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.


Asao B. Inoue said...

Morris (and others),

I love that you focus on "strategic" and "rhetorical" strategies for the deployment of "diversity" in your classrooms. Your three questions that ask about the shifting of "diversity" (shifting of teachers'/students' ideas, of classrooms, and of geographic locations) is important in deploying any strategy, or understanding the deployment of "diversity" by others.

I'm also glad you talk about these things as strategies that teachers employ. I say this because I have often in the past felt a slight tinge of guilt when I invoke my own position in a racial-gender landscape in the classrooms I've taught. I do not anymore, mind you, because I have grown to accept my subject position in the academy and other communities. I also believe it is crucial to call attention to a variety of subject positions in the university. In fact, I make a point to be rhetorically self-reflexive about my subject-position as a strategies I use, calling attention to when I invoke such "diversity strategies" in conversations about, say, literacy, about pedagogy, or about what "good writing" is. Additionally, I call attention to my subject position often (but not always) to place myself outside of, or on the borderlands of, or at the margins of (pick your metaphor) the academy. I wonder if other teachers, especially in writing classes or grad courses in composition, do this too? I wonder if my rhetorical strategy is common?

Thanks, Morris!

-- Asao

Beth Godbee said...


I also appreciate your comments and sense of "identity" as playing out in the classroom, on campus, in the surrounding community, and in the multiple communities we've lived in and affiliate with.

Thank you for sharing the questions that drive your teaching and research. I am curious and would love to hear more about your strategic and rhetorical approaches to the discourse of diversity. Paula Matthieu, for instance, talks about balancing strategies and tactics. To what extent do you find yourself planning strategically, and how do you respond tactically to the moment at hand -- when tensions or "teachable moments" arise, whether in or out the classroom?



Yvonne said...

It will be interesting to experience how diversity is viewed and how we think about about diversity when the new administration in Washington, D.C. takes office in January, 2009.

Last Friday, I just returned from Hawai'i, where I was born and bred, and again I relished in the diversity of sooooo much about the islands. The peoples of these rocks in the middle of the Pacific Ocean share space, ideas, dress, foods, life styles, etc. so well.

What bothers me most, however, is how the strain of high stakes testing is affecting the people who live in Hawai'i.

I spoke with a transplant from the mainland about education in the islands, and this person could only talk about rankings and test scores and how bright this person's eldest is, because this person's child scores well on the high stakes tests. This individual also thinks it is important it is to test students in order to hold teachers accountable. To say the least, this conversation bothered me a lot.

We are all valuable for what we bring to humanity, and life is ever-evolving.

Perhaps another slant to think about is how diversification actually benefits the gene pool of all living things. People understand the importance of diversification when it comes to investing. Why does the diverse nature of humanity threaten so many?

Thank, Morris! You have helped me to stretch and expand how I view the concept of diversification and the word diversity.

Yvonne Siu-Runyan

Ashley Holmes said...

I want to echo the previous comments of thanks to Morris for your interesting response about diversity and the complexities of the term and concept. Your post is thought-provoking, inviting me to more deeply consider the ways in which diversity intersects with my pedagogy.

I agree that we run the risk of reinforcing stereotypes if we do not consistently reassess and re-envision the shifting discourse on diversity and identity. Morris’ claims in this post remind me of a chapter I read recently for a Comparative Pedagogy course I am taking in the University of Arizona’s Rhetoric, Composition, and Teaching of English graduate program. In _Funds of Knowledge_ (2005), Norma Gonzalez, Luis Moll, and Cathy Amanti describe and theorize the research from a project that brought elementary school teachers into the homes of their students to inquire about their everyday, lived experiences. The rationale for their work stemmed from the “assumption that the educational process can be greatly enhanced when teachers learn about their students’ everyday lives” (6). Their work led them to “the households of working-class, Mexican-origin, African American, [and] American Indian students” (6). The researchers sought to identify the “funds of knowledge” that students possess from their informal, out-of-school experiences; their “approach to understanding families and their cultural resources also [raised] the possibilit[y] for changes in classroom practice” (19).

Like Morris, I hope to “interrogate systems of power that construct diversity and identity in specific ways that often disadvantage people of certain experiences.” I found Morris’ final claim to be particularly striking: “…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.” Considering Gonzalez, Moll, and Amanti’s work in the context of Morris’ comments on diversity, I wonder if one way to combat the risks of stereotyping is by going directly to the community for new theories and definitions. By valuing our diverse students’ “full and complex lives,” as Morris states, and seeing their “funds of knowledge” as a “cultural resource” to inform pedagogy, as Gonzalez, Moll, and Amanti argue, we may run less of a risk of reinforcing stereotypes. It seems to me that research grounded in the communities of diverse populations will offer us the richest possibilities for reconstructing our understandings of diversity.

Lisa Ede said...

I want to echo others' thanks for a thoughtful and stimulating post. I also learned about some new books that I obviously need to check out--so thanks for that as well, Morris.

I thought readers of this CCCC blog might like to know about a new blog on anti-racist writing centers started by a really powerful group of tutors at UIC's Writing Center.

I heard a presentation by this group at the recent IWCA Conference in Las Vegas. When I thanked them for their presentation, I told them they gave me new hope for the future--and they did.

Here's a link to their blog. Some of the presenters have posted the talks they gave at the conference.

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