Reflection for Faculty Assembly after Another Campus Shooting

Today I wrote the following and incorporated Nikki Giovanni’s “We Remember” to serve as our opening reflection for Faculty Assembly. As VP for Faculty Assembly, I invite faculty to offer the opening reflection, but today I decided to address a topic on my mind.

For this reflection, I want to bring up something serious, something that may be weighing on all of us. Around this very time one week ago, I was eating lunch in the dining hall, deep in discussion with a student for her independent study, when I noticed a breaking news alert on CNN about another mass shooting on a college campus, this time at Umpqua Community College near Roseburg, Oregon. In our School of Arts meeting a couple weeks ago, we discussed CBU’s active shooter response plan, a discussion prompted by the fact that the shooting at Delta State University had happened so close to us. However, I think all of these shootings–whether they happen in Blacksburg, Virginia; Santa Monica, California; Dekalb, Illinois; Cleveland, Mississippi; or Roseburg, Oregon; or anywhere–feel close to us. We can measure their impact in degree, a proximity that transcends distance. All of these tragedies are too close. We may feel paralyzed or numb, fearful or angry, but we all know that college campuses should not places where we worry about being killed while doing our jobs or where our students have to fear for their lives as they are here to prepare for their futures as citizens, workers, and people–for their lives. For me, as someone who teaches first-year writing, I am haunted that the shooter in Oregon targeted his composition class; writing courses aim to help students find their voices as members of the academy and as citizens outside it. Such courses should be spaces where all voices can find their place. All campuses should be safe spaces. Continue reading

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Into the caldron: neoliberalism, ideology, education, and life itself (on The Whole Horse Project now!)

My August feature essay for The Whole Horse Project is available now.

Check it out: Into the caldron, ideology, education, and life itself

When opportunities to study race systematically are cut, then the university or state declares that black lives matter less. When opportunities to study gender are cut, then the university or state upholds patriarchy. When opportunities to study poverty are cut, then the university upholds economic domination. What remains is education for capitalism and for hegemony, preparing people to participate in markets and not disrupt them. – See more at: http://www.wholehorseproject.org/?p=311#sthash.kLQanocV.dpuf

Remarks for Countdown to College Graduation, 2015

C2C 2015 Graduation Remarks, July 17, 2015

This summer, I taught college writing to rising high school seniors who have spent the past 4 years as part of the Countdown to College (C2C) program at Saint Mary’s University in Winona, MN. The program aims to make students college read, understanding that access alone is not enough to guarantee persistence. For the program’s graduation ceremony, Dr. Jane Anderson, program director, asked me to select a student essay to be read and to introduce the student. The following text is that introduction. In it, I also called on other students to read excerpts from their essays. In particular, I wanted to address concerns (complaints, unfounded fears?) that these students get a “free ride” through college without having to put any skin in the game. For the C2C students, drawn from underrepresented groups in Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Racine, Tucson, and the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, they are the “skin” in the game of American capitalism. An excerpt from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me grapples with that same truth:

You must struggle to truly remember this past in all its nuance, error, and humanity. You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice. The enslaved were no bricks in our road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine. (70).

The C2C students are not getting anything “free,” and the access that Saint Mary’s University’s C2C and First Generation Initiative provide are a start to returning these students and their families back to the realm of people from the status of fuel. The text below incorporates, with permission, passages from students’ essays, but the final essay, which was read, is omitted. Student last names have also been omitted.

Good afternoon. I am Dr. Jeffrey Gross, and I was honored to have the opportunity to visit from Christian Brothers University in Memphis, Tennessee, this year to teach college writing to these graduating C2C students. The visions of Mary Ann and Jack Remick and Dr. Jane Anderson have created a life-changing program at Saint Mary’s University; the model here is one that should be followed by every university–Lasallian, Catholic, private, or public–with a stated commitment to social justice. Today, I am privileged to have the opportunity to introduce a student who will read her essay from the writing class as our commencement address, but first I want you to hear excerpts from some of the other emerging voices and leaders in this room. In our class, we discussed the importance of writing as a means to inform, to educate, to move to action, and even to open the hearts of its audience. For their final project, students were asked to describe and analyze a place that was important in their development into the persons they are today. Themes of family, community, service, faith, and education emerged as recurring topics. Considering the ways these students love their families and each other, these themes are not surprising. All college students could stand to learn from these C2C graduates, who not only work hard individually but who look after each other to help each member of the group succeed. The students graduating from this program today are carrying the torch of Lasallian education forward. Continue reading

Rethinking Grades, Part 1

During this week of unexpected time off due to snow days, I found myself thinking about grades. This time of the semester, faculty can submit early warnings, especially as we see which students are trending toward unsatisfactory performance or risking failure due to attendance. For students, the wakeup call comes now. I hope they will use the two weeks before spring break to refocus and recommit. The time off also gave me time to read two pieces juxtaposed this week, Chronicle Vitae‘s “Dear Student, No, I Won’t Change the Grade you Deserve” and “College Grade Inflation Means B is the New C+,” Allison Kite’s report for the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire republished in the Commercial Appeal.

As a professor, I feel solidarity with the professors and instructors quoted in the Chronicle Vitae piece. Grading presents the most challenging and most frustrating part of my job. In first-year writing courses, some students face a steep incline to adjust to college expectations. For work that might be satisfactory and meet an assignments minimal guidelines in addressing its purpose, students will receive grades and expect A-level grades for completing the assignment. In some cases, like the professors cited in both the Vitae and Kite pieces, I agree that student demands for better grades can be tied to feelings of academic entitlement. However, I also want to steer away from a belief that only students are at fault. Seeing the ways students in grades as early as kindergarten and first grade are prepared for and measured by high-stakes testing makes me realize that we have conditioned students from a young age to see their grades and test scores as measurements of their potential and worth. Moreover, state and university-level financial aid policies and scholarship programs often tie rigorous grade requirements to renewal of scholarships and grants. Students often find themselves in a position where satisfactory isn’t satisfactory enough. For universities–public and private–that are increasingly reliant on tuition, the pressure to retain students is also real.

Continue reading

Remarks for CBU NAACP Chapter Chartering

On September 4, 2014, the NAACP Tennessee Conference officially granted a campus charter to CBU. As a faculty co-advisor for the campus chapter, I had the chance to deliver the following remarks:

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Remarks as Prepared

Tonight, as a faculty advisor for the CBU NAACP Chapter, I have been offered the opportunity to say a few words to mark this important event in CBU’s history. I am honored. The Lasallian Christian Brothers have long had a commitment to educating the poor and underrepresented as a means to bringing about a more just society. On the grounds of this campus, Br. Terence McLaughlin acted against the orders of Church leaders who told him it was too soon to integrate Christian Brothers High School. Defying the wishes of Church leadership, Br. Terence acted in defense of fairness and equality, admitting Jesse Turner as the first African American student on August 16, 1963. Christian Brothers High School became the first high school in Memphis to desegregate. Bishop William L. Adrian chastised Br. Terence for moving too swiftly, writing, “Up to this, we have followed the policy that integration be authorized only when the pastors of Shelby County approved; this included high school integration. Evidently you misunderstood or ignored this.” Br. Terence had not misunderstood the Bishop’s directive; rather, he understood that acting justly required breaking unjust policies.

Today, CBU is one of the most diverse university campuses in the South, but we cannot rely on our past and present. As a university, we must prepare students for future challenges. A college education is an investment in futurity—future careers and earnings but also future civic engagement.

Why do we need a chapter of the NAACP on a college campus in 2014? As someone who teaches about race, culture, and history, I see the difficulty students often have in participating in open discussions about race. For too many students, the topic feels taboo. An NAACP chapter on this campus ensures that students will have the opportunity to discuss and learn about the ways prejudice affects people. Education creates a foundation for advocacy and empowerment. Education is the foundation of justice. Continue reading