Thursday, December 18, 2008

Small Failures and Compromises: The Institutional Life of Diversity

Introductory Bio

Phillip P. Marzluf, Assistant Professor and the Director of the Expository Writing Program at Kansas State University, arrived to composition and rhetoric after experiences as an ESL/EFL teacher in Mongolia, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. His work has appeared in College Composition and Communication, Rhetoric Review, Rhetoric Society Quarterly, and other journals. Especially noteworthy for CCCC readers is his article on diversity in rhetoric and composition studies, "Diversity Writing: Natural Languages, Authentic Voices" in CCC 57.3 (February 2006) which generated a good debate with Margaret Himley and Christine Farris in CCC 58.3 (February 2007). Currently, his research centers on several qualitative studies that examine how white students from highly conservative and religious backgrounds experience and respond to the public and secular discourses of academic life.

At K-State, Marzluf is connected with the Tilford Group, the organization that makes visible the university’s mission to enhance diversity and that mediates much of the campus conversation about diversity. Marzluf is also one of the primary contributors to Writing Communities and Identities, the local antiracist textbook used by first-year students in the writing program.

Blog Entry

At institutions like Kansas State University—public, land grant universities that still remain predominantly white spaces—diversity plays an important role in administrative policy (e.g., retention and recruitment of historically marginalized students) and as a peculiarly American middle-class academic discourse, one that resembles the politeness that marks the “Principles of Community”—statements of civility that once graced the walls of all K-State classrooms (though, they have now been largely replaced by statements detailing emergency procedures for suspicious packages, bomb threats, active shooters, and other such threats). It is easy enough to mock this middle-class discourse of diversity, for indeed it is all too polite, too ineffectual, too corporate (two of K-State’s largest diversity donors are Dow Chemical and Cargill), and too evangelical (I have now held hands at two diversity events). And yet, despite all of these significant weaknesses, including those that the other excellent CCCC bloggers have already identified, the discourse of diversity continues to play an important role in my administrative life, as well as in my teaching and research. I rarely feel, it must be said, that my efforts are completely successful, and I admit that my confrontations and interruptions of diversity discourse quickly become (again, all so polite) compromises.

As the director of the Expository Writing Program, I contend with the “work” of diversity on a daily basis. For example, I have recently presented the diversity efforts of the English department to an alumni group, judged a batch of university proposals for diversity funding, and experimented with a rubric to assess how well students’ writing portfolios demonstrate their ability to analyze identity and to interpret how texts represent difference. I also train novice graduate teaching assistants for and teach an introductory writing course that asks students to analyze, research, and make sense of the issues intersecting human difference on U.S. campuses and beyond. Students, for example, analyze advertisements in order to identify and explain what gender expectations are being represented, compose a research memo on the roles social class plays in campus life, and analyze a personal narrative that they have constructed through the various lenses of gender, race, class, and other factors. Every year, together with my writing program colleagues, I tackle the stock genres that proliferate from these assignments and continue to revise the course materials, assess the objectives, and rethink our teacher training. At the same time, I have to reflect upon the many compromises that the curriculum and the program have made: Why haven’t I instituted that unit on language diversity yet? Why do students keep on writing about their expensive cars as a way to demonstrate their identity? Why doesn’t our curriculum ask students to confront heteronormativity?

Even though the first-year students—as well as some of the graduate teaching assistants—may grumble at times that the curriculum smacks of “political correctness,” they are particularly adept at exploiting the middle-class code of politeness that celebrates individual liberalism, in which students have the opportunity to voice their opinions and beliefs, providing that they agree to listen and to not contest other students’ opinions and beliefs. This is what “diversity” comes to mean for many students—classrooms that become markets of the free exchange of ideas. Yet, although I attempt to disrupt this logic of politeness, I usually fail: numerous, nagging, small failures, which rarely manifest themselves as student resistance, yet that haunt me, these failed teachable moments during which I shrink, cowardly, under the dominant discourses of individualism, white privilege, and commonsense notions of progress.

One example: I use texts about American sports and athletics in order to talk about how popular media construct images of African American males and about how sports afford rare opportunities for people to discuss the conflicts between cultural groups, even though these conversations may be highly coded. This semester, I discussed an article by David Zirin, “Proud ‘Black Quarterback,’” in order to begin talking about whiteness, systemic racism, and myths of “even playing fields.” My little, nagging failure begins when Zirin, who demonstrates how the media use the prevalence of NFL African American quarterbacks to promote a narrative of contemporary equality, juxtaposes these positive images of successful quarterbacks alongside statistics that reflect an oppositional narrative of systemic racism, including dramatically higher unemployment and incarceration rates for young African American males. Yet, at the very moment when I asked students what Zirin hoped to accomplish with using such statistics, I grew nervous. The middle of the classroom shifted. Voices emerged, articulating the passions of the tropes of individualism, the capitulation of the past, and the skepticism over the use of statistics. These are the voices of the Midwest Commonsense that I feel at times unable to interrupt. Why compare the efforts of black quarterbacks to criminals who have made bad life decisions? What does unemployment and crime have to do with his main point?—aren’t you the one always going on about focus and keeping to your thesis? Or, aren’t such comparisons a form of racism in themselves? Or, even, K-State has its own black quarterback: what’s the big deal, anyway? (And he’s not as good as everyone thinks!)

These awkward compromises and nagging defeats come at a cost. The institutional discourse of diversity cannot align itself with the more robust discourses of diversity, those that, according to Eric Pritchard, Rebecca Dingo, Morris Young, and other CCCC diversity bloggers, refuse to become an object or topic to be classified or a “problem” to be solved. This critical diversity becomes deeply intertwined with the histories of language and literacy, revealing our way of talking about conflicts between social groups struggling to reproduce—or rearticulate—values, definitions, and beliefs as part of the struggle to secure resources and access to political, economic, and cultural power. The myths of literacy as well as those of writing and writing instruction originate as ways to naturalize human difference and justify hierarchies of language standards and authority. In turn, this rhetorical authority, invested in certain privileged speakers and writers, manifests itself in terms of access to literacy instruction, higher education, audiences, institutional titles, sponsors, and such material resources as libraries, books, paper, and other literacy technologies. This access becomes naturalized, within the commonsense of how we talk about our students and the metaphors we choose to describe rhetorical and literacy instruction. Linda Brodkey, Susan Miller, Sharon Crowley, and others have traced these commonsensical, naturalized notions interlinking students to their texts in the middle-class universities that first sponsored composition in the United States. I fear, therefore, that these small, nagging failures—in which I feel unable to interrupt the dominant middle-class discourse of diversity—may indicate my own indebtedness to the institutional logic and history of the university and my inability to envision something beyond the notions and metaphors that I have been socialized to recognize and perform.

Is this dominant, yet weak, un-critical, and middle-class discourse of diversity, then, what remains of our desires to trace the histories of difference, to examine the narratives of individualism and progress, and to develop antiracist pedagogies that ask students to consider the ethics of their own writing? Well, I certainly hope not. Yet, we will continue to accept compromises; we will feel uneasy; we will be silenced; we will become enraged; and, we will continue to write and work and try to interrupt.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

"Pathways to Diversity: Social Justice and the Multiplicity of Identities"

Introductory Bio

Eric Darnell Pritchard is Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Writing at The University of Texas at Austin. He is also a faculty affiliate in the department of English, the John L. Warfield Center for African and African-American Studies and the Center for Women's and Gender Studies. He studied English-Liberal Arts at Lincoln University and literacy, rhetoric, critical theory and African-American gender and sexuality studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Professor Pritchard's research and teaching interests include literacy, African-American and Queer Rhetoric, community-based writing, critical pedagogy queer theory, black feminist theory, masculinity studies and hip hop studies. His current focus is on the intersections of race, (queer) sexuality, gender and class with historical and contemporary literacy research.

Pursuant to those interests he is currently working on a book manuscript tentatively titled, Black Queer Literacies. The study draws on the life story accounts of 60 black LGBTQ people who he interviewed about the relationships among their everyday literacy practices and identity formation across their lifetimes. The study focuses on the fluidity of literacy and identity and its interplay with black queer cultural productions (literary, visual, performance) in activism, spirituality, education, and in digital realms.

For his scholarship and community work he has received numerous honors, including the "Scholars for the Dream Award" from the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) and the A. Philip Randolph Award for Community Activism from the Wisconsin Black Student Union.

Blog Entry

I want to thank the members of the CCCC Committee on Diversity for the creation of this space for a very important conversation. As a young scholar in rhetoric and composition I especially appreciate the invitation to be in the conversation with people who, in their work, have blazed so many trails for me to ‘tell it my way.’

My response to the question “How do you address the topic of "diversity" in your scholarship, teaching, and service?” reflects the sentiments of Victor Villanueva, Malea Powell and other guest contributors to the blog. Each has professed their commitment to diversity, while acknowledging their specific contentions with the term as it’s sometimes invoked. In my case, I have long emphasized and used the phrase ‘social justice’ rather than diversity. I prefer social justice because I hear in it the recognition of institutionalized social inequalities and the necessity of intervention into institutionalized oppression in pursuit of social justice. Diversity is one result of anti-oppression work. Social justice then is a pathway to diversity, a pathway that I think we continue to struggle with everyday. I often wonder: how effective is it to emphasize the importance of having ‘everyone at the table’ — to use a phrase often employed to illustrate diversity —if discussions don’t center the inequities each encounters en route to the proverbial table? What effect does this structure of the conversation have on the sustainability of coalitions for social justice? This question seems especially necessary given past and on-going discourses in society that ignore the specificity and continuance of oppression. The result of this discourse is an emphasis on equality and diversity that leads (prematurely) toward post-race, post-gender or in sum, post-oppression, without a necessary uptake of the impact of oppression. Here I briefly explore the centrality of these issues to my own work and more broadly to our research, teaching and professional service as members of the rhetoric and composition community.

In my research I respond to these challenges through a call to reconsider the usefulness of the phrase ‘multiplicity of identities’ as an alternative to lists of discrete characteristics as a category of analysis. This analysis can be of socio-political and cultural issues, and by extension, histories and theories of rhetoric and literacy traditions and pedagogical models. A recognition of identity as multiple is central to highlighting the problematic of pointing toward actions like inclusion or tolerance as representative of diversity or resorting to simplistic understandings of institutionalized oppression and identity. This is important because, in quests for social justice, how can we confront the social inequalities that threaten diversity without completely grasping the complexity of identities, oppression and communities as multiple, fluid, linked and/or simultaneous?

For example, my work on the literacy traditions of black lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people showed me the consequences of the field under – theorizing the multiplicity of identities. By under-theorizing I refer to theorizing identities as narrow or monolithic or through an oversimplified interpretation of intersectionality. For many of my research participants, resisting this predisposition has allowed them to assert their identities as Black and LGBTQ (amongst many other identities). Through this the black LGBTQ person destabilizes the heteronormativity by which blackness is often read and also resists the erasure of difference in LGBTQ/sexuality studies research across disciplines, insisting on paradigms that center the “heterogeneity of sexuality” whereby sexuality “is constitutive of and constituted by racialized gender and class formations” (see Roderick Ferguson’s “Of Our Normative Strivings: African American Studies and the Histories of Sexuality”). As such through their life story accounts my research participants intervene into composition and rhetoric research that depicts black and LGBTQ identities, movements and concerns in ways that fail to synthesize race, class, gender, sexuality and other identities. I should also say that this oversimplification of identities is endemic of work outside the realm of African-American and LGBTQ related research too. To move beyond this issue, I contend that we must return to the full definitions of women of color feminist writers and activists who first theorized and applied “intersectionality” — particularly the women of the Combahee River Collective, a black feminist organization. In their position paper “A Black Feminist Statement” Combahee described identities and oppressions as being on different paths that sometimes intersect and overlap, and at other times are synthesized or blended. The latter part of this definition — the synthesis — has often been ignored while the former — the criss-crossing of identities — has been used to define intersectionality. “Multiplicity” (see Michael Hames-Garcia’s “Who Are Our Own People?: Challenges for a Theory of Social Identity.” ) of identities references the entirety of this definition of intersectionality. Through it we can explore multiple oppressions and identities in ways that do not elide the specificity of difference, but acknowledges the intertwining of these oppressions and identities. Thus, for all of us for whom social justice is a goal in our scholarship, teaching and professional service we must always be attentive to the multiplicity of identities and by extension the simultaneity of oppressions and the unevenness of power and privilege. This includes provisional privileges as well (see Cathy Cohen, “Punks, Bulldaggers and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?”).

Viewing identity through multiplicity does indeed make things fluid in ways that we are not socialized to be comfortable with or accept. However, I argue that the material circumstances of our students and our lives warrant that we embrace the complexity of people’s lives. If we do so, we will be able to access, document and analyze situated rhetorical and literacy traditions that are easily overlooked when we see identity too narrowly. Also, in terms of quests for social justice and embracing difference, multiplicity is a powerful lens because the specificity of the effects of oppression and differentials of power/privilege occurring in one body and/or across communities is better illuminated. This is important to any movements toward “diversity” because it forces us to take into account as full a rendering as the stories of everyone at “the table” as possible. Multiplicity reminds us, as put so eloquently by poet and essayist June Jordan, that “freedom is indivisible or it is nothing at all… and either we [emphasis mine] are working for freedom or you are working for the sake of your self interests and I am working for mine” (409). We must all recognize that our freedom is bound up in the oppression of other people. Further, multiplicity engenders a conception of diversity that recognizes difference as not a problem to be overcome but as a source of power. And perhaps most significantly, multiplicity supports the politics of coalition building across communities as necessary and sustainable. It suggests such coalitions are possible through the hard work struggling with one another for collective social justice and not against one another for individual advancement. A deeper understanding of identity and oppression is crucial to doing this hard work together.

Multiplicity of identities can also be useful to mediating professional development /institutional support structures. For instance, at the CCCC convention each year, there is a given time slot for caucuses and some of the special interest groups (SIGS) to meet. Generally this time is allotted for Friday evening of the convention when it comes to the ethnic/racial caucuses, queer caucus and many other caucuses and SIGS. Many of these caucuses meet at the same time, and though I doubt this is the intended effect, it forces people to choose one identity or commitment at the expense of others.

In my own experience, I remember having to literally run up and down the stairs of the conference hotel at a past CCCC, going from the Black Caucus to the Queer Caucus that met at the same time. In this sense, I am forced to either stretch myself to be in all the spaces with which I identify, get support and work to support others in these communities or, I am forced to decide which of my identities is most salient. Another example is those persons who identify as multi-racial/ethnic. If all the ethnic/racial caucuses meet at the same time, a person of multiple races/ethnicities will be unable to participate in the different spaces relevant to their personal and professional development. A restructuring of this schedule would also be very useful to building ally and coalition relationships between the various constituencies attending caucuses as it would allow space for members to be in other spaces as allies if that was desired by a given caucus or member. I could go on and on with the ways in which other persons from any number of identity groups are put in this situation. Our inattention to multiplicity of identities not only impacts our scholarship and teaching, but clearly, has limited our potential to provide the most comprehensive support to our colleagues at the institutional level as well. As Catherine Fox says, in English Studies, we operate under an “ironic display of desire to construct a collective identity for English Departments … occluding genuine reflection, dialogue, and struggle about what might constitute safety for marginalized peoples” (in “From Transaction to Transformation: (En)Countering White Heteronormativity in ‘Safe Spaces’,” in College English, May 2007) and consequently, how one arrives at a true coalition or collective identity.

We must resist the impulse to do violence to one another through oversimplifying the oppressions and identities we each encounter if we are to ever achieve the transgressive research, teaching and service we all imagine as our contribution to meaningful social change.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Diversity -- A Transnational Matrix of Relationships

Introductory Bio

Rebecca Dingo is an Assistant Professor at the University of Missouri. She holds a joint appointment in Women’s and Gender Studies and English. Rebecca's research intersects feminist rhetorical theory with transnational, public policy, disability, and visual culture studies. She is interested in how public policy-making at the local, national, and global levels are created not only to persuade policy-makers but also every day citizens. In her scholarship Rebecca demonstrates how the rhetorical dynamics of the policy-making process structure--through public, legal, political, and administrative institutions--audiences' collective and individual identities, cultural memories, value systems, senses of place, and material circumstances.

Rebecca Dingo’s monograph book project, "Networking Arguments: Rhetoric, Transnational Feminism, and Public Policy Writing," examines the formation of transnational publics by exploring the vocabularies of transnational policy initiatives. The book aims to develop a broader practice of rhetorical criticism that accounts for the transnational paths along which arguments travel, the interarticulated points at which local and global logics meet, and the historical contexts that enable these logics. Her latest essay, “Linking Transnational Logics” (College English, May 2008) examines the networked arguments in World Bank and U.S. gender-mainstreaming policies. Rebecca’s work has also appeared in Concerns: Journal of the Women’s Caucus of the MLA, The Journal of Women’s History, and Wagadu: Journal of Transnational Women’s and Gender Studies.

Blog Entry

Diversity?… hmmmm…. Do I really “do” diversity? That is what I thought when I was invited to blog about how I address diversity in my teaching, scholarship, and service. Ok yes, I hold a joint appointment in English (rhet/comp) and Women’s and Gender Studies; I actively participate in recruiting and hiring minority job candidates; I publish essays that focus on third world women, post- and neo-colonialism, disability, and sexuality; I teach “Feminist Rhetorical Theories” (a course I designed to explore an expanded diverse canon); and I do also frequently teach that large lecture course titled “Introduction to Women’s and Gender Studies” which is, in a lot of ways, teaching students to notice and respect the diverse experiences, needs, desires, and geopolitical situation of women. But oddly, I have never considered myself to be a diversity scholar or teacher per se. Unlike Victor Villanueva and Melea Powell, both of whom mentioned on pervious guest blogs, that they resist the use of the term diversity and unlike Asao Inoue who finds that teaching “diversity” usefully provides a way to teach students about power and identity, I do not think about diversity quite in the same ways.

Rather, in my teaching and scholarship I strive to untangle the happenings that connect us while showing how indeed, these connections are often uneven or unfair. I fear that if I simply teach about diversity or even sameness then my students will not be able to get past the simplistic idea that all “difference is good.” While difference and diversity can be good, people such as David Horowitz (who is known for creating a nation-wide movement to make university teachers teach and “respect” intellectual diversity), have made me question the usefulness of the term or even the concept. (And in fact, his movement demonstrates exactly what Krista Radcliffe mentions in her guest blog: words function as tropes and in his argument diversity has become a new trope.) While this sounds all good and well, intellectual diversity has become a way for universities to police their faculty thereby creating a hostile and suspicious work environment. My university recently adopted an intellectual diversity statement and while we are lucky that few of us have felt that we are being watched, this movement has affected my teaching (and scholarship)—but surprisingly, in some positive ways.

In an attempt to avoid being too much of what the Horowitz folks describe as a “liberal” teacher and scholar I invite my students (and my scholarly audience) to think about the various ways they are connected with other parts of their local communities, nation, and world. I have found that the emerging sub-field of women’s studies, transnational feminism, to be particularly useful for moving my students away from thinking only about their own privilege and how they are different from others to making connections to each other and the ostensible “other” (thereby making the other not so unfamiliar or exotic). I use the term transnationalism to refer to how globalization has influenced the movement of people and the production texts, culture, and knowledge across borders. A transnational feminist lens asks that we consider how social, political, and economic forces are dynamic, unbounded, and uneven; these forces function in a supra-national, trans-regional, and trans-local network making it necessary to reconsider how we understand identity, sovereignty, citizenship, and textual production. Transnational movements have had uneven material consequences throughout and within different regions of the world. These consequences require rhetoricians find new ways to examine how texts are written and dispersed, how they persuade, and how they might impact audiences who reside in different geopolitical locations. Indeed, I think that these consequences also necessitate that we expand our understanding of diversity.

This is not an easy task because we tend to want to exoticize people and places that are unfamiliar to us; we have already been taught through images, reports, preconceived notions, etc. that there are distinct differences between the so-called first and third worlds, the city dweller vs. the country dweller, Poles vs. Chinese, Americans vs. Africans, to name only a few examples. And yet, due to an increasingly transnational market, economy, and community, these assumptions are simply that: assumptions. Take for example the supposition that the U.S. is significantly different from India. Despite the fact that the U.S. is considered a high- income nation and India a lower-income nation, poor citizens and immigrants from both countries are being helped financially through micro-loans from the Grameen Bank (the bank that won the Nobel Peace prize, along with its founder, Professor Muhammad Yunus in 2006) . The Grameen Bank is best known for providing Indian women with microloans to begin independent businesses; recently, the New York Times reported that the Grameen Bank has begun to provide microloans to communities in Queens, N.Y. This simple example demonstrates how third world poverty very much resides in the so-called first world and that differences become muddied in a transnational economy.

I find a transnational studies methodology to be a useful way to think through the concept of diversity because a transnational analysis does not ask who suffers more, who has more power, or how two (or more) groups are similar or different but instead sets up a matrix of relationships and examines connectivities. A transnational perspective that examines how economic globalization has influenced the flow of people, labor, capital, culture, and knowledge across borders allows rhet/comp scholars and teachers to analyze more precisely how diversity is enmeshed with larger global exchanges (money, goods, power, representations, knowledges, etc.) that affect the changing nature of identity. In addition to rhet/comp scholars recognizing how race, class, ability, sexuality, gender, etc, impact one’s identity and rhetorical situation, a transnational studies lens asks us to examine identity alongside the global circulation of and interarticulation in texts and situations.

I use a simple exercise in my classes to illustrate this circulation of goods and situations. I ask my students to look at their clothing tags to see where the item was made. For the most part, the students’ clothing comes from parts of Central and South America, Asia, and sometimes Africa. We then think about how these items connect us to people we might not know by considering the various hands that might have touched the fabric before the students purchased the item. I then ask them to think about the other non-tangible ways they might be connected to those people who made the clothing. For example, I invite them to consider how women who work in the maquilladoras along the U.S. and Mexico borders have an unacknowledged relationship with former female factory workers who might now work in U.S. megastores. The women working in the megastore might have worked in a factory that produced the same goods as the Mexican factory but due to transnational trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), that factory might have moved to Mexico leaving these women without a stable income. Both sets of women, then, are linked by the very products produced at the maquilladora—one woman makes the items the other sells them—yet, in many cases both sets of women cannot afford to purchase the very products they produce and sell. In this way, U.S. and Mexican workers are linked within a complex network of economic, geopolitical, and labor forces even though they reside in different geopolitical locations and may have very different lives. Ultimately, these women are unevenly connected to each other due to increased global financial, cultural, and gendered networks.

So do I “do” diversity? Well, yes and no. I suppose that for me, the concept of diversity has productively shifted in my research and teaching so that I am less interested in how diversity or difference is expressed and more interested in climate and situation that creates a matrix of sometimes uneven connections. In my teaching and research, I thus show how the circulation of texts (and the climate in which they are produced) often creates this matrix making it necessary for rhet/comp scholars to turn a critical eye on diverse public texts we might otherwise disregard.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Literacies and Identities: Shifting the Discourse of Diversity

Introductory Bio

Morris Young is Director of English 100, associate professor of English, and faculty affiliate in Asian American Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He was formerly a faculty member at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. His research and teaching focus on composition and rhetoric, literacy studies, and Asian American literature and culture. His essays and reviews have appeared in College English, Journal of Basic Writing, Amerasia, Composition Forum, and he has contributed chapters to many edited collections including The Literacy Connection (1999), Personal Effects: The Social Character of Scholarly Writing (2001), East Main Street: Asian American Popular Culture (2005), Women and Literacy: Local and Global Inquiries for a New Century (2007), and The Sage Handbook of Rhetoric (forthcoming). His book, Minor Re/Visions: Asian American Literacy Narratives as a Rhetoric of Citizenship (2004) received the 2004 W. Ross Winterowd Award and the 2006 Outstanding Book Award from the Conference on College Composition and Communication. With LuMing Mao, he has edited Representations: Doing Asian American Rhetoric, forthcoming from Utah State University Press.

Editor's Note: Morris Young's new blog entry gives readers some great arguments to think about in the context of the election on 11/4/2008, when Barack Obama finally won a long, hard-fought, presidential election, anti-gay marriage bans passed in California and Florida, and one of the five planned anti-affirmative action bans, happily, failed in the state of Colorado.

Blog Entry

As I write this blog entry, I have just finished rereading Rural Literacies by Kim Donehower, Charlotte Hogg, and Eileen Schell for my graduate seminar on “Literacies and Identities.” Over the last several weeks we have read work by bell hooks, Elaine Richardson, Vershawn Ashanti Young, Daphne Desser, and selections from the collection, Women and Literacy: Local and Global Inquiries for a New Century, edited by Beth Daniell and Peter Mortensen. We’ll be finishing with Jonathan Alexander’s Literacy, Sexuality, Pedagogy: Theory and Practice for Composition Studies and essays selected by seminar members to address some issue in the context of the course that they would like to explore further, including questions of social class, postcoloniality, English language learning, gender, multimodality, and indigeneity.

I list this work and have constructed the seminar not to suggest some representative sampling of what constitutes the relationship between literacy and identity, nor to suggest that literacy practices are fixed entirely and exclusively by identity, nor to view identity as indelibly shaped by some promise or premise of what literacy can or cannot deliver. Rather, we muddle our way through theoretical discussions about literacy and identity, read narrative, autoethnographic, and ethnographic accounts about the intersections of ostensible identity categories and literacy practices, and discuss the materiality of these experiences. We read these “little narratives” that provide multidimensional descriptions within and against the “grand narratives” of identity: race, gender, sexuality, social class, region, and literacy. And I hope that we have “troubled” what are often viewed uncritically as fixed or organic relationships between a perceived/performed sense of identity and the perceived/performed practice of literacy. That is, I hope that we have begun to shift toward a more nuanced and complex understanding of how lived experiences may shape literacy practices and how literacy may shape lived experiences. And in unpacking these experiences and expressions I hope that we have also begun to shift the discourse of diversity.

As many of the contributors to this blog have noted, the use of “diversity” as a term is at the very least vexed and at worst meaningless or even damaging since for many it has become an empty signifier often employed to suggest progress on one hand or to invoke anxiety or outrage on the other. While many of us would recognize the “progress” that has been made through the Civil Rights movement, or different eras of Women’s rights (from suffrage through the historic political campaign of Hillary Rodham Clinton), or the recognition of same-sex marriage in some states, we also recognize that such events can be used as wedge issues to reinforce divisions (for example, ballot initiatives banning Affirmative Action or same-sex marriage) or may just as likely foster indifference or complacency. A woman can be a candidate for President of the United States and be expected to win the nomination. An African American can be the presidential nominee of a major political party and be elected. Domestic partner benefits make good business sense. Why are we still talking about diversity concerns when there is growing evidence that we are making “progress” and that anyone can fulfill the promise of the American Dream?

In this sense the discourse of diversity has been strategic, to draw on the work of Michel de Certeau in The Practice of Everyday Life and Paula Mathieu’s application in Tactics of Hope. Within a system of power, the identification and deployment of diversity has seemingly created stable social relations that allow for its relatively benign expression: a celebration of culture or an acknowledgement of suffering. Even in acknowledging suffering or social injustice, however, there is a risk in reducing an understanding of diversity to fixed categories that mask more complex experiences. For example, in the recent special issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education (26 September 2008) focusing on “Diversity in Academe,” the clear focus was in thinking about diversity in terms of race and ethnicity, or in its terms, “minorities.” Examining several diversity initiatives begun in the 1990s at a variety of institutions, The Chronicle updates the results of hiring plans for faculty and student recruitment, especially in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court decisions on affirmative action in 2003, looks at globalization as the latest expression of diversity, and discusses the various ways diversity has been institutionalized on campus, from the creation of Chief Diversity Officer positions to rethinking the various categories of diversity and what impact this has on counting diversity. While this special issue does important work in continuing to cast attention on the numbers of minority students and faculty in higher education compared to whites, its focus on this one measure of diversity does not capture how our higher education institutions reflect diversity in several other dimensions or even within the categories of race and ethnicity that are inflected by generation, region, national origin, and other factors. As an Asian American born and raised in Hawai‘i who is trained in the humanities (not the sciences) and whose field of research and teaching is rhetoric and composition, I certainly do not fit the stereotype of the Asian American in the academy.

While my own work has focused on race and ethnicity more broadly and Asian Americans more specifically, I have taught in a variety of classrooms that have required me to think about diversity in more nuanced ways in order to serve all of my students. Again, building on de Certeau and Mathieu, my identification and deployment of diversity has been tactical and rhetorical, to understand and take advantage of the opportunities that arise in the classroom and to use the available means of persuasion to create a productive site for engaging diversity. In this sense, I have had to work against the discourse of diversity since my students may expect specific constructions of diversity as manifested by race, gender, class, or sexuality. Being tactical challenges the stability of social relations and systems of power that have defined diversity only as certain fixed categories of identity. If the discourse of diversity is destabilized, then discussions and critical understanding about the materiality of experience and the injury that may be faced by people of color, women, the poor, gays and lesbians, the disabled, and others often placed at the margins of dominant culture become possible because we cannot simply rely on a cultural script that defines relationships.
To be tactical and rhetorical, I use the following questions as a way to frame my thinking and teaching and to create the possibility for spaces of conversation and engagement:

1) How are our ideas, meanings, and uses of “diversity” shifting?
This may seem obvious but I think it serves us well to remind ourselves that our students’ experiences are different from our own. While we may be tempted to characterize students in particular ways to reflect either our identification or disidentification with them, one way to create critical conversation about diversity is to develop our own vocabulary, meanings, and application with them. If we rely on the discourse of diversity and fail to interrogate institutionalized versions of it then we risk reproducing static meanings that maintain dominant relations of power.

2) How are our classroom communities shifting?
Depending on the communities where we teach, we may still see limited improvement in the number of students of diverse racial backgrounds despite institutional efforts to recruit more racially and ethnically diverse students. However, again depending on the communities where we teach, we may see more awareness of students with disabilities, students comfortable with expressing their GLBT identities, non-traditional students, first-generation college students, or students of a wide variety of backgrounds that contribute to a “critical mass” of experiences that again disrupt the discourse of diversity by understanding these experiences within systems of power.

3) As we shift our locations, how are our ideas about and meanings of diversity also shifting?
This question has perhaps had the most resonance for me. I’ve moved from Honolulu, Hawai‘i to Ann Arbor, Michigan to Oxford, Ohio to Madison, Wisconsin. In each case I’ve been faced with recalibrating my sense of what constitutes diversity, moving from a predominantly Asian and Pacific Islander community to places where I was more likely to encounter African American or Latino/a or GLBT communities as the face of diversity. But perception and position also are critical in this shift. While my new institutional home, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has just a 12% “minority” student population there is also a sense of cosmopolitanism and engagement that creates opportunities for discussions (sometimes difficult and painful) that interrogate systems of power. While my former institution, Miami University, has a reputation for conservative and privileged students (to progressives) or for liberal professors (to conservatives), in my ten years of teaching there I never felt I could so easily define my students or colleagues. And in living away from Hawai‘i for 17 years now, I have become more aware of the complicated relationships between Native Hawaiians and the non-Native Hawaiian population, as well as among Hawai‘i’s various ethnic communities. These shifts in locations have required engagement with the local to understand how social relations are organized and what interventions may be made to facilitate conversation.

While my comments above have centered on understanding and engaging the array of experiences rather than focusing on certain classes or categories of experience, my primary intent is to interrogate systems of power that construct diversity and identity in specific ways that often disadvantage people of certain experiences. If we rely on a discourse of diversity that fixes identity rather than challenges systems of power all we do is reinforce those stereotypes that are deployed to create divisions. There are certainly still reasons for creating interventions and remedies to address a history and legacy of discrimination. But by shifting the discourse of diversity in order to create a more complex and nuanced concept and understanding of diversity, we have the opportunity to understand more fully how those identified as different have been subject to injury, have lived full and complex lives, and have contributed to our community and conversation.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

"Talking Back to Contemporary Multicultural and Whiteness Pedagogies"

Introductory Bio

Jennifer Seibel Trainor is associate professor of English at San Francisco State University, where she teaches in the Graduate Program in Composition Studies. Her research focuses on critical literacy, antiracist education, and theories of rhetoric and persuasion. She teaches graduate courses in research methods, composition theory and pedagogy, and literacy theory, as well as undergraduate courses in writing. She is a recipient of NCTE’s Promising Research Award and a member of the National Writing Project. She served on the executive committee of NCTE's Assembly for Research. Trainor's articles have appeared in College English, College Composition and Communication, and The Journal of Advanced Composition. Her book, Rethinking Racism: Emotion, Persuasion, and Literacy Education in an All-White High School, is forthcoming from Southern Illinois University Press in a few weeks.

Blog Entry

For the past several years, my efforts to address diversity have been centered on efforts to address racism and on creating effective antiracist pedagogies. I guess you could say I’ve been focused less on diversity than on impediments to it, particularly as those impediments manifest in the classroom, in white students’ sometimes racially-charged assertions, their defensiveness, and the difficulty they sometimes have in exploring issues of racial justice. This has led me to several research projects that investigate how white students respond to matters of race, the most recent a year-long ethnographic project at a suburban high school – 97% white -- located outside a mid-sized city in the Northeast. Of the insights about the workings of racism and the potential for antiracist pedagogies gleaned from this work, I’d like to share three:

Insight #1

We need a more complex understanding of the origins and sources of racism. Our current diagnoses – that racism arises from a need or desire to protect white privilege, ignorance of oppression, or lack of exposure to difference – don’t really capture the complexity of the processes by which students become convinced of particular ideas about race. These diagnoses are rooted in assumptions about reason and rationality: white students don’t know about oppression and so they dismiss it when confronted with it in a text, or white students are threatened by texts that protest racism because they understand on some level that they benefit from racism and hence resist out of a desire to maintain their racial privilege. Instead, we need to think of racism in terms of irrationality and emotion, and to see that students’ responses to matters of race are affective, more than logical or rational, rooted not so much in abstract political or identity-based calculations, but in local experiences and feelings that are to a surprising extent given force in school, a point that leads to Insight #2:

Insight #2

We don’t teach students about race only in those moments when we assign a multicultural text or include a unit that critiques whiteness or privilege. As Amanda Lewis writes, schools may not teach racial identity in the way that they teach multiplication or punctuation, but schools are settings where students acquire some version of the “rules of racial classification,” and of their own racial identity. We haven’t fully grappled with how students learn about race in the context of everyday interactions in school, but in my research I began to see how tacit, unexamined lessons, rituals and practices in school exerted a powerful influence on students’ responses to matters of race. To take a quick example: the high school where I did my research pervasively valued “positive thinking.” Students were exhorted constantly by teachers and administrators to “look on the bright side,” “focus on the positive,” and “keep up a good attitude.” There were bright yellow beanbags with smiley faces sitting along one wall of the classroom. The student aid who recited the pledge of allegiance each day over the PA system always added “Have a great day!” at the end of her recitation. This focus on positive thinking emotionally predisposed students to look negatively upon fictional characters, real individuals or groups of people who did not appear to present a positive outlook on life, which in turn fueled sometimes hostile or racist responses to critiques of racism, which were perceived as whining or complaining.
We often think that if we find the right argument, the right assignment or reading, we can convince students to give up problematic racial beliefs. But my research suggests a different persuasive process at work, one articulated by Kenneth Burke, who writes that persuasion takes place not through “one particular address, but [through] a general body of identifications that owe their convincingness much more to trivial repetition and dull daily reinforcement.” We need to examine these seemingly trivial practices, taken-for-granted values, and daily-reinforced routines of schooling, in order to understand how they scaffold students’ learning about race.

Insight #3

The tropes and metaphors we rely on in our pedagogies – particularly economic metaphors for white privilege that liken whiteness to a wage or property that whites own and that can be used to secure other commodities and privileges – don’t address students’ lived experiences of race and privilege, and thus fuel white student resistance and confusion. We need better metaphors for whiteness and racism, metaphors that speak to the local, affective experiences of race that students bring to the classroom.

How do these insights translate into the classroom and into service? In the classroom, I have experimented with different approaches to antiracist education for several years now. Most recently, I have focused on an approach that privileges students’ emotioned responses to readings and ideas and that makes room for the emotional labor of unlearning racism, and I’ve worked with students to discover metaphors and descriptions of racial identity and privilege that actually do speak to their lived experiences. I’ve also worked to disrupt the routines of schooling that either get in the way of antiracism or that promote values, attitudes, and habits that actually scaffold and enable racism. I do this by employing some of the tricks of critical pedagogy – asking students to generate topics and themes, and to analyze the assumptions behind taken-for-granted school practices, as well as the values behind the discourses privileged in school. Finally, I’ve created assignments that ask students to talk back to contemporary multicultural and whiteness pedagogies by writing about their own affective experiences with and memories of race, and theorizing from there about what racism is and how to end it. A recent assignment asked upper-division pre-service teachers to critique, add to, or complicate Alice McIntyre’s Making Meaning of Whiteness by comparing her descriptions of race with their own experiences and memories of it. Beyond the classroom, I imagine building collaborative partnerships with high schools that focus on changing the practices and values that inadvertently support racism. I imagine pedagogical projects where teachers work to create new metaphors and models of racism and whiteness in our curricula. There are many other possibilities, of course, but I hope my entry here will provide one place to start for the CCCC committee as they begin the task of creating a statement on diversity for our field, one that addresses both its promise, and the myriad impediments we still face in our efforts to enact it.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

"Yes We Can" Both Acknowledge and Act on Difference

Asao Inoue, one of our committee members, has written this week's post on diversity. In it, he links ideas and arguments that look back on part one of our series, and he also provides a segue for us as we look forward to part two. Asao's post is interested in the pedagogical uses of our discussions on diversity as well as the arguments that our committee will use to develop its position statement on diversity. During the week, each member of the CCCC Committee on Diversity will respond to Asao's post by adding our own comments, and we invite our readers to join in the conversation. Our schedule for invited Guest Bloggers will begin next week.

Asao's Blog Entry

In the conversations on diversity so far, most of the writers for part one of our blogging series have expressed a resistance to the term “diversity,” the first being Victor Villanueva, our first contributor and the writer whom I’ll use to draw out one pedagogical lesson that I believe fits our committee’s charge and may allow for productive, rhetorical classroom discussions with students. Villanueva says:

I don’t really work with “diversity,” that all-inclusive and non-inclusive institutional term . . .

Diversity just tries to be all-inclusive—the entire range of differences. That’s what the word means, after all—a range of differences. So—if you’re not part of the “same,” you’re among the range of differences. The French distinguished the Same from the Other. Diversity is the American version of l’autre. But who are the Same?

Villanueva’s question, who are “the Same,” asks us to consider more than a simple answer, such as: the “Same” is a White, middle-class, masculine, heteronormative, Protestant subjectivity. The shadowy referent of “the Same” that Villanueva points out in the uses of the term “diversity” simultaneously has and does not have a material correspondence in our world; nonetheless, our institutional and private rhetorics often function as if we do not need to care about actual correspondences. If we just say we “respect and honor diversity,” not considering what “diversity” really means or how it functions in any instance, then not only is the statement not racist, but life for all is better, forgiving, welcoming – as if differing values, ideas, histories, perspectives, priorities, experiences can always coexist or never clash. Villaneuva also points out, importantly, that: "Acknowledging difference is not the same as acting on those differences--substantively."

So then, how might we act on real differences as teachers? We can ask students, directly, to locate tacit referents to the rhetoric of diversity and envision alternatives on a real landscape on which people exist and work, which is similar to the fascinating activity that Krista Ratcliffe’s blog entry from part one offers. I, for example, might take Will. i. am’s “Yes We Can” video that uses Barack Obama’s January 8 speech (in New Hampshire) to create a rhetoric of diversity, and I would explore this rhetoric together with students in my classes. The goal for the class would be to find correspondences of "the Same" and "the Other" that we can observe, reconstruct, and then recreate in order to understand the strength of the rhetoric’s appeal to particular audiences. We might ask the following questions:
  • Who literally is “the Same” (the center) that speaks in the video “Yes We Can”? What features of sameness and difference are most noticeable? How well does this representation of the Same match our classroom’s?
  • Who is constructed as the Same in the excerpted language of the Obama speech in the video? What features of sameness and difference are most noticeable?
  • Where do each of these sets of referents (the people, issues, places) exist on the landscape that the rhetoric of “diversity” in the video creates? How well does it match our own experiences?
  • If our purpose was to “accurately” provide a representation of our classroom’s “diversity” in a speech or a video, without smoothing out our differences and conflicts, what would it look/sound like?

Certainly there are more questions to ask about rhetorical purpose and context and more ways to frame these questions in our classes. But I hope this brief statement offers a generative start for all of our work around the complicated set of issues that we call “diversity.”

Thursday, October 02, 2008

"CCCC Conversations on Diversity," Part Two

Blog Entry

Welcome to the “CCCC Conversations on Diversity,” Part Two. We want to express our sincere appreciation to all of our readers. We also want to express our sincere thanks to Shirley Logan who, as Chair of CCCC in 2003, worked with the Executive Committee to issue the charge for the work that we do. Our committee, in part, responds to the call of her CCCC Chair’s address in March 2003. Subscribers may find her article, “Changing Missions, Shifting Positions, and Breaking Silences,” in CCC 55:2/December 2003 (you may also find her article in the JSTOR database).

The CCCC Committee on Diversity is pleased to announce the second part of its new blogging series. For the next several months, we will host a forum for CCCC members to broaden our organization’s thinking, talking, and writing about diversity in our profession. The CCCC Committee on Diversity includes the following members: Joyce Irene Middleton (Chair), Beth Godbee, Asao Inoue, Jay Jordan, Gwendolyn Pough, Mya Poe, Annette Powell, and John Stovall.

This week's new entry is a blog entry for open comments for CCCC/NCTE members to blog along with us over the next two weeks.

Starting on October 16, 2008, we will feature blog posts by Guest writers from across the discipline of rhetoric and composition studies in higher education. Please see the archive of part one of our series at, and pass the word. Part one includes Guest blog entries by Victor Villaneuva, Krista Ratcliffe, Malea Powell, Paul Kei Matsuda, Michelle Hall Kells, Frankie Condon, Haivan V. Hoang, Jonathan Alexander, and Mike Rose. All Guest postings (including the archive) will be open to anyone with internet access who wants to read them. In addition, CCCC/NCTE members will be able to post comments, and we really want to hear from you. Everyone can find a new Guest writer’s blog entry bi-weekly (2 times per month), until Thursday, May 14, 2009.

We’d like to ask for your continued attention over the next six months at a computer screen near you. You can help to continue our sustained conversation about the role of diversity in the work that we do (last month we reached over 700 new readers). Of course, the work of rhetoric and composition has addressed issues of diversity for decades, and each year brings new scholars and perspectives to CCCC. Ultimately, we’d like to think about our Guest writers’ statements, your responses, and the archived blog posts, when our Committee generates a CCCC Position Statement on Diversity this year. We believe that this statement should reflect the contributions of as broad a cross-section of members as possible.

See our committee’s charge at:

Thanks for reading our first blog post for part two on the CCCC Conversations on Diversity series.

Enjoy your 2008-09 school year!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

"Cognition and Diversity"

Introductory Bio

Perhaps best known for his award-winning book, Lives on the Boundary, Mike Rose has taught, researched, and written about the challenges facing diverse non-traditional, often underprepared and disadvantaged students in higher education. He has taught students at almost all levels from kindergarden to university and in almost all places from the intercity to the traditional college campus. Rose, currently Professor of Social Research Methodology in the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, is also the author of numerous articles on teaching non-traditional writers and underprepared students and literacy. Additionally, he has authored ten books, including Possible Lives: The Promise of Public Education in America; An Open Language: Selected Writing on Literacy, Learning, and Opportunity; and most recently, The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker. Among his many awards are a Distinguished Lectureship from the American Educational Research Association, Guggenheim Fellowship, Distinguished Teaching Award from UCLA, Grawemeyer Award in Education in 1997, and the David H. Russell Award for Distinguished Research in the Teaching of English from the National Council of Teachers of English.

As Rose states in his own blog ( “If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.” Mike invites CCCC members and their students to subscribe and participate.

Blog Entry

First, let me thank Joyce Middleton and the CCCC Committee on Diversity for inviting me to join this series. Like Victor Villanueva, I come late to the blogosphere, and was nudged, grumbling into it about six months ago. Let me also say that I’m honored to be in the company of the other bloggers and hope my entry adds fruitfully to theirs.

The issue I want to discuss – and I think it’s why Joyce and the committee invited me – is intelligence and the broader construct of cognition: attention and perception, conceptualizing, thinking, problem-solving, etc. We tend not to think about this cluster of topics when discussing diversity – unless we’re discussing exceptional children – but beliefs about intelligence are woven throughout beliefs about race, gender, social class, and ability.

I’ll begin with a little personal history.

I’ve been interested in the way we think for a long time. When I was an English major, I found myself drawn to accounts of a writer’s creative process: What was the inspiration for a story or a key defining moment or image that was the germ of the thing? Or what happened to a poem through various revisions; what did we know about why changes were made? Or I was fascinated by those bursts of creativity that seemed to come out nowhere: for example, how you couldn’t have predicted the intricacies of Moby Dick from Melville’s earlier novels.

Then came psychology and reading in perception and cognition, in child development, in cross-cultural studies. All this got me on the road, provided bodies of knowledge and ways to understand and study.

But not without complication.

The history of psychological and social science – and the humanities as well – is laden with research and writing that reflects the biases of the larger culture from which in emerges. So, as in the larger culture, you have claims about the intellectual inferiority of non-white races, or immigrants, or rural folk, or women. You have claims about linguistic inferiority. You have all sorts of claims about the working-class and the work they do.

I won’t weigh the present essay down with the details of how I found my way through all this and simply begin by using the cognitive perspective toward what I hope are egalitarian ends. (Anyone interested in more of that detail can find it in An Open Language, a complimentary copy of which, I’m pretty sure, CCCC members can get from Bedford Books.) But I do want to zero in on two things that I think are central to my own development, and are pertinent to the ongoing discussion.

One is my own background as the child of immigrant working-class parents growing up in a poor neighborhood. I know intimately many of the kinds of people who are the focus of claims about intellectual and linguistic inferiority. And what I heard and read didn’t always match up.

The second is that I started tutoring and teaching at a relatively young age in schools and programs that served poor and working-class people from a range of racial and ethnic backgrounds – and the settings spanned kindergarten to college. So, again, I saw first-hand the processes of teaching and learning, and I saw what people can do with their minds.

Both of these elements of my personal history certainly contributed to the way I saw myself, my values and dreams, and they contributed as well to an empirical and skeptical bent, useful both to question the ugliness of the discourse that I’d hear on the streets, on the radio, in my own neighborhood and extended family as well as the claims made in some of the academic material I was encountering.

This empirical skepticism, this need to test what I was studying against my own personal and professional experience, enabled me to use cognitively-oriented research to both critique work within the cognitive tradition that diminished human ability as well as critique the many and ongoing claims that rise like crabgrass in our society about the intellectual capabilities of underprepared students, poor folks, people of color, women, manual workers, you name it.

So let me fast-forward now to a few quick summaries of this work.

My study of cognition combined with other areas of study in the humanities and social science led to a series of articles that, collectively, tried to do the following: I wanted to explore the way flawed assumptions about cognition and language have influenced remedial writing curricula; the limiting institutional definitions of remediation and of writing instruction; overgeneralizing explanations as to why some students have difficulty with writing; and the classroom processes by which some students get defined as intellectually and linguistically deficient.

In addition to critique, I advocated a richer, more multifaceted model of cognition and writing and a way to think about curriculum and instruction that honored that richness.

All of this work played itself out in a series of articles that you’ll find in that Open Language collection and, in more narrative form, in Lives on the Boundary.

I can give you a flavor for this writing by doing a pretty unblogospheric thing here and quoting the closing paragraph from one of the articles, “Narrowing the Mind and Page: Remedial Writers and Cognitive Reductionism”:

If I could compress this essay’s investigation down to a single conceptual touchstone, it would be this: Human cognition – even at its most stymied, bungled moments – is rich and varied. It is against this assumption that we should test our theories and research methods and classroom assessments. Do our practices work against classification that encourages single, monolithic explanations of cognitive activity? Do they honor the complexity of interpretive efforts even when those efforts fall short of some desired goal? Do they foster investigation of interaction and protean manifestation rather than investigation of absence? Do they urge reflection on the cultural biases that might be shaping them? We must be vigilant that the systems of intellect we develop or adapt do not ground our students’ difficulties in sweeping, essentially one-dimensional perceptual, neurophysiological, psychological, or linguistic processes, systems that drive broad cognitive wedges between those who do well in our schools and those who don’t.

Though some of this work is of its time (it was written in the 1980s), it unfortunately is pertinent today. Consider the number of basic/remedial/preparatory writing courses that are still built on problematic notions of cognition and language, leading to deadening skills and drills curricula. Or an article that appeared in the June 2008, Atlantic Monthly (that I’m sure is familiar to many readers of this blog) in which a disgruntled community college professor depicts his students as academically dense and marginally literate. Or that old bad penny Charles Murray of The Bell Curve fame peddling again in his latest book, "Real" Education, methodologically flawed notions about intelligence and the social order.

O.K., one more fast-forward, this one to The Mind at Work, a recent project in which I continue exploring questions of cognition, intelligence, and achievement. I blend case histories of blue collar and service workers with cognitive and social analysis to challenge longstanding Western distinctions between mental and physical activity, offering, I hope, a more psychologically and educationally productive way to consider what we do with hand and brain.

From Classical Greece on down, we have tended to make sharp and value-laden separations between the mental and physical, between the philosophical, theoretical, and conceptual versus the practical, applied, and concrete – and, more recently, between the academic and the vocational. These distinctions have affected the way we define intelligence, create curriculum, and organize work. But this kind of binary thinking is inadequate to describe what actually occurs as waitresses or welders (or, for that matter, as teachers or surgeons) apply knowledge, solve problems, arrive at decisions, and make aesthetic judgments.

This set of issues seems especially important for those of us who teach students from working-class families and/or who work in programs aimed at providing occupational training.

I think these issues are also important for all of us, for with our educations can come a predisposition to elevate the intellectual content and value of one kind of work over another and make cognitive judgments about people based on the work they do.

Having said that, I feel the need to explain further, and, if you’ll indulge me one more time, I’m going to do the boorish thing of quoting myself again, this time from The Mind at Work:

This is not a call for a simplified egalitarianism. I am not denying the obvious fact that people come to any pursuit with different interests, talents, knacks for things, motivations, capabilities. Nor am I claiming that all bodies of knowledge and expressions of mind are of the same level of cognitive complexity and social importance. All the cultures I’m familiar with make judgments about competence in the domains that matter to them. (Though ours is more obsessed than any I know with developing measures of the mind and schemes to rank them.) No, the distressing thing is that both in our institutional systems and in our informal talk we tend to label entire categories of work and the people associated with them in ways that generalize, erase cognitive variability, and diminish whole traditions of human activity. Attributions of merit and worth flow throughout the process. We order, we rank, we place at steps upon a ladder rather than appreciating an abundant and varied cognitive terrain.

In closing, let me offer a cautionary tale that illustrates how easily overgeneralized and ungenerous judgments about other people’s thinking can come to us.

For the last dozen or so years I’ve been working a lot with graduate students. A while back, one came to see me with a sketch of a dissertation proposal. It had taken this person a fairly long time to get to this place, having begun then abandoned a previous research topic. And the sketch I was looking at was also the result of many months of deliberation. Along the way another faculty member had commented to me that this person was a “weak” student.

I read the new sketch, and it wasn’t good at all. It was general in some places. In others, one claim didn’t line up with the next. Some sentences were difficult to understand. It was hard to know exactly what the research project was. The comment from my colleague flipped into my mind like a pop-up ad. And so did a sense that’s hard to describe, but was kind of a half-thought/half-feeling that this student might not have the ability to complete a dissertation.

We met and caught up a little, stuff about family and work. Then we turned to the proposal. I decided to avoid its problems and asked the student to talk to me about the project, not in dissertation lingo, but in everyday speech.

What followed was clear, elaborated, interesting. A solid, engaging project. We talked a while longer, getting some notes down on paper. I then turned to the piece I’d read and pointed out a few places where I had had trouble. And the student explained – frustration seeping out – that what I read was an attempt to reconcile conflicting advice from another faculty member, several peers, and an activist in the community to be studied.

This student’s dilemma is familiar to all of us, I’m sure – the way conceptual (and interpersonal) conflicts can negatively affect our writing. But look at what went on in my head when I first read the proposal sketch. Without realizing it, I had absorbed the informal norms of graduate study: that, for example, time-to-degree is a measure of ability or that flawed writing equaled flawed thinking. Mr. Lives-on-the-Boundary had drunk the cognitive Kool Aid.

As I write in that paragraph from The Mind at Work, I’m not trying to ignore the fact that we, all of us, do have different talents, interests, etc. It is possible that the student was, for all sorts of reasons, not ready or equipped to write a dissertation. And, after all, as educators we’re obliged to make judgments about performance and respond accordingly. What is troubling in the anecdote, however, is the ease with which a one-dimensional judgment about intellectual ability came to me.

But the anecdote also points to some ways out of this mess. (And what I’m going to say, I think, resonates with the other blogs.) It reminds us that we live tangled in systems of bias, and that we will always blunder, and, therefore, we need in our teaching some methods to keep us aware, some tools of mindfulness: asking different questions, shifting languages, listening closely. We need certain habits of mind, for example, a testing of our own judgments, a willingness to have them disconfirmed. We need to be alert to the social contexts we inhabit – this was the root of my error – and the norms and beliefs we absorb in them. We need to publicly question the vocabulary and assumptions that constitute these settings. (This blog is a tiny gesture in that direction.) We also need to be creative in fashioning other kinds of spaces within those worlds we inhabit.

These are the kinds of issues and questions we – I – need to keep raising. They keep in sight the ease with which we reduce each other. They contribute to a richer pedagogical imagination. Ant they can help fashion a more humane institutional and civic life.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Queer Pedagogy: Critical Multiculturalism Must Avoid "The Flattening Effect"

Introductory Bio

Jonathan Alexander, PhD, is an author, performance poet, teacher, scholar, queer theorist, sex futurist, and activist. He also studies web design, graphic novels, what used to be called cyberculture, and piano performance.

As a scholar, Jonathan is primarily interested in how people compose with digital technologies, as well as what these compositions mean for their many and varied senses of self, individually and collectively. He also works at the intersection of writing studies and sexuality studies, exploring what it means to "compose queerly," as well as what theories of sexuality, particularly queer theory, have to teach us about literacy in pluralistic democracies.

Jonathan has authored, co-authored, or edited six books: Literacy, Sexuality, Pedagogy: Theory and Practice for Composition Studies; Digital Youth: Emerging Literacies on the World Wide Web; Argument Now, a Brief Rhetoric (with Margaret Barber); Role Play: Distance Learning and the Teaching of Writing (edited with Marcia Dickson); Bisexuality and Transgenderism: InterSEXions of the Others (edited with Karen Yescavage); and Finding Out: An Introduction to LGBT Studies (with Deborah T. Meem and Michelle Gibson). He also edits the Journal of Bisexuality.

Jonathan has served on the CCCC Multiple Uses of Writing Task Force and helped to write the CCCC Position Statement on the Multiple Uses of Writing which was adopted by the CCCC Executive Committee on November 19, 2007.

Professionally, Jonathan is Associate Professor of English and Campus Writing Coordinator at the University of California, Irvine.

His webpage is:

Blog Entry
(Editor's Note: Today's blog entry has been edited from a much longer text, as indicated by the ellipses within the posted text. The longer entry is available at:

As someone long interested in issues of diversity in the teaching of writing in particular and in higher education in general, let me begin by saying that we're already going in the wrong direction if we strive to think about how to “include” diversity in the classroom, in our institutions, and in our profession. Don't get me wrong: we have a LONG way to go before our faculties, our institutions, and our profession are truly representative of the public, much less of our student bodies. And composition as a profession seems, in many ways, to be doing its part. Much composition practice since the “social turn” of the 1980s has attempted to honor the diversity of our students’ experiences and recognize the many identities that students bring into the classroom. Certainly, such attempts should be lauded, particularly as they have created pedagogical spaces in which individuals from a variety of backgrounds can speak their truths, tell their stories, and enrich conversations about identity, culture, and citizenship.

As a queer person, however, I have been simultaneously appreciative and skeptical of such moves. Let me explain. In my writing courses, I have like my colleagues included readings that challenge normative constructions of identity and culture. Frequently, readings about LGBT people or issues interweave with narratives, essays, and manifestoes about race, ethnicity, gender, class, and citizenship. When teaching recently Judd Winick’s Pedro and Me, a graphic novel about the author’s friendship with the openly gay Pedro Zamora, who dies of AIDS in his 20s, I became concerned about what my students were taking away from their encounter with the text and our discussions about it. While students appreciated the friendship that is depicted in the book between a straight and a gay man, they also spoke of that friendship—the subject of Winick’s book—in terms that erased the critical differences between the two: Judd and Pedro loved one another as friends because they realized they were more like one another than not; Pedro’s homosexuality didn’t matter to Judd and wasn’t relevant to their friendship; our commonalities are more important than our differences.

These were the ways in which students talked and wrote about the book. I began to realize that much of my experience in teaching about difference, particularly texts that grapple with queer differences had resulted in much the same lesson: difference doesn’t matter. Curiously, the subtitle of Winick’s book, “Friendship, Loss, and What I Learned,” seem to evoke the “moral of the story,” gesturing towards the seeming necessity of coming up with an “answer,” a “lesson” about the encounter with difference. For my students, what’s important about queers—and what we can learn to tolerate—is that they are, after all, deep down, just like the rest of us. We’re all just basically human. As I thought more about this “flattening effect”—the erasure of queer difference as an important dimension of experience—I began to realize that I was seeing such not just in my students’ response to difference; the invitation to flatten differences seemed built into the structural apparatus that many of us use in approaching and teaching texts that grapple with difference. . . .

In a now classic essay, “Towards a Postmodern Pedagogy,” Henry A. Giroux articulates what I think of as the “double-bind” in the development of a critical pedagogy that relies on narratives to promote multicultural awareness and understanding. . . . Giroux calls us simultaneously to recognize critical differences in multiple narratives while working toward a language of reconstruction, “offering students a language to reconstruct their moral and political energies” in the pursuit of justice (691, 695-6). . . .

When I turn to queer colleagues and their work on including lesbian and gay voices in the classroom, I note a similar tension. Malinowitz, for instance, toward the end of Textual Orientations: Lesbian and Gay Students and the Making of Discourse Communities, argues for a pedagogy that “entail[s] thinking about the ways margins produce not only abject outsiderhood but also profoundly unique ways of self-defining, knowing, and acting; and about how, though people usually want to leave the margins, they do want to be able to bring with them the sharp vision that comes from living with friction and contradiction” (252). . . . Gay and lesbian students often do have “outsider” knowledge, “sharp vision,” and the “experience of crafting and performing multiple identities”—knowledges that are useful for all students to cultivate as they narrate the stories of their lives and critically examine the intertwining of the personal and the political. At the same time, I worry over how such knowledges, insights, and visions move into the classroom and then become co-opted, or lost, or flattened as they are “reconstructed” into the dominant narratives of collective experience. . . .

As such, a significant part of my concern with relying on narration of difference has to do with what I call the “flattening effect,” or the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) erasures of difference that occur when narrating stories of the “other.” Such a “flattening effect” arises out of the unexamined assumption that “understanding” and then “tolerance” or even “respect” are predicated on “identity.” By “identity,” I mean not just the acknowledgement that other identities exist, but that those identities are, in essence, somehow identical to your own. Whether you’re black, gay, Latino, disabled, or whatnot, you are still fundamentally human, concerned with similar core issues and very likely sharing core values, if not specific beliefs. Attaining “respect,” then, means that many of us have our differences essentially elided by an overriding narrative of shared humanity. Naturally, I am delighted to be acknowledged as human, particularly since many queers throughout history have been denied their humanity and treated as little better than animals, often deserving of slaughter. Those sent to Nazi concentration camps because of suspected or demonstrated homosexuality and those treated to electric shock and other forms of “therapy” at the hands of various members of the American psychiatric establishment are just some of those whose basic humanity has been denied.

But, if I may push a personal point in the service of my argument, my difference in my humanity is what is important, particularly in addressing some systemic violences against queers. If I am in danger of being assaulted, it is because I am not straight. I am a queer man. This is not to say that all queer people share a common sense of identity and common understanding of the world. Far from it. But it is to say that my queerness positions me as fundamentally different from the majority of straights. As a queer man, I have experienced discrimination within my family, on the job, and in the public sphere because of the intimacies that I desire to share with other men. I do not ask you, if you are straight, to understand how that discrimination has hurt me, angered me, and shaped my view of the world. Part of me hopes you cannot understand it, even as I insist that it must be acknowledged as a significant dimension of my experience of the world.

What narratives, and what writing assignments, work to uncover these dimensions—the dimensions of profound difference that complicate and problematize rather flattened narratives of a common, shared humanity—much less a common, shared sense of citizenship?

To answer such questions, I’ve been looking to the work of philosophers and theorists who have considered issues of diversity, alterity, and writing. For instance, in Outside the Subject, Levinas asks, “Isn’t there a type of experience in which something is given to me, indeed thrusts itself upon me, that can never be translated as a meaning for me?” For Levinas, what is so given is the uniqueness of the other, a uniqueness that our “knowledge” of the other, our attempts to know, to categorize, to order the other, violates. Levinas argues that a “person cannot be represented or given to knowledge in his or her uniqueness, because there is no science but of generality” (114). . . . In our ordering of the real, most often expressed in our determining of the normative, we tell stories about one another that reduce our experiences to bland commonalities. Judith Butler, in Giving an Account of Oneself, offers cogent analyses of how we “author” ourselves, of how we tell the stories of our lives and, in the process, open up spaces for understanding how our life narratives are imbricated in larger social forces and norms (17). . . .

What kinds of writing assignments might emerge out of this redirection from “understanding” difference to acknowledging radical alterity? How might we revise and rewrite some standard assignments that attempt to produce in students a multicultural sensibility? A simple way to begin might be by having students not write about what they believe they “know” about one another, but what they suspect they do not know. In Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability, Robert McRuer asks important questions that query composition’s call to have students produce “products” about what they know, what they can argue about, and how they might persuade others (147). . . .

For McRuer, both queerness and disability offer challenges to the normative—challenges that are frequently glossed over as students seek to reiterate narratives of cultural tolerance and human commonality. Acknowledging the messiness, the unruly disorder of bodies and desires that don’t quite fit into the norm, that refuse simply to be tolerated and accepted as the “same,” means that we may have to question some of our fundamental compositional practices—such as training students to write the “composed” essay that neatly presents points, weighs various positions, and argues through to a rational conclusion. Instead, we may have to acknowledge the points where our knowledge of one another fails to be coherent—where we don’t know. We can take a clue from Butler and point students in the direction of analyzing how the drive to “narrative coherence” forecloses on some possibilities for acknowledging radical differences—differences that are crucial to acknowledge when facing the other, challenging totalizing visions of the world, and learning to live a bit more generously with one another.

One way to approach an analysis of the violence of “narrative coherence” may lie in having students respond to difficult texts that directly challenge readers’ ability to make radical alterity coherent and tame. I’m thinking of Gloria Anzaldua’s La Frontera/Borderlands, written partly in Spanish and describing through a variety of genres the author’s experiences of being between cultures, between different totalizing realities. The use of a different language in Anzaldua’s text is designed to be both inclusive and alienating, to honor Anzaldua’s multiple heritages and challenge a reader’s expectations that a text will easily make sense, or that a text is only worth knowing if it’s accessible. Such a rhetorical move gestures also to Anzaldua’s unknowability as a mestiza in a white dominant culture. As Anzaldua herself says, reflecting on her simultaneous visibility and invisibility, presence and absence, “I am visible—see this Indian face—yet I am invisible. I both blind them with my beak nose and am their blind spot. But I exist, we exist. They’d like to think I have melted in the pot. But I haven’t, we haven’t. The dominant white culture is killing us slowly with its ignorance” (108). The dominant culture assumes it knows her as part of its “melting pot” of cultures, but Anzaldua knows that such “knowledge” is itself an unfortunate “blind spot,” particularly as it leads to lethal ignorances. . . .

Indeed, as we work with students on developing an appreciation for and understanding of how writing moves in the world, we should not eschew texts that are difficult and challenging in favor of texts that replicate “safe” norms or tolerable differences. Doing so robs students of developing a strong critical sense of the power of writing to challenge, to unsettle, to change us. . . . To create opportunities to understand one another . . . may require that we risk substantive discomfort. And I would argue that such discomfort itself may be the proper subject of student compositions as they grapple with the queer other. Certainly, some will argue that it is perhaps impossible to construct writing assignments based on what is impossible to know—on incommensurability, or unknowability. But I maintain that that unknowability is the proper subject of writing itself.

Others will argue, of course, that all people are fundamentally different from one another. Yes, we are. But before the story of shared fundamental difference becomes yet another common narrative of our shared humanity, we should recognize the interlocking systems of oppression that serve as the ontological bases for discrimination. Indeed, any acknowledgement of radical alterity should lead to a movement from trying to understand an individual to attempting to understand structures that enable, even induce discrimination. Such an approach could comprise our radical, critical pedagogy. Naturally, I am in many ways just another privileged white person (and a white male at that) who is offering alternatives to our current brands of multiculturalism. It will be up to all of us “from the margins” to consider more powerful and productive ways in which we can acknowledge and write about the “other” in each of us.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Learning about Racial “Diversity” & College Composition

Introductory Bio

Haivan V. Hoang is Assistant Professor of English and Director of the Writing Center at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Her ethnographic work on Vietnamese-American rhetorical identities has been widely recognized for its insight into Asian American identity and literacy. Her presentations and publications have addressed important contemporary issues related to Asian American identity, including cultural memory in rhetorical performances and language politics. Her dissertation, "To Come Together and Create a Movement: Solidarity Rhetoric in the Vietnamese American Coalition (VAC)," won the James Berlin Outstanding Dissertation Award in 2005.

Her current book project, Rewriting Injury: Asian American Rhetoric and Campus Racial Politics, explores the ways Asian American students in post-1960s California have used extracurricular rhetorical spaces to intervene in school racial politics centered on a "rhetoric of injury." The study counterposes two historical moments in Asian American
education: the early 1970's identification of injury and claim to language, whether to a bilingual-bicultural education in Lau v. Nichols or alternative student newspapers among Asian American student activists, and the early 2000's adaptation of the rhetoric of injury in the context of what one compositionist has called "diversity fatigue." In addition to her scholarship, Hoang's undergraduate and graduate teaching focuses on rhetoric, race, and politics. She has been an active member of many departmental and university committees at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and the Ohio State University. She is a former member of the CCCC Committee on Diversity and has been the co-chair of the Asian/Asian American Caucus since 2005.

Blog Entry

It was with a little apprehension that, over two years ago, I decided to teach a graduate course called Writing and Race. The course was an effort on my part to address the meaning of racial “diversity” in my research and teaching.

Why I Proposed to Teach Writing and Race
The impetus for the course was, in fact, my research. I hoped that teaching a course on Writing and Race would help me get past a snag in my writing. At the time, I was beginning the introduction to my book on Asian American college students and their activist rhetoric; the manuscript tentatively titled, Rewriting Injury: Asian American Rhetoric and Campus Racial Politics, is still in the works. The book, through historiography and ethnography, explores political texts produced by Asian American students: alternative news publications, student club’ constitutions, conversations in club meetings, and other activist rhetoric. In short, my purpose is to call attention to Asian American students’ activist rhetoric in extracurricular spaces and to mine these texts for broader lessons about rhetoric, campus racial politics, and higher education.

But then there was this snag: How could I introduce the project in a compelling way to composition faculty, especially those who neither self-identify as Asian/Asian American nor teach students who themselves are identified as such? I worried that readers would ask me a dreaded though fair question, What does this have to do with college composition? or Quite frankly, why do Asian American students’ activist rhetorics matter to my understanding of writing or writing pedagogy?

I soon realized that, in order to explain what compositionists can gain from my book on Asian American students’ activist rhetoric, I needed to step back and address an even bigger question. How have racial politics and college composition informed one another since the 1960s, and why should compositionists be asking this question?

Teaching a graduate seminar on Writing and Race was a way to explore this question in more depth, but I had a few concerns. To what extent could I account for the complex and contradictory history of race in America? How could I maintain intellectual vigor when trying to teach race scholarship from several disciplines? How would I facilitate class discussions if they were to get heated—or even worse, grow silent? How willing would I be to negotiate viewpoints that I hold dear? I decided to take the plunge because I wanted to further understand how racial politics and composition studies have been intertwined and believe that this is important for graduate students entering the field. Even with the good work that composition scholars have contributed on race as a concept or on racialized writers, we still need to do much more to clarify the ways race figures into our teaching, scholarship, and service.

I believe that’s partly why Joyce Middleton and her colleagues on the CCCC Committee on Diversity kindly invited us all to reflect on everyday strategies for responding to campus diversity. So, I share here a bit about the Writing and Race course in the hope that readers can draw on these ideas when addressing “diversity” in your respective teaching and research efforts.

Composing the Writing and Race Syllabus
I began preparing by defining my terms. Writing is a social art, the practice of crafting language in order to engage with one another; writing is informed by and informs how we understand reality. Race, as Michael Omi and Howard Winant explain in Racial Formation in the United States, “is a concept which signifies and symbolizes social conflicts and interests by referring to different types of human bodies” (55). Our understanding of race shifts as a result of “racial projects,” which are “simultaneously an interpretation, representation, or explanation of racial dynamics, and an effort to reorganize and redistribute resources along particular racial lines” (56). In the class, this would be our starting point.

Then, I generated a list of “racial projects” since the 1960s that also involved conceptualizations of writing, student writers, composition pedagogy, and disciplinary histories of college composition. The list was wide and varied, and so were the participants within these “projects.” Consider how the following “projects” evidence the complex ways our discipline intersects with racial politics:

  • the selection of English as the language of early college composition requirements and university courses in general;
  • school segregation for racial minority children;
  • writing education at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs);
  • extracurricular literacy practices in African American women’s literary clubs;
  • the legitimation of Black English through 1960s and 70s sociolinguistic research;
  • debates over Chinese American, linguistic minority students’ civil rights in the 1974 case Lau v. Nichols;
  • prejudice against speakers and writers of Black English, particularly in the Ann Arbor Black English case and in the mid-1990s Ebonics controversy in Oakland;
  • the introduction of “basic writing,” specifically following CUNY’s 1970 adoption of an open admissions policy, and a subsequent racializing of basic writers;
  • CCCC statements, including Students’ Right to Their Own Language and the National Language Policy;
  • the argument to validate codeswitching among speakers and writers of, for example, Black English, Hawai‘i Pidgin, Spanish, and more;
  • critiques of multicultural pedagogy and related assumptions about authenticity;
  • debates over the ways race has or has not been addressed in the context of process approaches to teaching writing;
  • historical recovery of racial minority writers and writing teachers;
  • recognition of the absence of linguistic diversity from composition studies and exploring the complicated relationship between ethnicity and race;
  • arguments for and refutations against movements to make English the official national language;
  • burgeoning research on World Englishes;
  • inquiry into whiteness and the implications of whiteness studies on composition pedagogy; and
  • the inclusion of racial minority writers and writing teachers in histories of college composition.

Surely, there must be more, but this was a start. I composed the syllabus, ordering the required readings (listed below--see hyperlink) under the following headings:

  1. Introduction to Racial Formation & College Composition
  2. From the Late-1960s and Early-1970s “Social Turn” to the Post-Civil Rights Movement
    “Retreat from Race”
  3. Ethnicity, Language Difference, and Language Politics
  4. Critical Race Theory, Whiteness Studies, and a Critique of Rights Rhetoric
  5. Reflections & Looking Forward…

Students in the class would write weekly questions and comments on our discussion board; contribute to discussion; and propose, draft, and revise a final essay. In the end, I was appreciative of the students, who were smart, collaborative, and questioning. Their talk and their writing about the readings yielded important insights and fresh points of departure.

What I Learned about Racial “Diversity” and College Writing
Racial “diversity” is surely complex; it is the accumulation of past and present racial projects, including those I glimpsed above. So I present just a few of the thoughts-in-progress that emerged from our class in response to the question, How have racial politics and college composition informed one another since the 1960s, and why should compositionists be asking this question?

Racial minority students prior to the 1950s and 60s were scarcely visible in histories of college composition and, for that matter, mainstream American universities. Not until the Third World Liberation Front strikes for ethnic studies and “self-determination” and universities’ subsequent adoptions of “multiculturalism” and “diversity” did racial minority students become systematically visible in higher education (through admissions data, new courses, new student support services, and so on). In spite of the critiques against university commitments to diversity—even valid ones—I am encouraged that the institutionalization of “diversity” provides an opening to name and discuss issues concerning racial minorities on college campuses.

The climate of civil rights activism, as disciplinary narratives tell us, was a turning point for college composition. It is common knowledge among compositionists that, in 1974, CCCC issued the position statement Students’ Right to Their Own Language. The statement was a response to the ways criticism of dialect difference could mask racist approaches (even if inadvertent) to language education.

But this historical moment of the 1960s and 70s also hummed with related racial projects in language education that need to be understood in concert. We might read the Third World Liberation Front strikes for ethnic studies alongside the introduction of “basic writing” at CUNY. We might read Lau v. Nichols and its impact on Chinese American students alongside discourse about Black English. And then, shifting to the late 1970s onward, we might read interest in process approaches to pedagogy alongside historical recovery projects that attend to ethnic/cultural heritages that inform writing practices in the present. We might read calls to recognize world Englishes and linguistic diversity (like those by fellow blogger Paul Kei Matsuda) alongside critical race theorists’ play with genre.

Knitting these racial projects together, we are faced with abundant evidence that indeed race matters in the teaching of college writing. How does it matter? SRTOL begins to answer this question by revealing how disregard for dialect difference can mask uneasiness with racial difference. As a result, compositionists and other researchers of language have attempted to validate linguistic difference by documenting different dialect/language systems and historicizing (and thus valuing) the ethnic/cultural heritages that inform writing practices in the present. Indeed, we require further study into the relationship between ethnic heritage and racial politics, which becomes especially important in light of the changing nature of Englishes across nations.

And there is still more work to do. We need a deeper understanding of the ways racial “diversity” takes shape on college campuses and thus produces students rhetorical imperatives. For me, it is important to study Asian American students’ activist rhetoric because their performances and the conditions that call for their performances cue the dynamic relationship between racial politics and composing practices (even if extracurricular).

The inquiry into racial “diversity” should, I hope, continue for some time. With this reflection, I mean to suggest that I address diversity –whether in my scholarship or my teaching—by seeking deeper understanding of what racial difference means and how it impacts the teaching and learning of writing.

See the syllabus at

CCCC Annual Convention

2009 Convention logo

March 11-14, 2009
San Francisco, CA