On Thursday, January 21, Dr. Anita August and the Writing Across the Curriculum program hosted a talk for faculty on race, writing, and literacy with guest speaker David E. Kirkland.
Kirkland is Associate Professor of English Education in the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development Department of Teaching and Learning at New York University and the author of A Search Past Silence: The Literacy of Young Black Men.
Kirkland acknowledged that race can be a controversial subject, particularly as it relates to literacy and education, but urged how conservations like these must happen, if anything is going to be done to remedy the “systems and cycles of underachievement” that plague education.
It’s an opportunity, Kirkland cautioned, not to point fingers, but to self-reflect and recognize that being aware of the problem is not enough. We must also commit ourselves to doing what we can to change the status quo since one in three black men will experience some kind of incarceration in their lifetime–a statistic that is as staggering as it is unacceptable.
As educators, one of the most important things we can do is see how students have a right to their own experiences and their own language. Kirkland offered the amazing story of Derrick, a gifted writer and poet, whose abilities were not appreciated by his teacher, despite her best intentions. Rather than work with Derrick to find and refine his voice, the teacher was more interested in his grammar, going so far as to calling his hip-hop style “lazy” because it did not conform to what is commonly held as “standard English.”
The goal of literacy, Kirkland explained, is not but stylistic precision, but effective communication, however that might look. As examples, he offered Junot Diaz, the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, who weaves together different forms of language; Toni Morrison, whom Kirkland called “a linguistic border crossing”; and even television newscasters, who understand they need more than standard English to communicate to their audiences.
If nothing else, teaching is meeting students where they are. The opposite tendency—that is, focusing on what students cannot do—Kirkland called the “deficit theory” of education, which he places at the root of racial disparities in classrooms. He noted the criticism award-winning author Ta-Nehisi Coates leveled against his education and how he learned to write mostly out of school.
Lessons like these are a clarion call for instructors to be deliberate and creative in defining the places for communication. Kirkland suggested “pedagogical third spaces”—that is, places where students can do what we want of them, but in ways that make sense to them, such as translating the Iliad into a comic book or seeing social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) as text and template.
Instructors also need to be mindful about doing what they can to assign materials that connect to the interests of today’s young people, who are reading a lot but probably not things you would find on a typical syllabus. “We don’t have disengaged readers,” Kirkland offered; “we have disengaged texts and disengaged classrooms.” Shakespeare was the hip-hop of his day, and we do our students no service when we stop being at the forefront of culture.
The mastery of basic skills is not at the heart of learning; instead, it’s “pleasure, play, and curiosity,” which are the foundations of learning and should serve as the foundation for our courses.
If the purpose of education and writing is effective communication, then the goal of communication is “critical empathy,” Kirkland explained, which he defined as the ability to see ourselves in others, then acting on that awareness.
“We must teach like our lives depend on it,” Kirkland concluded, “because too often theirs will.”