A Post-election Anecdote

(Note to Facebook friends: below the fold is something I posted on FB yesterday that you may or may not have already seen.)

When I started this blog, I’d hoped to keep its content strictly academic and pedagogical in nature.  As everyone who teaches knows, however, events in the world outside often make themselves become the stuff of what goes on inside.  Our recent elections have become just such an event in my classes, and I’m certain in yours as well.  I thought I’d share with you something that happened between me and a student as we talked about her final paper for the semester, and how the usual spaces between class work and the world outside, between teacher and student, became blurred in a completely unanticipated way.  What I describe below is a version of precisely the set of ideas I want this blog’s title, Domestic Issue, to evoke in the reader.

Anecdote is no more and no less than what it is. But that doesn’t make it any less true for the persons who are its subject; thus, if we are sincere when we say we care, we aren’t excused from at least listening.

My Comp I students are working on argumentative papers for their last assignment of the semester, and I’ve been talking with them about their arguments and supports for them. Yesterday, I talked with a student who wants to write something in response to last week’s election results. It was only two weeks ago that I found out she is from the state of Michoacán in Mexico; she and her family have lived here for about half her life. I mention that because, when you speak with her or read what she has written, you probably would not guess that she had not been born in this country. She is proud of where she comes from, but she also loves this country and believes she understands it. Or, rather, before the 8th she thought she understood it.

Pre-writing is, of course, the messy part of writing, that part where you try to figure out what you think, what you know and need to know about what you think, and how to give all of that an effective shape on the page. Yet even by pre-writing standards, my student’s work was really messy: an explosion of words and phrases and ideas that she felt she had to say something about but could not see a way to make coalesce–moreover, so many words and phrases and ideas that if she had tried to talk about them all with any adequacy she’d end up with a paper that she’d not be able to finish by the end of the semester. The words and phrases, though, reflected her anger, her fear and uncertainty, and even, underneath all of that, a sense of feeling betrayed (I have carefully weighed this word before using it, wondering if it is too strong. I do not think so.) by what she had come to believe about this place. Her work showed what she later said out loud as we talked: She felt she could no longer make sense of what she wants to believe is true of this place. And here I must confess a sad secret: As I looked at her work, I feared that I wasn’t going to be of great help to her in a pedagogical sense–its incoherence closely resembled my own thinking this past week and a half.

After some more conversation, I could begin to discern a shape for her paper that I think will work, and we talked about that. But who knows if it will? It seems like a good strategy, but is it really? Is it conceptually flawed, or will it become that way as she tries to carry it out? With this paper of hers, as with our nation, the idea(l)s are there, but can we bring them into being? “In order to form a more perfect union”–or a more perfect Comp I paper–indeed.

That’s really all there is to tell about my student’s paper, but here’s something I hadn’t known I’d conclude by saying until just a few minutes before I reached this paragraph: I do not know my student’s citizenship status or that of her family, but none of that mattered. During that conversation, she and I were bound by a shared Americanness that transcends ethnicity or accidents of geography or documentation. God willing, it will also transcend the aftermath of this election, come what may.

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