Empowering Writing

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To keep a visual record of our class discussions for our first writing project, I took photos of each day’s class notes from the dry erase board. The photo that struck me the most was a list of qualities that the students admired about Chiminanda Ngozi Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story”, her use of language and the message of her TED Talk.  Here is the students’ list:

  • Inspiring
  • Truthful
  • Thoughtful
  • Empowering
  • Straightforward
  • Reflective
  • Passionate
  • Intelligent

Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize,” Adichie states.

Reflecting on the students’ work and rereading Adichie’s transcript draws me again to that word “empower.” In my first years out of graduate school, empowerment was discussed as a laudable goal for writers transitioning to college writing. However, empowerment did not have a fixed outcome that could be adequately assessed, and eventually its use fell out of fashion.

Throughout those discussions of our inability to measure empowerment, I remember my frustration. What would happen to the teaching and learning of writing if we focused only on quantifiable outcomes? What would happen to writing instruction if we removed the verb “empower” from our vocabulary?

I need not have worried. Years later, I have my response. The students have returned what they needed to the lexicon of their own education. The root word “empower” appears both in Adichie’s talk and in the students’ list of admirable traits about Adichie’s persuasive voice. Good writing, the students agreed, must be empowering for its audience.

In my inbox last night was a message containing the audio file and the lyrics of a song my student, Jeffrey Hack, had written about Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story.” The student had performed the song in class a few weeks before to supportive applause from peers.  That day, the students had completed and turned in their first college writing project. The mood was celebratory.

Listening to Jeffrey’s voice in the song recording reminds me of our work against dispossession and dehumanization. The combination of lyrics and music portray a deep yearning for a world in which we move beyond stereotypes and begin to fathom the multiple stories of people’s lives. Even more poignantly, the song calls out to us to gain self-awareness of our role in perpetuating stereotypes.

Here are the lyrics and the link for Jeffrey’s song: A Single Story (audio file)

I'm tired of feeling abandoned

These words are getting to my head

There's no way out, or to come about

Judging me by who I am

Stop trying to be something else

Instead go better yourself

These words need to stop right now

You're not helping anyone out

I know that it's wrong to be on the other side of criticizing someone else

We have a single story that we can't wait to say

But the truth of every matter is it isn't there to stay

We think so much about every negative in our way

And we find out that we're awesome at the end of every day

We need to stop trying to create something that is fake, a disgrace to the amazing human race

Jeffrey’s song and the students’ words from the list offer us significant challenges as teachers of writing. The students hope for inspiration, for straightforwardness, for passion. They challenge us to become truthful, empowering, and reflective. From these thoughtful considerations, we move on to Writing Project 2 and the never-ending work of empowerment.

About the Author
Susan Naomi Bernstein (she/they) writes, teaches, and quilts, in Queens, NY. She blogs for Bedford Bits, and her recent publications include “The Body Cannot Sustain an Insurrection” in the Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics and “After Basic Writing” in TETYC. Her book is Teaching Developmental Writing. Other publications include “Theory in Practice: Halloween Write-In,” with Ian James, William F. Martin, and Meghan Kelsey in Basic Writing eJournal 16.1, “An Unconventional Education: Letter to Basic Writing Practicum Students in Journal of Basic Writing 37.1, “Occupy Basic Writing: Pedagogy in the Wake of Austerity,” in Nancy Welch and Tony Scott’s collection Composition in the Age of Austerity. Susan also has published on Louisa May Alcott, and has exhibited her quilts in Phoenix, Arizona and Brooklyn, NY.