“Where we have cultures of oppression & survival / we need a different way of measuring,” a student noted in a class taught by feminist, antiracist, lesbian, activist, warrior poet and educator Audre Lorde, in 1984. Systems of measurement and assessment are key indicators of what we value. If we want to change the system but continue to evaluate success using the same methods we have always used, we cannot achieve structural transformation.
Rethinking pedagogy for institutional and social change
During the late 20th century as racial minorities and white women increasingly gained access to academic institutions, Lorde and her contemporary interlocutors were involved in the process of queering and decolonizing the educational institutions of a white supremacist, heteropatriarchal society. This included figuring out what could be salvaged from the wreck and what would need to be rebuilt in the service of something new. As minoritarian knowledge practitioners, many of us continue to ask the kinds of questions that were of central importance to Lorde and her co-conspirators: How much of what goes on in schools is a means towards justice, equity, and pleasure? What paradigms, practices, and assumptions still need to be reimagined? In my dissertation research, I focus on the overlooked site of the classroom as a critical space for making these interventions. In particular, I trace how the pedagogies of aesthetic education function as a means of social interruption, rather than reproduction.
While I have written elsewhere about alternative modes of assessment (JITP and HASTAC), here I want to frame this work as part of the process of decolonizing learning institutions. As Cathy Davidson argues in Now You See It, our dominant modes of assessment, including tests and letter grades, emerged from an industrialized society that valued standardization, hierarchization, and disciplining a new labor force, reducing what was once “a qualitative, evaluative, and narrative practice—to a grade” (112). Indeed, grades are a tidy academic rubric for making the messiness of learning legible.
In this blog, I ask, how can assessment catalyze and proliferate learning, rather than punishing or shaming students for not learning enough, or not learning the right things in the allotted (and always inadequate) amount of time? This is admittedly a huge question, one which I take up at greater length in my dissertation. For now, I offer just one example of an unexpected mode of assessment from the “Great Works of Global Literature” class I taught in fall 2015 at Queens College. In particular, I explore what happened when I asked students to illustrate what they had learned by making, rather than just analyzing, literature.
Learning from activist artists and educators
The idea that making things could be an alternative way to measure learning emerged from my dissertation research, which focuses on activist artists and educators—Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Adrienne Rich, and Toni Cade Bambara—all of whom were theorizing how the status quo gets reproduced through dominant modes of education, while exploring more viable alternatives. Making literature as a mode of assessment—literally, assessing the world around us—might be understood as a version of Lorde’s “aesthetics of the outsider.” In another note in Lorde’s archive, a student captured the idea that “real change happens at the periphery,” not at the centers of privilege, power, and social reproduction, but among those who are marginalized by the dominant order of things.
Adrienne Rich, one of Lorde’s co-conspirators, suggests that contemporary regimes of privilege and power get reproduced through ignorance of the art produced by those at the margins. Reflecting on her writing from the 1990s, she states that it was “fired by a hope of bringing together ideas that had been forcibly severed from each other or thrown into competition: such as the making of literature and public education” (6). Indeed, teaching literature courses for non-majors at a large, public university has confirmed my sense that some of the most exciting, provocative, heretical, and transformative ideas about literary studies emerge around its edges.
What follows is a brief explanation of how the practice of not just making “literature,” but making art more generally, and reflecting on that process, can catalyze learning in the literary studies classroom by (briefly) wrenching it from a genealogy in which wealthy white, male authors have been the privileged producers of literature, and public school students, the consumers.
A strange assignment
In conversations with other literature and writing instructors, especially those who often encounter students not majoring in the humanities, I’ve had many conversations about how part of our job is to teach students that language is a source of power—that words conjure worlds (something that poets like Lorde and Rich had intimate, firsthand knowledge of). Once students are convinced that language matters, skills like literary analysis, critical thinking, organized writing, editing, and proofreading become much easier to teach, since students understand the impact and importance of this work.
This semester, in our unit organized around the question “what is an archive and why does it matter?” I assigned a text that illustrates both the power relations behind archival silences and the life and death implications of language, M. NourbeSe Philip’s poem (or collection of poems, depending on how you read it), Zong! Philip created the long poem from the 1783 court case Gregson v. Gilbert, which determined whether or not the commanders of the Zong slave ship would collect insurance monies for the enslaved Africans they threw overboard and murdered. I assigned this text in order to help students think about the complex relationships among language, power, history, and poetry. According to Philip, the “fragmenting and mutilating” she enacts on the original source document mirrors “the fragmentation and mutilation that slavery perpetrated on Africans and African customs and life.” She elaborates on this poetic project as an effort to subvert the “murderous rationality” that underscores the legal document: “In deliberately changing the story of the legal text, I engage in a similar duplicity that the actors in the Zong case engaged in to convince themselves that it was perfectly allowable to murder Africans in order to collect insurance monies.”
In an effort to figure out whether or not our class conversations about the poem had sunk in, and whether it truly provided students with a greater understanding of language as a source of power, I gave what felt like a strange assignment: “Please bring in a short text (article, form, document, song lyrics, bill, etc.) that makes you mad or upset, that feels inaccurate or offensive. Be prepared to write on it.” Verbally, I also suggested that it could also be a text that speaks for you without consulting you, such as one that depicts college students as lazy. The texts students brought in to mangle ranged from the banal (an undeserved parking ticket) to the blatantly racist (a song that celebrates offensive stereotypes about Asian Americans). One student brought in a letter from the bursar, reminding her how much money she owed the school. In class, we cut, pasted, whited-out, rearranged, and rewrote these documents, creating, like Philip, a series of “found poems.”
Found poem by Xi "CiCi" Yao
Students theorize literature
In their reflections on creating these found poems, it became clear that each student got something slightly different out of the activity. However, there was one striking similarity. Reflecting on the experience prompted students to theorize literature: to comment on what literary texts do, how they work, and why they are important. While I had spent several classes trying to teach literary theory, in particular, trying to convince students that the “meaning” of a text doesn’t lie in the author’s intent but is instead co-created through the reader’s experience of the text, making found poems allowed students to produce their own theories of literature, grounded in their creative practice.
When asked to reflect on their creative process in relation to Zong! one student wrote: "I picked out key words and tried to link the violent words together...This experience helped me understand Zong! It seeks to confuse and make readers frustrated...It makes you interpret the lives of the many lost souls of the Atlantic Slave Trade. The poems can have so much incorporated in them. It can be a geometric shape, structure, the absence of meaning, or the forgotten words." Echoing both Philip herself and literary theorists like Jacques Derrida, this student argues that what poems conceal is as important as what they reveal.
After re-enacting Philip’s experiment by creating a poem about animal cruelty, another student came up with a name for this genre, “waterfall poems,” and wrote, “Poems such as the Zong! actually interested me for the fact that it was a piece of the bigger picture that you had to figure out for yourself.”
Several students used this strange assignment as an opportunity to practice omitting unnecessary words, a skill that we hadn’t even discussed yet, but would spend ample time on later in the semester: “I decided to white out all the small words and keep everything that had to do with the amount of money owed and the methods in which you could pay them.”
Another student, who I quote here at length, illustrates how creating a found poem helped her develop knowledge about how language works to create a scene and spark a relationship with a busy reader:
"When coming to turn it into a found poem, I feel I need to pick out the most powerful words of the lyrics, including the subjects, objects and some verbs. I need to show the picture of what the song is about and give the readers a strong impression. And by making a found poem I better understanding how a poem works with language. It is specific in creating a scene but also leaves some space for the readers to think and imagine... the more important and annoying words are placed in the very beginning to catch the readers’ attention."
Thinking “with” literature
Having students reflect on the process of making found poems was a mode of assessing learning that was more generative than any quiz I could have written, or analytic paper I could have assigned. My sense that making things is an effective teaching and learning method was further confirmed at the end of the semester, when I received one of the best close readings of the course as an illustration:
Elvis' Dream by Monique Arantes
Here, the student draws the viewer’s attention to many of the social issues raised by Chris Abani’s novel Graceland, including gender experimentation, material conditions of inequality, how he represents a slum in Lagos as both violent and enchanted, and the seductive, unattainable, and globally-exported fantasy of the American Dream. In her presentation, the student became what José Muñoz calls “a professing subject,” (121) withholding her own explanations of the details in the drawing and instead asking the class to come up with observations that relate to the novel.
Our expectations about what students should learn, how they should learn it, and how we will know when they have learned it are often circumscribed by the status quo—what has previously been thought, taught, and measured. However, when we shift the content, methods, and means of assessing learning, the outcomes may exceed our expectations.
In Eyes of the University, Jacques Derrida revisits Kant’s assertion that “one cannot learn philosophy, one can only learn to philosophize,” arguing that Kant’s crucial interventions involve a shift from philosophy as noun to philosophizing as verb—one that requires “endlessly and only teaching” (62). Thinking alongside Derrida, I am convinced that while I cannot actually teach literature, I can help students to read, write, and think with the techniques of literariness, exemplified by this experimental assignment of “making literature.” At least some students seemed to agree; as one student noted in her reflections on the course, she learned not just how to write “about” literature, but to write “with” it, a small word that makes a world of difference.
Abani, Chris. Graceland. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2004. Print.
Davidson, Cathy N. Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn. New York: Viking, 2011. Print.
Derrida, Jacques. Eyes of the University: Right to Philosophy 2. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2004. Print.
Lorde, Audre. Box 82. Spelman College Archives, Atlanta, Georgia.
Muñoz, José Esteban. "Teaching, Minoritarian knowledge, and love." Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 14.2 (2005): 117-121.
Philip, M. NourbeSe and Setaey A. Boateng. Zong!: As Told to the Author by Setaey Adamu Boateng. Toronto: Mercury Press, 2008. Print.
Rich, Adrienne. Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations. New York: W.W. Norton, 2001. Print.