Self-care and Students

This week, Jay Dolmage–a prominent disability and disability rhetoric scholar–has been to Syracuse for our department’s Spring Conference, giving a talk and leading a workshop (both were wonderful, and here are the materials and more on accessibility and disability studies). It, along with some other things, have made me think about self care and students.

I’ve always found that writing instructors have a unique connection with students, compared with other disciplines. We often have smaller classes, we tend to get a huge portion of the university, and we get a lot of frosh students. In addition, writing tends to involve many more skills than “grammar”: critical thinking, reading strategies, synthesizing ideas, formulating arguments, researching topics, analyzing primary and secondary sources, evaluating sources, cultivating and managing productive work and workflow strategies, etc.

And, perhaps in a more Romantic sense, writing, even academic writing, is a personal task. Though the image of the lone writer in some castellated tower is not accurate, writing and authorship–crafting a cohesive document that carries our mark and oftentimes our name–is something powerful, even in our information-saturated age. Issues of voice and privilege play a role, along with identity. And, one of my favorite adages from the field remains: “Writing is thinking.” Often, as we think through an issue by writing, we learn something new.

I am not saying that this is true for all writers nor with all writing, but it happens. And we often give a space for students to reflect on issues like identity and experience because literacies, in all their forms, are fundamental to how we exist in and experience the world. As the humanities get stripped and softened in many universities, “writing” provides a space to reflect on fundamental questions and experiences–should students and administrators allow it.

All this is to say that increasingly, though we already have too much to teach in a semester, I’ve been trying to address, or think about addressing, issues that are not immediately tied to writing. And this post, I want to stress self-care (or self care, with no hyphen?). Inspired by my colleague Allison Hitt, and others, I’ve increasingly made some space to address self-care with students, particularly strategies and experiences.

This deserves its own post or article, and the input of others with more experience, but for now, I often start with this article on perfectionism and procrastination. It disarms the usual narratives we and our students tell ourselves–and are told–about productivity and laziness.

But in a more general sense, I think “addressing self care” involves getting into the embodied, day-to-day experiences of being students and writers, of being friends and partners, of being sons and daughters (or something else, articulated or not)–in short, we get at being human.

And, it does not always work. And it can been exploitative and risky for you and students, with plenty of pitfalls–and is impossible with increasingly destructive teaching loads for adjuncts and others–but I feel like it is important to consider and strive for when possible, not only for our unique connection with students in higher ed, but also for the fact that questions of productivity, writing, and development involve care.

You cannot succeed, or even survive, if you’re always treading water.

And, as part of my own focus on technology, I also increasingly think it’s important to talk about privacy, cyber security, and technology habits as part of our profession. Media literacy, password security, the mental effects of social media, screen time, etc., are both questions of literacy and questions of self-care. As our digital lives and “flesh” lives infuse–as well as the literacies and skills we rely on to negotiate these lives–the importance of these topics increase.

I know I am not new at this, from Stuart Selber to Estee Beck–and Selfe and Hawisher and a bunch of other brilliant young and cornerstone scholars–writing instructors have long recognized the role of technology in composing. But, I think we also recognize the intersection of self, technology, and literacy in ways that are profound and unique. And increasingly important.

CCR 611: “In order to have a language remain fixed”

“[I]n order to have a language remain fixed, it is first necessary that those who speak it become dead.” –Thomas Lounsbury (qtd. in Harker 18)

“Reality is infinitely diverse, compared with even the subtlest conclusions of abstract thought, and does not allow of clear-cut and sweeping distinctions. Reality resists classification.” –Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The House of the Dead

Both Crowley and Harker pick up the “gate-keeping” function of composition and its role in erecting a “great divide” between the educationally privileged and others left outside the gate, sifted into basic writing classes through exams or excluded altogether.

Harker takes a more historical approach centered around the assumptions of literacy, particularly the literacy myth. Crowley takes a more contemporary, labor-focused approach, examining the problems associated with the universal composition requirement and making the “modest proposal” to make it optional for students, though she  grounds this in historical issues.

Crowley’s modest proposal to end the requirement did not seem as far fetched as I initially thought it would. Combined with Harker’s historical look at literacy and role it played in similar proposals, I found myself more responsive to the proposal. I’m not sure it would do all of the things that Crowley lists–like the erasure of intake exams or the creation of more equitable curricula and labor–and as she notes, “if you work in a corrupt system, you have to face the fact that making things better for people working
in one part of the system may make things worse for people who work in another part of it.”

But I think the “universal” nature of this requirement is worth considering, but to do so, I want to step back from the readings, focusing on the notion of “death” evoked by Lounsbury and Dostoevsky’s title, a reference to the Czarist prison he served time in. For Dostoevsky, the people “die” through their exile from society. Although many of his characters will face literal death via execution, their exclusion results in a sort of death-in-life.

In Lounsbury’s quote, I see a potential link with “dead” languages. Latin and Greek may seem more fixed than contemporary English because the speakers are all “dead”–though I think this stability is somewhat simplistic and wrong. But also, the “death” here is a similar exclusion from the influence of language. The language is both “fixed” (repaired) and “fixed” (made stable) as one “fixes” (sterilizes) the speaking public in a given context. Heteroglossia and utterance give way to print’s perceived permanence and longevity.

Thus the question of who and what get excluded from composition becomes the more salient question. Phrased another way, perhaps the difficulties of this “universal requirement” aren’t in the required part, but the universal. Needing to fit a unified goal across an institution or a set of institutions feels both impossible and oppressive. And in particularly top-down universalizing curricula goals–like in states like Colorado–I wonder how assumptions get made about students, institutional goals, and literacy.

I argue that these assumptions lead to the exclusions that “fix” language student voice, creating the gate-keeping that Harker and Crowley critique. In an ideal world, composition could be about opening gates or complicating gates, drawing from the embodied, enworlded, and contextualized “reality” of students and instructors, which remain frustratingly unfixed and non-universal.

But ever resilient and reified, myths of literacy persist and perpetuate power structures. Thus, I think the step may begin more basically by challenging these myths. Perhaps this may involve repealing the requirement, but it may also involve something more basic: checked assumptions, nomadic sensitivities, and a careful assumption to listen closely to both labor and student–not just as abstracts, but as ever-changing bodies.