When I first read Mary Louise Pratt's "Art of the Contact Zone," I immediately felt like I'd found someone who spoke my lanaguge. Her idea of contact zones, or "social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other," (3) felt both an accurate culture depiction but also a depiction that speaks intimately to what often frightens us about classroom spaces. This idea of cultures coming into conflict in front of our eyes and resulting in outcomes that we cannot predict feels in some respects like the antithesis of what teaching should be about. We, as teachers, feel the need to plan, control, manage. But this kind of culture clash, while potentially perilous, also holds a great deal of promise for innovation and community connection, particularly among groups of students who, as I mentioned earlier, often feel marginalized and misunderstood, no matter their backgrounds. It is exactly these kinds of encounters in those contact zones that I attempt to foster in my classroom, and I often do so by asking students to cope with difficult subject matter through collaboration.
As a teaching tool, I believe collaboration is invaluable. From think/pair/share assignments to stimulate class discussion to small group work for essay or creative critique workshops, it's no surprise that there are so many opportunities for students to learn to improve their writing and speaking skills by engaging in an activity together. But when I find it to be most fruitful is when I ask students to join me in analyzing something difficult. I've had fruitful, respectful, rewarding discussions with students about subjects matter from the narratives surrounding Trayvon Martin's death to the visual rhetoric of Miley Cyrus' stage performances by setting ground rules for respectful discussion and by asking students to work together to support their claims with fact. The power of visual argument PowerPoint is often a great resource for stimulating these kinds of discussions.
As a teacher, however, I also think it's important to occasionally model for students what I am asking them to do. Sometimes, that modeling is designed to help them think about ways in which they can approach an assignment, especially those that ask them to incorporate both critical and creative skills. One example is the joint project that students in my Introduction to Literature courses and I completed together as preparation for their digital project. As a class, we read and discussed Pauline Hopkins's novel Of One Blood and used the text to put together a sample of what the final project might look like. I asked students to write poems and diary entries from the perspectives of the text's characters; draw pictures of the city of Telassar based on descriptions within the text; and perform some group-based historical research on topics related to the novel. The completed website that we built together gave students concrete guidance and stimulated their creativity so that they were able to collaborate on engaging final projects on their own.
If I am going to ask my students to enter the contact zone and discuss something that could make them uncomfortable, I want to show a willingness to do the same thing, in part to join them in the contact zone rather than to simply function as a spectator, and in part to model for them how they might engage in dealing with difficult subject matter. To that end, I have thrice led a joint class with my college friend Dr. Michelle Smith, a biology professor at the University of Maine. Together, we both asked our students to read my essay on The Huffington Post about my son Atticus' Down syndrome diagnosis before class. We also each asked our students to write questions about that essay, and I then chose some of those questions - many of them quite challenging - to answer during a joint Skype session that we held between the two classes.
Afterward, Dr. Smith spoke with her students, who were focusing on genetics, a bit more about the scientific and medical implications of Down syndrome; my WRD class focused then on the construction of the essay and on identifying instances of ethos, logos, and pathos. We have now done this joint exercise two times in two different classes, and the result has been the same: students in two different disciplines have found a common connection in the contact zone of chromosomal difference, and two teachers in two different disciplines have joined them in the contact zone and found ways to employ common material it in unique ways with their students. In our most recent class together in February 2017, we also began gathering information from students about their experience with this activity so that we can write an article together about our collaboration.
Below is an Echo 360 video of one joint session, recorded in February 2014.