Thursday, April 8, 2010

"A Sense of Hostility"

What a busy week ... it has taken me forever to find a few minutes and comment on what has been going on this week in the two ENG 101 classes that I am researching. Seriously, I need to get much better at sitting down and taking notes right away -- not a few days later.

So the Monday night class had a "race moment." This class started with 20 people but I am losing people (I think there are about 15-16 people now). Anyway, there is now only one student who is not white. I will call her Student S. Last week, as you might remember, we looked at Peggy McIntosh's "Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack," an article that asks us readers to think about the power of white privelege. Lots of students talked in class, but I remember noticing that Student S was saying nothing. I certainly was not going to call her out in front of the entire class and make her say something that would put her in the position of "representing her entire race" (one of the many dangers that McIntosh actually talks about in her essay). But I just remember thinking that Student S didn't say anything at all.

When she came to class on Monday night, Student S brought copies of her current essay to share with the entire class (an assignment that all my students have to complete at least once every semester). In this way, we all get the chance to read a student text and then comment on that text. The current essay assignment asks students to talk about the film Crash in some way (analzyze a scene and/ or make a personal connection). One other student also brought copies to class and we tead that one first, followed by Student S's paper. Her essay, though, shocked the class. She made comments about the atmosphere of the class. Here are a few sentences from her paper:

"I remember running down the hall to my English class; this class gave me a sense of hostility because of the conversations and work assignments we had. Entering the class I noticed I was the only black student, again. In addition, I had an excruciating migraine. For that reason, I didn't feel like having a discussion on the assigned reading. The teacher started passing out our papers for the day. We started to scan an article on white privilege .... After the reading, I listened to all the remarks made by the white students. I felt uncomfortable, humiliated, and insulted. Nobody stopped to consider my feelings ...."

I admit that when I was reading this essay silently, before the class started talking about it, I was also shocked. And a little upset. I have been working so hard at creating a "safe" class environment, one that even encourages the honest conversation about race instead of what students think they want me (or others) to hear. And then I thought, isn't that what Student S is doing? She included a pretty honest comment here and the only thing I could do was take it personally. By the time the class started critiquing her essay as a class, I figured out a few ways to channel our discussion into a useful direction. We talked about her focus first -- an idea that she alluded to (but not directly) early on -- she wants to argue that African Americans experience racism more than any other culture. Debatable, of course, but that is the whole point to having an argument, right? We then started talking about how Student S could more effectively support this idea. By this point, I had picked up on the (white) students' hesitation in saying anything about the one paragraph where Student S makes a critical comment on our class (it was almost like they wanted to completely ignore it). I'm still not sure how this exactly happened, but one student (Student J) started talking about her thoughts and then ever so slowly more students in the room jumped into the conversation.

Most students in the class participated by the end of the class period. In fact, Student S's paper got us back into the white privilege discussion from last week and it was clear from the discussion that many of the students were taking on this idea for their current papers (connecting this term, for example, with Crash). Two white students, though, were pretty indignant by the idea of white privilege and think it is a bunch of baloney and they feel no sense of privilege at all. I tried to remind them that McIntosh asserts that, of course, this term is more complicated with the intersection of class and gender but I don't think either of these two students were buying it. The female, in particular, seemed pretty pissed when I suggested that it might be her white privilege that enables her to see it from this perspective.

I ended up talking to Student S for quite awhile after class. I think everything is OK. I just wanted to make sure she had a direction for her paper and could take on the revisions since the paper is due next week.

The MWF class hasn't had the same "moment" this week -- but we had a fabulous essay workshop yesterday in which students seem to truly get the idea of focus and support in their individual arguments!

1 comment:

  1. Wow--I understand why you felt a little shocked after reading her essay. I have used that essay in a class before, and it does get some talking, arguing and others just clam up. I know I cannot know what it is like to be anyone other than myself, but I have experienced some types of discrimiation in my life. I think you did well with this challenge.