Image: jbdodane
There’s an ugly trend nowadays whereby teachers write mean-spirited blog posts and splashy click-bait articles that lambaste their students for not knowing things. They may feel justified because they’re anonymizing their students, but there’s still something dreadfully wrong with this fad. If you’re a teacher, it’s your job to teach the students what they don’t know, not deride them for not knowing the things you’re there to teach them.

So I feel like I’m going out on a limb a bit with this post, in talking about my approach to the class I taught this past semester. But as I’m writing a column about intersectionality, and I taught a composition course with the topic of intersectionality, it’s appropriate to, well, intersect these two parts of my life.

Last spring, when I submitted my proposal for this course, I could have selected pretty much any topic under the sun. My department grants me great freedom in developing courses around my interests and expertise. But, of course, teaching is ultimately not about me, but my students. So when I consider course proposals, I think of what they need first and foremost.

My approach to “what they need” grapples with the cold fact that, generally speaking, my students have come to the university primarily to obtain the certification necessary to find and keep a decent-paying job. I don’t fault them, as this is what society has taught them to do. And whether this should be the goal is a matter of much debate within academia. But I want to honor my students, and trust that they are adults making adult decisions. If my students are shelling out large sums of cash for something that has nothing whatsoever to do with why they’re shelling out the cash, then there is something broken in my social contract with them. This isn’t to say that I don’t engage more high-minded academic concerns in my approach to pedagogy. But I don’t think it has to be an either/or situation. And, within the composition classroom, I can definitely equip my students with skills that will carry over into whatever career they enter.

Whatever career students may enter, they will need to work with people, on some level. And at some point, they will work with people who are much different from themselves. So, this past semester, I used my classroom as a space in which my students could engage in the difficult issues surrounding intersectionality, privilege, marginalization, and identity, so that they can better relate to the people they will encounter throughout their lives. We read Barabara Ehrenreich and Jamaica Kincaid and Gloria Anzaldúa. We watched Sherman Alexie’s wonderful The Business of Fancydancing. We had a Skype discussion with writer and editor Raymond Luczak (who, if you haven’t read, you must.)

The learning process was tough for my students because it’s tough for every single one of us. For so long, we’ve allowed oppression to go unchecked, to the point that we can every day partake in oppressive acts big and small without even thinking about it. How much has oppression limited our species? Prevented us from upraising the next Mozart, the next Einstein? Or, never mind Mozart and Einstein—how does our oppression prohibit people from reaping benefits commensurate with their labor, from enjoying some sense of health and safety, from being able to wake up each morning believing that today can be better than the day before?

And, I have to admit, this was a tough subject to teach. As most college instructors do, I had to learn along the way what the students knew and didn’t know. And I had to give them space to speak of their own experiences. I had a wonderfully diverse classroom, and the students probably learned more from each other than they did from me when it came to intersectionality.

As I tried to make clear to my students, it’s not like I have a fantastic handle on all of this. I enjoy the incredible benefits of privilege, even as there are spaces in which I don’t have privilege. I unwittingly—or uncaringly—commit sins against my fellow human beings that keep them from reaching their potential. But you make yourself aware. You learn. You commit yourself to action. Our fellow human beings deserve nothing less.

In the end, I saw that my students had grown into more compassionate people. I can’t lay claim to any miraculous transformations, nor can I say that any of my students were ever heartless or unsympathetic. That said, we grappled with identity in a way many of them hadn’t before. On the last day of class, I told my students that the understanding intersectionality can’t be mastered in a single semester, and, if their feedback was any indication, they had already got that. It is a lifetime process, and hopefully, I helped them just a little in that journey.


Whittier Strong

Whittier Strong is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. He presently serves as nonfiction editor for Permafrost. His work has been published in The Rumpus, The Good Men Project, Apogee, Jonathan, QDA: A Queer Disability Anthology, and elsewhere. A native of Indiana, he earned his BA in creative writing from Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *