Saturday, October 9, 2010


I have had to take some time to think about this. Carefully. I still shake when I think about what happened yesterday and why I had the urge to slap a student so hard that her Grandpa felt it. Even in the prison system, my students didn't speak that way.

Let's set the scene. Every semester, rain or shine, regardless of how many students I have, I take time to meet with them individually about their writing and to allow them to ask questions. We talk about their papers, I offer suggestions for improvement and congratulations on the work they've already done and attempt to look like a human being for fifteen minutes rather than just some professor with a talking head. It works, generally speaking. I have about 120 students.

This week was conference week, and I went home from work every day with eyestrain from going over paper after paper and discussing the same issues. The student doesn't know that I've said it a million times, it's still the first time he or she has heard the part about where it's APA guidelines to use words like "Black", "White", "African-American" (don't forget the hyphen) and "Caucasian" to describe race. And if you're quoting Dr. King directly, you cannot take out the "N-word" where he uses it, even though it makes you uncomfortable. And no, we don't use the words "honky", "cracker" or "colored" either. My classroom is where we make those mistakes and one of the reasons I meet with students on this particular essay is so that those embarrassments can happen in private with low-risk of shame, but still offer the maximum opportunity for the students to learn.

Just for levity and for my own amusement, I follow up on some of our class discussions. I make it a point to say during the course of our class meetings to say that I dislike the use of the word "very" in their papers. It's unnecessary and redundant. We've discussed this many times by now and how it's alright to use in common speech but not in a formal paper (Don't even scan my other blog posts, I'm sure it's in there somewhere!). If I see the word in their paper, I'll pause briefly and draw a little box around the word. Smile a little. Put the pen in my left hand and scratch it out. Then take out a black marker and mark it out while discussing something else. Then finally, I'll get out the white out and make it disappear. I love the looks on student's faces. We usually laugh out loud and then the point is made and everything moves along.

I laugh a lot during conferences anyway. Sometimes my students relate the best stories from class or from life. They'll share trials and tribulations from their first months at college and make the most astute observations. And their writing is improving and they want to share that too, so we celebrate. Often, my students have never performed a rhetorical analysis and they're proud to have accomplished the task. I promise that the next essay will be a lot of fun. This week I've gotten to discuss Elvis (several papers on Elvis' letter to Nixon), Dr. King (two or three speeches), President Obama, JFK, Rhianna, Eminem, the Westboro Baptist Church and The Laramie Project. Overall, I'm pleased with the movement from brand new college writer to more sophisticated and complex projects. Speaking of sophisticated, one of my students writes a blog called Check it out if you get a chance.

A dark spot on this week is the death of my Great Aunt Earline. The identical twin sister of my Grandma, Verline, she had been taken off of life support and passed peacefully with her family (including cousins Lolly and Roy) at her bedside. I'll miss my second Grandma, and worry about the effect of this loss on Grandma. Last week was the first anniversary of the death of my Grandpa and the first wedding anniversary she celebrated without him- their 64th.

That brings us to Friday afternoon at 1:20. I had just three appointments left, then I'd be out the door for the weekend and on my way to Dallas for some fun and also time to read and do homework in preparation for my general exams. I met with D, who had done a particularly nice job on Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech. We discussed in particular the audience and the message of unity and brotherhood and what made his message of well-received. I felt revived despite having read 22 other essays that day. I promised this student, who is an athlete, to come to a game. My second student was right on time and had chosen to do her essay over a White supremacy website. She had written her proposal over it and I had approved. I didn't think that she had approved, but she did.

The essay was not an analysis or discussion of rhetorical strategies. I asked her why. She said she didn't want to sound biased. It's not possible to be unbiased. Plus, this is a hate group under watch by the government. How do you feel about this?, I queried. You mean do I agree or disagree with them?, she asked. She didn't want to say. I was surprised. It's 2010, she's an articulate White kid with multiple tattoos and piercings and a studio art major. I made an assumption about her being a hipster. Apparently it was a bad one. She said "Well, I think they're extreme and extremism is bad in any group (something I'd declared in class), but I'm also proud of my White heritage. I guess that makes me a moderate." She had learned the rhetoric of unity and was using it to further her racist argument. At least she had been paying attention a little bit in class.

My jaw dropped and my face turned as red as a beet. My office door is always open and the students and I are visible to the casual observer just for instances such as these. It was then that I saw the feet and legs of my last appointment- a dark skinned Hispanic student who I knew was writing about a love song. Irony, anger, shame and more anger flooded through me. "Hey," I wanted to say, "Why don't you come in here so she can tell you why your DNA is inferior to hers. Go ahead, young lady, tell this young man why his little girl should never be allowed the same success in society as whatever offspring you produce, even though he works as hard or harder than you and even if it took more for him to get here today than it did you." But I didn't say that. I immediately checked my feelings, lest I shake the racism out of her thick skull. Had she not been paying attention the last four weeks as we dissected hatred, racism, and the dangers of separation and oppression? Bitch slapping wasn't the answer, even though it would be gratifying. Dr. King used the route of peace, love and brotherhood for his tools and I'll be damned if I'll let ignorance, and in this case, willful ignorance, get in the way of my educational objectives.

I got professional. At least the paper didn't have any blatant insults. No way could I have handled that. I explained what being a moderate was after showing her how to do the actual analysis of the website. What was their purpose? What rhetorical strategies did they use to achieve that purpose? How effective are they in their endeavors and how can you tell? I checked her language use, reminded her that there is no such thing as unbiased information and sent her on her way. Smiled broadly at my last student as he sat in her recently vacated chair, and walked into my colleague's office. I put my head on her desk and whispered my confession. She rolled her eyes. "Jesus, you need a drink. What did you say?" I told her. "I'd have kicked her out." It took a full minute to shake off so that I could be of good service to my last student.

I still have to grade her final paper. Our rubric will be decided by the class and hopefully will assist me in a less biased evaluation of her writing. This is America and as much as I disagree with someone's opinions, they have a right to them and a person in authority- in this case me- shouldn't hold power to control what another person thinks. Writing the essay in third person helps with the most flagrant abuses of opinion, but the things they choose to talk about and how they present that material will represent their world views and perceptions.

I'm not sure I handled that well. I'm not sure how to handle people who think so differently and in my strong opinion and experience, so fucking wrong. I sort of feel sorry for her because she's closed off her mind from growth, interaction and enlightenment and will be stuck in the perpetual cycle of restricted discourse and dialog with only those who agree or who have indoctrinated her into that mindset. One of the major benefits of attending college is to open the mind to experience new horizons, viewpoints and thoughts. I'm offended that she would waste such a privilege But then again, if I were being snarky, and just being myself instead of the professional educator and role model that I'd ideally want to be, I'd admit that she's getting what she deserves.


  1. Mindie, I once had to conference w/ a student whose thesis was that the KKK was great. He cited an historical incident, where the KKK had advocated throwing acid in the faces of prostitutes so they could not 'tempt men' from whatever...

    I sat there, a woman, a liberal, and did exactly what you did. I took on his argument rhetorically. That day I learned a tactic that has helped me in many years of grading weird Okie (and non-Okie, but equally weird) drafts & essays: 'if your argument is non-mainstream, you have to be more than twice as tight rhetorically.'

    But these days, that works less & less, as the 'mainstream' slips further and further to right...

    I also have had students in my war lit classes argue that Rudolf Hess was a hero (he followed orders!) and Lindberg (in the essay where he is struck by the humanity of the Japanese officer, so doesn't kill him) a traitor (he disobeys orders)...

    My heart goes out to you...


  2. Mindie,

    I grew up in Oklahoma - racism was a part of the dysfunctional family I was born into. My great-grandfather was likely part of a lynching. The n-word was a common word for me to hear in my early years. So were racial jokes.

    My first girlfriend in school was black and I couldn't tell either of my grandparents. I was actively racist in high school, but mostly because I was scared of kids who were mad at me for being white. Didn't think I was racist as an adult and young teacher, but when I didn't let a black student play grandmother to a white girl - two of my students challenged me. I realized they were right. It's difficult to shake off the thinking I inherited. Confronting my own racism and ignorance has been a continual spiritual journey for me.

    My family has come a long way since the 60s and 70s - we are definately a multi-cultural and ethnic group. We've had Native American blood int he family, but now we also have hispanic, black, and Jewish relatives! I wonder what my great-grandfather would think of that? It's been interesting to watch attitudes shift w/ time.

    Maybe this student's mind is ripe for change. Each challenge she faces may make her question and think more deeply about the belief system that was handed to her. You are playing an important role in her formation. And it's too soon to assess your impact. Some things need to simmer longer than others.

    I'm sending you a short piece called "I Have A Gun" in which a young woman confronts her own fears and racism. Maybe you could use it with your students???

    Keep up the Great Work you do!!!


  3. I think you handled it very well. Sometimes these kids pick these types of subjects on purpose to get negative attention & responses from authority. By not giving in & remaining diplomatic & concentrating on the paper, you gave her none of that. She walks away & already her mind has experience something new. Keep on doing what you do. You're doing awesome!