Gail Arnoff is a SAGES Instructor at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) and Adjunct English Professor at John Carroll University. Her essay, “Teaching What I Preach,” was written in response to Andrew Delbanco’s The War Before the War.
Professor Arnoff has also provided an audio recording of her reading her essay:
Teaching What I Preach
In The War Before the War, Andrew Delbanco quotes a white clergyman from New York at the time of the signing of the Fugitive Slave Act. The clergyman “prayed that the hand holding the pen ‘might be palsied.’ In Ohio, a black minister who had escaped slavery twenty years earlier remarked that Satan could now ‘rent out hell and move to the United States,’ where he would feel more at home” (Delbanco 6). The words of these men could easily be placed in the context of what has happened in the United States in recent times, both in reference to the acts of sedition from a mob which invaded the US Capitol in early January and issues around systemic racism. Some claim that if the mob had been mainly Black men instead of mostly white males, there would have been more than five rioters dead and injured. Like so many others, I have been horrified by what I have seen and read, and sometimes I just want to hide until life becomes more “normal.” However, as an educator I feel obligated to help my students understand these issues so that they might become upstanders rather than bystanders. I also hope they will become what noted scholar Anthony Kwame Appiah suggests: “citizen[s] of the world” or “cosmopolitans”(The Lies that Bind). No matter what the subject matter, I incorporate relevant issues about our country into the context and content of the class.
On the first day of my John Carroll First Year Composition class I tell students they will be read and write about the Civil Rights Movement. Almost instantly I hear comments such as, “I already did that in the eighth grade,” or “I already know about the CRM.” I ask them to write on the board names or phrases which come to mind about the CRM. Most of the time I see “Rosa Parks,” “Martin Luther King” and, occasionally, “Busing” or “Segregation.” Then I ask them to think about Grace Paley’s words:: “Write what you don’t know about what you know.” The students are predominately white; they generally have very little information about the Black experience, and most of them have never participated in a protest. But as we read work by writers such as W.E. B. DuBois, James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Fannie Mae Hamer, John Lewis, and others, they begin to have a sense of the issues of the Civil Rights Movement and the systemic racism which has affected so many people of color. We also watch video clips, everything from parts of the film Malcolm X to The March on Washington to the March to Montgomery. Throughout the semester we have three guests: a man who left Oberlin College in 1961 after his first semester to run a newspaper in Jackson, Mississippi; a folk singer who discusses and sings songs form the CRM; and an actor who comes to class as Rosa Parks and tells her complete story, with a Q and A after her presentation. Because the stated goal of the class is that students learn how to write argument and research papers, I encourage them to choose topics and people which interest them to write about so that they can begin to find out what they don’t know about what they know.
It has taken me a great deal of time to work out ways to cover everything I want to teach the students in the composition class. Of course, I need to be sure I focus on argument and research papers. But, as mentioned earlier, I think that learning about the issues of Black Americans is as important, maybe even more important, than knowing how to write research and argument papers. By the end of the semester I see significant growth in some of the students as they become more comfortable writing about and discussing issues of social justice. As one student wrote, “If I could keep one thing, it would be centering of our writing around the Civil Rights Movement. I had no idea coming in that we would be doing this and I learned so much and felt it was all extremely important with the current events going on, as well as the fact that the CRM is so huge in our history and we must learn from our past.”
Ar CWRU I teach a very different class, “Questions of Identity,” in which we cover a much broader range of subjects. We read about and discuss racial identity, issues of identity for young people during the Holocaust, and sexual identity. Again, because this is an intensive writing class, students must produce papers, one for each unit, as well as a research paper relating to their own identity. We discuss ways in which they can become citizens of the world, as well as how they can better understand who they are by seeing how others their age have formed their identity. “Citizens of the world” is particularly important, as I always have students from other countries who know nothing about, for example, the Holocaust. Like my JCU students, they also hear “Write what you don’t know about what you know” many times during the semester. This semester we will begin the class reading There There, which tells the stories of Native Americans who have grown up or are associated with Oakland, California. In the Holocaust unit we read Night, Maus, and Stories of Survivors. Fun Home is the main text for sexual identity. I also include films, such as Persepolis, The Namesake, and Exact Change, which the students watch on their own, as well as videos, one the testimony of a Holocaust survivor, which students write about and we discuss, either in small breakout groups or as a class. After fifteen years of teaching this class, I have had positive comments from students, some of them years after they have graduated. Many of their comments come after they have had an experience which brings back what we have done in class. One student wrote to me after ten years that she had visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. and that it was more meaningful to her because of what we had talked about in class. She also had strong memories from the Holocaust survivor who spoke to the class.
I have been teaching since 1967, and for much of that time I had to follow a rigid, set curriculum in my classes. The freedom I have had in university teaching has opened up so many possibilities for me to reach my students in different ways. The Anisfield Wolf awards and participation in the summer seminars have introduced me to authors like Andrew Delbanco, Eric Foner, Tommy Orange, Andrew Solomon, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and so many more. I have been inspired by them and work hard to convey that inspiration to my students. During the semester, especially in my JCU class, we also talk about John Lewis and Anthony Appiah. My hope is always that the students will try to be upstanders and citizens of the world. On the last day of class I give them this charge: Now is the time for you to carry on the work so many have done to make the world a better place, to rid the world of systemic racism and attempts at sedition. Be upstanders, not bystanders. Finally, remember the words of John Lewis. Make “good trouble.” Make lots and lots of good trouble.