Response to Curtiss & Jenny

It’s taken me a while to work through my thoughts on Curtiss’s recent comment to me, which is pretty much par for the course, since Curtiss’s thoughts always tend to offer a big, complex mouthful of analysis to chew on. (I know you work in IT, Curtiss, but damn academia could use a technology critic as insightful as you. You’d give Professor Feenberg a run for his money.) But Clancy was good enough to e-mail me a link to Jenny’s excellent recent thoughts on critical pedagogy, which I’d been lame enough to overlook, and some stuff started to click between what Jenny and Curtiss had to say. Let’s see if I can start to make some connections.

Jenny notes that the for-sale paper mills offer “a plethora of ready-made essays” in the “critical pedagogy” mode: “an analysis of gendered constructions in film, the hidden ideology of class within certain ads, the circulations of men’s magazines”, and so on, and such essays “are just as common as any other kind of ‘usual English essay assignments that can be bought at these sites.” These essays, Jenny suggests, “have now entered a kind of general equivalency”, in that their “analyses [comprise] a ‘universal’ vocabulary and methodology of critique”. In other words, they’re a genre, with easily recognizable and replicated generic conventions — which, Jenny points out, removes “such ‘cultural analyses’ from the actual content of cultural operation”.

I couldn’t agree more. While I don’t want to sell short the value of so-called critical pedagogies — I had a student who had taken one of Sut Jhally’s courses enthusiastically declare that he would “never watch TV the same way again” — I think they are often unthinkingly enacted by would-be critical pedagogues as exercises in showing students the capital-t Truth behind the ideologies of capitalist American culture. They enact the liberal fallacy of “unmasking” an opposing ideology in order to bolster their own ideology-free ideologies. I wrote recently that “this is a deficit model which stages students as stooges, waiting to be awakened to the higher critical consciousness possessed by the educator.” It’s very much in line with the literary-critical mode that English departments (to which so many writing programs are tied) so favor, the hermeneutic unveiling of the text behind the text, or the novitiate’s publicly performed penetration of the text behind the text as a demonstration of adulthood. In other words: write a paper showing not that you understand what’s taught in academia, but that learning the methods of academia have in some way changed you.

This seems to me to be the Christian component of Paulo Freire’s Christian Marxism. The enlightenment narrative; the story of private and individual salvation through a changed relationship of one’s knowledge of the divine, or perhaps at least of the good. As I’ve said before, the American understanding of the other component of Freire’s teachings — his Marxism — has been completely forgotten. And this is where Curtiss’s comment comes in. Curtiss suggests, “why not talk/write/think about the relation that any individual under this mode of production has to the productive forces as an impersonal whole?” Why not, indeed. The critical pedagogies that Jenny indicts rely upon a vague rhetoric of individualism and positioning, while actually ignoring individual and institutional context: they are simultaneously solipsistic, generalized, and abstracted from any concrete and particular context. They ignore what Curtiss points out, namely, that “No matter how clean or dirty your work is, no matter how much or little formal education you require for entry into a career, production does not serve to improve the lives of people, but to increase an impersonal aggregate wealth. Under such a regime, all our skills and selves are means, not ends.” Many critical pedagogies, in their focus on the self as lived and enacted in culture, ignore Wolff and Resnick’s post-Marxian understandings of the self as economic and of class as process, and I think much of that comes out of composition’s English-associated fear of the “harder” disciplines and eager engagement with such “softer” disciplines as psychology and sociology. (The encounters composition and English have had with the sciences have been, for the most part, embarassing.)

For me, many of these arguments have their foundations in the Marxist distinction between use value and exchange value, especially in the context of education. Understanding the exchange value of a writing course, as Bruce Horner has pointed out, is often quite easy. Use value, less so. I don’t have a conclusion for this loose, rambling, and associative meditation tonight, but it’s made me take my Pat Bizzell off the shelf, to re-read “Academic Discourse and Critical Consciousness: An Application of Paulo Freire”. While I re-read it, these will be some of the questions I keep in mind: what, exactly, is a “liberatory” education, in the context of American two-year and four-year colleges? Freire wrote about a largely illiterate agrarian peasant underclass; how do his ideas translate to the U.S.? Consider, also, the various regimes under which Freire wrote: what relevance does capital-d Democracy have to writing and writing instruction, and what is the place of writing and writing instruction in a non-democratic society?

In other words: why do writing teachers want to think that their jobs are so important?

Response to Curtiss & Jenny

2 thoughts on “Response to Curtiss & Jenny

  • August 18, 2004 at 2:25 pm

    Th phrase “stages students as stooges” is quite a mouthful. You can hardly keep from spitting while saying it. Great phrasing!

    Stop staging students as stooges, stealthy sticklers steeped in stamina!

    Okay, mine didn’t make sense, but it was fun spitting it out.

  • August 18, 2004 at 2:50 pm

    At some point in the past few years I read an article that argued that the institutional purpose of composition courses was to instill middle-class values such as punctuality and thoroughness. An argument like that opens the door to the suggestion that college students need to be freed from this ideological brainwashing. Those who are keenest about liberating students from this ideological burden are often all too happy to supply the one they developed in grad school.

    While I don’t claim to be unbiased, I feel as long as I can keep my students guessing about what my real opinions are, then I can do my best work as a writing teacher and journalism teacher. That kind of posed neutrality is artificial, and in practice I’m not uniform about when I adopt that stance, but in class I do talk about my stance and why I take it.

    I present it in the framework of “I don’t want you to think that you’ll get extra points for arguing the position that I feel is right,” because that gives the students a handle on it, but it’s really just the tip of an iceberg.

    Thanks, Mike, for blogging your thoughts on this.

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