Growing Stronger

That time

I thought I could not

go any closer to grief

without dying

I went closer,

and I did not die

–Mary Oliver from “Heavy”

This passage from the start of Mary Oliver’s poem “Heavy” ran through my mind last week as I entered my WR122_H classroom and was greeted with a request from students to discuss the Michael Brown case.  One of my students pointed out that she’d wanted to talk about the decision all day, but that this classroom, this space where we’d spent all term discussing contact zones and unfolding the many layers of Black American history together, was the first place she’d felt safe to speak. What followed was one of the deepest, most genuine, difficult, and compelling conversations I’ve ever had the honor of participating in in over a decade of teaching. We didn’t all agree. All of us, including me, struggled at some point to articulate the things we felt so deeply that they seemed far beyond the limited reach of words.  But, together, in that space, we opened our minds, our mouths, and our hearts and went closer to our grief. And we did not die. We grew stronger.

It is in moments like this when I am reminded of the true power of the classroom space and my responsibility as an educator to facilitate learning in this space. And it was in this particular moment that I recognized the often bittersweet nature of this responsibility.

The same classroom space where this handful of students were feeling safe and secure enough to engage in a wrenchingly difficult conversation, had failed a much larger number of students over the course of the term.  For the few students “left standing,” this course had been the powerful, transformative experience I’d hoped it to be (and that I had seen it be in earlier terms), and opened up for these students new ways of seeing and thinking about language, power, “race,” and the world.  But for many of the students who didn’t survive this course long enough to make it to this moment, this course had been a very different experience. One in which they felt disempowered and faced academic defeat.

As someone who is herself a first generation college student, as many of my students at Lane are, and understands the impact that failure in a single course can potentially have on a student’s ability to move forward in their academic journey, this is not something I take lightly.

So as I stood in this classroom engaging with my students about Michael Brown’s death, in my head, I was writing a eulogy for the very course that had made the space for this conversation possible.

I did not arrive at this decision to let the course go quickly or easily. And I’d like to take some time here to reflect upon my journey with this course over the past two years, so you might better understand how and why I arrived at this decision.

I’ve been asked many times how I ever came to develop an honors-level writing course with a minority rhetorics framework in the first place, and I think it’s important to know the answer to that question in order to understand the larger context of the course. I was hired by Lane in 2011 for a temporary 2-year position as a “minority rhetorics specialist,” and moved here from Illinois to accept the position.  My understanding of why I’d been hired into this position was that I was to help facilitate conversations about minority rhetorics and their importance in composition classes and the English Department at Lane. So when I was given the opportunity to be the first instructor in the department to develop an honors course, I decided that I should frame it through a lens of minority rhetorics.  I felt this was a vital move to help model how minority rhetorics could be effectively included in writing instruction to better prepare our students to function in a globalized world, where they will be expected to communicate effectively across cultural differences on a regular basis.

I began teaching the course in Fall 2012, and was allowed to teach it for three consecutive terms that year. While, like most new courses, it had a somewhat rocky first term, I could see the ways in which this course was opening a whole new world of language and ideas to students, as well as helping them to re-think the versions of “American” history many of them learned in middle and high school, which virtually excluded genuine inclusion of Black Americans and other minority groups.

Over the course of that first year, the class really took shape and underwent a wide variety of revisions in assignments, readings, and in-class instruction. The class was giving most students who enrolled all I’d hoped for and, in some cases, more. As they researched Black American history and language, students were grasping the power dynamics involved in the shaping of history and in cross- and multi-cultural communication. And as they began to grasp these things, they began to better understand their own place in the world around them.

Due to the non-renewable nature of my 2-year contract, Spring 2013 should have been my final term at Lane. But in the 2012-13 school year, the department had received funding to hire more permanent faculty members.  I applied for one of the positions and was rehired by Lane in a permanent, more generic position as a “writing specialist.”

In this position, I continued to work on refining my WR122_H class. In Fall 2013, I rolled out the first iteration of the course that included ePortfolios as part of the pedagogical approach.  ePortfolios are a programmatic requirement for Lane’s honor’s students, and I felt that now that I was a permanent faculty member, if I was going to continue to teach in the program, I needed to embrace ePortfolios and integrate them into my course.  Given the metacognitive, reflective nature of ePortfolios, and their ability to track self-growth over time, they seemed a natural fit for a course where the curriculum was challenging students to really think consciously about language and how it was used both inside and outside academia.

The first ePortfolio iteration of the course was powerful and successful in many ways, the most poignant of which, I think, was the ways in which the reflective space of the ePortfolio allowed students to really understand their own learning processes. Understanding these processes empowered students to talk about them, to set them to language, as well as to increase their ability to transfer knowledge and skills from one class or area of their lives to another.  But, of course, as is always true of shifts in pedagogical approach, the new iteration also failed in a variety of ways, most related to the fact that I’d not embedded ePortfolios deeply enough into my pedagogical approach overall.

Determined to address some of the flaws in the course design, I worked with a wonderful trio of students who had taken the course in Fall 2013 to revise the course.  Over the Winter term, we spent hours discussing and revising assignments and assessment tools. These revisions resulted in a stronger, more cohesive course, in which ePortfolios were more deeply embedded into the pedagogical approach.

When I taught the course again in Spring 2014, the effects of the revisions were obvious.  Students were far more engaged overall and really understood how and why the ePortfolio was valuable both in this course and beyond. The level and depth of student learning drastically increased from previous terms in which I’d taught the course. Over the summer of 2014, I presented at the AAEEBL annual ePortfolio conference in Boston and used some examples of student work from this iteration of the course in my presentation.  Many of those who attended my presentation stayed to talk with me after the panel, and nearly all of them commented on the high quality of the work in students’ ePortfolios.

Over the summer, I adjusted some of the readings and made slight revisions to the assignments in an attempt to tighten and streamline the course even more. When classes began this fall, I was excited to journey through this class with a new group of students, to see where the course would take us.

But over the course of the term, as I’ve watched the size of the class shrink with each passing week, I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that the class wasn’t working as well as it did last year.  In fact, the course was failing in more ways than it had the very first term I taught it. And, as an educator, it was my job to figure out why and to fix it.

It would be easy to say that this was just a rough term.  Most of the students enrolled for this course faced significant obstacles in their lives outside the classroom during the course.  While I will, of course, not divulge the details of any of these obstacles for reasons of confidentiality, I will say that most of these obstacles were far more challenging than the ones I typically see students face.  These obstacles affected students’ abilities to focus their time and energy on their coursework and sometimes even their ability to make it to class, which impacted their relative success in the class.

I also dealt with some deeply painful and challenging personal issues of my own this term. While I did my best not to let this affect the quality of my teaching, I know that I was more distant and less open with all my students this term than I normally am. And while I usually have a deep well of patience, this term that well was more shallow than it has been in a long time.  Because educators are human too, despite my best efforts, these things affected the quality of my teaching and the depth of my relationship with my students.

But, the longer I thought about what had happened in WR122_H this term, the more I began to realize that I couldn’t just cop it up to saying it was a rough term. That it was actually much more than that.I have realized as I’ve been doing my own reflection throughout the term, that the situation in which I’m trying to teach this course now is much different than the situation in which I created the course and in which the course was able to thrive and empower students.

There is no longer an official position in minority rhetorics dedicated to bringing this branch of Rhetoric and Composition studies into the department.  And though I tried hard to open up conversations about minority rhetorics in the department during my first two years at Lane, I was largely unsuccessful beyond the scope of this course. This means that trying to teach a course framed by minority rhetorics in the larger context of the department is like trying to teach in a bubble because I don’t have anyone to bounce ideas off or to help me troubleshoot issues when they arise.  Since I believe that the best teaching practices are the result of an ongoing professional dialogue, this reality has increasingly limited my ability to follow what I believe to be best pedagogical practices in this course.

Part of my original vision for the course was that while I would teach the course with an emphasis in Black American rhetoric, that other faculty would eventually also want to teach the course, framing it with their own areas of expertise, such as Native American rhetorics, Asian American rhetorics, GLBTQ rhetorics, and women’s rhetorics.  That is why it was framed as a general course in minority rhetorics. But this has not happened.  The course remains mine alone, and continuing to teach the course with a focus on only one of dozens of minority rhetorics (the one I feel most qualified to teach) defeats the larger purpose of the course–which is to help foster knowledge about a broad range of minority rhetorics on campus.

The overall enrollment at Lane has steadily decreased in the years since the course was first developed, leaving fewer students overall who might have an interest in taking this course.  This reduction in enrollment has also impeded the growth of the honors program, meaning that most students who enroll in this course are not honors students, and in fact many “accidentally” enroll for an honors course.  While I expected a high percentage of non-honors students in the course during the first year, I also expected the number of honors students enrolled in the course to gradually but steadily increase over time.  This hasn’t happened, and I’ve come to realize this year that students unfamiliar with honors level work who register for this course aren’t prepared for the workload and layers of critical thinking inherent in this course, which often quickly leads to frustration and disengagement.  And just a few frustrated and disengaged students can quickly change the tone of the entire classroom space.

One of the initial strengths of the course was its roots in inquiry-based research and learning that not only allowed students to be uncertain about answers to questions, but actually encouraged this uncertainty as part of the learning process.  This helped students feel more comfortable critically engaging with subject matter that was unfamiliar to most of them and came heavily weighted by social, historical, economic, and linguistic factors. However, the librarian I collaborated with closely as I developed and revised the course recently left Lane for another position. Because she’d helped me create the course she understood the course as a whole and how the individual assignments fit into the larger class.  She also understood how deeply problematic some of the resources available to students, like the African American Experience Database, could be for the kind of deep critical engagement expected of student in this course. This allowed students to go directly to her with questions, knowing that she understood the context and goals of the course and was familiar with the individual assignments.  This provided students with a second person to help guide their learning in the course and provided me with a second set of teaching hands. No longer having this extra set of hands to help students with research has created a gap that I learned the hard way this term that I simply cannot fill on my own.

I’ve also realized this term that the ePortfolio component of this course is not living up to its full potential. While I certainly worked diligently to incorporate ePortfolios into the pedagogy of this course, what I’m realizing the more I work with ePortfolios is that incorporating them into the course is not enough.  No matter how much I revise and edit the course, ePortfolios will never be as successful a part of the pedagogy of this course as they could be if I’d had ePortfolios in mind when I first framed the course.

Given all of this, I’m left in a space where even as I have been privileged to witness the ways in which this course “worked” for a small number of my students this term, the successful ways in which it challenged this small group of students to deeply engage with language and history, and to work together to build a space in which they felt safe, I must also be honest about witnessing the larger failure of the course this term, and about the reality that this course is unlikely to succeed in the current situation in which I find myself teaching and in which my students find themselves learning.

This course has had many beautiful and positive moments for some of the students who’ve journeyed through it over the past two years.  I’ve seen students open themselves up to whole new ways of thinking about the world around them and the power structures inherent in society that are often manifested in the everyday use of language. I’ve had a student tell me that this class allowed them to understand for the first time what a truly multicultural pedagogy/classroom looked like. I’ve been honored to witness students’ critical thinking and reading abilities flourish. I’ve been humbled by the students who have returned to my office or run into me in town long after they finished the course who have shared with me how this course impacted their academic and personal journeys.

But this term I also have seen the faces of students who’ve been defeated by this course. And as an educator who feels a responsibility to create engaged classrooms that challenge students to grow in ways they find empowering and accessible, I find this unacceptable.  The exigencies from which this course arose and the support system that fostered the creation and previous success of this course have shifted.  It is time to embrace the new exigencies of this moment and craft a course that will leave most students who enroll feeling well supported and empowered as they are challenged to grow.  

It is time for me to take a step closer to my grief at the ways in which I and this course failed students this term, and trust that with this step, WR122_H will not die, but rather grow stronger.

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