Examining Constructions of Otherness: More Reflections on ACTC’s 17th Annual Conference

Still reeling from the intense four-day conference of Associated Core Texts and Courses 17th Annual gathering at New Haven, Connecticut, held on April 14-17, one of the panels that stands out in my mind, and which I immediately want to integrate into my own curriculum was “Writing, Drawing, Producing: Students Response to Core Texts.”

Arundhati Sanyal and Nancy Enright from Seton Hall University presented their best teaching practices in their “Re-Telling Personal Narrative: The Digital Short in a University Core Class.” In their classes, they encourage students to consider their own transformative experiences and personal journeys influenced by the core texts they read. Their assignments allow students to explore and explain how a core text “speaks” to them. Students will gather a collage of family photos and images and set these images in synch with a song that illustrates their inspired experience with a particular text. They work on their project for a half hour in each class session. A lot of the students’ projects focus on decision-making and crossroads. Sanyal and Enright report that there’s a new dynamism in class when students get to work on their laptops. They also storyboard the narrative before creating the whole piece, which forces students to understand pace and determine where do they tighten the flow or when can they expand.

From St. Bonaventure University, Professor Anne Foerst covers the Eight Step Bonaventure Intellectual Education, and focuses on step 3, which covers “Who am I as an individual?” Professor Foerst has freshman students write a self portrait that both self-praises and self-critiques. The students reflect over their intellectual journey over the course of their first semester in college and they model their reflections off of Montaigne’s essays. She uses this assignment as a mid-term project; five pages about myself, which is about becoming your own friend. Students become less self-indulgent and more analytical. Foerst uses a quote to direct and inspire students, “I am my own public. My book has made me as much as I have made my own book.”

At the beginning of the semester, she has freshman write down three adjectives to describe themselves. Foerst doesn’t read the adjectives but puts them away until six weeks later when she has them perform the same exercise, but, this time, she breaks out the past adjectives and has them compare their self-perception. Students get to see how they have fundamentally changed over the short course of six weeks. This assignment helps give them a foundation to write their self reflection. In their reflective essay, students use quotes from texts they’ve read in Foerst’s class, and the essay focuses on personal transformation, exploring such inquiries as the following.

(I’ve added some questions and prompts of my own to try and tailor this assignment to some of my courses)

(My addition) Consider the core values or ideas of two authors you’ve read in this seminar. Summarize and evaluate these values or ideas by exploring how they might have influenced or inspired you by answering the following questions in reflection of these new values and ideas you’ve learned:

  • Where are you now after reading your chosen authors?
  • How has your sense of self changed?
  • How has your outlook on the world changed?
  • How have your opinions about a specific topic or idea changed?
  • Who am I in society?
  • How have I transformed intellectually?
  • How do I see others differently? Specify what you mean by “others” whether its classmates, roommates, professors, teammates, etc.
  • Analyze how your relationships to others (i.e. classmates, professors, siblings, parents, lovers, co-workers and cousins) have changed since you’ve read these texts.
  • How have your core values changed, if at all, after reading your chosen texts?

Foerst explains how students come to evaluate their own construction of “otherness” and how artificial their constructions can be. She asks her class often if they think race is real, and they have a hard time wrestling with this but slowly come to learn that they’re not isolated individuals. “If they embrace their own ambiguity, they can learn to embrace the ambiguity in others,” she urges, and then warns us, “There can be a dark side to the adjectives used” since students come to see their own faults. With this exercise they learn ambiguity and empathy. They can see themselves as a character. These assignments help make the core texts less scary and less daunting. As professors, we’re constantly trying to find ways to help students engage with the texts in the most immediate and urgent ways, and these best practices are wonderful opportunities for both students and faculty to connect with the authors and with one another.

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