Welcome to the first post of my new blog! In this space, I plan to write broadly on race, politics, poverty, and the media, drawing on my nearly thirteen years studying, writing about, and, at times, participating in social justice movements of the 20th– and 21st-century United States. The study of the African American freedom struggle, the Chicano movement, and the many other forms of activism and politics from this time remains highly relevant to politics and culture today. I hope to contribute a little something to our ongoing discussion over economic and political citizenship. I also will comment, from time to time, on the practice of teaching U.S. history and writing. And it is writing – and how we present students’ and our own writing – where I would like to begin.
Last week, I had the pleasure of helping host a great event during Duke University’s Family Weekend: the Deliberations colloquium. As the editor of Deliberations, the Thompson Writing Program’s journal of first-year writing, I worked closely with twelve Duke sophomores on revising and editing essays that they initially produced in their freshman writing courses. Their topics ranged widely – from Vodou and “authenticity” to the commodification of breast cancer awareness to sociological influences on homeless individuals’ food choices. The essays already had gone through many drafts in class. And they went through several more with me. But I could not think of a better way to spend part of my summer, working with such bright young writers on the transformation of their first-year essays into publishable articles.
After months of revision, image selection, layout, and production, Deliberations came out in mid-October, followed soon after by the colloquium. In past years, the writing program has showcased the journal with a traditional academic panel – writers took turns behind a lectern for a few minutes each, while restless audience members tried to stay attentive, hoping to have a brief chance to ask a question at the end. Inspired by a poster session we hosted as part of a larger end-of-year conference this past spring, we decided to turn the first page of each published essay into a poster. Arranged in a semicircle around a large room, the posters stood as invitations to visitors to read them and speak with the student authors about the writing and research process.
The result far exceeded my expectations. Students, who once had been nervous about addressing an audience of more than one hundred people, excelled at speaking one-on-one and with small groups of visitors. They reported receiving better questions. They had deeper conversations. And, thus, both their content and the process became more clear. Their visitors, including many parents and current writing students, could come and go as they pleased. Yet they often lingered to speak to more student authors. In other words, the room had a real energy.
Now, I’m not quite ready to call for blowing up the traditional humanities panel – they still can be engaging, even interactive, if organized and executed well. But too many are not. This colloquium was unusual in that attendees could then read the essays in their entirety in the printed journal or online after speaking with the authors. These were not works in progress. But this experience certainly prompted me to consider how best to present our own work as historians in engaging and interactive ways. Increasingly college and university classrooms have become more innovative, more attuned to a diversity of teaching methods and engagement with students. Perhaps it is time academics consider such alternatives in presenting their own work as well.