Paradigm Shifts: The Devil Dances Amidst the Details

After The Corsair published my piece on "Pedagogies & Paradigm Shifts," (4/8/09), several colleagues, including Sean Stratton (Chaffey College), the editor of INSIDE ENGLISH, expressed interest in an elaboration on the reading assignments and prompts I've used. Of particular interest were those which catalyzed responses of the type which a former student of mine, Ramon, provided regarding his personal history of violence and dangerous behavior (i.e. bringing a gun to school and threatening his teacher).

I believe it's accurate to say that his stories, as well as a number of other autobiographical pieces with a volatile core, are often the result of assigning my students to respond to several pieces which I share with my classes. For example, I've used an essay, "When You're Locked Up," which was handed in by a student of mine at Camp McCormack, a maximum security facility for youth in upstate N.Y. The class was part of a program conducted under the aegis of Empire State College. The author was 18 years old and in his forth year of an indeterminate sentence due to his involvement in a murder at age 14. In his essay, the student wrote about joining a gang while in junior high in NYC, and his accompanying drift into drug use and crime.

Through my efforts, the piece was published by The Grapevine, a weekly newspaper located in Ithaca, NY. Within a week or so after the story appeared, the editor told me she had been contacted by educators working at several other upstate NY correctional facilities, asking for copies to use in their English classes. (As you can deduce, this request was made in a time before electronic editions were readily available.) I believe that, in addition to the above mentioned personal details, the author's encouragement to "take your educational opportunities seriously" was well received by instructors and other inmates in youth facilities. It also continues to be a valuable message for many "at risk" students in community colleges and CSU's.

Another piece that often elicits positive responses from my SMC students is one which I wrote for the Los Angeles Times Westside Section. In that article, I make the argument that the LAPD used excessive force in breaking up a hiphop conference. The organizer of the event, Ms. Asia Yu, had obtained a permit for the use of the Venice Beach Pavillion, but the LAPD unit at the site decided to oust several hundred attendees after someone who had spray painted his initials on a nearby wall then ran into the pavillion to evade arrest. The chaos that ensued prompted the officers in charge to decide to clear the entire beach boardwalk, which can be compared,, logistically speaking, to forcing all Sunday afternoon visitors to Disney Land out of the park that Walt built.

Perhaps because pieces like those mentioned above indicate a well grounded and reasonably informed understanding of contemporary urban culture, a number of my students feel safe enough to write about experiences which they might refrain from treating in a more typical academic environment. In addition, when the instructor has a direct tie to an essay or article assigned to a class, I have found that the students who read it are frequently more intrigued than usual. This enhanced interest often leads to an amping up of students' efforts to present stories with similar thematic elements.

Let me cite a recent example of what can come forth when the gates of self-censorship begin to open. In mid-March, '09, an 18 year old single mother, whom I will call Ophelia, read a piece to the class about going to a party with a girlfriend and two guys. While she and two of her cohorts were on the sidewalk across the street from the party, waiting for the driver to find a parking space, a young man in the passenger seat of a passing car shouted some obscenities at the trio. Arthur, the young man standing with Ophelia, responded in kind, and the car screeched to a stop. The passenger got out. Apparently the fellow was substantially larger than Arthur and proceeded to shove him to the ground. Arthur scrambled up, pulled a gun from his cargo pants pocket, and pistol whipped his assailant, bringing him to his knees.

Ophelia, diminutive at 90 pounds, described how she and her girlfriend stood in shock as Arthur then pressed the barrell of the gun against the other fellow's head and pulled the trigger. However, nothing happened. Arthur pulled the trigger again. Only a click ensued. Then a third try, and still no discharge. At this point, the fellow on his knees rose quickly to his feet and ran to the nearby car, which then sped away.

As you can imagine, while Ophelia read this piece, the other students were transfixed. In the discussion that ensued, I told her that she should save her stories and make an effort to get them published at some point. (I also suggested that she would be wise to be more careful about whom she accompanies to parties.) Ophelia told me that she would do both of those things. Of course, whether she will be able to write a collection of stories and get them published remains to be seen. As most of the readers of this piece are aware, there's a long and winding road between writing a captivating story or two and seeing a collection of those stories in print. On the other hand, despite the difficulties, that goal is worth pursuing.

Meanwhile, it's clear to me that it's valuable, from a pedagogical perspective, to create a classroom environment wherein students feel that their experiences and perspectives provide worthwhile subject matter for their writing assignments, as well as for our classroom discussions. To reiterate and elaborate once more on the theme of this piece, it is in our best interests as educators to be aware of what our students are encountering in the world outside of academia, while also being cognizant of the potential learning experiences which can derived when we allow substantive treatments of the exterior world to enter into our classroom discourses.