Reenergized! Reevaluate? Barnette, Nafisi, and the Post-Phoenix Push

Closed book in front of several books on the table. Top view.

There is something special about those first few days after a great conference, and it’s not the jet lag.  It is time to reevaluate.  If you are anything like me, you know that mix of feelings and emotions that surge through your body as you prepare to re-embark on the rest of your semester armed with new strategies to get your students interested, engaged, and involved.  It can feel like the first day of term all over again, but without the nerves or the sad feeling of loss for our vacation time.  If anything, the post-conference surge we feel is that we are now closer to the finish line, and we are going to make these last few weeks count; they will be even more powerful and engaging.

I often find, as I did in Phoenix, that a part of this rush of energy comes from the chance to dive deeply into the subjects we have made our life’s work.  We can have the kind of in-depth conversations that we might not be afforded at our home institutions or in our everyday class experiences.  Granted, I know my next few sentences are not everyone’s cup of tea, but bear with me for one moment as I will make some stronger connections here.  As a professor in an English Department, I know that Martha Barrnette’s talk on etymologies and words helped to get me thinking.  Seriously, when was the last time you had a good talk on the etymology of the word “foot?”  What struck me most was what she said, and I will paraphrase here, about the not-so-arbitrary nature of our words.  Our words do carry meaning, and this is not news to us, but what is the meaning we are conveying, and is it what we want or need to be conveying in the classroom?

To that end, Azar Nafisi also talked about the words we use.  She rather poignantly noted that if we are not going to discuss politics in an academic setting, we will never (or will rarely) deal with politics in an academic way.  Beyond this, Nafisi also mentioned that if we don’t let our students read challenging texts, how will they deal with the challenges of life?  She continued to state that the text of Tom Sawyer is not arbitrary, it is preparatory, and we do our students a disservice when we gloss over the challenging elements or, worse, censor these elements.

My classes are no walk in the park; I love to challenge my students, but I have to wonder if the challenges  I am creating are to drive engagement solely for the purpose of engagement, or if I am providing the kinds of “preparatory challenges” Nafisi discussed.  I know that none of the words I use are arbitrary, etymologically or otherwise, but how do we ensure that our students see this?  In an era when student engagement reigns supreme, are we ensuring that we engage with the aim to challenge and not to entertain?  For now, though, I have another challenge to overcome: jet lag.

Greg Campbell – Eastern Division Vice President and Assistant Professor of English, Community College of Baltimore County

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