blog post for class: the students of speech

Much of our practice of tutoring, as tutors, comes down to the negotiation of identities. Every and each one of us are meeting in a tutoring conference over the practice of writing. We work together, tutor and student, over a specific composition, the professor’s requirements (or lack thereof), the institutional demands of academic writing style, and, most of all, over who the student wants to be in the paper they write. In a lot of ways, this textual construction is the most visible representation of identity. Perhaps that is why it can be such a highly contested practice.

I relate here to the idea of visibility because of how sorely misguided our sense of sight can be. Denny mentions in his chapter “Facing Sex and Gender in the Writing Center,” that “These components (“race and class, our sex, our gender, and the politics attendant to them”) of our identity are among the most legible on our bodies and faces we present” (87). I completely do and do not agree with him. Whereas I know that we judge one another based on our perceptions of gender, sex, and race, class is a much different classification. For me, I think it fashions all the others, but only because politics is what is actually fashioning all of our faculties of identity judgments.

Denny discusses, “Television (e.g. Leave it to Beaver) and moral education campaigns (e.g. A Date with the Family) served to casually instruct codes of proper suburban behavior etiquette, even as the first media firestorms about delinquent youth, rock-and-roll music, and subversive culture underscored problems in paradise” (96). It may very well be this imposition of ideological functions within mainstream media that has culminated into what our contemporary subversive groups term “the sleeping public.” Coined as “sheep,” our counter-culture believes that the dominant modes of culture-branding has turned us into citizens that are no longer public, people that no longer know how to think critically.

Now I know that is largely just another identity construction that limits our ability to think of ourselves as anything but. Here we have commercials from corporations like Mary Kay promising liberation through purchasing lipstick highlighting girls protesting in the streets (I cannot find a link to this to citation, but I can say that my recent accidental stint in watching television exposed me to this commercial rendered blithely staring in shock at the appropriation.). On one end we are sheep; on another, we are promised freedom through consumption. Each argument seeks to define our identity, and tell us who we are. So we construct. We brand ourselves through clothing, through makeup, through our careers, through our life choices. All these things help tell others who the person they are looking at is. As projectors of the identity-construction gaze, we interpret race, gender, sex, and class as well on everyone we encounter. Why?

We do this to figure out who people are based on the way they brand themselves, and in light of what they “naturally” appear to be. We do this to see if we can see eye-to-eye with a person, or to note them down as enemies or not worth our time. All that is politics. And all that politics is fashioned by our codependent relationship with media.

Our reading of each other can usually be wrong. We cannot always guess a person’s race, class, gender, sex, and political affiliation. Oh, but we do it anyway. And to what ends? Where does this judgment get us? Usually wrong, and offending. But it does something more. To judge one another based on brands of identity, we are upholding the most dominant of all models of discourse: judgment.

Does it really matter what a person’s physical appearance hints at us? I can tell you one place it does matter, and that it matters for a reason not entirely obvious.

A person’s physical appearance matters in a writing center. It matters in the text they compose to negotiate who they are in a dominant culture that will certainly tell them who to become. When we write anything (and that includes me now), we are responding to the world, and its every construction of our identity it has. Go ahead, world, speak us. Our writing is our chance to speak back.

That is why writing is so contested. That is why it is hard for a student to say what they want to say. That is why we struggle with our texts, mostly feeling a lack of confidence in what we say. Because we have to respond to every single ideology of identity. That’s a lot of speech. It also isn’t easy when, in academia especially, even the way we speak is a brand. That is where all these semi-invisible markers show in our discourse. Our words speak our gender, class, sex, politics, and race. Sadly, and more often than not, composition courses tell students to filter these things out, to lose their selves in the use of standard academic discourse. Cause that’s not political.

Yea, it is entirely political. These are the students that hopefully come into the writing center. (if they aren’t completely discouraged). Imagine having all of those “markers” of identity at once and being told none of them are mainstream enough to being accepted. No wonder some students drop out. No wonder most students think so low of themselves that their voices don’t matter. No wonder they turn to the media to hear good things about themselves—if only they spend $x on y. They’re being beaten down ideologically because of who they are. I’d run to the solace of a lipstick too.

Or I’d just teach more liberatory pedagogy. Wait, that’s what I do. So what it comes down to is this: we need to breach all these ideological functions of discourse. We need to help students use the voices they have. We need to find methods of teaching and reaching that let them be whoever they want to be. We need to teach and tutor them ways of finding out who that is. No more blame. No more labels. Just speech.

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