AL 833 Final Reflection Essay

I'm an irredeemable dweeb. I'm an unrepentant geek. And this semester, they set me loose in the classroom.

January 12th I go back. January 12. Another round of being sandwiched between my students and my own teachers. A pedagogical tiramisu. It goes without saying that people serve many contradictory roles in life, but oscillating back and forth between being a teacher and a student, or occupying both roles laid on top of one another, is like an optical illusion. Sometimes I see things one way, sometimes I see them another, both at the same time. It’s a face and two vases.

I live my life by genre. If I learned anything from 833, it was to see genre like a hidden picture, like a sailboat coming out of a bunch of sparkly dots. I found myself writing a bio recently:

About the Author

Franny Howes may lack a bionic arm, or any superpowers whatsoever, but she makes up for it in spirit. She can frequently be found leading ragtag bunches of misfits to unlikely triumph.

Look for her in comic book stores everywhere.

The “ragtag bunch of misfits” genre comes to my mind all the time teaching PCW. I don’t mean it to be insulting to my students—I think they are a decent swath of humanity. But everyone else seems to pity them and me. I am teaching the Bad News Bears of freshman writing. I am teaching the Mighty Ducks. And I really couldn’t get away with saying that in a “statement of teaching philosophy”. Brutal honesty does not seem to be part of that genre of writing.

I don’t even like sports movies that much. But I do like the “underdog”. I believe that people can do way more than anyone anticipates, and I appreciate when not just big, but cool things are expected of me. I’ve suffered when little was expected, and when I was expected to produce boring things—memos and newsletters. I shine when things get wacky.

The best big idea about the world I got from the nonprofit sector was community organizing theory, specifically “asset-based community development”. It states, basically, that everyone has assets, even poor people. Assets are not just money. They are skills, knowledges, and anything you have going for you. I once used a scene from The Princess Bride to explain this—where they are trying to storm the castle and rescue Buttercup. Inigo and Fezzig don’t think they have any assets, but they are forgetting about the wheelbarrow and the black cloak that they have lying around. Everything can be useful. In community development, this idea is used to base organizing around skills and resources the community already has, instead of trying to import all resources from the outside, which is not a sustainable model.

Beginning teaching this semester, I didn’t have any prior model of pedagogy, but I knew this theory. It meshes well with other theories I have picked up along the way. I really wanted to enact a stronger link with a radical disability pedagogy and course content for next semester, but since I am designing the course I am going to actually teach, the requirements of the department seem to have put up a roadblock. I have a book I have to teach out of, and I can supplement it; I don’t think I’m supposed to be subverting it…

I wrote about in one of my response papers that my usual genre metaphor for life, superhero comics, doesn’t really apply well to my teaching. I have tried to parse out the many other metaphors I have found myself faced with in defining my task of teaching writing to a bunch of people born in the 1990’s:

Something I have had a hard time with is the duality of teaching as empowering others, and teaching as enacting power on others. We are the “good guy” and the “bad guy”—we want to change lives but have to be sticklers about tardiness. I have to remind myself that all acts of power are not inscribing colonization on other people. I think this particular course design deals with issues of power, specifically in the sense that it culminates in a sort of transfer of power—my students will be designing and completing their own final projects over the course of two assignments. I’m letting them write their own playbook for the big playoff game, in a manner of speaking.

I think the best thing about this genre metaphor for teaching is that it inherently recognizes my own subjectivity as a person who is…weird. Queer, nerdy, and certainly uncomfortable as a traditional authority figure, as professional as I may look in my teacher dresses. The person who ends up leading the band of oddballs is always downtrodden or odd themselves. Now, I certainly do not see this as punishment (as it often starts out as in the genre) but there is a certain rite of passage element involved. Also, at a critical point in the story, the oddball leader chooses to return to lead the band of misfits—and I, too, am returning to lead a new band of PCW students in my own sequel, next semester.

Would I tell my students that I see them this way? Perhaps. But other metaphors for “basic writing” students are worse, and dishonest. I refuse to have a deficit model in plotting a course for this class—such students are often talked about in the same way as people with disabilities as well as people who are impoverished, as people who need fixing, who have needs that have to be filled by a generous outside influence, be it a teacher or a social service agency. My students know how to do lots of things, and I am convinced and committed that a pedagogy that starts with that simple fact and builds upward is best thing I can think of to use in my classroom.

email me at howesfra at msu dot edu