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.”


Kafkaz said...

I would never choose to use this video in an FYC writing class. I *might* choose it to use in an advanced course on rhetoric--certainly it would be appropriate in a course specifically geared toward examining campaign rhetoric and strategy. It would be a good fit, perhaps, in a course designed to examine how online and multimedia strategies are used, now.

I'd be concerned about the choice of this video as text for examination. How much room would there be for students to examine not only the qualities that might make it strike some as inspirational, but also the qualities that might make it strike some as vapid, a total ad, something very reminiscent, say, of the Benetton campaigns, which were designed to make people feel politically informed and active, but were ultimately still about selling sweaters?

How much room? How much real room?

I'd be concerned about that. I am concerned about it.

jay said...

Both Victor's and Asao's comments about "easy" approaches to diversity (as a consumable, as a bromide, etc.) remind me of a situation that occurred at Penn State several years ago when I was a grad student there. Near the end of the school year, several African American students on the football team received anonymous death threats. They and their families were extremely alarmed, to say the least, as were other students and faculty of color. Yet the response of the university's administration at the time was lacking: specifically, they made statements about the importance of respecting the climate of diversity on campus, but they did little to address the present, dangerous situation.

In response, hundreds--probably over 1,000 students (I don't recall the estimates) occupied the student center for about a week during Spring exams. What stood out to me at the time were two things that still hang in tension with each other in my memory: the attempts by some students to create "sameness" (as in "We Are Penn State!") while occupying the student center AND the real, palpable anger that many students--particularly African Americans--were feeling and expressing.

Over the following summer, a faculty member wrote a letter to the editor of the local (off-campus) newspaper, expressing his gratitude that the anger had died down and that cooler heads could prevail while the students were gone. But I asked at the time--and still ask--what about the productive possibilities of conflict and anger: two states that often disrupt any number of very privileged rhetorical operations, such as consensus building? And how is anger valued differently depending on the different bodies that represent it?

Kafkaz said...

This is odd for me because being part of a group--claiming and caring about a group identity--isn't one of my best things, with very few exceptions (though there definitely are a few). I may be one of the few who is utterly unmoved by the "yes we can" tagline, and this is both because it's so terribly vague and simplistic (very much, to me, like "just do it" or some such, which I always hear as "do, don't think), and because I'm not seeing myself as part of the "we" defined there, stars and such notwithstanding. Nonetheless, I find myself wanting to defend the "we are xyz!" folks as *also* being onto something important. What the students were reaching for is not something I'd automatically see as parallel to the empty gestures of an administration very interested in making a problem go away. Instead, there's a desire for connection, there, and a kind of connection that isn't inherently suspect, and that wouldn't necessarily require or entail silencing or erasing anger and fear.

Connection can be a productive thing, too. It isn't all about erasure.

Asao B. Inoue said...

Hi all,

Kafkaz, I chose that particular video for exactly the reasons you mentioned. Our students should confront with us the ways in which “room” for interpretations and examinations are also rhetorical features that structure WHAT we can understand as much as HOW we do. And we should talk back and reconstruct in order to see better possibilities. I think there can be profitable conversations to be had from Benetton-like media that represent “diversity,” the kind of media that our students experience everyday, and they often seem to be without conflict or tension, when in fact, there is lots of conflict there, or lots erased (as Jay mentions concerning his Penn State story). And I’m so glad that Jay shared that Penn State story, with all its unresolved tensions and differences exposed like a band-aid peeled back from a wound. We rarely in our country peel back the band-aid of “diversity” to reveal our racial wounds. In fact, these two cultural moments, if we can equate them for a moment, are interestingly different. One offers no tension, just warm, soft diversity linked to a political candidate and packaged in capitalistic feel-good video-food, while the second offers razor-sharp differences and conflicts, anger, and (I’m sure) bitterness, with real people, their safety, and futures at stake. Both diversity moments exist in our world, often simultaneously.

And so, Kafkaz, how much room is there? As much as we (teachers and students) decide to see and construct in such rhetorics of diversity – and yes, often it’s uncomfortable, painful, and even upsetting to explore – but I find much wisdom in your hesitancy. And Jay, how is anger valued differently? Yeah, that’s the question, isn’t it? I mean we could ask the same question about how joy is valued differently when represented in different bodies. But, of course, I’m agreeing with you that anger is important in these cases, and it’s just as valid and valuable as a calm and cool demeanor. Maybe some answers should come from a valuing of anger. I will say that I’ve found on a few occasions that my mind is sharper and my senses more acute when I’m angry because I FEEL my position most viscerally. But mostly, I think most people make decisions and live their lives by their feelings, not logic or “reasoning,” as if we could separate “reasoning” from “emotions.”

Anyway, thanks to both of you for responding! Peace.

-- Asao

Joyce Middleton said...

Colin Powell spoke eloquently on Sunday about why he decided to endorse Obama—“I have come to the conclusion that . . . because of the inclusive nature of his campaign . . . I will be voting for Obama.”
Powell contrasts Obama’s political campaign of inclusion with the Republican party’s campaign’s practice of a political rhetoric of division—especially with its recent robocalls and its blind-sided arguments about Muslim-Americans.
Powell argues, passionately, that “we have got to stop polarizing” (fortunately, the FBI has been investigating the dangerous behaviors on display at Republican party rallies). In response to what we have all been hearing in some form, I reflect on a simple syllogism:
Major Premise: Candidates who are comfortable in the company of terrorists should not be President.
Minor Premise: Barack Obama is comfortable in the company of terrorists.
Conclusion: Barack Obama should not be President.

Eliminate either the major or minor premise and the rhetorical enthymeme that Aristotle famously described becomes active and powerfully effective—the rhetorical audience completes the “logic” of this argument by filling in the missing premise.
Recently, in “Call Off the Pit Bull,” Kathleen Parker, conservative columnist for the Washington Post, called for an end to the Republican party’s use of divisive enthymemes (which she called “code” words). In response to the political discourse of Palin’s rallies following the VP debates, Parker wrote, “It isn’t just the ‘maverick’ word, which we now may consign to the Cliché Crematorium. Sprinkled throughout Palin’s remarks were phrases that set the free associative mind in motion.”
Perhaps the use of divisive rhetorical enthymemes reflects the kind of polarizing rhetoric that Colin Powell condemned in his rejection of the Republican campaign and his endorsement of Obama (and not simply the fact that he’s an African American as Rush Limbaugh and others want to suggest).
Wayne Booth recently affirmed for us, once again, that rhetoric is our primary alternative to violence as well as our primary resource for building community. I thought about his vision, when Cheryl Glenn asked us to think about the shooting violence in our schools today—at Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Northern Illinois. In her 2008 CCCC Chair’s address, Glenn lamented that “we and our students inhabit a school culture of physical danger.” Her call to CCCC members, that “we must orchestrate our future so that it is shared,” would help to make CCCC a great model for a healthy democracy.
It is within this brief context that I would agree with Jay’s reflections on the tragic discourses at Penn State and Asao’s suggestion that rhetoric and composition teachers should explicitly teach “pluralistic rhetorical inquiry” in all of our classes. Rhetoric should not be taught as a topic of the “right” or the “left” (because it’s neither). It should be taught as a critical tool that today’s democracy needs in order to facilitate the discourses of difference in our pluralistic democracy. We need rhetorical knowledge to survive our age of “rhetrickery,” (again, Wayne Booth’s term). Importantly, respect for our democracy in the U.S. demands a respect for our rhetoric.
Author Richard Cullen Rath has recently argued that perhaps e pluribus pluribum would make more sense for the image of American identity and citizenship today rather than “the myth of e pluribus unum.” Each of us has a very real stake in our “shared” future of democracy. Perhaps a term like “diversity” is not sufficient after all (as so many of our Guest Bloggers have argued). Maybe we’re really looking for a rhetoric of inclusion. What would that look like, I wonder?
(Here are 3 great short newspaper reports on rhetoric and democracy, of high interest to teachers, in the current political campaign);;

John Stovall said...

First of all, I appreciate Asao’s presentation of a thought provoking blog and excellent suggestion for classroom work. Like Asao and Joyce and Jay, I agree there is a danger to a mere warm and fuzzy acknowledgement of the concept “diversity’—particularly if that’s where our involvement stops. Like many another term or concept which becomes repeated over time, it can lose its edge, become smooth through wear, and in the process, a little slippery to grasp. It can lead to complacency. And with those in our profession, a concern of mine has been that at times, conversations of “diversity” might just be seen as “preaching to the choir.” With that as a disclaimer for my own remarks, I’d like to share a couple of observations and connections.
Asao is certainly right: It’s true that actions count. Actions, certainly paramount, however, are predicated on values and I’m not quite certain that a appreciation of diversity in its more complex forms is a victory secured yet. A connection which occurs to me as still calling for acknowledgment is as Mike Rose discussed in his blog entry of part one: “Our ‘Ease’ of Cognitive Judgment in the Academy,”
Rose asserted, “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’d like to extend this concept as well. Much outside the classroom and course work informs the writing teacher’s daily acts. So I suggest that one’s biggest playing field is not just the classroom, but what we do in our other academic roles too. I think these issues are also important for us, for with our educations can come a predisposition to elevate our preferences of intellectual content and values. And it wears off on our students too. On occasions we see our students attempt to imitate “academic writing” even as we exhort them to be themselves with the old saw “write to express, not impress.”

I believe also many institutions, even those dedicated to serving the most diverse of populations, are encouraged by the present political administrations at all levels to seek too many assessment measures of the standardized type, the easily replicated, the safe and uniform. The metrics we are sometimes encouraged to use, whether for placement or classroom grading or admission or graduation, reflect somebody’s standardized ideal of sufficiency—maybe not ours. And this calls for continuous self re-appraisal. After all, as Rose stated in his blog, “We need certain habits of mind, for example, a testing of our own judgments, a willingness to have them disconfirmed.”

One tangential observation: A promising approach to thinking about diversity in our different academic roles as well as the classroom may be what Peter Elbow called the “believing game” in his presentation last year at CCCC. In a sense (and at the risk of oversimplifying) I think this sort of involvement with an issue such as diversity enables, as he suggested then, the creative use of language, metaphor and new ways to act. And, I think, differs from mere acknowledgement or reconciliation of opposing points of views or questioning of the status quo through critical thinking.

Beth said...

This morning I’m thinking about what Asao, Jay, Joyce, John, and many of the guest bloggers in Part I have questioned: what is the usefulness of the word “diversity”? Does the word itself do more harm than good? Or, as Frankie Condon titled her blog entry: “Why do we really need the word, diversity?”

At the same time, I’m feeling emotions of anger and sadness as I reflect on a question I’ve heard asked recently on news programs. The question: “What would an Obama presidency mean for all Americans, not only African Americans?” **For one example, see this article by CBS News:

This question, like others posed daily and presented as “news,” could not exist without white privilege. McCain, Palin, and even Biden have never faced this question—or other variations such as “What would a McCain presidency mean for all Americans, not only white Americans?”—and they probably never will. **For more examples of white privilege in the election, see Tim Wise’s blog:

I raise these examples because they represent, to me, how the word “diversity” fails. Diversity fails to express the types of inequity, marginalization, and oppression that those of us advocating for diversity care about working against. And because inequity and privilege and oppression are rarely named as such, those of us advocating also spend much of our time trying to convince others that these conditions still exist and are still thick within our campuses and in our communities.

In her blog, Frankie Condon begins convincing me that even as diversity is a “fast-word […] that’s all about efficiency,” it is needed for pragmatism—for institutions and organizations “to move, to shift even if just a little bit.” Frankie writes:

"We need the word because some significant number of our stakeholders are doing risky justice work in service of real need; we need the word to give them protection and legitimacy – to give them cover. We need the word because however facile we may find its typical deployment “diversity” continues to assert the importance of justice. The word whispers the names of those conditions it is so often now used to conceal or efface: racism, homophobia, sexism, classism, ableism, ageism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism. And in that whisper “diversity” acknowledges the reality that they are with us, that we are with them, that we do them and that there is, therefore work to be done."

So, here I am, weeks after Frankie posted her blog, still wondering why—in conversations with colleagues, in research and teaching, and particularly in the CCCC Committee on Diversity, we don’t raise whispers to shouts? Why don’t we use Frankie’s preferred term “anti-oppression”? What does it mean if our committee’s name only “whispers” of the conditions concealed by it?

As Asao wrote this week, “We rarely in our country peel back the band-aid of ‘diversity’ to reveal our racial wounds.” What I’m asking is this: how can we as members of CCCC better pull back the band-aid to address the wounds, rather than affixing another bandage?


Joyce Middleton said...

Krista Ratcliffe ended her Guest post on teaching the tropes of race and whiteness in Barack Obama’s speech on race with the following paragraph:

Such [class] discussions, I believe, serve pedagogical antiracist projects because they distance students from immediately jumping to personal claims/accusations of blame, guilt, denial, and/or defensiveness that often shut down discussions of race in the U.S. because we too often tend either to be silent or to argue past (not with) one another. Such distance, I believe, slows students down and asks them to listen to how race and whiteness signify structurally within the U.S. Once these structural significations are established as existing (the first level of stasis), then students can move to discussions of naming, valuing, and taking action (the second through fourth levels of stasis), only then coming (without the possibility of denial) to a reflection on race and whiteness in terms of how the structural affects the personal … and how the personal affects the structural.

In Ratcliffe’s post and in her important work on rhetorical listening, I am reminded of Toni Morrison’s arguments on race and whiteness that ask us to think about how we use language, but we must also recognize “how language uses us.

I would like to learn more about how to create teaching assignments and model my own pedagogical behavior to move through the rhetorical levels of stasis that Ratcliffe writes about. In this committee’s work, I would like to move discussions about race, whiteness, and difference beyond the personal claims that Ratcliffe acknowledged to honest, intelligent reflections on the persistence of structural racism (and oppressions of “the other”). I think that the post and comments by Asao, Jay, John, Beth, and myself reflect that honest query.

Shirley Logan’s statistical figures about our own organization might be appropriate to cite here. In her Chair’s Address in 2003, Logan told us that the CCCC organization was 4.4% African American; 1.4% Asian American/Pacific Islander; 1.5% Hispanic American/Latino; 0.5% Native American or Indian; and 92.2% white.

What do these figures say to us? We can probably assume that these numbers have improved over the past five years (maybe not by much), but this CCCC Committee on Diversity has been charged with a challenging set of issues to address the infrastructure of CCCC that allows for these kind of statistics to persist in this organization.

As we look forward to the second part of our CCCC Conversations on Diversity with new blogs from our Guest writers, we hope to hear from readers about how to move forward with our plans for writing a position statement on diversity for this organization.

CCCC Annual Convention

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