Thursday, March 03, 2011

Listening: Its Application for Civil Civic Discourse

Introductory Bio

Professor and Department Chair of English at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Krista Ratcliffe contributes to the CCCC Conversations on Diversity her well-established and award-winning research on the cultural presence and/or absence of women’s voices and on the intersections of gender, race, and whiteness. In Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness, which won the 2007 CCCC Outstanding Book Award, Ratcliffe troubles identifications of gender and whiteness to examine how whiteness functions as an “invisible” racial category. She examines the displacement and neglect of a literacy of listening and identifies the potential of rhetorical listening—a stance of openness—for inviting a more complicated notion of identification. She also co-edited Silence and Listening as Rhetorical Arts with Cheryl Glenn (2011). In addition to her writing and research, Ratcliffe became the President-Elect of the Rhetoric Society of America in January, 2010.

Blog Post

In 2007, I gave the keynote speech at the Feminisms and Rhetorics conference in Little Rock, Arkansas. At the time, I thought the talk was too conference-specific to develop beyond that occasion, but I’ve since changed my mind and am currently working on turning it into an article, tentatively titled the same as my speech: “Unwilling to Listen: How Do You Have a Civic Dialogue When Each Side Isn't Civil.”

I’m revisiting this speech because it addresses the following question that I often get about rhetorical listening: “What’s Next?” Sadly, given the Arizona shootings of January 2011, Sarah Palin’s call for radical individualism, President Obama’s subsequent call for more political civility, and the current political protests in Wisconsin, my talk also invokes the questions:

What happens in civic discourse when people are “unwilling to listen”? (hence my article title); and

How Do You Have a Civic Dialogue When Each Side Isn't Civil? (hence my article’s subtitle--and I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a shout out here to the 2007 conference organizer Barb L’Eplattenier who posed these questions to me).

So, I begin by asking, How Do You Have a Civic Dialogue When Each Side Isn't Civil? The most obvious response is: “You can’t.” But if we (and every time we use “we,” we should remember Mary Daly’s pronouncement that pronouns are our most persistent problem when talking across differences) take “You can’t” as a first premise, then a cultural logic unpacks as follows: if we believe we can’t have a civic conversation because each side isn’t civil, then one effect is that we stop trying to talk to each other. A corollary effect is that we become unwilling to listen to each other and to ourselves. Of course, an unwillingness to listen is accompanied by the following rhetorical stances:

(1) Rigidification of Personal Beliefs, which results in a limited space for negotiation between and among people, communities, institutions, and countries.

(2) Personal and Cultural Defeatism.

(3) Personal and Cultural Nihilism.

(4) Personal and Cultural Despair.

(5) War.

I believe that the above cultural logic and its accompanying rhetorical stances dominate the discourse in our country today, driven by individuals’ feelings of isolation within a global economy, driven by the busy-ness of our everyday lives, driven by our fear about the economy, and driven by a politics of fear and power … power and fear. All of this is dysfunction in our discourse… and needs to change.

But let’s pause for a moment. . .

John Schilb has written a book, Rhetorical Refusals, which theorizes moments when we purposely choose not to listen. These moments are different for all of us, depending on our individual identifications. Sometimes these refusals are necessary, psychologically and/or culturally. For example, I’m not going to entertain an outrageous request from my child; nor do I feel compelled to listen to groups, such as the KKK, rehash age-old prejudices. But sometimes these rhetorical refusals are dysfunctional, as in my aforementioned discussion or our current politics of power and fear… and do need to change our rhetoric(s).

So back to the question of my article's subtitle—How Do You Have a Civic Dialogue When Each Side Isn't Civil? If the obvious answer is “you can’t,” then perhaps we should listen to that question differently—(a) redefining terms, (b) redefining cultural logics, and (c) redefining rhetorical stances.

One suggestion is that we could redefine terms by complicating them with feminist theory. For example, one phrase that has haunted civic dialogues is public sphere. That raises the question: what, exactly, is the public sphere? The most famous answer to that question is the Habermas-Lyotard debate, which pits Enlightenment ideals again postmodernism. Yet I believe that this debate may be productively complicated with feminist theories.

For example, Robin Goodman brings a feminist lens to this debate in her book on critical pedagogy entitled World, Class, Women: Global Literatures, Education and Feminism. The book explores how the “shrinking of the public sphere and the rise of globalization influence access to learning, definitions of knowledge, and possibilities of radical feminism.” She opens her book as follows:

In 1938, as Europe was about to lead the world in to a brutal conflagration, Virginia Woolf recognized the urgency for a fundamental educational change. This educational change would necessarily include economic transformation. As well, Woolf understood [in Three Guineas] that without this change, there would be an inevitable spiraling toward escalating militarism and widespread destruction. Today, … Virginia Woolf’s lesson remains unlearned.

In The Return of the Political, Chantal Mouffe identifies another unlearned lesson about the public sphere: the need for civic virtue and collective action. Mouffe claims:

the liberal illusion that harmony could be born from the free play of private interests, and that modern society no longer needs civic virtue, has finally shown itself to be dangerous; it puts in question the very existence of the democratic process . . . . It has generally been admitted that the “liberty of the moderns” consists in the peaceful enjoyment of private independence [; and that] this implies the renunciation of the “liberty of the ancients,” [which is] the active participation in collective power, because this leads to a subordination of the individual to the community.

Although we must be careful not to romanticize past civic spheres where feudalism, slavery, and gender inferiority were accepted, I think Mouffe’s point about contemporary individualism is well taken. In addition, in “Rethinking the Black Public Sphere: An Alternative Vocabulary for Multiple Public Spheres,” Catherine Squires reminds us that the public, or civic, sphere is not only collective but also multiple. She imagines this multiplicity … in ways that escape a naïve identity politics but that foreground power structures and power differentials.

So, if we contemplate the public sphere via Goodman’s education and economic reform, Mouffe’s civic virtue and collective action, and Squires’ multiplicity (and I’m interested in investigating more theories of public sphere that foreground race), THEN . . .

With such a feminist lens, we may be able to redefine cultural logics. When confronted with the question—“How Do You Have a Civic Dialogue When Each Side Isn't Civil?”—we might be able to imagine responses other a than: “You can’t.” Indeed, we might be able to imagine this alternative response: “You keep reframing your ideas in ways that help other sides hear you, and you share that burden because no one person or institution can do it 24/7.”

This response is not particularly new, nor does it ensure success. But it is worth reconsidering because it offers an alternative cultural logic, which unpacks as follows: If you keep alive the idea of reframing your ideas, then you also keep alive the possibility of success. One effect of this alternative cultural logic is that we keep trying to talk with others. A corollary effect is that we may remain willing to listen. An intentional willingness to listen rhetorically is important because hearers assume the possibility of success and a belief in agency and hope.

Beliefpossibilityagency—these tropes are endemic to rhetoric. And hope—that trope is endemic to feminism. So just imagine the potential power that undergirds feminist rhetorics.

Linking the tropes of belief, possibility, agency, and hope has the potential to redefine the following rhetorical stances:

(1) Personal Rigidification can be reimagined not as the inevitable status quo but rather as a point on a continuum . . . with the another point being Personal Openness.

(2) Cultural Rigidification can be seen not as an inevitable status quo but rather as a point on a continuum . . . with another point being Cultural Openness.

(3) Defeatism can give way to Hope.

(4) Nihilism can give way to Hope.

(5) Despair can give way to Hope.

(6) War, please God, can give way to Peace.

Such claims resonate naively in today’s world, don’t they? But perhaps, instead of succumbing to postmodern skepticism, we ought to embrace postmodern possibilities—specifically, the ways that people can redefine tropes, as well as change people’s minds, lives, and worlds.

In the article, I plan to demonstrate this claim by invoking case studies from around the world, where race and gender and nationality and class intersect in the performance of belief, possibility, agency and hope. These case studies serve several purposes: to broaden readers/listeners knowledge of the world, to broaden rhetorical theorists ideas of effective tactics related to rhetorical listening across differences, to demonstrate the importance of analyzing rhetorical tactics, such as rhetorical listening, within particular historical/cultural sites, etc.

But for this blog, I’ll simply conclude by saying that the work toward accomplishing the above rhetorical stances may be never-ending. That fact does not render the work useless. Rather, it makes the work even more imperative. It reminds us [remember Mary Daly’s pronoun pronouncement] of what it means to be human … that is, what it means to be human beings who are all both similar and different.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Moving Toward Generalist 2.0 as a Strategy for Addressing Diversity

Introductory Bio

Kevin Eric DePew is an Assistant Professor and Director of Writing Tutorial Services at Old Dominion University. He earned his Ph.D from Purdue University. His research interests include the topics of computer-mediated communication, language diversity, and second-language writing. Kevin is actively involved with the CCCC constituent group on computers and writing. He has published several essays in the journal, Computers and Communication, including “The Body of Charlie Brown's Teacher: What Instructors Should Know about Constructing Digital Subjectivities.”

Editor's Note: References that support this blog post may be found at:

Blog Post

Histories of composition studies have often been about the arguments made and the practice designed for teaching students how to write (Berlin, 1984, 1987; Conner, 1997; Crowley, 1998; Miller, 1993). As a field, composition studies has moved from the overly prescriptive prose produced for current-traditional rhetoric pedagogies to arguably more useful strategies that have helped students “find their voice” and understand how documents communicatively function within chosen contexts. These recent paradigms focused on many practical approaches to engage students with writing, to teach them to communicate through writing, and to develop a curriculum that supports these goals.

A cursory look at early CCC issues include articles about how we administrate composition courses, teach grammar, pedagogically apply rhetorical concepts, and teach creative writing and literature. But this focus on writing, rather than the writer, obviously treats writing and the teaching of writing as a universal practice that all individuals experience in the same way.

More recently composition studies has expanded its scope and is examining other issues related to who is communicating through writing at academic institutions and how students communicate through writing. Moreover, the writing that is being studied is not always writing that is being written for academic context, although sometimes the scholars will explain how understanding the writing occurring in extra-curricular settings is relevant to writing produced for the academic context. To do this work, scholars are drawing more on composition studies’ related fields and sub-disciplines, like literacy studies, WAC/WID, professional writing, basic writing, and, digital writing; likewise scholars are looking beyond the homogeneous student writer to women writers, queer writers, raced writers, ethnic writers, linguistically diverse writers, and writers with disabilities to study these students’ writing practices and their responses to our pedagogies

Slowly we are beginning to see these fields that were at composition studies’ margins informing some of the fields’ central tenets. So whereas the older, original generalists in the field arguably focused on composition as the praxis of rhetoric and the day-to-day practices of teaching writing, the new generalist, or Generalist 2.0, is positioned to draw upon this array of related disciplines to generate an expanded repertoire of pedagogical strategies for working with a heterogeneous student population to communicate through the most effective means for their purpose.

The idea of Generalist 2.0 has roots in the New London Group’s (2000) theories of multiliteracies. The basic tenets of the New London Group’s work has been to design literacy education that engages “with the multiplicity of communication channels and media” and the “increasing salience of cultural and linguistic diversity” (New London Group 5). While composition studies tends to treat these tenets as separate subjects, I see them as inseparable. Just as Cynthia Selfe (1999) argues that most literacy practices in the new millennium requires technological literacy, the same equally applies to culturally and linguistically diverse individuals who write with these technologies. In some situations, the technology can provide avenues for these diverse students to access mainstream discourse

In spite of this argument, I want to focus the balance of this blog post on this second tenet of cultural and linguistic diversity as a central pillar of Generalist 2.0’s literacy education design. Instructors often deliberately or tacitly reify Matsuda’s (2006) “myth of linguistic homogeneity,” and extend this homogeneous pedagogical paradigm to the ways they address cultural issues including those experienced by diverse students who are not second language writers. By doing so, instructors not only hinder their diverse students’ abilities to achieve the writing course’s communicative goals, but they fail to take advantage of difference as a resource from which all of their students can learn (Canagarajah, 2002).

Arguably composition studies has grown more cognizant of the diverse students with whom we work. In the scholarship we see articles about black students, women students, queer students, disabled student, and second language writers and the CCCC has approved and endorsed position statements that address linguistic diversity and disability issues ( Yet if we walk the halls of many universities and colleges, we would be hard pressed to find in the classrooms and instructors’ offices more than a handful of writing instructors whose pedagogy was informed by this scholarship on diversity or was compliant with the CCCC statements

In spite of recent scholarship on diversity and the ways that some textbooks are beginning to create opportunities to address these issues in class, there is a significant disconnect between what the field offers as its best—and most inclusive—practices and what instructors are actually doing in their classrooms. Particularly with the issue of linguistic diversity, instructors are quite resistant to any arguments that allow students to produce prose that falls short of the accepted academic dialect

Many of these writing instructors will contend that they are not doing their job if they do not penalize students who write with flawless academic edited English. In terms of cultural issues, the typical modes-based pedagogy reduces students’ opportunities to work substantively with the invention and delivery of topics closely tied to their identities. But these are not practices those who actually teach the writing courses will design unless local and national institutions change the culture of the writing course and prompt programs and their instructors to understand the consequences for all of their students.

How might the field achieve these practical goals? We certainly do not want ignorance of diversity to be the instructional norm. Likewise, we do not want instructors to claim that the work of teaching diverse students should be the job of specialists, those who read about and attend conference sessions on the strategies for teaching diverse students. All composition instructors are responsible for knowing how to address the challenges and opportunities that their different students bring to the classroom. A movement toward fostering this second generation of generalists will need to build upon the rich corpus of diversity scholarship in our field writ large to bridge the gap between the scholars’ advocated practices and the actual classroom practices

Thus Generalist 2.0 should use teacher preparation and professionalization as the primary strategy for pushing their agenda. Through these professionalization opportunities instructors often learn how to design and enact daily classroom practices. Yet, in addition to learning what the composition course should be, instructors need to learn what the composition course can be. They need to be made aware that composition pedagogy does not have to a prescribed “one-size fits all” practice. Instead a diversified instructional repertoire gives instructors strategies they need to effectively (and sometimes efficiently) address the needs of all of their students.

To model Generalist 2.0’s potential influence on teacher preparation and professionalization design, I humbly offer my graduate-level Teaching College Composition course at In this course pre-service and in-service instructors read at least three scholarly articles a week on a given composition topic (e.g., history, designing assignments, using technology, teaching grammar). One of these articles will be from composition studies’ mainstream, another will be about second language writers, and another will be about bi-dialectic student populations (i.e., predominantly African-Americans).

I chose this design so that all of the future instructors leaving my course would, at the very least, understand the breadth of choices they have for teaching the linguistically diverse students that they will statistically encounter on a regular basis in their classrooms. While I am pleased with the opportunities this course creates for future instructors, I also recognize the course’s limitations. There are many aspects of diversity that are only addressed in relatively token ways. Although I chose to design this course as a response to instructors’ inquiries about how to read linguistically diverse students’ writing, I could have also equally emphasized issues of gender, ethnicity, ability and such.

I am fairly confident that my course is one of many models that exercise Generalist 2.0 principles, and I encourage others to contribute to the conversation by presenting other models that support culturally and linguistically diverse student bodies.

CCCC Annual Convention

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March 11-14, 2009
San Francisco, CA