07 December 2010

Shitty things that happen to me.

So a thing happened over the break. It was awful and continues to be awful. And I am having a hard time talking about it, so I'm going to try and write it down.

Trigger warning. The following post describes threatened gun violence and a serious lack of respect for physical boundaries.

Thanksgiving break was more awkward this year than usual. Mom and Kevin (my stepdad) have been having problems lately, and from what I could tell before all the shit went down, it seems to stem primarily from the fact that they are living where Mom wants to live. When they got married, Kevin wanted to live in the country, despite the fact that my mother likes cities. So they moved to the country. To the middle of fucking nowhere. You have to drive 30 minutes to get to a grocery store, and Mom commuted 30 minutes every day to work as a recruiter in a warehouse. She didn't like it much, but when you live in the middle of nowhere, you take what you can get. Kevin worked for himself at home. Then this year, I don't know why or what was discussed, but they kept the house in the middle of nowhere and rented one in Dallas. (It's about a 2-hour drive, so the thought was that the middle-of-nowhere house could be for holidays and occasional weekends.) Mom returned to her old job in Dallas, which she likes much more, and she was ecstatic about the move and their new house. Kevin has apparently been miserable in Dallas. He doesn't like his job, he doesn't like the city, and has just done everything he can to make her miserable, too. They've been fighting constantly.

So I go visit, and it's awkward, like it always is with Kevin, because he is always weird about me being around. I think that part of it is that I always stick up for Mom when I think she's right (and more often than not, that's the case). He acts like we gang up on him or something. He also doesn't seem a big fan of me thinking I'm right about anything either, because he's got this inferiority complex and thinks that college-educated people just sit around making fun of and judging non-college-educate people. Anyway, the break goes okay, I spend a lot of time with Mom, and it's fun, and we drink wine and shop and do the things we do around Thanksgiving. A couple of days after Thanksgiving, we drive to middle-of-nowhere house, and hang out and drink wine. Kevin doesn't drink. After Mom walks inside to go to the bathroom, Kevin gets up and sits next to me and puffs himself up and says, "But I don't know why it doesn't chap your ass that your taxes pay for bums living under a bridge in Dallas." This statement was only tangentially related to what we were talking about. A couple of things: I was tipsy, and Kevin was not. Kevin is also a big fan of trying to be bigger than you when he argues with you, and gets up in your space, and does not fucking listen. We've had the Kevin-thinks-all-poor-people-are-totally-undeserving conversation. And it ended with me in tears. So he could predict what was going to happen. But I'm tipsy, and he pissed me off by bringing it up, so I argue with him instead of doing the smart thing, which would be telling him we are not talking about this. And he baits me, and tells me that he knows all poor people/homeless people are undeserving because of people that he knows. And won't listen to me when I tell him that most homeless people are vets, disabled, or single mothers. Numbers don't matter! Kevin has his opinions and anecdotes! Whatever. So I get in tears again, and I tell him I am not having this conversation anymore, and just because he doesn't have compassion for other people doesn't mean he can antagonize me for having it. I walk off. It is obvious why I walk off; he is not listening, he is acting as though my emotional reaction is completely illegitimate (and a sign of the illegitimacy of my argument), and we are getting nowhere except me being upset. You know, because of my silly lady-feelings.

I wash my face and go sit in the front yard. We had been in the backyard, so I hear Kevin and Mom yelling. Then Mom comes and yells at me because THERE IS A MIDDLE GROUND AND NEITHER OF US ARE WILLING TO SEE IT. Which is ridiculous, since my parents have NO IDEA where I stand on particular welfare issues. They don't actually give a shit, because they just know I don't disagree with their counter-factual assertions that most homeless people are lazy and deserve to starve to death.

After yelling at me, Mom goes back to yell at Kevin. I'm texting my friends a mile a minute, and call Adrienne, who calms me down a bit, and when I come back (it's been about 15 minutes or so), Mom and Kevin are STILL fighting outside. So I walk up, and I'm still, you know, angry, and tell them to please stop yelling about me, and just fucking talk to me. And Kevin says, "We're not yelling about you! We're talking about getting divorced BECAUSE of you!" And well, I've heard that one before. So I said, "No. You aren't allowed to say that. I've heard that from my father before, and he was just as full of shit as you are. Your problems with Mom are not my fault." And he was not happy about that response. We get into it, and Mom is pissed at me for yelling at him, and he's pissed at me for standing up for myself, and I'm pissed at Mom for not standing up for me or even listening, and pissed at Kevin for being a complete asshole without once recognizing the power dynamic in our relationship that makes every. fucking. disagreement. difficult. So he stands up and keeps getting in my space. And, dude. I had a verbally abusive father. He tried to physically intimidate me all the time. He knew that he would win every argument because he could, and he knew that he could just stand close to me to threaten me with violence. It didn't matter if he had any intention of actually hitting me, he just wanted me to know that he could. And so I back up. Multiple times. And I push Kevin away and I tell him to stop getting close to me. And he backs me up against a fence and puts his hands on my shoulders. At this point, I'm not even listening to what he says because my brain is in panic-mode. And I tell him to stop physically intimidating me (which upsets him) and to stop touching me, at which point he gets this horrified look on his face and sits down in the truck with the door open.

Mom yells at me, telling me, "He just wanted to hug you!" As if that made it better? I repeatedly told him to get off, and back up, and even pushed him back. I DON'T CARE WHAT HIS INTENTIONS WERE. I get to decide when I am touched, and that includes hugging. And instead of asking, "Can I hug you?" he continued to ignore my obvious distress and my desire for him to back the fuck off, because he thought that his good intentions and desires superseded my right to not be touched when I don't want to be. IF he had asked, I would have said no. I didn't want him to be hugging me any more than I wanted him to physically threaten me. I WANTED HIM AWAY. But my mother and him both acted like I was being irrational and crazy. And I tried to explain (very distressed, so I'm sure I wasn't entirely coherent) that he was triggering me, that I wanted him away to he would stop triggering me, and my mother said, "You think your bullshit is more important than anything." I have honestly never wanted to slap her as much as I did in that moment. It hurt to hear her say that, to know that she thinks my desire for bodily autonomy is just my irrational reaction to abuse.

And we aren't even to the bad part of the evening. At this point, emotions high, Kevin pulls out a gun. As far as I can tell, a loaded gun. (I don't know that much about guns.) And he fucking cocks it. My mother's reaction was puzzling, because while he is just holding the gun next to him, I think it's pointed more at us than at him, though it's not being aimed. She starts crying harder and screaming at him not to hurt himself. So I gather that this has happened before. The asshole has threatened self-harm with a loaded fucking gun to manipulate my mother more than fucking once. I'm more scared than angry, though, so I back up several feet (If he had shot it, very likely it would have hit one of us, because the trajectory of the bullet would have passed through him and we were standing in its way.) and yell at him to stop. He says to Mom, "She [he means me] accused me of being a pervert!" That, of course, didn't happen, but I think Kevin thinks I only have the right to say "no" to sexual touch, and thus my "no" meant that I thought it was sexual touch. I thought no such thing, and as I've never been sexually assaulted, by my father or anyone else, I was completely baffled by his interpretation of what just happened. But, you know, there's a loaded gun being held by an overemotional and obviously unhinged man, so I say whatever it is he wants me to say. I'm sorry, don't hurt yourself, we're only worried about you. I didn't mean any of it, but I was scared to death he was going to a) shoot himself, scar his son and my mother forever, and she would blame herself for the rest of her life or b) shoot me or my mother. He yelled and freaked out and waved it around until Mom finally got him to relinquish it, and she hands it to me (OH GOD, I thought, I don't even know how to make it uncocked! I just set it down in the grass next to me) and hugs him. And he gets out of the car and HUGS ME. And I'm so relieved that he isn't threatening violence anymore, and scared that if I get upset with him he'll freak out again, that I let him, and I keep saying "I'm sorry. I'm sorry." I think I meant it at the time--I'm fairly used to men convincing me that their crazy and violence is my fault.

Then he sits me down, since Mom has stormed off inside and said "I don't have to put up with this shit anymore" (truer words), and tries to have a heart-to-heart with me. I'm still, again, scared and emotional and upset, so I let him think we've made up, and I tell him he needs to go apologize. He is honestly baffled. "Don't you think she should apologize, too?" (Um, NO. You just held a LOADED GUN in our vicinity and threatened violence. NO, SHE DOESN'T NEED TO APOLOGIZE.) And I just look at him, aware that I can't even address how fucking not-in-the-pale his actions were, because who knows what will set him off again? And he tells me he's not happy, and shouldn't she care about him being happy? He goes inside and fights with her and comes out and she wants to leave. And so I am, of course, relieved we are leaving and I help her pack and she is upset, and she asks me to get him to talk to her again. So I go tell him, and he asks me if I care if they make up. I look him in the eye and tell him the truth; I only care that she is happy (and safe, but I didn't say that). He looks angry, which scares the hell out of me.

Finally, after much debating on Mom's part, we leave. About 10 minutes away, she asks me to take her back. I didn't know what to do, so I pull her over and tell her I can't go back there, because I'm afraid for my safety and for hers. "That thing with the gun--has that happened before?" She nods at me and says, "He would never hurt us." "On purpose, Mom. Do you think that was normal?" "No, he needs help. It's not normal." "Mom, it's dangerous. And it's manipulative." "But he might hurt himself if I don't go back, and it will be my fault." "NO. That would not be your fault. That would be his fault. All you have done is argue with him, and that does not warrant that kind of reaction." Finally, kind of reluctantly, she agreed to go on with me to Dallas.

Next morning, she asked me if I was okay. No, I'm not okay. "Why not?" "Because, Mom. I'm afraid for you, and I think that you are normalizing behavior that is manipulative and abusive. If that had been my boyfriend, you would have called the cops and forcibly made me leave that relationship. I can't and won't do that, though I do regret not calling the cops." And I know I shouldn't have said that. I knew it when I said it. But I needed her to hear that this was abuse. That threatening to kill yourself is emotionally manipulative, and the result is that she are too scared to leave. That is not okay. But what I needed her to hear and what she needed to hear were probably different, which is why I don't have any idea what to say to her now. I love her, and I'm scared for her, and I want her to be happy and safe. And I don't think she is either of those things now, and I wish she would decide to divorce him. I would be there for her, and would be her go-between, and go with her to the courthouse, and help her hire someone to move his shit out. I could be amazing at that. But instead I am sitting at home wondering if she wants to talk to me when I don't know if I can, doing fucking nothing to fix this situation. Because I can't fix it. And it's killing me.

05 December 2010

Teaching composition: How do we make students conceptualize themselves as writers?

At the risk of a very boring lead-in to this post, here's a thing I wrote for class! We had to write a kind of "what I learned this semester" assignment for my pedagogy class, after teaching according to the prescribed syllabus. So I thought I'd share it with you guys and get your thoughts, especially since I haven't been posting lately. So enjoy!

The main goal of a writing teacher is to improve her students' writing, but in order for this to happen, an instructor must convince her students that they are writers, not merely students, engineers, scientists, or mathematicians taking a writing course. By doing so, she can be more confident that her students will get something more meaningful and lasting from her class than a passing grade. In the worksheets that my students filled out at the beginning of the semester, most students indicated that what they would gain from my class was a basic competency in writing for their future professions. Those that find the class relevant only think it is relevant for their future professional life (and perhaps for the rest of their undergraduate careers). One student wrote, “My boss one day will expect me to write well, and will judge me on my writing ability, so I hope to improve my grammar and writing for my future job.” While there is nothing wrong with this personal goal, nor is it problematic for a writing teacher to indicate to her students that professionals are often expected to write in the course of their jobs, students will be more successful and will get more out of a writing course if they see writing as a skill they will use, and already use, outside of the classroom and the workplace.

Almost all students are writers before they enter a freshman composition course. They write emails; on a myriad of internet sites, including Facebook, Twitter, Livejournal, and blogs; in the margins of books; in notes, letters, and birthday cards; in diaries and journals; in school newspapers or yearbooks; and some even write fiction or poetry. They belong to discourse communities before they enter academia; they attend church, belong to clubs and organizations, volunteer, belong to service or social justice groups and communities. While students often think that a composition course will only help them to participate in the discourse communities to which they are newly inducted (academia and their respective professional fields), relating a composition course to the discourse communities to which students already belong should be a responsibility of a writing instructor, and doing so will help students to invest in the course beyond their commitment to learning grammar or getting a passing grade. Many of my students have told me that they do not see the relevance of my class to their lives, usually in response to my comments on their essays asking them to be engaged and interested in their writing. Indeed, how can I expect them to be engaged when the assignments are easier for them to complete successfully if they do not care about the topic at all? Assignments that ask them to be objective and without bias are difficult enough at their age, but I also think they are counter-productive when made high-risk major grades. There are ways to teach our students to summarize fairly and without overt bias, but basing a major assignment on those skills made my students feel as though their positions did not matter. After the first two assignments, which explicitly forbid students from making their positions their arguments, many of my students were cautious about sharing their positions in the third paper. More than once I heard in class: “So, we're allowed to state our opinions?” Because I had been teaching them to make arguments that could not reveal their positions, my students did not know how to conceptualize their positions as positions, supported with reasoning and argumentation, as opposed to opinions, mere statements of unsupported preference.

Further, these two assignments forced me to ban the word “bias” from my students' papers. All semester, I have struggled to convey to my students that everything written includes some bias, and thus to use the word as a weapon is not in good faith. Their use of the word “bias” in this way is partly a result of a cultural preference for objectivity, but our emphasis in ENGL 104 on objectivity in the first two major assignments does not help. By demanding essays that refrain from stating positions, and calling this objectivity, I produced students that believed arguing for a position is biased and illegitimate. And because my students did not argue for a position until the fourth paper, I was only able to talk with them about being fair, as opposed to objective, in arguing for a position for a few weeks. They did not receive almost any practice in this, despite the fact that this skill is just as important as avoiding overt bias when necessary. In fact, in most discourse communities, arguing for positions in a fair way is far more useful than summarizing objectively or analyzing without overt bias.

Another way that writing courses often do not position students as writers outside the classroom is by not allowing for revision. In most discourse communities, revision is an important part of the writing process, and if the community does not allow for outright revision, then it allows for responses, dialogue, qualifications, and corrections. Only in academia (and then only at the undergraduate level) is the draft turned in on a deadline a final one, graded with no chance for discussion, revision, or correction. This process decontextualizes student writing, and makes assignments unrelated to the discourse communities in which our students participate, where most texts are not utterly final and finite. Further, not allowing for revision does not encourage (or, as is sometimes necessary, force) students to draft multiple times, a process necessary for successful writing.

The solution to these problems is assignments that allow my students to participate in different discourse communities. In such a project, I would elicit from each student a discourse community to which they already belong (a church congregation, a blogging community, a school newspaper, an activist community) and have them work with me to produce a writing assignment positioned within that community. The first part of this project would be a fair, researched summary of the characteristics of the discourse community, while the second part would involve making an argument within that community. Because I think students should participate in and take responsibility for their own education, students would be responsible for working with me to create a rubric for assessing their assignment, based in part on the first part of the assignment. Both portions of this assignment would allow for revision after the draft is turned in. If students are unhappy with their final product (or their grade), they would have the option to revise.

This type of assignment would result in several positive outcomes. First, by having students identify discourse communities to which they already belong, it would position my students as writers outside the classroom. They would be encouraged to be invested in the assignment and in themselves as writers within a particular discourse community outside of a professional or academic sphere, which would likely result in their greater commitment to improving their writing beyond the desire for a good grade. Second, it would reduce the emphasis on objectivity that the current syllabus has, and introduce my students to position arguments, those arguments my current students have called “opinions” and “biased” all semester, much earlier. Third, it would allow for and encourage revision, indicating the vital role this part of the writing process plays. This would also allow for a discussion of how texts in other discourse communities allow for revision, discussion, response, and correction, and thus position students' writing as not merely anchored in academic or professional discourses. Last, this type of assignment would position other discourse communities as comparable and just as legitimate as the academic discourse community, to which the remaining course assignments would be written. The course would thus avoid the preference for privileged discourses, and the delegitimization of underprivileged discourses, that is found in both the university and in our larger culture.

It is the responsibility of the writing instructor to teach students to write, but to what end? Students who enter a freshman composition course should not be given only the option of becoming a better academic writer, but also a better writer within the discourse communities to which they already belong. The composition course should be an opportunity to become a better academic writer, a better blogger, a better editorial writer, a better Twitter-er, a better activist writer, a better newspaper column writer. Without that opportunity, what a student does in a composition classroom is unlikely to stick with her, unlikely to translate outside the walls of the university, and unlikely to give her the sense that she is capable of creating change through her writing.