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The Welcome Letter: Fall 2020 Edition

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Image description: With a welcome bubble of words over her head, Prof. Susan ruminates at the Godwin-Ternbach Museum at Queens College in NYC on Halloween 2019.

NOTE: There is a content alert for the post and the links, some of which include graphic and often violent depictions of struggles for racial and economic justice, including violent language and epistemic violence. Encounters with these texts|videos might demand disproportionate emotional labor or exacerbate trauma.

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About a week before school began, I asked students in my new courses to send me their favorite music video for a class playlist. This project helped me to focus on the hard work of preparing new online classes, and gave me a chance to learn what mattered to the students. Through this activity, we created an archive of the music that shapes our community of writers in the fall of 2020. The idea for the playlist evolved from a question my online training could not answer:

 

As someone who values the emotions, as well as the faces and voices and body language in the room, how would I facilitate the growth of a new community of writers?

 

This question was especially troubling because most of us, students and teachers, left face-to-face education in March as our city became the global center of the pandemic. In light of these events, reading the emotions behind the screen became even more critical.

On the first day of classes, I shared my gratitude in a welcome letter to the students. Here is an excerpt from the letter:

 

Here is the Fall 2020 Playlist. Thank you for sending your music! With each new link, I unwrap unexpected gifts, postcards of our future together as a writing community. The videos for the playlist begin with Kendrick Lamar’s “i”, my favorite video at this current moment in history. 

I thought of my first term as a first-year student in college, Fall of 1976. The song I would have chosen that year was Freddie Mercury’s (and Queens’s) “Bohemian Rhapsody”, and I have added it to our playlist, the official remastered video with Freddie in his white jumpsuit. For me Freddie and Kendrick are connected in their concerns with searching for their own humanity in struggles with everyday life and in the larger world around them.

Kendrick Lamar’s “i,” I think, is a good introduction to our first reading, “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity,” by James Baldwin. Lamar and Baldwin share a deep concern with Black life and Black love. These two sources, Baldwin and Lamar, placed together, introduce us to a Beloved Community and Civil Rights writing. This writing is a core theme of our course.

 

With class preparation completed, I didn’t expect to feel butterflies returning to my stomach on the first day of school. The sensation reminded me of all that preceded the preparation.

After spending 90 days, an entire season, inside in social isolation with my partner and my cat, after turning the bedroom of our 1-bedroom apartment into a Zoom-casting studio, after hearing day after day and night after night the sirens and the helicopters because we live 3 miles away from the hospital that was at the center of the pandemic in April and a half block away from refrigerator trucks serving as morgues at another hospital, after weeping when the curfew warning erupted from my phone for several nights at the end of May and the beginning of June (the same siren sound I remember from tornado and dust storm warnings), after applause for essential workers at our window every night at 7 pm and waving at our neighbors a block away, after reading journals written at 2 am, emails and essays about struggle and loss and grief and James Baldwin and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis and Black Panther and Beloved Community, after (and during and still) the catastrophic loss of Black lives to police violence and to the violence of the virus—after all of this, still the butterflies came even before I hit Zoom’s “start meeting” link.

Welcome to this new term. In grappling with my own white privilege and the privilege of having a job that allows me to teach online at home, I struggle with anxiety as well. Yet, I welcome the new discomforts that inform my work now, and I welcome the chance to learn from the new community of writers on the other side of the screen.

In memory of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, John Lewis, Chadwick Boseman, and the many thousands gone.

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.