Sunday, October 21, 2012

Barrows, Chief Illiniwek, and checking privilege/assumptions

As I started reading primary source essay drafts last week, I had a couple of people tell me how typical it is for students to zero in on U of I's mascot controversy when they start to work on their semester-long research projects. The colleagues I spoke with were pretty down on this topic and at first I didn't understand why: I had already read one of the two mascot essays I knew my students were writing and I loved it. It fulfilled every aspect of the assignment and was incredibly thoughtful, driven by curiosity and a desire to understand both sides of the issue. Then I read the second essay. This one was not as well-organized and also presented me with a dilemma. The author is one of my favorite students, someone who is always present, alert in class, respectful, easygoing, and clearly eager to do well and produce quality work. But this essay, beyond its structural/organization issues, was plagued with generalizations and assumptions about the opinions of those who oppose the Chief Illinewek mascot. She had grown up admiring “the Chief,” in part because of family ties to the university, and she was upset that she had been robbed of her opportunity to “honor” him. My knee-jerk reaction was to try to change her mind. Immediately. “SHE IS SO SMART AND FUN TO HAVE IN CLASS; I MUST FIX THIS.” But the idea of imposing my own ethics/politics on her also made me uncomfortable: I certainly couldn’t tell her that some of her attitudes about Native Americans and how protest groups “should” react when faced with demeaning/trivializing stereotypes of their cultural heritage felt awfully bigoted and closed-minded to me. Right? As true as they may be, it’s hard to imagine anyone reacting gracefully to accusations like that. And the point is to teach her to write persuasively and to improve on the skills she brought with her to the class. There were organizational issues to deal with, as well as a questionable source with correspondingly faulty analysis, and because of these things, she wasn’t convincing anybody about her stance on the issue, right or wrong. Dealing with those things is my actual job, so how much responsibility should I take on when it comes to issues, however meaningful they are to me, that lay beyond the course's aims?
            The reading this week complicated the question for me, particularly the article by Barrows who asks quite astutely: “when the majority of students I teach assert, in all sincerity, that ‘the rest of the world hates us because we have all the power, riches, celebrities, and sports heroes, and they’re jealous of us,’ how can one not wish to unsettle the arrogance, paranoia, and xenophobia informing such a statement?” This was an attitude I saw in my own student’s paper, particularly in her indignation toward those who sought to deprive her of her beloved mascot. She expressed very little interest in understanding the viewpoints of those who would argue so passionately against the mascot; rather, it was her instinct to dismiss them completely as spoilsports. Barrows’ efforts to adjust some of these attitudes is totally worthwhile to me and I appreciate his approach in the classroom, how he has designed a course with the goal of checking the privilege of a certain "type" of college student: sheltered and spoiled to varying degrees. It’s given me a lot to think about in terms of how I design my next Rhet 105 section, whether or not I can build assignments and exercises into the course that will challenge my students’ preconceptions from the beginning, without jeopardizing their trust in me as in instructor. I feel like there must be a fine line between imposing my belief system on a classroom and challenging them to check their assumptions about race, gender, imperialism, capitalism (and the bounty of other issues in a very long list…). 

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