What Is My Purpose? Bearing Witness to Your Students

Image by Flickr user Joe Bielawa

The other day my roommate said I babysat my students. Apparently, I just show up and make sure nineteen students don’t kill themselves. But then the following day, I went a step further  in a seminar paper about teaching programming language in public schools: thinking about Paulo Friere’s banking model and Sir Ken Robinson’s factory metaphor, I wrote that in the United States we place students on a conveyor belt and assembly workers stick stuff in their heads, test them for their quality, and then ship the products to supermarkets everywhere.

Babysitter. Assembly worker. We sound salty.

But back in 2010 I had a positive view of my teaching: I was a 21 year-old  undergraduate who combined Robert Greenleaf’s servant-leadership with Bushido’s belief that teaching offered an intangible good: So in my philosophy of education, I wrote, “I am a servant-leader that offers an intangible good that helps promote the health of the local community.” I know I was trying to see my teaching as more than giving students basic skills; I wanted the skills to mean something to my students, to relate what they’ve learned back to their own lives, and not just accept the knowledge given to them, but to play around with it and see if they have fun or wear the concept for a little while, see how it fits, how they look in the clothing, how they move, and decide what pieces are worth buying.

I’m reminded of what I’m supposed to do every semester when a new batch of students enter my classroom, fresh from high school and whatever writing camps they’ve survived. They carry with them the 5-paragraph essay. The research paper. The AP exam. The grammar handbooks. Topics they were forced to write about but had no interest in. They come with skills somehow divorced from their personal and professional goals (if my students have figured that out by the time college starts), their hobbies, the wounds and scars of whatever battles they had with Life.

From the beginning of the class, I tell them to open themselves up. Be vulnerable. And then write it. Whatever they have, write it. They know the language, which is why I don’t quibble with grammar and punctuation or the well-crafted sentences. Instead, I think, I must make my students realize what writers in the real world do. They publish personal essays; they tell the extraordinary stories of other people in longform articles. Some times writer spill the words in a podcast or on a YouTube video. They send words into the world and hope those words will in some way shape the perceptions people have of whatever topic the writer has written about.

I see that my students have spent 18 years learning the language.

Now they need to live in the language.

I know why people go to college. They follow a very old narrative: get a degree, get a job, make a living, be a productive citizen. It’s a narrative that’s unsustainable. Universal education isn’t always good; college debt, as Bernie Sanders has attested to so often, really does hurt recent college graduates, and the job market still looks like a desert eight years after the Great Recession. I teach people who will encounter these problems. I work toward a PhD knowing that I will encounter these same problems, especially as a Black teacher and scholar. I exist because my students exist, and my students exist because I exist, and we both exist because there’s an institutional need that we both make ourselves useful to each other and the university.

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks listening to professional writers on podcasts–novelists, journalists, poets, translators, screenplay writers, and they all make writing a habit and a ritual. It’s a job, yes, but it’s also a craft that they work on and then inhabit emotionally and mentally. They put themselves into the writing and let the words ebb and flow inside themselves and then whip it out to the world. They live in the language.

I step away from the old narrative in the greater interest of helping my students live, by asking them to actually interrogate themselves and put themselves in the writing. I ask them to consider that everyone writes and reads the world, and they, in college, are trying to do the same thing, cultivating a way of thinking, behaving, and communicating that has some consequence for marginalized groups, for privileged people, for governments, for ISIS, for HIV patients, for their families and children, and for themselves.

I’m reading my students’ reflection letters on the course. Yes, to some degree they are repeat what I’ve taught them, but they take the course concepts and link it back to themselves, and that pleases me. I’m able to witness how they are becoming the fully-realized human being they want to be, even if they don’t fully know what they want to be just yet, because they’re 18 and they’re just now figuring out college.

Two months ago, one of my former students messaged me. His freshmen year was rough. He was addicted to drugs and had type-2 diabetes. Three years later, he messages me and says that he’s doing well. I don’t know if I had a part to play in that.

But he says I did.


Published by aabyrd

I'm the instructor for WCATY's Media Studies in a Digital Age course for Summer 2015.

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