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.
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 (http://www.youtube.com/cutshaveconsequences). 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 (http://www.allianceforthecsu.org/index.html). 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.