Writing the Unspeakable

I wrote an earlier post on this blog (November 2012) about two collections of statues at City College of San Francisco, portraying community college students, and about their uncertain future. I did not venture into the statue issue as an art teacher, or an art critic, but as a college composition teacher looking for a compelling topic for an end-of –semester assignment in a sub-transfer level class. How do I use these statues for a final exam  topic?

Some comp teachers avoid finals entirely, in favor of portfolios that involve reflection and extensive revision of earlier papers. Others argue  that to prepare students for college writing, we need to teach students how to handle the high pressure situation of the essay test since they will be writing such essay tests in future classes.

I have tried both of these alternatives, and have settled in English 93 for a final that calls for a week of study and reflective note-taking, but also asks students to quickly organize their ideas from notes into an outline  in a test situation. The preparation begins the day that they hand in their credit-heavy essay on Diego Rivera’s Pan American Unity mural (see September 2012 post), when students are drowsy and weary. I take them on a cross-campus hike, visiting the Student Success Stories statues in a closed storage area, and the Missing Students statues in the very public and prosaic cafeteria.

Missing Student Statue, CCSF cafeteria

Missing Student Statue, CCSF cafeteria

The walk revivifies them, but more importantly confronts them with curious, spectral representations of themselves as they might be. Amidst all my verbiage about who made these statues, what they are made of and why they were made, the students are trying to puzzle out these odd statues, whose effects range from touching, to whimsical, to disturbing, to mysterious.  I love to observe the students observing the statues, wondering about the unspoken thoughts and emotions in their minds about their own futures. Only slightly more than 50% of City College students transfer to four-year schools, so these questions are very personal, and tend to be unspoken.

The MS statues were first created to symbolize the 175,000 students predicted to be turned away by state budget cuts in 2004, but there are many ways for a community college students to go missing: they disappear or drop classes to take new jobs or keep old ones, they skip classes or wander in late after smoking weed, they get kicked out of the house by parents or lose arrangements for caring for their own children, they lose concentration while breaking up with spouses or lovers, they succumb to a legacy of weak student skills and confusion over goal setting, without ever finding a counselor or mentor to muddle through these difficulties. The multiple ways these statues are painted suggest these multiple ways of losing one’s way through this system.

Success Student Statue CCSF

Success Student Statue CCSF

The Success Statues also suggest the many paths to community college “success”. They include the better known stories of recovery and redemption: the teen mother who moves steadily toward her master’s degree, the Southeast Asian immigrant who moves from learning English to getting a license as a registered nurse, and the gang-banger who finds his way out of juvenile hall through studying economics. They also include the more idiosyncratic stories: art student Marlon Gomez’s statue above suggests his access to springs of creativity.  Helen Carter tells about attending community college in tandem with her son and daughter. Susan Kitazawa speaks of going to CCSF to get her nursing degree in 1970, returning to study Spanish to improve her nursing work, and studying the arts after retiringto enrich her volunteer work.

I assign my students to briefly compare and contrast the Success Statues to the Missing Students statues.  There are readings: past news stories on the statues, fuller personal narratives and photos on the Success statues ( http://www.ccsf.edu/Offices/Government_Affairs/StudentSuccessStories/) and photo documentation of the creation and deployment of the Missing statues on the CCSF Library web site                    ( http://www.ccsf.edu/Library/exhibits/missing_students.html).  I assign notes to be taken on  For those who are too tired to choose within five days, I provide images of a contrasting pair of statues.

The most important step in their preparation is to pick two statues, one from each group (roughly 75 in each group), to carefully describe and analyze in notes, using printed photos or web images. Here is where they can show how much they have learned during the semester about describing and analyzing visuals, and interpreting their messages.

I agree with my levelheaded office mate, that high-stakes assignments are best given before the end of the 17-week semester, and finals need to be practice in a known genre, not a ground-breaking new one. Another colleague, who I consider fount of blunt realism and human kindness, argues that students in pre-transfer classes like 93 often end the semester exhausted, barely capable of demonstrating what they have learned, much less outperforming their earlier work in a glorious sprint toward the finish line.  I see her point, so I have chosen statues for students who don’t, and print the images, so they too can prepare for the exam. I  give them structured note-taking forms, and insist that they prepare for the exam with note-taking and journal writing, which I let them use during the first half hour of the 2 hour exam period to write an outline based on a highly directive prompt. The compare and contrast writing on this final has been practiced in two major take-home essays that precede this one. They are practicing a known genre.

The writing is organized and clear to various degrees, and often shows growing competency in analysis, but it is not always pleasant to read. In the end, I feel most accomplished as a community college teacher while reading between the lines, sensing the drama of the students’ lives only alluded to: Can I do this academic thing or not? How am I going to make a living? Do I like schooling or hate it? Will my family display my graduation photo on the mantle or will they go silent? Am I going to feel proud of my accomplishments, or go missing?

This entry was posted in CCSF Student Statues, Teaching Visuals: with, about, through, Uncategorized, Visual Art On Campus. Bookmark the permalink.

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