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“Insofar as I can tell you what it is to suffer, perhaps I can help you to suffer less.”
- James Baldwin on struggles of writing and writers. From“The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity.”
At the beginning of next year, I will return to teaching first-year writing in-person for the first time since March 2020. In reflecting on this transition, I gave myself a three-part assignment for revising the course, and starting with James Baldwin’s lecture “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity.” This semester, as explained in a recent post, I am once again introducing James Baldwin’s lecture/essay “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity” as the primary source for the first semester of First-Year English (College Writing 1).
- Ask why I need to revise the assignment
By using backwards planning, I can identify the purpose of the course: to practice reading, analyzing, and writing about difficult sources, and for students to practice choosing sources (beyond Google) to support the most significant points in their own writing.
To a certain extent, this English class might seem traditional, and in a sense it is because the course focuses on critical analysis of source materials. However, by sources, I include anything that can be described as multimedia including, as appropriate, students’ intersectional identities, experiences, and language(s). Students also can refer to interpretations of media of their choosing, such as but not limited to, social media, the arts, and STEM courses. Interpretation is practiced throughout the semester, and culminates in the final assignment. My thought is to invite students to consider the contemporary relevance of Baldwin’s lecture in their own lives and in the lives of their communities.
- Listen to, watch, and/or reread the source for the first assignment.
I found myself reimagining what students might need to better understand the language of the lecture. Although I made a brief video early in the pandemic to introduce “Artist’s Struggle” and Baldwin’s work, the video now seemed dated. To revise, I added more details about the connections between Baldwin’s life and work. I also revised the course introduction video to give more emphasis on Baldwin, whose writing we will study throughout the semester. Making and revising the videos helped me understand more about visual and auditory learning, beyond the words on the page or screen, as well as class discussions, group work, and minilessons. The videos compelled me to introduce complicated concepts in a very short time frame, and will allow me to return to and build on those concepts throughout College Writing 1.
As I searched for video and audio of Baldwin’s many public speeches, and television (note: content alert for strong language) and radio appearances, I discovered Lofi Hiphop James Baldwin Speeches, more than three hours of Baldwin’s finest works set to lofi music. Since “Artist’s Struggle” wasn’t included in this compilation, I made my own video of “Artist’s Struggle,” set to royalty free ambient music from Bensound.com. For me, the beats of the music helped emphasize the cadence and emotion in Baldwin’s voice, and seemed to slow down the lecture, drawing more attention to specific words and phrases that I might have missed before. Years ago, in grad school, my comparative literature professor emphasized the process of defamiliarizing– making the familiar strange or new. I listen to the words and ambient music as I prepare my class, and as I write blogs– and this practice allows me to defamiliarize the lecture which, in turn, offers a new approach to Baldwin’s work and a renewed approach to teaching.
- Imagine students encountering this source for the first time
Because I have presented Baldwin’s lecture many times, I needed a new way to hear Baldwin’s words so that I could listen more closely. I decided that I would try translation, inviting students to translate and update a 1960s source into language for 2020s readers. My ideas on teaching translation as a first assignment in a first-year writing class are informed by the work of Ayash (2020), as well as Kiernan, Meier, and Wang (2016; 2017).
To clarify, here’s what I don’t mean:
- One-to-one correspondence between the words of the source’s original language into a target language
- Taking sources from students’ home languages and translating the sources into a target language (usually English)
- Taking sources from a target language (usually English) and translating the sources into students’ home language
By translation, I mean the process of analysis–breaking down a complicated piece by piece, so that the writer and the writer’s audience can create meaning from a complicated source and come to an understanding, in their own words, of the source’s significance. Although students might engage with these practices as part of their own processes of translation, these practices, on their own, will not constitute the whole of their first writing project. What I do mean, as stated above, is taking a source written in 1900s English and translating that source into students’ 2020s languages, including multimedia. In this sense, it is important to note that Baldwin spoke Black English and French, and was steeped in his experiences as a teenage evangelist, and by the novels of the American writer Henry James. All of these languages played a role in Baldwin’s writing.
The structure of Writing Project 1 would look something like this. Note that the processes of translation are not linear, but are numbered here for clarity:
- What section of “Artist’s Struggle” did you choose and why did you choose it?
- What details should the audience look for in the original source? Why are these details significant? After this explanation, copy the original section into your paper.
- What details should the audience look for in your translation? Why are these details significant? After this explanation, copy your translation into your paper.
- What processes did you use in creating this translation? What language(s) did you use to give the section meaning? Did you consider your own life experiences as you created the translation? Did you do any multimedia work? If so, send a link with your work, or attach a photo of your work to your paper submission, or email the photo to me.
- Reflect on your work for Writing Project 1 in general. What did you learn from writing this translation? What skills might be applicable to other courses or life experiences? What was your learning significant?
With these practices, I hope to refocus the affordances of in-person teaching, while at the same time staying mindful of lessons learned online. I look forward to returning to Baldwin’s lecture in the upcoming semester– and to implementing many of the important teaching tools and pedagogy from remote learning to help ground students’ learning and to continue to shape possibilities for teaching in post-lockdown face-to-face classrooms.
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