This is the paper I contributed to the 4 C’s panel on student resistance. I followed Lindsay Dunne who cited her University of Maryland colleague Mary who was disappointed that her students didn’t read.
International Relations: Using Diversity and Resistance to Guide Course Design
My English 102 students are turning in their research proposals today. My email is busy with incoming messages, a few of them with panicked requests for extensions, most of them with papers attached. They have until midnight tonight to submit their work, which makes me feel like the IRS. The IRS gives procrastinators the absolute latest possible deadline in order to encourage them to file their taxes on time. The government concedes to the human inclination to put things off and it builds that procrastination or resistance into the system. Writing teachers can do the same. I want to talk about ways to use diversity and resistance to guide course design. I’ll get to the diversity part later, but first, what does resistance look like?
It looks like William Fitzgerald, a student who asked last week if all his eight sources could be articles from the same book.
It looks like Brandon Doan, a student who brings his laptop to class, who asked if e-books count as book sources.
It looks like Christian Lemus, who told me he couldn’t find any book sources after an hour and half of searching.
It looks like Jack Wang, who used his iphone to search the library’s article databases and concluded that Google was much more useful for him.
Resistance can be defined as any moment students try to avoid or avoid completely any aspect of an assignment. The composition teacher faces resistance in many ways, especially with new obstacles like handheld technology. On Monday, for example, while I was giving a reading quiz on Nella Larsen’s novel Passing, I caught one of my students Googling the answers on his iphone. This is a form of resistance to reading, manifested in a last ditch effort to get the job done, a focus on product rather than on process. If this was my first year of teaching composition, I might have felt like Lindsay’s colleague Mary, frustrated that my students didn’t do the reading, but now, several years into my role as a full-time professor at a community college, I know better. Some of my students don’t read, and some of them won’t unless I give them some reason other than the joy of learning to entice them to read. Entice here is a savory word — how can we make vegetables look delicious to fast-food-loving teenagers? — so I really mean “convince.” By understanding where resistance comes from and allowing resistance to occur in the writing classroom, I am able to harness it as a viable tool that helps me guide my students toward the same goals we all have: to write papers that challenge them and interest me while simultaneously improving on my course design.
Resistance often occurs among community college students when they compare or contrast themselves to four-year college students, which Lindsay has termed “traditional” students. Specifically, it occurs when they see themselves outside a norm, and when they use that self-perception as a way to keep from relating to what they perceive as a privileged space, one in which they do not feel welcome. That space is where academic work is explored through critical dialogue, analytical reading, thoughtful writing, and scholarly research. Sometimes this resistance comes from a perception that a community college student is not a “real” college student and that the work we do doesn’t really matter to a future life in the university. Such a perception may come from what Feminist theorist and poet Audre Lorde calls “old blueprints of expectation and response, old structures of oppression” built into all of us; these blueprints privilege a university over a non-university experience, something my students cannot access yet. The idealized university student can be likened to Lorde’s “mythical norm,” – the white, thin, male, Christian, financially secure, heterosexual – in whom all power supposedly resides. Lindsay outlined some ways college teachers continue old misconceptions of today’s composition students. Increasingly, we find that the traditional college student can be considered a mythical norm. He does not exist. My students, who have chosen a two-year college over a four-year university for any number of reasons, come in with conceptions of who they are often in contrast to who they are not, so they have to be taught that they are the norm.
I confront those blueprints of oppression that manifest themselves in resistance to academic work in a course that focuses on Audre Lorde. We study her poems and her essays, which are often about the power of social resistance. Lorde’s work challenges our notions of ageism, racism, classism, and sexism through a Feminist lens. She uses her life’s experiences to guide her reading of the world. I invite my students to do the same. In today’s diverse world, it is easier than ever to address our differences and the many ways we categorise one another. Montgomery College, a two-year community college based in the Washington, D.C. suburb of Rockville, Maryland, proudly claims that approximately 174 countries are represented on our three campuses. There is no majority race. In a setting like this, it seems inconceivable not to use diversity for relating with and nurturing the writing student. An exploration of Lorde’s work, in which she uses her middle-aged, black, lesbian, feminist, socialist identity to guide her writing, becomes a particularly useful tool. Through her, a student from Pakistan is empowered to offer her unique approach to the sources she finds on a topic like arranged marriage. A student from Mexico City, where the male performance of machismo is a norm but where gay marriage is also legal, can offer a nuanced perspective on America’s gay marriage debate. And a student from Maryland might reconsider how he performs his white straight male identity after reading something as divergent to him as Lorde’s black lesbian poetry. When all these insights are validated, student resistance to coming to voice can be lessened.
For Lorde, resistance is political and for our students it is also healthy. Students resist because they are comfortable with and certain of what they know. This tells us that they know something and are committed to their methods—their methods works for them. This should be reassuring to the writing teacher. Rather than fight them by demanding they do it our way, I propose building on their sense of knowing and guide them toward the academic method we know will benefit them in the long run. I don’t like Google at all for academic writing but their using it tells me they have a sense of what research is. While I much prefer a real book to an e-book, I concede that the Kindle or the Nook can access many of our texts. But some things I cannot concede: like the time it takes to look for and read through research material. When my student Christian told me he had spent an hour and a half looking for sources and still couldn’t find anything on his topic, my only response was he didn’t look long enough. He insisted he did, so I encouraged him to go back and use a variety of new keyword searches. He insisted he did that, too. In that moment, it looked like we were getting nowhere, as neither one of us was willing to budge. This is the performance of resistance, but even this exchange between us is healthy. Students need to resist me and they need to struggle and I need to uphold the standards I know they can meet. When I arrived here on Wednesday night, after I had left Christian sulking in Maryland, I received this email from him. He writes: “So I continued my research and I actually came across several books on my topic rather than on the Internet which I feel is very good. I did have a question: I was wondering if my paper can be about two topics revolving around the same idea.” This email illustrates the opposite of resistance. With time to reflect on his under-achievement, even perhaps on the push and pull of our dialogue, Christian pushed himself to do more research and he discovered the satisfaction that comes with finding information that matters to him. Not only is he finding information, he is now thinking of new ways to use it. He is now participating in academic work. And it is glorious to behold.
Finally, I capitalize on my students’ resistance in a very personal way. Because I teach argument theory, at the beginning of the semester, I invite my students to challenge my material in their papers. If they resist Lorde’s radical black lesbian poetry, good. Tell me why. If they know of a poet that suits their ideas better, good. Tell me who. If they find a research topic that is more interesting to them than the ones I offer, good. Tell me how. By all means, resist my course material and participate in improving upon it. I will read the research proposals coming in tonight as critiques and contributions to my course’s design. For this assignment I asked my students to reflect on and respond to holes in my lessons, reading assignments, and lectures. By doing so, they learn to practice their critical thinking skills in very real and applicable ways. For example, when we discussed Lorde’s theories on ageism, I showed them photos of naked elderly victims whose nursing home had collapsed in the Haiti earthquake. The accompanying article we read suggested an aging population was an achievement in that country, something we all found challenging. More challenging for my students were the the images of the elderly victims captured in undignified poses. These were uncomfortable and problematic for young, privileged American teenagers in suburban Maryland to observe. What should you do with these images? How do you contrast these images to your ideas of age and to images of your own grandparents, I asked. Valuable research proposals might try to answer those questions, fill in those gaps, which I might use in future sections of the same course.
Resistance should be a reality we all keep in mind as we sit down to write our classroom rules, course objectives, and our semester schedules. We should remember that reading may not happen, deadlines may not be met, and personal issues will come up. To pretend that students will do what we ask simply because we are the professors and they are the students sets us all up for frustration, failure, and even resentment toward one another. As Lindsay noted in her introduction, “It seems almost like a personal affront” to those of us who have designed well-meaning lessons for their benefit. Rather than be affronted, though, we can harness their natural propensity for criticism, inherent skepticism, and resistance to authority by inviting them to think of themselves as critics who are reading the material through their own particular lenses, lenses informed by their personal histories and individual experiences, even from their positions as “non-traditional” students. Their self-perceptions matter but rather than allow them to use how they see themselves as a way to resist academic work, I encourage them to use it as a lens through which they can read and refine the work they are doing and the role they are playing in academia. This is not an argument for content over form, by the way, but rather, an argument for meeting students’ natural resistance to academic work by inviting them to participate in conversations through validating their points of entry and acknowledging their voices. After all, it was this approach – the valuing of our voices and the consideration of our insights – that drew many of us into this field. In this way, our students are no different.