rhetorical liberation

new blog

May 15, 2013
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I’ve started a new blog at http://diaspora2point0.wordpress.com – please take a look if you’re interested!


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the emotional labor of teaching

December 10, 2012
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When I went to talk to the director of Composition here at CSU about a difficult issue with a student earlier in the semester, she said “Don’t underestimate the emotional labor of teaching.”

When I was applying to CSU’s GTA program one year ago, I did underestimate the emotional labor of teaching. I didn’t realize the extent to which I’d “bring the work home” with me, physically, mentally, and emotionally.

I care about my students a lot. I’m proud of them for coming up with interesting paper ideas, for engaging with rhetorical concepts, for bringing their imaginations into the classroom with them.

I also wrestle a lot with how to balance my graduate school work with my responsibilities as a teacher, desire to engage in local issues outside the classroom, and my personal relationships. This has been a really hard semester in many ways—there has been a lot of family turmoil, and difficulty in personal relationships. My significant other moved here with me from New York but has not yet found employment in Colorado. He will likely be leaving CO for grad school on the East Coast in the next few months.

There’s so much “emotional labor” in life already; it’s difficult to take on the additional emotional labor of teaching. I arrive at the end of the semester with some highlights that I’d love to share (particularly a lesson plan that I used in one of my final classes, which led to the creation of a CO-150 “zine” about public education), but the only thing I can honestly write about right now is emotional burnout.

Next semester, I’m taking fewer credits, and hope to devote more time outside of teaching/graduate studies to creative writing, hiking, making music, and other things that have taken a backseat this fall. I have a feeling, though, that I’m going to be wrestling with the question of emotional labor for a long time. I’m drawn to work that demands intellectual and emotional investment; how do I pursue these things without feeling perpetually burnt out?

I want to explore this question as part of my independent study next semester, and maybe in Autoethnography as well. How do people describe their experiences at work? How do rhetorics of work in the U.S. prevent us from calling out problems in the workplace? How do dominant emotional rhetorics of work make us ignore our discontent or feelings of weakness on the job? Can we create a better language for emotional labor? Could that potentially help teachers and other underpaid workers advocate for fair compensation? I have a lot of prior work experiences where I was perpetually overworked (taking home work on weeknights and the weekends, feeling constantly preoccupied by my job), but because this was the “culture” of the workplace, many of us suffered in silence and were too afraid to admit that we were consumed by our jobs. There seems to be a close tie between these workplace dynamics and “intellectual labor” (like editing, teaching, etc.) where you are made to feel lucky that you aren’t doing physical labor.

Anyway, a lot to explore here–I’m looking forward to next semester.

community, class, complicity

November 14, 2012

I daydream about the day that the U.S. stages a national literacy campaign akin to Cuba’s 1961 campaign. Or daydream about working in a community literacy space. What I guess I’m starting to admit to myself is that my heart is in functional literacy / community-defined literacy, more than academic literacy.

I have a hard time negotiating this in CO-150. I know how to teach academic literacy, and expect academic language of my students. But deep down, I’m not that invested in teaching academic literacy in the long run. Admitting this feels scary, but also important.

When I worked with adults, they defined the type of literacy they wanted, whether it was the ability to keep a personal journal, pass a driving test, read for pleasure, understand a survey sent home by their child’s school, negotiate vacation-requests forms for their union or workplace, understand political dynamics in the upcoming election, etc.

So my question is–am I complicit in maintaining class differences, as someone who grew up middle class, is “academically literate,” but does not actually care that much about academic literacy? Does this mean I shouldn’t be in a CO-150 classroom, even though I can (and do) teach academic literacy?

In all honesty, I’ve been thinking about how I’d like to return to working with “basic” writers to help them develop functional literacy. Being involved in the Romero troupe/SEIU project, and speaking with one of the workers about her difficulty navigating paperwork because she couldn’t read or write very well, I remembered why I believe functional literacy is a basic human right, the denial of which is tied to producing/reproducing class divides (Mary came out and said it: “if I could read or write, do you think I’d be working this job?”).

Because we have hegemonic/”colonized” notions of what “correct English” looks like, we don’t always do right by students who speak in various dialects of English (in community literacy settings as well as universities). Victoria Purcell-Gates wrote an article on this called “I Ain’t Never Read My Own Words Before” where she talks about working with Appalachian adults who progressed faster than they ever had before in English language acquisition, solely because the teacher used their own dialect to teach them to read and write (by teaching them to reproduce their speech in their writing).

This is how I learned to teach writing to adults too — I worked largely with Jamaican immigrants who lived in a Caribbean community in Flatbush, Brooklyn, and because many of them spoke the Jamaican patois dialect, their writing and speech did not always resemble “standard American English.” So, to build functional literacy skills, they wrote in their spoken dialect.

I want to make sure I’m working from an ethical place in whatever literacy work I do, and need to face the fact that maybe I enjoy doing functional literacy work because it means I don’t have to teach the hegemonic, colonial English discourse that I was born into, and have the privilege of having inherited/adopted. It also means I need to face the fact that I may always feel complicit teaching standard academic English. So, I feel stuck. I love writing and literacy work, and am committed to a future in it. Whether or not I want to be complicit in teaching standard academic English, though — the “oppressor’s language,” as Adrienne Rich puts it — is something I haven’t quite figured out.

I guess what I’m admitting is that I don’t file “academic literacy” under “functional literacy.” I see “functional literacy” as a tool for navigating the world and advocating for oneself and others–I’d include financial and economic literacy, labor literacy, and political literacy in this camp. In moments, teaching standard academic English in CO-150 allows for a platform to teach some of these other literacies (depending on the topic students choose for their argument papers). I’m committed to spending the next year and a half teaching CO-150, but I’m committed in the long run to the other literacies described above. Denial of these literacies constructs marginalized “classes” (monolingual immigrants, those struggling with learning disabilities, etc.) that don’t fit neatly into a lower/middle/upper-class categorization.

I definitely don’t want to romanticize community literacy work–it’s often frustrating, there are institutional barriers, personal and political clashes, and even (especially in the case of library literacy work) standardized approaches and pedagogies that clash with student-centered approaches. However, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I hit a wall when I start to think about class in the context of CO-150. I feel like the strongest threat to socially-constructed class divides–from colonial empire to postcolonial linguistic practices–is self-determination, and I love the degree to which students/participants are able to determine their course of study in community literacy spaces. I haven’t yet found a way to negotiate these dynamics in a composition classroom in a way that doesn’t make me feel complicit with cultural (and with it, class) reproduction.

writing and identity

November 9, 2012
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you’ve called me many things

the underlying theme was “not quite ____ enough”

white enough, brown enough, bilingual enough,

feminine enough, feminist enough


or “too _____”

too anxious, too thinky

too serious, too sensitive

too upper-end of middle class

too lower-end of middle class

depending on where you’re speaking from


i’ve defined myself in opposition

to what i’m not

much more than i’ve figured out

who i am

for myself


in college, i learned

to break down and critique others’ words

in the service of “analysis,”

of “critical thinking”


but only once, twice, three times

in school

were there opportunities

to write who i was

the rest of the time, i made up the difference

in stolen time, and found myself in

journals, in stories, in quiet nights

alone with an instrument and a notebook


now, to be who i am in my writing

means to be what i think

how do we make room for what we feel

in academic writing? it’s the same question

my students ask when they say “are we allowed

to put our opinion in an argument essay?”

we need hard evidence of ourselves, and all too often

that’s not what our teachers want


once, twice, three times

it was what my teachers wanted

it’s what i want

in my writing and research

how do we merge

the personal and the academic?

how do we give life to logic?

and give voice to research


without resorting to defining ourselves

as i have defined myself, as

not this, not that,

not enough this, too much of that
writing is one of the few opportunities to truly be who we are

to deal with our complex identities in a way that outlasts

the moments when our words hit the air vocally

to give shape to research, to figure out why we went looking in the first place

to be on a page;


writing is about more than just learning to think critically

if we give ourselves the opportunity to put ourselves on a page

see arrangements of words

rearrange them until they look right

and use the patterns to figure out who we are

not just who we’re not.


multimodality and GTA exhaustion

October 30, 2012

This week’s blogging task is to argue for or against the following claim:

Traditional, linguistically based writing instruction as we teach it in CO 150 (and at most colleges and universities throughout the country) is obsolete and serves no purpose outside of narrowly defined academic (i.e., “school”) writing. In short, the research paper and the argumentative essay are dead, and the field of composition risks extinction unless it evolves and begins teaching multimodal and digitally delivered forms of composing because unless it does so it will cease to serve the needs of the current and future generations of students.

I sit down to respond to this prompt EXHAUSTED from two weeks of packed CO-150 lessons designed to prepare students to write 7-8 page argument papers (combined with a ton of “baby-step” grading—i.e., their annotated bibliographies and stakeholder analysis essays, which will inform their argument papers). So, part of me needs to believe that the argument paper is worth something. It teaches critical thinking! It allows students to practice evidence-based arguments, refuting counterarguments (and, hopefully, learning to be more open-minded about the various sides of an issue), making appeals to logic, character, and emotion, and drawing from scholarly sources (often for the first time).

I don’t want to be defensive about the researched essay just because I have to teach it. Or because I grew up writing them. I want to be open-minded about composition, and learn to think about it visually as well as linguistically. But increasingly, I feel pretty old-fashioned, and want to focus on reading and writing as I experienced reading and writing in college—i.e., books, articles, and papers (with Writing Studio forum posts thrown in to tie into the Internet/social media course theme).

I understand the arguments in favor of multimodality, and can see how an increasingly digital economy would demand digitally- (and visually-) oriented workers. I also understand that there are neurological links between visual and linguistic literacy that have great implications for writing pedagogy. If multimodal texts help foster literacy development, why wouldn’t we use them in a writing classroom?

The New London group makes a compelling case for “redesign” of old forms that aren’t working for today’s students and teachers. Maybe the level of exhaustion I’m feeling right now is unnecessary—and maybe that in and of itself demands a “redesign” of writing pedagogy. Rather than use the exhaustion as a justification for the research paper, maybe the exhaustion should be a red flag that challenges the research paper. Various rhetorics of education justify this exhaustion–teaching is a labor of love–you’ll always be overworked! writing is hard! students hate to write! But is it really necessary for students and teachers to exhaust themselves in the service of the research paper—researching, teaching, writing, evaluating—when there are potentially more efficient and exciting ways of teaching the skills we’re trying to teach?

I’m generally skeptical of the word “efficiency” because I’ve heard both used as a justification for laying people off (in the context of a workplace), or sacrificing depth and originality in favor of standards (in the context of education). In the context of a digital economy, though—and in the context of being a GTA and trying to focus on my own studies in addition to teaching—I can’t help but think that multimodal composition might give everyone a break. Not because it requires any less work than written composition, or because it’s any easier to evaluate, but because I think we’d spend less time trying to drill research-paper principles into students and spend less energy trying to get them to conform. In encouraging artistic freedom and individual “redesign,” the creativity required by multimodal composition might actually generate energy—something both my students and I could use right now.

I might ask my students to draw a visual depiction of their arguments as a “cover letter” to their argument paper, just to see whether they enjoy it and whether it helps them conceptualize their arguments in a different way. If they respond well, maybe I’ll think about giving them the option of doing a multimodal piece for their Rhetorical Reflection essay (the last essay of the semester). I imagine it will help them practice digital skills that they’ll need in the workplace, and help them associate creativity and freedom (and not just conformity) with composition.

I do tend to value written language over other forms of expression, but here, words allow me to hide behind my true feelings about the CO-150 research papers. If I had to draw a picture of my CO-150 classes, there would need to be a depiction of fresh, interesting ideas subordinate to a stale, old form. This blog post isn’t anything close to the coherent argument that I expect my students to write, but that image directly answers this week’s question. That, if anything, tells me that multimodal composition might offer the fresh, dynamic platform that students need to do justice to their ideas.

feminist pedagogy A-K

October 17, 2012
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I’ve grown to understand feminism as a critical approach to gender, but not as a broadly social justice-oriented pedagogy.  If someone asked showed me Jarrett’s definition of feminist pedagogy and asked me to label it, I’d probably label it as queer theory (which I understand as a broad theory that allows for things that do not conform to dominant standards, and explores who created those standards, why, etc.).

That may just be a question of semantics, but thanks in large part to the media, feminism itself is a question of semantics. It’s still a dirty word. One that I don’t yet feel comfortable bringing into my composition class (except with one student, who is writing a paper about social media and gender stereotypes).

When I was 18 like most of my students, I wasn’t yet willing (or able) to look at the small, gendered moments in my own life. It would be exhausting to try to describe my relationship with the word “feminism” and how it helped me, in the end, begin to look critically at the role gender plays in my life and relationships, but these are the things that come to mind when I think about the word “feminism”:

a) I’ve brought this up in e501: in my very first class of college, a teacher superimposed a feminist reading of an Adrienne Rich poem over my interpretation in a way that made me unfairly equate all feminist pedagogy with didacticism.

b) I’ve known a lot of men who have been terribly hurt by being socialized as “tougher” than they were at heart.

c) I’ve been socialized to be “feminine” in ways that I value: to be communicative, emotionally attuned, to write.

d) When I was younger, a few feminist friends made me feel bad about the fact that I didn’t identify as a feminist.

e) I’ve had female friends who grew up feeling like being a woman was a bad thing, a cross to bear. To them, becoming “feminist” was a triumphant political act. I hadn’t felt that being a “woman” was so important to my identity growing up, and it took me a long time to recognize this as a privilege (and also to see that I’d been lying to myself, and that there were many “microsexist” moments in my life that I’d simply gotten used to).

f) I’ve known a lot of sexist men who expect women to conform to very specific roles (usually revolving around physical appearance), even while they call themselves “progressive.”

g) I can’t deny the negative cultural repercussions of growing up female that I took as a given for a long time (body image issues, the pressure to be a nonthreatening, agreeable presence to men, etc.)

h) I’ve been friends with a few of the “separatist” feminist women that Jarrett briefly discusses, and women who were quick to say things like “women are just way cooler than men.”

i) I resisted identifying as feminist for a long time because I felt like a lot of people only adopted that identity to be politically correct, without thinking too deeply about it or being willing to critique their own behavior.

j) The rhetoric of feminism and women’s empowerment gets used as a tool of racism and war. A (white) woman once ranted to me about “how horribly Indian men treat women” (then asked if I was Indian).   And remember when Bush promised we’d empower the women of Afghanistan if we invaded the country? The idea of “decolonizing” feminism feels really healthy to me. In my journal review project I read about “transational feminism” for the first time—this is something that will likely stay with me.

k) I had a lot of male friends growing up, and it took me a long time to figure out that we played out dominant gender roles in order to maintain our bond. I’ve only recently looked at the many “microsexist” moments between us, where I was framed as “cool” because I didn’t challenge them in their sexist talk. There’s a great allure to being “one of the boys” that can be at odds with a critical approach to gender (there are also feminist men who are critical and self-aware, and different archetypes for male/female friendships).

I find myself thinking about these “microsexist” moments a lot in CO-150. I have one student in particular who only seems to know how to interact with me in this gendered, insecure, jokey way. In class, he constantly destabilizes the conversation or tries to assert authority by talking over people.

I love the bell hooks line that Jarrett quotes in her essay –“trade nurturing for engagement” –and I try to do this with him. When we’re talking on-on-one, I look him right in the eye and keep the conversation professional and centered around his ideas. He always manages to engage, but only for so long before he tells a borderline-inappropriate joke and destabilizes the conversation again, in what I think is a ploy to gain control and undermine me (likely born out of insecurity).

I’ve never paired him up with a female student for workshop. I don’t trust him enough to. Would it be better for his growth if he learned to work with women?

I don’t like this dynamic, because I want to be open in the classroom, and I find myself putting up an internal wall when he’s around, and trying to “control” the room more than I would otherwise. If I truly want to take a feminist approach to teaching, I don’t think I can allow a disruptive student to turn me into a controlling teacher.

A male GTA I know always refers to God as “she” in class, to try to destabilize gender norms. I would never feel comfortable doing this in my class, likely because I’m a woman. I’m also still developing a language for the power dynamics of gender. I do feel pretty confident, though, saying that my disruptive student would respond to me differently if I was a man.

I hope by the time I can write the “L-Z” of feminism, I’ll have better tools for responding to students like him.

local knowledge: a way to integrate cultural studies and critical pedagogy?

October 3, 2012
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If you’ve read Let Me Stand Alone: The Journals of Rachel Corrie, you’ve borne witness to a personal political transformation that resulted from the “Local Knowledge” program at Evergreen State College. Getting to know her community by participating in OJP formed a foundation for Rachel Corrie’s becoming an international peace activist.

Since I wrote my last blog post (one of the e501 personal posts), I’ve been thinking a lot about how “local knowledge“–an analysis of the social, political, and cultural currents of CSU, Fort Collins, and northern Colorado–could allow CO-150 students and teachers to analyze local rhetorics and cultures, and–hopefully–begin to act locally. In the context of this week’s reading response topic, I also think looking at local issues could help fold cultural studies into critical pedagogy.

Today is the last day of CSU’s 3-day Natural Gas Symposium in the Lory Student Center–a “stakeholder meeting“ for those affected by natural gas extraction in the Fort Collins area. I attended the “community forum,” which featured the mayor of Loveland, the Loveland fire chief, and a representative from Anandarko, a Denver-based natural gas company that is pushing for the City of Loveland to overturn its moratorium on hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”). Wells Fargo was the biggest sponsor; the second on the list was BP. Gas company banners decorated the room. A “people’s symposium” was organized in response to the CSU symposium, and held down the hall.

The natural gas debate in northern CO provides an opportunity not just to foster a critical conversation about stakeholders (the abstract concept that’s a required component of the CO-150 curriculum), but also to encourage critical consciousness by examining the cultural artifacts in the room (e.g., natural gas banners from large corporations, the swag bag of “sustainable“ products) as a tool for identifying the economic/cultural/political factors that decide which stakeholders are legitimate. I might agree with local activist John, who referred to the event as a “dog and pony show” for the gas industry, but I wouldn’t need to push this “agenda” on students in order to facilitate a discussion on natural gas drilling stakeholders along the Front Range.

Today, as an experiment in local-oriented teaching–specifically in analyzing “rhetorical situations” that are close to home–I brought copies of CSU president Tony Frank’s e-mail laying out his decision to move forward with the new stadium to my CO-150 classes. I gave students the option of reading either the e-mail, or an article in their Internet & Social Media reader. Both classes unanimously voted for the e-mail. We read it, analyzed it rhetorically, and evaluated whether Frank effectively achieved his purpose with his audience (revisiting the skills that students developed in their first paper).

I was really proud of both classes. They engaged openly and enthusiastically with the e-mail–even those who dismissed the debate by saying “who cares; our football team sucks.” One class felt that Frank’s techniques were effective; the other class felt insulted by the e-mail, and tore it apart. In both cases, students identified various campus cultures (e.g., cultures of athletics, local cultures of resistance to the new stadium), and from there began to look at the state of education more critically (by bringing up the defunding of public institutions, and the fact that Colorado sits “at position 50 out of 50” states, according to one student). As a follow-up, and to model an action they might take locally, I’ve asked students to draft a reply to Frank’s e-mail, speaking as a stakeholder (they’ll post this to our Writing Studio forum; whether they send it to Frank is up to them).

In the discussions about Frank’s e-mail, a critique of local culture led to a critique of larger economic forces at play. In our e501 class reading on cultural studies, the authors advocate “shifting the emphasis from the personal experience of the individual to the lived experience of participants in the larger culture,” but in the context of CO-150, I worry that trying to define “larger culture” would lead to dangerous generalizations that a) there isn‘t sufficient time to handle; and b) I‘m ill-equipped to handle as a new teacher. Trying to engage with local cultures–of which students are a part–is not a panacea for generalizations, but I do think that students are better-equipped to critique their immediate surroundings (and also better able to put themselves in the shoes of other stakeholders) than they are in discussions of “the larger culture.“ Finding “cultural texts to be read and analyzed” is a worthy pursuit, but I wonder whether a more grounded practice could be “community texts to be read and participated in.”

This is where I see cultural studies falling under the umbrella of critical pedagogy. If we take a critical approach to teaching writing, I think it’s inevitable that we’ll end up analyzing culture. Freire defines critical consciousness as “the ability to define, to analyze, to problematize the economic, political, and cultural forces that shape but . . .  do not completely determine” our lives.  If I singled out “cultural studies” from critical pedagogy, I worry that I’d end up sacrificing a discussion of economic and political forces, or making economic/political forces subordinate to culture. For another teacher, I can see it working differently–where the study of a cultural artifact like an ad opens up a discussion of politics and economics. But in a space like the Natural Gas Symposium, a cultural text like a BP banner carries an undeniable political/economic weight when it’s read in context–as part of a larger critical rhetorical reading of the symposium itself.

I know that there won’t always be a stakeholder meeting on campus to take students to. I also know that I am making broad theoretical generalizations based on a few small classroom experiences, and that the stadium is a much “safer” issue than something more overtly tied into race, class, and gender. But I also know that my own sense of critical consciousness continues to develop through local engagement, and I want to teach honestly from that place. And I know, from reading Let Me Stand Alone multiple times, that Evergreen State College’s “Local Knowledge” class was a huge part of why Rachel Corrie became Rachel Corrie–someone whose critical, locally-grounded, globally-minded consciousness continues to inspire.

Regardless of whether you choose a “cultural studies” or “critical pedagogy” approach–or neither–I do feel strongly that choosing to keep a classroom “apolitical” is an extremely political act. It normalizes all the power at play in why the student is in the room, why he/she is learning what you/the department/the college decides should be taught, and how those decisions get made. Even a critical pedagogy or cultural studies approach can be oppressive if it’s not the product of an organic outgrowth of classroom culture and the material reality of the teacher and students. By reading the world(s) that teachers and students share–the world(s) that enter the classroom in organic conversation, like the stadium did in my CO-150 classes–I think we can begin to find an ethical groundwork for reading “larger culture” and helping students develop critical consciousness.

towards a more responsive composition classroom

September 29, 2012
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What would it mean for CO-150 to focus on education—the conditions of students’ education in particular?

There’s never been a more dynamic discussion in my CO-150 classroom than the day we talked about tuition hikes. I used the following question as a way to talk about the idea of stakeholders: “should CSU raise its tuition in the 2012-2013 school year?” Students were able to put themselves in the shoes of parents, federal loan administrators, bank lenders, school administrators, small businesses surrounding the college, and parents—and, as expected, they were able to speak from their own experience.

They needed guidance with only one stakeholder: teachers. Most students felt that teachers supported tuition hikes. Why? Because “they’d make more money, class sizes would be smaller, and there would be more money to create teaching jobs on campus.”

I explained that actually teachers very rarely see salary increases from tuition hikes. The students were confused. “Where does the money go?” We got into a discussion of administration, decreased public funding, corporate influence on research universities, athletics over academics.

The conversation could have gone on and on. But we had to shift to writing annotated bibliographies about individualized topics. I encouraged them to “be this critical / look for different stakeholders in your own internet/social media research.”

If I’d been totally honest with the class, I would have told them that I’d rather talk about the conditions of their education than the internet and social media (I suspect they did too). If I’d been totally honest, I would have encouraged them to write letters to CSU president Tony Frank—using the rhetorical tools they’re building in class—urging him to stop funneling money into administrative offices, curtail the huge raises that CSU executive leadership has enjoyed in the past few years, put the stadium project on hold, and invest in academic departments so students pay less tuition and contingent faculty earn a little bit more.

I want to be this transparent in the classroom. I’ve been open about the fact that I’m under pressure to award an average CO-150 grade of a “C.” I’ve been transparent about my views on big-money-funded media and political parties, and I’ve been transparent about the fact that state standards dictate much of what we teach in CO-150. I’ve been transparent about the fact that students are expected to fulfill certain requirements in order to succeed in college—i.e., learning MLA, relying largely on scholarly sources, etc.—but have tried to encourage them to challenge the dominance of scholarly journals as the only source of “real” knowledge.

In response, students have critiqued the two-party political system and corporate media. They’ve talked about citizen journalism and political organizing. They’ve openly critiqued capitalism and big business. This tells me that my transparency allows us to come together as a class more so than we’d be able to if I was keeping these thoughts under wraps.

This makes me want to be even more honest with them. And the big elephant in the room is that most of their classes are taught by GTAs and other contingent faculty (right now, close to 80% of courses at CSU).

The students and I have more in common than they think. 3 students in my second CO-150 class work full-time. I told them that I wished tuition was lower, so they could work less and focus more on their studies. They seemed surprised by this. They assumed I would reflect the institutional interests of CSU in our class debate over tuition hikes. Perhaps I should have shared with them that due to budget cuts, GTAs now teach twice as many classes as they did a few years ago, for the same stipend.

I’m beginning to think that being transparent with students about the conditions of academic labor—particularly as contingent faculty, GTAs, adjuncts, STFs, etc.—could be an amazing way to build community within the classroom, and open up a discussion of the material conditions surrounding all of our educations. It could give us a shared language for talking about the things they bring up in class: the amount they’re paying for school; why they chose to go to CSU and not CU; the culture shift at CU as the tuition has gone up; the number of hours they spend working rather than studying; the “busywork” that they don’t feel is relevant to academic growth (to quote one of my full-time working students); and, finally, a language to tackle the question of where their tuition dollars go, if it’s not towards increasing teacher salaries?

The theorists we’ve read so far in e501 haven’t gotten into this kind of teacher-transparency. Each theorist backs up his/her own approach—expressivist, cognitivist, critical, feminist, etc., without talking about the shared material conditions of teachers’ and students’ lives in a university. For all the talk of “liberatory practice,” there aren’t enough strategies to break down the walls between teacher and student.

I agree with the theorists we’ve read in many ways, and they’re giving me a language to think about writing pedagogy. I do think we should allow for individual expression and group work, as well as critical discussion of texts—to externalize our socially-constructed selves, “own” our subjective identities, and critique our objective identities (Elbow), develop skills to “make the conversation public again” (Bruffee), and analyze larger socially-constructed systems of power (Bartholomae). Yes, I think we should critique the sports-and-war-laden “argument culture” (Tannen), and make sure that we’re not unintentionally creating a self-reinforced academic discourse devoid of action (Trimbur). But I don’t want to enter the classroom with an overdetermined theoretical approach. Even now—just teaching two CO-150 classes—I can tell that one class craves/needs critical discussion more than the other. One needs more quiet time, pair work, and in-class writing.

However, all of them agree that tuition hikes are shitty. And they all want practical, real-world utility in their education. And I want them all to see their voices as legitimate, authoritative, shaped by both their subjective experiences and the material conditions that have surrounded their lives thus far.

The material condition that unites us all—teacher and student—is the university. So shouldn’t that be the logical place to start in a writing class?

The Angry Adjunct has put so much thought into issues of contingency, and his comic has allowed me to see this potential alliance with students. So did an article I read last year called “A Marxist Reading of Reading Education,” which encourages all employees of educational institutions (teachers, administrative workers, groundskeepers, janitors, etc.) to unite in a critique of education reform (Shannon makes the point that schools shape the material reality around them—high test scores = greater prestige = higher property values = higher-income people moving to an area = lower-income people needing to commute from farther and farther away, etc.). I’d include students in this camp. They’re deeply affected by all of the above.

Why, when I began to do this in my CO-150 class last week (by bringing up decreased public funding, low teacher salaries, etc.), do I feel like I’m betraying something? Even as a contingent employee, one that’s working for essentially minimum wage? This tells me that this kind of honesty in the classroom is dangerous—something we’ve learned to suppress.

I want to feel confident being transparent in the classroom about the institutional pressures I’m under as a new teacher. I’d hope it would serve as a mechanism for allowing students to do the same, and allowing us all to “be in the room” together, as a community. Not as a community of writers dictated by theoretical notions of collaboration and consensus, but as a community of writers who have the potential to fight the same fight, collaboratively and consensually.

So why don’t we use these material conditions—which unite teacher and student—to begin a discussion of rhetoric, audience, social construction, political organization, and relations of power, and thus build a platform for systemic critique? Teaching rhetoric without an immediate real-world application feels a little bit like teaching students to build a hammer without letting them use it to pound nails. Why can’t students write letters to the CSU president arguing against tuition hikes rather than letters to disembodied famous-straight-white-male writers who publish in prestigious journals? In other words, why can’t students use CO-150 to learn rhetoric as a real-world tool that is immediately useful, and grants them agency within the institutional context of CSU?

In answer to the question posed in class today, I do think that we could begin to “use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house” if we allowed the writing classroom to be responsive to the students’ worlds in this way. And I also know that this would likely create a serious conflict of institutional interest (as The Angry Adjunct found when his students rewrote Antigone about the co-location of a charter school with their public school, the internal divisions among students, and eventual closing of the public school in the name of education reform).

Thinking of all the theory we’ve read in the last month, I can’t help but feel that this type of pedagogy would also allow for a fluid transition between expressing personal material conditions and critiquing systems of power, via collaboration with others around those shared struggles (Elbow, Bartholomae, and Trimbur, all at once!). In this context, it seems silly to think about expressivism, social constructivism, and collaboration/consensus as three different theoretical camps.

I love reading the theoretical background of composition, and seeing how we got where we are today, but I can’t help but wonder if we’re overcomplicating expressivism, text critique, collaboration, and consensus by looking at them as atomized via different theorists, and not as powerful techniques that—in the right context—could potentially function as part of an integrated, real-world critical pedagogy.

academic vs. expressive writing

September 19, 2012

My personal reliance on expressive writing (to get my thoughts in order, formulate my identity, etc.) combined with my desire for a critical, historically-grounded CO-150 classroom, make it difficult for me to reckon with Bartholomae and Elbow as theoretical opposites. Here’s where I begin with three of this week’s e501 questions:

  •  Do we formulate our identity through the act of writing or simply express it in writing? I formulate my identity through the act of writing. It’s very rare that I feel I have a coherent identity (or even opinion) to express when I sit down to write (including now).
  • Is writing a personal act in which we express (or formulate) our “selves” or is what we write socially constructed in the ways that Bartholomae argues? I feel most free when I’m writing—even if the practice of writing is socially constructed. So, I feel like writing is both a personal and socially constructed act. Through an analysis of rhetoric and discourse communities, I think we can begin to exercise agency via writing (at least this is my hope for my CO-150 students).
  • What about the reader and his or her interpretation—is it legitimate for readers to bring their attitudes, beliefs, and ideas to a text and make those part of their interpretation? Yes! When we pretend NOT to bring our attitudes, beliefs, and ideas to our writing—when we try to be objective—I think we’re more prone to passive voice and Engfish, and less likely to critique our attitudes, beliefs, and ideas. I think part of the rhetorical art of academic writing is learning how to phrase your attitudes, beliefs, and ideas in other ways than “I think” and “I feel,” so that an academic audience is receptive to them.

Both Elbow and Bartholomae bring their personal attitudes, beliefs, and ideas to their texts, but after reading both articles, I trust Elbow more.

Why? Elbow critiques himself and his method. He reveals the things his students struggle with as a direct result of his expressivist approach to composition: “I’m afraid that I invite first year students to fall into the following sins: to take their own ideas too seriously; to think that they are the first person to think of their idea and to be all wrapped up and possessive about it” (80).

Bartholomae, on the other hand, doesn’t reveal much about himself in his writing, and doesn’t critique his own method. He talks about using texts in class (Emerson, Rich, Frith) and encouraging critical discussion about power, but not once in his essay does he critique his power and cultural bias in choosing these texts. He argues that expressivism is an attempt to “erase history” without acknowledging the lives and histories of his students.

In the end, I can’t help feeling that Bartholomae advocates a critical, text-based classroom from the privileged position where there is no “I” in history. There is an “I” in his essay, but it’s a staunchly academic “I,”–I don’t feel like I know anything about him beyond his theoretical orientation towards composition. I feel like I know Elbow when I read his words, and trust his reasons for creating a classroom where students’ lives and history form the “text” (even if he does sacrifice a more critical, historically-grounded teaching practice).

Even though I have no desire to teach CO-150 with a purely expressivist bent, I find myself convinced by Elbow’s writing, which tells me that even in academic writing, there is persuasive power in self-expression. I want a critical classroom like Bartholomae’s, but want my students to write as persuasively as Elbow, with his degree of self-awareness. This goes for my writing too–by the end of grad school, I want to be able to integrate my attitudes, beliefs, and ideas into my writing more fluidly than via a 3-bullet point list.


September 4, 2012
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Changed life, moved across country, started at CSU’s Rhet/Comp masters program. What happens now?

I thought I’d begin by introducing you to one of my favorite images. It’s from the children’s book Ferdinand the Bull.


Ferdinand is a bull who’d rather smell the flowers than fight. In the photo below, he sits under a cork tree watching over his fellow (fighting) bulls, in the shadow of the symbol of political power (castle/humans) that’s socialized the bulls to fight for public entertainment.


When practiced ethically and critically, I think writing (and rhetorical analysis) give us the opportunity to develop a healthy distance from dominant discourse (and socially-constructed modes of living/communicating), so we can critique systems of power and begin to find our own way.

I hope that by the end of my time at CSU’s Rhet/Comp program, I’ll feel a little closer to Ferdinand–hopefully with some comrades under the tree with me, and with a better-developed sense of critical rhetoric in my writing and in the classroom.