Teaching with Twitter / Teaching Reflexion / Teaching Post-Diss

For the past couple years my posting on this here blog has been incredibly slow. However, as I’ve reentered the classroom this fall, I’ve remembered the genesis of this blog as a space to talk about pedagogy. Suddenly, now that I’m teaching, I’m thinking in blog posts again. Hope to see you more often in this space.

As you also know, for six years at the University of Michigan and Syracuse I taught composition courses focused around hiphop; during my two years off, I wrote my dissertation about this same subject. After analyzing my curricular materials and my students’ writing as well as those products from another teacher’s class, and doing a bunch of historical inquiry, reflective writing, and literature review, I produced “SCHOOLED: Hiphop Composition at the Predominantly White University.”

It was strange writing this diss while not teaching. I kept finding things I did wrong, or wanted to do better, but all I could do was write about them. I realized that I was centering cisgendered Black men in my course materials, and not raising up the voices of women and femmes. I found I wasn’t being vulnerable with my students, and was acting like the same old know-it-all white lady teacher my core beliefs wanted to disrupt. I found I wasn’t teaching my students to locate themselves reflexively vis-a-vis their research subjects, and so was promoting treating hiphop as a commodity rather than a culture. To put it succinctly, I found I could do better.

hashtag adweek

from Adweek

Now, back in the classroom, I am trying to be a different teacher: reflexive, vulnerable, intersectional. And I’m still learning. Still finding boundaries between my students and my new, open self. Still looking for ways to make my class the space where my students can get free. Still searching for the cultural hooks that will power my students to read, reflect, and write. Still listening to who they are, what they want, and what they need. Still learning what young people know, and can do.

One of the things that hasn’t changed is my practice of taking my students onto Twitter. But now this practice has a new context, as I’ve shifted my FYC course from a hiphop focus to one on “hashtag activism.” My students and I are reading hashtag manifestos like “This Tweet Called My Back” and Alicia Garza’s #BlackLivesMatter Herstory. Indeed, this shift in the content I teach emerged directly out of my realization, as I reflected on and through my dissertation, that women of color were not centered in my teaching, and needed to be.

I’ve been trying to talk openly with my students about the risks and rewards, what we rhetoricians call the “constraints and affordances,” of teaching on Twitter. As a class about the hashtag, I feel that students need to engage the medium we are reading and writing about. That’s a cultural rhetorics approach: you can’t theorize something if you don’t do it, have never done it. At the same time, my students have a right to privacy and protected data during their education. We write on a private WordPress site and students have the option of using locked or even alternative Twitter accounts; even so, though, any engagement with a public writing platform (compared with our university managed curricular space) is a compromise, one which compels students to share their identities and data with the corporation, even if their immediate audience stays small.

So far, however, I’m pleased with the changes in my teaching. I see all my students participating more, a critical shift away from the white male dominated spaces I used to lead. I see us engaging with women of color in our classroom discussions and our writing, and I’m looking forward to us directing even more of our financial resources in their direction. I see my students and me thinking deeply about what it means to create knowledge ethically, in our conversations, our citation practices, and our writing. I’m excited to share what we find with you as I continue to learn.

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Invisible Men of Color at Obama’s Chicago Speech

Obama speaking in Chicago on 2/15/13

Obama speaking in Chicago on 2/15/13

President Obama just gave a really bland, boring speech in Chicago which some optimistic folks among us thought might directly address the problem of inner-city gun violence, in the wake of shooting death of Hadiya Pendleton. It quickly became clear, however, that Obama was in stump mode–this speech was almost identical to his State of the Union address, except this time he didn’t smile, and I assume the audience was more diverse than that of our assembled legislators.

I had already been interested in the gender politics of Obama’s (and our whole country’s) response to the death of female non-gang member Hadiya Pendleton. We are outraged over Hadiya; we are outraged over Sandy Hook; but we still aren’t outraged over the thousands of young men killed by gang violence each year. We don’t seem able to take responsibility for young men in gangs, wielding weapons, being killed, as also our children, as also a tragedy, as also victims, victims of larger structural problems perhaps, but deserving of political sight nonetheless. Our compassion stops there. So I was surprised-not-surprised to see Obama standing in front of an array of only female high school students. I didn’t think he was speaking at an all-female school.

Of course, the speech contained ample messages about “encouraging fatherhood,” which if this was at the RNC convention we’d call a “dog whistle,” and plenty took to Twitter to bemoan Obama’s selective amnesia about mass incarceration. Then, this amazing moment happened where Obama hollered at some young men in the audience he’d spoken to–he asks them to stand so that “we can all see them.” The President looks off-stage, tensely, as though trying to mind-jedi communicate he wants them to be on TV. But the cameras stay on him. We don’t see them. Obama says “these guys are no different from me,” only he had a stronger safety net–but what these young men look like, whether they look like Obama or not, I don’t know. We don’t see them.

Only then, at the end of his speech, as Obama physically moves to reach out to the young men in the audience, do I realize there is a tall African-American teenage boy standing directly behind the President, surrounded by about a dozen girls. You can see him in the screenshot above. Could he tell the President was directly between himself and the camera? Did he wonder why he was surrounded by a moat of females? I sure did. This image speaks to the huge oversights in Obama’s speech. Even when President Obama tried to be compassionate and inclusive toward young men of color, they were still off screen, hidden from our sight just as they will be when they are incarcerated, or disenfranchised, or criminalized.

In his last few huge speeches – DNC, SOTU — Obama has begun crafting a theoretical framework around the value of citizenship, a vision that values participatory democracy through individual works and cooperation. Mr. President, are these young men not also citizens? Are drug users citizens? Is Anwar Al-Awlaki’s son? While I appreciate your vision of citizenship, as progressives it is our duty to expand the polity and the ranks of the enfranchised. Keeping young men of color off our TV screens isn’t the right way to start.

 

“You white bitches,” cont’d.

Yesterday I was surprised and excited to wake up, stumble to my computer with a fresh cup of coffee, and discover that dream hampton had begun tweeting about Zora Neale Hurston and all of Black Twitter was abuzz with personal-intellectual musings about the author, her wisdom and her work.

In under an hour, hampton was in conversation with Black intellectuals across the country like Mark Anthony Neal, Toure, and Imani Perry, not to mention the dozens or maybe hundreds of regular Black readers “testifying in my mentions right now,” as hampton put it, about Hurston’s life and work–sending facts, quotations, pictures and articles, many of which hampton dutifully retweeted, even as she headed to her grandmother’s funeral. Around noon Imani Perry tweeted, “Reading #ZoraNealeHurston tweets reminding why it is important to be here on twitter, for the creative potential of digital communication.”

Like Things Fall Apart, Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God was another book I dismissed in high school, then read again in graduate school only to be stunned by and disappointed in my younger self.  Despite being a writer now,  I was a dense reader in high school. I tended to get wrapped up in plots and only looked for the deeper stuff with some academic prodding. My unfair impulse is to blame my teachers for not telling me why these books were significant– “Hey, this book is about colonialism, pay attention”; “Hey, look, African American spoken vernaculars, look what dialogue can do, pay attention”–but some combination of my teachers’ politically correct unwillingness to explain why a particular book was important and my own bad attitude conspired to keep me in the dark.

I try to explain my intellectual position (to myself as well as curious others) as that I am a student of Black culture. As I readily confess to my own students, I’m no expert in hiphop, Black letters, or Afrodiasporic literature. But I’m reading as much as I can. Teaching and blogging are helping me do that; so is my Twitter feed, which (with its spread of rappers, Black intellectuals and African American news sources like the Root and the Griot) is as misleading a marker of my racial identity as my course information or my name.

Around 11:45 yesterday, hampton tweeted (after a comment [now missing from her timeline] on Zora’s “radical…privileging of ‘black talk'”)

One of my conflicts with writing Decoded was contributing to this growing idea that hip hop can be canonized in books, that books abt it +

may come to be more important that [sic] rap itself. It’s a continuing of privileging culture w/written texts over those whose impt texts are oral

Zora occupied language. She occupied the front porchers [sic] of storytellers. She was a listener. She privileged our oral traditions.

I’ll say it bluntly, and as neurotically and confessionally as I feel it: When I tell my students that we’re braving new intellectual territory together, when I invite them on a journey in the production of knowledge, when I write in my teaching philosophy that one of the reasons I love teaching hiphop studies is that students can create genuinely new, original scholarship when they apply published texts to a just-dropped single–am I just making excuses for a white academic’s co-opt of hiphop? Am I just forging space for whiteys like me to be able to participate via writing in a discourse which on a purely oral level is mostly closed to me? And what does it mean for us linguistic outsiders that Zora Neale Hurston wrote black dialect in the first place? Isn’t her foray into the written an invitation for us other writers to write back? Or isn’t it?

I don’t teach an explicitly anti-racist agenda in my classroom. I never bring up #OWS despite the e-mails urging me to stage a teach-in, and I don’t talk about my love and admiration for President Barack Obama even when I show Byron Hurt’s “Barack and Curtis” in class. But I have found, in teaching hiphop studies to largely white Michiganders, that dwelling with this material in an academic setting forces them to challenge sloppy language and generalizations, like calling people or places “ghetto” or conflating the words “poor,” “black,” or “inner-city”; and allows them language to talk about, for example, the poor, black inner-city that they roll their windows up when they drive through, or the policies of racial profiling from their policemen they see when those black neighbors drive through their white towns. And I hope that they are learning that these neighbors are not voiceless or devoid of culture–far to the contrary, they (with a diverse cohort of coconspirators) have created this movement we espouse called hiphop culture which draws on a rich tradition of African-American musical forms and has brought us DJing, graffiti, the emcee, and Kanye’s shutter glasses–which a student confessed she was dismayed to see her 10-year old sister coveting in a suburban Michigan mall.