Thursday, July 24, 2008

Diversity, Metaphorical Constructions, and Enacting Deliberative Democracy in Teaching, Scholarship, and Service

Introductory Bio

Michelle Hall Kells is an associate professor and director of rhetoric and writing in the English department at the University of New Mexico. She teaches graduate and undergraduate classes in 20th Century Civil Rights Rhetoric; Contemporary and Classical Rhetoric; Writing and Cultural Studies, and Language Diversity. Dr. Kells’s research interests include civil rights rhetorics, sociolinguistics, and composition/literacy studies. She served as the Program Chair for the 2007 UNM Civil Rights Symposium, “40 years of Community Activism, 1967-2007: Civil Rights Reform Then and Now.” This symposium was a notable success and part of Kells’s vision for UNM and the discussion of civil rights and rhetoric in the Southwest and beyond. Dr. Kells is currently the Program Chair for the fall 2008 University of New Mexico Civil Rights Symposium: “Civic Literacy Across Communities: A Public Forum." The symposium seeks to generate cross-cultural dialogue that engages diverse voices and that promotes inclusion. Kells also developed a variation on the WAC model entitled Writing Across Communities. The WACommunities project, a visionary one, is designed to help University faculty, graduate teaching instructors, administrators, and staff understand the many contexts in which students need to read and write effectively, and to provide instruction to meet those needs. This program is unique both in the diverse student population it serves and in its focus on “educat[ing] students for global lives…in which the ability to communicate fluently across boundaries is essential.” Professor Kells is coeditor of Attending to the Margins: Writing, Researching, and Teaching on the Front Lines, and Latino/a Discourses: On Language, Identity, and Literacy Education (1999). She is author of Hector P. Garcia: Everyday Rhetoric and Mexican American Civil Rights (2006). Her current book project is Vicente Ximenes and LBJ’s “Great Society”: The Rhetoric of Mexican American Civil Rights Reform.

Editor's Note: Find information about the UNM Civil Rights Symposium on Michelle's webpage:

Blog Entry

The metaphorical construction of “diversity” has functioned as a first principal in my scholarship, teaching, and service since the beginning of my professional career. Conditioned by my own place and position, the notion of diversity has been prominent in the ways I have framed my research, shaped my teaching, and structured my service projects for over the past 10 years. My own migratory experience living, moving, and identifying with communities in the Southwest certainly has formed my conceptionalization of diversity. I cannot extricate myself from the people and place in which my own intellectual life has been cultivated. So I must begin with the ecology of my own experience. The inter-relatedness of space, landscape, living processes constitute change-over-time, the wellspring of diversity. Let me develop this concept further through metaphor.

I see bio-diversity as an enviro-physiological problem-solving response and process shaped by ever-shifting conditions. To extend the metaphor further, I see cultural (or ethno/sociolinguistic) diversity as an enviro-sociological problem-solving response and process shaped by ever-shifting conditions. Variation and innovation are intrinsic survival strategies. We, and this dynamic environment we inhabit, are works-in-progress. Like language itself we are a mixed collective, a constellation, an aggregate, un mestizaje. Purity is a myth. We are all mestizos. My own research again and again reveals that we are more successful negotiating this complex universe with a rich and varied communicative repertoire. If we are truly interested in helping our students thrive, we as educators will help them articulate their multiple spheres of belonging (constituted through the discourses they bring with them and those they acquire in the highly specialized discursive world of the university). Where and how do our students claim citizenship? How do we coordinate our changing lives, changing conditions?

These questions have challenged me to triangulate constructs of diversity with deliberative democracy (as context) and rhetoric (as practice). As a concept, “diversity” began for me as a recognition (and reconciliation) with notions of “difference” (racial, linguistic, class, cultural, sexual, generational, religious, regional, national, physiological, social, intellectual, perceptual, political etc.). Closely aligned, however, with this recognition of difference is the realization of disparity. Not all variations (linguistic, cultural, racial, sexual, etc.) have equal social value. Systems of hereditary privilege ascribe privilege to selected groups over others. That reality has always troubled me. As such, my preoccupation with constructions of diversity has fused with concerns about disparity (issues of social justice), and has evolved into a prevailing question about how diversity constitutes and is constituted within a nation of heterogeneous communities.

Diversity invigorates a deliberative democracy. Diversity perpetually complicates deliberative democratic institutions, including our colleges and universities. Difference challenges us to adapt, change, grow, respond. If we live in an exponentially diverse social world, how do we construct our relationships to one another? How do we distribute our cultural, political, and material resources equitably? Rhetoric then becomes the means by which we (as teachers, scholars, and citizens) constitute and protect the presence and participation of the diverse groups within a deliberative democracy. Reflecting on the practices of activists in civil rights, labor, human rights, women’s rights, indigenous sovereignty, I am impressed that all exercised a rhetoric of presence through discursive identification with a people, a place, a moment, and a vision of social justice. These should be our models as educators of an endangered generation.

When I joined the faculty at the University of New Mexico, the chair of the department asked me to launch a conversation about WAC. I aligned notions of social diversity and deliberative democratic practice with a model of WAC I call “Writing Across Communities.” This project has evolved over the past four years into growing conversations about literacy education, social justice, and cultural diversity. Programmatically, we have reconceptualized the First Year Writing program with these issues in mind. We have initiated interdepartmental and cross-community discussions on civil rights, civic literacy, place-based learning, ethnolinguistic identity, and academic access. I recently reflected on this project in an article for the Journal of Reflections: Writing, Service-Learning, and Community Literacy (see the Spring 2007 issue):

The challenge for the Writing Across Communities initiative at UNM is enhancing
opportunities to build identification with the cultures of the academy as well
as cultivate appreciation across the university for the cultures and
epistemologies our students bring with them. By taking an advocacy role in
the university for ethnolinguistically-diverse students, WAC can help to mediate
and educate faculty and administrators about the constraints and concerns facing
college writers. Communicative competence depends upon complex strategies of
shuttling between ideas and audiences, a challenging, culturally-dependent
process. What might WAC look like if we open the conceptual umbrella to include
engagement with a broad range of cultural, civic, and professional
discourses? What would WAC look like if we concerned ourselves with not
only the discourses our students acquire in the classroom, but the rhetorical
resources they bring to the university? Under the rubric of Writing Across
Communities, the scope of WAC enlarges to engage not only ideas across the
disciplines, but the dissonance and dissent concomitant to the democratization
of academic discourse. Engaging dissonance is precisely the work of civic
and academic discourse, of taking on the role of citizen and scholar, of
belonging to a human community. Writing is the act of negotiating
difference through language.

While WAC and writing centers are
uniquely structured to serve the university community as cultural mediators,
there has been little guidance in WAC scholarship addressing the needs and
interests of ethnolinguistically-diverse student populations. The challenge for
writing program, writing center, and WAC administrators is finding productive
ways to foreground the social, cultural, and environmental dimensions of the
communicative context in the teaching of writing. (Kells)

Framing conversations on “diversity” and enacting advocacy initiatives within the institution is my primary role in the university. As a newly tenured professor and recently appointed director of Rhetoric and Writing, mediating communities and resources represents my principal duty. How do I address the topic of diversity in my scholarship, teaching, and service? I am creating new courses (e.g. Rhetorics of Place and Belonging, Language and Diversity, Writing and Cultural Studies, etc.), coordinating the Writing Across Communities Colloquia Series, chairing the Civil Rights Symposia, building liaisons and partnerships within and beyond the university, opening a community writing center, cultivating new research in civil rights rhetoric, establishing educational scholarships in Language and Literacy Studies, and mentoring students as new leaders. Diversity represents abundance—opportunity, vision, and generativity.

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