Calling up a Tsunami

My colleagues and I gave this presentation at a recent conference, and also at our faculty development day at MCTC. We’re going to continue taking it on the road, to get the word out.

— Shannon


MnCUEW (Minnesota Colleges and Universities English and Writing) Conference
April 3-4, 2009


Calling up a Tsunami: Arresting White Privilege with Critical Literacy and Arts Activism in the Basic Writing Classroom


Participants: Kathleen DeVore, Valerie Deus, and Shannon Gibney

Urban Basic Writing classrooms are increasingly predominantly students of color, while English faculties remain largely if not exclusively white.  This should serve to heighten our awareness of BW as work that does not address cognitive deficits, but cultural divides within Higher Ed. and the broader community.  Our work is not mere error correction to the standard, but cultural brokerage – making the cultures and genres valued in academic discourse intelligible to those coming from far outside that culture: usually people from across racial, ethnic, and class cultural divides from their BW teachers.


This panel of BW instructors from one urban Two Year College in a large Midwestern city have been exploring the use of critical literacy, which Shor defines as: “Critical literacy begins in questioning power relations, discourses, and identities in a world not yet finished, just, or humane” (What is Critical Literacy, 1999). Exposing some of the “power lines” in academic discourse allows us to work through with students the systemic privileging of dominant discourse, which they then can begin to strategically adopt, while continuing to hold tight to home discourses that have and will continue to sustain them. 


Despite a stated “commitment to diversity” and a student population that is nearly 50% students of color, our college (and arguably most colleges and universities in this country) operates within an unconscious middle-class and white bias. We are therefore interested in exploring the relationship between that unacknowledged bias and the disciplinary boundary in basic writing courses between “creative” or “personal” writing and more traditional composition. How does this boundary defeat the goals of critical literacy, which arguably begins when students are empowered to tell their own stories in their own creative and critical language?
Finally, it is growing clear to panel members that urban artists of color and arts activists more generally are central to this work — both in connecting to discourses already engaged in critical practices and in reaching into institutions much less racially and culturally homogeneous than higher education. In many communities color around the country – and certainly in the Twin Cities – arts are a primary vehicle for community building and social justice work. Our task as educators in the Basic Writing classroom therefore becomes about mobilizing that power both inside and beyond the classroom, so that students can tell the truth of their lives (and therefore, their community’s lives) through creative and critical language. In this way, linguistic skills/power cannot only describe students worlds, but can actually remake them. Panelists will explore their challenges and successes that we have had with this approach.


One sentence description: This session will explore strategies for engaging basic writing communities of color through critical literacy and arts activism.