One of the most difficult things about teaching college composition is getting students to understand that there is an audience beyond me, the teacher. Part of this struggle lies in their unwillingness to see themselves as part of a larger public beyond my class, as holding authority.
Of course, when I initially began teaching this course, I understood the reason for this difficulty. The assignments I had created were fictitious – meant solely for my class and its context.
No wonder it seemed like they were writing to please me or at least writing to get a good grade.
Students never seem to have difficulty understanding the purpose of their writing.
That’s when I began thinking of incorporating advocacy projects in my composition classroom. Each semester the assignment grows or changes as I learn new ideas from my students and what’s working for them.
Now, my students can see and experience themselves as part of a larger community. They are able to place themselves in a broader context and research that context. But still the question of audience remains.
After midterms, I opened a dialogue with my students. I wanted to see the problem from their perspective. What I expected them to say went along the lines of the expectations from other teachers. In other courses, they were expected to rely on memorization – a rinse and repeat style of learning. Or, maybe they were told to write according to specifications in their major – specific contexts within the specific class. Here, I was asking them to go out into the world to advocate for change.
I wasn’t expecting what they told me. “We just don’t have a voice.” I wasn’t clear on what they meant, until another student mentioned that they just didn’t think they had the ability to create change. Who would listen to a group of college freshman?
Immediately, I turned to history: the suffragettes, the civil rights movement, the protests against the Vietnam War. History is filled with examples of groups of individuals gathering in the streets – creating a movement – to rally for change. Change must start somewhere. All it takes is one voice, one voice in the wilderness.
But now, I have no further to look than the present. Ripping a page from the history texts, across the nation, students have led strikes, have organized marches under the banner March for Our Lives.
Tired of listening to the adults surrounding them bicker about gun control, they’ve begun calling attention to the power of their voices. If part of the debate revolves around the increased number of school shootings – why not listen to the students at risk or the students involved in the trauma?
In my classroom, as students learn the power of their voices, I hope they recognize that this is just the beginning. Enthusiasm only gets us so far. For change to occur, we must be resilient.
The difficulty isn’t exactly getting one’s voice heard. The difficulty lies in turning talk into action. Then again we can look to history.
How long did it take for the suffragette movement to lead to the female vote? How much longer did it take to secure legal rights and equality for African-Americans?
And these fights are ongoing. Reform is a long, hard-fought battle. Are we preparing the next generation to fight for their beliefs – to fight the war?
Heather Bozant Witcher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.