Thursday, January 20, 2011

One of the central questions that has come out of teaching non-traditional students has been how to make writing appeal to a group of people who have typically had little success with writing in the past. A group of people who generally are not strong readers, and generally did not do as well in high school as many of their peers. A group of people where the typical class will range in ages 18 to 35, and contain people from five different countries. They do not have very much in common with each other, much less anything academically in common, such as agreed upon standards or shared skills. Some have written ten page papers and some have trouble with basic grammar. Some read science fiction novels and keep blogs and some get all they need through their friends and television. Some are there to study advertising and some are there to study movie make up; the difference between a fashion designer and a fashion merchandiser or an industrial designer and an illustrator. "Commercial arts" is the banner all these different areas of study fall under, but they each require a particular knowledge and skill set. At the beginning of every course we could not be more different.

As the course moves forward, through introductions, games, lectures and assignments, we begin to get to know each other. This happens through the structure of the class and our shared experiences, as well through all the little asides that come out of being together. I saw a movie last night. Oh me too. What'd you see? Nice shoes what are you eating it smells good and we begin to make friends. Meanwhile something else is happening. We are writing about our lives and what's important to us. Each student takes a risk: what if this isn't good? What if other students laugh at me? What if the instructor fails me? Some risk more and some risk less, but regardless, we are putting ourselves out there in a form that is as unmediated an expression of self as there is: what do you think?

For non-native speakers, this risk involves not just the risk of self expression but the risk of misspeaking.The question stands: what right do you have to be here if you do not even speak the language or understand the culture? While this question is illustrated clearly by the problems that come with mastering a second language (when does one become a master?), its existential root can be found everywhere. For the student who barely survived high school because they were more interested in drawing pictures than preparing for No Child Left Behind, the risk involves years of bad grades and all the memories that come with. What right do you have to be here if you do not even have the most basic of skills? For the student who came back to school after twenty years of office work, leaving stability and self-sufficiency behind for instructors with no time and Facebook obsessed twenty somethings, what right do you have to be here? For the minority student, often the lone representative of their ethnicity in the room, and all the cultural trappings that come with that fact, what right do you have to be with all of these people who don't look like you? For the wealthy who don't have to get jobs but all thier friends do, what right do you have to tell your story when its subsidized by your parents? And for the underpaid teacher who has no idea what he's doing, what right do you have to stand up and lecture? To pass judgment on the quality of work? It goes on and we go through it together.

To come back to the original question, how to make writing matter, is difficult. What motivations would a person have to put into writing when there is so much that surrounds the act of writing before one can begin? It's as if the work load for the non-traditional student is doubled when compared to those who do not have such keenly developed neurosis surrounding the work of writing. Then again, judging by the way professional writers talk about procrastination, it seems like anticipatory dread is part of the act of writing, even for those who have made writing a large part of who they are. Regardless, these students need to work twice as hard to reach their college ready peers. In a more general sense, if writing is an act of self realization, finding words for the thing, the act of naming, like Adam named the animals or parents name their child, this is this, this = this, translating what we feel into words, our most fundamental definition of what it means to be human; it is important work to me. Thus, from here we lift off in hopes that the energy these beliefs provide is enough to push through the doubt.