Standing on the Box You’ve Built: Using Technology and Learning Tools to Build Knowledge and Agency Among 21st-Century Students at HBCUs
November 18–19, 2016
Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College, and Spelman College
Last year, like so many African-American communities across the country, the community of scholars at Paine College in Augusta, Georgia, was trying to make sense of the increased reporting of police harassing, assaulting, and killing African-American men, women, and children. This increased reporting was a particular challenge for Paine because Paine students are often targets of harassment from police while regularly travelling on foot between campus and area fast food restaurants and convenience stores. Students are also often featured in the area dollar “paper” called The Jail Report for minor moving violations, such as for crossing solid lines or driving without a license. This weekly’s tagline is “fighting crime through knowledge,” and it publishes “mugshots and arrest information, wanted people, crime news, dumb crook stories and opinion columns” (thejailreport.com). In other words, there had been a systematic criminalizing of Paine students and the Paine College academic community. Unsurprisingly, students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) like Paine could connect their personal experiences to national events.
Paine (post-)Millennials prefer to consult the internet and social media for news of important events to discuss within social and academic circles. However, faculty members contextualize the same internet information with curricula, theory, scholarly articles, and books; newspaper, radio, and television news outlets; and lived or learned understanding of historical events and patterns. The classroom is certainly an expected place to teach context, and when faculty meet their students on the information pathways that are familiar to them, they are able to take students farther intellectually than when relying solely on twentieth-century technologies and methods.
Berret (2015) emphasizes the recent modifications in the perceived purpose of higher education for (post-)Millennials, who view college as the training ground for achieving financial and job security, rather than intellectual development. The de-emphasis on learning and intellectual curiosity among students creates expectations for “edutainment” or course content that links directly to personal or professional goals. However, such beliefs stymie learning. Learning is not a passively consumed commodity, but an active transaction between student, text, and instructor (Buckner & Strawser, 2016; Carr, 2008).
Among students of color in America, there is a need to address pervasive derogatory narratives about race, gender, and worth that seem to grant permission for racialized violence. Students of color need safe spaces to speak their truth, to explore interdisciplinary theories to explain their experience, and to learn strategies for change and agency. These students need a deliberately constructed, protective paradigm to interpret local, regional, and national tragedies. They need a “box” constructed of class readings, experiences, and activities by which to evaluate current and future struggles and determine their part in addressing them. This current study chronicles the development of an interdisciplinary, social justice course, which merged the use of technology with new learning tools to build knowledge and agency among students at Paine.
Transformative Learning Theory
The task of developing scholarship and social agency among students requires both a firm grip on the past alongside awareness of contemporary issues. Paine students communicated a critical need for a means to interpret and cope with incidents of racialized violence that would allow a historical and theoretical understanding as well as modalities for activism. Mezirow (1991), founder of transformative learning theory, argues that “it is not so much what happens to people but how they interpret and explain what happens to them that determines their actions, their hopes, their contentment and emotional well-being, and their performance.”
Transformative learning theory addresses changes in three domains: “psychological (understanding of the self), convictional (revision of belief systems), and behavioral (lifestyle)” (Elias, 1997, p. 9). In a classroom, the teacher creates 1) opportunities for student participation in discourse and critical reflection, 2) objectives for autonomous thinking, 3) discovery-learning and collaborative experiences, and 4) a safe space for students to explore their foundational beliefs and assumptions (Taylor, 1998).
Technology Inclusion and Rigor
The merging of technological advances and course content does not give up intellectual ground or rigor. Essentially, faculty are teaching and modeling the slow work of critical thinking and “connecting the dots” to a generation of students referred to as the “Right Now” Generation. According to Berg and Seeber (2016) in The Slow Professor, “Slowing down is about asserting the importance of contemplation, connectedness, fruition, and complexity.” The slow-paced reading, analyzing, and synthesizing of full-length books and scholarly articles is essential for grounding the information rapidly disseminated by social media outlets.
For example, many of the details of the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2012 and the acquittal of George Zimmerman in 2013 were available for immediate consumption across many mobile devices for national audiences. In the same year as Zimmerman’s acquittal, three tech-savvy activists—Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi—launched the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter internet campaign. In the subsequent years, which included the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice in 2014 and Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, and Rekia Boyd in 2015, questions emerged regarding a pattern of excessive, fatal force by law enforcement (and their surrogates) levied at unarmed African-Americans. This activism provided classroom opportunities to engage students steadily around the most recent events, and more importantly, engage them around honing the intellectual tools of reading, analyzing, and writing about the complex issues regarding identity, power, fear, and resistance. Those and many other similar events were amplified by the #BlackLivesMatter campaign, and prompted an increase in student-led and faculty-driven conversations and activities nationwide. It is through these meaning-building activities that students engage in the deep thought and critical reflection required for transformation of one’s foundational frame of reference (Merizow, 1997).
The social justice course at Paine sought to merge the cacophony of information blaring from social media sites with the deliberate contemplation and assessment of questions critical for students to unpack for themselves. Among the student learning outcomes sought was the demonstration of critical reading and writing skills derived from a culturally-based, “long-view” approach to intellectual work. Carr (2012) defines the parameters of this kind of intellectual inquiry when he writes:
The challenge for African intellectual work and workers remains the same as that for all knowledge work and workers: to ask and answer the fundamental questions of human existence and to leverage answers by drawing first on the most familiar, richest and most accessible deep well of human experience, namely the one native to the cultural arc out of which one emerges as a human being and as a custodian to receive inscriptions of the group, as a “representative thinker.” (p. 180)
Arguably, the richest and most accessible deep well of experience—although in much need of recovery and new interpretations—was the genealogy of student experiences in protest writing and activities that occurred on the home campus and similarly-situated campuses.
The Recovery of Black Rage
During the fall of 2015, Paine students expressed increasing concern for their personal safety and the safety of their peers. The interdisciplinary course introduced important concepts to students, offering insight into the cyclical occurrences of racialized violence and responses emanating from African-American communities during times of crisis. One such concept was that of “black rage.” Students enrolled in the course reviewed the unscripted response of hip-hop artist Kanye West during a Hurricane Katrina telethon, when he announced to the viewing audience, “I hate the way they portray us in the media. You see a black family, it says, ‘They’re looting.’ You see a white family, it says, ‘They’re looking for food.’ And, you know, it’s been five days because most of the people are black… George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” Students then read commentary by Smith (2015), which places West’s comments in historical context with other exclaimers of black rage, such as Sojourner Truth, Martin Luther King, Jr, Fannie Lou Hamer, NWA, and Public Enemy:
Black rage announces itself at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio, and says, “Ain’t I a woman?” Black rage stands before hundreds of thousands at the Lincoln Memorial and says, “America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’” Black rage says to the Democratic National Convention, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” Black rages says “F*** tha Police” and “Fight the Power.” (np)
After drawing connections between the outbursts from West and commentary from Smith, students read a literary depiction of black rage in “A Date with Vera,” a short story published by Frank G. Yerby in 1938. Yerby had graduated from Paine months before the story’s appearance in the Fisk Herald. Yerby writes of the psychological angst behind black rage when his unnamed protagonist relives being physically assaulted by a “gang of white boys” in a “little town in Georgia”:
… he, sitting on a street car, in Chicago, a thousand miles from Georgia, and hating all the other occupants of the car because their faces were white. They were not the ones, his mind told him, these were not at fault; but, insisted the hot torrent which surged and leaped through his veins, they are of the same blood, and of the same guilt. (p. 16)
In linking the three texts—the video, the article, the short story—the concept of “black rage” was simultaneously familiar to students’ twenty-first-century experience and anchored in the recovered protest writing of Yerby, who at the time his story was published was close in age to today’s students.
For further context, students analyzed scholarly texts that chronicled student protests and activism. In McGuire’s (2010) counter-narrative of the Civil Rights Movement, At the Dark End of the Street, Chapter 5: “It Was Like All of Us Had Been Raped,” was the most salient for students. The chapter tells the story of Betty Jean Owens, an African-American student attending Florida A&M University (FAMU)—an HBCU— who was violently raped by four white men from Tallahassee in 1959. FAMU’s student body led a national campaign that expressed solidarity with Owens and called for unprecedented justice for an African-American woman in the segregated South. The result was a guilty verdict from an all-white jury against white defendants for an African-American accuser. Shortly after, FAMU students led organized sit-ins to desegregate lunch counters, theaters, and department stores in Florida (McGuire, 2010).
Students were also able to recover evidence of student activism at Paine by reading edited work by former members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC (2010). In accounts written by several contributors, Paine students were introduced to the college-aged Silas Norman, Jr., who was a prominent student leader at Paine in 1960. According to the Paine website:
As a student, [Norman] was president of the Paine College student body, head of the Student Non-violent Steering Committee, and the chairman of the NAACP statewide student chapter. When students decided to boycott buses in Augusta, Norman led the student movement in Georgia. He was the first one to set foot on a segregated bus and was among five students who were arrested. He and the other students filed a lawsuit against the City of Augusta and the bus company. They won the lawsuit and, as a result, segregated buses were outlawed in Augusta and in the state of Georgia. (np)
The slow recovery of student-led activism at Paine and other HBCUs provided the much needed time to discuss protest work beyond the headlines and hashtags. Some class meetings functioned like the SNCC meetings of the past. The culmination of those meetings was a student-organized forum to discuss issues of policing, and grounded in the intellectual work of merging social media with scholarly engagement.
Assessing Student Transformation
Critical to being able to document student experiences was the use of a culturally-based assessment tool, the mbongi form, developed by Carr. The form was completed during each class meeting to ritualize critical discussions and questions. First, students summarized the previous class meeting to re-inscribe the concepts and themes discussed each week. Students also responded to a critical question posed by faculty. Students recorded names of authors, texts, and thinkers and synthesized course content by answering the question: “What two new things did you think about during today’s intellectual work?” Finally, students evaluated the instructors’ facilitation and their own facilitation of the day’s work. The real-time assessment of the mbongi form provided invaluable ways to respond to the needs of students weekly and to create collective ownership of information in alignment with transformative learning.
The students at Paine have much in common with their peers at other HBCUs, as well as at Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs). According to the Beloit College Mindset List for the Class of 2015, they “are the first generation to grow up taking the word ‘online’ for granted and for whom crossing the digital divide has redefined research, original sources and access to information, changing the central experiences and methods of their lives.” (Post-)Millennials grew up with twenty-four-hour cable news, internet sites, and mobile apps as major news sources. In contrast, current faculty (ranging from Baby Boomers to Generation X) grew up with television evening news, radio, and daily newspapers as major sources for reliable local, national, and international news. The struggle to understand the generational divide in college and university classrooms is not a new phenomenon. However, the divide between teachers and learners in the twenty-first-century is often marked by the fast-paced changes in digital and communications technologies. Fortunately, the technological divide across generations is not insurmountable (Bennett, Maton & Kervin, 2010). With pedagogical retooling and reframing, faculty can meet students along the internet highway, map out an intellectual itinerary, and travel together to destinations that lead to transformational thinking and action.
 The word “mbongi” is taken from the Bantu-Kongo and literally means “house without rooms,” i.e. a house within which privacy has no room. The mbongi is a convened space where public investigation and discussion of concerns is held; it is a kind of “think tank.” As valued members of this learning community, each student is expected to participate, actively, every class meeting. Background information on the concept, development, and assessment value of the mbongi form can be found at: www.cetlahoward.edu
 The perceived intergenerational divide in regards to technology at Paine is not so much about access. Access in the twenty-first century is cross-generational. For example, faculty and college students alike access popular social media and networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn. Both professors and learners access communication tools such as email and instant messaging. Both groups use computers, tablets, and smartphones for information-seeking. Additionally, some members of both groups are adept at developing digital content (text, graphics, audio or video) and self-publishing (Bennett, Maton & Kervin, 2010). In other words, both faculty and students are frequently traveling on the same information highways—albeit, using their individual and varied “on ramps” (devices) and “off ramps” (learning outcomes). The divergence is in the types of knowledge sought and produced.
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