Friday, October 30, 2009
Dr. Maria Montaperto is an assistant professor at Kean University in Union, New Jersey, where she teaches college composition and rhetorical theory courses, and assists in the development and coordination of the composition program, the undergraduate writing option in the major, and the new writing studies master’s program. Her scholarly interests focus on intersections between race theory and composition and rhetoric, particularly how invisible white privilege manifests and functions as a form of racism in higher education. She has regularly presented at CCCC, the Feminism(s) and Rhetoric(s), and miscellaneous local conferences. Her most recent avenue of research takes up issues related to disciplinary and institutional oversights in the implementation of the vision of language equity outlined by the CCCC Students’ Rights to Their Own Language resolution.
In his blog, Victor Villanueva says he doesn’t really “work with the topic of ‘diversity’” or “care for that word diversity any more than [he] cared for its predecessor, multiculturalism.” Malea Powell says, for her, “diversity isn’t a ‘topic’ at all.” More accurately, ”honoring diversity is a way of life,” something imbedded in her academic work, not added on. I agree the term has its shortcomings, and think it’s important to consider here because the CCCC Committee on Diversity’s plans to use the blog to help “construct a position statement on diversity.” This is an opportunity for us, right? For me, I would call it an opportunity to interrupt an epistemological dilemma in our own discourse, and the implicit pedagogies of that discourse.
Echoing others, I’d say I’m more interested in addressing “equity” than “diversity.” Diversity too easily becomes additive, a side note. Equity, however, is foundational. It is about justice, “fairness,” as Villanueva notes. More than a thing to address, the practice of equity is purpose with form. Scholarship, teaching, service? These are just contexts we inhabit in which we do or do not enact it effectively.
So then, equity.
My research in CompRhet focuses on race theory, and enacting equity in my scholarly work has specifically meant examining how invisible white skin privilege functions as a form of racism in higher education. This research teaches me that identity – racial and otherwise – exists as a complex network of socio-rhetorical constructions bound up in the discursive material events of our lives – it is written, is a kind of literacy. And, if true of racial identity, then logic dictates that racism, as a thread in that complex network of socio-rhetorical constructions, can be equally understood as being written – as a form of literacy. And, where there is literacy, there is always pedagogy.
So, literacies, and pedagogies, of race, of identity – and others, inherently of the same cloth, of racism, of unearned privilege, of cultural dominance? One of the answers to Villanueva’s ever-resounding question about “why nice people abide by not nice things;” A-B-C simple, we’re trained to. Trained, into practices of racism, but more disquieting, trained (myself and others), simultaneously, into practices of ‘not seeing,’ into ignorance of complicity. This is a double-bind in which white supremacy as a hegemonic structure functions on two distinct but recursively self-perpetuatory levels. One involves the deployment of pedagogies and literacies for the maintenance and replication of existing power relations; and another the deployment of what I would characterize as a kind of anti-pedagogy/anti-literacy.
As anti-literacy/pedagogy this is comparable theoretically to laws preventing slaves from reading and writing or being taught to, only this time in a kind of twisted reverse, a system of cultural domination turned in on itself, teaches, itself – imagine, a pedagogy of ignorance. Thus, it seems, to work against this we need to strive toward two ends. First, we need to work very concretely toward a greater understanding and knowledge of the function of pedagogies and literacies of white dominance. Second, to work simultaneously toward a different kind of literacy and another pedagogy, what I imagine as a kind of counter-literacy and a counter-pedagogy.
From my research, I’ve developed a working-principle I call interruption as praxis, a theoretically informed practice-based methodology for exposing, interrogating and disrupting inequitable systems of privilege—racial and otherwise. Firmly rooted in CompRhet, interruption as praxis (IP) is distinctly rhetorical. Tied to interests historically at the center of rhetoric, it is a literacy and a pedagogy. And, it is a process, like both Amy Lee’s composing pedagogies – self-reflection with enactment – and Paulo Freire’s “writing the word and the world” literacy but with pencils pushed into the hands of those least expected to need a lesson in ABCs.
In this respect, IP is as much an approach, as a practice. An approach to practices perhaps – rhetorical, pedagogical, institutional – that offers faculty, administrators, and other key university workers in higher education a framework for digging beneath powerful hegemonic structures and for understanding and working against inequity at a systemic level. But, similar to conventional literacy and pedagogy, there is no simplistic 1-2-3 or paint-by-number set of directions. Rather, again, like rhetoric, it has a purpose within a context, which together determine form.
So then, interruption as praxis.
What, concretely, does this counter-literacy, this counter-pedagogy, look like? How does it work?
A) As noted, IP functions rhetorically, and is a theoretically informed practice-based methodology. Non-linear, it’s a re-read and a re-write.
· I read, years ago now, Ian Marshall and Wendy Ryden in a 3C dialogic essay discuss a writing teacher’s (our) responsibility to speakers of “non-standard” dialects of English. Ryden asks of responsibility to the “standard” speaker, to those future potential employers in the position to hire or not hire someone on the basis of “how they say a word.”
· I still can’t get my mind entirely past the preface of Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands where she asks non-mestizos to meet her – the new mestizas/os – halfway. There are a plethora of similar scholarly requests.
B) As the name denotes, IP is about interruption – is an interruption. It breaks open/into – disrupts – one’s self and others, in multiple contexts, by multiple means. Here. Rhetorically. With form for instance. Syntactically. On the level of word. It interrupts privilege specifically – exposes it, my own and others, questions/interrogates, and disrupts – (blogs,) conversations, classrooms, lives.
· I began, as a doctoral student, to use the term “standardized” English, especially in the presence of English studies professionals. It’s not a term that falls lightly on these ears, or is easily ignored.
· I take it quite literally. Believe with all my heart and mind she meant it that way. At 32, to fulfill my language req, I go to Mexico as a summer exchange student to study Spanish for 7 weeks and live with a Mexican family. Two years later, to save the basics I learned, I give up my TAship, sell nearly everything I own, and go to Vieques, Puerto Rico, to write the dissertation there. I leave six months later (because of interruptions – more kinds and types than there is space here to name), finish my degree in my home state of NJ, and return again for eight months. Hablo mucho español. Aprendí mucho. Mucho más que un idiomas. Señora Anzaldúa, puedo leer todo su libro ahora. Gracias.
C) IP has consequences. Can get dangerous. You may sacrifice personally, and professionally, will make mistakes, for the sake of enacting equity. Done well, it’s often terribly uncomfortable. Aches even.
· I made a point to use it on a social occasion while talking with the chair of the English department, a very shrewd but rather conservative British Literature scholar. The even minor potential consequences for irritating her, even mildly, is not lost on me.
· Lost a byline on a published article. Graduated three months late. Put off the job hunt for a year. Other irretrievable professional and personal opportunities se fueron, todo se fue.
In her blog about teaching “Disability as Diversity,” Margaret Price asks a question at the heart of courses (I think any work) whose objective is greater equity: “How can we get beyond classroom conversations on diversity that adhere to simplistic bumper-sticker nostrums (“Celebrate Diversity!”) and into the more complicated, localized, and sometimes painful conversations that lead to true coalition?” To do just that. To “get beyond . . . diversity” as the conversation. No around the pain. Through it. Identity, meaning, may/will relocate. We’ll get lost. Lose things. Let them go.
Snapshot: A course in IP.
Split-level graduate and undergraduate on the rhetoric of race and ethnicity. “To do this work, is to squirm. If you don’t squirm at least once, you’re probably not doing it right,” I said on the first day.
Even though it’s my first time teaching it, I know the class will be difficult – intellectually, ideologically, emotionally. The course, if I do it right, will be and teach IP.
A progressive-minded white student. A young woman. East coast, Italian American like me. It’s where we are, and where we’re from. A moment of contention. Specifics irrelevant. It’s about race. She saw and heard things she didn’t like. I remind her I warned this would happen. She’s in shock. I watch her whiteness unravel. I let it. She’s angry. “Am I just supposed to let it go?” Trusting in a sense of her I’ve formed, I say, “This isn’t about you, or even anybody else in class. Not any of us.” Something just barely begins to dissolve. Enough to see beneath. Commitments not isolated to race, or limiting concepts of “diversity.” Her interests lie beyond that, rest in an image of equity. I’ve seen her brush through brambles to find this place before, in another course, at another time. I’ll watch her do it again. Tell her, for now, I’ll be here. Not to save her from heartache. But to hold her hand. To try my best, to lead. Stumbling, I recount and remember past and present falls. We’ve only just begun. We’ll/i'll make mistakes.
I wonder, if to start, we might consider changing the name of the committee and the position statement (using a different term, means of expression, throughout our literatures). By highlighting it, do we risk perpetuating diversity as supplement and equity as after-thought? How can this statement be (re-)written so as to not unintentionally re-inscribe “the current rhetoric of diversity” of which Asao Inoue writes in response to Villanueva?
Wednesday, October 07, 2009
Erec Smith is an assistant professor and writing center director for Ursinus College in Pennsylvania. At Drew University, his prior institution, he had administrative duties as a diversity officer and cabinet member. He has published on the relationship between Buddhist philosophy and writing center theory ("Writing Under the Bodhi Tree") and is interested in the intersection of spirituality, rhetoric and diversity. His 2008 novel, Creamy Nougat, explores the relationships of race, class and social status in a “post-racial” context. He is currently interested in community writing centers and works with Philadelphia’s Spells Writing Center (http://www.phillyspells.org/), putting on workshops for children and adults in the region.
As a professor of rhetoric and composition, a writing center director, a former diversity officer, and a writer of a novel that I can comfortably define as “post-racial,” I have much to say about the presence and nature of diversity initiatives on college and university campuses. I have been pulled by a campus’ desire for unity in diversity and pushed by the same campus’ resistance to being “forced” to open its collective mind. I have seen the oppressor become the oppressed and vice versa. I have seen diversity activities backfire, making dominant and subordinate people more solidified in their roles.
Throughout all of this, I’ve noticed that in higher education, we seem to be focusing on the effects instead of the causes, the symptoms instead of the disease (this trend is clearly reflected in the fact that, on most campuses, the diversity officer is a glorified ombudsperson only called upon when something racist happens and not to celebrate or promote diversity). To help more of us in higher education move in a more corrective direction, first step would be to revise the term “post-racial” for a more accurate view of society. “Post-racial” is not to say that racism does not exist. Instead it acknowledges that racism exists, but the perpetrators are not members of a homogenous, easily identified cohort. I argue that in post-racial America, there is a “neutrality of culpability” that pits us all as identity-creating beings dealing with seemingly involuntary drives to essentialize. The monolithic issues of institutional and environmental racism should not be ignored but approached differently—by deducing generalizing modes of identity toward more specific moments of xenophobia (its construction, maintenance and benefits).
A fine example of approaching race through the phenomenon of identity construction is Kwame Anthony Appiah’s The Ethics of Identity (2005). In a chapter titled “The Demands of Identity,” Appiah address “the not-uncontroversial assumption that differences of identity are, in various ways, prior to those of culture” (64). He initially uses the example of the Robbers Cave experiment, in which two groups of white, Protestant, middle-class boys were placed on a Robbers Cave State Park campsite in close proximity—but separate—from each other. After each group had a few days to bond, one group was told of the existence of the other group, and after challenging each other in competitive sports, “tempers flared and a violent enmity developed between the two groups, the Rattlers and the Eagles (as they came to dub themselves)” (62).
The animosity between the two groups was alleviated only when the researchers who devised the experiment created “shared subordinate goals” for the two groups. The researchers staged a water and food shortage that caused both groups to have to work together to ensure survival (or, at least, comfortable living for the amount of time they were left on the campsite). After the Rattlers and Eagles cooperated for such an important cause, the demarcations between the groups were shattered (113): “We often treat cultural differentia as if they give rise to collective identities,” writes Appiah, but “what happened at Robbers Cave suggests we might think of it the other way around” (64), meaning seeing the trees for the forest, looking at individual performance, and focusing on a hierarchical relationship between groups. At this point, I would like to argue that Obama’s description of contemporary America, in his famous speech on race, strongly implies a definition of “post-racial” that echoes a neutrality of culpability.
In his “A More Perfect Union,” speech, the televised response to Reverend Jeremiah Wright, for his unapologetically racist remarks against White America, Obama initially reiterates his familial and social background (http://www.americanrhetoric.com/). He states that he is “the son of a Black man from Kenya and a White woman from Kansas,” and that he is “married to a Black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slaveowners – an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters.” He goes on to say “I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on earth is my story even possible.”
Obama describes himself as an example diversity personified and praises America for being the sole place where such a person could exist. But by setting up his comparison of White and Black racial issues he also promotes the idea of a neutrality of culpability (a phrase that I believe we should use instead of post-racial):
As imperfect as [Wright] may be, he has been like family to me. He strengthened
my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children…. I can no more disown
him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can
my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this
world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on
the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic
stereotypes that made me cringe.
I chose to run for the presidency at this moment in history because I believe
deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them
together – unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have
different stories, but we hold common hopes . . .
This neutrality of culpability is also illustrated in Diane Goodman’s book Promoting Diversity and Social Justice (2001). Goodman lists several types of oppression (sexism, racism, heterosexism, etc), their corresponding dominant groups (males, whites, heterosexuals, etc) and subordinate groups (females, people of color, homosexuals, etc). She does this in order to show how one person can embody both a dominant and subordinate membership but, for one reason or another, tends to embrace just one. She writes:
We all have multiple social identities that, depending on the social category,
may place us in either a dominant or subordinate group, on different sides of
the power dynamic. I, like most others, am part of both advantaged and
disadvantaged groups. For example, I am a woman and a Jew and therefore am part
of the subordinate group in sexism and anti-Semitism. Yet, I am also White,
heterosexual, able-bodied, middle-class, and in my middle-adult years, which
makes me a member of several dominant groups as well. Our particular
constellation of social identities shapes our experiences and our sense of self.
The point is that we are all constructions and abstractions. This realization may lend some insight into how we see others who we’ve constructed as different from our constructed selves. This is not to say that racism does not exist and does not affect our lives, but a neutrality of culpability may alleviate “diversity fatigue” among traditionally oppressive and oppressed groups and re-construct diversity studies in the future. If we understand race as a symptom of illusive demarcations of judger/judged—thus acknowledging each other as both judger and judged—we can more easily embrace the commonalities we already have as human beings. I am confident in saying that if people in higher education really want to improve diversity relations, they will broach the subject by exploring the social construction of group position.
Thursday, September 24, 2009
Margaret Price is an assistant professor of writing at Spelman College in Atlanta. Her work has appeared in journals including CCC, Across the Disciplines, the Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies, and Creative Nonfiction. In 2011, the University of Michigan Press will publish her book, Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life.
In 2006, I joined with the Committee on Disability Issues in College Composition (CDICC) to co-write “A Policy on Disability in CCCC.” I remember that many of our emailed conversations focused on the question of disability as “a diversity issue,” and the final version of the policy states: “CCCC affirms that people with disabilities bring a valuable source of diversity to college composition classrooms, university communities, and to our professional organization” (http://www.ncte.org/cccc/resources/positions/disabilitypolicy). The concept of “disability as diversity” has received considerable attention from writing teachers and scholars. A 2001 article in CCC, “Becoming Visible: Lessons in Disability” (by Brenda Brueggemann, Linda Feldmeier White, Patricia Dunn, Barbara Heifferon, and Johnson Cheu) noted that, in 1997, a motion at the CCCC Business Meeting asked that disability be included within the various “diversity” issues considered by the organization; and the sourcebook Disability and the Teaching of Writing (Bedford/St. Martin’s 2008) includes an article by Ray Pence, “Enforcing Diversity and Living with Disability,” that remarks, “That American studies would include class, ethnicity, gender, race, and sexuality seemed natural to me. [But] when I thought of disability as a subject of scholarly interest I confined it to applied fields such as occupational therapy and special education.” Other works, including Embodied Rhetorics: Disability in Language and Culture (Southern Illinois UP, 2001) and Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities (MLA, 2002), offer further exploration of disability as “a diversity issue” in the classroom, in pop culture, in historical and institutional documents.
I firmly believe that disability is—in the common phrase—“a diversity issue.” I’ve invoked diversity myself in various articles and essays about disability-studies (DS) in rhetoric, research, and pedagogy. And yet, as I continue to work to incorporate critical awareness of disability into my writing classes, I find myself increasingly dissatisfied with references to disability qua disability. Pence’s point about the commonsense association of disability with medicalized fields such as occupational therapy or special education remains true, despite decades of work by DS scholars to demonstrate the ways that disability is a cultural and rhetorical issue—in short, is a “diversity issue.” This post is in fact a story—a story about trying to teach disability as diversity, about trying to teach disability as an issue of rhetoric and body rather than medicine and diagnosis.
Since 2004, I have taught at Spelman College, a historically Black college (HBCU) for women in Atlanta. I am white, queer, disabled, and from the northern U.S. Although I thought a lot about my race and sexuality when I first arrived at Spelman—some of my thoughts are recorded in the Creative Nonfiction article “Then You’ll Be Straight” (2006)—for the last few years, I’ve been thinking more about disability, and the ways that it intersects with the local contexts of my Spelman classrooms.
Incorporating disability studies (DS) into classes at Spelman has been an illuminating journey. My aim in incorporating DS is to engage the concept of disability as diversity—that is, getting beyond dominant narratives of pity, tragedy, and/or redemption and addressing disability and “normality” as critical constructs. Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson and James C. Wilson have suggested that English studies and writing classrooms may be sites especially well-suited to such exploration, as it involves “the reading, articulating, and reinterpretation of meaning in language and culture” (“Constructing a Third Space,” in the MLA anthology Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities, 2002). It is often assumed that exploration of disability in the humanities classroom encroaches on medical discourses better-suited to biology or pharmacology; however, DS asserts that the questioning of medical discourse and its operation in the culture of power is a project that must be taken up in humanistic thought.
Probably because of our specific location at an HBCU, I have found repeatedly that students at Spelman are eager to compare the experiences of disability and racial oppression. Here are a couple of statements from first-year composition students (reprinted with permission) who took part in a collaborative project with an upper-level literature course, taught by Dr. Pushpa Parekh. In these two paired courses, we read and viewed disability texts/films and discussed them in an online asynchronous environment. Students from my first-year writing section wrote:
"I think that the disability movement parallels the Civil Rights movement in many ways. The idea is freedom and justice for all. Just as the Civil Rights Movement was a movement protesting unequal treatment and limited access (Jim Crow laws), the disability movement is one demanding recognition of human equality and value."
"I don’t think [disabled people are] saying to portray them as normal people with no problems but that they ARE capable of doing some things on their own. It’s kind of like when I hear that all black women are teenage mothers or that we’re not expected to go to college or to be that doctor or lawyer."
I have struggled to figure out how to respond to such comments. Comparing two different social movements, as the first student does, is one thing; comparing two different sets of human experience, as the second student does, is another; and in both cases, I find myself wondering—to what degree are such comparisons helpful and generative, and to what degree do they participate in a collapsing of difference? How can we get beyond classroom conversations on diversity that adhere to simplistic bumper-sticker nostrums (“Celebrate Diversity!”) and into the more complicated, localized, and sometimes painful conversations that lead to true coalition?
As I continue to revise my courses at Spelman, I find myself moving away from readily labeled identity categories (“disability,” “race,” “gender”) and toward themes that invoke these categories but—I hope—invite a more complex consideration of the categories’ intersectionality. For instance, last semester I taught an Investigation (qualitative research methods) class focused on the theme of “Investigating Wellness.” I chose this theme knowing that wellness has a particular meaning in Spelman’s local context: our health services center, which incorporates both a medical clinic and Counseling Services, is called the Wellness Center. I elaborated my hopes on the syllabus with this statement: “We will define ‘wellness’ broadly, so that it can refer to emotional, mental, community, spiritual, or physical wellness. Our investigations will include consideration of medical discourse, disability, Black women’s wellness, and challenges to conventional definitions of ‘wellness.’ Your own understanding of what ‘wellness’ means, and the ways your stance changes and deepens throughout the course, will be of central importance.” In the course, we read works ranging from Atul Gawande’s Better, a popular/statistical analysis of medical discourse (Metropolitan Press, 2007) to G. Winton James and Lisa C. Moore’s Spirited, a collection of writings that explore “the soul and Black gay/lesbian identity” (Redbone Press, 2006). Using the theme of “wellness,” I was trying to get away from the commonsense associations of disability: the wheelchair, “special” education, deficit.
Students rose to the theme with great energy and extraordinary resourcefulness, and pushed my own understanding of wellness—not to mention of disability, race, and a number of other identity markers—into new territory. Their research projects engaged questions on topics including food allergies, Black women’s emotional responses to Michelle Obama, depression and suicide, and HIV/AIDS. In most cases, the studies focused on discursive questions such as attitudes toward particular issues, or ways of defining them. One student chose to conduct a case study of a person she was very close to who has degenerative arthritis; the student’s major finding was that this person’s spiritual life was the key factor in her ability to live day-to-day with pain and impairment.
However, “Investigating Wellness” was not simply a success story. Familiar and problematic discourses continued to circulate in our discussions: for instance, the assumption that individuals should “overcome” obstacles, in reference to both race and disability, was heavily valued throughout the semester. Yet it was also one of the most fulfilling classes I have taught at Spelman. I had omitted my usual requirement for a “final presentation” from the syllabus, thinking that I wanted to spare students—and myself—from the usual round of dull PowerPoints and forced question-and-answer sessions. But to my surprise, students asked for an opportunity to share their findings, and together created a list of requirements for the kind of final presentations they wanted to see. (Among the collaboratively-determined requirements were “Make it interactive and fun,” “Don’t rely too heavily on a Power Point,” “What assumptions did you bring to the project that were challenged?” and “What other research questions did you find along the way?”) I discarded the readings and exercises I’d planned for our final two course meetings, and instead we ate pizza and talked about our research in terms of race, disability, gender, age, class, and many other factors.
That, to me, is a successful “diversity” experience. I had terrific students—I don’t want to underplay that aspect of it—but I think part of its success may have occurred because I consciously turned away from conventional markers of diversity (“race,” “gender,” “disability,” etc.) and asked students to foreground their own interests, their own curiosity about human experience. I have noticed that teachers in various sites seem to be moving away from what has called the “laundry list” of identity categories and toward notions such as “vulnerability” or “minority studies” (see the Vulnerability Project at Emory’s Race and Difference Initiative, http://www.rdi.emory.edu/, and the Future of Minority Studies Project, http://www.fmsproject.cornell.edu/). I believe that such themes invoke our diversity, our shared and different oppressions and privileges, our humanity.
Thursday, September 10, 2009
Jill Swiencicki, formerly associate professor of English at the California State University, Chico, is now Visiting Assistant Professor at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. She is at work on a project on women’s dissent rhetoric after 9/11, which analyzes feminist responses to the U.S. government’s actions after 9/11. She is also at work, with Thia Wolf and Chris Fosen, on an analysis of The Town Hall Meeting, their large-scale, public sphere experiment with first-year student writers (http://www.csuchico.edu/engl/awp/townhall/index.shtml). Her third project explores the application of environmental sustainability methods to first-year writing pedagogy. Her writing has appeared in College English, Teaching English in the Two-Year College, Rhetorical Education in America, Multiple Literacies for the 21st Century, Rhetoric and the Global Village, and The WPA as Advocate for Engagement.
I approach the problem of diversity mindful of the first law of ecology: everything is interconnected. Having taught for a decade in northern California at a university internationally recognized for its approach to sustainability, and in a state suffering through a long-term drought, I have been steeped in the rhetoric and reality of climate change. It is through these experiences that I offer ideas to shape our thinking about diversity. . . . (editor’s note: for a longer version of this essay with an extended discussion on interconnected thinking, diversity, and ecology, please see the url at: http://www.ncte.org/library/NCTEFiles/Groups/CCCC/Committees/Ecology_Diversity.pdf.
We face dissonance and reconcile versions of competing realities by inquiring into the social systems we take for granted (Who handed you your morning coffee? Where were your shoes made? What happened to your water bottle when you threw it away? Why is it so hard to focus on our peers’ ideas in their writing, instead of their errors?). Some of the most interesting work in our field strives to help students to see their life as ecological—to make visible the structures and power relations embedded in their social system, to negotiate and experiment with what kinds of roles they want to more consciously play in the system and to use as many modes of communication as possible to do so.
A diverse ecology needs a sense of deep time—of how the past lives on in the present and has adapted to fit the changing aspects of the environment. Since the inauguration of President Obama, I have been asking my students at California State University at Chico the following series of questions: “What do you remember about the decisions of the U.S. government after 9/11? What have you heard from family, friends, and the media about the war on terror? How are you making sense of political events for yourself?” By-and-large, when faced with my questions, students don’t remember or know any specific details. Chico State is a liberal college campus in California, so there is a prevailing critical appraisal of the last administration, but when I pushed them to elaborate on their distaste or appreciation, they couldn’t offer many details. This situation is an easy reminder of the importance of replenishing our historical and intellectual habitat in times of transition, especially in times of political, economic, and environmental upheaval.
Karl Rove, former Senior Advisor and Deputy Chief of Staff to President Bush, is fully aware of the exigency of the situation. According to the news media and his own promotional website, Rove is busy on college campuses these days, creating the history of that period that many of my current students were too young to have engaged with critically. Pollsters, conducting exit interviews of the students who attend Rove’s lectures, have found that students leave the lecture hall, largely arguing that former President Bush protected our civil liberties in wartime, detained suspected terrorists appropriately, etc. In the battle for the signifier, history is written and rewritten. At this historical moment, which features the degradation of public education, infrastructure, the environment, social programs, and the arts, there exists what Annette Harris Powell’s terms the “noticeable gap between [diversity] discourse and students’ commitment, ability, and readiness to fully participate in this discourse.” The “gap” Powell sees is the problem and the possibility of the “and” that Condon registers in her blog.
The moment is ripe to restore to the record the rhetorical depth and breadth of recent political history. Asking students to become critical historians of the recent past, as Nancy Welch does in her compelling book Living Room, is less a battle for the signifier than what Gordon Wells calls “dialogic inquiry.” An interconnective approach hails writing students as inquirers that form questions they have a real stake in answering, researching and write that history with invested collaborators, each bringing a different set of experiences to the endeavor. Helping students become questioners is the fundamental restorative act for the learning system. This semester, while researching the phrase “corporate globalization,” Kelly, a student in my capstone course, argued in her end-of-the-semester reflection that it was important to form questions that “prod,” that are not “concrete,” and that engage her “conscience.” A great paradigm for structuring inquiry.
Because student inquiry requires an authentic purpose and audience, some of us in the field are sponsoring forums where students convene campus and community members to weigh in on the inquiries into power and difference that they are writing about. From 2004 until last semester, the writing program at Chico State collaborated with our First Year Experience program on a Town Hall Meeting, a place where first year writers—especially first-generation college students in EOP—lead conversations about their research on climate change, the Iraq war, and other issues of the day, with other writers from other composition classes, as well as campus and community members. We asked a simple question: what if we recommitted to restoring our campus habitat by starting with practices of respect for the youngest members of our campus community, those who are considered the least valuable to our ecological niche? This Town Hall Meeting contained significant elements of complete chaos every semester—dialogue turned pat, students spoke from their prejudices instead of their research, and adult experts sometimes forgot themselves and took over. But more often than those moments were ones that illustrated what civic interconnection feels like—moments where first year students say, “this helps me see what college is for,” “this makes me see how my writing matters,” “this makes me see what place I could have in the bigger picture.”
Last April I was asked to lead a workshop on white privilege for our campus’s on-going brown-bag lunch series, “Conversations on Diversity.” The room contained well over a hundred undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, staff, and administrators. Knowing how differences in status, age, and racial identification can influence such settings, I was excited at the prospect of engaged dialogue among these registers. An interesting trend emerged in our conversation that revealed who felt compelled to enter the dialogue and who felt exempt from the shared endeavor—a dynamic that was an unanticipated outcome of the way I designed the workshop. A premise of interconnective thinking is that our realities are prisms of meaning; no one exists in isolation, and even our experiences, while different, have connections that make it impossible for us to exempt ourselves from the facets of reality that make up the whole.
I opened the workshop by defining white privilege, discussed the history of the term, and then moved to two rhetorics of revealing white privilege: the indexing or listing of privileges and the “awareness narrative.” I presented a short excerpt from Tim Wise’s viral essay “This is Your Nation on White Privilege” (http://www.redroom.com/blog/tim-wise/this-your-nation-white-privilege-updated), his controversial list of instances that help make visible the invisible, unearned social privileges that whiteness affords. Although index/lists are useful for discussions of diversity and identity because they keep things depersonalized, away from examinations of personal choices and experiences, the discussion we had also showed that they are limited in just that way: one can stand at a distance, remarking on these unfair privileges, while creating exemption/distancing narratives for themselves and others.
It was when we talked about another rhetoric of white privilege, the “awareness narrative,” that a split in participants emerged along racial lines. I asked participants to describe a time when they became aware of having a racial identity. A fascinating discussion emerged, as mostly undergraduates who were able to pass as white or Latino talked about being able to negotiate multiple communities, returning to their home community for safety, or questioning where that home community is anymore, especially on the campus. Students and faculty members talked in deeply specific, engaged ways about this kind of identity shifting. After a while, the director of Multicultural and Gender Studies observed aloud that no white people had spoken up in relation to the question. White privilege is often an exemption from the hard conversations about racial interconnection and power relations. These exemptions—“I didn’t cause climate change,” “My family are working-class whites, not privileged whites,” “I didn’t vote for him,”—are the very ones we need to construct pedagogies of interconnection around, ones that make a space (make a better space than I did in this workshop) for the emotional work/vulnerability such endeavors require. In this blog Morris Young argues that “there is a risk in reducing an understanding of diversity to fixed categories that mask more complex experiences.” His blog post, and the majority of posts, calls for us to “destabilize discourse” about identity, literacy, and diversity; starting with our multiple calls to examine our shifting, related identities—just as those students did in the workshop—rather than the supposedly fixed ones, has potential to capture the dynamic context of the ecosystem.
Thursday, August 27, 2009
LuMing Mao is a professor of English and director of the Asian and Asian American Studies Program at Miami University. He is the author of Reading Chinese Fortune Cookie: The Making of Chinese American Rhetoric and co-editor of Representations: Doing Asian American Rhetoric. He also co-edited a symposium, titled "Comparative Rhetorical Studies in the New Contact Zone: Chinese Rhetoric Reimagined" that was published in the June 2009 issue of College Composition and Communication. His most recent essay, "Studying the Chinese Rhetorical Tradition in the Present: Re-presenting the Native's Point of View," won the 2007 Richard Ohmann Award for the outstanding essay published in College English. One of his current projects is co-editing The Norton Anthology of Rhetoric and Writing with Jody Enders, Robert Hariman, Susan Jarratt, Andrea Lunsford, Thomas Miller, and Jacqueline Jones Royster.
As I was thinking the other day of how to respond to the blog prompt Joyce sent to me—“How do you address the topic of ‘diversity’ in your scholarship, teaching, and service?”—several “representative anecdotes” (Kenneth Burke) came to mind, anecdotes that cut across time and space; anecdotes that represent, up to a point, how I engage diversity. I am representing three here as my way of response.
Anecdote Number One
Lately I have been reading the work of Zhuangzi (369-286 BCE), the ancient Chinese philosopher and rhetorician who was part of the emerging literati in one of the most tumultuous yet formative periods in Chinese history. His work provided insights on a host of issues ranging from governing, to knowledge-making, to managing human relationships. Regarding the relationship between word and the world, he observed, with his typical touch of directness and dry humor, “The fish trap exists because of the fish; once you've gotten the fish, you can forget the trap. The rabbit snare exists because of the rabbit; once you've gotten the rabbit, you can forget the snare. Words exist because of meaning; once you've gotten the meaning, you can forget the words” (Burton Watson’s translation). By comparing language use to fishing or to rabbit hunting, Zhuangzi cautioned his contemporaries not to be too obsessed with language or, more precisely, with the rectification of names. For him, the focus all along should be on “catching” or securing ideas; language or naming, after all, is dispensable.
I could not help but think of Zhuangzi’s analogy as I was reflecting on the task at hand, on the blogs so far posted, and on their varying positions and their invariably persuasive implications. Yes, definitions do matter. As Edward Schiappa has recently reminded us, they have significant ethical and normative ramifications, under the Western analytical paradigm at least. We tend to begin and/or end our discursive engagement by performing the act of defining. So, we have been asking and answering: what do we mean and intend to accomplish when we use the word “diversity” in our present-day social-cultural settings? What kind of diversity are we specifically talking about—linguistic, religious, cultural, racial, or all of the above? On the other hand, it is what we do and how we do it that really counts and that can actually advance our diversity causes.
Of course, thinking through Zhuangzi doesn’t mean that we give up the act of defining. Far from it. Rather we ask ourselves to step outside of the traditional mode of thinking regarding the act of defining. We learn to become more mindful of the constraining influence language or naming may exert on us as we appeal to its discursive and symbolic power, and we learn to strike a productive balance between asking the “What” and finding the “Where.”
Anecdote Number Two
I have been using the term “interdependence-in-difference” in guiding my own practices in the classroom and beyond. “What do you mean (read as define it)?” You would probably ask. Here is my answer: by using this phrase I aim to discover, promote, and nurture actual practices that celebrate students’ linguistic heritages and their rich rhetorical resources (differences). I also want to enable them to develop their own voice within and in relation to the larger American linguistic and rhetorical imaginary (interdependence). The same is true of teachers, too. I believe such actual practices can help challenge false dichotomies that influence our discussions and practices on diversity.
Let’s think about linguistic diversity as an example. Our classroom conversations and practices have yet to completely move out of those tantalizing dichotomies between “school discourse versus home discourse” or “school discourse in formal/graded assignments versus home/vernacular discourse in everything else”—let alone channeling them into productive dialogue and sustained meaningful action. In the heat of debating what constitutes the essence of school discourse or home discourse, we may end up underestimating the tyranny of Standard English—the belief that one variety of language is considered as correct and as not susceptible to the whims of time or the influence of individual users. We can see this tyranny written all over the tragic fate of indigenous languages in America, nearly all of which have been targeted for eradication by colonizing powers, and over the subordination and fracturing of many minority languages including, African American Vernacular English (AAVE). In another example, Min-Zhan Lu recently discussed the tongue surgery inflicted upon Asian children so that they can supposedly turn themselves into fluent English speakers.
Practicing interdependence-in-difference means challenging those false dichotomies by thinking and acting differently, by deploying concepts and ideas not in black and white but in terms that are interdependent, interconnected, and yet fraught with asymmetrical power relations. For example, we should develop and encourage strategies and practices that don’t pit school discourse against home discourse but that go against the grain of the cultural and discursive frames that anchor Standard English (Alastair Pennycook). Similarly, we should encourage and promote multiple voices to speak out from past and present and to celebrate and cultivate differences in the acts of mixing.
One of the graduate courses I teach for the rhetoric and composition graduate program at Miami is Comparative Rhetoric. In this class I introduce non-Western rhetorical traditions to students in hopes of broadening our understanding of rhetoric and further examining how other cultural traditions use language and/or ritual practices as symbolic means to cultivate humaneness (Confucius) or to induce cooperation (Burke). I use Chinese rhetoric as an example to illustrate its relation to Western rhetoric. At the same time, in my use of Chinese rhetoric as “the Other” I do not aim to set up any East-West divide or some kind of reversed hierarchy where Chinese rhetoric is logical, argumentative, confrontational and where all Western-style rhetoric must be repudiated because it is elitist (C. Jan Swearingen). But nor do I want to posit Chinese rhetoric as just an alternative to Western rhetoric; such a move seems a bit too easy, too simplistic, often at the expense of developing a more complex, dynamic representation of “the Other.” Through it all, I confess I don’t think much of the term “diversity”—perhaps because I am too interested in catching the fish or the rabbit to remember or even care about what the fish trap or the rabbit snare is made of.
Anecdote Number Three
In my third anecdote I am thinking of my own research interests—ethnic rhetoric; Asian and Asian American rhetoric or minority languages, for example. “That’s academic diversity right there!”
I almost blurted the line out to myself in a moment of excitement, but as excitement gives way to reflection, I was moved to think about what I actually had been working on in pursuing these interests in ethnic rhetorics and language. Recently I have been engaging the work of Asian American spoken word and Asian/Asian American Hip Hop artists. I find their work attractive because it serves as both a generative and contested site where participants negotiate and construct new meanings and new identities. For example, the group, i was born with two tongues, a Chicago-based, Pan-Asian Spoken Word Troupe, has developed a highly inventive, heterogeneous form to confront racism and to legitimate Asian American experiences. Their premiere album, Broken Speak, represents a hybrid of spoken poetry, music, and political empowerment. Filled with emotion, musical experimentation, and metaphorical language, each of the sixteen tracks on this cd draws upon the oral traditions of the Black and Caribbean communities and the Hip Hop stylistics to create an “Asian Rap.” Such a rhetorical mixing radically collapses the boundaries of different discursive practices by making what is familiar unfamiliar and by turning “this foreign talk” (read as standard English) into a song of celebration with some distinctively jarring and unsettling effect. Here is a brief sample of their work: http://www.imeem.com/johnsaints/music/_I3vbqYc/i-was-born-with-two-tongues-excuse-me-amerika/
I am interested in studying the rhetorical work by groups such as “Broken Speak” not only because they are examples of diversity but also because the work provides critical resources for actually advancing and enriching diversity in meaningful ways. And I must add that engaging these materials also enables us to re-member what has been erased or displaced, recovering those “traces of a stream” (Jacqueline Jones Royster) that are rightly ours to claim and to pass on.
A final caveat as I close this response: representative anecdotes are, after all, selective—selections of our lives and experiences. Consequently they may end up skewing (or deflecting for Burke) what we hoped to represent. Mine here are no exception—except that I really wasn’t too interested in whether they would be “representative” or not in my selection/borrowing of the term in the first place. In fact I would be perfectly content if they turned out to be not “representative,” SO LONG AS they “walk the walk.” In the end, I guess I am more interested in the fish than in the trap.
Thursday, August 13, 2009
"CCCC Conversations on Diversity," part four, will begin in two weeks on Thursday evening, August 27, 2009. Meanwhile, we encourage readers to take a look at our easily searchable archive of guest writers and any of their previously posted blog entries on the topic of diversity and writing.
See you soon!
Thursday, July 30, 2009
Susan C. Jarratt is professor of Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine, where she served as Campus Writing Coordinator from 2001-07. She studies ancient Greek rhetoric, political discourse, and student writing. Her books include Rereading the Sophists (Southern Illinois UP, 1991) and Feminism and Composition Studies: In Other Words (MLA, 1998) with Lynn Worsham. She co-edited Peitho, the newsletter of the Coalition of Women Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition, with Susan Romano and is currently writing a book about the rhetoric of Greek rhetors in the period of the Roman empire. Jarratt's interests are ancient Greek and Roman rhetoric, and contemporary rhetoric and writing in universities and public contexts. Her work in progress includes a collaboration with Andrea Lunsford, Robert Hariman, LuMing Mao, and Jacqueline Jones Royster in editing the Norton Anthology of Rhetoric and Writing, and an article in College English, “Classics and Counterpublics in Nineteenth-Century Historically Black Colleges (forthcoming, Nov 2009).
Congratulations to Joyce for conducting a symposium on a term almost every one of the interlocutors has troubled. Would we expect anything less from this group? This is my first blog experience, and I come to it with curiosity and a desire for a new form of communication.
Reading these carefully wrought and impeccably researched mini-essays took me on a quick journey, reminding me of the movements of our profession. We have taken the charge of teaching writing in an institutional space burdened by low-status and instrumental circumstances and moved it elsewhere, finding within it amazing possibilities and weighty responsibilities: to discover the cognitive potential within students (Rose), to uncover histories of life, literacy, and language (Young); to persist in our investigations of pedagogical exchange (Alexander); to question relentlessly the terms of engagement with difference (Nunley; Ratcliffe); to force our histories into new worlds (Baca); to connect “college composition and communication” to gendered global power relations (Dingo).
Like some other bloggers here, the invitation gave me pause. It reminded me of an invitation by a young feminist scholar at Virginia Tech issued to twenty or so rhetoric and composition scholars in April 2008 to convene at her institution to talk about the state of feminism. We came (Black, white, women, men, American Indian, presumptively straight, queer/trans, no one visibly disabled, most of us a little older), but the talk in all the interstices was about our skepticism. All spoke about our work and the significance of feminist politics, thinking, and research to what we were doing then, but there were no clear lines--no manifesto was forthcoming. Feminism was all mixed up in everything else. What we spent most of the time talking about was the mass murder/suicide by a young Korean-American man that had taken place two weeks before. We came into a place of mourning. We walked around the central field, standing at the sites where the dead were memorialized--feeling the pain of these lost lives, of the troubled young man who took them, and most intensely, of the ways writing--his writing, his writing teachers--were implicated. Did his pain come from his experience of difference, from the failure of his writing? His acts gave fatal expression to a toxic mixture of ethnic alienation, the pressures of performing masculinity, and a trouble mind. To face this horror, we drew on the sustaining impulse of a community--another word most of us bracket but felt so strongly in those tender green April hills of Virginia.
Questions about feminist scholarly manifestos were not by any means unrelated to this situation, but our attention moved outward, our talk swirled around us in tentative modes--to soothe and comfort, to acknowledge the profundity of lives ended, lives taken in violence, the ultimate unknowability of the motives and consequences of acts, our an effort not to prematurely close off any interpretations, to allow for silence together in the face of a dreadful event. Up at Mountain Lake, we listened to Nikki Giovanni read from her poetry and from her memoir about her mother who had recently died. She gave us laughter, comfort, wisdom--not directly about the deaths but about the continuity of life and the power of language in the face of pain. Our closest approximation to group expression came late at night, watching “Dirty Dancing” with brandies in hand. “No one puts Baby in the corner,” we all chorused. Class politics, upper-class Jewish social life of the fifties, the hopeful moment of JFK’s years, young women trying to figure out how to be in their bodies-- all washed in the sensuous beauty of dance. These are a complicated tangle of threads to knit up into a “diversity” sampler. The metonymic links articulating positions of difference cradled us in a loose net that weekend.
How will we write diversity diversely? I read these blogs and saw over and again on display what we do well: reason, deliberate, respect each other, go back over themes, terms, ideas, writings--reminding ourselves of what we have learned and where we need more work. Victor V. stands out, as usual: keeping it open, bringing together the evidence of everyday life with the critical tools of our trade.
Without collapsing difference into an old style of celebratory humanism (the Family of Man), we might use this space to recall our everyday experience as writing teachers of the pleasure in the uncaptured, the uncontained, the yet-to-be-categorized. Sappho’s word for this is poikilos: the beauty of the varied, the pied, the ornately crafted, the unexpectedly shaped and colored. This noun gives aesthetic expression to a practice: polypragmasune--doing many things, the antithesis of Plato’s utopia where everyone had a single assigned place and task.
As a new blog-reader, I was looking for the sharp edge, and I admit, for stimulation: where is the rub on “diversity” right now? Professor Baca’s opposition between a “Western telos” and Meso-American writing spoke out loudly in a bold and agonistic rhetoric, straight with no chaser. Phenomenology to postmodernism -- precisely the theories opening for some experience, otherness, disjunction, queer writing, disturbed histories and memories -- these are right out. As Edward Said has taught so eloquently, all histories contain worlds of difference within, undiscoverable once they have been crammed into the box of “Western tradition.” But that is not Baca’s point. He rejects a form of training or a history of rhetoric based in a set of canonical texts and perhaps taught in a way that seemed closed and fixed. I’m not sure; these are blogs, after all, and not treatises.
What of the Greeks that Victor V. worked with in Bootstraps? the Greeks W.E.B. DuBois loved and used? None of this is to say: the Greeks and only the Greeks! We must keep opening up the world of writing in the directions Baca indicates, if not within the argumentative frame he sets up.
I’ve been trying to slog through the California Supreme Court legal decision upholding Proposition 8 denying marriage to same-sex couples: Strauss et al. v. Horton. The decision rests on a distinction between the revision and amendment of the constitution. I’m glad I have ancient rhetoric’s stasis theory to help me understand the legal moves. I need something else--stories, an openness to assent, love?--to grasp why it is so important for my friends, my daughter, my students to gain access to an institution I find pernicious.
How will we learn what we need to know about diversity? Through scrupulous methods that concentrate more on “how” than “what,” as LuMing Mao and Susan Romano are teaching us. Following Hannah Arendt, we take the risk of action, and urged on by Jennifer Edbauer, we take the risk of the amateur. The care at the core of our enterprise will flourish at these loose edges.
Thursday, July 09, 2009
Nicholas Behm is an assistant professor at Elmhurst College in Illinois. He publishes work on composition pedagogy and theory, ancient rhetoric, postmodern rhetorical theory, whiteness studies, and critical race theory. His research examines how first-year composition textbooks may reinforce white privilege and maintain white hegemony. Currently, Behm is working on several projects simultaneously, including book chapters on racism and writing assessment, an edited collection on writing program administration, and articles discussing the personal essay and critical race consciousness.
I concur with Vorris Nunley’s posting on April 16, 2009 that we need to clearly define and theorize what we mean by “diversity.” Too often, when political pundits, corporate spokespersons, and high-level academic administrators bandy diversity-speak, they are articulating what Nunley calls a “Neo-liberal diversity discourse.” Such discourse has been corporatized and codified in the academy and in the workplace as “diversity sessions” and “tolerance,” and often serves to hide racism, classicism, sexism, heterosexism, and ethnocentrism, effectively reifying what diversity discourse was originally meant to interrogate. Put simply, diversity discourse has been subsumed by hegemonies and then re-deployed as “Neo-liberal diversity discourse” to reinforce institutionalized racism. I commend the committee for attempting to construct a new discourse that will, as Joyce Irene Middleton notes in her May 21, 2009 posting, abandon “the false illusion of racial human difference (without abandoning the powerful history of racism).”
Although I think that a position statement on diversity is desperately important, I am skeptical about its potential impact on the discipline or on writing programs and institutions across the United States. I fear that the future position statement on diversity will be rendered as meaningless, as bereft of any transformative power, as prior position statements, such as the “CCCC Guideline on the National Language Policy,” “CCCC Statement on Ebonics,” or “Students’ Right to Their Own Language.”
I am skeptical because CCCC members have never adequately discussed the racialized history of the organization and of composition studies. If the discipline and the CCCC have been constructed and exist within a racialized social system, surely they bear the markings of that system. Racial inequality has been institutionalized and racism and its deleterious effects are systemic and pervasive not only in the legal, medical, political, and educational systems, but also in the CCCC and in composition studies. As Thomas West argues in the “The Racist Other,” the organization and the discipline facilely exteriorize racial critiques, condemning a class of people (poor white folks) or political organizations (Republicans) or legislation (No Child Left Behind) that are easily codified as racist (215). When we exteriorize our critiques, placing blame on an obvious scapegoat, we don’t examine our own positioning and how that positioning constitutes and is constituted by racial inequity. As West suggests, to adequately reflect on how composition studies and the CCCC may perpetuate racial inequity, we must start with ourselves: our positions, our pedagogies, engaging and investigating “how the internalization of hegemonic forces creates contradictions in us that need not lead to paralysis, silence, retrenchment, or guilt but to renewed efforts to counter oppressive behaviors, renewed efforts which nonetheless recognize tensions between self-interests and common commitments” (217). In other words, we are all racists in that we have been socialized within and conditioned by a racialized social system. This realization enables us to consider how race and racism permeates our work, our perceptions of reality, our discourses.
Gary Olson articulates a similar argument in “Working with Difference: Critical Race Studies and the Teaching of Composition,” which is a chapter in Lynn Bloom, Donald Daiker, and Ed White’s Composition Studies in the New Millennium: Rereading the Past, Rewriting the Future. Olson suggests that composition studies lacks any serious study of how composition pedagogy and writing programs perpetuate and are constituted by inequitable relations of power that reinforce racial stratification. As a result, Olson argues that the discipline does not have the language to interrogate its processes of colonization, nor may it be capable of productively responding to the increase in diversity in the student population (208-209).
So, I suggest that we vigorously confront the CCCC’s and the discipline’s “colonial sensibility,” which Victor Villanueva persuasively outlines in “Maybe a Colony: And Still Another Critique of the Comp Community.” We need to make explicit, to challenge and to contest how whiteness pervades the discipline; how whiteness constitutes and is constructed and revised by valorized research methodologies, pedagogies, assessment practices, and curricula; how whiteness functions and circulates at our conferences and in our dialogues; how what we do, what we value, and what we know may reinforce whiteness. Of course, we need to build off of and extend the important work of scholars, such as Krista Ratcliffe, Victor Villanueva, Catherine Prendergast, Thomas West, and Gary Olson, who have already offered sagacious critiques of the discipline and articulated how whiteness functions and proliferates.
To extend their important contributions and to confront how the CCCC and composition studies may construct and may be constructed by a racialized social system, I suggest that we consider employing the critical frameworks offered by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva. In Racism Without Racists, Bonilla-Silva argues that a new racial framework pervades the major social structures and arrangements of the U.S., consisting of inconspicuous mechanisms that construct, proliferate, and reinforce racial inequality. An essential component of the “new racism” is what Bonilla-Silva calls “color-blind racism.”
To articulate the construction and diffusion of “color-blind racism,” Bonilla-Silva extends Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of the habitus to race: Bonilla-Silva contends that white people ghettoize themselves into homogeneous communities in which they constitute and are constituted by a “white habitus” that “conditions and creates whites’ racial taste, perceptions, feelings, and emotions and their views on racial matters” (104). One consequence of the white habitus is to reinforce what Bonilla-Silva calls “a white culture of solidarity” that naturalizes whiteness and white privilege and fashions a white lens that many whites use to interpret racial differences in ways that facilely ascribe their own privileges to anything but their race (104).
Considering the racial makeup of the CCCC, which Joyce Irene Middleton outlines in her May 21, 2009 posting, Bonilla-Silva’s conception of a “white habitus” is particularly important for CCCC members to consider. We need to ask how the CCCC and composition studies may constitute and may be constitutive of a “white habitus,” and how “color-blind racism” may be promulgated and reinforced by the discipline’s valorized discourses, pedagogies, assessment practices, journals, and conventions.
Bonilla-Silva argues that a “white habitus” enables the rationalization of racial inequality by constituting and diffusing four powerful frameworks: abstract liberalism, naturalization, cultural racism, and minimization of racism (28-47). Abstract liberalism, accounts for the tendency to embrace tenets of political liberalism (equal opportunity, meritocracy, equal rights, individual choice) and/or economic liberalism (free market, competition) in a “decontextualized manner” to justify and rationalize racial inequities (141). Abstract liberalism, according to Bonilla-Silva, is the most powerful framework because denizens of the U.S. thoroughly and routinely accept and valorize the fundamental tenets of liberalism, rendering those tenets so natural, normal, and moral that they seem irresistible and unassailable.
The second framework, naturalization, explains the process through which people rationalize racial inequity by suggesting that residential segregation, racial preferences in friends and partners, and school segregation are all perfectly normal and natural. Naturalization enables some to designate residential and school segregation as either a choice or as a biological tendency.
The third framework, cultural racism, explains racial inequities as resulting from supposed group characteristics. This framework is a facile revision of the framework of biological inferiority that segregationists used during the era of Jim Crow. It ascribes pejorative characteristics to particular groups and describes these characteristics as permanent, as biological (39-40). Before and during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, Southern segregationists justified the inequalities suffered by African Americans by claiming that African Americans were less intelligent and biologically inferior. Today, however, systemic racism is justified by arguing that Latinos, African Americans, Native Americans, and/or other minority groups are inferior as a result of culture, rather than biology.
Bonilla-Silva’s fourth framework, minimization of racism, accounts for the widespread view that racism and discrimination no longer figure in the United States. This framework promotes the assumption that racism only involves the aberrant acts of a small number of people that are easily codified as racist (29). All four frameworks protect white hegemony by deflecting attention away from how racism is institutionalized and systemic. They form an “impregnable yet elastic wall that barricades whites from [. . .] racial reality” in the U.S. (47).
The members of the CCCC need to critically consider how these frameworks circulate in our dialogues; in our scholarship; in our writing programs; in our evaluations of students’ work; in our assessment practices. We are experiencing a critical—if not kairotic—period in the history of the organization, the discipline, and the United States, during which difference and diversity have once again become prevalent topics on the news, in classrooms, and during legislative sessions. Let us seize this moment by deploying the critical tools that we possess to construct a critically reflective statement that relates how the CCCC and the discipline may function to reinforce systemic social and economic inequities; that articulates a language with which we can critique discourses and practices that serve to inure hegemonies; and that exhorts CCCC members of privileged groups to commit race, ethnic, gender, class, sexual orientation treason so that we can work purposefully and ingenuously to eradicate inequalities of all kinds.
Thursday, June 18, 2009
Jenn Fishman is an assistant professor of English at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, where she teaches rhetoric and composition as well as eighteenth-century studies. Her abiding interests in performance and pedagogy inform both her historical scholarship and her contemporary writing research, including her contributions to the Stanford Study of Writing, the Embodied Literacies Project, and the Research Exchange, an online database for writing researchers. Her published work appears in College Forum, College Composition and Communication, Composition Studies, and Stories of Mentoring as well as the forthcoming collection Pragmatics and Possibilities: Reflections on Contemporary Writing Research. Her current monograph project, entitled Staging Education, examines the contribution public theater made to the formation of modern rhetoric during the British long eighteenth century.
Take 1. I am a graduate student when the school paper reports a historic shift in undergraduate demographics. In the writing program, we talk about what it means to teach rhetoric and composition in the most ethnically diverse place we and our students have ever been. I think about college dorm copia exercises and imagine dozens of new terms for pop, cola, soda.
Take 2. I am still in graduate school when a visiting scholar, an assistant professor elsewhere, tells a cautionary tale about the time she spent as a campus pariah after a male student accused her of discriminating against him. Lesbians hate men, he argued for local media on a campus with inadequate antidiscrimination policies and no ombudsperson.
Take 3. I am a new assistant professor, and my students are sharing illiteracy narratives. A young woman tells about the time she tried to help a busload of deaf tourists who came to Graceland without an interpreter. Still new at the Southern vowel shift and the post-coronal glide, I miss most of her story, and the episode headlines in my own Illiteracy Times.
Take 4. It is my second year on faculty. Because my new state failed to desegregate the university system after Brown v. Board, I am on a committee authorized to search for an African American scholar in my discipline.
Take 5. My students tell me the Princeton Review includes our university on their lists of top twenty "jock schools," "party schools," and schools where "alternative lifestyles [are] not an alternative."
Take 6. I have just finished teaching a drama course in New York, where The Little Dog Laughed was our last play. The ticket agent described the basic plot: closeted Hollywood actor wants out of the closet; manager says nix; ribald comedy ensues. She didn't mention frank representations of same-sex sex or more full-frontal nudity than Hair. My department head asks how the course went, and I ask what he's heard. Nothing, he says. It went well then.
Take 7. It must be harder for you here. A colleague and I are talking about race, the ongoing underrepresentation of people of color on campus, and the consequences—as well as the irony—of treating "color" as if it were synonymous with "black." I grew up in the South, he twangs, a first-generation American of Syriac Christian Asian Indian descent.
Take 8. I am at Cs when a researcher asks to interview me about writing studies. He says I'll help round out his project demographics because I represent the South.
Take 9. At the same Cs I am talking about revisionist history and my work on theater's contribution to rhetorical education in the British eighteenth century. What about women's experiences and feminist scholarship, someone asks me. I draw from the logics of both, I respond: Examining performance disrupts histories that exclude or fail to take seriously physical acts and material bodies, and as a result my work contributes to the conditions of possibility for ongoing feminist research. Listening to my answer, I think about what we need to believe in order to agree.
Every year for the past several years at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, I have taught a course called English 495: Introduction to Rhetoric and Writing in History, Theory, and Practice, and though I like to rearrange the readings annually, the general arc of the course remains the same. This spring, for example, Victor Villanueva's retelling of rhetoric history in Bootstraps led us to James A. Herrick's History and Theory of Rhetoric, Todd Taylor's Take 20, and several essays from Rhetorical Education in America, edited by Cheryl Glenn, Margaret M. Lyday, and Wendy B. Sharer. Together, these texts ask students to consider how rhetorical education both cultivates and challenges social inequalities. While we might say that what I've been doing is "teaching diversity," like others on this site I am reluctant to make that claim. Instead, I believe I have been developing a pedagogy of difference that engages students in responding critically to the kinds of issues we raise when we talk about diversity, and the distinction has become important to me.
At its best, diversity signals attempts to redress systemic prejudice by implementing measures of fairness. However, through over- and misuse, "diversity" often seems like an empty set, a blank idiom overwritten by the flawed logics of exclusion and erasure, institutionalized oppression, and homogenization that Damián Baca, Eric Darnell Pritchard, Vorris Nunley and others discuss below. As a result, the idea of teaching diversity seems both abstract and prohibitive to me, while teaching difference—and teaching through difference—offers a great deal of critical and pedagogical possibility. At least that is what I hope every time I out myself as a Yankee in English 495. Thinking about Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and The Epistemology of the Closet, I call attention to this "imbecilically self-evident" fact about myself in order to open discussion about how regional identity "works" and what we think it means (22). In a similar spirit, I also perform religious difference deliberately. Sometimes I try almost subtle: "Happy Holidays" in response to "Merry Christmas." Other times I talk about Hanukah with cocktail hotdogs, stuffed Chicago-style pizza, and Frango mints as though it were nothing out of the ordinary.
In these instances, my goal is not to transform myself into our primary course text, nor is it to advance particular conclusions about any one identity category. Instead, with even the most facetious performance my aim is to bring attention to difference. In our briefest exchanges, this may be the most important thing we can do. Alternatively, when teaching, scholarship, and service afford us more time, individual performances can help us interrogate Sedgwick's first axiom, "People are different from one another," and examine when, where, how, and why it matters.
Taking It to the Limit
When we take pedagogies of difference out of the classroom, difference itself becomes one of the tools we can use "to broaden our organization’s thinking, talking, and writing about diversity in our profession," "to trace the histories of difference, to examine the narratives of individualism and progress, and to develop antiracist pedagogies," "to make Universities safe and productive spaces for all folks who have not traditionally been advantaged by American academies," and to meet other goals we organize under the heading "diversity." In these various contexts, difference is not an abacus for counting beans or heads, nor is it a universal remote that will let us control the gates to educational access. Instead, difference is a praxis that combines our reflections on diversity, our strategies for diversity, and the many situations we negotiate as students, mentors, teachers, colleagues, administrators, and members of various communities. A powerful tool, if we can figure out how to use it, difference may be instrumental to achieving the "paradigm shift in our scholarship, teaching, and service" that Joyce Irene Middleton and the CCCC Committee on Diversity hope to facilitate.
How so? To begin, difference can help us identify the envelope we are pushing when we engage in new discourse on diversity, and as such difference operates terministically. After Kenneth Burke, we might say difference poses the question or set of questions that "selects a field of battle" for our new endeavors, and through the process of selection difference "forms the nature of the answers" we discover through conflict and victory or defeat (67). Alternately, if we are not sure we want to work toward diversity by troping on war, we might say difference selects a dynamics or field of activity and through the process of selection promotes inquiries into what animates discrimination, what motivates fairness, and so on. From this point of view, we can try to understand the nexus of historical relationships among sender, receiver, and text by focusing on the lines of activity that connect (or disconnect) them, the social forces that animate those connections, and the circumstances that tether relationships to specific cultural material contexts. A distinctly irenic praxis, difference in this sense invites us to recognize the kinds of complexities that Byron Hawk elaborates in his Counter-History of Composition, and in doing so difference centers diversity (perhaps precariously) on différance or "the 'active,' moving discord of forces" and the "differences of forces" that Jacques Derrida defines.
Embracing the openendedness of meaning and relationships, the praxis of difference can also help us recognize how our work toward diversity is grounded in both bodies of text and corporeal bodies. In this respect, the praxis of difference can bring attention to the growing range of alphabetic, aural, and imagistic texts that we can use for diversity pursuits, and difference can help us understand the complementary resources in our repertoires. As Diana Taylor explains, contrasting archive and repertoire, the latter "enacts embodied memory" through "performances, gestures, orality, movement, dance, singing—in short, all those acts usually thought of as ephemeral, nonreproducible knowledge." While these activities follow patterns (e.g., cultural or artistic scripts), "the actions that are the repertoire do not stay the same" (20). Instead, they change over time, and they also change—and can be changed—from situation to situation. Within a praxis of difference, then, the repertoire is an inventory of available means that we can invent and reinvent in order to address the issues of diversity with the greatest exigence.
Give and Take
Such activities are quintessentially disciplinary, at least to the degree they help us invent new models for making knowledge about not only diversity but also rhetoric, composition, and communication. In some ways, then, we find ourselves at a familiar crossroads. CCCC has historically defined itself through the articulation of policies and practices that support organization members' efforts to implement fairness across the profession and within overlapping communities. In other ways, our current activities, including this blog conversation, signal we have already entered new territory. As part of the praxis of difference, then, we will click the links, perhaps add a comment, and then we can take it from the top, where there will always be something new to read.
Thursday, June 04, 2009
Annette Harris Powell is an assistant professor of English at Bellarmine University where she teaches courses in writing, advanced rhetoric, and Caribbean literature. She is in the process of developing a community-based literacy project with La Casita Center, a community group working to create a bridge between the Latina community and the larger community. Prof. Powell’s research interests include identity, writing and place, discourses of cultural preservation and community-based conservation. She has published “Access(ing), Habits, Attitudes, and Engagements: Re-thinking Access as Practice" in Computers and Composition. “Roots and Routes to Agency: Space, Access and Standards of Participation” in Labor, Writing Technology and the Shaping of Composition in the Academy, and “Conflicting Voices in the Classroom: Students Developing Their Own Critical Consciousness” in Practice in Context: Situating the Work of Writing Teachers. Powell also writes about Caribbean rhetoric and gendered perspectives in literature. Her current project examines identity, memory, and place in relation to the lived life and culture of the Gullah-Geechee communities of the Sea Islands.
I teach at a university with a mission grounded in the Catholic Intellectual tradition of faith and reason and focused on the examined life as a way to encourage students to be discerning. We also teach students to become critically engaged in social justice issues that support global sustainability as it embraces “cross-cultural and inter-faith awareness and diversity.” Yet, I frequently get the following student responses to readings:
“I really can’t relate to this experience; it’s very different.”
“These kinds of things don’t really happen here.” Or,
“I don’t really understand why they live like this.”
Commentary such as this is nothing new to me—majority students, in particular, have always been somewhat resistant when asked to reflect on the limits of their own experiences. They continue to be skeptical of, or indifferent to diversity and multiculturalism. This view is doubly complicated by the apparent shifting dynamics of race in this age of “change.” There is growing popular discourse about the imminence of a post-race era. Increasing numbers of both majority students and students of color are now more resistant to “diversity talk,” often asserting that they see no need in dredging up history—“it’s a different day.” The civil rights movement was successful—there is so much more access today. Both groups of students see themselves as cosmopolitans—that is, they have traveled outside their neighborhoods and have become “citizens of the world.” It’s curious, though, that the large majority of these would-be travelers have yet to venture outside of their own zip codes. Anthony Appiah, in his 2006 book Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, rehabilitates the notion of cosmopolitanism as “connection not through identity but despite difference” (135). We are all, he says, “citizens of the world,” and as such “we need to develop habits of coexistence: conversation in its older meaning, of living together, association” (my emphasis xix). I agree with Appiah, that we need to engage conversations across boundaries and that cosmopolitanism is about interest and engagement, but we must also be mindful that cosmopolitanism presupposes mobility. The student responses above are indicative of this mobility; they embrace the simplistic allure of choosing what is “real” to them. Additionally, it is not enough to engage difference; we must also interrogate the uneven distributions of power that reproduce difference.
Though it’s difficult to say with certainty what accounts for the above responses, economic and class demographics are, I suspect, one indicator. Recently, some scholars (See Jared Sexton’s Amalgamation Schemes: Antiblackness and the Critique of Multiracialism and Catherine R. Squires’s Dispatches From the Color Line: The Press and Multiracial America) have critiqued multiracialism and its attendant ambiguity as “bridges between the races.” Squires argues that “this ambiguity is about exoticism and intrigue, providing opportunities for consumers to fantasize and speculate about the Other with no expectations of critical consideration of power and racial categories.” This re-positioning of race by many Americans contributes to the conception of race as fluid and neutral. This view is acontextual and ahistorical—race and its underlying societal meaning can be manipulated so that “choice” (the decision to belong/not belong, to be fluid, to move in/out) will maintain the current paradigm of inequality. In the May 29, 2009 issue of The Chronicle Review, Rainier Spencer, a professor of anthropology argues that “what popular wisdom tells us is the supposed twilight of how Americans have thought about race is merely a minor tweaking of the same old racial hierarchy that has kept African-Americans at the bottom of our paradigm since its very inception. Multiracial ideology simply represents the latest means of facilitating and upholding that hierarchy—while claiming quite disingenuously to be doing the opposite” (B5). I would suggest that students and scholars in the field question this facile conception of race.
Such conceptions of race often transfer to discussions of various texts that are situated across and within national spaces, suggesting a tension between the global and the local. Although some majority students have a few opportunities to get first-hand experience in local communities with marked social, cultural, or material differences, many do not. Quite often this leads to students’ superficial engagement with texts that present different perspectives and encourages them to think about privilege in terms of gender, race, culture, ethnicity, class, sexuality. Most of my middleclass (and majority) students are often unable to recognize their privilege as distinct. While some acknowledge a few advantages, privilege continues to be invisible. I remind them that privilege is not always a dirty word. We all are privileged in some way, and that although we might not recognize all its variations, most of us possess some. My intention is not to neutralize the idea of privilege. Rather, I’m suggesting that because there is resistance to discussions of privilege, we need to think creatively about how we might bridge the gap and communicate this concept. Most college age students, especially those at private colleges, assume that there are no barriers, that everyone is included, and that everyone has the same degree of access and mobility. Thus, in an increasingly global culture, majority students see the problems (e.g., poverty in post-colonial Caribbean and African communities, the role America expects new immigrants to play, and assimilation) plaguing minority and immigrant communities from a distance. Although I remind students that these “texts” are connected to institutions and power, that they are never neutral, many otherwise critically perceptive students continue to read these cultural problems unreflectively, unable to apply what Wendy Hesford calls a “critical localism.”
In her 2006 PMLA article “Global Turns and Cautions in Rhetoric and Composition Studies,” Hesford argues that “the contradictory effects of globalization, its polarizing as well as democratizing functions, suggest the need for a critical localism … that recognize[s] the ongoing cultural work of ‘local’ spaces” (790). This is important in an increasingly geo-political world where students will need to be able to read, to contemplate, and inevitably, to cross unfamiliar borders in order to interpret and understand the multiplicity of cultural tropes and commonplaces they will encounter. But this abstract border-crossing is one that many students, already unengaged by the readings, find difficult to do, or simply unnecessary. On several occasions, majority students have noted that they have a roommate of another ethnicity or culture whom they describe as relatively assimilated. In this instance, like the cosmopolitan traveler, the student has decided what is “real” to him. The differences they encounter in the written texts we read or the films we watch, they suggest, don’t seem to apply in the context of their authentic encounters. So, while I believe global sustainability to be an important project, it often provides a cover for many majority students who have never had to question their privilege or the kind of mobility they are afforded. The focus on the global presumes that it is always about out there and the Other, and seldom about us, and so, we don’t have to contemplate the problems of, or work needed in local spaces.
My fear is that such relativistic approaches to global and local cultures (and emerging post-race discourses) encourage a lack of empathy and awareness of the material realities of certain communities, especially local ones. The 2007 movie Lions for Lambs highlights the tension between global and local engagement. In one of Lions three narratives, Robert Redford’s character professor Stephen Malley duels with one of his most promising students about why he thinks this student should get involved and why the student thinks he doesn’t need to. Professor Malley stresses that his students should try to make a real difference in society, to claim their stake in the future. In another narrative two of professor Malley’s students call attention to the concept of “engagement” that the US has been practicing successfully, globally, suggesting it might be a productive tool to use domestically where citizen engagement has been failing. This movie promotes the very same call to action or “civic engagement” with which service learning is concerned and offers a useful example of it.
What does the potential absence of empathy portend for diversity and multiculturalism? While multiculturalism, like diversity, is productive in some ways, it often reduces culture to lifestyle and difference or places emphasis on where one is born—identification. It becomes largely about cultural choice rather than about power, politics, and knowledge or epistemology. As we embrace change, we must also recast notions of diversity and multiculturalism. We need to reconsider the meaning of both: what does it mean now to teach and engage these terms as part of the official discourse of most universities and organizations?
Like guest bloggers before me, I share a strong commitment to diversity, but I also question how diversity often functions—as an empty signifier, or as Vorris Nunley suggests in his blog, what is popularly referred to as “body count diversity.” In both institutional and political contexts, we typically rate our success in achieving diversity by counting and then we celebrate it or check it off our list. While representation is certainly important, most would agree that we have to move beyond thinking about diversity primarily in terms of numbers in order to engender change that is meaningful—that is, change that enables us to make connections between stereotypes and behaviors, and systemic forms of injustice and oppression. I am committed to these goals, and I certainly see them as a necessary component of the movement toward social justice. But discussions in my writing and literature courses that explicitly engage the official discourse of the university indicate a strong need to re-consider what diversity and social justice mean, especially in the context of a small private university setting. Although institutional demands and expectations for students encourage social justice, diversity, and global sustainability, there is a noticeable gap between this discourse and students’ commitment, ability, and readiness to fully participate in this discourse. As I work to engage students in the university’s mission, I have had to acknowledge that the promise of the official discourse is often unrealized. Students’ (in)ability to participate in the institutional mission raises several questions: 1) What does it mean to apply social justice principles in the context of the classroom? 2) What should this look like? 3) How do we get students to engage more critically?
Official discourse that promotes diversity and multiculturalism must be concerned with social justice. Service learning, if done properly, is the most likely means of achieving social justice because it provides students not only with opportunities for writing but also with opportunites to work directly for and with communities (See Thomas Deans’ Writing Partnerships: Service Learning in Rhetoric and Composition). Students need realistic experiences in action—theoretical, often abstract, applications in the classroom are not enough. They need to study theories and systems along with people whose material lives are affected by those systems. While diversity is an important goal, social justice and action that promotes it as a knowledge-making project, and contributes to change must be the ultimate objective. Despite Nedra Reynolds critique of service learning as “assigned encounters with difference” (9) in Geographies of Writing, service learning offers productive and potentially transformative opportunities for learning and writing in the community (see, for example, Linda Adler-Kassner’s Writing in the Community). Writing about their service provides students with a space to work out their ideas and their experiences—what they do and learn in a particular community. This is indicative of writing as thinking, writing as a situated activity, and writing as a way of creating knowledge. For a provocative discussion of diversity and writing see Phillip P. Marzluf’s 2006 CCC article “Diversity Writing: Natural Languages, Authentic voices,” and Margaret Himley’s and Christine R. Farris’ 2007 response to Marzluf in the CCC Interchanges. For an example of a diversity writing program, consult Syracuse University’s Writing and Diversity in a Globalized World at (http://wrtdiversity.syr.edu/).
While some universities talk about social justice primarily in terms of curricular engagement others go beyond service and volunteerism, suggesting that it is a sustained commitment to getting students involved in the community, helping them make sense of what they are experiencing while encouraging them to reflect on these experiences critically. This is a space where diversity discourse can be very productive for students, teachers, and administrators. Social justice via service learning encourages students to ask certain questions of themselves: How do they define social justice? How does community collaboration change the face of social justice for community partners and students? How does this change the contours of the borders they cross? What do they see as their role as engaged citizens, based on what they learn in the classroom and in the community? These questions can feed into their writing assignments, into the way they think about composition, and the way they think about official discourse. Most importantly, students are given the opportunity to raise questions about how or why material realities exist as they do and to consider how they might respond productively. The latter model of social justice presents both opportunities and challenges; nonetheless, this is the kind of civic engagement students need in order to be able to enact social justice in real world contexts and to be able to participate in diversity that matters—that has lasting material impact, locally and globally.