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As the semester winds down, the work winds up for students and teachers. The end is within reach, and the path has suddenly become foggy. What needs to happen so that students can complete the course on time, and also grow more committed to actively invest in the challenges and joys of writing? How can I create lessons to reinforce writing as a process of discovery, and not merely the process of filling out a template?
My response at the end of the 2021-22 academic year is more circumspect than ever before. The short answer is both: Writing can be a process of discovery, and templates might help students to conceptualize how that process might evolve. But for students the problems of how persist. How can writers narrow a topic? If writers must narrow their topics, how can they write the required number of pages for the essay? How many quotes can be used to lengthen the essay? How can this essay possibly be completed by the due date?
These questions are valid and necessary for students’ survival in college, as well as completing the course work on time. At the same time, I grapple with my own how questions. How can I help students understand that analysis involves discovering and interpreting their own thoughts about their sources? How can I convince students to try free writing before using Google or the library databases? How can I persuade students to connect to their essay topics and to become more present in their own writing processes and products?
I don’t have easy answers to these questions, and on Tuesday I was struggling with challenges of my own. The draft of the Supreme Court decision on Roe v. Wade had just been published, and I felt frustrated and helpless. I had just turned fifteen when the Supreme Court affirmed Roe, too young to understand all of the implications but old enough to know people who were or had been unintentionally pregnant, and old enough to worry about becoming unintentionally pregnant myself. Those people were relatives and the parents of friends, people with children running up and down our block in a Midwestern suburb, people who often could not manage their own dreams and the needs of their children at the same time. It was the last thing I wanted for myself, or for anyone else.
These worries took up too much space in my brain, and only recently have I become aware of the consequences of growing up with so much space given over to fear. My hope is that no other generation will ever have to live in a world without reproductive choices, and perhaps, as a white woman, my hope seems naïve. The reality is that poor and working-class people of color seeking an abortion would be disproportionately impacted if Roe were to be declared illegal.
That Tuesday, after a day of online classes, exhausted and in need of a nap, I revised plans for the next lesson. It was close to dinner time. I knew that there was a demonstration at Foley Square in downtown Manhattan, and I also knew that my pandemic anxiety had prevented me from attending demonstrations for more than two years. I’ll go next time, I said to my partner. My partner said, but you’ll miss the first night, the first response to the news about Roe.
His words reached through the exhaustion, past the anxiety, and deep into my memory of attending the Climate March in September 2019. Carefully considering my partner’s words, I pulled on a sweater, found something green to wear, and left for the train to downtown Manhattan. At Foley Square, alongside more than a thousand people, I listened to speeches and songs and called out new and familiar chants.
Foley Square, Downtown Manhattan
May 3, 2022
Photo by Susan Bernstein
As a person who is neurodivergent, I remain confused by the geography at Foley Square. Each time, I seem to find the square by accident, and afterward cannot navigate back to the subway. This time, I followed a large crowd leaving the rally, hoping that they would lead me to the train. But a mile later, the crowd kept walking, the subway signs were nowhere in sight, and my phone’s GPS wasn’t connecting to the internet. Finally, I moved to the sidewalk to ask passersby for help. The second person explained that I was only four blocks from my subway stop. In following their directions, I was moved almost to tears by the familiarity of landmarks I had longed for since the beginning of the pandemic. I knew where I was at last and found my train easily.
Is my journey to Foley Square and back a metaphor for the tensions my students face in navigating the end of spring semester? There are some comparisons, surely. The passerby’s directions to the subway were not unlike a template. At first I thought I had run far afield of my destination. However, in moving from the strange to the familiar, I could tap into prior knowledge to find the subway. This experience opened up space in my brain to feel present and connected to the geography of the moment. In walking through unfamiliar places, I discovered where I needed to go.
Of course, this process is hardly as easy as it sounds. Yet in writing this post, I hope I have gained greater empathy for the students’ situation with an unfamiliar assignment at the end of the semester. I recalled that in class the week before, we had worked collectively on creating an infographic, a kind of road map toward completion of the final writing project. Included below is the infographic, with hopes that this work leads to a plan of action for thinking through the difficult spaces. In considering the voyage of discovery to Foley Square and beyond, I can begin to grapple with students’ concerns inside and outside of the classroom.
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