Monday, May 15, 2017

May 15, 2017: Spring 2017 Reflections: Fruitvale and Black-ish in Writing II

[As the Spring 2017 semester comes to a conclusion, a series of classroom reflections, this time focused on new things I tried in my courses. I’d love to hear your Spring reflections in comments!]
On the limits and benefits of using contemporary multimedia texts in a first-year writing course.
As I mentioned in my preview post back in January, this semester marked my second time using a First-year Writing II syllabus focused on analyzing 21st century identities. That syllabus’ third unit asks students to utilize a pair of multimedia texts of their choice to practice comparative analyses; for some reason that I can’t entirely remember, the first time I taught with this syllabus, back in Spring 2014, I used two such texts from the 1980s (the film Working Girl and an episode of the TV show The Wonder Years) for our collective practice with those skills. Since this semester, as I mentioned in that preview post, I was determined to find a way to include more contemporary debates and issues as part of our class conversations, I decided to go with two recent multimedia texts that could allow us to make such connections: the film Fruitvale Station (2013) and the wonderful 2016 “Hope” episode of the sitcom Black-ish. My hope was that these texts would help us to discuss police brutality and shootings, #BlackLivesMatter, and race in 2017 America while we modeled analyzing a dramatic film and a TV sitcom as part of a sample paper pairing.
We did indeed have those conversations, but with a limitation that I probably should have seen coming: our consistent, necessary focus on the writing skills and approaches comprised by that unit and paper. I’ve written many times in this space (and elsewhere) about my student-centered teaching approach, and that focus is never more central than in first-year writing courses, when any and all content is (to my mind) always secondary to the skills on which the students are working at any given moment. That’s not something I see myself ever changing, but it can lead to frustrations, and I certainly felt them in the course of our film and TV analyses, conversations in which we briefly touched upon incredibly challenging and difficult topics (particularly those related to police shootings) but simply didn’t have the time or space to delve into those subjects at length without sacrificing the focus that we needed on the paper in progress. To be honest, I think it might be necessary to make such topics the subject of the entire syllabus/course (as I did with a series of central readings in my Fall 2016 Seminar on Analyzing 21st Century America) in order to do them justice while still devoting sufficient time to our papers and their many related skills and elements.
At the same time, I’m very glad to have shared these texts, and especially the very under-appreciated Fruitvale Station, with my students. Despite my giving them the freedom to choose any two multimedia texts they wanted for the comparative paper, five of the twenty-three students chose to include Fruitvale as one of their pair; all five of them, and at least a few others in the class, noted that they had neither seen nor heard of the film previously, and that they were powerfully affected by viewing it and wanted to pursue those responses further by analyzing it in their papers. Even if we had been able to have more extended conversations about our contemporary topics than we did, I of course wouldn’t have wanted to proscribe any particular perspectives for the students, and instead would have hoped only that they’d be pushed to think more fully and deeply about such challenging and crucial issues. And it seems that the very experience of watching a film like Fruitvale, and then for this group of students the follow-up experience of writing about it, presented them with precisely such an opportunity, adding the film into their evolving perspectives on all those topics and many others. That’s a significant benefit in and of itself, and one made possible by utilizing a complex contemporary text like Fruitvale.
Next Spring reflection tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Spring semester reflections you’d share?

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