This is my third blog post in my ongoing series reflecting on what I am reading in my Foundations of Composition and Rhetoric Class. The last two blog posts (which you can find here and here) concerned Kenneth Burke’s A Rhetoric of Motives. While very interesting, his work was definitely in the realm of theory. This week’s reading, however, is directly concerned with Composition Pedagogy. And, as such, got me far more excited than Burke.
As I have written elsewhere (here and here), the reason I am pursuing my PhD is because I want to teach college students how to read and write effectively. If I was only interested in becoming a scholar, if I was interested in mastering a field of knowledge, I would have picked something other than English (probably theology/philosophy or international politics (they are both hobbies of mine)). But I am in the English Department because the English Department teaches writing classes. Additionally, I was interested in pursuing my PhD at UTA for a number of reasons, one of which is the training they put GTAs through. Another is the First Year Writing curriculum (which I think is excellent). For my dissertation, I intend to do something involving Composition Theory and pedagogy. All that to say: I am jazzed by this week’s reading!
This week’s reading covers eight different (though I’m not sure I like how the book constructs its categories) pedagogies for first-year writing instruction. I have only been teaching for two years, and only in two different institutions, so my exposure to different pedagogies is a bit limited. It was good to see how different pedagogies both theorize and engage in classroom practice. My focus in this post will be on so-called critical pedagogy (CP). The book discusses CP on two primary occasions, one in the chapter on Basic Writing and the other in the chapter devoted to CP. I have a complicated relationship to CP and I want to explore some of those tensions in this post.
First, I am with James Berlin in rejecting expressivist writing as “an untheorized and ideologically debased form of neo-Platonism” (117). In the past, I have discussed such writing as semi-gnostic navel gazing. I fall very much into the social-constructionist camp. That is, I believe that knowledge is constructed through discourse—it is constellated in conversations and dialogical relationships with different people and ideas. Reducing the composition class to a vehicle for self-expression or to a space for practicing writing skills removes inventio from the rhetorical canons by either locating invention within the idealized self (as in the former) or placing it in the hands of experts (as in the latter).
Second, I primarily agree with the Berlin definition of rhetoric as “the study of language in the service of power.” My thesis director in my MA had studied under Berlin, and I think I absorbed a lot of my perspective from her. I view teaching my students how to be rhetorically effective as a democratizing move that grants agency to those not in power and helps to upend hierarchical social and political relations. Like CP (as expressed in this book anyway), I am convinced that the first-year writing classroom should be about good citizenship and about civic formation in a way that resists the neo-liberal move to equate “citizen” with “economic producer.”
Third, I nevertheless find CP’s ideological political commitments (and in the academy, the Left is the hegemonic ideology) absolutely troubling. While the book quotes Maxine Hariston as scorning “teachers who put ‘dogma before diversity, politics before craft,” and then disagrees with her, I fundamentally think she is onto something (84). Whatever my political commitments (and they are clear to any reader of this blog; see this post and this series), I am first committed to educating my students. Furthermore, I want my students to question any hegemonic discourse, any totalizing idea system. Pedagogically, I am not interested in them adopting any particular set of political or social commitments aside from those necessary to participate civilly in a democratic and pluralistic society (tolerance, listening to opposing views, making reasoned arguments) even if I wish, as a citizen that they would adopt my political perspectives.
A project I am currently working on, that had its genesis in my medieval rhetoric class last semester, is my exploration of how classical rhetorical ideas, especially mediated by renaissance thinkers, can help writing classrooms today confront ideological discourses of all kinds. I think rigidly consistent ideological positions of any stripe are antithetical to the rhetorical ideas of decorum and consensus. The teacher who polices student ideas for their subservience to a controlling (usually conservative) ideology is not listening to the student, and she is certainly not paying attention to one of rhetoric’s key insights: context is centrally important. And, perhaps most importantly, she models critical inquiry in a way antithetical to critical inquiry.
Or, as Jonathan Chait has recently pointed out about the totalitarianism of left wing PC culture: “Liberals believe (or ought to believe) that social progress can continue while we maintain our traditional ideal of a free political marketplace where we can reason together as individuals. Political correctness challenges that bedrock liberal ideal. While politically less threatening than conservatism (the far right still commands far more power in American life), the p.c. left is actually more philosophically threatening. It is an undemocratic creed.”