Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Responsibilities of Social Justice: Activist Literacy, Race, and California State University

Introductory Bio

Dr. Virginia Crisco is an assistant professor at California State University-Fresno where she teaches literacy and composition pedagogy and where she co-coordinates the first-year writing program. Her research interests focus on the intersections of literacy and rhetoric as it manifests in the practice and pedagogy of public writing and civic participation to inform the spaces of the classroom and the community. Crisco's recent publications include “Rethinking Language and Culture on the Institutional Borderlands” in The Journal of Basic Writing, “Graduate Education as Education: The Pedagogical Arts of Institutional Critique” in Pedagogy, and "Conflicting Expectations: The Politics of Developmental Education in California" in the edited collection Developmental Education: Policy and Practice.

Blog Entry

My current scholarship focuses on the literacy practices of activism. Out of qualitative research with the Green Party of the United States and my first-year writing class, I called what I was observing “activist literacy:” the rhetorical use of literacy for civic participation. Drawing on scholarship from Jacqueline Royster, James Berlin, Ellen Cushman, de Certeau, Bickford and Reynolds, and Barton and Hamilton, I argue that community members use activist literacy in response to institutional structures they want to change. Activist literacy focuses on critically understanding and challenging socio-political power structure; it emphasizes the deliberate use and interpretation of language to challenge and shape the reality of self and institution. Finally, activist literacy finds value in building coalitions and collaborating with other individuals or groups for the purpose of changing dominant attitudes, positions, policies, and laws. My work with the Green Party taught me that it is ok to NOT always compromise for the good of all, particularly when compromise means that the majority doesn’t understand the minority. The party taught me that sometimes activists have to make people who value the status quo uncomfortable, challenge them, and help them to recognize what they have rendered invisible, especially the associated consequences.

Though I do not argue that the issues the Green Party face are the same issues that people of color and whites face trying to create an antiracist society (though this is a goal of Greens as well), I do argue that some of the practices of activist literacy can be used toward that end. Critical Race Theorists such as Beverly Daniel-Tatum, Catherine Prendergast, Patricia J. Williams and Gloria Ladson-Billings argue for a version of reality that makes many whites uncomfortable, and they insist that the racial battles we have historically fought in this country have not really changed race relations (e.g., civil rights of the 1960s). Activists take responsibility to learn the histories of race relations. We read between the lines of dominant histories to see what is kept invisible. We resist claims that erase people of color or suggest that their histories are unimportant. As whites, we recognize and critique our history of domination and erasure. Activists’ deliberate use and interpretation of language position us to reflect on our own language-using practices, consider how they demonstrate what we know and what we are trying to learn, and allow us to make arguments that rewrite histories and make the invisible visible. When activists can build coalitions and collaborate with other individuals, we recognize our abilities to listen, to give up some of our own desires to balance power structures, and to be willing to work with others in momentary or long-term alignments.

Activist literacy needs to be applied to particular contexts in order to be useful in making change. For example, I currently work California State University, and, like other states, California is having a budget crisis. Their solution to this crisis – a hardwon solution – is to cut education. In fact, according to the California Teachers Association’s publication California Educator, education took the biggest hit in the most recent budget battle. California State University does not receive guaranteed funding like the K-14 education system, and it does not benefit from grants and gifts given to the University of California system. But the state university is still required to accept the top one-third of students graduating from California high schools and is called on to provide a 4-year, public education for Californians and others in the nation and abroad. The student population of the CSU, in general, is racially and ethnically diverse (In fact, systemwide, whites are the minority at 43.6% of the student body.), and these cuts, while affecting faculty workload and lecturer positions, also impact the students who seek higher education in California.

The California Faculty Association has started the “cuts have consequences” campaign that includes videos of activism and stories from faculty, lecturers, students, and staff about the effects of cuts on the CSUs website ( Students’ stories in particular show how these cuts create even more challenges to get a higher education:
• Students explained that larger class sizes mean fewer opportunities to interact with faculty and to get individual attention.
• Students shared that finishing their degree might take longer because the numbers of required classes have been reduced.
• Students discussed deciding between taking a semester off or prolonging their education by taking classes that are available (but not getting a full load) because required classes are not being offered. This could mean for many of our students additional student loans and another semester out of the workforce.
• Students pointed to rising tuition costs – doubled in five years – which makes it difficult for them to afford books.

These are the stories of how White, Latino/a, Asian, Black, Filipino, American Indian, and Pacific Islander students have trouble getting a higher education – and these effects are not applied equally across the board. For example, system-wide about 30,000 students are non-citizen resident aliens. In the example of one of my students, Ivonne, her family moved from Mexico City to Fresno when she was young. She was able to attend her first year of college with the help of CAMP (college assistance migrant program) but needed to rely on scholarships for the remainder of her education – even though she grew up in California. Though students like Ivonne are able to pay resident tuition, which is significantly cheaper than nonresident tuition, they are not eligible for federal financial aid.

This budget crisis puts California State University workers, students, alumni and California residents, in general, in a place to consider how to move forward. As we saw with the last election, people can make a difference. President Obama and Vice President Biden’s “Renew America Together” initiative challenges us to recognize the power we have to help our communities. Californians need to educate the population about the importance of higher education to the economy and the future of the state and then we need to let our state representatives know that they have to invest in higher education.

This blog is my opportunity to voice my thinking and consider deeply and carefully how we might apply activist literacy practices to our profession in order to support diversity and social justice. I want to thank Asao Inoue and Joyce Middleton for allowing me to share my ideas, but I also want to call on folks in the discipline to help us consider how our professional ethics, pedagogical practices, research methods, and educational policy should reflect our values in relation to diversity. Below are some of my ideas; I encourage readers to add more:
• We need to find ways to translate the scholarly and classroom work we do into community conversations through blogs, letters to the editor, news columns, you tube videos, etc – in other words, through the literacy practices that our communities use to get information out and to educate citizens about the importance of their participation.
• We need to teach our students the importance of multiple kinds of writing, to recognize that student’s development as a writer, community member, and professional can benefit from learning multiple genres of writing (both academic and community oriented).
• We should resist goals that only see teaching as the development of workers and embrace goals for education that encourages community engagement and participation.
• As white professors/professionals, we need to recognize our privilege and white and people of color should listen to what our peers, colleagues, students, and staff have to say about what it means to be a person of color in the institution.
• We need to work to change our retention and promotion structures to recognize not only Dean’s notion of writing with the community as an important intellectual contribution, but also the value of consulting with our representatives in state and national governments particularly because this can allow us to educate decision makers on the value of our work.

To fight the budget battle, the Alliance for the CSU was created ( This activist organization is made up of students, citizens, faculty, staff, alumni, and others who care about the future of the CSU. This organization is a good model of activism, as they are working on multiple fronts to educate the community and state government about how budget cuts affect public higher education. Initially through the activism of the Alliance, we were able to win back about $66 million to the CSU budget from the Governor’s original May 2008 Budget Proposal, yet the CSU Chancellor gave back $31 million of it. And. when the state was looking at a $41 billion deficit, it was clear that the CSU was going to get cut again. Still, the Alliance continues to educate and fight for the CSUs – and the diverse student population it serves – as a crucial special election comes up in May 2009.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Distorting the Hush: Diversity as Political Rationality and Public Pedagogy

Introductory Bio

Vorris Nunley is an assistant professor of English at the University of California, Riverside. Professor Nunley is interested in Rhetorical and Critical theory, public pedagogies and composition, visual culture, neo-liberalism and African American expressive culture. His work addresses the intersections of rhetoric, space, and episteme (knowledge). Informed by work in literature, rhetoric (traditional/ethnic/gendered), cultural studies, and critical/feminist geography, Professor Nunley argues for the existence of a strand of African American rhetoric and knowledge he refers to as African American Hush Harbor Rhetoric (AAHHR). Recently, his work engages neo-liberalism as a public pedagogy and how it commodifies, produces, and mediates the construction and reception of masculinity/femininity, Blackness, the communal, and excess. He is currently the Professor in Residence for the Honors Program. He works with vice-provost on epistemic diversity. He also lectures and does workshops on related epistemic diversity issues. His book Keepin’ It Hushed: African American Hush Harbor Rhetoric and Knowledge will be published by Wayne State University Press in 2010.

Blog Entry

Experts in the institutionalization of diversity in corporate America and on university campuses refer to the hegemonic version of diversity as compositional or body count diversity. Compositional diversity, or what I refer to as neo-liberal diversity, pivots around the inclusion of different bodies and various subjectivities. To wit: let’s add some icing to the normative institutional cake. A little chocolate. A smidgen of brown, yellow, gender, and class. Oh, did someone forget the red again? Can we queer all of this damned icing? And while we are at it, let’s disable the cake? While compositional diversity is a necessary first step, it falls short, if the end game—particularly for those of us interested in more transformative social practices, political rationalities, and public pedagogies—is intended to exceed mere inclusion. Neo-liberal diversity discourse, for the most part, is a status quo buttressing, political rationality that inadvertently smuggles in hegemonic institutional, social, and racial relations through the backdoor of tolerance and market logics. Neo-liberal diversity does not reconfigure or dismantle what constitutes legitimate political and social knowledge.

Instead, it jettisons rhetorics of gender, race, and sexual orientation from the epistemic and then explicitly or implicitly relegates them to the stagnant, theoretical backwaters of difference, the cultural, the resistant, the sociological, and my personal favorite, the alternative.

Wendy Brown in “American Nightmare: Neo-liberalism, Neoconservatism, and De-Democratization” describes a political rationality as “a specific form of normative political reason organizing the political sphere, governance practices, and citizenship . . . [it] governs the sayable, the intelligible, and the truth criteria of these domains”(5). Neo-liberal diversity, as both an economic and political rationality, allows a euphoric discourse celebrating a range of marketable differences, for togetherness across those differences, and for colorblindness, tolerance, commonality, and ethnic unity—as long as they are flattened into a homogenized logic. A logic informed by what Slavoj Zizek (borrowing from Walter Benjamin) in Violence (2008) refers to as the “culturalisation of politics, depoliticizing diversity from unruly episteme and messy politics, and resituating it into difference, personal feelings, and a supermarket for ethnic choice" (140). In my view, what Brown argues about tolerance as a “depoliticizing trope” in Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire (2006) also applies to diversity: “One sure sign of a depoliticizing trope or discourse is the easy and politically crosscutting embrace of a political project bearing its name” (16). As a result, Presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, President Obama, and most major corporations also support diversity.

At this point, I ask readers not to misread my critique: Compositional diversity is important. It carves out a space for marginalized folks to have a job in the academy and elsewhere. In the classroom, it allows previous, backstage student voices (to borrow Erving Goffman’s term) to occupy center stage. And if neo-liberal diversity is merely about center staging marginalized academic and student voices so that they can be slotted into the normative political rationality, then let’s celebrate the inclusive dance, but not the illusion of a transformative political rationality that seduced many of us to purchase admission tickets to the diversity ball in the first place.

In terms of American and African American rhetorical practices, President Obama’s March 2008 “A More Perfect Union” speech offers a useful example. The speech was rhetorically savvy, and productively galvanizing in the fragmenting wake of the Bush years as it was an epideictic speech in praise of the common that advocated for inclusive America.

Unfortunately, “A More Perfect Union” re-inscribed the normative political rationality through the trivialization, then the omission of African American epistemes, knowledge’s, and subjectivities I refer to as African American Hush Harbor Rhetoric (AAHHR). “A More Perfect Union” accomplished this through its disavowal of Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s assertion that “racism is endemic to America.” Obama argued that his primary reason for distancing himself from Rev. Wright was that he had a “distorted” view of America (see "A More Perfect Union" speech at

For good or ill, Rev. Wright’s claim is a commonplace in AAHHR. Hush harbors are African American Black publics, micropublics, or what Michael Hanchard in Party/Politics: Culture, Community, and Agency in Black Political Thought (2006) refers to as lifeworlds. Lifeworlds foster the taken-for-granted bundles of beliefs, subjectivities, standpoints, and the language use which ordinary people engage in to create meaning within African American civil society. A civil society where African American rhetors speak to and exchange knowledge and information with primarily African American audiences (6-8, 223-224).

In African American hush harbors, African American political rationalities and terministic screens are not alternative, not counter, nor merely cultural; they are normative. Rev. Wright was the fifth most popular preacher/speaker in the United States due in part to his immersion in the epistemic parreshia (dangerous or frank speech) of AAHHR. Indeed, most African Americans understand White racism/privilege to be endemic to the American nation-state. Further, scholars as disparate as David Theo Goldberg, Ruthie Gilmore, Cedric Robinson, and Elaine Richardson have all written directly or indirectly about the centrality of Whiteness and racism to American identity and how both are not only coterminous with the development of the nation-state but also with Enlightenment humanism and modernity. Even if most African Americans did not agree with Wright’s position, they certainly understood his position to be legitimate and rational, not distorted. But the normative political rationality required the President to distance himself from both Rev. Wright and from the political rationalities of AAHHR to rhetorically construct himself as invested in diversity and multiple identities yet, racially non-partisan, rational, civil, and therefore, electable.

Indeed, neo-liberal diversity not only embraces multiple identities, spheres, discourses, and identities; not only celebrates the choices, diversities and hybridities of post-racial ontologies; not only cheers pluralized border-occupying subjects and subjectivities; but also attempts to produce all of the aforementioned on the very terrain of the subject as citizen-consumer.

Citizen as consumer-subject privileges market logics of utility that gloss over the antagonisms between citizens as political-subjects in the quest for unity, commonality, and consumption. Flattening tensions in the hegemonic political rationality is one reason why in the state of California, voters could both support President Obama—a marketable Blackness or diversity object that did not disrupt the dominant political rationality around race—but then, simultaneously, vote against Proposition 8, the so-called Gay Marriage amendment that definitely transgresses the hegemonic political rationality around masculinity gender, and marriage expectations.

My primary concern in this posting is not with President Obama’s intentions; rather, my argument is that the “A More Perfect Union,” speech, together with and by extension, neo-liberal diversity, function in tandem with the very political rationality that requires the rendering of African American and other hush harbor rhetorics invisible or distorted. If we take seriously Henry Giroux’s notion of neo-liberalism as public pedagogy as he argues in his book, Against the Terror of Neo-Liberalism, then we must also understand pedagogy and learning occur across a spectrum of social practices and settings through the educational force of the entire culture. Neo-liberalism and Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech can be said to be public pedagogies that are marked by both the possibilities and limits around what is intelligible and sayable in the public sphere vis-à-vis diversity, race, and sexual orientation, flattening out a more unruly, but more vital democracy.

But such flattening makes for a more easily digestible, more consumable, diversity cake.

CCCC Annual Convention

2009 Convention logo

March 11-14, 2009
San Francisco, CA