"Don't hate the media. Become the media."
Last semester, at a faculty meeting, my English department chair asked us to discuss this question: What is your biggest challenge with teaching English? Some people mentioned students' problems with grammer, critical reading, integrating sources into their essays. My response was more simple:
My biggest challenge with teaching English is getting students to give a shit.
This was not meant as an attack on students, but on my own failures as a teacher to sincerely engage my students in the material I was having them read and write about. For a good five years, I really struggled with how to make college freshman care about writing and reading and critical thinking. How, I often wondered, can I make this "cool"?
Interestingly, it was not through reading a textbook or attending a teaching seminar that I stumbled upon a kind of a solution to this dilemma. It was, like most things I have learned in life, born out of my own experience. Outside of teaching, I had become deeply involved in my community, helping organize the monthly Downtown Fullerton Art Walk, running for city council, and starting to blog about local issues. I found myself sincerely engaged in dialogue about the specific community I lived in.
Slowly, I started to share some of my writings with students. I wrote essays about my unsuccessful city council campaign, about the culture of downtown Fullerton, about local history, about local environmental issues (like Coyote Hills). As I shared these writings with students I noticed a few things: 1.) Because I was the writer, students were more likely to ask me questions about my process. 2.) Because the issues were local, students were able to see that my writing was not some abstract academic exercise, but rather had to do with real things in the real world. 3.) Students seemed to kind of give a shit.
Last semester, I experimented with making "Writing about Local Issues" a core component of my English classes. I assigned articles from the OC Weekly, the Orange County Register, from local publications. I took students on little field trips around town. I encouraged them to attend city council meetings and local cultural events like street fairs and farmers markets, take notes, and write about their experiences.
The result, so far, has exceeded my wildest expectations. When students write about local things, real things in their own communities, they start to give a shit. They see that writing can be more than a boring and pointless exercise. It can be a way to engage with and respond to the real world that surrounds them. They see, I hope, that writing is a powerful way to assert and share their voices, to become a part of a larger discussion about things that actually affect their lives.
I created an online journal, The Journal of Orange County Studies, in which I publish some of my students' essays. Orange County is an area that cries out for academic scrutiny and critical writing. I hope that my classes, and the resulting essays, might help foster a larger dialogue about the communities in which we live.
I encourage my students to create their own blogs, to share their writing. Blogs, facebook, and social media have, in many ways, democratized information as never before. I often tell students, "Lots of people have written about health care, abortion, war, etc. But YOU may be the first person ever to write an academic essay about health care in La Habra, or Yorba Linda, about the effect of war on students returning to Fullerton College. Your essays might actually help other people think differently about these things, might actually become the seeds of change."
I now regard my role as a teacher of academic writing as a tremendous privilege. I get to help empower students to make change. And, in my experience, change always starts locally. Thus, for the foreseeable future, my students will be writing about local issues: local culture, local politics, local social problems, local history. My mantra for this semester is: Think globally, write locally.