Friday, December 16, 2016

Are We Different?

Last week I facilitated the final college prep session of the semester at the O.H. Close Youth Correctional Facility. It is work I am doing through the Prison Education Project.

Each week, three student volunteers and I ran an early-evening session in the correctional facility's library. We ran discussions and activities with 17 wards, all of whom had expressed interest in going to college when released.

The profound impact this experience had on me was made clear during the second-last session when one of the young men told me he wanted to ask a question unrelated to the group activity we were doing. It was a challenging and insightful question.

This young ward of the juvenile correctional facility asked me,
"Are we different?"

He went on to clarify what he meant. He knew about my work as a professor. I had talked to him about my 12 years of experience working with incoming freshmen. He wanted to know, based on my time at O.H. Close, is there something that differentiates a minor convicted of a crime from the other students I've worked with.

I told him it was a brilliant question. The other three at our table knew it was brilliant too. They leaned in to hear how I would respond.

I told them, as is the case with any brilliant question, there isn't a simple answer.
I was stalling for time.

I started by saying, I treat all my students like adults. Each student may have a different set of needs, but that does not change how I think about them as a person. My students are grown people who deserve my respect. That's where things start.

Then I explained how I approached the college prep sessions at O.H. Close. I had made a conscious effort to treat the young men at the facility like incoming freshmen. I delivered each session in the same way I would have delivered an orientation for new students on campus.

I told the guys that I did not treat them differently and they had never given me a reason to treat them differently.

I looked at the young man who had asked the question and said, "But that isn't really a complete answer to your question." And I shook my head. "This is a tough one. This is a challenge. You're challenging me. You know that, right?"

And he laughed, because he did know. The other guys laughed as well.

And that's when I told him what I thought. The life experience that lands people in a youth correctional facility, and the experience of living in a youth correctional facility, those things shape a person. Those things don't disqualify a person from the college experience. They don't make a person less...

But if my answer suggested that these young men's college experiences were going to be similar to my own, I would have been lying. Sure, I could have fallen back on the cliché: All students are unique, and each faces their own personal challenges.

But these young men know what it is to be fed into a system that enforces its expectations.

And colleges do that.

In many ways, by enrolling in classes and declaring a major, these young men would be defying the expectation colleges have.

I said all this.

I told them to take pride in that kind of defiance.

But I also said that their life experience would make their college experience different.

And I admitted I didn't know how it would feel to be them on a college campus. A lot of people wouldn't know, and that was going to be a challenge at times.

But I think it's a pretty cool challenge. I asked the guys if they could see it that way.

Then I looked at the young man who had asked me the question in the first place, and I asked, "How'd I do?"

And he knew what I was asking.

That's the impact this had on me.
I now know why I have to keep asking how I did.
Because we are different, and that's a challenge.

When I argue with people who see the world differently than I do.
When I design a course.
When I assess a placement exam.
When I react to an election.
When I stand up for people.
When I stand up to people.
Each time I have to keep asking myself: How'd I do?

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Even if it doesn't matter to you...

People tell me the president-elect says a lot of things he doesn't mean.

They say I need to understand 'he should be taken seriously, but not literally.'

I'm told he's not like other politicians who are careful with words, and I need to take that into account before I accuse him of saying stupid things.

This expectation is considered reasonable because "Trump is a new kind of leader."

I hear that.
I can even understand it through the fog of flawed logic.

But just to be clear: I am not gonna to do that.

Seriously. Fuck that.

And if you don't like me cursing on a blog where I rarely curse - if you think that interferes with the potential for a reasonable discourse - you are sure-as-shit on to something.

You see, words intended for public consumption have an impact. They matter because they are out there for anyone to hear. Even if it is not my intention to offend, I need to take the potential impact of my words into consideration, right? Fuckin' a, right.

Thought experiment:
The president-elect says "Muslims," 
but he wants me to understand 
what he actually means is
"potentially dangerous people who are Muslim." 

If I react to the word he used
and point out that laws applied exclusively to a religious group
are against the Constitution and basic human decency,
the president-elect and his supporters will whine,
"Don't take the words so literally.
You're just looking for an excuse to hate on a political opponent." 

But what about the president-elect's political allies

Who is explaining all of this to them?

The people asking me to take the president-elect's words with a grain of salt are failing to take into account all of the people who are listening to the man. 

CWPA Statement 
I am not looking at the president-elect. I couldn't care less about that silly man. 

I am looking at the country he plans to lead. 

That's what I do. It's my training. 
I look at the spaces where words have an impact, and I study what happens when new words are introduced. 

This does not make my opinion more valuable than anyone else's. 

But I hope people will understand why I can't simply 'stop taking the president-elect's words so literally.' 

If there are people who want to take those words less literally, I'm not going to stop them. I may occasionally point out how dangerous that choice could be, but they probably won't take my words very seriously. 

It is unreasonable, however, to ask me or my professional peers to take our eyes off the words of a leader. 

So, stop asking.

CCCC Statement 
Both of the professional organizations I'm affiliated with have put out strong statements related to this. Each statement explains why the public must consider all of the potential meanings that can be derived from the president-elect's words. 

I am more proud than ever to be associated with these organizations as well as the entire community of rhetoric and composition scholars. 

Our mandate is clearer than ever, and I see people I respect stepping forward to act on it in bold and thoughtful ways. We know this is important. 

Even if it doesn't matter to you, this is important to us. 

Living in a civil society requires all of us to live with these kinds of differences.