New Wave of Books By DVC Professors Tackles Student Challenges


Courtesy of Adam Bessie

On March 13, 2020, English Professor Adam Bessie knew our lives were about to change. As the global pandemic shuttered society, he began to put his thoughts on paper, unaware that his early ideas would lead to the creation of a book. He just knew he needed to write something that reflected the experience of teaching during the pandemic.

“My goal was to paint community college students and community college teachers in a light they’re usually not painted in,” said Bessie, speaking in a recent interview with The Inquirer. In popular culture, such as TV shows like “Community,” he said, “oftentimes teachers and students are painted very one-dimensionally.” 

Bessie wanted to show something more realistic. As part of Diablo Valley College’s crisis team helping students in distress, he witnessed first-hand how difficult it was for many young people to continue their studies during the pandemic, which shaped the story he was trying to tell. Connecting with students who explained their personal crises through email or Zoom challenged Bessie with a central question: How do you establish a sense of trust and community over a screen? 

This month, Bessie’s pandemic-inspired burst of creative writing reached fruition with the publication of his graphic novel, Going Remote: A Teacher’s Journey (The Censored Press/Seven Stories Press). It is one of a handful of new books published this spring by DVC professors, most of them from the English Department.

Bessie’s book deals with his struggles teaching from the computer screen, and also the personal battle he has faced with a brain tumor threatening his life. 

“It’s all about my experience during the pandemic, not only as a teacher but as a parent and as a cancer patient,” Bessie said. “So it deals with a lot of intersecting things. I’ve had to evolve a lot as a teacher.”

The choice to do a graphic memoir allowed Bessie to convey complex ideas about what it means to go “remote.”

For example, there’s a drawing in the book where people walk into Zoom “tiles” that shoot them straight up into the “cloud” in a Rapture-like style. However, not everyone goes to the cloud because, as Bessie’s book makes clear, not everyone has access to education via Zoom.

“Remoteness isn’t just about being online,” he said. “You can be in a face-to-face class and feel completely remote from that class.”

With Going Remote, Bessie said he hopes to portray those feelings in a digestible, creative way that breaks through to audiences. 

Tackling thorny topics like “standardization, automation [and] racism” in education, Bessie asks the question: “How do we take this crisis and turn it into an opportunity that’s led by students and teachers and people in the community to make changes?”


Safer spaces

Another new book that deals with building a safer community on campus is James Gerard Noel’s Safe Space Rhetoric and Race in the Academy: A Reckoning (Lexington Books), which appeared in February. Noel, the Dean of English and Equity Pedagogy at DVC, is considered a leader in safe space rhetoric, referring to language that conveys a non-threatening environment. 

He takes an academic approach to the subject of creating those safer spaces and has presented many academic papers on the subject—including at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“There are changes that I’d love to be involved in helping implement,” said Noel, who co-leads DVC’s Equity Speaker Series, which brings a variety of authors and speakers to DVC each semester to discuss a range of topics relevant to equity and education.

Noel said he felt the need to speak about safe spaces after the election of President Donald Trump in 2016, when “I really started to grapple with my intellectual and emotional safety.”

He became interested in examining how safety is perceived at a college campus, for employees and students alike. Noel said there’s a difference between a campus having a “safe space” sign versus students actually feeling safe in the school environment.

“When you think about students that safe spaces often try to protect, these are students that are really resilient, that have gone through a lot of trauma,” said Noel.

Yet despite advocating for student and community safety, he still thinks students should be exposed to difficult conversations. He used the word “safetyism” to describe how institutions increasingly coddle students to protect them from controversial ideas.

For Noel, it isn’t the right approach for student communities to take—especially those that have experienced considerable trauma.

“In order for us to understand each other, we have to be able to grapple with what folks are going through,” Noel said. “Having honest conversations about our experiences in academia could bring people together because it’s a way for you to understand someone who perhaps doesn’t look like you.”


Taking a fictional approach

Meanwhile, other instructors at DVC have taken their passion for storytelling to the realm of fiction, like English Professor Rayshell E. Clapper. Clapper loves myths and fables, and in her new book, The Prices We Pay (Finishing Line Press), her goal was to create new fables that apply to our modern day.

“Humans are storytellers, it was our first way of communicating,” she said. “It’s really important to have stories that are [about] real-life… but it’s also really important to have those stories that are about real life but kind of put a magical spin on it so that the discussions of those hard topics become palatable in a safer way.”

Clapper said that in her writing she keeps in mind her students who are often experiencing life lessons she calls “devastating and beautiful.”

Similar to Bessie, Clapper hopes the lessons in her book help students adapt to their new post-pandemic circumstances, which hopefully leads to a more vibrant campus filled with happier and more fulfilled students.

Now that hybrid learning appears to be the norm, students must reconceptualize community and their own intellectual safety—something all three authors in their books address.

“We are a community college,” said Bessie. “I believe the greatest power we have is community.”