How do we write at the intersection of race and gender?

Atlantic Center for the Arts
image via Huffington Post

My 8am class has turned into a hotbed of burning questions and research. How this happened since my last post about the grueling 8am time slot, I can barely tell… but I think it started when I canceled the reading for a day and assigned my students debate roles as “administrators” and “English faculty,” tasking them with arguing for why literature matters in the face of budget cuts and declining enrollment. It made them uncomfortable–just uncomfortable enough to take the rest of the semester into their own hands and do something with that discomfort.

Student Goals, and Goal-Based Teaching

A strategy I used to keep students engaged was to check in with them by asking what their goals were for this class. I handed them a worksheet that they filled out, and since then I’ve been catering every class to meet their goals as best I can. Today I asked them to revisit those goals (handing back their worksheets) in pairs, and for five minutes brainstorm new goals for the remainder of the semester. Many of their goals had been met (they had widened their historical knowledge of the nineteenth century and also built bridges between the nineteenth century and problems they witness today), and we went around the room sharing goals that had been met and new goals that had arisen.

The new goals they came up with were more public-facing and activist leaning. One pair decided they wanted to apply their close reading skills learned in this class to readings in other classes. Another pair expressed an interest in improving their own writing and ability to communicate ideas they developed in class–I’ll come back to this in a moment.

The conversation quickly became a meta-reflection on the class itself. My efforts to make my classroom more student-driven were most effective (1) when I managed the discussion with a primary interest in their thoughts and ideas, encouraging 100% participation, and (2) by immediately responding to their goals and requests, altering the syllabus and class period in real time according to their interests.

Goals Lead to Self-Improvement

What I noticed in their revised goals is a collective desire for self-improvement and a burning desire to do something differently because of this class. This was especially evident in two goals my students gave me today:

“To ‘Steal Like An Artist’ – to close read and learn what makes writing great so my writing could be better.”


“Improve essay writing skills on topics of race and gender.”

This was the perfect opportunity to go back to Audre Lorde and bell hooks, analyze their arguments and rhetoric, and to learn from the best. I lean toward drawing from texts more than once because in the review process, more is gained and remembered from the reading. But before I get to my plans for our next class, I want to share with you something quite special that happened today…

image via Feministing

What is a feminist act?

As we were reading Our Nig by Harriet Wilson, I asked my students if Frado is a “feminist” character, and, because 8am, I got crickets. I backed up a bit and asked, “What is an act of feminism?” Crickets. I asked, “Tell me about a moment when you stood up for someone or for yourself in the face of injustice.” Then the stories started pouring in and we identified where a sense of injustice comes from: love, being outnumbered, survival, protectiveness, responsibility and response-ability, and knowing the difference–for oneself–between “right” and “wrong,” something Frado learns from studying the Bible before she stands up to Mrs. Bellmont. Great, we got there!

In the meantime, I had written on the board:

“speaking out against injustice”

“taking up space”

“exerting agency, taking action”

“resisting oppression”

When we were done, I pointed out that none of the above were gendered. That feminism, at its best, is about justice. I reminded them that this is what Angela Davis beautifully points out in her lecture at Medgar Evers College on the legacy of Audre Lorde. This is important for students to realize that the struggle for equality is unifying as much as it draws from and is informed by intersectional wisdom(s).

My students struggle with taking up space, and writing requires an assertion of an authorial voice. Given years of being told not to use “I” in a paper, it’s as if their “I”s have been erased and my class is a space for them to test out “I” and discover what it is that “I” has to say to me and to their peers and to the world. But it’s a shy “I” that has to take up space (for at least 8-10 pages) for a final paper or project in my class. We need to offer students more models of empowered “I”s and “We”s and “Our”s.

This brings me to my lesson plan for our next class, and explains why I think it’s important to draw from writers like Lorde, hooks, and Roxane Gay, when we analyze effective arguments in writing. These women each claim their own bold and loud “I” that resists oppression and embraces intersectional wisdom(s) while taking ownership of their authentic, individual viewpoints. The accountability of their “I”s is admirable, providing a model for students. And not just for this one class. Their authorial, authoritative voices offer wonderful, empowered examples worth emulating for a lifetime.

image via The Guardian

Argument Analysis Worksheets: Lorde, hooks, and Gay

We have already read Lorde’s “The Master’s Tools” and the first two chapters of hooks’ ain’t i a woman, and we’re going in the direction of reading Roxane Gay’s New York Times article, “I Don’t Want to Watch Slavery Fan Fiction,” so I decided to draw from those three pieces. Lorde’s is a short, academic article developed from a conference paper, hooks’ introduction to her book (the first two paragraphs) offer an example of a longer argument that is more subtle and extended, and Gay’s article is written for a public, nonacademic audience. These three examples of women’s writing offer different ways of speaking from black bodies to very different audiences and their arguments all lean toward imagining new and different futures for themselves and others.

IMG_20171116_115156In the first worksheet, I ask students to analyze what each sentence of an excerpt from Lorde’s “The Master’s Tools” is doing for her argument as she establishes the stakes for her audience. The worksheet asks them to “Read each sentence and write down (in the right hand column) what you think the sentence in the left hand column is doing. What is its purpose in the argument? What does it do?” In the process, particularly with this piece by Lorde, students will see how Lorde uses her own subject position to establish the need for an intersectional approach to feminism and how she makes room for her insights as to what the future could look like once everyone acknowledges that efforts up to this point have been weak, and more like half-hearted afterthoughts. It is my hope that students will learn from this process to better recognize their own subjectivity in their writing and to bring personal self-reflection into a critical discourse. One’s authority as an author should not be taken for granted and should, if possible, be taken into account within the writing itself.

The other worksheets also serve to inform students about the ways in which current problems might be addressed by historical or literary viewpoints, as in the case of hooks’ book, and how to write for a broader, public audience and not just for me, their teacher, as is exemplified by Gay’s article. Below are the worksheets. I hope you find them useful in your own classrooms! These would be great for composition courses or Women’s and Gender Studies courses like mine.

Worksheets (please steal them!)

Audre Lorde

bell hooks

Roxane Gay

Update: Teaching with these worksheets takes about 15-20 minutes per worksheet. I was able to fit the first two into my class period but we will need to finish with Roxane Gay’s article next class. It was a big success!

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