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.

1 comment:

Emmanuel Sigauke said...
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