Listening to Students: Revising an Assignment and Teaching Black Panther

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In Memory of Stan Lee (1922-2018)

349495_Board_11.14.2018.jpgWriting workshop for our Black Panther synthesis project.

The words printed in black ink are:

Most important: If it seems too hard, WRITE ABOUT  IT ANYWAY.

I was reminded of the power of listening to students when student input led me to revise our second writing project for this fall semester. The original project would be an analysis of a multimedia storytelling artifact, chosen by the student: either a music video or a TED talk. The end goal was to create a synthesis of three texts: two course readings and the storytelling artifact.

To introduce the idea of a storytelling artifact, I played a music video that initially appeared to be a suitable subject for analysis. My students began a heated discussion about how the video portrayed race, class, and privilege. While the students seemed thoroughly engaged by the discussion, they were not inspired by the transparency of the video’s message and they did not admire the lack of complexity in its composition. It was clear that while the assignment I had envisioned prompted discussion, students felt that it was neither inclusive enough, nor addressing suitable cultural and technological complexities.

As the discussion about the video was coming to a close, a student and I began a side conversation about the film Black Panther, which is now available on Netflix. I had not initially considered Black Panther for two reasons. The first was, as much support as I could offer for synthesizing the film with more academic texts, I know next to nothing about the Marvel Universe. But my student argued that, even without knowledge of the Marvel Universe, the film is culturally relevant and accessible to a very wide audience, nationally and internationally.

While the first reason was reconcilable by relying on my students’ knowledge of this subject, the second reason was the one that gave me most pause. In the anonymity of the movie theater, I had wept openly for the entire second half of Black Panther. I worried about the impact that my emotions would have on my ability to teach this film as an objective text for practicing synthesis. But my student, yet again, re-framed my emotional response as an asset, reminding me that many people had very emotional reactions to Black Panther. My emotional response to the film thus became a teachable moment regarding the appeal to pathos.

Indeed, given the ongoing discord of our current world, recent events outside the classroom had disturbed students profoundly. If I wanted this classroom were to become a safer space, I needed to remember my utopian goal: achieving classroom community through shared experiences and common aims. What to do?

Revising the assignment at this late date to explore not storytelling artifacts but Black Panther – which was clearly speaking to my students in a way music videos and TED talks were not – would require significant shifts in lesson plans, and we would lose time to watching the film together as a class. However, could I re-envision lost time as time regained? I became a writing teacher because I love to write, and to share the passion, power, and beauty of good writing. Black Panther as a film had the potential to offer the kind of shared experience that most compels my work as a writer and a teacher of writing, and that would fulfill the aims and goals of practicing synthesis. Perhaps most significantly, sharing a film that we knew and loved would allow us to do our best work together.

And so it was decided. I would revise the assignment and we would watch and write about Black Panther together.

There were so many different pieces to this assignment that it was difficult to choose just one for this blog post. However, the activity that follows gave me a chance to share my thought processes with students, and allowed us to work together to take on the problem of creating clear and precise writing from strong feelings and seemingly inexplicable emotions.


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.