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Responding to the Moment: inside and outside the classroom

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Above: Zoom image holder by Kathleen Tarr, layered on a CC0 background from Pixabay

By Christine Alfano

Spring 2020 has been defined by global tumult as social and racial inequities were exacerbated and made more visible. From an international pandemic affecting people around the world, to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and the wave of national protests against police brutality, there has been much to struggle with and respond to in the world.  As teachers in this moment, each PWR instructor had their own way of responding to this historic crisis both inside and outside the classroom. 

Below we’re featuring three different instructors to provide a glimpse of some of the ways in which our colleagues amplified their teaching practice to engage students and others in productive modes of turning reaction into action in this moment. If you have activities or exercises that you would like to share, please reach out. We hope this is just the start of an ongoing conversation about how we are responding to this moment.

Harriett Jernigan: Using an Instagram Teach-in to Boost Student Voices

Like many of us, during last week, Harriett Jernigan received an email from SIS Associate Director Lauri Dietz and the VPUE Inclusion Group, encouraging PWR (as well as other VPUE units) to contribute to a virtual “Justice for George Floyd Teach-in” on the VPUE instagram account  (@stanford_vpue, June 1-5):

“In the tradition of a teach-in, our goal is to create an inclusive, participatory venue to respond to and amplify issues related to social & racial justice, diversity, equity, & inclusion, police brutality, and activism … Instead of organizing a day for people to congregate at Meyer Green with their signs for a vigil, we are creating a digital platform for people to share their voices.  We want this to be a venue for all members of the VPUE community--instructors, staff, and students--to express their thoughts, feelings, and reflections, so please share with anyone you think would like to participate. The power of this will be in the many.”

Recognizing the potential for allowing students to use image and language to create change in this moment, Harriett extended this invitation to the students in her PWR 1 (“What are you anyway? The Rhetoric of Ethnic and Racial Identity”), encouraging them to reimagine the power of rhetoric to effect change at a time when so much seemed out of their control. She set aside dedicated time and space during her class to allow them to make instagram posts for the teach-in.  While many students quickly jumped into the task, already familiar with how to navigate instagram, she directed them to templates at as a way to make the delivery of their messages even  more powerful (images to the right are drawn from student work: see @vpue_stanford for the full assortment of student submissions).

“I framed the activity by asking them how they were doing and feeling under the circumstances, and how many of them had been engaged in some form of activism,” Harriett shared. “I told them that I felt it was important to contribute to the consciousness-raising on campus as well, told them about the teach-in, and what a great opportunity it was for us to inform our peers at Stanford. Since we've spent a lot of time looking at communication in social media, and I know that Insta is one of their main online platforms, I just told them to do what they know how to do, what they'd already been doing … As a class populated almost exclusively by people of color, it didn't take a whole lot of convincing.” 

Her students used the opportunity in many ways.  Students created guides, links to websites, and their own original content; they were able to both create their own resources and link people to other resources that already existed. 

“I was happy to give them a platform to help address the inequities we see on our own campus,” Harriett reflected.

To see more of Harriett’s student work, check out Teach-in that ran between June 1 and June 8 on the  @stanford_vpue posts on instagram.

Emily Polk: Using Reflection to Help Students Think about the Power of Writing in the Current Moment

Emily Polk likewise wanted to use her classroom as a site for students to process their reactions to the current crisis.  She designed an activity for her students in her PWR 1 class (The Rhetoric of Global Development and Social Change) that was intended to help students grapple emotionally with everything they were experiencing while also helping them to see the value in their own research projects, and the role that writing can play in imagining a better world.  

Students were invited to respond to the quotation from bell hooks: “The function of [writing] is to do more than tell it like it is -- it’s to imagine what is possible.”  They wrote about how that quote speaks to our current moment and how it connects to their own research projects, and shared their writing in small groups. After those conversations, the class came back together and listened to each other as they collectively processed their ideas, the weight of our current context, and the role of writing in this moment.

“I was deeply moved by what my students shared and by how eager they were to connect and be vulnerable with each other,” Emily said.  “I was grateful to be able to practice such a meta-lesson with writing--they experienced firsthand how writing can reflect the moment, nurture community (through sharing it), and shape our understanding of possibilities for imagining a better one.”

Here are two examples shared (with permission) that came out of her class:

“The function of writing is to do more than tell it like it is—it’s to imagine what is possible.” -Bell Hooks 

In our current world, writing helps make sense of all of the chaos and explain how we should be optimistic and look forward. I think it helps organize and give form to everything. Writing takes real life and lets us share it; it lets us share our experiences, emotions in a universal manner. Writing helps amplify our voices and helps translate one’s experiences into something that someone else can understand and appreciate. Writing helps us see the world in a different way, as does reading. It can simultaneously embed us in the struggles and circumstances we’re currently facing and let us better understand them, while lifting us up to look forwards to a brighter future. Personally I have learned so much through reading during this time and simply absorbing the information that has been coming at me from all directions. Through this reading, I have become more understanding and sympathetic towards others and their struggles, and aware of the unique position I hold during these times. It has helped give me so much perspective. Without it, I would simply exist in a void. Additionally, writing is powerful because it does not simply derive its power from being read. Writing is powerful even when there’s no audience. Writing can be for oneself because writing can help that one person reckon with their world and think thing through. Especially as an Asian-American during this time, I have had to reckon with the nuances of being a model minority that is used to put other races down, of being considered a person of color only when it is convenient to the conversation or diversity of an institution, of having the privilege to stay silent. Without the writings of others, I would have no way to understand how my identity fits into the whole of America and between the identities of others. 

In my paper, the role of writing is to imagine a future where we can effectively use AI to identify and eliminate poverty. Writing becomes a medium through which information is transferred, and a way of planning for the future. I think this fits in directly with the quote. Through writing, we understand what’s possible and lay it all out. We can almost plan a mini world in our writing. Writing helps build us and the future up.

- - - - - - 

“The function of writing is to do more than to tell it like it is. It is to imagine what it is possible.” ~bell hooks

The world is locked down. Over 100,000 people succumb to a virus. African Americans heartlessly and indiscriminately murdered by the police. Protests erupt across America. The Chinese security apparatus engulfs Hong Kong, ending 23 years of liberty. Chinese-American relations rest on a precipice. Chinese soldiers invade Indian territory. Hundreds of millions cross India in hopes of making it back home.

All this in a week, and this is just the tip of the iceberg. This is our moment. This is a moment that will likely shape the next ten years. The decisions we make today could usher in an era of equity or they could start a war. In pivotal moments such as these, we owe it to ourselves and to the future to write it down, so that we may remember it.

Still, in a quasi-scientific manner, while we may write down this moment and look back once it’s over to understand exactly what happened and why, even now, it’s clear that something needs to change. The world needs to be better once this moment passes. We cannot have this moment be the status quo for, in no uncertain terms, escalating this moment could very well rip apart our societies.

So the question remains: how can we be better? How do we know how to be better? And like most things, we know where to aim by simply envisioning it, but for a complex society, we can only each contribute a piece of this shared vision. To tie it all together, as we remember and imagine, we must write it down to record our memories, our pain, our hopes, to tell our stories to others, to understand the status quo, and to change it.

From the first hieroglyphs detailing Egyptian myths to Isaac Asimov’s science fiction shaping our ideas of robots 70 years later to Martin Luther King’s iconic speech, writing not only records a culture’s history--it is not just about telling it is like it is--but rather, it allows us to imagine what it is possible, share our vision, and enact change together.

To see the full activity, visit “Writing to imagine what is possible”in our activity archive. 

Kathleen Tarr: Speaking Out

In addition to integrating culturally responsive pedagogy in the PWR classroom, Kathleen Tarr actively engaged an even broader audience through the power of language and visual rhetoric.  It will not be a surprise to any who have benefited from Kathleen’s expertise in developing effective online ethos (through videos such as this one and this one) to learn that she created a Zoom image holder (her design layered on a CC0 background image from Pixabay, featured at the top of this article) to “passively bring[ ] awareness” into online contexts.  In addition, Kathleen, like Harriett, found the VPUE Instagram Teach-in a useful platform to expand  her reach as an educator.  In doing so, Kathleen drew on her expertise as an actor to create a powerful dramatic monologue that captures the complex and tortured perspective of a bystander to George Floyd’s murder (see the June 3rd post on @stanford_vpue).

Subsequently, Kathleen also recorded a moving  birthday video for Breona Taylor to mark what would have been her 27th birthday, which she made available on YouTube, joining in with the expansive #SayHerName movement designed both for remembrance and as a call to change. 

Kathleen continues to participate in these larger national and international conversations about racial injustice and bias, for instance attending a talk last month with Dr. Ibram X. Kendi (Commonwealth Club) and asking him a pointed question about his efforts to combat bias in medicine during the pandemic, including Patient Advocates in every ER and anti-bias priming before healthcare workers' shifts.  Her question -- and  Kendi’s answer -- are captured at 46:30 of the video of the talk.  By modeling powerful and inspiring engagement inside and outside the classroom, Kathleen illustrates for her students the myriad possibilities for antiracist work. 

Concluding Comments

The three examples above represent just a sampling of the many ways that PWR instructors continue to make a difference with our students and in broader conversations during this time when many of us are holding enormous grief and the possibility of hope at the same time.  Adam Banks, in a recent email to instructors, summarized how this drive -- to teach, to inspire, to empower -- aligns with PWR’s mission:

"We have one of the most difficult, but the most powerful vocations in all of higher education: to help our students develop the ability to discern the ways that discourse can be weaponized against them AND the ability to shape language and discourse to create the new worlds they yearn for. Our students and young people across the country are showing us new ways forward right now: new aims, new responses to old problems, new strategies to deal with new realities, and new coalitions for the work ahead. We get to help them develop the tools to make new worlds possible. Our students are willing to engage with each other in that pursuit because of the work you do and because of how well you do it." 

As we move through this time of uncertainty, where public discourse finally engages broadly -- and let’s hope meaningfully -- with systemic racism and bias, we’ll continue to look to our classrooms to invite students to participate in dialogues of their own and to explore ways to extend our teaching and our own voices to reach broader communities. As educators committed to antiracist pedagogy, we can only hope to use writing practices and processes to not only understand our world, but also to resist, rebuild, and imagine a better one.

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