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Resisting Normal: Multimedia Projects and the Testimony of Students

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Photo description: Two selfies of Susan standing against two brick walls. In the first photo (2014) she is standing under a sign that says, “Welcome to Normal.” In the second photo, she is wearing a blue mask. The two photos are placed on a drawing meant to resemble the imperfections of a brick wall.

To connect students across time and space, I have been making videos for my remote learning first-year writing classes. To create the videos, I use iMovie trailers, royalty-free music from bensound.com, and photo archives of my teaching materials.  “Multimedia Projects: 2004-2020” features multimedia projects created collaboratively with students in face-to-face classrooms in New York City, Houston, TX, and South Central Arizona. In Zoom first-year writing classrooms where students often do not have cameras or microphones, connection might seem like an implausible plan, and certainly not a plan that can be realized through making videos. At the same time, my hope is that a video archive of face-to-face learning can become a form of mutual aid. 

In the video, projects from previous semesters present images relevant to remote learning students in 2020. The major themes that emerge from the video are the consequences of state-sponsored violence, the urgent need for equitable access to higher education, and the possibilities for a more just world reflected in nonviolent peaceful protest. In other words, students from previous semesters, through multimedia projects, offer testimony that they, too, endured crisis and catastrophe, even as they struggled for resilience. Students’ lives, before and during the current pandemic, have never been “normal.”

“Normal” standardized first-year writing classes are impossible in this pandemic and, for many students and teachers, were not possible under the circumstances of the white supremacy that led to this pandemic. In “America’s History of Racism was a Pre-Existing Condition for Covid-19,” Alan Gomez and his co-writers delineate many of the root causes of racism and oppression, listing the inequality of “America’s education and economic systems,” “decades of discrimination in housing,” “environmental policies” that exacerbate pollution, and “a lack of federal funding” for healthcare.  Oppressive conditions, before and during this pandemic, are not normal. 

In my remote learning class, students are currently reading “In a Word--Now,” an essay from the New York Times Magazine, in which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. described strikingly similar conditions in 1963, and suggested that if social transformation was not addressed immediately, that “a seething humanity [would be driven] to a desperation it tried, asked and hoped to avoid.” In strictly rhetorical terms, King’s essay models a proposal or problem/solution essay, demonstrating one writer’s approach to synthesizing ideas for audience and purpose. 

In practical terms, this semester and in previous semesters, King’s essay offers a model for social transformation that resists and disrupts preconceived notions of what constitutes “normal.” With images created in response to my former students' interpretations of King, James Baldwin’s “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity,” and other texts that serve as problem/solution models. The video “Multimedia Projects: 2004-2020” ends with a photo from early 2020, in the weeks before remote learning began. Students, based on their reading of Baldwin’s lecture, suggested that Baldwin might respond to current conditions in higher education through peaceful protest. The resulting image attempts to serve as supporting evidence for resisting the concept of “normal.”

What defines “normal”? Does “normal” mean dining in restaurants or working out at the gym, or going to the movies? If so, then additional questions need our attention. Who are the workers who clean and serve us in the crowded indoor spaces of “normal”?  What if those workers happen to be our students? In the pre-pandemic world before 2020, was it “normal” to attend face-to-face college writing classes while juggling three gig jobs at the restaurant, the gym, the movie theater? Is earning poverty wages, despite juggling three gig jobs, “normal”?  Is it “normal” when first-year, first-semester students cannot complete a full-time load of college classes, and work three jobs at the same time? At whose expense do we hope to achieve “normal”? 

If, as Dr. King suggests in his essay, we must “sweep barriers away,” to pursue racial and economic justice, we must understand that our longing for “normal” comes at the expense of others, including students, staff, adjunct workers, and the many people in our communities living in precarious conditions. Yes, all of us have suffered, and many of us, especially BIPOC, disabled, and the LGBTQ+ community have suffered disproportionately. In a world that has never been “normal,” attempting to create “normal” conditions, always, but especially in this pandemic, means that we continue to ignore the obvious. Yet to heal our suffering, we must do better. We must go beyond the obvious.  We must resist “normal.” 

About the Author
I am a writer and teacher living in Queens, New York. My book is "Teaching Developmental Writing" 4e. Other recent 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.