Notes from Dean Jacqueline Jones Royster’s “Difficult Dialogues” Workshop, an Exploration of Using Difficult Texts in Our Classes

Two weeks ago, the Georgia Tech Brittain Fellows‘ Digital Pedagogy Seminar featured a special guest: Ivan Allen College Dean Jacqueline Jones Royster. She led an incredibly informative and powerful workshop on “Difficult Dialogues.” Dean Royster facilitated discussions between the seminar as a whole and smaller breakout groups on the challenge, techniques, and potential of guiding our students through difficult dialogues on difficult texts. I have included some of my notes from the session below to share the pedagogical questions and responses that were discussed during the workshop. While this is only a sketch of our own difficult dialogues, I hope that it might be useful in your own thinking and pedagogical use of difficult texts.

  1. Why use difficult texts?
    1. Challenge and reflection develops minds.
    2. Confront students’ preconceptions and assumptions.
    3. Develop students’ critical thinking abilities.
    4. Guiding students to an understanding that their worldview/point of view is but one of many others.
  2. What is the challenge of using difficult texts?
    1. Students might rely on their preconceptions and assumptions.
    2. We develop students’ collegiality.
    3. Mutual discomfort for teachers and students.
    4. Fear of shutting down conversation.
    5. Questioning of teacher’s authority to teach a given text.
    6. Vulnerability for students and the teacher.
  3. Can we make any text difficult?
    1. Of course!
    2. Multiple approaches to any text.
    3. We bring a particular approach to direct class discussion.
    4. Lived experiences.
    5. Lots of potential to not know, and what you don’t know matters.
  4. What difficulties exist for participants and facilitators?
    1. Not thinking about how different students are.
    2. Ignoring signs of engagement and disengagement.
    3. Failing to monitor cognitive and affective states.
    4. Being impatient–going too fast.
    5. Being unclear.
    6. Insecurities of teacher and students.
    7. Structuring processes: do not remain on the surface–go deeper.
    8. Enable multiple standpoints.
    9. Keep the dialog going with rhetorical questions for/by the text.
    10. Finding content appropriate/connected to learning goals.
    11. Teach to the head and the heart.
    12. Setting up the class as mutually respectful and safe to discuss.
    13. Treat all questions seriously. Do not allow flippancy to enter the room.
    14. This is a grand adventure. There are plenty of ways to screw things up.
  5. Some shared strategies for building dialog and guiding students under the surface.
    1. Richard Utz suggests having students not speak as themselves for the hour. The challenge is to speak using a different persona, lowering barriers to dialog, and thinking through things from a different perspective.
    2. Karen Head suggests having all students write a “coming out” narrative. This autobiographical approach follows her ENGL1101 class’ emphasis on autobiography. Having students come out about a secret or a core part of their identity that they hide from certain friends/family (e.g., coming out as an uber-geek, or coming out as an atheist). Students begin to think about other people’s thinking of themselves. It can lead to reconfiguring the way students talk about others.
    3. Dean Royster suggests admitting insecurity about talking about a particular topic: “Who is uncomfortable talking about race?” She also tells us that she brings newsprint and crayons to a class and she invites the students to draw a place to begin their conversation. It doesn’t have to be an authentic place, but it can serve to orient students in a more comfortable way to what they need to talk about and consider.
  6. On reading aloud Nikki Giovanni’s“The True Import Of Present Dialogue, Black vs. Negro (For Peppe, Who Will Ultimately Judge Our Efforts),”we discussed how it made us feel and how we might engage students with it.
    1. Some poems are meant to be read. Some poems are meant to be spoken. Some poems cannot be heard unless they are spoken.
    2. You cannot avoid the rage.
    3. What was the occasion? What was it meant to do? What does it continue to do? Why do we still feel so hot just by seeing/hearing/speaking that word?
    4. External conversation.
    5. What would you have to do? History, context, writer’s relationship to community.
    6. Who would be the ‘Nikki Giovanni’ today? Contextualize the poem and its author for today and our students’ lived experiences.
  7. Acknowledge that you want to use something for some purpose. You have to carefully guide/facilitate discussions so that they do not get out of hand.
    1. How can we help students see that there are other boundaries beyond their own? Achieve that shift in perspective.
    2. How do you read the room to decide where to take something?
    3. It is better to do more with small things. Be thorough.
    4. How would you shift the emotion around a text like Giovanni’s poem?
    5. Sometimes we do not have all of the answers. Out students can help us think through these questions.
  8. Leading students to “sideways thinking.”
    1. Dean Royster described this as “thinking as if through a kaleidoscope.”
    2. Deploy “enhanced inquiry model.” This is all of the forms of analysis telescoped from micro to macro/inside to outside that links to an “ethics of hope and care” and “responsible use of knowledge.”
    3. As Toni Morrison teaches us in Playing in the Dark (xiii), we and our students have to go “deep.” Going deep is not meant to make our students uncomfortable. We understand that there are rewards on the other side of understanding. We have to help them get to the other side and seize the reward of deeper understanding.
    4. Go deep, under the text, between the words, in the margins, not just what is in the story but what is really going on (again, thinking of Toni Morrison).
  9. Finally, we next discussed Derrick Bell’s science fiction story, “The Space Traders.”Dean Royster asked us to break into groups to discuss the story and think of ways we might engage students with the story. Patrick McHenry and I came up with some of the following ideas, and others were contributed by the ensuing workshop discussion.
    1. Issues of capitalism and democracy. Privatization of public services. The aliens pair with corporations and the social/governmental collective is the planet Earth being invaded by the aliens.
    2. Issues of calculation and quantitative analysis. Who is black? Who is any race? What constitutes a race? “Blood laws.” Push rationality/science too far and it becomes irrational.
    3. C.f., Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”
    4. Teaching American history. Genres and satire. Pseudo-rational. C.f., Jonathan Swift. The satire acts as a mirror on society.
    5. The cold tone of the story. C.f., Nazi memos, slavery auctions.
    6. C.f., Octavia Butler. Language, biographically. Who is Derrick Bell and why did he write this when he did? Begin with slave narratives and follow history/culture to Bell.
  10. This was an incredibly useful workshop, and it was a real treat to have Dean Royster lead this workshop in excess of the 2 hr 15 min we normally meet on Wednesdays!

Published by Jason W. Ellis

I am an Associate Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology. Also, I direct the B.S. in Professional and Technical Writing Program and coordinate the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, which holds more than 600 linear feet of magazines, anthologies, novels, and research publications.