“Our stories that we tell are so powerful because when we are the one’s telling it, we have control over our stories and the messages that we are sending.”
— Alejandra Ramirez Bermudez
I am regularly in awe at the goodwill our students extend faculty, myself included, as they attempt to make sense of and successfully complete our idiosyncratic assignments. Too often, students hear faculty respond to any confusion students might have by telling them to “read the syllabus” or “read the assignment,” as if none of the faculty have ever tried to put together an Ikea dresser or played a board game for the first time after simply reading the instructions. Learning to do anything means learning to do the thing through some combination of instructions, participation, and materials. As faculty, we have a hard time remembering what it was like when we first began to enter and understand our disciplines: no one gave us the manual and said to read it.
We compound the problem of understanding our disciplines and our assignments by throwing a whole lot of rules at students, rules that are often not really rules at all, more like guidelines. Guidelines that can be broken. Or worse, we offer students rules that have been passed down through a bad game of telephone so that the original intention was long ago lost in some dusty corner of a chalkboard but, the strange meme remains — don’t use “I” in formal writing, a paragraph has five sentences, an essay has five paragraphs, open with a catchy phrase — the rules are endless. When writers struggle, and we all do, our impulse is to create more guidelines, more templates, more rules, more fill-in-the-blank sentences. We see these lengthy instructions as a way to support student success and, in doing so, we strip out all the decision making of writing. Structures intended to be helpful, become a hindrance.
So, how do we guide students through the messiness of our assignments? How do we support students’ composing processes, honoring and leaving room for their ways of composing, their languages, and their own insights? The challenge is to offer support that does not turn into new rules. Every time I make a suggestion to a student, I worry that those suggestions might be taken up as the way to move forward in their work, not a way to move forward. In my classes, as a way to model multiple ways of moving forward with research or writing, we rely on examples of academic writing in all its forms — talks, essays, podcasts, websites, white papers, tweets, etc. — and talk through the moves that writers make, how we might borrow from those moves, and how we can think intentionally about the composing choices we are making. Hopefully, the assignments open a space where students make more of the decisions about their composing choices than I do. Even when students have a rubric for an assignment, we create it after first drafts when we can see the range of possible approaches to that assignment and, then, we create the rubric together.
Below, I offer an example of how students in our course take up assignments and the challenge presented to them in our class to pursue their own curiosities. I also want to show how students move from papers to multimodal compositions in order for students to have opportunities to revise ideas in multiple forms, and more importantly, to consider the impact on audience through these multiple ways of composing.
Rosa Fabian Contreras and Alejandra Ramirez Bermudez are first-year students in our course at Chico State. Both Rosa and Alejandra were first inspired by the work of Jose Antonio Vargas, Jorge Ramos, and many others who were using digital platforms to tell their stories, particularly stories about immigration. Through Rosa and Alejandra’s research and writing throughout the course, they noticed the power in storytelling and how a narrative can shape policies and ideologies: it matters who tells the story and whose stories are told. Some of the best academic writing we turned to as models did not ignore the connection between research and the researcher. The academic writers we read often relied on case studies, narrative, some form of storytelling to support claims.
In her paper, Alejandra does interesting language work that is clearly inspired by the researchers she turned to who write about immigration. She decided to weave her sentences with Spanish and English together in a kind of language dance. Her intention is to make a claim about the importance of language, voice, and storytelling:
“I was born here in the U.S. and I do have an accent. You know why? I never stopped speaking Spanish; I speak it everyday, every minute, every second, every day of my 19 years of living here in the U.S. porque es mi primer lenguaje and it is the closest thing I have that reminds me of who I am. Una Latina orgullosa who even when times get tough, nosotros siempre para adelante, echandole ganas todos los dias. I believe that in order to stay strong here in the U.S., we have to embrace who we really are by telling our stories, como fue que llegamos aqui because our stories matter regardless if we are undocumented or immigrants.”
I invite writers in our class to consider the impact on the reader when they include languages other than English. My goal is that students will come to see their multiple languages as assets, not deficits in learning “academic language,” whatever form that might take. The essays are often enriched by phrases that are not easily translated into English. For students, this is powerful academic writing removed from some of the rules they are taught about “standard English.”
As Rosa and Alejandra started to think about moving from text — from the papers they wrote — to other digital modes, they decided that it was important to hear stories from people they care about. Rosa and I had a series of conversations about the project and we shared books and podcasts back and forth that we found helpful as models of storytelling. Two recent resources in particular, Sara Saedi’s YA novel Americanized: Rebel Without a Green Card and Radiolab’s Border Trilogy, made a huge impact in our understanding of how history, policy, and storytelling braid together to help people understand complex issues. After looking at a variety of texts, including videos from Vargas’ Define American site, Rosa and Alejandra decided to interview friends and family who were willing to share their immigration stories and they turned these stories into a compelling video. I appreciate how Rosa talks through her decision to leave the original Spanish and the labor it took to make sure the stories were heard:
“I struggled a lot in the process. I knew that not everyone in our class understands Spanish and I needed to include subtitles for them. At first, I thought about making a transcript for everyone. I ended up looking for tutorials on how to add subtitles on YouTube. After watching the tutorials, it seemed impossible and time-consuming to add the subtitles. I didn’t give up and gave it a shot. I translated the speeches and wrote it down in a Word document to make it easier for me. It’s a long process; I had to crop each sentence or two and add the subtitles. It took me forever. After I was done, I sent the video to Alejandra so that she could check for any grammar errors. I had a few, so I went back and edited them. After almost giving up, the video was complete and ready to be uploaded to YouTube. Hope you all like it!”
When I asked students in their reflections this semester to tell me what they had learned about writing in our first-year composition course, many of them said, “I learned I could use ‘I’ in an academic essay. I didn’t have to lose myself, my voice, in my research.” I told the freshmen at our final to remember to break that rule often, even as they move through courses in the academy that will take the “I” away over and over again. They can follow the idiosyncratic rules of faculty for points on a rubric, but I hope students smirk subversively knowing that not everything they are told about writing is an actual rule; ultimately, they are the authors of their papers and projects. The research students do should be driven by their interests, their puzzles, their questions. When students are generous enough to try on our assignments, and brave enough to share their stories, we should amplify those voices.
Amplifying Student Voice Through Digital Resources, Part 1
Banner image: screenshot from student video