Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Ecology of Diversity

Introductory Bio

Jill Swiencicki, formerly associate professor of English at the California State University, Chico, is now Visiting Assistant Professor at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. She is at work on a project on women’s dissent rhetoric after 9/11, which analyzes feminist responses to the U.S. government’s actions after 9/11. She is also at work, with Thia Wolf and Chris Fosen, on an analysis of The Town Hall Meeting, their large-scale, public sphere experiment with first-year student writers ( Her third project explores the application of environmental sustainability methods to first-year writing pedagogy. Her writing has appeared in College English, Teaching English in the Two-Year College, Rhetorical Education in America, Multiple Literacies for the 21st Century, Rhetoric and the Global Village, and The WPA as Advocate for Engagement.

Blog Entry

I approach the problem of diversity mindful of the first law of ecology: everything is interconnected. Having taught for a decade in northern California at a university internationally recognized for its approach to sustainability, and in a state suffering through a long-term drought, I have been steeped in the rhetoric and reality of climate change. It is through these experiences that I offer ideas to shape our thinking about diversity. . . . (editor’s note: for a longer version of this essay with an extended discussion on interconnected thinking, diversity, and ecology, please see the url at:

We face dissonance and reconcile versions of competing realities by inquiring into the social systems we take for granted (Who handed you your morning coffee? Where were your shoes made? What happened to your water bottle when you threw it away? Why is it so hard to focus on our peers’ ideas in their writing, instead of their errors?). Some of the most interesting work in our field strives to help students to see their life as ecological—to make visible the structures and power relations embedded in their social system, to negotiate and experiment with what kinds of roles they want to more consciously play in the system and to use as many modes of communication as possible to do so.

A diverse ecology needs a sense of deep time—of how the past lives on in the present and has adapted to fit the changing aspects of the environment. Since the inauguration of President Obama, I have been asking my students at California State University at Chico the following series of questions: “What do you remember about the decisions of the U.S. government after 9/11? What have you heard from family, friends, and the media about the war on terror? How are you making sense of political events for yourself?” By-and-large, when faced with my questions, students don’t remember or know any specific details. Chico State is a liberal college campus in California, so there is a prevailing critical appraisal of the last administration, but when I pushed them to elaborate on their distaste or appreciation, they couldn’t offer many details. This situation is an easy reminder of the importance of replenishing our historical and intellectual habitat in times of transition, especially in times of political, economic, and environmental upheaval.

Karl Rove, former Senior Advisor and Deputy Chief of Staff to President Bush, is fully aware of the exigency of the situation. According to the news media and his own promotional website, Rove is busy on college campuses these days, creating the history of that period that many of my current students were too young to have engaged with critically. Pollsters, conducting exit interviews of the students who attend Rove’s lectures, have found that students leave the lecture hall, largely arguing that former President Bush protected our civil liberties in wartime, detained suspected terrorists appropriately, etc. In the battle for the signifier, history is written and rewritten. At this historical moment, which features the degradation of public education, infrastructure, the environment, social programs, and the arts, there exists what Annette Harris Powell’s terms the “noticeable gap between [diversity] discourse and students’ commitment, ability, and readiness to fully participate in this discourse.” The “gap” Powell sees is the problem and the possibility of the “and” that Condon registers in her blog.

The moment is ripe to restore to the record the rhetorical depth and breadth of recent political history. Asking students to become critical historians of the recent past, as Nancy Welch does in her compelling book Living Room, is less a battle for the signifier than what Gordon Wells calls “dialogic inquiry.” An interconnective approach hails writing students as inquirers that form questions they have a real stake in answering, researching and write that history with invested collaborators, each bringing a different set of experiences to the endeavor. Helping students become questioners is the fundamental restorative act for the learning system. This semester, while researching the phrase “corporate globalization,” Kelly, a student in my capstone course, argued in her end-of-the-semester reflection that it was important to form questions that “prod,” that are not “concrete,” and that engage her “conscience.” A great paradigm for structuring inquiry.

Because student inquiry requires an authentic purpose and audience, some of us in the field are sponsoring forums where students convene campus and community members to weigh in on the inquiries into power and difference that they are writing about. From 2004 until last semester, the writing program at Chico State collaborated with our First Year Experience program on a Town Hall Meeting, a place where first year writers—especially first-generation college students in EOP—lead conversations about their research on climate change, the Iraq war, and other issues of the day, with other writers from other composition classes, as well as campus and community members. We asked a simple question: what if we recommitted to restoring our campus habitat by starting with practices of respect for the youngest members of our campus community, those who are considered the least valuable to our ecological niche? This Town Hall Meeting contained significant elements of complete chaos every semester—dialogue turned pat, students spoke from their prejudices instead of their research, and adult experts sometimes forgot themselves and took over. But more often than those moments were ones that illustrated what civic interconnection feels like—moments where first year students say, “this helps me see what college is for,” “this makes me see how my writing matters,” “this makes me see what place I could have in the bigger picture.”

Last April I was asked to lead a workshop on white privilege for our campus’s on-going brown-bag lunch series, “Conversations on Diversity.” The room contained well over a hundred undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, staff, and administrators. Knowing how differences in status, age, and racial identification can influence such settings, I was excited at the prospect of engaged dialogue among these registers. An interesting trend emerged in our conversation that revealed who felt compelled to enter the dialogue and who felt exempt from the shared endeavor—a dynamic that was an unanticipated outcome of the way I designed the workshop. A premise of interconnective thinking is that our realities are prisms of meaning; no one exists in isolation, and even our experiences, while different, have connections that make it impossible for us to exempt ourselves from the facets of reality that make up the whole.

I opened the workshop by defining white privilege, discussed the history of the term, and then moved to two rhetorics of revealing white privilege: the indexing or listing of privileges and the “awareness narrative.” I presented a short excerpt from Tim Wise’s viral essay “This is Your Nation on White Privilege” (, his controversial list of instances that help make visible the invisible, unearned social privileges that whiteness affords. Although index/lists are useful for discussions of diversity and identity because they keep things depersonalized, away from examinations of personal choices and experiences, the discussion we had also showed that they are limited in just that way: one can stand at a distance, remarking on these unfair privileges, while creating exemption/distancing narratives for themselves and others.

It was when we talked about another rhetoric of white privilege, the “awareness narrative,” that a split in participants emerged along racial lines. I asked participants to describe a time when they became aware of having a racial identity. A fascinating discussion emerged, as mostly undergraduates who were able to pass as white or Latino talked about being able to negotiate multiple communities, returning to their home community for safety, or questioning where that home community is anymore, especially on the campus. Students and faculty members talked in deeply specific, engaged ways about this kind of identity shifting. After a while, the director of Multicultural and Gender Studies observed aloud that no white people had spoken up in relation to the question. White privilege is often an exemption from the hard conversations about racial interconnection and power relations. These exemptions—“I didn’t cause climate change,” “My family are working-class whites, not privileged whites,” “I didn’t vote for him,”—are the very ones we need to construct pedagogies of interconnection around, ones that make a space (make a better space than I did in this workshop) for the emotional work/vulnerability such endeavors require. In this blog Morris Young argues that “there is a risk in reducing an understanding of diversity to fixed categories that mask more complex experiences.” His blog post, and the majority of posts, calls for us to “destabilize discourse” about identity, literacy, and diversity; starting with our multiple calls to examine our shifting, related identities—just as those students did in the workshop—rather than the supposedly fixed ones, has potential to capture the dynamic context of the ecosystem.

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CCCC Annual Convention

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March 11-14, 2009
San Francisco, CA