A series of articles has appeared lately about the inclusion of the rural poor in a university’s attempt to admit a diversified group of first-year students. Syndicated columnist, Ross Douthat, writes, “The most underrepresented groups on elite campuses often aren’t racial minorities; they’re working-class whites (and white Christians in particular) from conservative states and regions. Inevitably, the same underrepresentation persists in the elite professional ranks these campuses feed into: in law and philanthropy, finance and academia, the media and the arts.” I was one of those working class whites, and when it came time to make my college choice, it was simple. We had a community college twelve miles from my home. I knew how to drive there. I knew that after two years, I’d transfer to Eastern Illinois University, an hour away from home up Illinois Route 130. That’s what people did in my neck of the woods. I would follow the path that others had set for me. I never even considered the quality of these schools. They were what I knew, and what I knew felt comfortable. That’s about as far as my thinking about college went. I never considered other options. Even the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana seemed like a school meant for other people, but not for me. I came from a small town of a thousand people. The year I graduated, our high school had an enrollment of 132 students. My class had twenty-eight people in it. Nearly all of us were the children of working class parents.
Now I teach at one of the largest universities in the country, and I still sometimes feel like that shy country kid who spent a lot of time sitting in his car between classes during that first term at the community college because I didn’t know how to convince myself that I belonged there. The college was in a town of 9,000 people. It was a small town, yes, but to me it was large enough to make me shy. I took note of all the city kids who knew one another. To them, the community college was merely an extension of their high school years. They had an instant community to which they belonged. Although I and a handful of other students from my high school only lived twelve miles away, those twelve miles were enough to make me feel excluded. I was intimidated until I found my own community within the community college. Classes in English and literature allowed me to tap into my natural talents, and I gradually found other people who shared my interests. I found folks who were writing poems and stories, and I finally began to feel at home.
It’s what we’re all looking for, I suppose, those groups that value our talents and will put out the effort to encourage us to find our skills and then to develop them. In the case of creative writing, we who teach it encounter students from various backgrounds, and we try to help them strengthen their craft. We shouldn’t forget that we’re also inviting our students to use their writing to become more confident about the people they’ll be in the world beyond our classrooms. We’re helping them become the people they’re meant to be.
With that in mind, I want to offer some thoughts on three things we can do to make all our students feel included in our workshops:
1. We should be sensitive to any language around the workshop table that might make our students feel that their own experiences aren’t of value. When it comes to the rural poor, words like “white trash,” “trailer trash,” “redneck,” and “hillbilly” particularly get under my skin. I’m sure any ethnic group could come up with their own list of terms which make them grit their teeth, redden with embarrassment, make them wish they were invisible around the workshop table. We should be sensitive to the attitudes that our words suggest even if we think we’re speaking in a good-humored and harmless way.
2. We should also encourage conversations about social class. We can provide exercises for the exchange of stories and facts from various backgrounds so students can begin to value their diverse experiences. Any exercise that invites students to describe their homes and families in direct terms should work as long as we make sure that there’s an atmosphere of mutual respect around the table when it comes time to read from these exercises. For years, I’ve led my students in a round of applause after one of them shares work with us. No matter what the students may be thinking, the act of clapping is one that thanks someone for sharing. It’s my hope that the applause shows the student that his or her experience matters.
3. Finally, we can look for what makes our students’ work unique. We can praise them for taking us into worlds we wouldn’t have otherwise known. We can encourage them to keep writing from the worlds that they know most intimately. “Tell me about the mango trees in Trinidad,” I said once to a student, and she was off and running, recreating the world from which she came in a way that gave her the confidence she needed in order to keep writing about the place and the life she knew best.
Our students are like most people. They like having the chance to talk about what they know. They like being invited to tell stories that only they can tell, stories that come from the places and cultures that created them. So much of teaching is a matter of having good people skills. Like most writers, I get curious about people. I like to ask them questions. I like my students to tell me things I don’t know. The rural poor are accustomed to not having that chance. For a variety of reasons I won’t take the time to fully mention here, students who come from working class families often get the sense that their worlds don’t matter. Often, those worlds, when they appear on television or the movies, aren’t represented in an honorific way. The message is there in subtle and not-so-subtle ways: keep quiet, don’t call attention to yourself, hope that no one notices you. That’s what I felt those days at the community college when I sat in my car, afraid to speak to anyone, afraid that sooner or later someone would figure out that I was a fraud and ask me to leave. It was through creative writing that I finally found a way to speak from my working class world. Now I try to make that possible for all my students, no matter their cultural backgrounds. “Tell me your stories,” I say to them. “Tell me what you know.”