Meaningful Writing in the Face of a Crisis

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Today’s guest blogger is Tanya Rodrigue, an associate professor in English and coordinator of the Writing Intensive Curriculum Program at Salem State University in Massachusetts.


Like thousands of other professors, I am in the process of transitioning my face-to-face courses online. While my teaching and work heavily rely on and are informed by technology, I’ve never taught online. Why? Because I’ve never wanted to. I like to see my students, read their faces, hear their voices, chat with them after class, and say hi to them in the hallways. It was fairly easy for me to re-imagine my curriculum in an online setting, though. Yet I did encounter some unexpected struggles. I faced some logistical issues, namely figuring out how I was going to hold synchronous meetings with two young children screaming “mama” every five seconds in the background. Perhaps more importantly, I struggled with how I was going to redesign my last assignment. I had to stretch out my second assignment in order for it to actually work online, so that left only one week for students to complete something comparable to a final assignment. I didn’t know what that something might be. I thought of not doing anything at all and just reworking the original grade percentages, but then I felt paranoid and insecure. If I assigned nothing, would that still make me a fairly decent teacher?


I debated about this for a long time. During the messy debate in my overwhelmed, anxiety-ridden brain, I suddenly thought maybe I should just heed the advice of the million people on social media frantically sharing ideas for online teaching: identify the most important goal(s) and outcome(s) of the class, and then design a simple, bare-boned assignment that supports students in achieving those goal(s) and outcome(s).


I called my dear friend, colleague, and experienced online teacher, Dr. Amy Minett, to ask her advice about logistical issues as well as to brainstorm possible ideas for my last assignment. She helped me figure out the synchronous conferences/future screaming child scenarios and graciously brainstormed with me about final assignment possibilities. The classes I’m teaching—two sections of Audio Storytelling—are the second course in a three-course vertical writing model in our general education curriculum. My first idea, informed by common social media advice, was to design an assignment that bridges the second and third writing classes in the vertical writing model, offering students the opportunity to reflect on what they learned in my class and the ways in which the curriculum might have prepared them for work in the third required writing class. After talking through this plan, Amy said something that shifted my entire thinking about what might constitute a meaningful writing assignment in a time of crisis. She reminded me that we are living in a historical moment and that providing students with the opportunity to dwell in the moment--to reflect, to express their thoughts, their feelings, and their experiences—in writing could be helpful and meaningful. I immediately thought a version of an oral history would work perfectly in an audio storytelling class, but I was torn. Do I do the “pedagogically responsible” thing and create an assignment that bridges the two required writing courses? Or do I focus on the here and now, and create an assignment that enables students to use writing as a means to express, to learn, to reflect, and to record and preserve their experiences during an unprecedented crisis that will likely change the world and how we live in it?


I opted for the oral history-like project, and here is why. First, research shows that students find writing assignments that connect to their personal life meaningful. Second, while this assignment may not do all of the work needed to help students transition to their third writing course or reinforce rhetorical principles they’ll find valuable for life, it does support them in strengthening their knowledge and habits of mind that have been associated with success in college: writing is a process and rhetorically situated; it’s a means to learn; and it’s a way to strengthen metacognition and practice flexibility. Yet more than either of those reasons is this: an assignment like this is humane, caring, and compassionate, and all three are desperately needed in a time of crisis. Students are isolated. They’re anxious. They’re scared. Their entire worlds have drastically changed within a week. Some might feel like the Apocalypse is coming at any moment. Some might feel too scared to tell anyone how they feel or may have no one to talk to. Some may be food insecure or housing insecure or returning to homes where they feel unsafe. Some don’t have internet access or computers. Some have never taken an online course or never wanted to. A meaningful reflective assignment provides students space to dwell and reflect, which may be therapeutic or cathartic or it might help them understand something about the world or about themselves in the world. It might be uncomfortable or difficult, and they may even hate me for assigning such a project. But I want them to know that they matter, their voices matter, their experiences matter, and I, and maybe even the world, want to listen to them, support them, connect with them, and care for them.


An audio project, which has potential to be played on the radio or on a podcast, is particularly apropos to our current context: audio stories have historically been known to provide marginalized people the opportunity to be heard, to speak for themselves, and to tell their own story with their own voice. Further, voice, according to Radio Producer Jay Allison, has a unique power in connecting people. He writes, “a voice can sneak in, bypass the brain, and touch the heart…. in hearing your mother’s voice, she becomes, in a way, my mother, and I am drawn back to my own history and to .” (Jay Allison, Reality Radio: Telling True Stories in Sound). The sharing of voices brings humanity, empathy, and compassion to the forefront, and most importantly, has the potential to unite people in a time that demands we stand at least six feet apart from one other. I can only hope that this kind of assignment can make students feel, even if it’s only for one second, that they are not so isolated and alone. And perhaps one day, they might return to their recording and feel grateful that they captured their memories and experiences of this significant moment in history.


The below assignment can be adopted or adapted in any course in any mode of writing.


We are in a historical moment, one that will be discussed, taught, and analyzed for decades to come. It’s a moment that’s confusing and scary; a moment that is understood, felt, and interpreted in different ways and in different pockets of the world.


One way people learn about and remember historical moments like this is through oral histories. Oral histories are audio or video recordings that preserve and capture a person or group of people’s memories, experiences, feelings, personal commentaries, and understandings about a person, an event, an issue, or a life at a particular moment in time. Many oral histories emerge from well-prepared interviews and are often placed in an archive or a library.


For this final project, you will compose a personal oral history-like project that captures your impressions, feelings, commentaries, and/or understanding of what’s happening in a world facing an unprecedented health crisis. This audio recording will be a piece of history that you (and maybe others) can return to in the future to further reflect, understand, analyze or remember how you perceived life during a pandemic and looming economic crisis in 2020. And if you’re willing, it will be a collection of personal oral histories about the pandemic that will be played on the Salem State English department radio show/podcast, Soundplay, at some point in the future.


You can approach this assignment in any number of ways, and you can exert as much time and energy on it as you want. You might make this oral history a combination of personal narrative, media clips, and maybe even interviews with other folks that work to construct a robust telling of the past month or so. (I created an audio piece like this for the Women’s March in 2017.) Or you might record snippets of yourself speaking about your life experience each day over the next several weeks: you might string them together to create an audio remix or a montage. Or, at the end of a particularly difficult or hopeful or even mundane day, you might capture yourself speaking in free form or in verse or in a stream of consciousness about months, weeks, or even a moment of your life. There are many other ways you could approach this project: I encourage you do whatever you think seems most fitting for capturing and audio engraving your perception of this moment in time. The only assignment requirement is that you use your own voice.