On September 28, the Domain Program hosted a workshop, led by Shan Mukhtar. Below is a discussion on using the Domain Program in First Year Writing classrooms, written by Shan Mukhtar. Stay tuned for more upcoming workshops.
Domain in the Second Language Classroom
In Fall 2015 I taught my first ever First-Year Writing (FYW) course. As a graduate instructor and later an adjunct instructor I had taught largely juniors and seniors in American Studies and Interdisciplinary Studies course, both native English speakers and additional language learners. My new position in the ESL Program, however, presented me with a classroom full of first semester, first-year students who were all also international students who for whom English was not the primary language they wrote, read, or spoke. This context necessitated an integration of first-year and second-language pedagogies in my approach to teaching the course.
The students in FYW with ESL support are primarily Chinese and Korean, with a one or two Turkish or Latin American students in each section. However the consistency of the students’ national identities did not completely flatten the differences among them as first-years. For instance, while the majority Chinese students I have taught have been were Mandarin speaking and came from one of the major cities in the direct-controlled municipalities of China (such as Shanghai and Beijing), there were significant numbers of Cantonese and Hakka speaking students, and a small number of students from rural areas, particularly in Inner Mongolia. Further, about a fourth of the students in the FYW course had completed some of their schooling in the U.S., either from middle school onward or high school onward. In short, there were many differences of experience and a variety of skillsets present within the classroom. What bound them all together was the pursuit of writing. Lots and lots of writing. They wrote in class, putting their pens and pencils to notebook paper for free-writing exercises and quizzes. They wrote on giant post-its with permanent markers, first analyzing then sharing a rhetorical device or theme within the literature. They wrote typed handouts for their classmates: a take-away from group presentations. They wrote blog posts, as well as reflective essays about writing the blog posts. They wrote about songs, poems, paintings, archived objects, short stories, and novels. They also wrote about themselves and the people in their lives.
This last type of writing, the analytical personal narrative, works especially well in the Domain platform. Even in the construction of their Domain sites, it was clear that students saw this space as both academic and personal—or at least an academic space with personality. This was evident in the wry tag line one student used for his site, “D— Can Write English.” But learning how not to write a series of five-paragraph essays that happened to be posted to a blog site was much harder to get across. When confronted with literary texts, students naturally gravitated toward simple analytical language and the most apparent themes, perhaps because standardized academic writing is the bread and butter of high school level ESL courses and college applications. In Being a Writer, Elbow and Belanoff (2003) wrote, “Writing can have a voice. It is possible to get all those interesting rhythms and melodies of the spoken voice into writing” (172). Writing, they asserted, could also provide the reader with a similar emotional understanding of what ismeant when someone uses a common word in an uncommon way. However, I have found that both the commonality and dissonance of written words are often obscured by the process of translating from one language to another, from one cultural context to another. As a result, images have become a more prominent part of the curriculum I teach. In the past, I have experimented with having students analyze and write about different kinds of images, both in class and for writing assignments. The Fall 2015 FYW course was the first time that I asked students to create original, drawn images.
In the FYW course, titled Identity, Community, Power, I use Sherman Alexie’s 2007 book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian to highlight the formation of individual identity from within a variety of group identity contexts that were often in conflict with each other. Arnold, the main character and narrator of the book, represented himself as a “part-time Indian.” He lived with his financially struggling family on the Wellpinit reservation outside of Spokane but attended school in white and affluent town of Reardon, where “the only other Indian in town” was the school mascot (56). I was interested in how the international students in the course, who were themselves in a liminal space of Diaspora, could relate to some aspects of Arnold’s identity formation, and more importantly, use both the content and form of Alexie’s book reflect on the complexity of their own individual identities.
In The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, the narrator, Junior put it this way,
I draw all the time… I draw because words are too unpredictable. I draw because words are too limited. If you speak and write in English, or Spanish, or Chinese, or any other language, then only a certain percentage of human beings will get your meaning. But when you draw a picture, everybody can understand it… I draw because I want to talk to the world… (5-6)
Ellen Forney, who illustrated The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian stated,
Arnold depends on his cartoons to express himself, be understood, to escape, and to survive… The reader needs to see what he’s talking about and what he means by that. (244)
Arnold depicted the duality of his existence through a full-page illustration (57):
A Domain writing assignment – the third blog post of the semester – provided an opportunity for the students to demonstrate the relationship of image to text and to depict themselves in ways that eschewed the notion of one fully formed identity. This assignment also built on the writing students had done for the second blog post, in which they analyzed and compared the content and form of a poem and a painting based on the common theme of racial and ethnic identity. Here is an example of one student’s Blog Post 2:
For Blog Post 3, students had to create an original image, and a personal and analytical narrative to accompany it, rather than examining the work of an artist or author. The writing rubric for the assignment asked them “to draw from the analytical skills gained through previous assignments in order to create an original visual and written character study of [themselves] similar to the “Half Indian/Half White” illustration and description Alexie used to reflect on his main character’s identity.”
During an in-class writing workshop, I asked students to draw a draft of their “Half and Half” illustration and to identify 10 separate physical and/or characteristics of the image that represented the difference between the two halves. This forced them to draw in a more detailed way. They thought about how each half would look from hairstyle to footwear. One student showed half of his body as sitting on a sofa with his shoeless feet propped on a table, the other side stood straight with formal shoes. The placement of the body. The look on the face. A conversation bubble. A thought bubble. Despite the variation in drawing skills, students were able to find creative ways to show difference, and then reflect on it using concrete examples from the illustration as their reference points.
As these examples show, students used their “Half and Half” illustrations to explore a variety of identities: gender and gendered behavior; traditional and modern ethnic culture; and the tension between art and economics. At their best, these illustrated stories of self brought together analytical and creative writing. For instance, one student described the struggle between having the imagination of an “adventurer” and a life of “invariable… routine” using both well-explained references and wry imagery:
The Half-and-Half assignment was the one that elicited the most groans and gasps from the students when I introduced it. They had read Alexie’s Diary and were worried about my expectations. They were not Arnold. They could not be Arnold. Then how were they to proceed? After we initially went over the rubric during class, most of the students hurriedly came up to me to ask questions, mainly about how I would grade their work. Would I be grading them on the quality of their drawings? Did I expect them to discuss private identities or conflicts that they did not want the other students to know about? My answer to both these was a definitive, “No.” What should they do if they did not feel any struggle or conflict within their identities? Here, I encouraged them to think more deeply and broadly about the whole of their lives. Was there really no social space or situation that caused them to change how they presented themselves to or reacted to others? For instance, their participation in a Eurocentric, English-dominant educational and social environment was in itself rife with possible struggles. However, the point of the assignment, which I realized I had to make very clear to students and indeed to myself, was not to lay their souls bare for public view or force themselves to concoct fictional conflicts in order to make their lives seem more interesting. The point was to represent themselves visually in a juxtaposed form; to create and show a social context for that imaged self; and finally, to reflect on their representation using the same analytical skills they had previously used to examine on the works of other writers and artists. Helping students learn how to write with personality and complexity remains one of the greatest challenges in the FYW courses I teach. But Domain assignments like the Half and Half illustration and narrative have allow me to engage with that task in more intentional and creative ways.