teaching for democracy in first-year composition

Asao Inoue has a thoughtful post here revisiting James Berlin and the idea of composition as instruction in democratic citizenship. Undoubtedly there is a deep connection to classical rhetoric in this connection, though Berlin revitalized that link for the postmodern era. Like Inoue, I was also strongly affected by Berlin as a grad student in the nineties, though perhaps in a slightly different way, and that difference may be at the heart of what I want to discuss here.  Looking back at Berlin, Inoue observes

Berlin couldn’t see his own whiteness, or masculinity, or abledness. He surely could not incorporate some way to talk about his own white, male, middle-class subjectivity into his good call. I have often feared that the only critical pedagogy available to writing teachers and students in most places in the U.S. is a white critical pedagogy, or a critical pedagogy unable to see its own raced, classed, ableist, and gendered subject position. Many have made such critiques of Berlin and the kind of social epistemic rhetorical pedagogy he offered, but I’m not sure if as a field of teachers we’ve done much more than what Berlin has offered us.

I don’t think there’s anyway really to refute this observation. Fundamentally, all critical positions are first and foremost positions. To be one place is to not be somewhere else.  Though I’m not sure this is necessarily all that prevalent in Berlin, in some critical pedagogies there lies an insistence that one is producing a kind of global knowledge that is true from everyone everywhere. There are some versions of Marxism that work that way, for example. While I’m not quite sure where Berlin would have come down on that matter, we are left with addressing the challenges of positionality.

This leads Inoue to the following questions and conclusion

What are the kinds of labors that make up citizen building? How do we read and judge — and teach students to read and judge — in ways that serve critical, democratic citizen building? How do we deal with judgment without falling back on white, middle class standards? Does Berlin offer ways to think about subjective judgment — that is, judgment that always necessarily comes from a subject position in time and space, which must be explained? We ask students to judge, we judge, and the rock bottom of the matter is, to teach writing is to teach judgment — that’s teaching how we are subjected to discourse, to echo Foucault. I missed this in my initial enthusiastic response to Berlin, but by the same token, he helps me see this issue today.

I think our job now as rhetorical scholars, writing scholars, and writing teachers is to draw out the learning-labors that build citizens, each of whom hold unique subject positions, but are learning in relation to larger structures of languaging, to academic discourses, to the hegemonic.

I am interested in this line: “to teach writing is to teach judgment.” Yes, of course: writers make decisions. However I would say that decision making is distributed. The selection of words in a sentence,  the intuition/inspiration to write this post, and the decision to compose it this morning: how are those judgements formed? Surely not in some pure subjective space. Nor are they easily or even credibly mappable to these larger structures Inoue mentions. If we want to investigate the mechanisms of judgment, we need to begin with the mechanisms of cognition, starting with “where does cognition occur?” What is its position?

All of that is still a long conceptual hike from the idea of building democratic citizens. So, as we say in biz, let’s unpack that. First, all the students in FYC who are US citizens walk into the classroom as “democratic citizens.”  Also, depending on the country from which they’ve hailed, international students might also be citizens of other democracies. Strictly speaking, they do not need to be “built.” That said, the particular characteristics of each student as a citizen are constructed over time, and undoubtedly we’re talking about the kinds of citizens they are, the subjective-ideological qualities they embody. For Berlin, essentially, this meant helping students acquire a neo-Marxist, postmodern cultural studies critical understanding of representation, discourse, and ideology. As Inoue points out, it’s an approach that remains very influential in FYC, even at the level of textbooks. I suppose the idea is that such an education would change student practices as citizens, leading them to be more skeptical-critical of hegemonic messages and more accepting of cultural heterogeneity. It’s that second part that I have always doubted. That is, I’m not sure subjectivity functions in such a way that it can be altered so by pedagogy, particularly not in any long-term fashion. I think classroom pedagogies and discourses can be fashioned in such a way as to influence student behavior during a semester, but without those structures in place, I would think other networks take over and then students are made to act in new ways.

We’re entering uncertain times in 2017. At minimum one could say that feelings are running high. One prevailing story of the election is that it is an explicit reaction from the right against the implicit politics of a position like Inoue’s, one that seeks to recognize and protect those who are not white, male, straight, abled, etc. Out in mainstream and social media, there are those who would call for an even more strident opposition to white supremacy. Elsewhere are those who would suggest the need to better understand those who voted for Trump and see a more complicated picture. Perhaps these are not opposing strategies, but they often seem like they are.

I understand and respect my many colleagues, including many of the instructors in my own composition program, who view their teaching as an explicitly political project that seeks to alter the cultural-ideological values of students in specific ways. Ethically, at the core of such a view, I imagine, is the understanding that education is always, already an ideological operation. No pedagogy is ideologically neutral but only seems that way when it rests comfortably within the background assumptions of hegemony. To imagine that only courses that push against those assumptions are political is to fail to recognize what is actually happening in pedagogy. At the same time, I tend to agree more with others in my field who have investigated the limits of such approaches and their underlying understanding of ideology, subjectivity, and institutions. Some might argue that we’ve gotten to this point because of postmodern cultural studies. It’s radical doubting of science and fact and it’s deep commitment to particular leftist identity politics might certainly seem to have foretold this dramatic reversal where right-wing ideologues build apparent legitimacy and ethos from lies, fears, feelings, and values. But I think that ascribes far too much influence to these academic discourses. This shift is more likely explained by viewing these responses both from the religious right and the academic left as products of some other common context.

Still that leaves us with what to do in FYC in 2017. How do we contribute to our students understanding of the rhetorical operation of citizenship? Do we push for a particular political perspective? Is it possible to do otherwise? Do we “teach the conflicts” as Gerald Graff suggested nearly 30 years ago? For me, the answers to these questions have to begin where I began above with understanding the construction of positionality and distributed mechanisms of judgment. I’m sure I have a different understanding than Berlin did, which leads to different judgments and actions. I hope that one can read in Inoue a call to open up investigations at that level.


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