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  • Writer's pictureJohn Constantine Tobin

Teaching During an Election Year: Institutional, Geographic and Political Contexts in Composition

Recently in my pedagogy course, we read “Here They Do This, There They Do That: Latinas/Latinos Writing Across Institutions” Todd Ruecker along with a few other articles relating to Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in higher education. The idea here is to look at the way Composition is taught at universities that aren’t Primarily White Institutions (PWIs) to critique how we view what is often dubbed “Standard English,” a misnomer for a type of English that assumed is the proper way to speak and write, despite the way disregards the linguistically complex, multi-variant forms of English that we speak in America: regional and immigrants dialects to those we speak at home.

I’ve been doing extra work in my class this semester to be aware of these cultural rhetorics and incorporate them into my classroom. I’ve been looking for influences of dialect in my students’ writing, then trying to highlight and encourage it within academic essays. I want to make sure that students build confidence in the English that they know while learning how to integrate writing strategies into their rhetorical framework. My classroom approach is part of a much larger scholarly conversation about what proper English is, who it privileges, who actually uses it, and how it gates information from those who do not come from certain types of families and attend certain types of schools.

Rucker’s article is designed to situate Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs) in their geographic and political contexts - arguing that these factors directly affect the composition classroom. They affect students and their learning, their opportunities, and the types of futures that are constructed for them based on all these factors that affect their education, especially in the ways they enforce our social and class hierarchies. It’s an insightful exploration that moves between three institutions: a high school, a 2-year community college and a 4-year university near the US-Mexico border and explores how things like political influence, resource limitations, and consistency in the quality of education separates each.

This brings me to just how much external factors affect education. The year 2020 has been an incredibly difficult year in America. More specifically, it’s been a difficult week. A global pandemic, mass protesting against the habitual harming of black bodies in this country, and a bitterly divisive presidential election are just a few factors that have been deeply affecting my students’ learning. This week, the week of the Presidential Election between Trump and Biden, my students have been unable to focus. Papers have been late, attendance in my synchronous session was low, I’ve received numerous emails asking for extensions, I’ve had students apologize for taking controversial opinions in their position papers, and many have been distressed with heightened anxieties about grades and class performance. These problems are magnified by our political climate. The arguments in their papers feel far more politically charged than usual, which was similar to when I was teaching back at The University of Baltimore just after the murder Freddie Gray.

How am I supposed to teach during an election year online during a pandemic in the pursuit of civil rights? To list a few, I’ve given my students a range of topics to write about, given them choices for their position papers that relate to contemporary issues or do not, scheduled time in each class to talk about things other than class, to assess how everyone is feeling and adapt my schedule accordingly. My pedagogy professor has set us up to teach ENG101 with race as a central focus, which has helped students contextualize these protests as part of a long history in America.

But that’s the central issue with answering that question: none of this is new in America. Tensions are magnified by the election, but every one of these issues is within our regular political and cultural context. It isn’t just happening because of an election year. I’d argue that while my teaching practices do need to allow my students some extra time for their papers, extra flexibility with my late submission penalties, and general conscientiousness, these are all contexts that should always be and always have been a part of my classroom.

I have never taught in a perfect world. The majority of my teaching experience has been during times of great distress: from the protests in Baltimore that were going on long before I attended my MFA and long before the death of Freddie Gray. I don’t think it’s possible to remember a day before all of these political and institutional contexts were relevant, because they have always been relevant. While I’m referencing national trends right now, I’d argue that it is the same for the regional and local contexts of universities. Ruecker made this clear in his article. I’m still reeling from its gravity.

I’ve been looking to institutions like Howard University for teaching models that directly address the institutional contexts that affect the learning of their students. Howard is particularly sensitive to students’ needs, providing a barrier for their students to construct their ideas about the world without the direct, hostile aggression and racism that is felt outside of its doors. Critical and complex conversations about race are infused in Howard’s curriculum, just as they are infused in the fabric of American history.

As Ruecker notes, instructors themselves often do not have much control over the way their university functions and I imagine that instructors are as subject to its administrative mandates as are students. I do, however, have some control over the type of classroom environment I create. I must adept in the cultural, geographic and political contexts in my university’s environment and integrate them into the study of composition. I cannot help but feel like the work the instructor is so far beyond simply passing on knowledge of theory and writing skills.

But that’s pedagogy, right? Developing teaching pedagogies is a never ending goal. The election year may be a magnifier, but it only magnifies what is already present. Spaces of learning should always take into account institutional contexts that already exist to affect where they will move, and particularly where it will move students within and outside of my classroom’s doors.

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