I was interested in this panel primarily because of the interrogation of the privileging of alleged civic discourse in the composition classroom that its description promised: recall Doug Hesse’s contention that we’ve tamed civic rhetoric into a school genre by having students write about the public sphere rather than in it, and my concern from the Weblogs as Social Action panel that teacherly delight at the possibilities offered by weblogs for political deliberative rhetoric should be tempered by the apparent predominance of dialectical — rather than deliberative — classroom ends to which many teachers are applying weblogs. But it certainly didn’t hurt that my friend and former University of Pittsburgh colleague Chris Warnick was presenting, and that I’ve really come to enjoy the “literary” style (as another former Pitt colleague put it last year) of Pitt CCCC presentations. It’s an interesting split: every panel I’ve seen from Pitt people involves paper handouts for the audience and the presenters reading from a highly eloquent pre-written paper, whereas most panels I’ve seen from the CCCC computer folk have involved presenters talking through bullet points and using a video projector for PowerPoint slides or Web pages. In some ways, it’s almost a split between hypotaxis and parataxis — which is perhaps appropriate, since Pitt’s program carries a deep cultural studies and critical theory influence, and such an influence necessarily lends itself to the careful subordination of hypotaxis and deductive reasoning rather than the and/and/and of parataxis and inductive connections. And I gotta say, when I’m trying to follow along and take notes at the same time, sometimes the rich and complexly subordinated discourse Pitt folks are so good at comes too fast and too smart for me to be able to adequately follow: in between listening, thinking it through, and attempting to quickly render it into my own words, I found I sometimes lost the thread.
Still, I hope the brief summaries and thoughts I offer here might begin to offer at least a thin hint of the panel’s quality. All four presentations more than lived up to the promise of their program description, firmly grounding their formidable theoretical sophistication in careful considerations of the realities of classroom practice.
Brenda Glascott began with an analysis of William Cobbett’s 1820 A Grammar of the English Language and its implications for today’s liberatory pedagogy. Glascott calls our attention to the work’s dedication “To her most gracious majesty, Queen Caroline”:
May it please your majesty,
A work, having for its objects, to lay the solid foundation of literary knowledge amongst the Labouring Classes of the community, to give practical effect to the natural genius found in the Soldier, the Sailor, the Apprentice, and the Plough-boy, and to make that genius a perennial source of wealth, strength, and safety to the kingdom; such a work naturally seeks the approbation of your Majesty, who, amongst all the Royal Personages of the present age, is the only one that appears to have justly estimated the value of The People.
According to Glascott, this focus on “the Labouring Classes” and “The People” might bring to mind Paulo Freire, and serve as our first indicator that Cobbett’s Grammar was a grammar in service of radical politics. Glascott offers a number of other pieces of evidence from Cobbett’s text, such as the examples given of participles — “I am working; working is laudable; a working man is more worthy of honour than a titled plunderer who lives in idleness” (44) — and of auxiliary verbs — “Both these verbs [to be and to have] are sometimes used, at one and the same time, as auxiliaries to other principal Verbs: as, I have been writing; I have been imprisoned; and so on” (59). Paulo Freire’s ideals of conscientization, problematization, and praxis all have startling analogues in Cobbett’s work. The Grammar, Glascott argues, both demonstrates that liberatory pedagogy has historical analogues and offers leverage with which to critique the rhetoric of liberatory pedagogy. Cobbett’s polemical textbook focuses on action and knowledge and literacy for the common good, and sees rhetoric as a means for moving the dispossessed readers of his dedication into public engagement via language, but it’s language for their own purposes. This is where Glascott offers a caution about the danger of the image of teacher-as-liberator: many progressive pedagogies (I’m reminded of Nancy Welch’s recent CCC article) fail on the dialogic level because there’s no recognition that students might want to push back against such pedagogies or use the public sphere for a politics other than the progressive. In this sense, the problem lies not in the classroom’s asymmetrical student-teacher power relationship itself, Glascott asserts, but rather in the consequences of that power relationship when politics enter the classroom. And this is where my opinions differ from Glascott’s: unless I’m misreading her (which is quite possible), I think she’s saying there can be a classroom without politics, which of course initiates another rehearsal of the fifteen-year-old Berlin-Hairston argument — and it seems to me that the work she’s doing with Cobbett has really interesting implications that go far beyond that tired debate.
Amy Borden’s presentation focused on the simultaneous difficulty and importance of teaching civic responsibility coupled with a skeptical stance, in a course that attempted to foster nuanced civic discourse on contemporary political issues. She began with questions: how are action and experience understood in the writing classroom as fostering student authority, and how can we successfully integrate a political issue into the classroom and use that issue and subsequent discussion to help us understand how students learn? Her writing course was structured around reading for bias in public political issues: they read op-eds on the war in Iraq, work from Hitchens’s Notes to a Young Contrarian and Chomsky and Ehrenreich in an attempt to see how the modes of rhetoric were functioning on the various sides of the issue. Working from the precepts that theory in action is the essential component of citizenship, and theory in action is anchored in experience, Borden asked her students to carefully theorize their own rhetorical action in an attempt to foster nuanced discourse within a classroom debate. (If it’s not showing already, this is where I started to have a tough time following all the different analytical threads she was twining together.) One concern Borden offered was that reliance upon past experience as stable product to anchor the theory-in-action of praxis runs counter to the impulses we act upon in asking students to revise, and places an inappropriate over-emphasis on the use value of experience. She connected this to the ways in which her students recapitulated their most convenient and least nuanced arguments in their concluding written reflections without attention to the rhetorical circumstances that made the production of those arguments possible. And again, my somewhat disjointed account here should be taken as evidence of my inadequacies as a listener and note-taker rather than as evidence of any flaws in Borden’s presentation.
Tara Lockhart set her account in the context of a writing and film course centered around war films, with a sustained concern with how film shapes our view of the world. Writing with representations of war offers content about which to write, which prompts Lockhart’s questions: does content matter — and if so, how? Writing about film calls our attention to our own framing devices and ideological lenses, to what and how we see, to the content that gets included in our own accounts of politics and the world and the content that gets elided, and in doing so calls attention to the interrelationships among form, content, and meaning. Furthermore, Lockhart suggests, her course’s focus on representations of war helped to foreground historical shifts in culture and politics, and in doing so offered students an additional layer of negotiative possibility for their writing: after watching Vietnam movies, she asked her students, how might one see the Iraq wars in a new light — and how might this foster a deeper understanding of the process by which knowledge is reflexively mediated via representation, not only in film, but in one’s own writing?
Finally, Chris Warnick’s presentation on “Student Journal Writing as Political Discourse in the University of Pittsburgh’s Alternative Curriculum Program” carried some interesting parallels to Clancy Ratliff’s weblog-focused presentation “The Parental Is Political” (described in this post). Chris noted that journal writing, as a widely accepted practice in composition pedagogy, is historically understood as a quasi-public genre existing somewhere on a continuum between the diary and the personal essay. The Gods themselves are the correspondents of the journalist Thoreau; for first-year writing students, composition instructors serve as an audience of perhaps somewhat smaller stature. Journal writing as a practice is often understood today as an investment that will pay off later in increased everyday writing skill and facility, and so serves a sort of service function, but in the archival research Chris is doing with writing courses in the University’s 1970s Alternative Curriculum program, journal writing carries currency in the political purposes to which it is put. As opposed to today’s frequent characterization of journals as low-stakes writing, the 1970s journals Chris looks at are sites of advocacy and also sites of reflection on political happenings. Chris performed a close reading of one group journal, demonstrating how the journalists analyzed their own political beliefs and actions with difficulty, confusion, and even with failure, which — despite the rhetorical ideals we hold today (where’s Wayne Booth?) — might actually seem to live up to the described values of the Alternative Curriculum, in searching rather than certainty and in change rather than order. The politics we choose today and the ways we choose to publicize them, Chris argues, help us to access and examine the stuff that happens beyond our classrooms with our students rather than for them. His work with these historical documents might demonstrate how students are agents who may themselves help us as teachers gain access to political discussions from which we have been previously excluded.
Exciting conclusions, and Chris did a great job communicating the richness and importance of these sources and their implications, and I’ll again note the significant connections I see to the idealization of weblogs as the possibility for students’ deliberative rhetoric beyond the classroom: as Daisy Pignetti points out, explicit deliberative rhetoric in the public sphere can fail; as Chris and Clancy point out, personal genres can and often do serve public political functions. Both the journals Chris looks at and the weblogs Clancy looks at extend the boundaries of school writing beyond the classroom, and this extension bears implications that composition is only beginning to understand.