Instructor Reflection-Social Stigma and Poverty (11.2)

By Shauna Chung, Clemson University

Kathy’s project was the culminating assignment of a five-project sequence in my first-year writing course, as well as in a very unusual semester. Spring 2020 forced an end to in-person teaching six weeks before the close of our academic year, taking everyone in the class back to their respective points of origin. Interestingly, this—“home”—was not only Kathy’s endpoint in the course but also her beginning. Her project is a beautiful illustration of how personal, lived experiences can be a powerful guide for research-based composition.

I designed the course so that major projects built off of each other and aimed at Gregory Ulmer’s konsult genre, which encourages writers to critically examine and attend to a social issue by considering “not whether to participate in change, but the locus of our position in the array: with the normative lock, the gaps, or the misfits (the resistance, the opportunity, or the trouble)” (Ulmer, Konsult x). Thus, each assignment called for close examination of not just a research topic but also one’s personal relation to an issue. The first project did this most explicitly, prompting students to write a personal narrative that explored their emerging identities as writers across the discourses of family, entertainment, community, and school—what Ulmer calls a “mystory.” In Internet Invention, Ulmer explains that the goal of mystory is to pinpoint what resonates across discourses and to “be able to notice and make use of our bodily experience as part of our reasoning—to use ‘recognition’” (82). Students encapsulated this recurrence in a single word or visual metaphor that would act as a creative guide for further investigation of a research topic of their choice. Drawing from her Vietnamese family’s immigrant experiences, Kathy located “growth” as her summarizing term and a penny as her visual metaphor. Describing the roots of these concepts, an excerpt from her narrative reads, 

My childhood was marked by the recurring vision of loose change descending into an empty 5-gallon water jug accompanied by the light, sharp ringing sound of pennies colliding with each other. The water jug labeled as “Kathy’s College Tuition” never felt concrete, its meaning too difficult and distant to grasp but in all, exciting. This distinct memory symbolized the end of my day as my parents emptied their pockets of the tips they received at the nail salon. Inhaling the residue nail polish chemicals off their clothes as I hugged them, I always felt safe and loved in their arms. Although a seemingly miniscule recollection, this daily encounter became a token of my life, framing my values, perception of the world, and personal identity. 

This memory—this bodily experience—would also become a token for her subsequent academic work in my course.

The second project began the student’s search for a research topic through rhetorical analysis of three media artifacts, each of which needed to be resonant with their summarizing terms/images uncovered in project one. Ulmer explains that konsult works not by arbitrary or emotionally detached scholarly investigation but when students “intuit a certain path or direction, that is also experienced in everyday life as conatus, a striving to persist in one’s own being (to live)” (Konsult xx). Thus, the assignment called students to uncover and analyze information in order to better understand their emerging topic, existing perspectives on the issue, and their relation to the subject matter. Building off of the insights gleaned from her personal narrative, Kathy analyzed artifacts related to poverty in the United States, describing the issue in her reflection note to the project as “one that spoke to my soul and ignited a purpose while bringing me closer to my family.” She was intuiting her path forward, using visceral knowledge as her guide.

The remaining projects—an annotated bibliography, video-mediated research proposal, and researched video essay—prompted students to more intentionally investigate their research trajectory. Kathy extended her analyses into the scholarly realm, pairing her findings with the following point that she made in her proposal script: 

Poverty is a growing issue in America and is continually painted by criminalization and stigma, so it is important for us to be knowledgeable and learn how our attitudes and actions can advocate for or against the impoverished. Overall, I want to call awareness to this issue and demonstrate how essentially anyone can contribute to its persistence.

Here, her motive resonates with Ulmer’s suggestion that there “is no rule or calculation capable of measuring Justice. It comes, it is gifted when an egent [an individual who has located herself in relation to a social problem] receives a call. Orientation to the call of care is through EPS [an existential positioning system]” (Konsult 157). Kathy’s final video, included in this The Jump+ submission, is this call—an invitation for all of us to consider, reckon with, and investigate our relation to Kathy’s “penny.”

Works Cited

Ulmer, Gregory. Internet Invention: From Literacy to Electracy. Longman Publishers, 2003.—. Konsult: Theopraxesis. Parlor Press, 2019