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.


Paul M. Rogers said...


I appreciate your thought provoking meditation on difference and diversity. Fortunately for me, George Mason, where I work now, has a richly diverse student population. At UCSB where I taught for five years, and previously at Humboldt State, I felt like I was doing good to have two or three students of color in a course; in the College of Engineering (COE) at UCSB where I taught for three years oftentimes, I would only have one woman in class in a class of 25--although in the COE their were more students of color than in the general student population.

However, at Mason every course I've taught has included a rich mixture of linguistic, cultural, ethnic, racial diversity. As a writing instructor focused on writing oriented learning outcomes I'm challenged, but as the facilitator of a community of writers the diversity is a gift, enriching tremendously our classroom culture. Especially with me the white, male, heterosexual teacher in the front of the room! Of course, I do my best to perform the California cool subculture, but I'm in need of a surf-vacation to keep it going!!!

I like the spirit of play in your work! Cultural studies is not my area of scholarship, but your post helps me think about doing more to let the differences enliven the classroom conversation.


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