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I just returned from the exhilarating National Women’s Studies Association conference in Minneapolis, the first time we’ve met in person since the pandemic began. The keynote address this year was by Angela Davis, Gina Dent, Erica R. Meiners, and Beth E Richie, whose book, Abolition. Feminism. Now. is making waves, and not just for feminist scholars. I attended pedagogically focused panels that , which invites us to think about the ways in which institutions—including universities—prop up the carceral state and also how they might work toward dismantling it. I was grateful for the community of caring instructors who invited me to consider the book in light of writing-focused classrooms.
In this cultural moment, “abolition” refers to the movement to end state violence, writ large. The core argument of Davis et al’s text is that “the movement to end gender and sexual violence … can never be isolated from the work to end state violence” (2). Whether or not you subscribe to that perspective, you might agree that core aspects of “abolition” describe what we do in writing classrooms, which is to help students analyze power structures, mindsets, cultures of knowledge, and ways of being.
A few of these proposed “abolitionist pedagogy” practices seem particularly useful to writing classrooms:
- Practicing capacity building, in which we help students name and value the expertise they bring to our classrooms;
- Building relationships in our classrooms that foster trust and vulnerability, often with the help of “community agreements” about dealing respectfully with conflict that students co-write in the first week. Repeated check-ins with the class are a good idea: “How are these working for us?” Do we want to revise them?”
- Creating an environment in which everyone (including the instructor) can take risks, fail, support one another with generosity, and try again;
- Understanding that our students are whole, embodied humans, and that we can value not just what they think, but also acknowledge how they feel;
- Practicing slowing down, (as I have written about in an earlier post) and reflecting with students on the process of reading, interpretation, and changing our minds;
- Envisioning writing classroom versions of “mutual aid”—people working to meet each other’s needs—with resource-sharing, pooling expertise, and modeling collaboration;
- Trying “ungrading” practices that address the punitive power dynamics of traditional grading. Contract grading is one approach, explained by Michael A. Reyes in a recent Bits post, but there are many other “ungrading” practices informed by social justice goals, some of which I explain here.
- Valuing curiosity, imagination, experimentation, and even dreaming, perhaps by teaching speculative fiction, such as the short stories in Octavia’s Brood. After all, shouldn’t our writing classrooms be a space where students begin to articulate the world they want to work toward?
If none of those approaches speak to you, perhaps the “abolitionist pedagogy” panel’s simple but profound final suggestion might: consider asking your students on the final day of class, “What have we learned? What have we un-learned?” When we—and our students—understand the significance of the second question, we will fully understand why the writing classroom feels like such a revolutionary (and perhaps even an abolitionist) space.
Photo by April Lidinsky, 2022
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