Social Action and the Status Quo: Bravery in First Year Composition

Social Action and the Status Quo: Bravery in First Year Composition

Lee Skallerup Bessette and Jesse Stommel note the real need for bravery in higher education, paying special attention to the idea that “when [educators] experiment with our pedagogies, we confront an establishment that can be hostile to anything new — an establishment that often punishes rather than rewards innovation — that increasingly enforces the standardization of curriculums and classroom practice.” As educators, we are meant to encourage our students to do more than take tests and listen to lectures; we are responsible for prompting them to think critically about the world around them, to actively participate in that world, and to make a difference. To do so requires bravery and resistance. But in the traditional world of higher learning, where can we find bravery? Are we so ensconced in the status quo of the Institution that we can’t see our way into acts of resistance?

Ironically, some of the most significant hesitation comes from students, many of who do not value transformative or critical pedagogies and who have been conditioned to put sole faith in more traditional teaching methods. The lecture as the preeminent teaching method and the exam as the most decisive means of evaluation are concepts that have long been ingrained in students’ expectations of the college classroom;  to challenge that perspective on traditional pedagogy can be formidable to say the least. When a teacher tries to innovate and students resist, the conflict that results in the classroom can create quite a sense of discord, but it can be that very discord that prompts students to critically assess and challenge their best learning practices and educators to critically assess and challenge our best teaching practices.

Though claims of scholars such as Jeff Smith, who are rightfully concerned about the business of meeting students’ professional needs in the composition classroom, must be considered, I believe that one of our duties as educators (or facilitators of education, if you will) is to push for confrontation and for acts of bravery and resistance against the status quo so that we, as well as our students, are presented with the opportunity to value their agency. While David L. Wallace and Helen Rothschild believe that educators interested in classroom mutuality, a concept that focuses on establishing “reciprocal discourse relations as [teachers and students] negotiate meaning in the classroom,” use their authority as needed “so that resistance to the dominant culture isn’t the only option to students,” they also recommend that a course architecture that includes a teacher’s role as evaluator lends itself to “encouraging students’ interpretative agency in classroom discourse and agency as writers.”

At the University of South Florida where I teach, our First-Year Composition program’s ENC 1102 course focuses on developing that sense of agency, most powerfully through our Rhetoric in Action project. This project provides students not only the opportunity to research and write about social issues that concern them, but also the opportunity to commit acts of bravery and resistance in order to spark change for their issues. Projects like this shine a light on the need for further acts of bravery and resistance in the classroom and further use of critical pedagogies across the discipline, while showing us the power of our students, one voice at a time.

The concept behind this project is simple: use language to affect change. Materials distributed to students include challenges such as:

  • “How can your ideas and passion about an issue translate into a tangible act?”
  • “Your job is to convince your readers of the importance of your chosen topic and motivate them to enact change by offering a well-researched and persuasive argument. It’s not enough, however, to argue for a change; this project will also ask you to participate in enacting some sort of change.”

Such challenges are vital to the success of projects that focus on social action for a variety of reasons, but these two challenges in particular set the tone of the work early on as students begin to pre-write and provide a focus on the intersection between the writing and the action components. Teaching this project, however, is not simple. The aforementioned confrontation often comes into play; students can be hesitant to participate in anything other than an essay in a composition classroom, and also to put faith in the idea that their action matters or will make a difference. It seems they share Smith’s concerns about their professional needs in the classroom; their definition of learning is deeply connected to traditional pedagogy, methods that  can be visualized with a lectern, a chalkboard, and an overhead projector. Although I do not intend to focus my argument here against such methods, especially considering the literature that speaks to how such pedagogy can be worthwhile to student achievement, one of the teaching goals behind this project is to challenge that pedagogy and be brave ourselves.

Students face the contradiction of the long-instilled belief that learning in the composition classroom solely means writing research papers (which of course will be graded with the dreaded red pen) and of the idea that enduring traditional lectures week after week has no place in the 2013 learning repertoire. It is as they face this contradiction that we should become aware of the intersection at which we and our students must be brave together. Educators must push through the sighs and ho-hum atmosphere that traditional teaching methods can spark and show that non-traditional methods can meet both professional needs and their needs as 21st century students. Students must see beyond the need for the lectern and focus on how revising their perspective on learning to include how they can “establish broader applications for skills through activities that encourage risk-taking, problem solving, and an examination of unique experiences” will meet both their professional and critical thinking needs.

I’ve developed a few ways to counteract possible hesitation and prepare my students to inspire others with their actions. For instance, I typically choose a social issue and have students organize and lead flash mobs in efforts to raise awareness. My students have led particularly interesting flash mobs in protest of rape culture via promoting our university’s Take Back the Night event and the national SlutWalk campaign. Our flash mobs have lasted from 90 seconds to 3 minutes, and in those brief moments, students are faced with the power of their own voices (both literally and figuratively). Moreover, they are challenged to step outside of a traditional essay that discusses action and instead are tasked with becoming the action, thus inciting them to discover their own capacity for bravery and resistance. The idea behind these flash mobs is that I want to show students how the power of language and the power of action can intersect: they select our chants and the information we use, they design the posters (which I provide), and they choose the locations — all in an effort to have even one person be affected by their work.

Another activity I’ve used to motivate their bravery for the Rhetoric in Action project is providing extra credit for our university’s own project entitled I’m Stronger Than I Knew, a collaborative digital effort from our counseling center that focuses on students videotaping themselves discussing how they have overcome personal challenges. (One of my students is prominently featured on the project’s YouTube page.) Other activities include modeling past ENC 1102 students’ successful projects such as this PSA against child sexual abuse; selecting students to lead discussions about persuasive actions in which they have participated or organized; leading classroom debates on social issues that prompt students to focus on how to construct an argument that leads to change; assigning vlogging activities to students to digitally testify to their experiences with social action;  and sending students outside of the classroom in small groups to interact with passersby and interview them on a variety of social issues to learn about  how to anticipate opposing viewpoints and how to effectively refute them. Of course, as with any classroom activity, some of these have worked wonderfully and students have enjoyed them, and some of them have failed miserably and students haven’t connected the purpose of the activities to the project. Regardless of the outcome, I remind the students that we attempted to be brave, we attempted to resist the idea that lectures are the only way to learn, and we attempted to learn together. And with that, we go back to the drawing board with the next activity.

Nancy Ares notes that “In critical pedagogy, then, transformative practice helps students develop skill in reflection and action that allows them to recognize and work against oppressive conditions in society, both for themselves and for others.” Calls for such practices are not new by any means, but her idea of how such work is applicable and valuable to students is something that I began this project with and that I consistently remind my students of as they work through the writing process and the process with which their action comes to life. Though I devote quite a bit of class time to ensuring my students’ belief in their ability to affect change, the essay portion of this project is still most valuable to their grades and it is to what we devote the most class time. It’s with Ares’ idea of transformative practice in mind, however, that students’ work has been celebrated and their lives changed.

Two of the most significant examples of how powerful this project’s work can be are past ENC 1102 students Elizabeth Moschella and Jake Pflum. After leading an action on rape culture, Moschella has become a leading student advocate on campus for sexual assault survivors. She rose through the ranks of leadership from outreach coordinator to treasurer and now to president of N.I.T.E., a campus organization that raises awareness of violence against women, she has presented in several ENC 1102 classrooms about the how her Rhetoric in Action project was the catalyst for her continued work as a student advocate and leader, and her testimony is a featured video on the aforementioned I’m Stronger Than I Knew project’s YouTube channel.

Pflum, whose I’m Stronger Than I Knew video is linked above, also led a brave and resistant action for his project; he organized what he called the USF Sleep Out in an effort to raise awareness for the plight of those who are homeless. He and approximately 10 other students slept outside on the very same area his class held a flash mob in protest of rape culture and documented some of their experience both during the night and the next morning. His efforts were widely lauded by his peers and by peers in other classes. Both Moschella and Pflum as well as the ever-growing list of students who commit their acts of bravery and resistance have seen that their work matters, that learning in a composition classroom is not circumscribed solely by writing research papers, and that there is more to the purpose of their work than academic credit.

Skallerup Bessette and Stommel state that “Educators need advocates and need to be advocates. We can’t just notice the problems, but must take specific action to solve them individually and institutionally.” They are absolutely right; there is no room for us to rest on our laurels when it comes down to confronting the status quo and affecting change in the names of education and of our students. And there’s an opportunity for a powerful intersection between our own bravery and resistance and that of our students’. Anne Merle Feldman’s discussion of public work prompted me to think of The Public Square, as she notes, that I’m a part of and the type of engagement to which I contribute: the classroom and interaction with my students. It is there where I can advocate, where I can motivate my students to advocate, and where I can facilitate the intersection between my own bravery and my students’. It is there that I can apply the ideas of Harry C. Boyte and Nancy N. Kari, ideas of collaboration that lead to the common good, to “participation in the public sphere,” as Feldman notes, and to solutions of social issues and injustices. Undoubtedly, prompting students to take their place within the public sphere, to collaborate, to create solutions for what socially ails us, and to be brave are parts of the 21st century composition classroom, and we should able to model such behavior.

But this work is not limited to the composition classroom, just as bravery and resistance are not limited to social actions like flash mobs or protests. It’s important to consider the intersection between writing in any class and these actions, an intersection that addresses one of my own worst fears and one with which students can readily identify: the fear of not being able to write the “right” thing. “Shitty First Drafts” has saved my students and myself many times from the crushing fear and anxiety of not writing the right thing the first time, but it’s in the face of revision — the face that reminds us that we’ve reached the point in the writing process where we’re expected to get it right — that bravery and resistance are fleeting. Discussing a recent keynote speech by Cheryl Strayed, Jane Vandenburgh notes that we must be brave in our writing “even as you hold in your heart the certainty that you aren’t really brave, that you lack the courage to face even your own inevitable mediocrity.”

It is with that idea that projects such as Rhetoric in Action can be built on in any classroom, and it is the intersection between writing and social actions that can provide an effective model for students to see the need to be brave and to resist. By providing students with writing activities that challenge their perspectives and their definitions of learning, we can motivate them to critically assess their worlds and create their own learning experiences. By attaching the concept of social action to such writing activities, we can foster a need that I’d like to believe every student and educator has — a need “to accomplish what feels impossible,” as Vandenbrugh notes. Such a feat is at the heart of the bravery we need in higher education.

Here are a few ideas on how to approach this type of project in the composition classroom as well as meaningful takeaways for students and educators:

1) Ask students to write about their worlds. As pre-writing begins for this project, I ask students to write discussion board posts about concerns in their worlds and to come up with specific solutions that address those concerns. This can help to generate ideas for social issues to address in the project as well as prompt them to think specifically about how to affect change. Using such writing exercises is nothing new, but asking students to focus on their worlds here quite frequently leads to them writing their projects about concerns that affect them, and to share such personal concerns with peers can in itself be an act of bravery. Discovering ways to affect change can be the first act of resistance; as they begin to analyze the change needed, they also begin to realize their part in challenging the status quo. This can motivate students to think critically and creatively about how to appeal to their audience through action.

2) Ask students to assess their actions’ rhetorical effectiveness. This project has four specific objectives: 1) educate your audience about an issue that needs changing, 2) invite them to your point of view, 3) acknowledge and refute opposing arguments, and 4) motivate readers to act in specific ways. In conjunction with their discussion of the fourth objective, I ask students to include how their action is rhetorically effective for their specific audience. For instance, if a student chooses to lead a flash mob on campus, I ask her to not only describe her action, but I also ask her to discuss how her posters, protest chants, number of participants, choice of location, etc… reach her selected audience. For a composition class, especially one based in argument, this added objective easily connects to previous discussions of rhetorical strategies and appeals and helps to further associate both writing and action as acts of resistance.

3) Ask students to think big. Some students are hesitant to think creatively when it comes to choosing an action. They “just” want to make a Facebook page to spread awareness for their social issue or they “just” want to post fliers. Though there are very few things I limit in my classroom, using the word “just” in regards to an action is not allowed. I challenge them to use this opportunity to inspire others and to inspire themselves through their actions. This upcoming fall, I will most certainly use the words of Malala Yousafzai as I attempt to impress upon them the need to think creatively about this work. If young Yousafzai can stand up to advocate education so passionately after being shot by the Taliban, surely my students can create more than “just” a Facebook page for a class project. For instance, if a student wanted to make a video for his action, I ask him to incorporate a distribution plan for said video into his action. That plan might be to show his video to his dormmates or to a student organization applicable to his chosen social issue and lead a discussion afterwards. Typically that discussion is filmed as well.

4) Ask students to contribute to class or university projects similar to I’m Stronger Than I Knew. A digital collaborative effort created by students that focuses on a specific social concern can be an effective way to raise awareness for the issue. It can also be a platform for students to share their experiences and thoughts on an issue via vlogs for a broader audience as well as a tool that unites students by asking them to work together and to discuss how their experiences affect their worlds and their roles as students. Establishing such a project could be as simple as creating a YouTube Education channel and asking students to contribute via their personal devices or devoting class time to creating video material. Such work can model acts of bravery and resistance as a brainstorming activity for projects like Rhetoric in Action or can serve as a culminating activity for such projects by asking students to reflect on how their work affected their learning experience.

5) Ask students to celebrate their work. As former chair of my department’s Celebrate Student Success committee for our First Year Composition program, I had the privilege of working with a few of my colleagues to institute Rhetoric in Action Day. This celebration is held bi-annually in our university’s bustling student center and focuses on students presenting their final actions to peers, faculty, administration, and even two outlets of campus media. Thousands of students enter our ENC 1102 classrooms each semester, so providing each one of them a place to present in the student center is impossible. To compensate for that, we ask teachers whose classes can’t attend to hold their own presentation days and celebrate their students work in their classrooms. This can show students the interest we as educators have in their creativity, spark continued discussion among their peers, and solidify the idea that their bravery and their resistance was worthwhile.

Skallerup Bessette and Stommel’s idea that we need a movement “led by both educators and students to resist changes forced upon us” is compelling to say the least. Their overarching focus on bravery and resistance within higher education speaks loudly to both the concept of affecting social change and of instilling the value of action in our students and in ourselves. Such work can begin in our classrooms with projects like Rhetoric in Action. We can begin to show students the power of collaboration with us and with their peers. We can begin to show them not just why bravery and resistance matter in the classroom but also how it can impact their learning experiences. We can begin to show them how work rooted in bravery and resistance in the classroom can transform the real world. And we can begin to further solidify the value of bravery and resistance in the classroom by staking a claim in the conversation on transformative pedagogies.

[Photo by Julian Kliner]

About the Author

Susan Gail Taylor

Susan Gail Taylor (@TheSusanGTaylor)
Hillsborough Community College adjunct instructor
Writing Commons contributor
Mama to doggies Tristan and Tallon

  1. […] composition provides an opportunity to display “bravery.”  In “Social Action and the Status Quo: Bravery in First Year Composition,” Susan Gail Taylor refers to the Rhetoric in […]

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