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.

Beyond the binaries

It’s probably just a case of too much Berlin (IS there such a thing?), but I’ve become a bit burned out on “binary opposition.” And then I read Kameen’s “Rewording the Rhetoric of Composition.” There they were—more binaries. Kameen lists numerous pairs which, as he says, are “usually conceived as polar opposites rather than dialectical contraries” (4):

  • thought/feeling
  • form/content
  • process/product
  • expression/communication
  • self/audience

I think one strength of Kameen’s argument lies in his attempt to restore “a dialectical relationship among the binary concepts” (4) through the inventive power of language. Kameen invokes Coleridge’s concept of imagination to illustrate “a refreshing and rigorous alternative” (8) to these binaries.

Kameen calls on “a companionable set of dual concepts” (22) from dialectical epistemology: primary and secondary (Freud); complex thinking and conceptual thinking (Vygotsky); and logical and paleological (Arieti). What is most interesting to me is Arieti’s idea of a “tertiary process” that mediates between the two binaries. Arieti explains that “the tertiary process…blends the two worlds of mind and matter, and in many cases, the rational with the irrational. Instead of rejecting the primitive…the creative mind integrates it with normal logical processes in what seems a ‘magic’ synthesis from which the new, the unexpected, the desirable emerge” (22-3). This tertiary process makes synthesis between the two ways of knowing possible, and this, Kameen claims, is most akin to Coleridge’s “imagination.”

Reality is much more nuanced and complex than a choice between two competing binaries. Kameen’s approach was a refreshing respite from the either/or view of most theorists.

More questions than answers about Critical/Cultural Studies

Fulkerson’s article served as an important introduction to the field for me. I found it fascinating to see how much has changed in composition and how much has stayed the same since I was an undergrad in the 80s. Of greatest interest to me in this article was Fulkerson’s overview of the Critical/Cultural Studies approaches, mainly because even though I’ve been aware of the trend toward cultural studies, I had only a vague understanding of how this has impacted the English department, particularly the writing program. I’m hesitant to just jump on the Fulkerson bandwagon critiquing CCS, but I certainly have some questions about this “social turn.” Maybe you can help me out by offering an opposing viewpoint to Fulkerson or by recommending some other readings. (I imagine this topic will be revisited since it appears that Berlin is in the CCS camp.) Here are some of the questions I had after reading Fulkerson:

  1. Why has writing instruction been removed from First Year Writing (at least by CCS advocates)? It does appear that writing is not as much taught as merely expected, much as in other writing-focused courses.
  2. How is a course of the description Fulkerson provides justified as being in the English department? As he points out, the pedagogy and axiology of CCS is much akin to that of courses in the departments of history, sociology, anthropology, or environmental science (661).
  3. What has happened to learner needs and expectations? If students are interested in exploring these ideas, plenty of avenues exist for this in other departments (see #2). As Durst discovered, what students—those “career-oriented pragmatists”—expect from a writing course is “dramatically at odds with the views and approaches of the teacher” (664). Do students’ goals (career and otherwise) have a place in the curriculum?
  4. Aren’t those who are insisting that writing courses must teach resistance to hegemonic discourse in fact practicing a form of hegemony? Fulkerson points out that the texts for examination in the CCS course are those “judged important by the teacher” (662) and that assessment of student writing amounts to judging how well the student has reflected the teacher’s views (“contemporary mimeticism”) (663). With only one perspective represented in readings and with the balance of power clearly still in favor of the professor thanks to his/her greater knowledge and ability to dispense grades, it seems that the ideal of the democratic classroom has been supplanted by further hegemony. Or is this just Fulkerson’s anti-CCS bias?
  5. Is the purpose of FYW to teach values? I laughed when I read Durst’s account of the angst of the first-year teaching assistants lamenting that their students didn’t listen to NPR or read the Atlantic Monthly, but I was frankly astounded when I read of their struggles to define their goals: “Was the goal to teach them better values or better writing or both?” (664) Who exactly is it that decides what these “better values” are?

Although I’ve centered on the CCS aspects of this article, the other areas of focus in Fulkerson’s article were equally intriguing to me, and I look forward to reading others’ blog posts about them. The disunity within the discipline of composition as Fulkerson outlined left me troubled and realizing that with such a lack of consensus, it is more critical than ever that someone wanting to teaching composition have a clear view of the competing composition theories and be able to articulate his/her own theory.