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.

CCCC Annual Convention

2009 Convention logo

March 11-14, 2009
San Francisco, CA