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Do People Change?

posted: 6.25.12 by archived

In first-year writing classes, we ask students to have life stories and opinions, and we expect these compositions to be confidently articulated (most of the time). These stories and arguments, in a way, construct our students—for us and, sometimes, for themselves. But many first-year students are very young—by the measures of age, as well as educational and life experience.  This has always struck me as a problem: Are first-year students ready to be?

The easy answer is that we are all changing all the time, in major and minor ways. But I believe that this isn’t completely true—that changing is hard, particularly changing beliefs and attitudes. So today’s post is about changing.

I want to write about the death of Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys. I’ve been a fan of the group for a long time, starting with the album Paul’s Boutique. While I was never a great fan of the band’s first album, Licensed To Ill, I thought it was an interesting curiosity. (The album featured songs like “Fight For Your Right (To Party).”)  As I got older, the early albums seemed even more embarrassing, as did the apocryphal stories of the band’s behavior in that era—making fun of fans with disabilities, drinking heavily, insulting women, and making homophobic jokes.  In a way, Adam Yauch and the rest of the group acted like nightmare first-year students, the type of students Lad Tobin and others have written about in sensitive and nuanced ways, and that I myself have tried to understand, but who still prove highly problematic to me (in part because they reflect what I think may have been the worst parts of myself as a teenager and as an undergraduate). My point here, however, is that Adam Yauch changed. As Mark Richardson recently wrote in Pitchfork, Yauch “offered a relatable blueprint for growing up, in both his art and his life.”  As Richardson notes, in the song “Sure Shot,” written eight years after “Fight For Your Right (To Party),” Yauch rapped that “this disrespecting women has got to be through,” basically coming full circle from his misogynistic rhymes on Licensed To IllKathleen Hanna has also noted that the Beastie Boys apologized for past homophobic lyrics in a 1999 letter to Time Out New York, writing that “time has healed our stupidity.”

Yauch’s passing is sad, but his example is also empowering and motivating: We all can change. Who we are at 19 is not who we have to be at 20, or 29, or 39. I think this is an important lesson for writing teachers, shaking a bit of our sureness when we ask students to confidently declare who they are and what they believe in their first semester of their first year of college. I plan to talk about this example with my first-year students, and with my fellow teachers, perhaps as a way to foreground the inevitability that we will make mistakes, and that each of us can look back on parts of our past and wish we could erase them. But maybe the key to composing a changing self is to take responsibility for all of who we have been, as we also make space for who we might become.

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Categories: Jay Dolmage, Uncategorized
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