Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Pleasure Principle

by Kamilah Cummings

Earlier this month I participated in a webinar presented by Dr. David Kirkland of New York University titled A Song of the Smoke: Critical Thoughts on the Literacies of Young Black Men. The webinar was part of Georgia State University’s “Conversations in Global Literacy” series. Kirkland’s presentation examined how educational bias has marginalized black male youth and created a cycle of miseducation that disengages them from the classroom at all levels of education. As part of rethinking the ways educators address this crisis, he offered thoughts on how to better engage these students and their literacies in the classroom. One of the thoughts Kirkland offered for how to do this is to replace “reading, writing, and arithmetic” as the rudiments of education with “pleasure, play, curiosity, and creativity” (Kirkland).

Although we envision the classroom as a place of inclusion, research reflects the reality that many classrooms from kindergarten to college remain places of exclusion. In the article, “Are we having fun yet? Students, social class, and the pleasures of literacy,” Bronwyn T. Williams writes, “if we consider how experiences of reading, writing, and other forms of popular culture influence students’ perceptions of pleasure and literacy, social class has a role to play. Intelligence and pleasure obviously have no class boundaries, but the experiences students have with different forms of texts and communication often do have them. (Williams 339-340)” Williams admits that this can be an uncomfortable subject for educators, but it is a fact that both he and Kirkland argue educators must acknowledge to better facilitate student engagement and learning. Kirkland believes a pedagogical approach that incorporates pleasure, play, curiosity, and creativity can create a more inclusive learning experience.

Certainly, Kirkland and Williams are not the only scholars to recognize the need for pleasure in the classroom. However, as they both acknowledge, the pleasure principle has all but disappeared from most college classrooms. For many educators, pleasure and learning are mutually exclusive experiences that can only unite in specific disciplines.  

Following Kirkland’s presentation, I thought about ways that I use “pleasure, play, curiosity and creativity” to engage students. As much as writing teachers, or teachers in any discipline, love our subject matter we have to accept that many students do not share our love or enthusiasm. With adult learners in particular, there might be a multitude of reasons why students have been disengaged from writing. However, if we find ways to make it more pleasurable and, dare I say fun, perhaps we can disarm some of their fears and frustrations.

This reminded me of a recent class where several of the students confessed that they, “did not like writing.” Rather than attempt to unpack all the reasons why they felt this way, I decided to try to make writing fun so that they could gain pleasure from it while revealing their writing strengths. So, I brought the party game “Table Topics” to class. The game consists of cards with thought-provoking questions on a range of topics from popular culture to politics. It is marketed as a conversation-starter. I used it as a form of low stakes journaling/prewriting assignment. Students pulled two cards and were allowed to decide which question they wanted to answer. I gave them 15 minutes to write a response to the question. I was surprised at how much fun the students had with the game. However, more importantly, they were surprised by how much they were able to write and how much pleasure they had writing it. In previous low stakes journaling/prewriting assignments, students sometimes struggled to write for the allotted time.

The University of New Hampshire’s English Department Director argues, “We can make great claims for the future utility of writing, but if we make it a dutiful act of delayed gratification, devoid of immediate pleasure, students will not write voluntarily, and they will not really engage with the work we require” (Writing and Pleasure). My experience supported this. Playing a game delivered more benefits than I expected. I was able to use their responses to show them how they could effectively write a thesis, use narration, support points, use descriptive detail, compare subjects, and more.  I learned about my students’ outside interests and experiences, which I pulled from to further engage them by selecting more pleasurable future readings that aligned with their interests. I also referred to their game responses when providing later feedback on written assignments. Rather than compromise the academic integrity of the class, as some fear might happen, I felt playing the game enhanced it.

Williams cautions that “taking pleasure seriously in the literacy classroom is not about making everything a game” (Williams 341)Instead, he argues that “it is a matter of encouraging students to bridge supposed barriers between creative and critical work and to understand how pleasures in interpreting and creating texts of all kinds can connect to building pleasure in academic literacies” (Williams 341). I agree. I did not turn my classroom into game night at SNL. However, I did find that one night of play helped me to improve student engagement in my class and yielded a more pleasurable overall learning experience.

Works Cited

Kirkland, David E. A Song of the Smoke: Critical Thoughts on the Literacies of Young Black Men. 14 September 2014.
Williams, Bronwyn T. "Are we having fun yet? Students, social class, and the pleasures of literacy." Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy (December 2004/January 2005): 338-342.
Writing and Pleasure. 2003. 29 September 2014 <http://cola.unh.edu/english/writing-and-pleasure>.

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