“Self Destruction”: Black Student Writers in the Social Media Age

Kendra at HBCU Conference
Kendra N. Bryant, 2018 “Symposium on Teaching Composition & Rhetoric”

The following paper is the first half of a conference presentation I delivered at the 2018 “Symposium on Teaching Composition and Rhetoric at HBCUs” hosted by Howard University and Bedford St/Martin’s. 

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According to this year’s conference call for abstracts, One HBCU scholar once described managing student literacies and the technological resources afforded HBCUs as ‘trying to make a dollar out of fifteen cents.’ How might we shift the conversation on technologies and literacy at HBCUs in ways that acknowledge sound media technologies and apps as central to the education of students?”

 Well, in Samantha Blackmon’s 2007 article, “(Cyber)conspiracy Theories? African-American Students in the Computerized Writing Environment,” wherein she uses Tupac’s “trying to make a dollar out of fifteen cents” lyric to make her claim, Blackmon compares the challenges of managing student online literacies with trying to make something out of nothing.  That nothing included African American students’ outside of school access to technology and the Internet, coupled w/the HBCU’s access to technological resources, as well as Black students’ technological ability and interest—both of which were affected by the digital divide.  Since her publication ten years ago, while many HBCUs still struggle to afford in-classroom technological resources beyond the teacher’s desk computer and classroom projector, many Black students are accessing online writing technologies by way of smart phones and tablets.

As a matter of fact, students are writing w/technology much more now because of flourishing online writing communities (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr) and access to smartphones, which link them to their online accounts, than they were when Black Boy LaptopBlackmon produced her “(Cyber)conspiracy Theories.”  However, because of social media’s popularity amongst student writers, most of whom are members of the Google Generation or the Millennials, offering them writing courses and theories about how to write within those online spaces are often deemed futile.  As one of my former colleagues once exclaimed when I suggested creating a writing course that focuses on writing with social media and effectively using smart phones as a writing resource: “They don’t need no course in social media. They’re on it all the time.”

My conference presentation, which I have titled, “‘Self-Destruction’: Black Student Writers in the Social Media Age,” borrows from KRS-One’s 1987 Self Destruction single, which is a response to the violence that the hip hop community was inflicting upon themselves during that time.  In D-Nice’s verse, he raps:

It’s time to stand together in a unity
‘Cause if not then we’re soon to be
Self-destroyed, unemployed
The rap race will be lost without a trace
Or a clue / but what to do
Is stop the violence and kick the science
Down the road that we call eternity
Where knowledge is formed and you’ll learn to be
Self-sufficient, independent
To teach to each is what rap intended
But society wants to invade
So do not walk this path they laid
It’s…

Well, when I think of this gate-keeper, former colleague of mine, who quickly dismissed my suggestion, I received her behavior as a form of self-destruction. For, as Black educators, particularly in the HBCU, we are charged w/helping our Black students to navigate thru this white patriarchy—the same system that used Black Planet as a prototype to create MySpace, and has thus been developing, infiltrating, and distracting us w/social media.

You see, while this teacher claimed our students needed no course in writing with social media and using their smart phones beyond accessing their social media platforms, I was in a classroom—and often still am—where I had to tell my students to use their phones to look up words they wanted me to define for them. Often, many of them half ass Googled terms, and when I suggested they simply download a dictionary app, they looked confused (or maybe that was their “Dr. Bryant, really?” look).

While this teacher claimed our students needed no course in writing with social media and using their smart phones beyond accessing their social media platforms, I was in a classroom where students would bum rush me at the start of class to ask me had I gotten their email—which was written as a text message or tweet by the way—cause they didn’t get a response from me—although they had, but didn’t think to check their email app and/or didn’t have notifications configured on their smart phone.

While this teacher claimed our students needed no course in writing with social media and using smart phones beyond accessing their social media platforms, I was in a classroom where I asked students about their blogging practices, and the majority of them claimed they don’t blog—although they each had active accounts on various social media platforms, all of which are blogging spaces.

My point w/some of these superficial examples is that our Black writing students were not thinking about social media and smart phone use beyond their current frivolous practices. They were not thinking about how to use their social media platforms or to even create one solely for the purpose of writing themselves into a professional and/or academic online existence that would appeal to an employer’s or college admission’s ethos, logos, and pathos—the rhetorical appeals that we tell our first year writing students are the persuasive tools required for any argument they make.

But how are we writing teachers fully servicing our 21st century, technologically-laden writing students who prefer we email them at cutiepie2001@gmail.com versus their university given email addresses, which encourage their credibility, or who don’t realize the difference between Microsoft Word and Google Docs, so they can’t figure out why the name “Google docs” is printed on every page of their MLA required essay, and therefore, don’t understand why they are losing stylistic points—because, “Dr. Bryant, the computer did it.” Or what about the 21st century Google-aged student—who Googles everything, yet hasn’t been to Google Books, Google Scholars, or Google News?

Exactly how are we fully servicing our 21st century, technologically-laden writing students if we choose to not couple their traditional writing practices w/current communication technologies that are centered w/in a grand narrative that encouragesSocial Media Image our Black students to create digital footprints that seemingly mimic shuckin and jivin? (Cause after all, I do believe that social media and smart phones are two of the biggest conspiracies to distract its users from critical consciousnesses. Lately, folks be claiming “wokeness,” but we seem to be more like that sleep deprived woke, cause we up, skimmin Instagram pages of our “woke” friends in dashikis claiming #wakandaforever.)

My point is that our assumption that Google-aged learners know how to use technology and apply social media use and technological communications to the professional, academic space—that is situated w/in the white patriarchal space—because they carry smart phones and have social media accounts, is akin to expecting our senior (or more traditional professors) to move from paper gradebooks to BlackBoard or Canvas systems w/no training or any direction because, well, teachers have desk top computers—as well as MFAs and PhDs.

While I believe social media and smart phones can be a grave distraction more often than not, I do think it’s possible—necessary—to use these master’s tools, if you will, to help our Black students build their own houses alongside the jook joints they already have the wherewithal to create. In other words, if we don’t point our 21st century students in the direction to create online spaces that serve as reflections / of their academic goals and professions / then, we’re headed for self-destruction.

In the few minutes I have left, I want to share with you all a writing assignment I employ in my first year writing classrooms that invites students to use WordPress to compose an online, professional/academic self that makes them more marketable to employers and graduate school programs, while familiarizing them with the nuances of social media use and making them active contributors to current hashtag movements. Basically, I am integrating an online social media platform in the writing classroom so that 21st century students of color can practice, as Andrea Lunsford suggests, “writing in action,” beyond Black Twitter, Instagram memes, and rhetorically rich and verbose hashtags.

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Do click here for access to one of my student’s WordPress accounts. She developed it as I instructed in the ENC 1102: Writing & Rhetoric II course I taught at Florida International University, Miami. Briefly put, students were required to develop an online employment portfolio + blogging site that included posts in response to current hashtag movements.

 

Happy Teacher Appreciation Week: w/Special Re: to College Profs

It’s Teacher Appreciation Week all over America, & I light weight feel a way. All week, my Facebook timeline has been inundated w/testimonies & pictures that express gratitude for teachers: flowers, candy, handwritten letters, & gift cards. You name it, this week, a teacher got it. S/he got The View shout out, the Barnes & Noble 25% discount, & the Google doodle.  S/he got the #thankateacher hashtag, the free pack of Target pens, & the President’s Proclamation.  S/he got a free Chipotle bowl, a free annual membership to the MOSI Museum of Science & Industry, & complimentary admission to Sea World.  S/he even got a free classroom pet. <—-really?  I feel a way.

National Teacher Appreciation Week (NTAW) is undoubtedly reserved for K-12 teachers, but mainly elementary school teachers.  I mean, all of this week’s freebies are reserved for K-12 teachers. (Classroom pet?)  Aaaaand, not only does President Barack Obama publicly thank his 5th grade teacher, but throughout his Teacher Appreciation Day & National Teacher Appreciation Week Proclamation, he totally implies the intended teacher demographic for this needed celebration.  For instance, he writes: “I have worked hard throughout my Presidency to make sure my Administration does its part to support our educators and our education system, but the incredible progress our country has seen—from achieving record high graduation rates to holding more students to high standards that prepare them for success in college and future careers—is thanks to the dedicated teachers, families, and school leaders who work tirelessly on behalf of our young people.”  The phrase “prepare them for success in college” light weight excludes college professors from NTAW. I’m just sayin. So, I feel a way.

I’m an assistant professor of English at an HBCU whose mission includes teaching the “underrepresented” and “underprivileged” student, & I, as well as every college professor—especially those not teaching in the STEM programs to which President Obama has given immediate attention—deserves to walk into a Barnes & Noble and receive her 25% discount, too.

While we may not have to (directly) address standardized testing, helicopter parenting, & runny noses, we have to address standardized testing, helicopter parenting, & runny noses. Although we have (give or take) a month “off” for holiday break, a week “off” for Spring break, & potentially two-three months “off” for summer recess, we have the year round obligation of conferencing, engaging in community service, sitting on University & departmental wide committees, & publishing (in academic journals whose editors can make us feel as incompetent as the end-of-semester student grievances that are grounded in false complaints)—all the while spending nine months out of the year making less than $60,000 a year, stressing over a $130,000+ student loan, & teaching over 150 students, most of whom are first-generation college students w/reading & writing skills that reflect middle school ability, who have no money (or care) for purchasing required textbooks, who maintain outrageous senses of entitlement (to undeserved grades, to spoon-feeding, & to our free time—our very souls), who—despite being considered members of the “Google generation”—cannot type a paper, determine reputable online sources, or use their smartphones for anything but socializing, who submit late papers w/their own names misspelled, w/blocked text that excludes paragraph breaks, & w/sentences that include lowercased proper nouns, who publicly debase us via ratemyprofessor.com after they’ve earned a failing grade in the course, & whose priorities rest in working a 9-5, looking flyyy, joining a Greek organization, looking flyyy, finding a lover, looking flyyy, going home every other weekend, looking flyyy, & then, maybe then, being a “full-time” student at the University in which they enrolled. I’m just sayin. We want free admission into Sea World, too. We want discounts to Banana Republic, Staples, & The Swan & Dolphin Resort at Disney World.  All teachers deserve such recognition, not just our K-12 comrades.

According to Obama’s NTAW Proclamation, “In working to ensure all our daughters and sons have the chance to add their voice and perspective to America’s story, our teachers help shape a Nation that better reflects the values we were founded upon.”  While Obama’s Proclamation never concretely excludes the college professor, America’s interpretation of it absolutely does.  Come on! College professors (adjuncts & instructors) deserve a seat at the table, too.

Happy Teacher Appreciation Week (especially to my mother, Choling Bryant-Walker, a retired 3rd grade teacher & my own Master teacher. I am because she is.)