Early in my teaching career, I taught in a renovated convention center in Atlantic City. Outside the classroom were gaming machines and gaming tables. Inside the classroom were twenty four students, almost all of them international. There were students from Romania, Vietnam, Haiti, Columbia, Peru, India, Liberia, Russia, the Dominican Republic, and South Korea, as well as a few local students from the surrounding area. It was a space that was alive with difference, a space in which students brought fascinating experiences. It remains my ideal teaching situation, one that proved to me the importance of drawing on lived experience and the possibility and promise of building community in the classroom.

I have now been teaching writing in community colleges for more than fifteen years. They are the most exciting places to be in higher education. I like to envision the community college writing classroom as a bristling bustling city neighborhood, alive with possibilities. The vibrant mix of people within those spaces makes all kinds of deep, rich intellectual enterprise possible. I know that not everyone sees them that way. Not everyone recognizes the possibilities.

While watching the documentary Citizen Jane, about the work of Jane Jacobs, I was struck by the similarities between Jacobs’ push for a more humane model of city planning and what those of us forwarding a progressive approach to writing instruction, especially in a community college context, are advocating. In the mid-twentieth century, Jacobs campaigned against a proposed freeway that would have cut through Washington Square Park. As a result, Jacobs started thinking about cities: how they had been planned and how they actually function. She wrote The Death and Life of the Great American City, a look at how city planners had failed to recognize signs of order in the supposed chaos of established cities, and how they failed to recognize the messy truth about what made a city “great.”

While watching, I was reminded of the attempts to paint many community college students as “not college ready” and of the troubling conception of “remedial” education. I saw a connection between the value Jacobs saw already existing in the cities that were being “renewed” and the value I see in the lifeworld and experiences students bring with them.

In her book, Jacobs considers the interrelated nature of neighborhoods, the way order is implicit in the apparent chaos of a city. Holding everything together is the idea that there is order in a city even when there doesn’t seem to be. “To see complex systems of functional order as order, and not as chaos, takes understanding,” Jacobs writes. “The leaves dropping from the trees in the autumn, the interior of an airplane engine, the entrails of a dissected rabbit, the city desk of a newspaper, all appear to be chaos if they are seen without comprehension. Once they are understood as systems of order, they actually look different." The writing classroom can be understood as this kind of complex system of functional order.

Almost all of the students who enter our classes are initially strangers to each other. You see it on the first day of the semester. Students generally sit as far from other students as possible. Before class starts they can be found either outside the room or sitting in rows, immersed in their phones. There is no stake for them in getting to know each other, since, in many classes, they will never have to get to know each other. Aside from the fact that students tend to keep their guard up if teachers let them, all kinds of conflicts can develop if guards are let down. Older students can see younger students as privileged and always on their phones. Younger students can see older students as out-of-it and in need of too much assistance. There are inevitable and fraught political differences. In the case of my writing classes, students are taking the class because they have to, almost never because they want to. Why invest too much of themselves? Why not remain strangers?

If that’s the case, how do we build a community in a classroom full of strangers? How do we turn that class into a “mutual web of interest,” with “intricate mutual support,” two terms used by Jacobs? How do we convince students that there is a reason and a value in forming a community?

There is no real rubric for doing this, as far as I can see. It is difficult, emotional work, but there are also some pretty simple techniques. Learning everyone’s name, making sure every student knows every other student’s name. Encouraging a sense of belonging by allowing students to drive the conversation. Writing and learning along with students. Putting desks into circles and sitting with students. Talking about real issues. Sharing our own stories. We can design the classroom so this random mix of strangers becomes a community.

The Kind of Problem a Writing Classroom Is

During a recent sabbatical, I did a lot of reading about antiracist writing assessment, including “ungrading” and labor-based grading contracts. Reading about grading contracts and having conversations with colleagues on the same path helped me to think differently about how to facilitate different ways of seeing, thinking, and writing in the classroom. I realized that over the past few years I had not been thinking enough about how learning (and writing) actually happens. I had been trying to fit learning into neat 3-4 weeks units that would then sequence into 15 week semesters. Since I first started teaching, I’ve been interested in getting students to write what they care about and drawing on topics of interest, but I struggled to make those parts of my teaching real. They were usually tacked on as the third or fourth assignment of a semester, assignments that allowed students to shake off the more structured writing I’d had them do first. I realized that I was not allowing the full diversity of use to exist in my classes.

When I came back from the sabbatical, I was determined to do away with assignments. Assignments get in the way of the organized chaos that’s possible in the classroom. They are attempts to make learning manageable, but they make building the kind of community I want to build harder. Since coming back, I’ve had students write self-directed writing projects, projects that have no real requirements other than length. I want students to write, and revise, a set number of pages. The number of pages is not really important. Early in the semester we do writing in multiple genres that allow students to find what they want to write about and how they want to write it, and then students are free to write what they want to write, how they want to write it. (It sounds simple; it isn’t.)

In the semesters since I’ve been taking this approach, students have produced the best writing I’ve read in my 15 years as a teacher:

  • A piece about being an African American woman on the Baltimore City Police force entitled “Powerful and Powerless.”
  • An ethnography of a Jehovah’s Witness congregation written by a Nepalese-American student, arguing that Kingdom Halls are welcoming places for all people
  • A powerful sermon about how old-fashioned values should be emphasized in the African American community.

By looking at the process of each of these pieces in a little more depth, maybe I can show how the interactions in the classroom, the “neighborhood” of the class, made them possible:

Powerful and Powerless

I had heard about Tiffany from a fellow English professor, who raved about her. When she sat in my English 102 class for the first time, I knew exactly why. Tiffany was the kind of student all teachers love: a returning student willing and able to discuss anything, a student who cared about and supported other students. And the other students in the class looked up to her immediately. I remember having discussions with Tiffany about teaching. She was surprised that I seemed to center the experiences of my Black students. She talked about how surprising that seemed to be for some of the white students, who were used to having their experiences centered.

That class quickly became a community, with Tiffany acting as its beating heart. She was there for every class, and she had a preacher’s flair. Her intellectual fire was matched by her spiritual passion. When she first learned about the self-directed writing project, she was nervous. She wasn’t sure she could write something so long. But, at the same time, she wanted to share her experiences with the other students. When she told me what those experiences were, as one of the first African American women in the Baltimore City Police Department, I was blown away. She came up with the title “Powerful and Powerless,” about her experiences feeling powerful in uniform while feeling powerless as an African American woman in society. She worked hard on that piece. It was not just a school assignment. It was a self-driven piece that was possible because Tiffany had these incredible experiences that she was willing to share with her classmates.

I shared collage essays with Tiffany— “Woven,” by Lidia Yuknavitch, in particular— and she was able to use the structure of a collage, in which sections of an essay are juxtaposed without transitions, to good effect. She broke up the chronology of her piece, writing about herself in the third person. As we went through drafts, Tiffany taught the rest of us about her experiences. She would also talk about religion in the class, preaching. That class was a community, a neighborhood of strangers with a “mutual web of interest” in large part because of Tiffany. She helped many other students with their projects, even talking one student, who was having great difficulty getting started with the project because she didn’t feel like she had anything to say, through her difficulties. Though the two women were strangers to each other, they formed a bond, supporting each other like neighbors in a tight neighborhood.

Ethnographic Study of Jehovah’s Witnesses

The next two examples are from two students in the same English 101 class, students who formed a bond early in the semester. One was a Nepalese American student in her 20’s, Ita, the other a Black woman in her 40’s, Tia. I remember seeing them sitting together in the computer lab where the class was held hours after class had ended, deep in conversation about their writing. They helped each other out, forming a community of interest.

Ita was shy and almost completely silent. She rarely talked in class, though she assured me that she was getting a lot out of the discussions. That semester we talked a lot about culture, in different ways. Ita was always smiling and always staying late to work on her writing. There was no question that she was driven to succeed. I think that she also felt like she belonged in the class, like she was part of a vital community.

When the time for the project came, Ita had a number of ideas to work with. First she wrote an autobiography, then she wrote about immigration, but finally she told me she that wanted to continue working on an ethnography, a genre I’d introduced to the class briefly. She wanted to write an actual ethnography. We talked about the possibilities, and she told me about her experiences as a Jehovah’s Witness.

As a class, we watched the paper come together, saw Ita put together her observations of the Kingdom Hall, saw her develop her thesis that the Kingdom Hall was a place where identity— race, ethnicity, class— did not matter, where everyone was welcomed. She worked hard. As someone who is neither Neapalsese nor a Jehovah’s Witness, I learned a lot from her piece. So did the fellow students who commented on it. Ita was able to clear up some misunderstanding I had about the religion.

Without the help of the class, without the help of people like Tia, I don’t think Ita could have completed the project.

My Mind and “All Ye” Black People

Like Tiffany, Tia was a returning student who held the class together. She was the one who encouraged younger students to turn in their work, to work hard. She strived for greatness, setting an example for everyone else. When she first turned in a draft of her first project, I wasn’t sure what it was. It was ten pages long, single spaced, with no paragraph breaks. I had a hard time understanding what she was trying to do with it. I thought at first that it was an argumentative essay. I knew that she was arguing for “old school” values, but I wasn’t sure what she wanted the piece to do.

When I printed out the first couple pages and asked Tia to read them aloud, I realized what the piece actually was: a sermon, a genre she was then able to teach me about. We talked about Tia’s experiences as someone who delivered sermons in her church, and how this sermon differed from those in being more secular. I looked into the writing of Adam Banks and Beverly Moss, and found examples both of “old school” narratives and the rhetorical styles of different kinds of preachers, sharing them not only with Tia but with the class as a whole. We were able to all learn together in this way. That’s where the city metaphor comes in; we were all pushed into this experience of learning together. Through her reading of the sermon, Tia was able to play against both genre conventions of the sermon and the beliefs of the younger students in the class, some of whom pushed back against the idea that old school values were important, while others embraced the idea. Even the pushback helped to strengthen the piece.

Although these are the projects of three individual students, I don’t think any of them would have been possible without the community of the classroom. The greatness in these students met and sparked and grew richer and deeper. In both of the two classes mentioned above, there are about forty other students, each of whom I could chronicle here. Their individual projects were (or became) communal.

From the Ground Up

I am not an expert in the lives of my students. I have limitations, thanks to the culture in which I was brought up and my lived experiences. As a teacher, I am responsible for maintaining the community (or the “neighborhood”) of the classroom, making sure the relationships, which will develop no matter what I do, are allowed to flourish, that students are finding mutual self-interest, that we are all learning from one another. It is an example of what Freire might call “the teacher-student with students-teachers.”

I’ve stopped worrying about managing the classroom the way I used to. I’ve stopped telling students what to write about. I’ve realized that the more ideas there are in the writing classroom the better. There should be no lock on ideas, no limit. About a healthy city, Jacobs says: “There can be no such thing as too many strangers.” The diversity of strangers in the classroom is what drives inquiry. There is always more to discover. Ideas can help reinforce each other or call other ideas into question.

My favorite classes are those in which students challenge each other. People challenge each other’s ideas all the time, but in a respectful way. I’m not talking about some antiseptic safe space where we can’t talk about real issues. I’m talking about getting down to some real shit. Getting messy. I’m talking about finding a way to live with diversity in the truest sense of that term, not as some token set of cultural practices, but as a real and bustling way of doing business.

Jacobs writes, in relation to cities, that: “[Y]ou have to build from existing assets, to make more assets” (176). You don’t make a city better merely by getting rid of the problems, or “remediating” the problems. That’s the wrong approach. You build a city by figuring out what is in that city already, what the people and landscape of that city make possible, by asking about the desires and objectives of the people and how to make those desires and objectives possible. In the same way, we can build a vibrant writing class in a community college, and beyond. The students who have been deemed not “college ready” are often those who have the most to offer us. We have to stop imposing an order we want to see, and we need to see the beauty and the power already there.