Friday, October 30, 2009

What Are We Calling Equity These Days?: Interruption as Praxis and Revising a Word/World

Introductory Bio

Dr. Maria Montaperto is an assistant professor at Kean University in Union, New Jersey, where she teaches college composition and rhetorical theory courses, and assists in the development and coordination of the composition program, the undergraduate writing option in the major, and the new writing studies master’s program. Her scholarly interests focus on intersections between race theory and composition and rhetoric, particularly how invisible white privilege manifests and functions as a form of racism in higher education. She has regularly presented at CCCC, the Feminism(s) and Rhetoric(s), and miscellaneous local conferences. Her most recent avenue of research takes up issues related to disciplinary and institutional oversights in the implementation of the vision of language equity outlined by the CCCC Students’ Rights to Their Own Language resolution.

Blog Entry

In his blog, Victor Villanueva says he doesn’t really “work with the topic of ‘diversity’” or “care for that word diversity any more than [he] cared for its predecessor, multiculturalism.” Malea Powell says, for her, “diversity isn’t a ‘topic’ at all.” More accurately, ”honoring diversity is a way of life,” something imbedded in her academic work, not added on. I agree the term has its shortcomings, and think it’s important to consider here because the CCCC Committee on Diversity’s plans to use the blog to help “construct a position statement on diversity.” This is an opportunity for us, right? For me, I would call it an opportunity to interrupt an epistemological dilemma in our own discourse, and the implicit pedagogies of that discourse.

Echoing others, I’d say I’m more interested in addressing “equity” than “diversity.” Diversity too easily becomes additive, a side note. Equity, however, is foundational. It is about justice, “fairness,” as Villanueva notes. More than a thing to address, the practice of equity is purpose with form. Scholarship, teaching, service? These are just contexts we inhabit in which we do or do not enact it effectively.

So then, equity.

My research in CompRhet focuses on race theory, and enacting equity in my scholarly work has specifically meant examining how invisible white skin privilege functions as a form of racism in higher education. This research teaches me that identity – racial and otherwise – exists as a complex network of socio-rhetorical constructions bound up in the discursive material events of our lives – it is written, is a kind of literacy. And, if true of racial identity, then logic dictates that racism, as a thread in that complex network of socio-rhetorical constructions, can be equally understood as being written – as a form of literacy. And, where there is literacy, there is always pedagogy.

So, literacies, and pedagogies, of race, of identity – and others, inherently of the same cloth, of racism, of unearned privilege, of cultural dominance? One of the answers to Villanueva’s ever-resounding question about “why nice people abide by not nice things;” A-B-C simple, we’re trained to. Trained, into practices of racism, but more disquieting, trained (myself and others), simultaneously, into practices of ‘not seeing,’ into ignorance of complicity. This is a double-bind in which white supremacy as a hegemonic structure functions on two distinct but recursively self-perpetuatory levels. One involves the deployment of pedagogies and literacies for the maintenance and replication of existing power relations; and another the deployment of what I would characterize as a kind of anti-pedagogy/anti-literacy.

As anti-literacy/pedagogy this is comparable theoretically to laws preventing slaves from reading and writing or being taught to, only this time in a kind of twisted reverse, a system of cultural domination turned in on itself, teaches, itself – imagine, a pedagogy of ignorance. Thus, it seems, to work against this we need to strive toward two ends. First, we need to work very concretely toward a greater understanding and knowledge of the function of pedagogies and literacies of white dominance. Second, to work simultaneously toward a different kind of literacy and another pedagogy, what I imagine as a kind of counter-literacy and a counter-pedagogy.

From my research, I’ve developed a working-principle I call interruption as praxis, a theoretically informed practice-based methodology for exposing, interrogating and disrupting inequitable systems of privilege—racial and otherwise. Firmly rooted in CompRhet, interruption as praxis (IP) is distinctly rhetorical. Tied to interests historically at the center of rhetoric, it is a literacy and a pedagogy. And, it is a process, like both Amy Lee’s composing pedagogies – self-reflection with enactment – and Paulo Freire’s “writing the word and the world” literacy but with pencils pushed into the hands of those least expected to need a lesson in ABCs.

In this respect, IP is as much an approach, as a practice. An approach to practices perhaps – rhetorical, pedagogical, institutional – that offers faculty, administrators, and other key university workers in higher education a framework for digging beneath powerful hegemonic structures and for understanding and working against inequity at a systemic level. But, similar to conventional literacy and pedagogy, there is no simplistic 1-2-3 or paint-by-number set of directions. Rather, again, like rhetoric, it has a purpose within a context, which together determine form.

So then, interruption as praxis.

What, concretely, does this counter-literacy, this counter-pedagogy, look like? How does it work?

A) As noted, IP functions rhetorically, and is a theoretically informed practice-based methodology. Non-linear, it’s a re-read and a re-write.

· I read, years ago now, Ian Marshall and Wendy Ryden in a 3C dialogic essay discuss a writing teacher’s (our) responsibility to speakers of “non-standard” dialects of English. Ryden asks of responsibility to the “standard” speaker, to those future potential employers in the position to hire or not hire someone on the basis of “how they say a word.”

· I still can’t get my mind entirely past the preface of Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands where she asks non-mestizos to meet her – the new mestizas/os – halfway. There are a plethora of similar scholarly requests.

B) As the name denotes, IP is about interruption – is an interruption. It breaks open/into – disrupts – one’s self and others, in multiple contexts, by multiple means. Here. Rhetorically. With form for instance. Syntactically. On the level of word. It interrupts privilege specifically – exposes it, my own and others, questions/interrogates, and disrupts – (blogs,) conversations, classrooms, lives.

· I began, as a doctoral student, to use the term “standardized” English, especially in the presence of English studies professionals. It’s not a term that falls lightly on these ears, or is easily ignored.

· I take it quite literally. Believe with all my heart and mind she meant it that way. At 32, to fulfill my language req, I go to Mexico as a summer exchange student to study Spanish for 7 weeks and live with a Mexican family. Two years later, to save the basics I learned, I give up my TAship, sell nearly everything I own, and go to Vieques, Puerto Rico, to write the dissertation there. I leave six months later (because of interruptions – more kinds and types than there is space here to name), finish my degree in my home state of NJ, and return again for eight months. Hablo mucho español. Aprendí mucho. Mucho más que un idiomas. Señora Anzaldúa, puedo leer todo su libro ahora. Gracias.

C) IP has consequences. Can get dangerous. You may sacrifice personally, and professionally, will make mistakes, for the sake of enacting equity. Done well, it’s often terribly uncomfortable. Aches even.

· I made a point to use it on a social occasion while talking with the chair of the English department, a very shrewd but rather conservative British Literature scholar. The even minor potential consequences for irritating her, even mildly, is not lost on me.

· Lost a byline on a published article. Graduated three months late. Put off the job hunt for a year. Other irretrievable professional and personal opportunities se fueron, todo se fue.

In her blog about teaching “Disability as Diversity,” Margaret Price asks a question at the heart of courses (I think any work) whose objective is greater equity: “How can we get beyond classroom conversations on diversity that adhere to simplistic bumper-sticker nostrums (“Celebrate Diversity!”) and into the more complicated, localized, and sometimes painful conversations that lead to true coalition?” To do just that. To “get beyond . . . diversity” as the conversation. No around the pain. Through it. Identity, meaning, may/will relocate. We’ll get lost. Lose things. Let them go.

Snapshot: A course in IP.

Split-level graduate and undergraduate on the rhetoric of race and ethnicity. “To do this work, is to squirm. If you don’t squirm at least once, you’re probably not doing it right,” I said on the first day.

Even though it’s my first time teaching it, I know the class will be difficult – intellectually, ideologically, emotionally. The course, if I do it right, will be and teach IP.

After-class aftermath.

A progressive-minded white student. A young woman. East coast, Italian American like me. It’s where we are, and where we’re from. A moment of contention. Specifics irrelevant. It’s about race. She saw and heard things she didn’t like. I remind her I warned this would happen. She’s in shock. I watch her whiteness unravel. I let it. She’s angry. “Am I just supposed to let it go?” Trusting in a sense of her I’ve formed, I say, “This isn’t about you, or even anybody else in class. Not any of us.” Something just barely begins to dissolve. Enough to see beneath. Commitments not isolated to race, or limiting concepts of “diversity.” Her interests lie beyond that, rest in an image of equity. I’ve seen her brush through brambles to find this place before, in another course, at another time. I’ll watch her do it again. Tell her, for now, I’ll be here. Not to save her from heartache. But to hold her hand. To try my best, to lead. Stumbling, I recount and remember past and present falls. We’ve only just begun. We’ll/i'll make mistakes.

Another Interruption.

I wonder, if to start, we might consider changing the name of the committee and the position statement (using a different term, means of expression, throughout our literatures). By highlighting it, do we risk perpetuating diversity as supplement and equity as after-thought? How can this statement be (re-)written so as to not unintentionally re-inscribe “the current rhetoric of diversity” of which Asao Inoue writes in response to Villanueva?


Anonymous said...

Both interruption and disruption of dominant discourses create spaces where alternative discourses can take root. I think the time is advantageous, what with emerging technologies, to create resulting consciousnesses that can "go viral," and continue to intervene in the word - and eventually, the world.

Donna A. Williams

Anthony said...

I wonder how you see this in conversation with Krista Ratcliffe's rhetorical intervention into whiteness, what she calls rhetorical listening. You seem to share theoretical ground when it comes to interrogating white hegemony. However, your respective interventions into undoing whiteness seem opposed. I wonder what happens for the student after the unraveling of whiteness. Does this leave her more willing to listen "below" her subject position and prepare her to seriously investigate her ideology?

Anthony Warnke

Monica said...

You might want to check out Nedra Reynolds's "Interrupting Our Way to Agency." Monica Barron, Truman State University

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