The students, in this late night class at a satellite campus of a community college, are working on an argument essay, keyboards clicking and printers ratcheting in the narrow computer classroom. It is a developmental writing class, and the essay on which we’ve spent two weeks is due in an hour. Scanning faces for frustration, anxiety, surprise, any look or flick of an eye that might mean I am needed, I pace the room. This is my first year of adjunct teaching, and in between wondering if my skirt is too short and whether I have white board marker somewhere on my face, I am trying to figure out the student codes for needing the teacher’s help. I have a theory that it is something like baseball signs, a tap of the thigh for conjunctions, a pull of the ear for comma questions. Joe, a white, twenty-ish young man interrupts my pacing with a request for help; he is one of the students I’ve been watching particularly tonight. After seeing his draft and my comments, he deleted his entire paper; now, he stares at a blank document on the screen, has been staring at it for over twenty minutes.
What do I say? The draft was rife with racial slurs. I tried to be careful yet forceful with my comments. Had I wanted him to scrap the entire essay? Or did I want him to think through his views on immigration? I am not really comfortable sitting beside him, and I don’t know if that is because of the draft he wrote or my own inability to respond clearly. I am completely taken aback by the question he asks when I do sit down.
“How would you write about racism?”
I seek for things to say, but I am embarrassed now, dismayed that my comments cause him to abandon his voice, however raw and problematic that voice is. So, I ask for the keyboard and begin to type. I have vaguely in mind the time I, as a young, white teenager, witnessed racially-motivated prejudice against an African-American friend. I gain momentum and type details, dialogue, feelings, the beginnings of an argument, and slowly, slowly the tension changes to surprise in our corner of the room. Students in the adjoining rows move to watch the unfolding narrative and silent interaction of Joe and me. Only once did he speak before I filled a page.
“This is all coming from your head. I’m seeing it come right from your head.”
A Second Memory
It is the idiosyncratic dynamic of the last day of class: final proofreads for portfolios due the next day, snacks, laughter, last minute grammar reviews, impromptu peer groups. I am besieged with requests, “quick, read-and-respond to this essay, please.” Tessa, markedly quiet in the loud room stands silently at the corner of the table where I and three students sit. This is my sixth year of teaching, and I have learned to read the anxious eyes and tight grasp of crushed pages. She asks a general question about her portfolio ("how done do the essays really need to be?"), and the standard answers start before I even think about it ("as done as can be," and "explain the process in your author’s note") while little buzzers in my brain warn me that Tessa’s concern has little to do with portfolio guidelines. Question asked and answered, however, she returns to her seat.
I decide to try again at the end of class, so I approach her desk and feel immediately embarrassed because I inadvertently catch her in tears. To my surprise, she waits while I pack up, helps me carry bags of food and folders upstairs. When we sit down at one of the four desks in the box of an office I share with three other doctoral students, she begins to explain that she cannot finish her essays. People in her family, she says, don’t talk of the things about which she has been writing. She knows she shouldn’t have tried to explore her (Nigerian) African American identity in her essay assignments, but it isn’t until today, worrying about a bad grade on a portfolio, that she figures out why. She says her life has been one of silence.
I sit quietly, straining to understand, desperately wondering what a white teacher could say to this cultural pain, this critical consciousness unfolding with fangs and thorns. I softly suggest that she write an extensive author’s note and not turn in the essays, that we can arrive at a grade without the essays, when she startles me with an interruption.
“That’s not what I’m saying.”
I listen again, harder this time, and I hear she realized less than an hour ago that she has been silent for years about her life and identity. This time I wait longer. This conversation is no longer about assignments even though it still has to be about them. I tell her that she can turn the portfolio in the way it is, that this conversation will serve as an author’s note. Then I look at Tessa, both of us seemingly trying to figure out how to talk to each other. What is it that you want to do, I ask her. She decides, after contemplating the floor for a long moment, she wants to combine all her essays into one and add this truth she has discovered. Before she leaves, she breathes deeply and speaks.
“It’s just that this is the first time I’ve said this.”
They are the two quotations I remember most; they act as switches to unlock the rest of each memory. Joe seeing writing and Tessa hearing herself. As someone studying critical pedagogy, I see these two moments in my teaching life as emblematic: of my own journey and of the powerful voices students have, voices that heal, hurt, learn, wonder, revise, interrupt. Joe and Tessa, while worlds apart in experience and culture, share a space in my reflections because the points at which we intersect are so intricate. These are stories about race, class, gender and institutional power as well as identity, writing and voice. Teaching is critical teaching. In no other space am I so starkly reminded of that than in these two memories. I learn that students may not have language to say what they need or desire to say. When Joe saw thought and language appear on a computer screen, I believe he saw possibilities, alternatives, choices. He saw another way to think about those different from him. He may simply have been exposed to my English teacher proficiency with language, but Joe kept his topic of immigration, starting fresh with a different draft. His “new” perspective wasn’t vastly different than his old, but it was different. When Tessa began to write a reflective author’s note, she also began to gain insight into her repeated attempts and failures to thoroughly explore her complex identity. And in her discussion with me, I believe she saw someone who had just spent a semester reading and listening, allowing her a space to begin to speak of her insight. No, I could not completely understand; there were limits to our dialogue. Yet there was dialogue, and the assignment—which she completed and turned in the next day—was adapted to serve her. I was not as experienced a teacher for Joe as I was for Tessa, but in both I was helping students find their words and tell their stories, as well as marking the moments that would help me craft my own stories.
In “The Nature of Composition Studies,” Andrea Lunsford writes,
The view of reality as a series of composed texts and of composing or constructing as the acts of bringing those realities to consciousness is, quite simply, the heart of composition studies. [. . .] Thus composition studies views composing not as a series of discrete skills or a package of processes to be practiced but as the very way we constitute and know our worlds. (9)
If I have a composition mantra, this is it. Composition studies, at its core, is about critical teaching, about critical teachers and about the hope of critical students. In Composing Critical Pedagogies, Amy Lee puts it like this: “Not only does language give voice to experience, to insight, but it also gives shape to that experience, allowing people the space for recording, reflecting on and revising their identities, relationships and values. This, to me, is the best of what we do” (1). I am grateful for Joe asking me to sit down and for Tessa making me listen. They have helped me compose a more critical self.
Lee, Amy. Composing Critical Pedagogies: Teaching Writing as Revision. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2000.
Lunsford, Andrea. “The Nature of Composition Studies.” An Introduction to Composition Studies. Ed. Erika Lindemann and Gary Tate. New York: Oxford UP, 1991. 1-14.