CCCC07.P04: Pedagogic Violence

The full title of this session was “Pedagogic Violence and Emotions of (Self-) Assessment: Anger, Mortification, Shame,” or, as panel chair Elizabeth Weiser summed it up, “The Happy Panel!”

Amy Robillard began her presentation, “The Functions and Effects of Angry Responses to Plagiarism,” with some questions to the audience: “How many of us have suspected plagiarism?” All hands went up. “Felt insulted by it?” All hands. “Felt angry?” Again: all. Robillard offered an anecdote from a course she had taught wherein a student turned in a paper with one passage in a noticeably lighter font than the rest of the passage. She Googled the passage and discovered that the student had actually plagiarized three separate passages in the paper from weblogs. Robillard described her anger at the attempt at deceit, and her anger at the student’s implicit presumption of stupidity on Robillard’s part; the presumption that Robillard would somehow be dumb enough not to recognize plagiarism when she saw it. This anger, Robillard suggested, helped her to maintain an identity as a writing instructor sufficiently expert to make the distinction between that which is plagiarized and that which is not. But of course, she acknowledged, she could have missed it as well, because it was the font color that spurred her curiosity — and that acknowledgment led for Robillard both to a possible anger at self for writing teacher and to the question (itself carrying an inherent affective teacherly freight) of how many plagiarizers go uncaught.

This circumstance led to Robillard’s desire to put into conversation two separate conversations: one, the abiding interest in understanding plagiarism beyond its conventional nuance as textual theft; and the other, the effects of emotions — of affect — on teaching. In conventional representations, writing teachers are idealized as calm and somehow removed in their relation to plagiarism, and this erasure of the teacher’s anger at plagiarism is symptomatic of a disciplinary discourse that suppresses the role of the reader in relation to texts: our investment in plagiarism as authorial act leads us to ignore plagiarism as a relational issue, and excuses us from understanding that an additional textual locus of plagiarism exists in the reader, beyond the role of the author. Furthermore, if plagiarism stands as more than mere theft, we need to more adequately theorize readers’ responses to texts they believe to be plagiarized. Plagiarism is a form of authorship to which readers react affectively, and readers’ emotions are not necessarily individual, private, or politically neutral. We need, Robillard argued, a rhetorical understanding of anger; a sense of the way that anger is a response to a violated sense of justice, in which we allow ourselves to believe in the potential for revenge, and so make the sense of anger pleasurable in the way it assigns responsibility and offers possibility. We persuade ourselves of our right to be angry in response to perceived plagiarism, and this act of self-persuasion makes our anger social. Hence the tension in Robillard’s initial example: we like to think of ourselves as enablers rather than punishers, but our identities as writing instructors are partly determined by our expertise in distinguishing between authentic and inauthentic writing. In other words, we construct ourselves as having our students’ best interests at heart, while at the same time constructing a professionalism for ourselves in our ability to detect inauthentic writing, and these conflicting constructions discourage us from admitting anger. In this affectual response, we feel ourselves defending our own intelligence and professionalism in our angry reactions to plagiarism, yet we feel conflicted about how that response positions us in relation to students, and that sense of conflict brings with it two potential responses: first, we can become disaffected readers who say only positive things about student texts; and second, we can risk a disciplinary loss of respect from outsiders who see us as failing in a projected role of policing — and then who will pay attention to what writing teachers have to say about plagiarism?

Julie Jung’s presentation, “Assessing Shame: Burkean Mortification and the Problem of Self-Reflection,” began by offering excerpts from two students’ end-of-semester reflective essays, wherein they evaluated the revisions they had made between drafts on various essays. One excerpt seemed to be very much in the confessional mode, wherein the student offered a narrative of an imperfect writerly self acknowledging struggles, while the other seemed more loaded with anger and blame and a sense of victimization in response to the task. These excerpts led Jung to some “rude questions” about the role of the reflective essay and the end-of-semester portfolio: why require students to prepare a portfolio? Why use writers’ reflections? She acknowledged composition’s justifications concerning the writerly attention to metacognition and revision that such assignments promote, and acknowledged as well the critiques of such assignments in the ways they construct the writer as a unitary and unified self and affirm our pedagogy without critiquing it. Still, Jung said, she assigns them despite her ambivalence: they make usefully manifest the commonplaces of process pedagogy. In this use, though, there are problems, particularly when considered from a Burkean perspective: self-reflective assignments, Jung asserted, often function to mortify student writers, purifying them of their investment in product, and turning them into authentic process writers. Burke’s steps of mortification begin with pollution (the realization that we are guilty), purification (cleansing through self-inflicted pain or scapegoating), and perfection (the act of complete carrying-out; the Latin meaning of making fully through), but these steps of mortification produce guilt in imperfect people. We produce the perfect paper by denying that it exists and thereby creating writers who will always feel guilty by submitting imperfect work. As a result, to be cleansed of guilt, one must endure self-mortification as the voluntary self-governance of inflicting pain on oneself for an anticipated later reward. This self-mortification requires humility, obedience, and subjugation on the part of students who produce portfolios: in their reflective letters, they must judge their earlier work as less processed and more imperfect. In that light, the first passage Jung offered stood as an act of rhetorical self-mortification. There’s a paradox here: guilt is generated at the recognition of imperfect product, but guilt is cleansed by the mortification of denying that no products are perfect. The real writer becomes the mortified writer who submits herself to process pedagogy, with the only alternative roles being those of victim and scapegoat, as in the second passage Jung began with. Behind this division, Jung suggested, lies another: the split between guilt and shame. Guilt comes from what one does, she argued, but shame comes from who one is — and in that sense, shame requires one’s identification with an idealized other. In some ways, we’ve romanticized the writing process so much that the real writer is an ultimately perfect identity, and therefore unattainable, which turns self-reflection into a public performance that produces student shame at the writer one once was and the writer one can never become.

My notes on Jane Hindman’s presentation, “Shame on You! Writing Teachers’ Affective Schooling,” are woefully inadequate, and any representation I might offer here would do even more injury than I’ve done Robillard’s and Jung’s presentations. Hindman’s presentation used Lynn Worsham’s brilliant essay “Going Postal” as a frequent touchstone and place from which to examine the ways our disciplinary constructions of affect reveal our theoretical and institutional problems with hierarchy, mystification, and the management of emotion. Hindman was compelling and sophisticated, as anyone who’s read her writing knows, but I’m afraid her presentation suffered in my notes simply from her role as the last presenter in the last session of the conference’s last day, and I’ll confess I’m embarrassed to have taken such poor notes at the presentation of someone whose work I so admire.

My hope, then, is that there may have been someone else at the session taking notes; someone who might be willing to share. Perhaps even another Kairos reviewer. And with this being my close-out on my public notes on CCCC this year, I’d like to point to past notes and ask you, reader, if you might help take up my slack next year. I love reading accounts of CCCC presentations that I wanted to attend but couldn’t, and I love reading different takes on sessions I attended, and I know there are plenty of people each year who want to go and learn and share knowledge but don’t always get the opportunity. So if you go to New Orleans, I hope I might ask you: take notes? Share them?

CCCC07.P04: Pedagogic Violence