Student writers from my Fall 2018 composition courses at SUNY Oneonta presented work at the university’s annual Student Diversity & Leadership Conference on February 23, 2019. Students shared their final projects on the panel, “Thinking Critically and Historically in the First-Year Writing Classroom: Letters on Ability, Gender, Race.” I opened the session by saying a bit about the course and assignment:
Thanks for coming to our panel today.
Our panelists each took my course, Composition 100, in the fall of 2018. The course is required for all students at SUNY Oneonta, and most students take it during their freshman year. Because instructors take different approaches to the course, I wanted to say a bit about mine before I tell you about the projects these writers completed at the end of the semester, projects I’m excited to hear them share today.
Our section of COMP 100, entitled “Ways of Seeing,” focuses on what we call critical inquiry. The section, in other words, invites students to think critically and historically over the course of the term as they craft essays and arguments. This means we approach from an evaluative, self-interested perspective both the texts we read in class and our own experiences. It also means we turn to history in order to better know ourselves and to identify and challenge injustice in the present. Toward these aims, which humanities courses are uniquely equipped to help students master, students engage with difficult and compelling readings that have been influential within and beyond the university. Our presenters read Paulo Freire on education, Michel Foucault on power, Susan Bordo on gender, and Ta-Nehisi Coates on race. All of these writers model posing big and unfamiliar questions about our world and answering them, in part, through deep engagement with the past.
Today, students will share with you the final projects they composed after reading Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates published the book, which takes the form of an open letter to his teenage son, in 2015. In it, he confronts the dangers he and his son face as black Americans threatened by, among other things, extrajudicial killing at the hands of the state.
Coates responds to the conditions of danger he faces by describing to his son his lifelong “struggle” to answer this question: “how do I live free in this black body?” (12). He struggles to respond to it, in part, by going to the library, where he engages in what he calls “study,” a capability he frames as shocking, marvelous, and uniquely human. Coates enters the library in order to pursue, passionately and desperately, questions that concern his very life, and he shares with readers the changing responses to them that he found, abandoned, and replaced as he read and wrote.
I assign this book because it takes up and deploys with great power the ways of reading and writing students have been practicing all semester. Coates is engaged, as students have been, in critical inquiry, and his book helps us understand anew how vital and important is this practice. The final assignment for the course invites students to view Coates’s letter as a model for a project of their own. As you’ll see in a moment, each writer searches for a question suitably important to them—these questions can, but don’t have to, explore race, as Coates does—and then tries to answer it by writing a letter to someone important they know or imagine. As they stage their struggle to respond, students also go to the library and seek out resources that might help them work toward tentative answers. This work, I hope, begins to familiarize them with library resources and encourages them to go to the stacks, not only for information, but for art, culture, and history they might take up as they pursue their own interests and projects.
I’m happy to finally introduce three writers ready to share their compelling work. Each explores questions about ability, gender, and race that demonstrate their smart and significant engagement with some of the vital problems we share today.