Exam - English Class At University Of Missouri Examines Rhetoric Through Race

Sep 22, 2016

Credit File Photo / KBIA

There’s a class at the University of Missouri that everyone has to take. It’s called Exposition and Argument, but students and teachers usually strip it down to its “numerical name:” English 1000.

Donna Strickland, Director of Rhetoric and Composition, says that class is an environment that isn’t found many other places on campus.

“I mean these small classes where people can have these intimate conversations,” Strickland said.

Students come across the country and enroll in this introductory course, a course that is offered on many campuses. Except, this campus is in Columbia, just two hours away from Ferguson, where a police shooting ignited the Black Lives Matter movement. And the University of Missouri is a campus that made national news last year with protests over racism.

“I think that talking about race matters. “It’s not that, I don’t think we always have to focus our English 1000 courses around race, but it just seemed in that particular moment for that be a possibility,” Strickland said.

Strickland oversees the 50 or so instructors who teach the four thousand students that take composition every year. Some of the instructors had approached her with questions on how to talk about what was going on. So Donna issued an invitation. She asked if people wanted to meet. They could talk about how to start conversations about race, how to navigate discussion, their motivations, types of questions, texts to use—whatever they wanted.

Corinna Cook is one of the instructors who chose to focus on race in her class. In her class they read books and watched films focusing on experiences of race in America. The students said they didn’t know this would be the topic when they signed up, and some were hesitate to open up. However, they decided as a class to be open and honest.

Strickland doesn’t think anyone should be required to teach race. She says she wants instructors who are committed to doing their own internal work, to processing and thinking and searching.

“And I think that’s important. That’s the other thing, right? Some people will say, 'Oh, I don’t want to do it because I’m afraid I’m going to say the wrong thing.' Actually having that fear means you’re actually going to be okay. And so one of the things that’s been really important is just to be okay with discomfort,” Strickland explained.

The students and teachers who do this work are looking at big, amorphous things—things in progress. They’re sitting in a classroom in the middle of campus in the middle of a state in the middle of this country. They’re working on how to be in this spot.

“I mean I want to live in a society in which I don’t feel like I’m part of the problem. I want this for myself,” Strickland said. “Not that I’m doing this as charity work. I’m doing this cause it matters. It matters to me, it matters to all of us.”

This story was produced by Allison Coffelt this summer as part of the Missouri Audio Project. Listen to her full piece at missouriaudioproject.com or here: 

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