Showing Up: A Letter to My Spring 2023 College Writing Students

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Art supplies placed on a classroom table, including paper, tape, scissors, surgical masks, gauze, stapler, colored pencils, and crayons..png

Photo by Susan Bernstein

May 10, 2023

Dear Students,

 

As you might recall, I mentioned on the first day of class that I was returning to in-person College Writing for the first time since March 10, 2020. I spent four and a half semesters teaching online, and in the fall of 2022 I took a semester off. 

During my leave of absence, I thought a great deal about showing up. The mandate to return to “normal” brick and mortar classrooms was difficult to imagine, in part because of the long commute, the inadequate access to good ventilation in those classrooms, and the prospect of teaching in those rooms without a mask mandate. 

But I missed what a colleague calls “the affects in the room,” even as I did not miss the impenetrable bureaucracy of the university and the frustrations of adjuncting. Eventually, I decided to return, embodied, in person, to class. In other words, I made the decision to show up. It was a difficult decision and it feels now, at the end of the term that, glitches notwithstanding, it was an appropriate decision. 

The commute was a hurdle, and I realized that part of the hurdle was showing up, taking up space in real time and not as pixels on a Zoom screen. Put another way, I no longer felt invisible. This feeling of visibility was at once exhausting and exhilarating, and perhaps exhausting because of the exhilaration. Once more I was climbing up three sets of steep staircases, running to catch trains and buses, and hoping at each transfer point to find an available seat to catch my breath. 

I knew I was not alone in considering the labor of showing up, and I once again became aware  of the challenges you faced as students, at least in terms of “normal” classroom requirements such as attendance and engagement with assignments and other course materials. “Normal” is in quotes here because even before the coronavirus pandemic, I questioned the definition of “normal,” and how that definition was being used to elide critical issues impacting teaching and learning, in and out of the classroom. In the wake of the pandemic, as you might imagine, my questions have gained a greater urgency.

As you undoubtedly know, college enrollment still falls below pre-pandemic levels. Folks who did enroll recounted struggles with balancing coursework and caring for their mental health, and also increased responsibilities at home and on the job. Some folks bypassing college enrollment welcomed the opportunity to earn money, and not to accrue financial aid debt. Additionally, and not insignificantly, traditional-age and FirstGen students reminded me that the pandemic school closures in our area impacted the middle of your teen-age years, and the middle of high school, junior and senior year. Your classroom experiences of “normal” seemed far different from university expectations of a “normal” classroom.

Nevertheless, as another colleague suggested, students are showing up in the lives of their communities outside of school, on social media, and at protests across the country, much as young people across the country assembled for the 2020 protests of George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer. During the spring semester of 2023, students were instrumental in protests against gun violence and against the expulsion of two Black Tennessee state representatives, Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, for joining the students’ protests. 

1500 students also showed up in a walkout from their school in Kansas City, Missouri to support their classmate Ralph Yarl, who is Black after he was shot through a glass door by a white man. Ralph was attempting to pick up his siblings from a visit with a friend, but rang the doorbell at the wrong house. The white man claimed that Ralph was trying to break in, even as Ralph never touched the door. Even as I write, protests are ongoing seeking justice for  the death of Jordan Neely who was killed on a New York City subway train by another passenger. 

My questions about showing up grow out of our work together this semester. What does showing up mean for pedagogy in the wake of a global pandemic that killed more than 1.13 million people in the US alone? Who benefits most from rigid institutional structures, including everything from adjuncting to assessment to attendance, from compulsory unpaid labor, to mandatory courses, to required class participation? What would happen for access, diversity, equity, and inclusion, if placement tests (including multiple measures for placement), remedial classes, and honors programs were eliminated? 

Alongside these questions, I continue to ask myself how I am showing up in the classroom? Am I there to enforce institutional rules, or to offer spaces for students to grow as writers and, if possible, to (re)discover writing as a joyful process? 

 As this semester comes to an end, I at least have one response to that last question. In considering your multimedia projects, I more clearly understand how you have encountered James Baldwin this semester, and the multiple forms that your perceptions have taken. I archived your collages, videos, and memes in a video, and I felt inspired by your projects to include more in-class creative work.

The moment seemed prescient, and I did not want to wait until next year to begin. In the last week of classes, we created a mural based on “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity.” I brought art supplies to class, and asked you to choose a quote from “Artist’s Struggle” to illustrate. The quote could be from any of your previous writing for the semester, or one that you had not included in previous work. The quote needed to appeal to pathos as well as create a deeper connection to Baldwin’s lecture. My intention was to add the mural to the multimedia projects video, and eventually I made another video based on the mural itself.

The panel I created for the mural used a blue and white surgical mask, and the tips of two broken crayons pointing to the mask. On the mask I printed a quote from Baldwin that I have returned to over and over again: “All safety is an illusion.” I wanted a new way of conceptualizing this quote, and, I realized, a new way of conceptualizing “Artist’s Struggle.”

Blue surgical mask with quote 'All safety is an illusion' in blue and orange crayon, James Baldwin's name, and broken blue and orange crayon tips on ear loops..png

 

Mural panel illustrates the quote “All safety is an illusion.” 

Photo by Susan Bernstein

May 11, 2023

“All safety is an illusion,” and, as Baldwin suggests, art uncovers illusions of normalcy and reveals struggles and challenges that might remain otherwise invisible to the general public. Art, in other words, is bearing witness to injustice, and bearing witness means engaging with difficulties and frustrations. Bearing witness means showing up, and showing up means embodiment with what matters to the ordinary and extraordinary, in and out of college classrooms.

 

Have a good summer and best regards,

Prof. Susan

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.