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Teaching after Hurricane Sandy

posted: 12.3.12 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

Many years ago, while I was working on the third edition of Teaching Developmental Writing, I used to write in a now-closed coffee shop in Cincinnati, Ohio, with Jonathan Alexander. Jonathan was working on Literacy, Sexuality, Pedagogy: Theory and Practice for Composition Studies. We would write intensively for several hours, then head across the state line to a taqueria in Kentucky. In the midst of those long and precious writing days, Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana and Mississippi, places where Jonathan grew up and still had family. Jonathan headed home with the photojournalist John Hughes, and the two of them created an article for the local alternative weekly newspaper. The following spring, Jonathan came to speak with my students about his experiences in the aftermath of Katrina, and we also spoke about our experience of writing together, of the significance of building a support system for the writing process. One of the students had taken part in the Ohio National Guard cleanup efforts in Mississippi and created her own photo essay, which she shared with the class. In those moments, we experienced the profound sense that we were living through history.

There was no coming to terms with what happened in New Orleans, neither the destruction, nor worse still, the abandonment of the city’s people to Katrina’s aftermath of toxic floodwaters and oppressive late-summer heat and humidity. I will never forget what Jonathan told me when he returned from New Orleans. The destruction of the city was beyond description and co-existing with that fact was the peculiar feeling of returning to Cincinnati where all seemed “normal.” Normalness, Jonathan suggested, now seemed an illusion, strange and temporary. Our surroundings could change at any time, with no notice, with the power of nature over which we had no control. The material world we took for granted could be swept away in the blink of an eye.

I remembered Jonathan’s words in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, while helping to deliver relief supplies in the Rockaway communities of Queens, that section of the borough that faces the Atlantic Ocean. Those communities were ending their second week with no power, no electricity, no heat, and no water. Sand dunes filled the streets. Toilets did not flush. Boards were nailed to storefronts miraculously left standing. Plastic bags hung from the trees and swayed in the wind. Everywhere debris lined the curbs. Everywhere we were met with the kindness that exemplifies mutual aid.

I returned to my neighborhood barely able to speak. Even though damage from the 2010 tornado is still visible on the sawed-off branches of our heartiest trees, I felt an unearthly change. The light pollution, the subway station, the bustling stores—the familiar scenes that I have come to take for granted—of our landscape seemed as if it belonged to another world, a place that felt almost quaint and a time that seemed hopelessly old-fashioned.

Quaint or not, I had to prepare to teach MLA style in class the next morning, which seemed still more unreal. I sketched out a lesson that I thought might “work,” wondering what exactly it meant for a lesson to “work” in any intact classroom after Sandy. We plan so carefully for course outcomes and fashion assessments to measure those outcomes nicely and precisely. Yet our plans leave spare room for contingencies that are beyond our imaginations. How do we teach in the wake of natural disaster? What do we learn? What do we do when more and more of us—from Joplin, Missouri to Belle Harbor, New York—are having to respond to this question?

That Monday morning, I greeted a student who had missed class the week before.  The student had left a phone message that said she was helping to clean out her grandmother’s home, which had been destroyed by the storm. However, the phone message had told only part of the story. When the student returned to class, she shared that she and her grandmother had been in the home when it collapsed in the storm, and had spent two days underneath the rubble before emergency crews dug them out. She would write her research paper about the storm and would give me permission to share her story for the blog. Yet before all that could happen, I would have to teach the class that would offer a lesson on MLA style and writing research papers.

I remembered that Jonathan had recently published a review of the HBO series Treme, in the Los Angeles Review of Books (republished in Salon). We had examined this essay earlier in the term as an exemplary model of cultural critique. Thinking on my feet, I remembered as well that the article was not written in MLA style. For this new lesson, we could project the review on the smart board and work together to revise the opening paragraphs in MLA style. This lesson would present not only the how-to functions of MLA style, but also would address the “whys” of needing to include citation in academic writing.

The students worked fiercely at revision, interrogating the placement of in-text references and the relationship of those references to the works cited list. Yet still students struggled with how they could call themselves survivors when nothing had happened to them. They had lost power for a week or cable or Internet for a few hours or a day or two. They had struggled with gas rationing and the loss of public transit. They had cared for children who had missed at least a week of school. They had given shelter to relatives and friends whose homes were unlivable. They had done relief work in needy communities. But they had not lost their own homes and they still had their lives. They had not suffered as others were now suffering.

The student who had spent two days living under the ruins of her grandmother’s home told her story and testified to our interconnectedness as a community of people that had survived catastrophe. I suggested, much as Jonathan had so many years ago, that we were now living history and would need to write history. My now-obsolete lesson plans, overtaken by history, would stay frozen on the page. The writing process, as ever, would keep us grounded in the present moment.

To donate or volunteer for hurricane related efforts, see here for New York City and here for New Jersey. For ongoing recovery in Joplin, Missouri, see this link.

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2 Responses to “Teaching after Hurricane Sandy”

  1. Bedford Bits: Ideas for Teaching Composition » Blog Archive » Extended Time Says:

    […] talk about when we talk about learning differences? I used to think I was a verbal learner—until Hurricane Sandy when I began to think in photographs. Even a year later, words to describe that moment come only […]

  2. Susan Naomi Says:

    For the correct link to Jonathan Alexander’s article “Katrina Media,” see https://lareviewofbooks.org/essay/katrina-media-the-arts-of-hbos-treme-in-the-aftermath-of-trauma