Let me tell you what I should be doing right now: efficiently chronicling specific language for the abstract for my second written exam question. What I am doing instead is not at all efficient, but I’m running on fumes and am mostly operating on instinct this week — so I’m going with it.
I won’t get into the blah blah of the academic question because that just takes too long, but the other side of the question is me sitting in a weird mash up of Freire and Maslow, staring at a book by Ira Shor (Critical Teaching and Everyday Life, to be specific. It has kind of a hypnotically red cover.).
I’m not even necessarily supposed to write about teaching in all this. I’m trying to situate some things that are happening in my It Gets Better interviews around identity development and yet I land here in some space between or mushed around in humanistic psychology and critical pedagogy. I should be considering my abstract, as I said, but all I can think is how did this question turn into a return to how I taught writing?
Despite being a young idiot who generally had a good time writing, I quickly intuited something about my young students’ general paralysis when it came to writing in and for class: whether the students wrote in English as their first, second, third, or sometimes fourth language, almost everyone had sort of been traumatized by writing for school.
So. Okay. What the hell is a young idiot to do? If said young idiot is me (and she was), the most logical solution was to get that crap out of the way in the first class. It was such an easy, easy idea that worked so flawlessly – “Freewrite: What is your worst and best experience with a writing/composition/English class” (depended on what I taught). Everyone had an opinion, and so everyone had something to write about.
Continuing on, I asked people to share what they wrote (if they wanted) — and again, it was almost ridiculous how easy it was to get everyone talking. One student would have the experience of a teacher ripping up an essay of hers in front of a class (this happened), and another would talk about the time her teacher mocked her paper in front of class (this also happened). They could have shared negative stories all day, but the fact was that they were going to have to write all semester and so we had to develop positive identities as writers too.
From my own experience and from what I saw in my classes, I learned that writing and storytelling help us discover and form who we are. Giving voice to experience isn’t just the airing of dirty laundry or a necessarily narcissistic enterprise. It can serve multiple functions–personal identity development, external support, community development, etc. (I’d like to point to something John Moe did today on Twitter as an example. He tweeted a string of statements with the hash tag #sunlight about the need to shine light on struggles that our society hides or derides, like depression, so that the many, many people who have these experiences can feel less alone, discover allies and resources, etc.)
This is important stuff, and is something social media supports in a crazily covert way that I don’t think people often notice — or at least that they don’t usually give importance to. Not only to feel like you belong somewhere, but to define what it means to be a part of that group and what you’ll do with that? That’s a big deal.
The blah blah to all this is that individual development (or Maslow’s somewhat hippie-sounding ‘self-actualization’) when tied to a community-oriented and critical kind of focus is an identity development with quite a bit of awesome kick to it. To frame it as Shor does in the book, “Critical learning aids people in knowing what holds them back; it encourages them to envision a social order which supports their full humanity” (p. 49). People have to be able to intervene in their own stories, to contradict or to make sense of or to reset their courses, and the act of doing that changes us.
I don’t really know if writing or thinking about writing changed any of my students. They mostly liked my teaching, they mostly grew as writers…but the act of teaching in the way that I did changed me and my conception of not only who I was as a person, who I was in relation to my students, and what I thought learning in post-secondary education should look like, but it changed my conception of who I could be and what I still believe is possible in the world because of all the experiences I had.
Despite all indications that my general resistance to cynicism is totally boneheaded, I always come back from despair and think I can change the damned world. I’ve watched people transform and become better versions of themselves and better community members, so I think we all have it in us. People always told me that I’d get less idealistic as I got older, but I only seem to be becoming more determined to return to a goal-focused idealism every time cynicism rears its ugly head…because, well, what is the alternative? To accept the crap that exists and shrug your shoulders?
Eff that noise. That’s my academic analysis.