Editor's Note: Happy New Year, and welcome to our new CCCC blog posts on diversity
and writing for the 2009 spring semester. As always, your comments and
responses to our guest writers are welcome.
Guest Writers: Annis N. Brown, Cathleen Clara, Ellen Cushman, and Alma Villanueva
Annis N. Brown is a doctoral student in the Curriculum, Teaching, and Educational Policy program at Michigan State University. Her research interests lie in the historical and contemporary implementation of urban educational policy and critical literacy studies. She works with pre-service teachers, student teachers and veteran teachers in various capacities. She is an active member of the Graduate Student Council for the American Educational Research Association, and currently serves as the community leader. She was also the Training and Support Coordinator for The New York City Teaching Fellows and previously taught middle school English Language Arts and Social Studies in the South Bronx.
So, what do we really mean by diversity? My mind consistently veers toward this question every time I hear the infamous four syllables. I teach pre-service teachers who are overwhelmingly white and predominately middle-class. In my learning as a doctoral student, I am professed to by mostly white faculty. Does inserting my African American self into either of these equations automatically equal diversity? Am I creating diverse learning environments by sharing my experiences as a teacher in the South Bronx, and inserting the requisite Brice-Heath, Delpit, Banks, and Nieto into my syllabi? When thinking about diversity I have more questions than answers. However, there is no place where I make better sense of these questions than in the classroom.
In my collegiate teaching, my pedagogical leaning is toward a womanist conceptualization of care. The strength of the women in Jackie Jones Royster’s Traces of A Stream, the historical memory of the educators in Michelle Foster’s, Black Teachers on Teaching and the framework construction of Nell Noddings in Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education all inform my instructional stance. This pragmatic application of Black feminist ideals, high expectations and social justice transcends place–it is applicable across both homogenous and heterogeneous groups. Caring about whether both the margins and the center are represented, in texts assigned and activities taught, creates a vibrant learning environment where ideas can be stretched. Expecting and requiring intellectual rigor that translates into practical application and genuine learning, while leaving my students with the charge to “do something about it” is my instructional legacy. I am teaching English teachers who will radiate across this nation to choose the books that children read, create the assignments that frame adolescent understanding, and engineer curricula for towns, districts and states. These causal relationships further complicate the true meaning of diversity.
This lovingly pragmatic approach that I espouse is also borne out of my experiences as a student. I grew up in schools that were poor and racially segregated. The caring that emanated from the predominately Black and female teachers in my classrooms prepared me to begin to comprehend a world where I am seen as a minority. These intersections have caused me to explore the realities of urban Black girls, their teachers, and their rhetorical practices. How can their cultural understandings diversify our perceptions of teacher and learner? How do popular and public stereotypes about “that loud Black lady” interact with domestic and private home expectations of docility and femininity? What can the latent texts and silences that lie beneath speech tell us about the marginalized spaces of “double minorities”? This research agenda will continue to inform my teaching, and my identity as a constantly evolving pedagogue. What I really mean by diversity is shifting consciousness, shaping outlook, and sustaining change.
Cathleen Clara is a third-year teacher education doctoral student in Curriculum, Teaching, and Educational Policy at Michigan State University. She is studying adolescent literacy, young adult literature and urban/alternative education. A former alternative high school teacher, she has taught language arts and social studies, content area literacy and children’s literature. She has also written curriculum for a local school district and is support staff for freshman study abroad experiences.
In working with pre-service teachers, I create a learning environment that encompasses ideas of pedagogy that critically engage popular notions of diversity and multiculturalism. As a former alternative high school teacher, I longed to be able to name the practices I used in my classroom, so this course is heavily weighted in critical pedagogy and critical literacy. I teach a course in secondary content area literacy where the majority of my students are White, middle-class, female, Christian and were ‘good students’ in high school. As part of this course, they spend time working in an urban alternative high school, where many of them encounter students who are not only different from them in race and class, but also in their experiences and perceptions of the purposes of schooling.
I feel that part of my job is to widen their perspectives on diversity and to help them be able to work with all of the students in their future classrooms, especially those who have had different life and school experiences from their own.
I begin this course by asking my students to write about and discuss what they already know about teaching and learning based on their own experiences as students and pre-service teachers. We then build on those experiences through their field placement and activities that challenge their traditional notions of what education is and can be. I use varied texts (by writers such as Lisa Delpit, Linda Christensen, Bill Bigelow, Peter McLaren, bell hooks, Beverly Daniel Tatum, Greg Michie and Mica Pollack--to name a few) that push my own and my students’ current knowledge and perceptions of literacy and schooling. This helps us redefine not only who students are and the challenges they face in a school system that panders to one type of student, but also to redefine our notions of literacy in content and context.
My biggest challenge is getting my students to engage ideas of incorporating material that is outside the traditional (white/middle class) curriculum. They struggle with issues they find controversial (GLBTQ, language diversity, oppression, etc) and how they can really teach and work with students around subjects and experiences that speak to their own and their students’ lived experiences. In order to help my students think about these lived experiences, we read three diverse novels; PUSH by Sapphire, Ironman by Chris Crutcher and The Other Side of the Sky by Farah Ahmedi. These texts inevitably lead to heated discussions about what can and cannot be taught in schools and how involved teachers can and should become in students’ lives. Ultimately, I believe that my job is to help my pre-service teachers learn to really love kids for who they are, not how they perform in our overly structured and standardized school system. As teachers we work primarily with human beings and secondarily with our content areas.
Soon, I will begin research on the possible influences diverse texts might have on pre-service teachers’ beliefs, perspectives and assumptions about students and adolescents. Eventually, I plan to look specifically at student and teacher relationships in alternative education and how those might better inform our preparation of pre-service teachers.
Ellen Cushman is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and an Associate Professor of Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures at Michigan State University. She has published two books: The Struggle and the Tools: Oral and Literate Strategies in an Inner City Community and Literacy: A Critical Sourcebook with co-editors Eugene Kintgen, Barry Kroll, and Mike Rose, as well as numerous essays. Initial findings from her qualitative study of Cherokee language and identity will appear in College Composition and Communication, The Public Work of Rhetoric (eds David Coogan and John Ackerman), and in a new book underway: The Cherokee Syllabary: Writing Linguistic, Historical, and Cultural Perseverance.
For me, diversity has best been understood in terms of the tools people use in their everyday struggles and acts of making meaning. Be it a fifty-year old African American woman completing a welfare application with her sisters; a Korean freshman grappling with the English translation of a complex idea so eloquently written in Korean; a Cherokee language teacher trying to structure a language lesson for his English L1 students; a professional writing student creating a digital video to represent the history the effect of allotment on Cherokee families; or three graduate students tackling the idea of diversity with me—as we strive to represent ourselves, we put media together to show who we are; where we stand; what we need, think, and believe; and hopefully, to reach our students and readers. These tools of representation have grammars and conventions for their use; these are:
the rules that write us as we write with them,
the structures that shape and limit the reach of our voices, and
the cultural values that imbue our meaning making.
To understand the ways in which tools come to hold value for the people who use them, this work draws upon two areas of scholarship that have remained, unfortunately, relatively unconnected. On the one hand, I draw upon the scholarship that explores the rhetorical and literate strategies of African Americans (Richardson, Smitherman, Pough, Royster, Moss, Gilyard, and Middleton), Asian Americans (Lu, Okawa, Young, Guinsatao Monberg), Native Americans (Crane-Bizzarro, Powell, Lyons), Latino/as (Villanueva, Moreno, Baca, Perez), and Whites (Ratcliffe, Kirsch and Ritchie, Prendergast, Trainor). Taken together, these works have had noteworthy impact on unmasking the power and privilege of particular linguistic tools and the cultural rules that govern their use. On the other hand, this work draws upon the scholarship that explores composing with various tools (Anderson, Wysoki, DeVoss and Webb, Ball, Trimbur, George, Halrbitter) and the effects of mediation on the people who use them (Hawisher and Selfe, Haas, Charney, Holdstein). This too-brief list of colleagues working in the area of composing with various media points to the ways in which these tools cannot be seen as instruments alone, that they structure us as we use them, and that tools of representation have cultural values and status related to the practices of their use.
Ultimately, though, any understanding of mediation as a cultural practice that may be drawn from this line of inquiry will be useful only insofar as it’s helpful to communities and cultures this work serves. Understanding diversity for me must weave tightly with teaching, writing, and public engagement activities. Many of the classes I teach ask students to learn to work at the intersections of culture, community, and technology, what Ernest Morrell and I have called a praxis of new media. For example, students enrolled in multimedia writing created educational installations for the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma to facilitate the Nation’s efforts to write histories of the formation of the state of Oklahoma from the perspective of Indian Territory. These histories are one small effort in a constellation of rhetorical practices the Nation has developed to persevere as a sovereign entity. This perseverance will be illustrated in a book-length study of the evolution of the Cherokee writing system. Diversity, then, can be understood through a combination of research, teaching, and service.
Alma Villanueva is an MA candidate in the Rhetoric and Writing program at Michigan State University, and a first-time teacher of college composition. Her scholarship focuses on imperial rhetorics in their local and global manifestations, currently with a particular interest in composition pedagogy that at once provides students access to institutions of power and works against the ideological ramifications of contemporary neocolonial discourse.
I teach “Preparation for College Writing,” where white Americans of the middle class are a minority. I have first generation immigrant students, international students from China, Japan, and Turkey, and I have first generation working class white American and African American students. There is one middle class white student, and there is me, a white-looking middle class woman. Diversity?
As I stand in front of my twenty-three students from different social locations within and without the States, I have to push to hear a diversity of voices. Everyone knows the American way: to assimilate and try to get it “right.” Discussions on language variations and linguistic prejudice become silencing moments in which confused students try to understand the “right” answers and the “right” histories whereby ethnic and national discriminations perished sometime after a Black preacher had some dream. They strive for me to tell them how to do “correct” American English in writing and talking, meaning, of course, Edited American English and Standard(ized) American English. Where is the diversity, even as I look out into a room full of people that are supposed to epitomize “diversity”?
Diversity is a way of seeing and being in the world; and as educators, students, and colleagues within this field, we need to embrace a diversity that speaks from the citizens of this earth and about the structural conditions that harm too many of us. We need to encourage and promote a diversity of voices, a diversity of ways of thinking. In order to work towards a diversity as it ought to be promoted and exist in education and other institutions, much of my recent scholarship aims at Ernest Morrell’s (2008) vision of critical literacy, which is not only to create “aware[ness] of the various social, ideological, cultural, and political contexts in which the languages and literacies of power operate,” but also to work towards the production of “counter-language and counter-texts” for a “redefining of the self and the [eventual] transformation of oppressive social structures.”
In other words, teaching composition with diversity means teaching ourselves, one another, and our students. It means learning from our students. It moves from the small scale, the individual, and radiates outward, affecting greater social structures. It is not only reformative or reactive, and it is not only responsive; but it acts on its own accord, towards liberatory ends. Not just critical pedagogy, but a pedagogy of liberation. Diversity ought not be about having a multitude of ethnicities, nationalities, genders, and other such identities; rather it is about a diversity in discussions about structured discriminations against persons of color, gays and lesbians, non-American nationalities, women, non-Christians, the working class, and the impoverished of the U.S. and the world.