Thursday, October 21, 2010

Realizing Diversity as an “Excitable Utterance”

Introductory Bio

Susan Miller is Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Utah. She has directed writing there, at Ohio State University, and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Her books include Rescuing the Subject: An Introduction to Rhetoric and the Writer, which won the Journal of Advanced Composition Best Book award and has been re-published with new materials by Southern Illinois University Press. She wrote Textual Carnivals: The Politics of Composition, which won that JAC Best Book prize, the MLA Mina P. Shaughnessy prize for best theoretical book and the National Council of Teachers of English/CCCC Best Book award. Her Assuming the Positions: Cultural Pedagogy and the Politics of Ordinary Writing was named a Choice Best Academic Book and also shared the National Council of Teachers of English/CCCC Best Book award as one of two books that have twice received or shared this award. She has most recently published Trust in Texts: A Different History of Rhetoric and The Norton Book of Composition Studies.

She has been a University of Utah Bennion Public Service Professor, has served as academic advisor to the Board of a Salt Lake Jail literacy initiative, "Booked," and serves as Permanent Advisor to Salt Lake Community College's Community Writing Center. She has chaired a University of Utah Tanner Lecture and Utah's College of Humanities Committee on Gender. She has served as a member the Conference on College Composition and Communication Executive Committee, its Nominations Committee, and the James Berlin Dissertation Prize Committee. She also chaired the first Executive Committee of the Modern Language Association Division on the Teaching of Writing, has twice chaired the MLA Division on the History and Theory of Rhetoric and Composition, and has served twice as a member of the MLA Delegate Assembly.

Her teaching has focused on first-year composition and on initiating a range of courses in new graduate-level programs in rhetoric/composition. She also teaches the History of the Book in collaboration with the University of Utah’s Marriott Library, leads a creative writing workshop for university and community medical professionals, and sponsors a national summer writing retreat for doctors.

Blog Entry

I once taught an undergraduate whose legal research (she’s a lawyer now) analyzes the paradoxical results of legal exceptions to hearsay rules. Contrary to the usual dismissal of hearsay evidence, in domestic violence cases “excited utterances” (in the US, less clearly called “excitable speech”) are accepted as factual. In other words, the system--police and judges who process these events--automatically apply to them the scenarios of Law and Order scripts, which regularly portray fearful battered women who “won’t speak up,” or who will instead readily lie to make a point. So police and courts act on excited utterances (“He said he would blow my head off!”) that are often precisely “excited,” provoked, rhetorical statements that are treated legally as “truth,” completely apart from the larger relational contexts that produce them. This requirement, to accept excitable speech as fact, enforces a letter of the law that may destroy family relationships by casting people with complicated histories and many possible futures as the characters of a simple made-for-TV story. As teachers who highlight the nuances of language and its always-approximate constructions of realities, we notice this denial of rhetorical credibility to women, as to many other groups. Their language is often disenfranchised by a normative deafness that reads what we say through already expected identity politics.

I have also regretted excited utterances in my own teaching. This same student recently told me how she shared something I said in her class as an example of such political assumptions during a campus job interview. She told her hosts that in my literacy studies course, she had enthusiastically warmed to the class’s presumed purpose, thinking it would be teaching (at least partially) how to correct the language and thus improve the lives of the illiterate. When I began the course that semester by asking about literacy practices in the students’ hometowns, she replied, “In my school, I was the only one who ever read a book, or watched PBS, or kept up with news that wasn’t farm reports, or ever read fiction other than romances or mysteries. I was the only person who went to the one Shakespeare play.”
She then told her approving job interview hosts, “And she [referring to me] listened closely, thought a minute, and said, “Isn’t that a sort of fascist attitude toward your neighbors?” She met the job interviewers’ gasps (“You poor thing”) with the following response: “I was crushed. But I went home and thought about it a lot. She was right.”

It’s not much fun to realize that students often forget our names before the next term or that they so vividly recall words we don’t want repeated, ever, certainly never out of context and without explanation. My remembered “sort of fascist” phrase from long ago grated on my ears now—I was immediately defensive and righteously worried about my permanent record. But I also imagined that surely I had never again said anything like that to a student. In fact, I probably had, over time, learned caution about my vocabulary (if that is the test of never again saying “anything like that”). But juxtaposing her legal research results with this vivid anecdote, I can’t be so sure now.

On reflection, I understand better the intensity of my classroom response and its place in all my teaching about and through diversity. Like others writing in this blogging series, I am deeply marked by my childhood experience of diversity in maybe the world’s most foundationally complicated city, Washington, D.C. My thesaurus’s treatment of that word, diversity, includes the city’s local facts in evidence since its plotting in 1800: The term has always embodied range, variety, mixture, miscellany, and assortment, the word’s alternatives.

Washington, DC is a special place prescribed by the US Constitution, a “District of Columbia,” made for a federally collected, predominantly transient population. This national space was surveyed by an African American and planned by a French recruit to the Revolution. Refugees first populated it. Later and still, temporary residents have joined them in work that involves regularly scheduled arrivals and often-permanent departures after military, judicial, congressional, and executive assignments for the nation. Paradoxically, the relatively small contingent of detached civilians like my family and me experience such shifting circumstances as entirely normal. We are less surprised by differences than by similarities. Washington, DC is only rarely thought of as a place of original affiliations, or of a unified city spirit. Few temporary residents and visitors notice that it doesn’t have an unadulterated “image.”

Obviously, all of us under the guidance of institutional “diversity” have in some measure felt the demands of similar fluctuations. We have realized that similarities are as nuanced as differences, and that monolithic ethnic, racial, regional, sexual, religious, or for that matter, disciplinary identities are bygone fictions that cannot be retrieved. But these have also not yet been entirely replaced in assured ways. And even without noting these instabilities within ourselves, which are incrementally exposed by new biological and historical information, nor attending to new methods of posing and answering questions about identity, we have cooperatively and passively followed many dictionaries by thinking diversity is achieved as “variety”—as it is defined in a dictionary, as in one example, “a city of great cultural diversity.”

That same dictionary also separately defines the term as “social inclusiveness,” what I take to be the energy attached to the word in our institutions--CCCC and a larger cultural phenomenon, post-secondary education. But social inclusiveness is double-edged. The phrase attaches itself to separate, excluded groups that appear in the completion of this dictionary’s definition as follows: “ethnic variety [and] socioeconomic and gender variety, in a group, society, or institution.”

Dictionary “diversity” further acknowledges that the word implies “discrepancy.” In this closing dance step, the definition gets down: Diversity is “a difference from what is normal or expected.” Diversity is not entirely, with us, or with anyone, a “socially inclusive,” liberal acceptance of “the Other.” The sources of institutionalized diversity prevent it from being a surprising historic achievement that we can individually and collectively claim. Laws have mandated such acceptance, and people well-schooled in reason and generosity enacted that mandate. Its irrefutable evidence of our humanity as teachers visibly cooperates with the positions and projects that colleagues writing this blog about diversity have, thank goodness, imagined and enacted. The formerly praise-worthy idea of “tolerance” has quickly become uncomfortable for women and many others, who now assume we contribute to a normal, expected variety, and not as “tolerated” interlopers.

That is, diversity is not now a halcyon dream without successful, hard won, perpetual enactments. But by virtue of its built-in, often nurtured, “discrepancies,” it remains problematic. My obviously well-intentioned student enrolled in a literacy studies course that immediately put her in touch with her individuality (and thereby with evaluative convictions about those who were not meeting what she assumed were still institutionally expected, “educated,” norms).

As her teacher, I immediately expressed my “own” opinion about her individuality and her expectation. I asserted that categorizing others makes Others of us. Both of us ignored an obvious premise, that if we are to rewrite institutional structures and improve their results, we need relationships constituted by interactions with difference, unmediated by evaluative beliefs about superior and inferior cultural norms. Yet in most instances, we instead perceive language uses, sources of authority, preferred entertainments, and the aspirations of others as “not ours,” and we rank their significance or importance to us. We still occupy a mainland constituted by numerous accessible spaces of privilege that are nonetheless surrounded by discrete islands of difference and hierarchy.

This is to worry again about Ann Frank’s adolescent and ultimately deadly belief that people are (all) really good at heart. Experience teaches us that both insiders and outsiders are capable of sexism, racism, and especially of unacknowledged classism that encourages us to “treat” with tolerance and lessons those who are outside what we take to be our indispensable boundaries. Yet as my student’s mature legal research argues, we, and “socially inclusive” diversity itself also have a rhetorical identity well apart from “excited utterances.” Our shared interests across many diverse groups can determine the elections, curricular choices, supported research, and community projects of our organizations. Obviously, those interests are themselves always shifting, rhetorically selected, ways to form relationships with each other.

Walter Benn Michaels' The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality, 2006; Jesse Stuart's, The Thread That Runs So True: A Mountain School Teacher Tells His Story, 1950; and Lisa Delpit's article, "The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People’s Children," (1988), represent a few suggested titles on diversity that reflect some of the reading and writing for this blog post.

CCCC Annual Convention

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March 11-14, 2009
San Francisco, CA