Sample Literacy Narrative: Wrestling with Tasks and Lukianoff and Haidt

What follows is a sample of a literacy narrative such as my students are being asked to write for the LitNarr assignment in the Fall 2015 term at Oklahoma State University. It conforms partially to the content guidelines expressed on the LitNarr assignment sheet for that term (the article read for it differs from those available to students), and it adheres to the length requirements, although the formatting will necessarily differ due to the different medium of presentation. How the medium influences reading is something well worth considering as a classroom discussion, particularly for those students who are going into particularly writing- or design-intensive fields.

I hold multiple degrees in English. I teach writing and literature, and I work as a freelance writer, drafting reading guides to popular works of fiction and distilling the reports of others into easily digestible forms. It is therefore to be expected that I do and have done quite a bit of reading. What is perhaps less to be expected is that I have no recollection of learning how to read. I do not recall being taught the names and sounds of letters; I recall school lessons treating them, certainly, but I also recall thinking that I already knew what was being taught in them, and more besides. Indeed, I do not recall a time when I could not read and when I did not read, and I do not recall struggling with reading. It is, for me, a habit trained through many repetitions into a reflex, something that occurs for me as easily as breathing, as the blinking of my eyes, or the beating of my heart. Reading is not a thing I do anymore; it is a thing that happens for me, and I make such a comment not out of hubris but as a simple statement of how things are.

When I am obliged to have my students carry out a literacy narrative, then, and am compelled by my professional practice to draft one alongside them in the hopes of offering them a model to follow, I often find myself at something of a loss. Most literacy narratives discuss the formation of identities as writers and readers, but I am not aware of myself as having formed such an identity. So far as I can recall, I have always had one; I have always been a reader, and I have no watershed moment in which I “became” a writer. Lacking such a thing, I encounter different problems in drafting a literacy narrative than my students do, although I certainly face problems. It is partly to help surpass my own issues, then, that I asked my students to focus their literacy narratives on the experience of reading one of three selected pieces by Frank Bruni. I can easily mimic the task, although not by detailing my own reading of those pieces. Doing so would do much of my students’ work for them, and they would be denied an opportunity to improve. Instead, I read Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s September 2015 piece in The Atlantic, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” and my account of that reading is what follows.

I first encountered the piece in my usual online reading; I start most mornings by checking several email accounts and poring over my social media feeds for items of interest, and the piece came up as I did so one morning in mid-August 2015. The tagline, “In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education–and mental health,” caught my attention. It did so not only because of the mention of the college students I teach, but also because it bespeaks the kind of trigger warning–notice that content may be present in a course or its readings that reenacts trauma upon students–that has been hotly contested in a number of the publications that cater to those in the academy. I copied the article’s URL and emailed it to myself, meaning to print it out later, and I let it rest for a time.

At length, however, I returned to the piece, pulling up its URL and printing out a copy so that I could review it with pencil in hand, as is my custom. Long experience has taught me that the reading I do in support of my professional identity is best done with me ready to make annotations, even if only simply underlining key points. I turned to doing so, finding quickly that Lukianoff and Haidt do, in fact, treat the phenomenon of trigger warnings, citing a number of examples that range from the reasonable to the egregious. I am not at an institution that requires or encourages trigger warnings, so I am somewhat removed from the direct experience of the phenomenon, but I am well aware of it, and I share the fears of many academics that such warnings, although intended well, will serve to stifle the kind of free academic inquiry that informs the best classroom teaching and will be used by students not to avoid retraumatization, but the work of learning.

I had thought that I would find emphasis on those points, largely because my background led me to the expectation. I was surprised, however, to find that Lukianoff and Haidt take a different approach. One of their points is that such warnings indicate a belief in the fragility of the college student psyche, and I found myself taken aback by the assertion even as I understood their reasoning. I have had students who did need to be protected, and I have had others whom I have wanted to protect. At the same time, it is my task to confront students, to challenge them, and I found myself conflicted–I still do, in fact–about how to negotiate the two, the desire to protect and the duty to confront. I do not want to reenact trauma on my students who have been traumatized already, and I do not want to enact trauma on those who have not, but I cannot refrain from presenting not only the materials with which I am charged but frames through which to approach them and the rest of the world. It is a position I do not know how to occupy stably.

I pressed on in my reading, finding that the article discusses the compartmentalization of culture and the intensification of demands made upon students. My surprise and confusion faded; I found myself in familiar ground. For I have seen the minds of those around me shrink as they hear less and less the voices that disagree with them, that call into question the ideas upon which they base their conceptions of themselves–or even less vital things. And I have been the object of intensification, seeing the demands placed upon those who would hold even entry-level positions in my field and similar fields to mine. Long gone are the days when a doctorate assured an enduring job, let alone a master’s or a baccalaureate; publications and club memberships galore are obligatory, at least nominal involvement in myriad fields while maintaining the outward appearance of perfection at any cost. But that I found myself in a thinking-space familiar does not mean I found myself in a comfortable one; that I recognize the truth of Lukianoff and Haidt’s statements does not mean that truth is easily accepted.

Moving on, I came to the article’s statements about the conflict of trigger warnings and cognitive behavioral therapy. The authors assert that the two are mutually exclusive, that avoiding a thing does not prevent reinscription of trauma, but that it instead incises that trauma more deeply into the psyche of its sufferer. The classroom, then, becomes a controlled environment for encounters with what evokes the traumatic, a place where healing can begin. That revelation woke something in me, something pleasant and unexpected. I have long been accustomed to students regarding my classes as sites from which to flee and upon which to reflect with aspersion; I know what my attrition rates have been, and I have looked at the comments students have left me in the past. To be presented with the idea, and from outside academia (and there is much to be said for having the outside perspective), that my class could instead be a place from which students draw not only knowledge and understanding, but also healing, was uplifting. There is a joke that my doctorate is the wrong kind with which to attend to people’s health, but if the Atlantic piece is true, then it gives the lie to that joke–and it makes my work more worthwhile, justifying again what I do through my writing and reading.

I know that my reading experience is atypical. Few if any who enter the professoriate are “regular” readers, and this is more true of those who study languages and literatures than for those in other fields. But I also know that not all who come into a classroom are “typical” readers, themselves, and they tend to be underserved by the conventional materials upon which teaching tends to rely. There are reasons to focus such materials as they generally are, but that does not mean people who come to college English classrooms with “non-standard” experiences find much with which to connect in them. Perhaps, as I work through my own difficulties in relating to my mainstream students–and they are people, decent and hardworking, with whom I want to connect–I can offer to the less “typical” reader something of use.

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