Access Denied: The Rich Interior Lives of Student Writers

One of my core teaching beliefs is that students have rich interior lives that are more complex and varied than we, as individual instructors, will ever be able to access. Rather than accepting this maxim as a reason for resignation, I’ve come to understand it as a call to empathize with my students. The classroom is a relatively contested space where both students and their instructor must negotiate the complex matrix of the assumptions of what students want out of the course, the demands of institutional outcomes, and the instructor’s own subject knowledge and teaching skills. When I first started teaching, I assumed that I was tasked with the challenge of getting students to buy into and meet the outcomes defined by the institution—a metaphor akin to bring “bringing a horse to water.” However, I’ve since become well aware of the limitations of that perspective. It problematically privileges the institution’s goals over those of the students. Unsurprisingly, many students feel as though the institution tends to devalue—or even ignore—their own individual backgrounds, educational experiences, motivations, and challenges.

In order to create a more inclusive and responsive learning community in my writing classroom, I am continually working to develop assignments which encourage students to share and reflect on their own backgrounds, their own writing practices, the challenges they face as students, and how those elements affect the way they perform within and navigate their relationship to Columbia. They have experienced bullying, racism, homophobia, gender dysphoria, privilege, class disparity, strong family support, poor academic performance, academic success, creative rejection, poor emotional health, or any other sorts of formative experiences. It’s important to get students more familiar with the challenges their classmates face, and to accept their own. This sort of sharing challenges students to become more empathetic and less solipsistic in the ways that they engage their classmates and the world beyond institutional boundaries. Students tend to treat each other with more respect, patience, and sense of responsibility when they realize that each of them shares a set of challenges, even if the landscape of those challenges varies widely from one student to the next.

Additionally, this sort of learning environment challenges me, as an instructor, to be more thoughtful and responsive about how I construct and enact policies related to attendance, deadlines, plagiarism, and classroom participation. I am forced to acknowledge that when a student doesn’t attend class on certain date, misses a deadline, or is acting up in class, I really have little access as to the causes. The problem could be due to transportation trouble, illness, poor time management, or even just playing hooky. Acknowledging this uncertainty reminds me that I have to continually negotiate between the complexity of their lives as they move into adulthood, and the fact that I have to challenge them participate within and meet the standards of the course.

(Note: I recently completed a set of materials for an award nomination packet. This post is part of those materials. Prompt Question: “How do you create an inclusive learning community in your classroom that respects the diversity of students’ voices and needs? [Diversity defined broadly, not just in racial or ethnic terms.]”)


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