A COPLACDigital reflection by Rebecca Dierking

When I was hired by Truman State University, I heard people talking about “co-plaque.” My inner brat—we’ll call her “Becky”—envisioned oompa-loompa-type figures industriously working together to craft build-up on teeth, a sort of anti-tooth fairy. As the descendant of two individuals who died with dementia, Becky quickly switched to an alternative imagery of build-up on the brain. COPLAC, the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges, is the positive version of what my bratty inner child projected, a workforce that builds structures on the brain, instead of destroying it. That inner brat was not far off.

COPLACDigital is an extension of what the liberal arts does so well: working collegially both within student groups and faculty partnerships, creating collectives of interdisciplinary thinking, and inviting creative expression into the learning experience. My experience with COPLACDigital courses exemplified these three characteristics.

In order to select a teaching partner, professors initially “speed-dated” at a weekend retreat. As an introvert of the first order (don’t let this sparkling prose fool you), I do not mingle well and (shock!) my ideas often seem a little “out there” to others. My partner and I did not so much choose each other as were put together, which could have gone so, so wrong. Instead, it went emphatically right. For one thing, we approach education from different philosophies; Cathy is a historian who directs the Jane Addams Papers Project, while I am a former high school English teacher who now prepares future secondary English teachers. Our methods and perspectives differ. But that difference became our strength. Cathy is a master of technology and working through obstacles both in research and in designing digital projects, whereas I am more fluent in the pedagogical structure of the class and working through the politics of researching challenges to book censorship in school districts. This course involved true partnership.

However, the partnership was not all puppies and butterflies. We had to work through communication difficulties, negotiate the direction the course took and how we would manage classroom issues, and reaffirm our individual roles throughout the semester. In using these skill sets, we modeled what we asked our student teams to do. Each university nominated a pair of students to work collegially on these projects, approaching the topic from a local perspective. For our class, students researched a local/regional challenge to a text used in a school. Our student teams had to negotiate which case to pursue, which partner would complete each segment of the project, and whatever other details they encountered; they had to communicate clearly and effectively not only with each other but with us, their classmates, and all the individuals involved or related to the case; they acquired and employed  technological skills to complete the project; applied critical thinking to not only the data they collected but to its presentation; and finally, they persuaded school districts and other entities to share materials about the case that may not have reflected very well on the school or individuals. Hopefully, by the end of the semester and all this work, each pair of students still liked one another. Cathy and I were good models of that too.  

Our class, like others presented in these COPLACDigital offerings, tendered an opportunity to craft interdisciplinary collectives. Coming from historical archiving and English education, Cathy and I illustrated how bringing somewhat divergent disciplines together can make for a stronger whole. Students embraced not only the educational and political ramifications leading the text to be challenged or removed from classroom or library shelves--what cultural norms were prevailing that might influence or direct the challenge, what benefits or detriments might occur from studying such work or topic, and so on—but also the historical context that contributed to the event. For instance, one group explored the censoring of Catcher in the Rye (and the teacher’s temporary removal from her position) in 1960s Tulsa, Oklahoma, but they also looked at the historical context, namely that this event occurred at a time when Oklahoma had swung decidedly more conservative in its politics and had seen three state Supreme Court justices removed for illegal practices. Thus, they concluded that the reaction of individuals to Sallinger’s controversial novel might have been heightened due to events of the time period.

Student partnerships must affirm the journalistic pragmatics of their case—the who, what, when, where, why, and how—but they also had to inject creative expression to their projects. This occurred in how they organized their material and chose to present it on their webpage but also in the images and word choice, the finesse of what to include and what to leave out, the determination of how they included their own reckonings about the event. For instance, though one pair had student responses to The Song of Solomon being challenged, because they could not track down these individual students to gain permission, they could not use that data (it was acquired through the classroom teacher). Instead, these partners chose to focus on the various perspectives and how they would present those divergent beliefs on their site: the advocates’ and the complainants’ statements, feedback from professional organizations, and even what the author has stated about censorship.

Finally, our course fostered intangibles, like resilience and persistence. Unlike many other COPLACDigital courses, we were not using our universities’ archives but instead culled our data from local media and school districts. As mentioned previously, school districts do not necessarily want to divulge materials that may in hindsight skew negatively on the school, the district, or individuals. Our teams had to develop a tenacity to wade through bureaucracy, to track down the individual with the authority to release documents, to press on when faced with resistance, and to do all this in a manner that would not impair the university’s relationship with that entity. Not only did they hone their persuasion skills but they also learned how tenacious they could be—the Song of Solomon team located the classroom teacher at nearly the final hour and had to revamp their ideas right up to the end of the semester. However, each team’s sense of accomplishment equaled the level of effort expended.

And that’s the real draw of these courses: extending oneself in a new direction or in a path that is not assured can yield incredible reward. Like building a muscle, these courses offer a steady repetition but in condensed time to develop structures of strength in individuals. In COPLACDigital courses, we added layer upon layer of knowledge to the brain, across disciplines and skills beyond the standard essay. For the students, I hope they feel inordinately proud of the work they completed and the record they have left for others. For myself, working with another professor thousands of miles away and from another discipline not only shed light on my own discipline but also on my pedagogical practices.  It also challenged the introvert to reach out, to see that extroversion is worth it. And, of course, it shut up—if momentarily—that brat Becky.

Headshot of Dr. Rebecca Dierking

Rebecca Dierking is an Associate Professor of English Education at Truman State University. She taught "A Burning Idea: Challenging & Censoring Books" for COPLACDigital in the spring of 2018 and of 2019.