Celebrating an Archive of Students’ Writing to Learn

I’d like to celebrate an archive of learning emerging from an energizing class I taught in spring 2018. I wish I could open up and read entries from the digital folders where I’ve filed their exciting texts. You’d find distinctive voices. Analyses grounded in thoughtful interviews and site visits. Careful re-readings of literary texts to cull life-significant take-aways. Critiques of social media and incisive interpretation of popular culture imagery. Incorporation of traditional secondary sources into complex arguments also supported by creative primary research. Links back to class discussion and readings, now seen more clearly from an end-of-semester perspective. Ably marshalled charts of data. Visually appealing and rhetorically effective photographs. Reading these pieces, I bet you’d feel encouraged about what university students can do.

Resisting a Context of Negative Reporting

I realize this blog post bucks an unfortunate (maybe unavoidable?) seasonal trend of stories about student failings. As the academic year pushes to a close, twitter and other social media have been lighting up with faculty members’ jokes (and moans) about their students’ end-of-term shortfalls.

Possibly these stories arise more from the teacher corps pretty exhausted and seeking to recharge sagging energy levels via “from the trenches” story-telling. But the complaints—even the “funny” ones—often fall flat. Some of them, like a tweet about students’ false tales of a grandparent’s death being an avoidance strategy instructors should combat, have elicited a round of critique from multiple perspectives. (Students and former students shared poignant accounts of real tragedies that their less-than-responsive teachers answered with a seemingly uncaring assertion of inflexible deadlines. A few seasoned instructors counseled empathy by offering up anecdotes of times when they learned about students’ genuine challenges and offered support.)

More complicated to navigate, and admittedly more discouraging than the occasional potentially bogus request for a deadline extension, are those instances of academic dishonesty that lead us to broader questions about moral responsibility in educational settings. My own institution, TCU, has recently been struggling with a painful case involving a dozen students who, according to a Fort Worth Star Telegram account, were allegedly “using a popular study app [Quizlet] to cheat,” rather than to prepare for tests ethically via the online study aid. If charges like these are proven true, such a situation makes us question the level of commitment the students in question are bringing to our classrooms.

Learning from Students’ Writing

In the face of these less-than-uplifting stories, let me offer a reminder about the energy, commitment—the sheer JOY in learning—that many university students do bring to their work.

In spring 2018, I had one of those classes all educators dream about. Teaching our English Department research seminar for juniors, I like to think part of what made the course special was the theme I chose, “Finding Home: Moving, Migration, and Diaspora.” But I’m sure another important factor in the high quality of the students’ final projects was their commitment to each other’s learning. They read and responded to each other’s project plans and early drafts. They talked about their work in class with as much seriousness as they gave to our assigned readings from literature and others’ multi-disciplinary scholarship.

Last week, I had the pleasure of seeing the results of that collaborative energy when grading their final papers. Truly, as I made my way through their submissions, I would often forget that I was supposed to be “marking” their papers to provide feedback that went beyond the frequent “bravo” notes I was typing in the margins. I pushed myself to give specific corrections and directions for future work when they stumbled.

Students’ final projects reflected both the range of individual interests and the personal experiences they brought to the classroom. Their papers also drew from their semester-long immersion in a range of genres tied to our theme. From Robert Conley’s Mountain Windsong novel about the Cherokee Removal to Mohsin Hamid’s recent Exit West examination of refugees’ plight, we dug into extended imaginative narratives with powerful historical connections. In between, students read such compelling historical narratives as Paulette Jiles’s News of the World and Francisco Jiménez’s The Circuit, along with a cluster of Asian American novels focused on our course themes. In class discussions, they critiqued images stereotyping nineteenth-century Chinese and Irish immigrants. They interviewed their own family members and neighbors about past experiences moving to a new home. They wrote about their own dislocations. They watched compelling documentaries like Which Way Home? and Harvest of Loneliness, read poetry from canonical and non-canonical writers, and explored current press coverage of questions about immigration, diaspora—and national protectionism.

Their research and writing for end-of-course projects has now added in substantive ways to my own understanding of our course themes and questions. One student blended on-site research into how gentrification in Austin is impacting African Americans with a careful survey of scholarship, which he set in dialogue with his own family’s history in Texas. Another interviewed several generations of family members about their ties to their Mexican homeland. Another produced a compelling set of portraits drawn from interviewing several alumni of a school her parents have sponsored in Nairobi, Kenya, in a neighborhood whose residents were previously cut off from any opportunity to attend school. Another, stretching beyond his own personal Euro-American heritage, gathered and studied a collection of texts by Chicano/a authors whose works aligned with our course theme—because he wants to support his mixed-race son’s need to know about that side of the young boy’s family background.

More traditional historical and literary pathways to analysis produced equally compelling products. One student identified a pair of 2017 coming-of-age films dealing with “finding home”—Lady Bird and The Florida Project—and used course concepts to show how they extended beyond familiar elements of that genre to examine how place and social class constraints can limit access to mobility in America, but also how such factors can be overcome. Another revisited earlier reading from the course—nineteenth-century poetry by Caroline Norton about a “Creole Girl” from the Caribbean being transplanted to an unwelcoming Britain—to set that author’s larger body of writings in a context of proto-feminist political critique. Still another—a joint history/English major—applied his life-long fascination with trains and train history to revisit a number of our course readings (and several other recent films and novels) to create a compelling argument about how representations of trains’ role in moving peoples (both settlers and people displaced by them) have shaped our view of “American” homelands.

One hope I take from this impressive group of students and their projects is that you’ll be reading published versions of their writing soon—both articles based on these research projects and story-telling they’ll be doing in a number of professional roles.

A related affirmation I want to make to you, as you’ll doubtless bump up against more of the disheartening accounts of university and K-12 classrooms that are claiming much media space these days, is this: many under-reported cases of generative student learning in action go unreported. Student authors in our university classrooms are doing important research and producing inspiring writing. And they’re getting ready to share their stories with the larger world. Stay tuned.

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