently represents white supremacy — involves the surrender of expertise, the surrender of positioning ourselves as knowing more, knowing better, than our students.

Because, of course, we don’t.

A gif from the TV show Friends, featuring a wide-eyed, open-mouthed Joey staring in shock as Phoebe spews out,

A gif from the TV show Friends, featuring a wide-eyed, open-mouthed Joey staring in shock as Phoebe spews out, “That is brand new information!” Gif from https://s3.amazonaws.com/fanning-cloud-front/brandnewinfo.gif

So I suppose that sums up my proverbial anchor from this text: as a white teacher of college writing, I already make it my goal to weave my students’ various identities and forms of knowledges into the fabric of the course, rather than simply tacking some “supplemental” or “extra” readings here and there into a mostly white syllabus.

However, I have found myself stuck on how to move forward not only with affirming, but with developing the various modes of knowledges and literacy practices of my students of color (I’m not only thinking of my Black students, here). Dr. E lays out excellent practices and model works in African American Literacies, and I guess the takeaway from my anchor is the same thing we tell our students when they are stuck in a writing clusterf*ck:

Read more.

Learn more.

Practice more.

Because Black literacies are only some of the literacies in my classroom: my students represent and embody a plethora of literacies (worldviews, worldviews, as Dr. E reminds us) from all across Asia, from all across South America, from all across… everywhere. It’s Queen College, man.

Recognition and affirmation of these literacies is something I already try to give: that’s alright, but it’s not enough. I need to learn more (of everything) so I can be of even better service to my students in supporting them as they hone their own literacy practices.

Principal Wartz from Hey Arnold leaning toward a discouraged-looking Phoebe in a classroom otherwise empty of students, telling her that

Principal Wartz from Hey Arnold leaning toward a discouraged-looking Phoebe in a classroom otherwise empty of students, telling her that “We’re proud of our multicultural students here at P.S. 118.” Image from https://media3.giphy.com/media/uQ07tr7x6vaGA/200_s.gif

This intimately involves a reframing of how we discuss “multicultural” classrooms. Dedefining “multicultural” so it doesn’t mean a commitment to tokenizing people of color in, for example, college brochures, Dr. E’s work resituates multiculturalism as a radical, rather than white liberal, means of doing curricular and activist work: in her hands, multicultural classrooms become classrooms which prioritize “instituting Black, Latino/a, Native American, and Asian peoples, studies, and pedagogies into the center of the educational curriculum and traditional institutions, in a way that expands upon and critiques received knowledge.”

As she points out, the need to reshape the classroom spaces we make for our students is quite literally an issue of life or death.

Final thoughts? Steven Willis should really take this one home (or, as he says, dismiss class).

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.

Feb 16

Writing through Teaching

This mini-blog will enable me to write through teaching as I teach writing at CUNY Queens College. Since we often encourage students to write through their thoughts, I will use this space to write through mine, endeavoring to post about lesson planning, dis/ability in the classroom, and curricular design.

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