Wrapping up the semester

Once again, it has been a long time since I posted. Since my last post, we’ve been doing the normal LIBR 1101 material – plagiarism, searching in a couple of different databases, filter bubbles, copyright & Creative Commons, social media literacy, etc. While I’m constantly revising how I discuss those topics in class, they don’t seem as novel to me as some of the earlier lessons.

However, I mentioned in my last post that, when they submitted their first proposed research topics, I realized I should have spent more time explaining that they weren’t limited to just researching what happened in August in Ferguson. I thought they didn’t realize at first that I meant they could address any of the related issues, like racial disparities in education or in health care. I now realize that at least some of them didn’t even know what issues were related to this.

On the last day of class before spring break, I had the students do an in class writing exercise responding to the prompt:

Do you have any questions remaining about topics we’ve already covered this semester? What else do you want to cover in the rest of this semester?

One student wrote that they wanted to go over what exactly happened in Ferguson in August. I had been working with the assumption that there was enough media coverage that most of the US knew at least roughly what happened, and that those who picked my section in particular would be those who knew more about it than average. That was a bad assumption!

So last week, with only one week of classes remaining in the semester, we spent a day discussing what happened. I went briefly over the timeline of events, then asked why Mike Brown might have mouthed off to the cop, other than the fact that he was 18. (I’m pretty sure I mouthed off to some authority figures when I was 18 as well!) That led in to discussing some of the roots of the tension between citizens and cops in that area, including the heavy reliance on tickets and court fees to fund city governments, at times leading to jail time for those who cannot pay a minor traffic ticket, and the “substantial evidence of racial bias” found in the DOJ report. I mentioned Darren Wilson’s history – fired along with the rest of the Jennings PD because of racial tensions with residents in Jennings, so he just went a few miles down the road to join the Ferguson PD. I wound up doing a really rough drawing of the St Louis area on the whiteboard to illustrate that, which then provided a convenient way to segue into the crazy way school districts are drawn in that area (another layer of confusing, which don’t match up with municipal boundaries, so some people in Ferguson attend the Ferguson-Florissant district, while others are in the Normandy district), and some of the disparities in the schools.

I don’t remember everywhere else we went in that discussion, but it eventually turned to more recent incidents closer to us – Anthony Hill – and other incidents around the country, including John Crawford, Kajieme Powell, Tamir Rice, and most recently Walter Scott, and other issues related to those shootings.

I can’t tell you how much I wish I had taken a day to do this earlier in the semester! For one thing, not everyone had even heard about all of these issues before. Those who had drew new connections. One student mentioned watching a video about St Louis County in another class, but didn’t realize until I drew that map on the board that Ferguson is IN St Louis County. So, yeah, the issues raised in that video are not just similar to what was happening in Ferguson, they WERE things that were happening to the residents of Ferguson!

My favorite part of that day, though, was the reaction of one particular student. This person hardly ever says anything in class. They are attentive, and always very thoughtful when responding to in class writing prompts, but just rarely actually speak. By the end of class that day, this person was speaking up, mentioning some of the other cases listed above… I think this person said more during class that day than I’ve heard from them during class time for at least the past couple of months combined. That made me really happy! (Side note, I am really wishing English had a gender-neutral singular pronoun right now!)

I don’t know whether I’ll have another opportunity to teach this class in this way. The section I’m scheduled to teach this fall is just a regular section, and I didn’t have our Info Lit Coordinator add any special description to my section in the class bulletin… But if I do try to do anything like this again, I won’t repeat the mistake of assuming students know anything about the special topic of the course!

In my department, one of my colleagues has started up a critical pedagogy book group. Yesterday, while discussing portions of Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks, the conversation somehow came around to my realization that I needed to spend time in class just going over what actually happened in Ferguson and the highlights from that class session. We started to talk about ways to do more topic-focused sections of the class – not necessarily on topics as charged as structural racism, but possibly on privacy issues or other relevant topics. One person raised the idea of starting off the semester by watching Citizenfour in class in order to ensure that everyone was starting with the same base of knowledge, and then structuring the rest of the course around the privacy issues raised there. Being pre-tenure in rural Georgia, I’m a bit scared to spend as much time addressing structural racism in what appears to be a neutral library course without having some mechanism to ensure in advance that those who choose this section do so because they are willing to engage in those discussions. So I’ll have to think about how to focus a regular section around a special topic that may not be as subversive but that will let me slip some discussion of structural racism in there… But whatever I do, I’ll make sure to spend time on some shared readings, a class lecture, or a video about the topic to make sure everyone has some base knowledge of the topic before diving in!