(Re)Humanizing the Discipline: Students' Critical Story-ing as a Resource Archive
Sherita V. Roundtree
In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s widely circulated 2009 TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story,” she addresses the implications of critical storytelling for its potential to nuance narratives of the African diaspora and challenge systems that centralize white American experiences as the standard for human experiences. Western influences often cause a reduction of cultures and people who disrupt the operationalization of what Frankie Condon refers to as “whiteliness”—“learned ways of knowing and doing characterized by a racialized (white) sense of oneself as best equipped to judge, to preach, and to suffer”—down to stereotypes (34). However, the act of critical storytelling accounts for the interlocking subject positions of the writer(s) and their readership to dismantle the commodification of those narratives.
Adichie explains that “Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.” In my first-year writing courses, I encourage students to recognize when and how stories get told, by whom, and the potential affordances and limitations of sharing stories to help them locate their voices within the larger academic system—where their stories empower and humanize themselves as well as their peers. By composing and sharing stories as the basis of their research, my students challenge the narrative that they are outsiders attempting to establish themselves inside a discourse they can only imitate or parody (Bartholomae 11). Their stories allow them to reinvent their educational experience. In this sense, students’ stories and their relationship to one another do not reinvent but instead they reimagine what expertise looks like and who has the right to be viewed as an expert.
In my first-year writing courses, we begin the semester by acknowledging that using first-person is not taboo but instead a rhetorical tool that reaches target audiences within specific genres of writing. My students and I work through some of the reluctance they have toward writing and the adopted beliefs that they cannot write. Acknowledgements of their engagement with the rhetorical situation and their writing experiences overall—by myself as their writing professor and by their peers—pushes my students to think about what criteria they use to characterize academic writing. Storying asks students to reflect on their language memories and subject positions in direct relationship to discourse communities. Discourse communities function similarly to what David Bartholomae refers to as “commonplaces” in his classic and widely cited article “Inventing the University.” As Bartholomae explains, commonplaces are “a point of reference and a set of ‘prearticulated’ explanations that are readily available to organize and interpret experience” (7-8). I argue that discourse communities are more malleable than what Bartholomae makes of commonplaces, but they both work to “organize and interpret experience” based on a certain set of (evolving) relational characteristics.
This chapter highlights how storying moves students from inventing the university to actively reinventing the university. I assert that student writing does not develop from a deficit, and they are not outsiders fighting for privileged knowledge. Instead, in the case of my students, they start with the knowledge they already have and make it accessible as a means of regenerating knowledge among their peers. In this chapter, I provide an overview of the following: 1) my first-year writing course; 2) the role that stories play in students’ analysis of one another’s subject positions through the lenses of privilege and power; 3) my students’ Critical Storying Essay assignment; and 4) the potential of student-centered and student-led digital archives of student writing. Localized, digital archives can help students actively see themselves as members of discourse communities within and outside of the university. I suggest that when given the opportunity, students’ storying cultivates community-in-context by understanding the ways that expertise manifests inside and outside of the university.
Thematically, my first-year writing courses attempt to demystify notions of the United States as a “melting pot” society by rhetorically analyzing representations of varieties of English through the lenses of privilege and power. Our discussion of representations of English includes Appalachian, Black, Chicanx, Standard American, code meshing, code switching, etc. Students reflect on their knowledge of language standards and language practices. By doing so, they recognize the language tools they already employ and how those practices work within and butt against standards of academic writing in the university. Bartholomae suggests that students have to “invent the university by assembling and mimicking its language, finding some compromise between idiosyncrasy, a personal history, and the requirements of convention, the history of a discipline” (5). However, I suggest that students reinvent the university through the stories they tell about their relationship to language and how it speaks to the interests and experiences of discourse communities. Reinventing the university means learning and understanding the rules that Bartholomae suggests govern academic writing in order to make informed decisions about when and how to disrupt those rules.
As a new assistant professor at a university in the Baltimore-metropolitan area, my course syllabus directly accounts for what I have learned about the student population from my colleagues and my own experiential knowledge. Growing up about twenty miles north of the university, I used my familiarity with the area to help anticipate some of my students’ potential interests and needs. Discussions about how and when they use English has served as a commonplace for my students. As a class, we reviewed texts such as Marie Foley’s “Unteaching the Five Paragraph Essay,” Vershawn Ashanti Young’s “Should Writers Use They Own English,” Gloria Anzaldúa’s “How to Tame a Wild Tongue,” Ijeoma Oluo’s “Why Am I Always Being Told to ‘Check My Privilege?’” etc. Through these critical readings, students explored how language representations inform our language perceptions as writers and our perceptions of others’ relationship to language in the United States.
In my multiple sections of first-year writing, students used the terms “power” and “privilege” as analytics for reading and assessing their assigned texts as well as reading their and their peers’ writing rhetorically. As the semester progressed, students’ definitions and understandings of the terms evolved. The way scholars employed and reimagined power and privilege, but also based on what they came to learn about their own language practices, begged students to see that the terms are not fixed. Instead, their magnitude often varies within the stories that we tell. Adichie states that “Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of the person. The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story and to start with, ‘secondly.’” One of the dangers we reproduce when we tell singularized stories is dehumanizing and minimizing the experiential knowledge of others in our immediate communities and in proximity to our communities. In this sense, Adichie amplifies Oluo’s summary of privilege. Oluo says privilege is “an advantage or set of advantages that you have that others do not,” such as the opportunity to tell a story without the legitimacy of that experience being called into question (59).
As I became more familiar with my new university and my students, I noticed some distinctions in how and with whom they interacted. Several of my students within and across sections of my first-year writing course appeared to be friends outside of the course and talked with one another about the work we were doing within the course. In part, these connections may have been encouraged by the writing groups that students had in their individual course sections. Around the fourth week of the semester, I individually ask students to give information on what they want from a writing group, what they have to offer a writing group, the names of peers they want in their writing group, and the name of peers they do not want in their writing group (with no explanations). Students then worked to support one another and generate knowledge as they worked on their individual projects. Our course cultivated community and network-building experiences through these writing groups, collaborative notetaking (Hitt), a collaborative annotated bibliography, and our approaches to classroom discussion.
My students and I actively challenged power dynamics in the classroom by relocating where we recognize and privilege expertise. For example, through writing groups, students developed a sense of confidence with sharing their writing with a consistent audience beyond myself as their instructor, but they also collaborated with one another during nearly every class meeting—sharing ideas, offering feedback, generating questions and knowledge, etc. Bartholomae argues that to speak from a status of privilege, “the writer can either speak to us in our terms—in the privileged language of university discourse—or, in default (or in defiance), he can speak to us as though we were children, offering us the wisdom of experience” (8). However, through exercises like our collaborative annotated bibliography, where I introduce students to citation organizing software like Zotero; and collaborative notetaking, which Allison Hitt explains “emphasize[s] accounting for the multiple ways different people access the same content or environment,” students constantly reflected on their subjectivities through the lenses of privilege and power as a means of dismantling it. But our classroom valuing community did not account for my students’ connections to one another across my first-year writing sections.
While I have not quite determined what contributed to students’ out-of-class engagement with one another, I thought about how the easefulness of these relationships could become an asset to their learning. What are the ways they can form stronger understandings of discourse communities alongside the peers in their assigned section of first-year writing and across my other sections of first-year writing? The Critical Storying Essay became a vehicle for imagining this type of cross-sectional dialogue across student writing.
Critical Storying as Resistance and Reclamation
The Critical Story-ing Essay assignment challenged students’ understandings about what academic writing can look like and invited them to examine their own connections to our course theme: representations of varieties of English. “Paper 1: Critical Storying” asks students to write about “a single memory or a series of related memories that detail [their] relationship to varieties of English” as well as “the significance of their storying” and how it offers an understanding of privilege and power to their audience(s) (Roundtree). Ultimately, students “write a narrative that critically examines a moment where [they] had to think about [their] own use of English, a moment when [they] witnessed or experienced varieties of English, the role that one form or multiple forms of English has played in [their] education, etc.” The Critical Storying Essay served as the first assignment in a series of six scaffolded writing assignments that culminate with an analytical research paper, where students use elements of their storying as objects of analysis.
In the construction of this assignment, I primarily turned to the theoretical frameworks of Valerie Kinloch and Timothy San Pedro’s “The Space Between Listening and Storying: Foundations for Projects in Humanization,” San Pedro's "Silences as Shields: Agency and Resistances among Native American Students in the Urban Southwest," and Baker-Bell’s “For Loretta: A Black Woman Literacy Scholar’s Journey to Prioritizing Self-Preservation and Black Feminist-Womanist Storytelling” as exemplifications of writing as a tool of resistance and reclamation, or what Baker-Bell calls “existence and resistance” (528). Kinloch and San Pedro's co-authored chapter describes storying as “a place . . . where the convergence of theory and method, and theory and practice, intersect to push us to listen to the questions we raise and vignettes we offer” (22). From this definition, Kinloch and San Pedro call for a “dialogic spiral” that positions listening as a crucial element of participating in humanizing experiences (30). This interaction counters Bartholomae’s assertion that “students have to appropriate (or be appropriated by) a specialized discourse” (4) but it still recognizes the significance of commonplaces as they “orient ourselves to the world” (7). Whether geographical or temporal, storying—as defined by Kinloch and San Pedro—works in tandem with participating parties’ proximity and/or synchronicity. Here, students are aware of their active exchange with other students.
San Pedro further develops the concept of storying in “Silences as Shields” by stating that “storying is also dialogic sharing and reflecting of lived realities through the construction of stories with another person or persons in order to create and sustain humanizing relationships built upon trust and respect for one another” (9). Here, San Pedro accounts for the relational value of storying and begins to push against storying as a fixed practice, although he does not explicitly address mobility. In this sense, storying is a convergence of praxis and dialogue within a trusting relationship. Storying participants must be willing to bring as much as they take, whether immediately or later in their journey. The process is a reciprocal dialogue, which most commonly takes place when individuals correspond face-to-face. Participants add to the storying of one another in a way that not only expands their capacity to interrogate their subjectivity but also continuously reshapes shared meanings of their connection to others. In this sense, those involved in storying must listen to themselves as well as those with whom they are sharing their story.
The exigency for the Critical Storying Essay invites students to examine how their experiences do not operate in a bubble, but, instead, work in dialogue with larger socio-political conversations that push them to identify when and how privilege and power show up in their discourse communities. Students explore their relationship to our course, the university, academic writing, but also one another and the communities with stake in the themes that emerge from their storying. However, to story also means to acknowledge the genesis of Black women scholars storying as historical and rooted in a legacy of efforts beyond one’s immediate positionality. Black women scholars have made both formal and symbolic contributions, making them key players in activism and advocacy for Black people’s storying. They have been the foremothers of the humanistic vision, a type of humanizing practice rooted in African culture and Black women’s thoughts that leads to social change in the Black community.
In the holistic sense, the humanistic vision positions the progress of one’s community as key to achieving “communalism” (Harvell 1056). Baker-Bell’s “For Loretta” reframes the possibility and necessity of storytelling and adds another layer of complexity to understandings of storying as contributing to the survival of one’s community. In what Baker-Bell refers to as “Black feminist-womanist storytelling,” she explains:
[It] is a methodology that weaves together autoethnography, the African American female language and literacy tradition, Black feminist/womanist theories, and story-telling to create an approach that provides Black women with a method for collecting our stories, writing our stories, analyzing our stories, and theorizing our stories at the same time as healing from them. (531)
Writing scholarship often discusses and analyzes students’ writing disassociated from them in ways that commodify their processes. It views them as outsiders attempting to get in or perform expertise. Baker-Bell’s appeal to an individual’s humanity through storytelling directly speaks to Kinloch and San Pedro’s charge. Storying begs those involved to be so engaged in dialogue that their correspondence becomes entangled and woven together––nearly becoming singular: one voice (Kinloch and San Pedro 32). My take on storying asks the students to consider their writing within a network of complementary and competing narratives. Students make new connections through the process of storying, which allows them to expand and redefine themselves within and in relation to the communities to whom they must be accountable. The act of reading and sharing one another’s storying helps to further mobilize a humanistic vision.
Student Writing Resource Archive
In the development of the critical storying assignment, I intentionally left the prompt open-ended. I wanted students to be able to see space for themselves in the prompt and to echo the need for “alternatives to the formula” expressed in Foley’s “Unteaching the Five-Paragraph Essay,” which students kicked off the semester reading. Despite our conversations about creativity, approaches to organizing the details of storying via Foley’s and Oluo’s writings, and the affordances of exploring one’s own written voice within a system that suggests they shouldn’t, students still had one major request: they wanted samples. They wanted to know what other students were doing and/or had done as well as imagine possibilities for what they could do. Bartholomae also explains that “It is very hard for [students] to take on the role—the voice, the person—of an authority whose authority is rooted in scholarship, analysis, or research” (6). Students struggled to see themselves in the storying of published texts that we thoroughly analyzed and discussed as a class, but student samples eased their concerns—even if the samples greatly differed from one another. They disassociated the rhetorical moves of the published storying of scholars from their own and the storying they saw in the student samples. They characterized the published storying as operating within mainstream standards of academic discourse that they had difficulty mimicking.
For example, some students discussed their linguistic entanglements as second-generation immigrants in the United States who have lost features of home languages since primarily speaking English everywhere else but home. Other students have written about navigating issues of code-switching, identity, and workplace expectations as Black people and the emotional toll it can take on perceptions of belonging. In addition, students have explored the role that music literacy has played in their lives and how it has enabled them to read music as well as challenge the ways that prioritizing being able to read music discounts cultural knowledge and ways of knowing that recognize literacy as more than reading and writing. While considering other facets of music, students have also written about the ways that Hip Hop has expanded their lexicon and the tempo at which they receive and understand spoken communication. Some of my women students have developed their storying to challenge the ways that dominant discourse genders language and linguistic behaviors, such as cussing or using slang. Students identify the ways that location, people, time, etc. has directly informed their relationship to English varieties. However, I did not immediately recognize students’ need to see themselves within and through writing that resembled their own.
Like many teachers who assign an essay for the first time, I did not have student samples to show my students. In response, I introduced my critical storying anecdotally and leaned heavily on peer review within their writing groups as an opportunity for them to both receive feedback and for them to see how their peers were approaching the assignment. But I could not help but notice the overlapping themes in student writing across my sections of first-year writing and how students were already facilitating informal cross-sectional networks of learning. My students were already connecting with one another across sections of my first-year writing courses and using one another as resources. This reinforces the relational, invitational, and agential possibilities of storying, which I believe can be channeled through an online archive modeled after The Ohio State University-housed Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives (DALN). Given my experience teaching with DALN in the past, where I asked students to review and analyze a selection of self-interest directed literacy narratives before writing their own, I suggest that a student-centered and student-maintained, localized archive has the potential to benefit students’ perceptions of their own writing as operating in a series of meaningful discourse communities.
Modeling the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives (DALN)
Kathryn Comer and Michael Harker claim the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives “contains not only narratives of literacy in-development but also examples of literacy-in-practice,” which makes the DALN “more process than product” (67). Comer and Harker seek to collect the various ways and the extent to which teachers are using the DALN in their classes, not as a nod to the best pedagogical practices but as an acknowledgment that the DALN allows for this variety of engagements (68). This variety of engagements acknowledges the archival shift and the public turn (a reference to Paula Mathieu) that Comer and Harker suggest is taking place in the field (81). They found that almost half of the pedagogical experiments from their survey took place in first-year writing classes (69). However, I am interested in thinking about how students can incorporate digital archiving into their understandings about audience, discourse communities, and standards for evaluating the value of writing. How can the DALN as a model, on a localized scale, allow students to self-direct the pursuit of their interests while helping to maintain the archive itself by providing what Krista Bryson calls “subversive and traditional frameworks” (254)?
Writing students already have access to the foundations of what it means to be an archival researcher, curator, and digital publisher (Comer and Harker 70-72). From an archival point of view, Comer and Harker explain that the DALN—and I argue, digital archives like it—offer students “the opportunity to access, investigate, and compare first-person accounts of literacy (and, often, related artifacts) that would be nearly impossible to gather individually” (70). Digital archives provide access and offer students an opportunity to see similar lived experiences reflected via discourse practices that they align with their own. Students also have an opportunity to think about what insights other students desire access from within their storying. Particularly, my classroom discussions about tagging and keywords for the collaborative annotated bibliography activity helped reinforce what they learned about identifying search terms when using library databases and identifying key themes when rhetorically analyzing readings. Such critical thinking skills about their writing and the writing of others helps students to develop a schema for classifying and organizing entries into a digital archive that gives them access to storying drafts across sections and semesters of my first-year writing course. Dating the entries can also help students to see in concrete terms how discourse communities evolve over time and across themes.
Issues of Ownership
Despite potentially opening up the accessibility of students’ critical storying to other students while also making more accessible the genre conventions of academic writing, I argue that storying remains inherently invitational and operates within and against the processes of academic discourse. In order for storying to take place, the writer must invite the reader into the interaction based on personal investment in the subject matter and shared experiences. I suggest that storying is a meeting of storytelling and literacy narratives.
In “Toward a Field of Intersectionality Studies: Theory, Applications, and Praxis,” Sumi Cho et al. suggest that intersectionality mainly operates as heuristic device (786) that can “usefully be framed as representing three loosely defined sets of engagements” (785). Yet, their focus on the third engagement of intersectionality also happens to be the approach that is most reflective of how I frame intersectionality in relation to storying. The third approach suggests that “. . . while intersectionality has been the subject of disciplinary travel, it is far from being only an academic project. Both in its earliest articulations and in its subsequent travels, praxis has been a key site of intersectional critique and intervention” (786). The reference to praxis in Cho et al.’s articulation of intersectionality can be connected to Kinloch and San Pedro’s reference to praxis in their definition of storying—it is constantly being reshaped and defined based on the actors present and material affordances and/or constraints.
Comer and Harker explain that there has been a rise in popularity of literacy narratives as a genre, but with this rise in popularity there has also been several critiques of the function of literacy narratives. More specifically, publishing polished, exemplar narratives “preserve limited conceptions about literacy and literacy development” and such samples are not reflective of writing varieties or writing processes (66). Although there have been critiques of literacy narratives as a genre, Comer and Harker explain that the advantages that students receive from engaging with literacy narratives and exploring their own literacy narratives contends with the critiques. When students’ course assignments require work with literacy narratives, they are able to develop confidence, practice self-reflection, gain a critical perspective, participate in identity construction, and aid in community building (Comer and Harker 66-67). I believe the same is true for storying. The interrelated nature of storying as a meeting between storytelling and literacy narratives provides students with a foundation to both learn and teach via the sharing and circulation of their critical storying.
Digital archival work like the DALN illuminates the necessity of having access to writing that helps frame one’s own memories of the past and present evaluations of whose writing holds value in U.S. academic institutions. Yet, a localized, digital archive that is generated within a course or even within a writing program that has standardized writing assignments encourages students to reinvent their education. Writing Studies scholarship has often discussed student writing as a site of research for scholars of writing about the experiences of students without inviting students in at the stages of analysis and/or production. The relational, invitational, and agential characteristics of storying allow students to both reclaim and resist narratives about when and how we value experiential knowledge around issues of language and dialects. Assignments like the Critical Storying Essay offer students opportunities to employ social justice analytics through power and privilege but also to see how rhetoric implicates them within larger discourse communities. Localized, digital archives serve as a means of granting access and redirecting how we prioritize expertise. When students have direct access to local discourse communities that speak back to their visions of themselves, they are able to help themselves and their peers dismantle knowledge privileging and build self-directed knowledge-seeking platforms that reach within and among themselves.
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