By Gitte Frandsen
When COVID-19 disrupted our F2F classes this semester and we moved online, a Cultural Rhetorics framework helped me make sense of my online teaching and focus my efforts to maintain a classroom community. Though the second half of the semester created a stressful and difficult learning environment for the students, it also gave me an opportunity to examine what I value in teaching and to reflect on how I can create a better learning environment for my students.
A Cultural Rhetorics framework helped me to understand my classroom dynamics, and especially the dynamics between the students and myself once we moved online. Cultural Rhetorics highlights the notion that all cultures are constituted by rhetorical practices that help members make sense of their world and build community. Cultural Rhetorics studies how members make meaning in and through relationships. It focuses on how material bodies interact with each other, and how our embodied experiences shape and are shaped by that relationality. Cultural Rhetorics studies cultures such as Native American cultures, workplace cultures, and crafting cultures; I would argue that a classroom is also a specific culture, albeit a temporary and perhaps more loosely knit one.
Though we had only just started developing relationships in the classroom when COVID-19 happened, I was struck by the relationships I developed with many students in spite of the distance. I had wanted to maintain a collaborative learning model online to continue learning with and from each other, but realizing how many access issues COVID-19 caused for the students, I dropped the collaborative element to simplify the expectations. I remained in touch with everyone regularly though. Students expressed feeling isolated, lonely, and longing for the relationships in the classroom, but simultaneously they cultivated their relationships with me. They reached out about their circumstances and shared personal stories. They expressed extreme gratefulness for the fairly simple acts of kindness I provided by being understanding and flexible. I couldn’t help but reflect that, ironically, though the virus forced us apart, it also made visible how interconnected we are. Models of the contagion particularly demonstrated how many people’s lives we touch, so the models became a strange metaphor for the relationality between us.
These changing and meaningful relationships with my students happened while I was struggling with isolation from many other personal relationships, and while I had to adjust to new relationships with my family, as we were all home, working and being home-schooled. All of us were trying to negotiate our new life which was difficult. I, too, was sharing my struggles with my students. And somehow there was a silver lining in these positive relationships that found a new way to grow.
Cultural Rhetorics also centers storytelling, and the potential for stories to create meaning and build community. Because my students clearly yearned to tell stories about their experiences, I gave them an option to write a research project that centered their stories on how COVID-19 had affected their lives, workplaces, or communities. I had students who were working as RNAs at hospitals and nursing homes, or who worked in retail or at restaurants. I had students who suddenly became the breadwinners of their families; students who got ill with COVID-19, or who witnessed people die from COVID-19. I had students who were struggling with their school work because retaining learning was difficult in an online learning environment, and students whose teachers suddenly gave them way more homework. There were so many stories. It was clear they wanted to tell those stories in order to make sense of all the confusion and pain COVID-19 had caused. Although the goals for the research project shifted to center personal stories over “rigorous” research, the stories that emerged had strong voices and rhetorical awareness. The students thought carefully about the genres they picked, the modalities they used to tell their stories, the audiences they wanted to engage.
COVID-19 certainly was and will continue to be tough. It has amplified many of the access and accessibility issues students face under normal circumstances: technology, food and housing security, supporting families, childcare, and physical and mental health problems. Still, I value the lessons I learned from and with my students this semester which I will take with me into future classrooms. I think the relationality between students and the teacher, as well as among the students themselves, can be strengthened by sharing each other’s stories. We can listen to, validate, and learn from others’ and our own stories and use those stories to develop research questions, explore our positionality, and think rhetorically about how those stories can make meaning and maybe make a difference.
Gitte Frandsen is a 2nd year PhD student at UWM in Public Rhetorics and Community Engagement. Her teaching and research focus on linguistically, culturally, and socially sustaining pedagogies.
By Chloe Smith
On April 7, Milwaukee voters passed the Vote Yes for MPS referendum, which will raise $87 million in funding for Milwaukee Public Schools over the next 4 years. Throughout this semester, I had the privilege of working as an intern on this campaign.
My responsibilities in this campaign were mostly writing-based—emails to the campaign’s network of supporters, text outreach, copy editing—but I also did quite a bit beyond that, like canvassing and assisting with filming testimonials at schools. (Of course, I was only a tiny facet in the immense amount of work that went into this campaign).
Spending a semester working on this campaign has helped me learn so much about the political and educational climate in Milwaukee and Wisconsin at large. I’m not from this city, and while I’ve always been well aware of certain educational struggles in my home state of Illinois, I did not know much about the issues affecting Wisconsin.
MPS is the largest school district in the state of Wisconsin, serving over 77,000 students. However, despite its size, the district received significantly less funding per student than neighboring school districts like Shorewood or Whitefish Bay. This lack of sufficient funding led to students and teachers alike not receiving the resources they deserve.
This referendum was not only necessary for supporting our students and teachers, but also long overdue. Before the 2020 vote, MPS was one of the only school districts in the state that had not passed a referendum to increase funding in recent years—the community hadn’t even had the opportunity to pass an increase in funding since 1993.
I’ve always considered myself pretty aware of issues like this, and before this internship, would have called myself rather politically active. However, working on this campaign has completely changed my disposition toward political issues. It’s really easy to think you’re doing enough by voting a certain way, by sharing certain posts on social media, and having conversations with people we know. But we so often forget—myself included—that these problems go so far beyond numbers on a page.
I’ve learned that it’s vital to remind ourselves exactly what we’re fighting for. The best way to do that is volunteering, in any capacity you can, whether it’s signing a pledge or petition, canvassing door-to-door in the community, or making phone calls to voters.
I spent so much time in this position talking with teachers, parents, students, and community members about what this vote means to them. I feel invigorated to continue to volunteer for other issues that matter to me.
While the referendum passed with overwhelming success, the actual process of the election didn’t feel so positive. After the Wisconsin Supreme Court (all of whom had, interestingly, voted absentee) struck down Gov. Tony Evers’ order to delay the April 7 election, many voters were forced to choose between their health and their civic duty. The fact that so many voters still showed up, masks and all, is another reason I’m proud of this city, but I’m disappointed that it was a decision they had to face in the first place.
It says a lot about the educational needs of our community that so many were willing to put their health on the line to vote in this election.
I plan on participating in more campaigns, to whatever extent I can. I’m sure a few of them won’t be successful. But we have to try. There’s a lot of practical things I learned in this internship, but what I find most important is the necessity of going out of your comfort zone. The best way to learn about community issues and activism is to get out there and advocate for what you believe in in hands-on ways, meeting and working with the people you’re fighting for and with.
During my time in this internship, I was continually blown away by the passion, collaboration, and warmth of everyone I worked with and even met in passing. I’m so proud of the city for passing this referendum, but even if it hadn’t, I’d come away from this experience proud to now call Milwaukee home.
I realize how lucky I am that my first experience with something like this resulted in a winning campaign. Perhaps I’d be feeling differently if the referendum hadn’t passed. But then I think about the people I met: my supervisor, who was kind and enthusiastic, and taught me so much about community organizing. The parents and teachers I met canvassing, who thanked me profusely for taking what was just a bit of my time to try and help students. And the students themselves, answering doors with their parents or posing for social media photos for the campaign, who served as reminders of why we were working in the first place. And then I realize, I’d do it all over again, even if the referendum hadn’t passed.
Working on a campaign is hard enough. Working on—and concluding—a campaign in the midst of a pandemic brings a whole other set of hurdles and uncertainties. But even through a ridiculous, rainy election day, Milwaukee managed a huge victory. This city and its voters did right by its students, who deserve a fulfilling, equitable education, regardless of their zip code.
Chloe Smith is a PhD student in the Public Rhetorics and Community Engagement program at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She is also a co-editor of Writing & Rhetoric MKE.