reading between the borders

What is Reading?

The struggle has always been inner, and is played out in outer terrains. Awareness of our situation must come before inner changes, which in turn, come before changes in society. Nothing happens in the ‘real’ world unless it first happens in our heads. ~ Anzaldúa

 

Here I am again looking at another looming question. I want to get at this from so many positions, in so many ways, but I don’t want to get stuck. Or worse, lost. Naturally, I do what I normally do; I go to Derrida. When I took theory as a lowly undergrad, I remember being told to read rigorously the week we read him. And it took reading with rigor to read him. But I muscled through Derrida with a diligence I didn’t know I had. Now, he and I are affectionate occupiers of one another’s time.

Yet, this does not answer the question—yet. I do have a point; you’ll find it somewhere. I want to touch on a few things around it before I state it, and lose you all again. Are you reading? We are reading Kristie S. Fleckenstein’s “An Appetite for Coherence: Arousing and Fulfilling Desires” this week. I read the title closely, and was pretty excited. That is, until, I got two paragraphs in. But before I go all rhetor on Fleckenstein, I want to talk about my students. You see, Fleckenstein thinks she means well, and she may very well mean well. Yet, Fleckenstein does not know my students—even if she thinks she does.

My students do not like reading. I’ve spent the entirety of this quarter both figuring out why and trying to coax, force, beg, trick, and facilitate their reading of our texts for class. Nothing I do works. That made me question why. Was it me? Most people said no; it was them. Okay, so why aren’t they reading? Assuming they’re lazy is a cop-out. They are not lazy. These students write beautifully when asked. They work several jobs, many of them. They come to class (mostly). It isn’t laziness.

I started realizing something: it is what they are reading.

My students have been overburdened with the white man’s social, economic, and academic discourse for years. It is in everything they read. Yep, even in Fleckenstein.

She says, “Helping students create coherent texts is one of the most difficult jobs that composition teachers have. Part of that difficulty lies in the fact that coherence is as much a reader-based phenomenon as it is a writer-based creation” (Fleckenstein 81). Even if Fleckenstein is right and this is “one of the most difficult jobs” in our field, she is missing the reason why it might be difficult—at least if she had my students.

In her “Tolerance for Ambiguity”, Gloria Anzaldúa writes, “Cradled in one culture, sandwiched between two cultures, straddling all three cultures and their value systems, la mestiza undergoes a struggle of flesh, a struggle of borders, an inner war. Like all people, we perceive the version of reality that our culture communicates” (2099). Anzaldúa tells us what Fleckenstein misses—that our students are cultural readers and writers. They have the perilous task of floating and performing between the borders of all the discourses of their world, when academia only oppressively operates under one. Fleckenstein, like many in the university, might simply be failing to perceive the culture of her students through her own culture’s haze.

I have evidence for this. In Fleckenstein’s little sample of Sally on page 82, we see what is deemed an “incoherent paragraph.” No, it does not quite make sense. Thankfully, Fleckenstein is there for us—and her students in class—to give us one more sentence that will magically make it all make sense. Wrong. (side note: the Burke quote doesn’t make sense grammatically and syntactically either, but she doesn’t really point that out.)

Fleckenstein comes to her students’ rescue, which, she promises, does the following: “Students discover that this sentence provides them a context to draw from. Now, they can use their background knowledge about human motivation, neighborhood irritations, and offensive strategies to build relationships within and between sentences” (83). I read this rigorously, and I wanted to let Fleckenstein know that not all students will discover this. Not all students have this happy, middle class, suburban, patriarchal, and passive-aggressive “background knowledge” to make the connection. For me and all of us la mestiza, we do not see what Fleckenstein will see.

Moreover, is it always necessary to make sense? What if a writer is not seeking for their readers’ approval? Anzaldúa identifies la mestiza:

These numerous possibilities leave la mestiza floundering in uncharted seas. In perceiving conflicting information and points of view, she is subjected to a swamping of her psychological borders. She has discovered that she can’t hold concepts or ideas in rigid boundaries. The borders and walls that are supposed to keep the undesirable ideas out are entrenched habits and patterns of behavior; these habits and patterns are the enemy within. Rigidity means death. Only by remaining flexible is she able to stretch the psyche horizontally and vertically. (2100)

By simply attempting to learn in the university, la mestiza embraces this flexibility. She comes to our classes reading and writing by stretching herself into the dominant discourse of academia, while trying to keep herself. Meanwhile, the institution seeks to confine her to its walls and borders, pushing her undesirable ideas down into a box of “coherent” discourse.

Fleckenstein purports that she can fix this lack of coherence by teaching an on-the-surface, easily understood task. Her motive relies upon this premise:

To judge the success or failure of a particular passage requires the writer to step out of his or her shoes as a writer and examine the passage as a reader. Writers need to perceive the desires or expectations their texts arouse in their projected readers and then check to see if those desires are satisfied. (82)

How helpful it might be for Fleckenstein to realize that her own readers may not have their desires met. These may be the readers of her class, reading her class and her teaching. Has she expected this of herself when she composed this text or her classroom? Maybe Fleckenstein should read rigorously. Anzaldúa might help.

And I will say she does. Let’s read her: “All reaction is limited by, and dependent on, what it is reacting against” (Anzaldúa 2100). This is how I’ve come to realize why my students resist reading; they are reacting against all of the fashioning of themselves into a package they never saw coming when they filled out those dauntingly stark and box-filled college applications. I would ask Fleckenstein and all others who feel judging the success and failure of a poorly written passage to consider how they might not be meeting their students’ desires and needs.

This comes down to a level of reading. To read means to look at one’s world, to critique it, and/or question it. Anzaldúa shouts out herself on the page, and lets me leap with her. She declares, “Soy un amasamiento, I am an act of kneading, of uniting and joining that not only has produced both a creature of darkness and a creature of light, but also a creature that questions the definitions of light and dark and gives them new meanings” (2101). Anzaldúa urges us to read questions upon everything—both the light and the dark. In between the borders.

Before you think I’ve been a little hard on Fleckenstein, and I have, I will entertain a place where she attempts to read her class. She says, “Uncover the second sentence and ask the students to decide if this sentence is consistent with their expectations. Discuss differences in opinion, but without attempting to arrive at any premature closure” (83). Hmm. This is a good place where Fleckenstein attempts to mean well. Except, she is a bit bossy. These are declarations, not suggestions. It may be good and fine to discuss differences in opinion, but Fleckenstein does have a closure: coherent writing. And, in the case of Anzaldúa and myself (and many others, I suspect), our expectations are not similar to those who may engage in neighborhood war battles utilizing our knowledge of infidel crab grasses. Often, the infidels are the ones telling us how to write and how to read. No wonder we don’t wanna.

But we continue to try—if we stay in academia. We adopt its voice into our own, secretly hoping and praying we do not lose ourselves in the process. As I read Fleckenstein, I fear this appetite for coherence seizes upon teaching composition as well. I am in this class to learn how to teach writing and reading. I am in this class reading and writing in the academic voice. When I slip from this, when I embody la mestiza, I am criticized and encouraged to become more coherent, more understandable—to the academy. But for whom am I doing this?

My attempts to discuss what I see as a direct violation of ethics comes through everything I read, and thus all I write. This is where I am at these days. I cannot read otherwise; I do not feel it is beneficial to attempt differently. If I take anything away from this class (and this quarter), it is that Composition has a lot of work to do. I found out how to come to terms with that. I have also come to terms with the fact that it may happen with or without me. However, I leave with a reading in my mind.

This step is a conscious rupture with all oppressive traditions of all cultures and religions. She communicates that rupture, documents the struggle. She reinterprets history and, using new symbols, she shapes new myths. She adopts new perspectives toward the darkskinned, women and queers. She strengthens her tolerance (and intolerance) for ambiguity. She is willing to share, to make herself vulnerable to foreign ways of seeing and thinking. She surrenders all notions of safety, of the familiar. Deconstruct, construct. She becomes a nahual, able to transform herself into a tree, a coyote, into another person. she learns to transform the small “I” into the total Self.

 Se hace moldeadora de su alma. Según la concepciόn que tiene de sí misma, así sera.

~ Anzaldúa

 

Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Eds. Vincent B. Leitch, et al. New York: W.W. Norton & Co, Inc., 2010. 2095-2109. Print.

Fleckenstein, Kristie S. “An Appetite for Coherence: Arousing and Fulfilling Desires.” CCC 43.1 (1992): 81-87. JStor. Web. 12 Nov. 2012.

— p.s. It is quite ironic and timely that my students’ most recent essay assignment is titled “‘Dear Academia, This Time, You Read Me’”

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