Thursday, August 27, 2009

Engaging Diversity through Representative Anecdotes

Introductory Bio

LuMing Mao is a professor of English and director of the Asian and Asian American Studies Program at Miami University. He is the author of Reading Chinese Fortune Cookie: The Making of Chinese American Rhetoric and co-editor of Representations: Doing Asian American Rhetoric. He also co-edited a symposium, titled "Comparative Rhetorical Studies in the New Contact Zone: Chinese Rhetoric Reimagined" that was published in the June 2009 issue of College Composition and Communication. His most recent essay, "Studying the Chinese Rhetorical Tradition in the Present: Re-presenting the Native's Point of View," won the 2007 Richard Ohmann Award for the outstanding essay published in College English. One of his current projects is co-editing The Norton Anthology of Rhetoric and Writing with Jody Enders, Robert Hariman, Susan Jarratt, Andrea Lunsford, Thomas Miller, and Jacqueline Jones Royster.

Blog Post

As I was thinking the other day of how to respond to the blog prompt Joyce sent to me—“How do you address the topic of ‘diversity’ in your scholarship, teaching, and service?”—several “representative anecdotes” (Kenneth Burke) came to mind, anecdotes that cut across time and space; anecdotes that represent, up to a point, how I engage diversity. I am representing three here as my way of response.

Anecdote Number One

Lately I have been reading the work of Zhuangzi (369-286 BCE), the ancient Chinese philosopher and rhetorician who was part of the emerging literati in one of the most tumultuous yet formative periods in Chinese history. His work provided insights on a host of issues ranging from governing, to knowledge-making, to managing human relationships. Regarding the relationship between word and the world, he observed, with his typical touch of directness and dry humor, “The fish trap exists because of the fish; once you've gotten the fish, you can forget the trap. The rabbit snare exists because of the rabbit; once you've gotten the rabbit, you can forget the snare. Words exist because of meaning; once you've gotten the meaning, you can forget the words” (Burton Watson’s translation). By comparing language use to fishing or to rabbit hunting, Zhuangzi cautioned his contemporaries not to be too obsessed with language or, more precisely, with the rectification of names. For him, the focus all along should be on “catching” or securing ideas; language or naming, after all, is dispensable.

I could not help but think of Zhuangzi’s analogy as I was reflecting on the task at hand, on the blogs so far posted, and on their varying positions and their invariably persuasive implications. Yes, definitions do matter. As Edward Schiappa has recently reminded us, they have significant ethical and normative ramifications, under the Western analytical paradigm at least. We tend to begin and/or end our discursive engagement by performing the act of defining. So, we have been asking and answering: what do we mean and intend to accomplish when we use the word “diversity” in our present-day social-cultural settings? What kind of diversity are we specifically talking about—linguistic, religious, cultural, racial, or all of the above? On the other hand, it is what we do and how we do it that really counts and that can actually advance our diversity causes.

Of course, thinking through Zhuangzi doesn’t mean that we give up the act of defining. Far from it. Rather we ask ourselves to step outside of the traditional mode of thinking regarding the act of defining. We learn to become more mindful of the constraining influence language or naming may exert on us as we appeal to its discursive and symbolic power, and we learn to strike a productive balance between asking the “What” and finding the “Where.”

Anecdote Number Two

I have been using the term “interdependence-in-difference” in guiding my own practices in the classroom and beyond. “What do you mean (read as define it)?” You would probably ask. Here is my answer: by using this phrase I aim to discover, promote, and nurture actual practices that celebrate students’ linguistic heritages and their rich rhetorical resources (differences). I also want to enable them to develop their own voice within and in relation to the larger American linguistic and rhetorical imaginary (interdependence). The same is true of teachers, too. I believe such actual practices can help challenge false dichotomies that influence our discussions and practices on diversity.

Let’s think about linguistic diversity as an example. Our classroom conversations and practices have yet to completely move out of those tantalizing dichotomies between “school discourse versus home discourse” or “school discourse in formal/graded assignments versus home/vernacular discourse in everything else”—let alone channeling them into productive dialogue and sustained meaningful action. In the heat of debating what constitutes the essence of school discourse or home discourse, we may end up underestimating the tyranny of Standard English—the belief that one variety of language is considered as correct and as not susceptible to the whims of time or the influence of individual users. We can see this tyranny written all over the tragic fate of indigenous languages in America, nearly all of which have been targeted for eradication by colonizing powers, and over the subordination and fracturing of many minority languages including, African American Vernacular English (AAVE). In another example, Min-Zhan Lu recently discussed the tongue surgery inflicted upon Asian children so that they can supposedly turn themselves into fluent English speakers.

Practicing interdependence-in-difference means challenging those false dichotomies by thinking and acting differently, by deploying concepts and ideas not in black and white but in terms that are interdependent, interconnected, and yet fraught with asymmetrical power relations. For example, we should develop and encourage strategies and practices that don’t pit school discourse against home discourse but that go against the grain of the cultural and discursive frames that anchor Standard English (Alastair Pennycook). Similarly, we should encourage and promote multiple voices to speak out from past and present and to celebrate and cultivate differences in the acts of mixing.

One of the graduate courses I teach for the rhetoric and composition graduate program at Miami is Comparative Rhetoric. In this class I introduce non-Western rhetorical traditions to students in hopes of broadening our understanding of rhetoric and further examining how other cultural traditions use language and/or ritual practices as symbolic means to cultivate humaneness (Confucius) or to induce cooperation (Burke). I use Chinese rhetoric as an example to illustrate its relation to Western rhetoric. At the same time, in my use of Chinese rhetoric as “the Other” I do not aim to set up any East-West divide or some kind of reversed hierarchy where Chinese rhetoric is logical, argumentative, confrontational and where all Western-style rhetoric must be repudiated because it is elitist (C. Jan Swearingen). But nor do I want to posit Chinese rhetoric as just an alternative to Western rhetoric; such a move seems a bit too easy, too simplistic, often at the expense of developing a more complex, dynamic representation of “the Other.” Through it all, I confess I don’t think much of the term “diversity”—perhaps because I am too interested in catching the fish or the rabbit to remember or even care about what the fish trap or the rabbit snare is made of.

Anecdote Number Three

In my third anecdote I am thinking of my own research interests—ethnic rhetoric; Asian and Asian American rhetoric or minority languages, for example. “That’s academic diversity right there!”
I almost blurted the line out to myself in a moment of excitement, but as excitement gives way to reflection, I was moved to think about what I actually had been working on in pursuing these interests in ethnic rhetorics and language. Recently I have been engaging the work of Asian American spoken word and Asian/Asian American Hip Hop artists. I find their work attractive because it serves as both a generative and contested site where participants negotiate and construct new meanings and new identities. For example, the group, i was born with two tongues, a Chicago-based, Pan-Asian Spoken Word Troupe, has developed a highly inventive, heterogeneous form to confront racism and to legitimate Asian American experiences. Their premiere album, Broken Speak, represents a hybrid of spoken poetry, music, and political empowerment. Filled with emotion, musical experimentation, and metaphorical language, each of the sixteen tracks on this cd draws upon the oral traditions of the Black and Caribbean communities and the Hip Hop stylistics to create an “Asian Rap.” Such a rhetorical mixing radically collapses the boundaries of different discursive practices by making what is familiar unfamiliar and by turning “this foreign talk” (read as standard English) into a song of celebration with some distinctively jarring and unsettling effect. Here is a brief sample of their work:

I am interested in studying the rhetorical work by groups such as “Broken Speak” not only because they are examples of diversity but also because the work provides critical resources for actually advancing and enriching diversity in meaningful ways. And I must add that engaging these materials also enables us to re-member what has been erased or displaced, recovering those “traces of a stream” (Jacqueline Jones Royster) that are rightly ours to claim and to pass on.


A final caveat as I close this response: representative anecdotes are, after all, selective—selections of our lives and experiences. Consequently they may end up skewing (or deflecting for Burke) what we hoped to represent. Mine here are no exception—except that I really wasn’t too interested in whether they would be “representative” or not in my selection/borrowing of the term in the first place. In fact I would be perfectly content if they turned out to be not “representative,” SO LONG AS they “walk the walk.” In the end, I guess I am more interested in the fish than in the trap.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Part Four of this Blog Series Will Begin in Two Weeks

We sincerely thank our many readers for their continued support of this CCCC blog site.

"CCCC Conversations on Diversity," part four, will begin in two weeks on Thursday evening, August 27, 2009. Meanwhile, we encourage readers to take a look at our easily searchable archive of guest writers and any of their previously posted blog entries on the topic of diversity and writing.

See you soon!

CCCC Annual Convention

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March 11-14, 2009
San Francisco, CA