Rethinking Previous Systems of Communication: An Assignment Sequence

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“It seems to me that the artist’s struggle for his integrity must be considered as a kind of metaphor for the struggle, which is universal and daily, of all human beings on the face of this globe to get to become human beings.” 

-James Baldwin, “The Artist’s Struggle with Integrity,” A lecture presented in New York City, November 1962.

“Whether or not we like it, we have reached a point, black and white in this country, where all of the previous systems of communication, negotiation, [and] accommodation, have become unusable.”

-James Baldwin, “On the Murder of Six Children from Birmingham, AlabamaA talk given in New York City on September 25, 1963, ten days after the murders.


In 1963, news flashed from incomprehensible (the assassination of Medgar Evers in June) to astounding (the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which included Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream,” and the speech, given by John Lewis, National Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in August), to catastrophic (the murders of six children, as cited by the PostArchive, four little girls in a church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, and two young boys shot, one by a police officer, during civil unrest in the streets of Birmingham).

Those despairing, hopeful, and devastating days are, unfortunately, absent from my memory, and I have spent years trying to fill in the gaps of my early childhood. I was a white five-year-old in the fall of 1963, and my memories center on insular moments of home, and community. The adults in my life believed, to the detriment of everyone in our community and beyond, that what happened in the larger world had nothing to do with us. Yet, as Baldwin so cogently reminds his audience, that mindset of “accommodation” was and had always been “unusable.” Indeed, as Baldwin suggested in 1962, as human beings we must struggle with our integrity.

Sometime between the March on Washington and the murders of the Birmingham children, I started kindergarten. What I remember most remains the excitement of that transition, and the joy of new experiences. That is one of my first memories of school. But now that memory is forever transformed by learning the historical contexts of my early schooling. 

In planning a first-year college writing course sixty years later, I reflected on and struggled with the memories of the redlined communities where I grew up, and the segregated classrooms that constituted some of my first encounters with academic literacy and formal education. I considered the unconscious biases that remain from those encounters and how I would need to reframe the curriculum for students coming of age six decades later.

And so I return to James Baldwin’s “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity” as a grounding text, while considering how to rethink the assignment sequence in College Writing. Below are thumbnail sketches of the three writing projects that will constitute the new semester. A journal, not described here, is also part of the required coursework. In the coming weeks I will offer updates of the work in our face-to-face classroom. The course theme is “Creativity: Think Outside the Box.”


College Writing Assignment Sequence Fall 2023

Writing Project 1 Analysis/Manifesto: In your own opinion and in your own words, find and discuss the most important points in “Artist’s Struggle.” Then, update “Artist’s Struggle” for 2023. You can address questions such as:

  • What issues should be added to “Artist’s Struggle” in 2023? In your opinion, what issues are important to your generation as Civil Rights struggles were to Baldwin? Why?
  • What does it mean to be an artist in 2023? What are the struggles? What can and should artists do? 
  • In ideal conditions, what should be done to create a better world?  How could mental health? Climate change? Access to fair and equitable education K-12 schools or college? Something else?  

Writing Project 2  Application/Multimedia:  Find a passage from “Artist’s Struggle” and translate the passage in your own words, and discuss how this passage relates to the message of “Artist’ Struggle.” Then, create a multimedia project based on your ideas, and describe how the process and product of your multimedia work connects to “Artist’s Struggle.” 

To inspire the multimedia project, our  class will have an opportunity to visit the campus art museum and to create your own work of art based on the visit and “Artist’s Struggle.” More information forthcoming.

Writing Project 3: Revision/Research:  Make a multimedia catalog of works connected to your earlier writing on “Artist’s Struggle.” Include at least one other source by James  Baldwin, and 3-5 additional sources of your own choosing. 

In your own words, and using quotes and evidence from “Artist’s Struggle” and your additional sources, explain the relationships that you find between “Artist’s Struggle” and each piece of multimedia collected in your catalog. You can include revised sections of WP 1 and WP 2 if they are relevant to your catalog. More information forthcoming.

Graphic: Word Web Illustration of the work of College Writing by Susan Naomi BernsteinGraphic: Word Web Illustration of the work of College Writing by Susan Naomi Bernstein



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.