Thursday, February 19, 2009

A Shared Address

Introductory Bio

Meta G. Carstarphen, Ph.D., is a Gaylord Family Professor and Associate Professor of Journalism in the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Oklahoma. She served as Associate Dean, Academic Affairs, for the College from 2006 to 2008. In 1993, she received a CCCC “Scholar For The Dream Award” for Outstanding Research by an Emerging Scholar of Color. An experienced book critic, Carstarphen is also the author of numerous articles and book chapters, including, “News-Surfing the Race Question: Of Bell Curves, Words, and Rhetorical Metaphors,” in Race, Rhetoric, and Composition (Gilyard, ed, 1998). Carstarphen has edited two books, including, Sexual Rhetoric: Media Perspectives on Sexuality, Gender and Identity (Greenwood P, 1999) and is the lead author of Writing PR: A Multimedia Approach (Allyn & Bacon P, 2003). Currently, she teaches courses in public relations writing and campaigns; race, gender and the media, and research and cultural studies within the media.

Blog Entry

Diversity is the street where I live, and I would argue, the neighborhood that all of us inhabit. Like Victor Villaneuva, though, I find the word itself problematic, at least in terms of how we most often encounter it. One definition I found online equates diversity with “variety” and “multiformity.” When diversity is poised as an organizational or institutional goal at our various colleges and universities, we are often left with the strangely disembodied target. How much diversity is enough? And who gets to decide?

Diversity in some ways is too placid a term, connoting just the right mix of different elements, operating in a perfect balance with all of its parts. But I think the experience of diversity involves a sometimes raucous, sometimes contentious and sometimes blissful set of interactions. Mary Louise Pratt’s essay, “Arts of the Contact Zones,” captures the spirit of this social context as the author describes the “joys of the contact zone” incorporating a host of experiences from “rage” to “revelation” and beyond.

And yet the notion of multiple varieties existing in one temporal space is as commonplace to our everyday sensibilities as our everyday lives attest. I encountered one recent reminder of this as I trekked along the I-35 highway corridor between Texas and Oklahoma. Right inside the southern border between the two states, a large billboard loomed along the roadside, proudly trumpeting the specialties of a local eatery: “Catfish, BBQ and Mexican food.” Imagine the cultural cornucopia in place to make such a space possible—American Indian, African American, European American and Mexican American. Ironically, this restaurant resides in the state that, in 2007, passed the harshest anti-immigration law in the country at that time, with a not-so-concealed agenda to hasten the exodus of Mexican and other Latino residents.

So as I consider diversity as a state of dynamic flux, I find my research interests intensely concerned with historical constructions of diversity. A major project now centers on my work to give close readings of some of the nineteenth century Native American and African American newspapers published in Oklahoma pre-statehood. These periodicals, a tiny part of massive archives held at the Oklahoma History Center, are texts that offer multiple possibilities for new readings of the cultural histories of this state, region and country. What would happen if knowledge of these periodicals jostled along with knowledge of larger newspapers? In a dynamic environment of diversity, would we see—as the Law of Requisite Variety posits—a wider, more flexible view of knowing?

Such an idealized goal looms more concretely in the classroom as students attempt to move beyond sometimes deeply held biases for or against diversity by talking to real people in their acquaintance. A course I developed for the Gaylord College of Journalism called “Race, Gender & the Media” attempts to provide an academic space where students can examine, in a critical fashion, their assumptions about how the media represent race and gender. Over the semester, students are invited to combine their personal experiences with scholarly perspectives, all with the goal of encouraging them to locate themselves in the media professions to which they aspire.

One project involves a long-term research assignment where students work in small teams to
investigate and analyze historical and contemporary race/gender topics. The teams examine the ways in which the topic has been presented in the media and they critique those representations based upon the information they have garnered from a wide array of other sources. Their goals are:

· to determine if the coverage they found was accurate and fair,
· to ascertain the relevance of the topic to contemporary readers and viewers, and
· to suggest better ways in which the information could be communicated to mass audiences.

In previous semesters, I have required students to present their research projects in poster-style fashion in the lobby of our building, inviting written questions and comments from other students and faculty members.

One student group researched the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, and included archival newspaper reports of this event as well as contemporary coverage of hearings considering reparations for survivors.

As new media have figured more heavily into our curricula, poster boards have given way to class blogs. Colleagues who also teach critical and cultural topics have championed the use of wikis in place of the traditional research paper.

One of the fundamental activities of journalists and media professionals is the interview, and another assignment I assign my students is the diversity interview. The assignment has a few key requirements. One, students must select someone, an acquaintance, who belongs to a visibly different racial or ethnic group from themselves AND gendered differently from themselves. As a corollary to this requirement, students cannot pick anyone currently taking the class or anyone with whom they have an intimate relationship! Two, students have to conduct this interview in a public place, like a restaurant or campus space. Three, students are required to comment on the experience of interviewing their subject, in addition to reporting on the facts and responses they receive, providing them with an informal experience in ethnography. They all ask a core of common questions that I provide, including:

· Tell me about where you were born and grew up. Do you think the racial attitudes at your
home are different from the ones you have experienced here?
· How do you describe yourself physically?
· When do you think about race? What makes that happen?
· Would your life be different if you were another gender? A different race? Why or why not?
If so, in what ways would those differences be evident?

When the discussion begins, I (and the students) become fascinated by the complexity of these identity answers. Diversity is in flux, illuminated by the voices of real people who do not fit into one-dimensional categories or experiences.

Welcome to the neighborhood.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Composition, Colonialism, and Hemispheric Pluralities

Introductory Bio

Damián Baca, Assistant Professor of English, earned a Ph.D. in Composition and Cultural Rhetoric from Syracuse University in 2006. He is core faculty in the University of Arizona’s “Rhetoric, Composition, and the Teaching of English” Ph.D. program and affiliate faculty in Mexican American Studies. Baca's most recent publication is Mestiz@ Scripts, Digital Migrations, and the Territories of Writing (New Concepts in Latino American Cultures Series) with Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. In addition to co-editing a manuscript, A Brief History of Rhetoric in the Americas: 3114BCE to 2012CE, Baca is co-editing a forthcoming special edition of College English on “Writing, Rhetoric, and Latinidad” with Victor Villanueva. Baca serves on the NCTE Committee Against Racism and Bias in the Teaching of English, the NCTE College Section Steering Committee, the CCCC Progressive Special Interest Group and Caucus Coalition, and is a member of the CCCC/NCTE Latino Caucus. As a recipient of NCTE’s Cultivating New Voices among Scholars of Color Research Foundation as well as the federally funded Ronald E. McNair post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program, Baca is committed to mentoring students of underrepresented populations as they prepare to enter the professoriate.

Blog Entry

I’d like to thank Joyce Middleton and the CCCC Committee on Diversity, NCTE’s Cultivating New Voices among Scholars of Color Research Foundation, the CCCC/NCTE Latino Caucus, the National Hispanic Cultural Center Foundation, and the Ronald E. McNair post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program.

Although some Composition specialists theoretically embrace “diversity,” they often do not reflect on the origins of Western Composition that are the fruit of a Eurocentric interregional system before which they are profoundly uncritical, and, because of this, they struggle to contribute valid alternatives for exploited populations of the Americas. Thus, “diversity” is a semantic landmine that I generally avoid when describing my teaching, research, and service. I instead think in terms of hemispheric (and global) pluralities. Let me explain.

Raised in a multilingual, matrifocal family that endured shifting national identities, I became sensitive to the politics and geopolitics of culture at an early age. Rhetorical mediations between Mexican Spanish, Spanglish and English formed a web through which I made sense of the circumstances into which I was born. But the intellectual location of U.S. writing specialists prevented their well-intentioned pedagogies from accounting for the practices of such creative processes. The inherited patterns of thinking that emerged in Western Europe under capitalism and their philosophical extensions (that celebrated corpus from Phenomenology to Postmodernism) remain systematically narrow and inadequate. It wasn’t until confronting articulations such as Gloria Anzaldúa’s “new mestiza consciousness” that I began to understand explicitly the traces of colonial power present at all scenes of writing instruction in the “New World,” as well as the innovative rhetorics emerging and persisting from the peripheries of North Atlantic imperialism.

Today, Rhetoric and Composition scholars too often retreat from confronting the enterprise of Western writing instruction as a consequence of colonial power, in particular, the transnational transfer of European systems, technologies and theories of writing to the Western Hemisphere, and the subsequent covering of pre-existing writing practices and tools of literacy of subjugated civilizations.

Operating directly against the humanities’ Western logic of exclusion and erasure, Gloria Anzaldúa’s new mestiza consciousness revises our field’s imperial imaginary by “inventing between” AngloAmerican, Iberian, and Mesoamerican cosmologies. In Borderlands/La Frontera, Anzaldúa de-naturalizes standardized English literacy as the normative tool of communication by entwining various Castilian varieties—both the standard vernacular of an ex-colonial power and some of its subalternized counter-cultural admixtures, admixtures that are so common today. Anzaldúa furthermore introduces the potential to displace the supremacy of the art of letters by continually evoking pre-Columbian record keeping practices, which re-inscribe the Mesoamerican concept of Tlacuilolitzli—the earliest expression for writing in the Americas—translated as “the spreading of color on hard surfaces.” Ancient Mexican writing, influenced by the preceding 10,000 years of development in Mesoamerica, supported a fully socialized “higher education” network which fostered the realization of an organized and consistent legal system, an exact science of time-astronomy-and mathematics, complex faith systems, advanced knowledge of herbal medicine, elaborate architecture and sculptural art—all of this without Plato’s Academy or Aristotle’s Lyceum and without the invention of the alphabet.

By merging Mexican and Western technologies of writing, we are no longer obliged to accept the Western philosophy of a grammar, of linguistic control or taming the tongue and mind, as universal components of writing instruction. Possibilities for accessing theoretical and pedagogical potentials, no longer constrained by an elite class of practitioners, become available. If, in place of theorizing Composition based on a vanguard Western mythology, we accept new mestiza consciousness as a point of origin, we might be encouraged to think about, practice, and teach rhetoric in such a way that is directly responsive to comparative developments of writing, both past and present, from Olmec glyphs to the Inca Quipu, from Maya hieroglyphs to Aztec pictographs to Chicano codices and Zapatista internet communiqués. The earliest writing systems in the “New World” develop from the abstract to the pictorial—precisely the reverse of what many might teach us to believe. Fifteenth century Aztec writing is almost entirely pictorial, while earlier Maya hieroglyphs of the fourth century are far more abstract. The history of writing and writing instruction, therefore, is not a triumphant progression toward the alphabet, but rather a series of co-evolutionary processes in which different systems follow their own transformations. No longer limited by parochial assumptions about “true writing” as the representation of speech through alphabetic systems, the field could study and learn from the construction of knowledge through various technologies of information storage and transmission, whether one writes with letters or with colors or with a system of knotted cords. New translations of rhetoric that “emerge from” the American colonial periphery would provide thorough knowledge of what the field has yet to generate: a materialist, historically-grounded theory of writing that accounts for those civilizations that maintain the longest cumulative histories of writing and writing instruction in the Western Hemisphere. Such subalternized knowledge is also responsive to current trends in digital rhetorics and digital literacies—trends that belatedly call for increased awareness of so-called visual, multi-genre, and multi-media writing practices.

New mestiza consciousness as a rhetorical practice creates a locus of enunciation not where Iberian and Mesoamerican legacies are mere alternatives to Composition Studies. Anzaldúa’s rhetorics suggest, quite to the contrary, that Composition is not necessarily a suitable or superior alternative to the immense hemispheric plurality that remains obscured. As a teacher and researcher of writing, my largest obstacle is not the last eight years of “Cowboy Conservatism” in the Oval Office, but an enduring John Wayne pedagogy of the study of written language. It is the field’s compassionate colonialism that systematically deforms the history and theory of writing under divisive periodizations and spacializations that declare the Western cosmology as the genesis and center of all critical thought.

As a way out, I suggest a shift from merely “talking about” writing and “diversity” from the harmfully narrow perspective of those in the imperial center, to “writing and teaching from” Anzaldúa’s conceptual borderlands. We might also look to the forgotten Fernando Ortiz and his misappropriated “transculturation,” W.E.B. Du Bois’ “double consciousness,” Emma Pérez’ “decolonial imaginary,” Caribbean essayist Edouard Glissant’s “Créolization,” Malea Powell’s “trickster rhetoric,” and Guaman Poma’s “arts of the contact zone”—these distinct enunciations, grounded in the lived experiences of the peripheral colonial world, express new potentials that surpass the limits of post-Enlightenment rationality. In place of the uni-linear, developmental, racially coded framework “from Ancient Greece to Modern America,” the idea of temporal simultaneity is invoked in which it becomes possible to see multiple histories and memories coexisting, without political rankings or assumptions that all cultures and rhetorical practices progress along the same imperial path.

In this light, an education in Composition and Rhetoric would interrogate the overhanging colonial determinant of the study of written language—not for what it declares, but for what it conceals: the epistemic limits of an enduring Eurocentric telos, too often passed off as universal and disembodied, without cultural roots or limitations. By provincializing and possibly even abandoning the field’s imperial horizon, perhaps we might prevent Composition Studies from becoming the humanities’ final attempt to keep John Wayne alive for one last Western.

CCCC Annual Convention

2009 Convention logo

March 11-14, 2009
San Francisco, CA