Diversity or consensus?

Harris’ chapter titled “Community” offered what I found to be a workable approach to the issue of politics in the FYC classroom. Ever since we read James Berlin’s Rhetoric, Poetics, and Cultures last quarter in Composition Theory, I’ve been thinking about how to address the political issues that make their way (or that we intentionally introduce) into the FYC context. Berlin’s solution is to address them head-on, to set up a classroom structure where students confront and resist hegemonic discourse, meaning that students become conscious of, and resist, the political forces that attempt to shape them unawares.

Okay, so far, so good. My issue with Berlin, though, is that he has a very clear idea of what students should resist and what they should strive toward (he’s a Marxist), and he has no qualms about directing them along the “proper” path. “Our teaching strategies may unavoidably shape our students as ethical and social subjects, but this is all the more reason to discuss openly the best procedures for doing so. We cannot help influencing our students, but we can do all we can to be straightforward about our methods and motives” He ostensibly values resistance—as long as the resistance is directed against his chosen targets. When students resist his imposition of values (his hegemony) he’s perplexed. His approach is much like what Harris characterizes as typical classroom procedure (147): students read a text and offer an interpretation, the teacher problematizes (a very Berlinian approach) the interpretation, and so on until consensus (that of the teacher) is achieved.

The alternative that Harris proposes seeks “not to resolve such differences in reading but to highlight them, [to try] to show what might be involved in arguing for the various ways of understanding a text—as well as what might be at stake in the conflicts between them. Such a class would not try to get students to agree on what a certain text means but to see how and why various readers might disagree about what it means” (147-48). I thought that Harris’ approach that he outlines in the following pages, where students view and write about Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and then consider their classmates’ different interpretations with a mind to understanding how these differences were justifiably supported, was fascinating and productive. This approach does a better job of avoiding the hegemony the teacher can wield because of the power structure of the classroom; as Harris says, “A problem with much teaching, it seems to me, is that the teacher often serves only too well as both judge and advocate of what gets said, pointing out the weakness of some positions while accenting the strengths of others” (154). Harris’ pedagogy seems to strive for understanding rather than consensus, in my mind a worthy goal.

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