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.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

"Pathways to Diversity: Social Justice and the Multiplicity of Identities"

Introductory Bio

Eric Darnell Pritchard is Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Writing at The University of Texas at Austin. He is also a faculty affiliate in the department of English, the John L. Warfield Center for African and African-American Studies and the Center for Women's and Gender Studies. He studied English-Liberal Arts at Lincoln University and literacy, rhetoric, critical theory and African-American gender and sexuality studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Professor Pritchard's research and teaching interests include literacy, African-American and Queer Rhetoric, community-based writing, critical pedagogy queer theory, black feminist theory, masculinity studies and hip hop studies. His current focus is on the intersections of race, (queer) sexuality, gender and class with historical and contemporary literacy research.

Pursuant to those interests he is currently working on a book manuscript tentatively titled, Black Queer Literacies. The study draws on the life story accounts of 60 black LGBTQ people who he interviewed about the relationships among their everyday literacy practices and identity formation across their lifetimes. The study focuses on the fluidity of literacy and identity and its interplay with black queer cultural productions (literary, visual, performance) in activism, spirituality, education, and in digital realms.

For his scholarship and community work he has received numerous honors, including the "Scholars for the Dream Award" from the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) and the A. Philip Randolph Award for Community Activism from the Wisconsin Black Student Union.

Blog Entry

I want to thank the members of the CCCC Committee on Diversity for the creation of this space for a very important conversation. As a young scholar in rhetoric and composition I especially appreciate the invitation to be in the conversation with people who, in their work, have blazed so many trails for me to ‘tell it my way.’

My response to the question “How do you address the topic of "diversity" in your scholarship, teaching, and service?” reflects the sentiments of Victor Villanueva, Malea Powell and other guest contributors to the blog. Each has professed their commitment to diversity, while acknowledging their specific contentions with the term as it’s sometimes invoked. In my case, I have long emphasized and used the phrase ‘social justice’ rather than diversity. I prefer social justice because I hear in it the recognition of institutionalized social inequalities and the necessity of intervention into institutionalized oppression in pursuit of social justice. Diversity is one result of anti-oppression work. Social justice then is a pathway to diversity, a pathway that I think we continue to struggle with everyday. I often wonder: how effective is it to emphasize the importance of having ‘everyone at the table’ — to use a phrase often employed to illustrate diversity —if discussions don’t center the inequities each encounters en route to the proverbial table? What effect does this structure of the conversation have on the sustainability of coalitions for social justice? This question seems especially necessary given past and on-going discourses in society that ignore the specificity and continuance of oppression. The result of this discourse is an emphasis on equality and diversity that leads (prematurely) toward post-race, post-gender or in sum, post-oppression, without a necessary uptake of the impact of oppression. Here I briefly explore the centrality of these issues to my own work and more broadly to our research, teaching and professional service as members of the rhetoric and composition community.

In my research I respond to these challenges through a call to reconsider the usefulness of the phrase ‘multiplicity of identities’ as an alternative to lists of discrete characteristics as a category of analysis. This analysis can be of socio-political and cultural issues, and by extension, histories and theories of rhetoric and literacy traditions and pedagogical models. A recognition of identity as multiple is central to highlighting the problematic of pointing toward actions like inclusion or tolerance as representative of diversity or resorting to simplistic understandings of institutionalized oppression and identity. This is important because, in quests for social justice, how can we confront the social inequalities that threaten diversity without completely grasping the complexity of identities, oppression and communities as multiple, fluid, linked and/or simultaneous?

For example, my work on the literacy traditions of black lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people showed me the consequences of the field under – theorizing the multiplicity of identities. By under-theorizing I refer to theorizing identities as narrow or monolithic or through an oversimplified interpretation of intersectionality. For many of my research participants, resisting this predisposition has allowed them to assert their identities as Black and LGBTQ (amongst many other identities). Through this the black LGBTQ person destabilizes the heteronormativity by which blackness is often read and also resists the erasure of difference in LGBTQ/sexuality studies research across disciplines, insisting on paradigms that center the “heterogeneity of sexuality” whereby sexuality “is constitutive of and constituted by racialized gender and class formations” (see Roderick Ferguson’s “Of Our Normative Strivings: African American Studies and the Histories of Sexuality”). As such through their life story accounts my research participants intervene into composition and rhetoric research that depicts black and LGBTQ identities, movements and concerns in ways that fail to synthesize race, class, gender, sexuality and other identities. I should also say that this oversimplification of identities is endemic of work outside the realm of African-American and LGBTQ related research too. To move beyond this issue, I contend that we must return to the full definitions of women of color feminist writers and activists who first theorized and applied “intersectionality” — particularly the women of the Combahee River Collective, a black feminist organization. In their position paper “A Black Feminist Statement” Combahee described identities and oppressions as being on different paths that sometimes intersect and overlap, and at other times are synthesized or blended. The latter part of this definition — the synthesis — has often been ignored while the former — the criss-crossing of identities — has been used to define intersectionality. “Multiplicity” (see Michael Hames-Garcia’s “Who Are Our Own People?: Challenges for a Theory of Social Identity.” ) of identities references the entirety of this definition of intersectionality. Through it we can explore multiple oppressions and identities in ways that do not elide the specificity of difference, but acknowledges the intertwining of these oppressions and identities. Thus, for all of us for whom social justice is a goal in our scholarship, teaching and professional service we must always be attentive to the multiplicity of identities and by extension the simultaneity of oppressions and the unevenness of power and privilege. This includes provisional privileges as well (see Cathy Cohen, “Punks, Bulldaggers and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?”).

Viewing identity through multiplicity does indeed make things fluid in ways that we are not socialized to be comfortable with or accept. However, I argue that the material circumstances of our students and our lives warrant that we embrace the complexity of people’s lives. If we do so, we will be able to access, document and analyze situated rhetorical and literacy traditions that are easily overlooked when we see identity too narrowly. Also, in terms of quests for social justice and embracing difference, multiplicity is a powerful lens because the specificity of the effects of oppression and differentials of power/privilege occurring in one body and/or across communities is better illuminated. This is important to any movements toward “diversity” because it forces us to take into account as full a rendering as the stories of everyone at “the table” as possible. Multiplicity reminds us, as put so eloquently by poet and essayist June Jordan, that “freedom is indivisible or it is nothing at all… and either we [emphasis mine] are working for freedom or you are working for the sake of your self interests and I am working for mine” (409). We must all recognize that our freedom is bound up in the oppression of other people. Further, multiplicity engenders a conception of diversity that recognizes difference as not a problem to be overcome but as a source of power. And perhaps most significantly, multiplicity supports the politics of coalition building across communities as necessary and sustainable. It suggests such coalitions are possible through the hard work struggling with one another for collective social justice and not against one another for individual advancement. A deeper understanding of identity and oppression is crucial to doing this hard work together.

Multiplicity of identities can also be useful to mediating professional development /institutional support structures. For instance, at the CCCC convention each year, there is a given time slot for caucuses and some of the special interest groups (SIGS) to meet. Generally this time is allotted for Friday evening of the convention when it comes to the ethnic/racial caucuses, queer caucus and many other caucuses and SIGS. Many of these caucuses meet at the same time, and though I doubt this is the intended effect, it forces people to choose one identity or commitment at the expense of others.

In my own experience, I remember having to literally run up and down the stairs of the conference hotel at a past CCCC, going from the Black Caucus to the Queer Caucus that met at the same time. In this sense, I am forced to either stretch myself to be in all the spaces with which I identify, get support and work to support others in these communities or, I am forced to decide which of my identities is most salient. Another example is those persons who identify as multi-racial/ethnic. If all the ethnic/racial caucuses meet at the same time, a person of multiple races/ethnicities will be unable to participate in the different spaces relevant to their personal and professional development. A restructuring of this schedule would also be very useful to building ally and coalition relationships between the various constituencies attending caucuses as it would allow space for members to be in other spaces as allies if that was desired by a given caucus or member. I could go on and on with the ways in which other persons from any number of identity groups are put in this situation. Our inattention to multiplicity of identities not only impacts our scholarship and teaching, but clearly, has limited our potential to provide the most comprehensive support to our colleagues at the institutional level as well. As Catherine Fox says, in English Studies, we operate under an “ironic display of desire to construct a collective identity for English Departments … occluding genuine reflection, dialogue, and struggle about what might constitute safety for marginalized peoples” (in “From Transaction to Transformation: (En)Countering White Heteronormativity in ‘Safe Spaces’,” in College English, May 2007) and consequently, how one arrives at a true coalition or collective identity.

We must resist the impulse to do violence to one another through oversimplifying the oppressions and identities we each encounter if we are to ever achieve the transgressive research, teaching and service we all imagine as our contribution to meaningful social change.

CCCC Annual Convention

2009 Convention logo

March 11-14, 2009
San Francisco, CA