There’s an activist in your classroom (part 1)

Well maybe not yours, but there certainly is in mine, me. I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about what kind of class I’m teaching, and the end goals that I want my students to take with them. This is an extensive undertaking, thought-wise. Considering I’ve never taught my own class before, my views are mainly theoretical. What that means is that I have had an overwhelming desire to go through all of my books on comp pedagogy to figure out exactly how I feel about the very real, very serious, and very influential work that I will be doing here in just a little over a month. It hit me driving home from my meeting this afternoon that this is why I have a blog: to go over the conversations in my head, and pose them out in the wild with the hope that someone will speak with me. That rarely happens, which is expected. However, I know that all too frequently we end up being in conversation with ourselves as we look back at our writings with the luxury of time. Reflection is, essentially, everything to a writer; that is where the real tough thinking occurs—mostly in “hmm, I said that, did I?” moments.

So here goes. I’m using this blog to work through some theories that mean something to me, and I’m hoping I figure out why. If you’re so inclined, feel free to jump in. The one thing about comp theory is that we never play alone; voice is discourse, and it’s communal.

For this first post, I decided to tackle part of Nancy M. Grimm’s Good Intentions: Writing Center Work for Postmodern Times. Grimm is a great place for me to start. She’s aggressive, embedded in pomo theory, and has no problem being a voice for marginalized identities when most academics fail to hear anything that doesn’t bend unto idolatry of their modernist ways. You’ll see a bit of what I mean. Let’s go…

Grimm critiques modernists for all of their ways of doing, but she does it with a hope to open up ruptures where all the voices previously unheard are heard. One attack is on monolingualism:  “What do monolingual language users know about the tacit ways that language functions to indicate time, order, structure, shades of meaning, qualification, and ownership?” (xii). The going argument that modernists and “normal” Americans make is that English is the only language we speak here. Largely, this fact is false. The colonists who colonized this land were largely English speakers. Obviously to uphold their colonial authority, the colonists idealized the language they knew instead of negotiating the language of the people they would slowly exterminate. This is why English is our national language—it isn’t social-Darwinism; it’s a cultural stigma of authority and power.

Nevertheless, people emigrated (and sometimes immigrated) speaking other dialects of English as well as many other languages. Does this mean their language is of lesser status? Grimm and I say no. Some people were just late to the colonizing party. And others were the piñatas. The great thing about languages beside white, middle-class Anglo-Saxon English is that they operate in more performative and creative ways. Having a knowledge of multiple languages gives speakers wiggle room for thinking and articulating their surroundings. Multi-lingual speakers/writers/readers understand the communal interaction with language—one that promotes collaboration and sharing of experience. This leads to linguistic holism. Those who live in other countries where multi-lingualism is embraced know this, and are powerfully literate (we’ll get to James Paul Gee soon).

Grimm doesn’t just dismiss the monolinguists, the modernists, and those who benefitted from middle class privilege. In fact, she sees their identity as one ready for the sort of work we compositionists do:

“For most writing center workers, particularly those who were successful mainstream students, the strength to resist what feels natural, the desire to question the system that positions them favorably, and the ability to see what before was invisible has to come from the kind of intellectual engagement that can critique the status quo, and it has to take that engagement into the side-by-side work they do with students in the writing center” (xvii).

Grimm is not painting some rosy picture where one solution—one little poignant move—makes all this historical oppression via language in order to pervade normalcy as Anglo-American. She knows it takes much more than that. What it takes to dismantle the hegemony of one-way “rightness” (whiteness) is intellectual engagement. That means constant work and negotiation with people categorically classified as “wrong”.

The sort of intellectual engagement Grimm (and others) believes does this work utilizes more postmodern theoretical applications. She calls these postmodern skills: “This ability to work the border between tradition and change, to simultaneously entertain multiple—often conflicting—perspectives is a valuable survival skill for the turn of the century” (2). Funny Grimm should say such a thing. Surely, borders imply a notion of separation that has functioned so saintly as an American ideal. Here we are on our continent, separated by oceans, distinction, and endowed with the property of a colonization that withstood the test of time when so many others fought off the British empire. And as we remain Britain’s loss, we also remain its legacy, for it lives on in our ways of being. Alas, Western culture does stand isolated from the world. Postmodernism exists as a direct opposition to Dominant Anglo-American identity. It requires that we entertain other ways of being through the lens of seeing. Whether we recognize and admit it or not, we are globalizing. Sure, we can stave off this by incorporating Western ideologies into our cultural mechanisms (the intenet) but it has pervaded the marginal identities which Anglo-Americans appropriated for centuries. Postmodernism is the discourse of the invisible.

The invisible identities of those ever-feared and resolutely ignored have voices worth hearing. Some even closely resemble the dominant identity. Grimm discusses her experience with Joe, a white male who lived a life completely subversive to any impression of him written on his body. Joe was the phenomenological equivalent of a middle class white student, but lived fighting for his family’s mink farm against activists. Grimm tells us that Joe upheld the modernist ways of writing: linear, extolling middle class values, and systematic use of “proper” grammar. He earned an A. Though considered successful by this grade (a middle class expectation in itself), Grimm wonders if the postmodernists would determine that Joe actually learned writing. She says,

The modernist genre of the research paper might work for students whose experience is mainstream, but for [non-mainstream] students like Joe (who certainly appears to be mainstream), we need more complicated, flexible forms that encourage a writers to explore the contradictions between private experience and public knowledge (17-8).

Literacy becomes ground-breaking work in light of postmodern application. Resisting the modernist imperative that writing can be reduced to formulaic structure, flexibility provides non-mainstream students with possibility for composing their identity in a form more reflective of their world. Let the modernists have their order and systems of thought. Let them fit thinking into boxes, outlines, rightness and whiteness. The dominant ideology missteps itself; whiteness only goes so far; what is non-mainstream may lack dominance, but where it lacks, it makes up in predominance. The world breathes a postmodern identity. Exhalation found its breath. Through postmodern compositions and global connection, the private lives of all of us can reach out. Once connected, we thus create a public…

What we need are stories about this breach, about the nature of exhaling to find each other across borders and boundaries. It is time we leave the linear modes at home, and occupy the functions of our languages that bring us together. Who’s with me? Grimm is with me:

Many accounts of those who have successfully crossed boundaries from one literacy to another are stories of important relationships, of people who removed hidden barriers by making the tacit explicit and who were willing to rethink their own belief system in an effort to clarify their relationships with others (19).

Grimm highlights something we all love—a good hero story, the kind where protagonists rise above their surroundings. Even the Anglos get behind stories like that (since they have risen so well themselves). Society grows and evolves through this disassembling of boundaries. Consider the mechanism of change, and behind it is a story where some of this has happened. And yet Western culture fears those very things. Yep, they find them safe in stories, but *gasp* not in reality.

Reality isn’t linear though. No matter how they try to control it, people live around boundaries, existing cross-sectionally. This ground is treacherous, sadly. There is no right way to be wrong when Dominant Western ideology has culture in its clutches. Take a look:

But students whose families live outside this preferred social structure often find schools less familiar. Too often they blame themselves for not having what it takes to succeed, or too readily they reject the school culture, defining themselves in opposition to it (28).

Academia relies on modernist mode of thought. Largely outdated philosophically and pedagogically, the university represents the cultural oppression of knowledge acquisition. We don’t fit in, and we often give up. Some of us struggle through it, and do succeed. We are those hero narratives. One reason for the success can depend upon a student finding support from a teacher or mentor—someone who mastered the Anglo narrative, but found ways to negotiate within and around it. I have a story like this, as do many others.

Often where this support begins is in the places forgotten within the university—the spaces Dominant academia forgets. The writing center. Grimm elaborates,

I believe that the rapid cultural changes of postmodernity create opportunities for writer centers to negotiate more socially just literacy practices, but to do so writing center workers need a stronger sense of their historical positioning as literacy agents (29-30).

By coming into contact with so many non-mainstream students, writing center workers begin to see that there is no one way to write. Tutors note the inflections of language via immersion. And if that center condones postmodern theory, it can be a place welcoming students who have been ignored and forgotten. Just like the writing center itself. But even composition—as a field—has been treated as such. This is part of the historical positioning that Grimm mentions. We have never figured out how to label writing. The turns in composition span its lifetime. Only recently, however, has it sought to challenge literacy, and champion multiple identities. Things happen when pomo comes around.

Pomo tackles rigid modernist imposition. It denies the hegemony of the status quo. That hegemonic dominance looks a bit like this:

If one believes that a particular form of discourse is “right” or “natural” or “better,” the obvious conclusion is that those who depart from this form are “wrong” and that they need help to learn the “correct way to do things (31).

Leaning on the eugenics-inspired racism of the 1800s, science as a discipline lies in opposition to comp’s way of doing things. For this reason, the university hasn’t figured out what to do with writing.

I’m going to veer off to take up Grimm and pull her with me into a new idea. Is this postmodern? Who knows.

Grimm states,

For one, culture is learned through assimilation rather than direct teaching. We absorb it as children; therefore, transmitting cultural understanding as adults is difficult. Usually we are unaware of what is “cultural” about our “normal” ways of interacting with language until we experience cultural conflict (33).

I’ve been struggling with composition. That’s not to say I don’t love it. I do. Very much so. But I’m tired of the university’s endless need to classify a postmodern process. This need is what academics utilized to write off my favorite rhetor, Derrida, as too complicated, too difficult to read. The reason for this appropriative impression is that postmodernism cannot be nailed down and labeled. Sorry modernists, you can’t fit thinking in a box.

It’s time we take off some shackles. Literacy begets a great beginning, especially coupled with multiplication. We compies have a need to respond to the academia by being exactly what we are: compositionists. We compose our world. That means braving change and negotiation. That means addressing conflicting points of view. Why do you think I’ve been bashing my own culture here? It could use some healthy critique. And it’ll be okay. Because no matter how much Western ideology pins and beats us marginal identities down, it’ll still have its history and usefulness. It just might not be in the way it wants—dominance.

Predominance speaks louder than words. 


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