Jon A. Yasin, Bergen Community College
Because of the various types of contemporary technology that we and many of our students have access to, the world is now an international global village. An event that occurs anywhere on earth can be communicated around the world within minutes. With instant access to information worldwide, students must be prepared on a variety of levels for success in this global village. In addition to the specialized skills that they are developing, they must have an understanding of the cultures, political institutions, and critical issues pertinent to their local areas of residence, as well as those of the regions in which they reside, the countries in which they live, and those cultures most influential internationally. Assisting students in becoming informed citizens is a daunting, but necessary task. In an academic institution, such a task is the responsibility of various departments--advising, academic, student activities. Course content in academic departments has a particularly important role in helping students to become informed citizens, in addition to becoming specialists in specific academic disciplines.
English composition courses, as an illustration, provide a service to students, assisting them in developing the required skills to produce expository essays and research papers, and in developing critical reading and thinking skills. Courses like these allow instructors to introduce a plethora of activities designed to build students' information and knowledge bases. One obvious objective of such courses is to aid the student in developing skills in using rhetorical devices, such as comparison, contrast, cause, effect, argumentation/persuasion, example/illustration, as well as familiarity with different genres of writing, such as summaries and journals. The instructor, furthermore, has the opportunity to introduce the student to critical issues affecting society as the content material for such reading and writing activities. Discussions of critical issues, such as controversial topics about popular culture, crises in systems of education across America, rights of minority groups, sexism, and moral issues assist students in understanding the relationship between what happens in the classroom and what happens in the world. Interestingly, many students continuously report that while in high school, they were not grounded in such reality. Dialogues about contemporary critical issues assist students in defining themselves and locating themselves in society, and providing much needed guidance and direction for them on a personal level. For example, while discussing police brutality, one student interested in law enforcement and specializing in criminal justice revealed to our class that he did not know that police departments across the country do not consider those with arrests for felonies or certain misdemeanors for employment. This led to an information-sharing discussion about various other careers and professions where background checks occur, reminding some and informing others that, at eighteen, one is an adult and must "stay out of the fast lane."
Because of the various changes in the requirements for graduation from high school, many students today do not necessarily arrive in our classrooms with the same types of knowledge and information that students had even one generation ago. In the past, for example, high school seniors studied civics to learn about the workings of the government, minimal requirements for holding certain governmental offices, and how laws are made. Thus, students could read about the pros and cons relative to equal rights for African Americans, for instance, with the necessary background knowledge of Constitutional law, how such laws were developed, and how African Americans were disenfranchised, which was a violation of the laws of the land. However, today, many students enter higher education institutions without certain fundamental knowledge about the history of the growth and development of the American republic and democracy, the organization of the country, and the laws that govern the people in these United States. So, in discussing contemporary critical issues affecting those currently fighting against disenfranchisement, among the readings assigned to students regarding such issues, one can include the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Surprisingly, several American-born students have admitted that they did not even know the difference between these two documents. Building such knowledge bases assists American students in becoming informed citizens, educates immigrants about their new country, and gives international students a barometer by which they can gauge human and civil rights in their countries of origin.
Additionally, it is imperative to help students to become informed citizens by introducing them to as many resources as possible. As an introduction to participant observation, ethnographic research, and comparison and contrast rhetorical devices, students were assigned to write an essay contrasting two television talk shows, one on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and one on a commercial television network of their choice, with the exception of The Jerry Springer Show, for obvious reasons. This entailed discussing different types of funding sources for the medium, viewing two talk shows on the appropriate television channels, taking notes, and writing the essay. The opening paragraph of one student's paper read:
"When one thinks of television, the first thing that comes to mind is commercial broadcasting. On Monday, I had a conversation with a friend and the topic of television came into the discussion. I asked my friend if he knew what the Public Broadcasting Service was, and he told me he had no idea. Viewers of today have ready access to the public service channels, but few, if any, ever watch any of the programming. (Viray, 1)."
As an educator, I have found this assignment to be serendipitous and it continues to be each semester for the students to whom it is assigned. Over the years, numerous students have commented that the activity was their first introduction to PBS, while others commented that it allowed them to introduce PBS to family and friends, as did the student quoted above. The richness of the programming on PBS is vitally important for the educational development of students who are growing into informed citizens, and for all.
Assisting students in such an effort through reading and writing about critical issues, on occasion, forces some of them to confront unresolved personal problems. This may result in instructors being involved with a student on a level in which he or she did not intend, and it is incumbent upon that faculty member to aid the student. As an illustration, when completing an assignment explaining why the feminist movement is still necessary or not, using sexual harassment to support their views, two women discussed having been raped after their senior proms, during their final days of high school. Neither had sought out the necessary assistance they needed to resolve this issue, nor did they during the semester in my classes. As a result, memories of these incidents were so painful to the women as they completed the assignments that both withdrew from the class. However, advice was given to them about whom to contact on campus. Recently, another student, responding to the same assignment, wrote that her father treated her mother in a way that an animal should not be treated. Later, that same student discovered that her aunts also were suffering through physical and verbal abuse. Again, she was referred to persons on campus who could assist her.
In her research on writing, Louise DeSalvo explains that she and many writers "have... used the writing of their artistic works to help them heal from the thorny experiences of their lives, especially from dislocation, violence, racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, rape, political persecution, incest, loss, illness" (4). Faculty can not be asked to become therapists or counselors, but often, they have valuable information to share about available resources that students can utilize to assist them in resolving these types of personal issues.
Critical issues, such as those mentioned above by DeSalvo, are issues because of moral and ethical principles being compromised. Moreover, the Stop Snitchin' movement, which encourages people not to cooperate with law enforcement officers or other authorities and is currently popular among young adults and adolescents including many of our students, exemplifies why moral and ethical issues should be presented to students who are working toward being informed citizens. One student was overheard telling another to not "worry about sin, but do what you want to." This generation has witnessed many major criminal acts and injustices, such as the unjust war waged against the people of Iraq and government bail-outs of the banking sector because of corporate greed while those businesses continue to award their administrators with large bonuses. Some of our students need to confront their own values and work toward clarifying them. Discussing moral and ethical principles of critical issues help students to focus on notions of right and wrong.
The traditional English composition class is designed to guide and assist the student in developing a secondary Discourse, use of academic English. A Discourse, according to James Gee is "a socially accepted association among ways of using language, other symbolic expressions, and 'artifacts,' of thinking, feeling, believing, valuing, and acting that can be used to identify oneself as a member of a socially meaningful group or 'social network,' or to signal (that one is playing) a socially meaningful 'role'"(131).A child learns his or her primary Discourse at home from family and in his or her sociocultural setting. According to Gee, primary Discourses "constitute our first social identity, and something of a base within which we acquire or resist later Discourses. They form our initial taken-for-granted understandings of who we are and who people 'like us' are, as well as what sorts of things we ('People like us') do, value, and believe when we are not 'in public'" (137). Exploring language and language usage in class introduces the student to how to express one's understandings in public in the format accepted in the academy; this is a secondary Discourse.
In addition to explanations about formal and informal uses of language, discussions about appropriate dress for certain situations and so forth greatly aid in the creation of informed students. Several years ago, a student came to class wearing slacks, a dark tie, a black shirt, and a vest, with his usually flowing long blond hair in a neat ponytail, and sporting his usual pair of earrings. Asked if he were getting married because he was not wearing his usual "uniform", he laughed and replied that he was going to court after class. It was suggested that before going to court that he should return home, change only the shirt for a light colored shirt, and remove the earrings. An adult student in the class overheard the conversation. After class, she thanked me for advising him about dressing similarly to those in authority in certain situations, and knowing the student's family, she commented that his parents do not spend any time talking with him. Students have often used the term grateful to describe the feeling they have after discussing such issues, all of which are personally important to them.
Along with course activities, college-wide activities provided in tandem are essential in creating the globally informed citizen. Bergen Community College, for example, celebrates a plethora of cultural activities during the academic year, including Native American Heritage Week, Asian Heritage Week, European American Heritage Week, Latin American Heritage Week, Black History Month, Caribbean Heritage Week, Islamic Awareness Week, African Heritage Week, Women's Rights Month, and GLBT Awareness Week. Committees of faculty and members of student clubs organize events introducing the cultures of these various groups and more importantly, they invite speakers to discuss critical and crucial issues affecting them. Astute faculty take classes to the lectures that occur during class times and assign lectures to be attended at other times. Consequently, students gain exposure to the customs and traditions of others, as well as contemporary issues affecting others, which provide them with a global perspective, necessary for success in life. Such activities along with critical issues discussed in courses provide a well rounded view for students. Other college-wide activities, such as diversity weekend and leadership weekend, help students to develop necessary skills for positive interpersonal relationships with people of other racial, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds and assist them in honing their leadership skills. All such activities are essential in supporting students who already reside in a global village as they become informed citizens.
DeSalvo, Louise. (1999). Writing as a way of healing. San Francisco: HarperCollins.
Gee, James Paul(1996). Social linguistics and literacies. (2nd ed). London: Falman Press.
Viray, Jason(2010). "The feminist movement is in the past." Unpublished paper.