Thursday, June 18, 2009

A Different Take on Diversity

Introductory Bio

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.

Blog Entry

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.

Taking Stock

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

Back in the classroom, when I perform—or strategically hyper-perform—Yankee and Jew, I also (necessarily) perform a much greater range of differences, which can be catalogued according to race, class, age, ability, gender, sexuality, and so on. I single out region and religion because of the ways those particular points of reference are accessible and have salience where I teach. Emphasizing not pretense but play, these choices lack cunning, and my performances lack the sly politics and sophistication of critical pedagogies like Karen Kopelson's edgy and admirable "performance of neutrality." Our actions are part of the same repertoire, however, and they move us toward similar ends. Not only do they stage "students' more open encounters with the new and unfamiliar" (136); they also do fundamental diversity work by moving us toward a greater self-reflective and critical understanding of the ever-evolving social dimensions of difference.

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

Diversity That Matters: A Commitment to Social Justice

Introductory Bio

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.

Blog Entry

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 (

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.

CCCC Annual Convention

2009 Convention logo

March 11-14, 2009
San Francisco, CA