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Between the World and Me 

Book Review

 

By Holly Fairchild,

MCTC Reading and Study Skills

 Ta-Nehisi Coates, national correspondent for The Atlantic, and winner of the 2015 National Book Award for non-fiction for Between the World and Me, shows through the eyes of a black man, an America that criminalizes the black body.  Though written in the form of a letter to his teenage son, this book is especially revealing for developmental educators.

    Coates writes about the destructive power of fear.  He tells of walking home from 6th grade when, in the face of fear, a boy about his age brandishes a gun.  He writes how schools and the streets are “arms of the same beast.   Fail in the streets and they take your body.  Fail in school and you would be suspended and sent back to those same streets, where they would take your body”.   He shows us the fear of violent police encounters when his college classmate, an affluent and accomplished young black man, is mistakenly killed by police. And he shows us parental fear for sons living in the midst of this violence.  

 Coates’ language of disembodiment, the objectification of his body apart from himself, highlights the definition of racism.  It’s not him being targeted, not that which is himself, but the interpretation of what his skin represents to those who target him. 

    

  He tells of his decision to attend historically black Howard University which became his safe place, his Mecca, where he explored “the craft of writing as the art of thinking.”   He writes, “It began to strike me that the point of my education was a kind of discomfort” from contradictions to be wrestled with.  Today, Coates invites readers to wrestle with the discomfort from contradictions of racism: from the dismissive contradictions he and his son experienced from tour guides who glossed over slavery at Civil War sites where battles over the enslavement of black bodies were fought; to the crushing contradictions in the voice of his slain college classmate’s mother, a well-known physician, whose affluence and accomplishments could not protect her son from the assumptions of criminality made by the black police officer who killed him. 

   As developmental educators working daily to eliminate the educational barriers our students face, Between the World and Me illuminates for us the barrier created by shadowy, destructive forces of institutional racism. Toni Morrison writes in her Amazon book review that Coates’ “examination of the hazards and hopes of black male life is as profound as it is revelatory.”  If we are to be successful in our efforts to address developmental education reform and be successful in our classrooms, we must take the time and the effort to understand these “hazards and hopes”, must take the time to understand how the toxicity of racism and the threat of violence comes between the world and our students and how this impacts our work.  Taking the journey with Coates reveals some of his world to us.  

The College Fear Factor

Book Review

By Celeste Mazur

St. Paul College, Reading

   The keynote speaker for the 2016 MNADE conference will be Rebecca Cox, author of The College Fear Factor: How Students and Professors Misunderstand One Another. In this work, the author presents qualitative data from four studies on students’ and instructors’ expectations and perceptions in community college. She explores students’ understanding of their educational pathways, the mismatches between students’ and instructors’ expectations, and how the structures and norms of higher education can impede student success.

   In Part 1, Dr. Cox presents a picture of who community college students are, what they understand about college, and what fears they have. She identifies many students as being goal-oriented, struggling with school-work financial tension, facing negative feelings about school, and having deep fears (or as one student put it, the “total fear factor”) of not succeeding or belonging in college.

   

   In Part 2, the author presents results from semester-long observations of four English composition classrooms, from the perspectives of both students and faculty. Two of the classes ended with strong student outcomes and had overall positive student reactions, while the other two classes ended with poor student outcomes and encountered student resistance throughout the semester. Through the use of examples and quotations from faculty and students, the author presents a clear picture of the pedagogical approaches used by the instructors, as well as the reactions and perceptions of the students in those classrooms. Three components were identified that contributed to high rates of success: 1) instructors’ professorial authority, subject expertise and strong classroom management; 2) instructors’ inclusion of enough detailed, explicit instructions on assignments, as well as instructive feedback; and 3) instructors active encouragement of students, alleviating anxieties, and as one student put it “coming down to our level.”

   In Part 3 the author examines the ideas of academic literacy and college readiness, and calls for reinventing the college experience. She advocates for building capacity and culture for pedagogical improvement, classroom-level investigation, and moving away from the traditional lecture-only “professing” model, in order to improve educational opportunities for all learners.

Dr. Cox’s encouragement for instructors to consider students’ assumptions and expectations in their teaching practice, along with data, examples, and quoted voices from community college faculty and students, make this a worthy read and inspires reflection on one’s teaching practice.