Naturally my objective as a writing instructor includes instilling in my students the abilities to think critically about the world in which we live; to fluently participate in academic, civic, and personal discourse; and to enjoy the work of acquiring an education meant to serve them throughout their lives. But, as Robert Frost points out in the interview Education by Presence, by Janet Mabie, "...a [teacher] can't be forever standing about on a campus crying out at the students, 'What are you going to do about [your life]?'" No, as a teacher I must exemplify the ways in which an education has meaning. I must generate the value of the skills I endeavor to teach through my own work and reputation.
For this reason, I introduce my students to a few of my poems. I write with my students--both in class and online. In the classroom, I speak candidly with my students about the pleasures and pains of writing. I demonstrate the process in order to demystify the emergence of the successful product. Out of the classroom, I continue to hone my craft. I spend hours reading classic and contemporary writers of influence as well as drafting and revising my essays and poems so that I can continue to publish and build my reputation.
When Frost says, "If a teacher is evidently a power outside, as well as inside, the college, one of whom you can hear along other highways, then that teacher is of deep potential value to the students," I take his meaning simply as this: an instructor's reputation carries weight (341). By this I do not mean that reputation alone makes the teacher. It does not. For even Frost notes only the "potential value" of a teacher's reputation. No, something else must happen between teacher and student in order for that latent value to develop.
Frost states, "I favor the student who will convert my claim on him into his claim on me" (343). I, too, favor the student who will do this. But what does it mean to convert the claim? For Frost this means:
Courses should be a means of introduction, to give students a claim on [the instructor], so that they may come to [the instructor] at any time, outside of class periods. If the student does not want to press his claim, well, for him [the instructor] must give an examination. But he has already lowered his estimation. The student who does not press his claim has to that extent been found wanting. (343)
Simply put, Frost and I both favor students who actively participate in their educations. I favor the students who read the assigned texts without threat of an exam. I favor the students who write drafts of an essay and bring them to me of their own accords to discuss strategies for achieving their specific writing goals. I favor the students who ask of the teacher only "...the happiness of being left to [their] own initiative[s]" (Frost 344). But Frost's notion of converting the claim carries with it a more complex interpretation as well. I am essentially talking about fostering what Frost terms "a wide-open educational system for the free-born" (343). In regard to his students, Frost distinguishes between the "free-born" and the "slaves," stating that he "...will not refuse to treat them as slaves wherever found" (343). And while I admit to the validity of Frost's position--for the students who lack an initiative governed by their own authority surely will have to gain an initiative governed by the instructor's authority--here upon this point of slavery we diverge in our thinking.
Clearly Frost speaks of those students who opt for slavery, who in fact prefer looming exams and quantifiable requirements. I have encountered these students, the ones who tell me "I want an A from you" but have yet to realize the A doesn't come from me. They want the shortcut to the grade. They want multiple-choice questions with right or wrong answers instead of complex, seemingly unanswerable questions that require deliberate arguments. They don't want to think. They want to fill in the blanks and call it a day. And for these students, I am more than happy to bestow upon them the perceived bondage of reading, writing, and critical thinking.
But many students often opt for slavery simply because they believe they have no other option. They know not how to be "free-born." Many students feel oppressed by education; after all, it's an institution that serves a system, "...a culture that [students] perceive as subordinating individual activity to the needs of a consumer economy" (Finlay and Faith qtd. in George 103). Such language aligns with critical pedagogy, a discussion of which Ann George undertakes in her essay "Critical Pedagogy: Dreaming of Democracy." George writes that students often feel "...a gulf between their public (institutionally controlled, inauthentic) and private (emotionally satisfying, free, "real") lives, a gulf that [causes] them to feel oppressed despite their acknowledged economic privilege" (103). While teaching at the University of California, Riverside, I encountered many students who experienced this "gulf." I suspect that this gulf, in part, originates from students' primary and secondary educational experiences, wherein they are often treated "...as 'receptacles' waiting to be filled with the teacher's official knowledge" (George 93).
Students have corroborated my speculations about their previous educational experiences during our class discussions. Inevitably, no matter which level of composition I teach (an this includes my stint as an 8th & 9th grade reading and writing instructor), my students and I discuss education itself. I ask them, "Why are you here?" And, inevitably, many students answer "Because my parents said I have to be here." Another common response, "Because I need a college degree to get a job so that I can make money," often provokes an engaging discussion about the various ways we could all be making money without a college degree, yet here in the wake of this response we begin to construct the value of higher learning. We begin to openly acknowledge the ways in which we feel the pressures of our parents' or our community's or our culture's expectations and how that pressure exacts on us a claim. We critique the methods of instruction we've encountered throughout our educational experiences--for instance, the overcrowded classrooms that prevent one-on-one instruction and foster an environment wherein education becomes "an act of depositing" rather than a dialogic exchange (Freire qtd. in George 93). Students talk of "busy work," wherein they simply regurgitated the information that had been deposited by their teachers. Through this critical discussion, students begin to recognize the pitfalls of the "banking" concept of education; they begin to recognize that the banking method offers no real instruction for becoming a fluent thinker and writer.
Like Paulo Freire, who critiques the banking concept of education in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, I practice "...what he calls problem-posing or dialogic education, in which teachers work with students to develop conscientização or critical consciousness--the ability to define, to analyze, to problematize the economic, political, and cultural forces that shape but, according to Freire, so not completely determine their lives" (George 93). I employ a dialogic practice because it enables a dialogue wherein students may take the first steps toward converting the claim that education has had on them into their claims on their educations. I employ a dialogic practice because dialogue helps bridge "[t]he distance between our academic lives as compositionists and our everyday, concrete experience, between what Freire calls the word and the world" (George 104). I employ a dialogic practice because dialogue bridges the gap between our private and public lives.
But the challenge of teaching students how to convert the claim in this manner varies in degree depending upon the needs of the students. In the case of many UCR students, their feelings of oppression stem from a belief "...that their education [is] nothing more than a means to funnel them into appropriate middle-class jobs" (George 103). While such feelings of oppression, however slight, impede the learning process, this is the plight of the fairly affluent. What of students within the economically blighted strata of society who experience oppression not because their educational system functions to deliver them into cushy middle-class jobs but because their educational system functions hardly or not at all to deliver them from the civic decay, social and economic inequities, and subsequent illiteracy that maintain their oppression?
While teaching at the University of New Orleans, I encountered a student--in her late twenties, a working mother who attended school in the evenings--who possessed all the initiative an instructor could hope for in a student. She often visited me during office hours to address her challenges as a writer, to discuss in more detail each assigned reading. Yet, through all her education prior to my encounter with her, she'd never learned to write a true sentence. Even when she spoke about what she had tried to write in her paper or when she attempted to explain her understanding of a reading, she struggled to make sense. I wondered about her childhood language acquisition. I wondered how, given her display of initiative, how she'd wound up at a university without the skills to meet the demands of academic reading and writing, without the skills to convey her mind.
For this student, who represents a frightfully common experience among students throughout the United States, what recourse do I have? A dialogic practice wherein we problematize solely the cultural, economic, and political forces of oppression with which these students are all too familiar may only work to confirm and solidify their oppression, for how are these students to challenge of their volition the claims upon them when they are not equipped to do so? A grave disservice it would be for me to employ a merely dialogic approach with the hope that it would close the chasm of inequality between my students and myself. In the case of these students we call "remedial," I must use my authority as the instructor. Authority supersedes egalitarianism. As Freire asserts:
"The dialogic relationship does not have the power to create such an impossible equality" between teachers and students (Shor and Freire 92). In fact, [Freire] says that it's the difference in students and teachers that make the liberatory project possible--"no one liberates himself by his own efforts" (Pedagogy of the Oppressed 53); in other words, transformation depends on different and, often, unequal voices interacting, and the primary source of that superior voice, Shor suggests, is the more knowledgeable, more analytical, more politically committed teacher. (George 105)
Indeed we encounter a paradox: Freedom needs authority to become free... [T]here's no getting around it: 'without authority it is very difficult for the liberties of students to be shaped'" (Shor and Freire qtd. in George 104). I must sound my "superior voice" in order to impart the knowledge that students need to achieve the type of sophisticated literacy that would enable them to fully realize and challenge the forces that oppress them. But I never rely upon my voice alone.
Perhaps the most vital voice I can offer remedial students (as well as the others) comes from the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. The text serves as a testament to converting the claim through the acquisition of literacy, for while Douglass "understood the pathway from slavery to freedom" to be literacy, he also understood that he would not be able to develop his literacy alone (266). He writes, "The plan which I adopted, and the only one by which I was most successful, was that of making friends of all the little white boys whom I met in the street. As many of these as I could, I converted into teachers" (Douglass 269). Though they were boys, Douglass understood their authority. They possessed the very knowledge he knew he needed to acquire, so he listened to them. He called upon them for example and explanation, as I try to teach my students to do not only with me but also with the other authorities in their lives.
Douglass's experience of reading the documents in "The Columbian Orator," an excerpt that I often share with my students in class to inculcate them with a desire to read, came to mind as I worked with the young women at UNO who struggled to write a sentence. Douglass explains:
I read them over and over again with unabated interest. They gave tongue to interesting thoughts of my own soul, which had frequently flashed through my mind, and died away for want of utterance. The moral which I gained from the dialogue was the power of truth over the conscience of even a slaveholder. [...] The reading of these documents enabled me to utter my thoughts, and to meet the arguments brought forward to sustain slavery.... (270)
I take to heart the sentiments expressed within this passage. For me, the major purpose of the composition class involves enabling students to utter their minds, their selves, so that they might dispose of the arguments brought forth by the evasive oppressors of the time. There are, of course, other purposes: grammar instruction, vocabulary development, stylistic growth, research specifications, thought maturation, etc. But these minor purposes serve the major purpose, which is to enable students to convert the claim, to lay claim to the world, to make it a real one.