Our careers in the academy have different ways of getting off the ground. Mine started rather unexpectedly in January 1973 after I ran into Fred Stern, one of my former professors in the English Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago, during my lunch break. “What are you doing?” he asked. “I’m working as a Clerk Typist III across the street in the Department of Criminal Justice where I used to be a work study student.” “What?” he replied with a guffaw. “You should be teaching!” “Teaching what?” I asked. “Writing, of course. Listen,” he said as he pointed out the window to another building on campus, “you see that building over there? Go to the 12th floor and tell them you want to apply for one of their teachings jobs.” “Okay,” I said, not sure how else to respond, “I can do that.”
A few minutes later I walked up to the receptionist’s desk at what I later learned was the Educational Assistance Program (EAP). After I informed the young woman behind the desk that I wanted to apply for one of the teaching jobs in writing, she asked me a few questions about my background, then excused herself to see if Paul Vega, EAP’s assistant director, was available to speak with me. Paul came and invited me into his office where we spoke for a few minutes. Excited by the idea that I had an undergraduate degree in English (there were almost no Latinos or Latinas at the time majoring in English), he excused himself and moments later walked back into his office with Chuck Anderson, EAP’s associate director. After the three of us chatted for a few more minutes, the two excused themselves and left Paul’s office. When they returned, Paul asked, “Can you start tomorrow?” “Doing what?” I asked. “Teaching writing. Here at the university.” “Okay,” I responded in disbelief.
For the next 16 years, I served as a lecturer in composition in EAP and taught three sections of first-year writing each quarter to some of the most underprepared students of color graduating from public schools in Chicago’s inner city neighborhoods and working-class suburbs. Because I had no prior training in the teaching of writing and none was offered by EAP at the time, I often found myself unsure about how best to proceed. My salvation came when Miguel Palacio, a fellow teacher in EAP and the only Latino or Latina I had ever met who was working on a Ph.D., introduced me to the work of Paulo Freire. My excitement in discovering that I could move beyond the current traditional paradigm that governed the teaching everyone was doing in EAP alerted me to the possibility that the teaching of writing offered untold opportunities for engaging and using the lived experiences of students in the writing classroom. When I told a colleague I met at an institute on multicultural literature about how Freire’s work had affected the way I taught writing, she asked if I would be interested in presenting a paper on my pedagogy at a convention for which she was organizing a panel. I agreed to do so, and that is how I ended up giving my first ever conference presentation titled “A Dialogical Approach to the Teaching of Writing” at the 1976 NCTE convention in Chicago.
In the keynote address that I have been invited to give as part of the College Celebration on Friday, November 18, at the convention in Atlanta, I will have the great honor of acknowledging and celebrating 40 years as a member of NCTE. In my presentation, I plan to talk about how I learned to navigate and negotiate the profession in a never-ending effort to resist the (re)colonizing processes that members of historically underrepresented communities in particular continually face as we struggle to gain the recognition and respect that I believe we are little by little finally gaining in the profession. During my presentation, I will also talk about what I feel compelled to teach and share with all students, but especially with students from disenfranchised communities, about how they can best navigate and negotiate the roadblocks they encounter in the writing classroom as they resist the (re)colonizing efforts of the social and ideological discourses that govern the work we do in what Cynthia Selfe calls an increasingly “challenging and difficult world.” I suspect that the colleagues who invited me to speak at the College Celebration were not aware that I would be celebrating my 40th anniversary in NCTE that evening, but I am grateful for the serendipity that will make it possible.
Juan C. Guerra is a professor of English and Chair of the Department of American Ethnic Studies at the University of Washington at Seattle. The author of a book co-published by NCTE and Routledge titled Language, Culture, Identity and Citizenship in College Classrooms and Communities (2016), Guerra is currently serving as the Director of Cultivating New Voices among Scholars of Color—a 16 year-old mentoring program sponsored by the NCTE Research Foundation.