Inappropriate Responses: Inviting (More) Disruption through an Activist Pedagogy

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Cecilia SheltonCecilia Shelton (nominated by Dr. Michelle Eble) is pursuing her PhD in Rhetoric, Writing, and Professional communication in the English department at East Carolina University. She expects to finish in May 2019. She has more than ten years of experience teaching college writing so she has taught lots of different courses. Her favorite course was one called "Critical Writing Seminar" that married critical theories, pop culture, and writing and tried to employ a code-meshing pedagogy. Most recently, she has been teaching Writing Foundations courses (first and second year writing), Writing for Business and Industry, and Scientific Writing. Her research interests explore the intersections of cultural rhetorics and technical communication in activist work and social movement theory. She is also a 2018 CCCC Scholar for the Dream and a 2018 recipient of ECU's Diversity and Inclusion Award.


Students and their professors often have very different visions for what should come of a writing course, but on this we can agree: the first-year writing course is overloaded with expectations. As the single course with perhaps the most stakeholders invested in its outcomes, participating in the first-year writing classroom as a teacher or a student is a high stakes endeavor. For students who enter the classroom with 13 years of conditioning against their nonstandard cultural rhetorical practices—spoken, written, and otherwise—the stakes are even higher and the students are risk averse because of it.


In my time as a writing center administrator and an English instructor at an HBCU, my pedagogy became rooted in teaching students to become critical consumers and producers of language. That goal means different things to different teachers and students; for almost all Black students—regardless of their preparation for and perceived skill in writing—it means grappling with the probability that their race will likely always influence the way their language use is consumed and interpreted no matter how precisely they align themselves with standard English. I think it can also mean teaching students to see their cultural rhetorics as linguistic resources (not deficits) in producing texts that speak truth to power in the academy.  


The texts we hold up in our classrooms as worthy of study and the values imbued in our assignments betray our language politics. My "Soundtrack of the American Dream" assignment was my first real attempt to align my pedagogy with my language politics. In it, I ask students to "prepare a creative interpretation of the American Dream by composing an album cover and writing a track list for an album." More and more rhetoric and composition scholars are challenging the cannon and disrupting stale notions of expertise to explore new voices as models in the composition classroom. But how often are scholars willing (or allowed) to invite the same kinds of disruptions from students?


The Soundtrack of the American Dream assignment is, essentially, a much more interesting version of a critical analysis essay. It asks students to resist assumptions and generalizations of the “American Dream,” and it requires them to find concrete examples that consider the component parts of this myth and the significance of those parts to the whole concept (in other words, analysis). But it does this on terms that the student sets for themselves.


By foregrounding music as a cultural artifact that reflects the American Dream, students are free to assign importance and value to the voices that they see as credible. Although class discussions root everyone’s exploration in the same popular associations with the American Dream—money, houses, marriage, family, self-determination, etc.—students can approach these associations through the lens of their lived experience. Perhaps most importantly, students are explicitly invited to use the linguistic resources that best serve the lived experiences that they want to amplify in explaining and reflecting on the American Dream.


Because this assignment is now more than five years old, I often think about how it is aging. When I was much closer to it, I wrote about the pedagogical exploration that it represents here: Disrupting Authority . Having taught first-year writing less and less as I accumulate teaching experience and sharpen my pedagogy, I haven’t had many opportunities to revisit and revise the assignment. I expect that many scholars with a number of years of teaching experience share this retrospective stance. What could I do better here? How does my current research trajectory and pedagogical stance inform a project like this one?


The political and social urgency of this moment has brought resistance and activist rhetorics to the center of my research agenda and pedagogical commitments. Not only am I interested in students becoming critical producers and consumers of language, but I am also determined to support their advocacy and intervention in the systems they observe. Stevens (2009) offers a perspective that challenges me to see new opportunities in my Soundtrack of the American Dream assignment. She argues that “rhetors have a responsibility to choose between social reproduction and change, and part of this responsibility is to choose whether or not to accept rhetorical situations, and the social relations that construct them, as presented” (50). She goes on to argue in favor of inappropriate rhetorical strategies or even outright rejection of the rhetorical situation as potentially effective responses for students in our writing classrooms.


What would it look like for my students to outright reject the premise of an American Dream at all? Given the realities of the lived experiences of many people in this country, that kind of response seems to reflect not only critical thinking but also a true exigence for their writing outside my classroom and with audiences beyond the academy. Am I inviting the kind of responses that enable this sort of disruption and academic success at the same time? Shouldn’t I be? Are you? How are we preparing students to use language to break systems, not just see them? 


Among all of the many ways that first-year writing courses have been customized to meet specific institutional (and other) contexts, I am most heartened by those that offer students a way to think about language over strict guidelines for its usage. In a contemporary knowledge economy where technology and artificial intelligence can do more and more of the sentence level work that props up our bigoted notion of a standard variety of English—I want to give students more—preparing them to engage as active citizens of the world who use their critical thinking and composing skills to advocate for equity and justice feels right to me.


To view Cecilia’s assignment, visit The Soundtrack of the American Dream. To learn more about the Bedford New Scholars advisory board, visit the Bedford New Scholars page on the Macmillan English Community.


Stevens, S. M. (2009). Dreaming to change our situation: Reconfiguring the exigence for student writing. In Stevens, S. & Malesh, P. M. (Eds.) Active voices: Composing a rhetoric for social movements (47-68). Albany: Statue University New York Press.

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This is the shared account for the Bedford New Scholars TA Advisory Board.