I teach writing to upper-level students at a large state university. Most of my students are juniors and seniors and most of them are registered to vote. Many come from minority and immigrant families and often are the first to attend college.
A new wave is calling BS on you.
Despite all the obstacles and challenges they face, my students typically project high-spirited self-referential personae, even when sleeping with their eyes open during night classes or furtively pecking out a forbidden in-class text. Many of them hold down full-time jobs to avoid the hell of student debt but very few do poorly with their coursework. They are the most applied students I’ve ever known, but the intense demands of scholarship can create myopia equivalent to the preoccupation that accompanies love, desire, or the disaster of early relationships gone awry. Some students, of course, fall victim to both.
But this year, I noticed a difference. After two years of Trumpian abuse, students seem to understand that, distracted though they may be, politics have become a matter of life and death and they want to talk about it. To focus their concern, I gave my students a media-research assignment to identify and explore an issue that they thought would impact the mid-term elections. The results were spectacular. Several dealt with women’s issues including abortion and the significance of Roe v Wade. No, they had not taken for granted the hard-won and still hotly contested right for women to control their bodies… and their futures.
Immigration scored high for these students. The Trump-Miller cruelty of family separation and deportation has personally impacted many of these Southern California kids. Despite their outrage, they coolly presented Fox News reports next to coverage by Politico and The Nation. Others chose to analyze racism and white supremacy as covered by the mainstream media, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the obscene ignorance of white supremacist social media sites on Facebook and Twitter. Gun control weighed in heavily. Finally, one student researched the coverage of the gulf between Democrat and Republican, the gender gap, and the age gap to define the political and cultural civil war that’s bifurcating the nation.
The conversations surrounding the development of these research efforts were as exciting as they were profound. I left campus after workshopping this assignment as I often do, high on the skill, intelligence, ingenuity, and passion of my students. All who could, voted. All of them. Step aside, Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham, Chuck Grassley, Orrin Hatch. A new wave is calling BS on you.
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Writer, editor, and educator based in Los Angeles. He's also played a lot of music. Degelman teaches writing at California State University, Los Angeles.
Degelman lives in the hills of Hollywood with his companion on the road of life, four cats, assorted dogs, and a coterie of communard brothers and sisters.
What a wonderful story, Charlie! Hearing about your students really gives me hope for the future. Such an uplifting read on a Sunday morning! You have a personal insight into the millennials that most of us only get by reading about them. And good for you for giving them such a great assignment! I’m sure you are helping them focus their fears and their rage.
Interesting that you should mention fears and rage. Those are the two strongest emotions that they share with me, beyond mirth, joy, and general goofiness. And many of them speak about this kind of assignment as giving them direction. Many of them comment on how angry they became as they dug deeper into the political topics they had chosen and how their papers turned into informed rants! And thanks for your support. I’m glad my late-night Retro buzz was comprehensible!
Thank you for your role in fostering the political involvement of your young students. Patti has been saying for some time that it’s time for our generation to get off the stage and let the younger generation take over. Based on our uneven record of treating the moral arc of the universe like a pendulum—toward inclusion and justice during the Clinton and Obama administrations, but toward inequity and injustice during Bush and Trump—and based on millennials’ inspiring March for Our Lives movement, I’m perfectly fine with that.
Love your view of the moral arc of the universe. A pendulum for sure. I feel fortunate to have these students to work with. As often as I offer them skills and experience, they offer a window on the world that I would never have had without them. And yes, I’m hopeful and confident that they will take over in this darker, more serious era and am feeling good about giving them what I can and stepping aside.