Thursday, October 23, 2008

"Talking Back to Contemporary Multicultural and Whiteness Pedagogies"

Introductory Bio

Jennifer Seibel Trainor is associate professor of English at San Francisco State University, where she teaches in the Graduate Program in Composition Studies. Her research focuses on critical literacy, antiracist education, and theories of rhetoric and persuasion. She teaches graduate courses in research methods, composition theory and pedagogy, and literacy theory, as well as undergraduate courses in writing. She is a recipient of NCTE’s Promising Research Award and a member of the National Writing Project. She served on the executive committee of NCTE's Assembly for Research. Trainor's articles have appeared in College English, College Composition and Communication, and The Journal of Advanced Composition. Her book, Rethinking Racism: Emotion, Persuasion, and Literacy Education in an All-White High School, is forthcoming from Southern Illinois University Press in a few weeks.

Blog Entry

For the past several years, my efforts to address diversity have been centered on efforts to address racism and on creating effective antiracist pedagogies. I guess you could say I’ve been focused less on diversity than on impediments to it, particularly as those impediments manifest in the classroom, in white students’ sometimes racially-charged assertions, their defensiveness, and the difficulty they sometimes have in exploring issues of racial justice. This has led me to several research projects that investigate how white students respond to matters of race, the most recent a year-long ethnographic project at a suburban high school – 97% white -- located outside a mid-sized city in the Northeast. Of the insights about the workings of racism and the potential for antiracist pedagogies gleaned from this work, I’d like to share three:

Insight #1

We need a more complex understanding of the origins and sources of racism. Our current diagnoses – that racism arises from a need or desire to protect white privilege, ignorance of oppression, or lack of exposure to difference – don’t really capture the complexity of the processes by which students become convinced of particular ideas about race. These diagnoses are rooted in assumptions about reason and rationality: white students don’t know about oppression and so they dismiss it when confronted with it in a text, or white students are threatened by texts that protest racism because they understand on some level that they benefit from racism and hence resist out of a desire to maintain their racial privilege. Instead, we need to think of racism in terms of irrationality and emotion, and to see that students’ responses to matters of race are affective, more than logical or rational, rooted not so much in abstract political or identity-based calculations, but in local experiences and feelings that are to a surprising extent given force in school, a point that leads to Insight #2:

Insight #2

We don’t teach students about race only in those moments when we assign a multicultural text or include a unit that critiques whiteness or privilege. As Amanda Lewis writes, schools may not teach racial identity in the way that they teach multiplication or punctuation, but schools are settings where students acquire some version of the “rules of racial classification,” and of their own racial identity. We haven’t fully grappled with how students learn about race in the context of everyday interactions in school, but in my research I began to see how tacit, unexamined lessons, rituals and practices in school exerted a powerful influence on students’ responses to matters of race. To take a quick example: the high school where I did my research pervasively valued “positive thinking.” Students were exhorted constantly by teachers and administrators to “look on the bright side,” “focus on the positive,” and “keep up a good attitude.” There were bright yellow beanbags with smiley faces sitting along one wall of the classroom. The student aid who recited the pledge of allegiance each day over the PA system always added “Have a great day!” at the end of her recitation. This focus on positive thinking emotionally predisposed students to look negatively upon fictional characters, real individuals or groups of people who did not appear to present a positive outlook on life, which in turn fueled sometimes hostile or racist responses to critiques of racism, which were perceived as whining or complaining.
We often think that if we find the right argument, the right assignment or reading, we can convince students to give up problematic racial beliefs. But my research suggests a different persuasive process at work, one articulated by Kenneth Burke, who writes that persuasion takes place not through “one particular address, but [through] a general body of identifications that owe their convincingness much more to trivial repetition and dull daily reinforcement.” We need to examine these seemingly trivial practices, taken-for-granted values, and daily-reinforced routines of schooling, in order to understand how they scaffold students’ learning about race.

Insight #3

The tropes and metaphors we rely on in our pedagogies – particularly economic metaphors for white privilege that liken whiteness to a wage or property that whites own and that can be used to secure other commodities and privileges – don’t address students’ lived experiences of race and privilege, and thus fuel white student resistance and confusion. We need better metaphors for whiteness and racism, metaphors that speak to the local, affective experiences of race that students bring to the classroom.

How do these insights translate into the classroom and into service? In the classroom, I have experimented with different approaches to antiracist education for several years now. Most recently, I have focused on an approach that privileges students’ emotioned responses to readings and ideas and that makes room for the emotional labor of unlearning racism, and I’ve worked with students to discover metaphors and descriptions of racial identity and privilege that actually do speak to their lived experiences. I’ve also worked to disrupt the routines of schooling that either get in the way of antiracism or that promote values, attitudes, and habits that actually scaffold and enable racism. I do this by employing some of the tricks of critical pedagogy – asking students to generate topics and themes, and to analyze the assumptions behind taken-for-granted school practices, as well as the values behind the discourses privileged in school. Finally, I’ve created assignments that ask students to talk back to contemporary multicultural and whiteness pedagogies by writing about their own affective experiences with and memories of race, and theorizing from there about what racism is and how to end it. A recent assignment asked upper-division pre-service teachers to critique, add to, or complicate Alice McIntyre’s Making Meaning of Whiteness by comparing her descriptions of race with their own experiences and memories of it. Beyond the classroom, I imagine building collaborative partnerships with high schools that focus on changing the practices and values that inadvertently support racism. I imagine pedagogical projects where teachers work to create new metaphors and models of racism and whiteness in our curricula. There are many other possibilities, of course, but I hope my entry here will provide one place to start for the CCCC committee as they begin the task of creating a statement on diversity for our field, one that addresses both its promise, and the myriad impediments we still face in our efforts to enact it.

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.”

Thursday, October 02, 2008

"CCCC Conversations on Diversity," Part Two

Blog Entry

Welcome to the “CCCC Conversations on Diversity,” Part Two. We want to express our sincere appreciation to all of our readers. We also want to express our sincere thanks to Shirley Logan who, as Chair of CCCC in 2003, worked with the Executive Committee to issue the charge for the work that we do. Our committee, in part, responds to the call of her CCCC Chair’s address in March 2003. Subscribers may find her article, “Changing Missions, Shifting Positions, and Breaking Silences,” in CCC 55:2/December 2003 (you may also find her article in the JSTOR database).

The CCCC Committee on Diversity is pleased to announce the second part of its new blogging series. For the next several months, we will host a forum for CCCC members to broaden our organization’s thinking, talking, and writing about diversity in our profession. The CCCC Committee on Diversity includes the following members: Joyce Irene Middleton (Chair), Beth Godbee, Asao Inoue, Jay Jordan, Gwendolyn Pough, Mya Poe, Annette Powell, and John Stovall.

This week's new entry is a blog entry for open comments for CCCC/NCTE members to blog along with us over the next two weeks.

Starting on October 16, 2008, we will feature blog posts by Guest writers from across the discipline of rhetoric and composition studies in higher education. Please see the archive of part one of our series at, and pass the word. Part one includes Guest blog entries by Victor Villaneuva, Krista Ratcliffe, Malea Powell, Paul Kei Matsuda, Michelle Hall Kells, Frankie Condon, Haivan V. Hoang, Jonathan Alexander, and Mike Rose. All Guest postings (including the archive) will be open to anyone with internet access who wants to read them. In addition, CCCC/NCTE members will be able to post comments, and we really want to hear from you. Everyone can find a new Guest writer’s blog entry bi-weekly (2 times per month), until Thursday, May 14, 2009.

We’d like to ask for your continued attention over the next six months at a computer screen near you. You can help to continue our sustained conversation about the role of diversity in the work that we do (last month we reached over 700 new readers). Of course, the work of rhetoric and composition has addressed issues of diversity for decades, and each year brings new scholars and perspectives to CCCC. Ultimately, we’d like to think about our Guest writers’ statements, your responses, and the archived blog posts, when our Committee generates a CCCC Position Statement on Diversity this year. We believe that this statement should reflect the contributions of as broad a cross-section of members as possible.

See our committee’s charge at:

Thanks for reading our first blog post for part two on the CCCC Conversations on Diversity series.

Enjoy your 2008-09 school year!

CCCC Annual Convention

2009 Convention logo

March 11-14, 2009
San Francisco, CA