On Teaching Resistance

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Literature & Social Justice / Teaching / Uncategorized

While drafting my English 2 proposal and planning my course last October, I had no idea how painfully relevant the overall theme would be, come spring semester.


My English 2 focuses on the rhetoric of resistance:

“Our section of English 2 will focus on the implications of language and writing in the context of various forms of resistance: self-definition and identity formation, visual rhetoric, and body rhetoric. Students will learn how these forms of resistance operate rhetorically to expose and challenge oppressive power structures with the goal to generate social change. To this end, we will study and research the rhetorical strategies of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, music, and public art. We as a class will learn to reconsider the role of language in many, if not all, aspects of our lives and to navigate the broader community as socially conscious citizen-writers.”

From the beginning, I made it clear that I wasn’t seeking to push a particular agenda, but rather providing a space where we interrogate ideas and different manifestations of resistance. Along with Envision, I’ve required Rhetoric for Radicals: A Handbook for 21st Century ActivistsOne quote from the foundational readings for the second day sums up the ethos of the class: “If we’re going to change the world, then we need to change people’s rhetorical constructions of the world.”

Two weeks in, we’re on the cusp of finishing up the first unit dedicated to introducing rhetoric basics and exploring a wide variety of resistance: protests, demonstrations, riots, marches, individual acts, and more. During a free writing session, I asked them to define resistance. Think: What does it look like? One student answered that it’s a response to perceived injustice while another described it as that initial feeling you get when your parents ask you to take out the trash, and you really don’t want to, but you do anyway. Ultimately, they’ll grapple more with these ideas and articulate their own understanding in a categorical-definition argument for their first paper.

So far, we’ve gone over Stonewall, Ferguson, and Colin Kaepernick’s infamous kneeling. I’ve also tasked the students with bringing in discussion points on current events unfolding right before our eyes, so we’ve hit very recent topics like the international airport protests, the women’s march, the alt-Twitter accounts, and Lehigh’s solidarity rally. They seem to appreciate the “real world” value of being able to discuss the rhetoric behind the information they are constantly consuming. I am also hoping that they are beginning to understand the ramifications of their rhetorical actions in the world; use them for good, never for deceit or doublespeak. 

Throughout the rest of the semester, we’ll continue our exploration through resistance. In unit two, we’ll study visual and body rhetorics by talking about graffiti, die-ins, Instagram’s “fitspo” trend, and other alternative rhetorical modes of resistance. Then, the students will write a rhetorical analysis. Next, in unit three, we’ll discuss how rhetorical self-definition can function as resistance marginalized groups counter the dominant narrative by defining themselves for themselves; to this end, we’ll be working with Gloria Anzaldúa, Audre Lorde, Kendrick Lamar, Beyoncé, June Jordan, Ralph Ellison, and Sojourner Truth in order to move into an evaluative argument. Of course, the final unit will focus on the multimodal project, and I’ve many ideas up my sleeve for this one, ranging from performances to protest posters to timelines. Let’s hope the students are as excited as I am about it!

This painful relevance I could not predict in combination with a 7:55am class seems like it would really weigh on us. One student cleverly insisted that he was “protesting” the group work for that day. Meta. (Alas, he still completed the group work.) All this to say, the kids are alright, and teaching this class has kept me hopeful.

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