Temporary Leave

This will likely be my last post for a short while, and so I wanted to leave off on a bit of a hopeful note, related to the tried and true nature of certain methodological approaches in writing instruction. In the latter half of my World Rhetorics seminar paper, which will ultimately be my doctoral writing sample, I used a piece by David Rothgery, in which he seeks to answer a tough question related to student writing that can be deemed offensive.

The piece, ‘”So What Do We Do Now?”‘ Necessary Directionality as the Writing Teacher’s Response to Racist, Sexist, Homophobic Papers,” starts with a scenario where Rothgery asks a high school English teacher what she would do when reading a paper that was blatantly racist (241). It is a situation that no writing tutor or instructor wants to be in, however, it is an important one to know how to navigate. Do we impose our own perceived, universal truths and morality upon students who write these pieces, or do we seek to justify this rhetoric according to situational ethics. While the value of situational ethics is undoubtedly important, Rothgery states that in some cases both approaches cannot coexist. In other words, he suggests that there are some universal truths that are so “fundamental,” they no longer fit within the idea of situatedness. He specifically lists rather extreme issues like forced domesticity for women, lynching for miscegenation, etc., (243) in order to illustrate that there are some opinions that are beyond a doubt, morally reprehensible and need to be treated as such when seen in student writing, if not with the purpose of changing the student attitudes, then with the purpose of making students more aware of the academic and social implications of such backwards, terrible rhetoric.

Rothgery seems to suggest that the best way to go about challenging situational approaches to “Transcendent Truths” is to open up a dialogic exchange of sorts with the students, one that does not impose values, but rather gets the students thinking about alternative ways of thought, thus allowing the possibility of gradual change. I realized that I had been following a similar strategy in these scenarios during tutoring sessions. What struck me the most was that this piece was published in 1993, and so it did not address greater issues at hand like the academic requirement for students to be aware of globalization and transnational changes. However, the piece suggested a very reasonable approach to rather unpleasant situations, one that can easily be applied to class room and writing center settings today, 20 years later.

I realized that despite the vast changes that have fairly recently occurred in pedagogical discourse and theory, certain methodological strategies are timeless. The piece reaffirmed my belief that the best way to see improvement in a student’s writing, other than adequate, valid praise, is to simply have a guided conversation with them, a Socratic exchange of sorts where we ask him or her to deconstruct their own logic and rhetoric and then help them tailor it according to their rhetorical situation. Perhaps this strategy is among those “fundamentals” that Rothgery argues for.

A Humbling Realization

In the light of my recent doctoral endeavors, I thought I’d shed some light on the writing elements of the application process. There’s no need for me to point out the extraordinarily stressful nature of any graduate program applications, however, I see that there is a distinct challenge in applying to Composition and Rhetoric PhD programs that I did not notice while applying to English MA programs. Obviously some standards hold true in terms of navigating within the system: weighty recommendations, solid GPA, high GRE scores, etc. But the writing sample standards seem to be very different. As I’ve spent several hours with my mentor, tweaking my piece, trying to fulfill length requirements, making sure that I carry out my argument well, I have noticed some unique requirements that perhaps aren’t of concern in MA applications. I have noticed that radicalism, for lack of a better term, of any sort, is frowned upon. In a field that is relatively new, considering how it used to be lumped together with English, it is quite easy to step on toes and challenges, proposed dichotomies, etc. may count against an applicant. As a writing tutor, this issue might be especially relevant for me as I have been known to favor tutor input over instructor input in student writing. My eyes were also opened to a whole other element of the application process that I had not even considered, the admissions board. My mentor recently informed me that even in writing programs, the majority of an admissions board might consist of literature instructors. This knowledge was quite alarming as I realized just how important a heightened awareness of audience is. I not only have to appeal to specialists in composition and rhetoric, I have to make sure that my subject and argument holds value for literature specialists as well. It was interesting to consider that despite the separation between literature and rhet/comp studies, we are still lumped together in unexpected contexts. As I spent my Thanksgiving weekend carefully reading my writing sample, checking for continuity errors and loose argument progression, I employed a strategy I had never thought of doing. I physically cut up my paper and rearranged the paragraphs to improve cohesion. My point in relaying all this information is primarily reflective. I realized that as tutors, instructors, etc. we impart wisdom upon our students and occasionally find ourselves not following our own strategies. We stress things like audience and higher order concerns in one on one appointments and as I consider my own struggles in polishing my paper, I realize that I’ve barely been practicing what I’ve been preaching for several years. I always encourage my students to read and re-read their work before making alterations or edits, and yet since I started writing my sample, I did not read it from start to finish until very recently. I didn’t consider the issue of sensitivity to a varied audience, assuming that my readers would understand my subject matter. It was a humbling moment and as I continue to trudge through the process I have to reevaluate and ultimately change my own personal methodology. But the greater point I’m trying to make is that I feel that we all fall into this practice at some point, novice writers and experts alike, (to borrow Canagarajah’s terms). And this is where collaborative instruction becomes so valuable because when you are immersed in your work, you might not notice things a second reader would. It goes to show that there no such thing as perfection in composition and that writers of any stage can continue to evolve and improve.

Title in Progress (No idea what to call this thing!)

Bizzell’s and Jarrat’s article (2004)  recaps and addresses the topics of discussion at a previous ARS conference and illuminates the merits of the opinions of the several groups involved. One detail in particular struck a chord with me. They mention that in answering a specific question, “Why Study and Teach the History of Rhetoric at All?,” there was a bit of resistance and reluctance. In a push for pluralization of rhetorical traditions, it becomes evident that there was recently and perhaps still is resistance to this by and large accepted ideal. Bizzell and Jarrat write, “It is only fair to include rhetorical works by as many people as possible, particularly those that have been victimized, marginalized and oppressed by way of redress” (24). As valuable as this push has been, it is disheartening to know that  people still resist it. This resistance brings me to an earlier point of discussion in the piece, namely the aversion to the term tradition. “Many people at the conference did not even like the term ‘”traditions,”‘ plural, because they felt that any version of the word ‘”tradition'” implies a continuity and teleology for the texts and figures under study that is tendentious and exclusionary” (20). Well, ultimately, this is the point. There is value to the term tradition, because this is what we’ve been trying to combat for quite some time. We’ve been trying to do away with the tendentious, exclusionary approach that we’ve had to rhetoric, namely our own Western Rhetoric that dominates communication on a global scale. The fact of the matter is that traditions exist in a every rhetorical context, especially on the cultural and geographical level. Traditions naturally evolve and become new traditions. At this point in time, where the idea of transnational exchange is recognized more and more as essential, it is silly to worry about the nature of tradition, as the point of transnational exchange is not replacement or changing local and regional traditions, rather bringing them to the forefront and giving them an equal, deserved part in our field, which has historically suppressed them and dismissed them as monolithic and novelty. The attention that this issue has received in recent years is extraordinary and authorities in our field have moved beyond the merely multicultural approach to embrace this idea of transnational exchange. The very term implies transaction and not amalgamation, which is ultimately what we should strive for, because in an effort to achieve unity we shouldn’t have to let go of the strategies that make various rhetorical traditions meaningful and effective in different contexts.

Defensio pro Plurality

This will come off as a defense or rant more than a carefully thought out critique on developments in Rhet/Comp studies. A few weeks ago, I had an interesting group interview with a respected authority in academia. A sense of professional courtesy and maturity prevents me from mentioning the individual’s name. Initially, I was uncertain of whether or not I should write this. However, I couldn’t resist the desire to open up a platform for discourse involving certain potential changes in our field that could permanently alter the more traditional paths towards success in higher academia.

This individual is under the impression, perhaps rightfully so, that knowledge acquisition, development, and compilation is evolving dramatically and that more traditional means of academic discourse are rapidly dissolving due to the convergence of the online community. Consequently, the value of expertise and academic hierarchy are eroding. I’ll admit, I was scared. I am nearly done with my Master’s in English and a Graduate Certificate in Teaching Writing, and I am applying to various Rhet/Comp PhD programs throughout the country. I have a high GPA, solid GRE scores, I’m finishing up my program search, getting recommendations from reputable faculty members, and developing a critical writing sample. In addition to all these tasks, I am balancing three jobs and a full time class schedule. My grad school experience is delightfully stereotypical. I’m paying my dues with the hopes that one day I can be considered an “expert” and share my knowledge and understanding with the academic community while facilitating the development of my potential future students. To someone enduring these trials for a distant dream that might never come into fruition, expertise and connections can be the extra edge.

And so, during the interview I had a question for the individual, stemming from genuine concern, not meant in any way to be disrespectful. I simply wanted to know how fast he felt his proposed changes in knowledge compilation are occurring, because as a prospective educator and academic, I can say with confidence that traditional knowledge development is still held in high regard and considered a necessary part of advancement within any field of study in academia. In other words, I wanted to know when the path that I’m following will become obsolete. What I received as a response was a veiled negative assessment of my potential, as a student, to get accepted to doctoral programs and a lecture on how online academic discourse is becoming the best way to establishing a reputation. In fact he was hubristic enough to use himself as a prime example. Well that’s all fine and dandy for him, one of the few isolated incidents in a sea of individuals following more traditional paths towards a position of expertise. And since the rest of us might not be able to receive program offers based solely on the merits of our online publications, this new phenomenon begs my original question, just how quickly are we becoming obsolete?

Don’t get me wrong, I completely accept the value of collaborative knowledge development and understand the importance of the web in promoting this exchange on a domestic and global scale. However, as an insider in academia, I know for a fact that the expert and the concept of a canon is still important, us traditionalists ain’t goin nowhere. Obviously multimodality is becoming more and more necessary in both the class room and broader academic forums. But as in anything in life, balance is key. Just as solid recommendations can be the extra edge, online activity can admittedly be the same, but not everything. One can’t speak from the position of the “privileged minority,” as one of my professors put it, for the whole academic community. Another professor of mine suggested that this individual simply felt threatened by my question and pulled the rank card.

Clearly, I understand the value of online discourse as I have this blog and speak openly through it with my colleagues and hopefully soon, individuals in other institutions. So, to tell me that my path has limited value and to make negative assessments of my potential, without even knowing me, is nothing short of petty nonsense. But, perhaps this will be the pervading attitude in our field someday that comes with the loss of the expert. Perhaps this will be one of the many examples of unidirectionalism in our field which we so vehemently protest against. I know that at least one person believes in a one size fits all approach.

Global Rhetorics and Experience in the Writing Center

My post today will be a little different as I touch upon a unique piece that I had the pleasure of reading this week, a blog post made by a writing center tutor in training at Stanford. It raises some important topics that must be considered within composition studies as a whole, and on a smaller scale, within the walls of the university writing center.

The blog post, http://crossculturalrhetoric.wordpress.com/2012/05/15/a-diverse-discussion/, raises the issue of race and diversity in written rhetorical situations. The author talks briefly about student fears in publishing writing involving race and racial experience. Part of me feels that there is an expectation, almost, for international students to incorporate their unique cultural experiences into their writing. This expectation in itself is not a bad thing, as personal, cross-cultural experience is rich ground for developing meaningful discourse. However, when a student is afraid to publish or submit a piece for race related content, we, as tutors, must step in to enable the student to feel confident in their work. As the author of the post points out, there is safety in anonymity. And so we must make sure that we can encourage our students without being overbearing and making them even more uncomfortable.

As part of expanding our abilities as tutors, we have to have a unique approach to the writing of students from a variety of national and socio-cultural backgrounds. In my paper on making writing center pedagogy more inclusive, I mention a tabula rasa, or blank slate approach.  This does not mean colorblindness or an indifference to a student’s racial or cultural background, rather it means that we approach the student and the piece without the biases that have been ingrained into our approaches. We often have a tendency to scrutinize some pieces for different reasons, depending upon the cultural background of the student. For example, we might approach an international student’s paper with a stricter eye for grammatical errors and not extend the same level of stringency to a domestic student’s writing. This is undoubtedly an unfair approach and it is often inadvertent, potentially developed through past experience.

We have to remember that multilingualism does not disadvantage students, in other words, the relationship between the languages is not necessarily a one way street where knowledge of one informs the practical application of the other. Rather, as Canagarajah puts it, there is an equal exchange, where multilingual authors accomplish rhetorical tasks according to their needs and the needs of their audience(s). When we validate our students for bringing their unique perspectives and skills to their pieces we encourage them to continue developing their creativity and simultaneously remove the confidence related hindrances preventing them from submitting their work to a public, intellectual forum. Everyone needs occasional validation and encouragement in order to thrive, and so, balancing this encouragement with an open, unbiased approach will more than likely improve student confidence and promote their growth as writers and academics.

A Writing Center Conundrum

Damian Baca’s piece presents an extremely important topic to consider in discourse on the global turn in composition and rhetoric. He introduces the idea that the global turn, spoken of by Hesford and others, is not a new phenomenon that has emerged, rather, it took root about 500 years prior, in the onset of European exploration and colonialism in the “new world.” Early on in the text, he discusses the dominating Eurocentric Myth related to the evolution of rhetoric and clearly explains its various falsehoods. In describing this myth, he writes, ‘“As seen from within a Eurocentric narrative, Composition’s rhetorical history is rationalized from East to West, ‘“from Ancient Greece to Modern America”’ (Baca 229). The United States ultimately falls within this “history” as the end stage and center point of current rhetorical authority.

Baca pays special attention to Spanish conquests in his discussion, particularly the violent, aggressive reinvention of the cultural “other.” (Baca 230) This “Aristotelian syndrome,” soon led to the destruction or suppression of multiple other native rhetorical traditions throughout Asia. In other words, the reinvention of native composition and rhetorical traditions was not merely a side effect of colonization, but an active attempt at eliminating thought processes and communication styles that the European “center” could not practice or understand. Baca cites theological reasoning of the colonization of Mesoamerica and brutal suppression of the culture, which sought to justify these actions by deeming them necessary attempts at civilizing barbarians who did not even have a system of writing. (Baca 236) He then quotes Franciscan, Diego Landa, who wrote:

These people used certain characters…with which they wrote in their books about their antiquities and their sciences; with these, and with figures, and certain signs in the figures, they understood their matters, made them known, and taught them. We found a great number of books…and since they contained nothing but superstitions and falsehoods of the devil we burned them all, which they took most grievously, and which gave them great pain. (236)

This statement clearly demonstrates what Baca refers to as, “Imperial hubris,” and shows the attitude of dominance held by the “center” in relation to the periphery or other (236). It acknowledges other forms of writing, but seeks to suppress them and ultimately replace them because of misguided feelings of superiority and enlightenment. Ironically, despite theological opinions suggesting that the natives were unaware of written communication, Landa notes that the destruction of native texts resulted in great sadness. However, it would seem that these attempts at eradicating native tradition were not wholly successful. In attempting to shed light on the global turn towards digital composition and representation, Baca suggests that colonialism fueled a similar situation in which European rhetorical tradition and Mesoamerican rhetorical tradition unevenly combined. The digital age presents a similar phenomenon in that the Roman alphabet is no longer the only option in terms of digital texts. With globalization, a heightened awareness, and the rapid advances in technology, digital composition allows for great diversity in alphabetical and pictographic composition.

However, I would like to draw attention to another important issue, taking into consideration Baca’s piece. Writing center pedagogy is undoubtedly at the center of my graduate, academic pursuits. Part of the experience of being a writing center tutor is working with students who come from a variety of national, social, and thus rhetorical backgrounds. As someone who is trained in the western rhetorical tradition, and follows the Roman alphabet, I frequently come across multiple students who come from different rhetorical backgrounds. Although there are greater implications related to writing center ethics here, I am more interested in the approach that tutors take to sociocultural and rhetorical differences. I am guilty of practicing the aforementioned reinvention within a writing center setting, more out of necessity than ignorance. As Muriel Harris notes, writing center tutors inhabit a unique role that hovers between student and teaching. In the collaborative exchange between tutor and student there is supposed to be mutual learning. However, we might often find ourselves imposing the rules we have been taught and are expected to follow ourselves, giving little thought to the rich rhetorical traditions our students often have. Thus we might perpetuate this 500 year old practice of imperial subjugation, just in a different context. As I mentioned before, this is not necessarily intentional. As tutors, we are aware of teacher requirements and because we have a responsibility to teach rather than fix, we might find ourselves devaluing other rhetorical traditions to ensure that the student does well, and can perform in their current sociocultural and academic environment. Baca calls for greater awareness of the true history of globalization and how it relates to the composition field. He also suggests that we might be able to dismantle the Aristotelian syndrome in this heightened state of awareness of the effects of colonialism on the development of composition.  As useful and necessary as awareness is, it has its limitations. Dismantling the Aristotelian syndrome is no easy task in a writing center when we, as tutors, are aware of the academic expectations of professors. We are often required, not of our own volition, to continue in the legacy of forced reinvention that began in the colonial period. This limitation begs the question, how do we reconcile awareness and the requirements of an institutionalized rhetorical tradition of subjugation and suppression? I suppose we could take a similar approach as has been suggested with teaching ELLs. We could uphold the value of their native rhetorical traditions, arguing that the awareness of their cultural rhetorical traditions will be a distinct advantage in communication. However, how often, in our current social, professional, and academic settings, are we required to write in another rhetorical tradition. Occasionally, perhaps, but by and large, especially in most American, social, academic, and professional settings, we are expected to adhere to the rules of the “center.” What to do, what to do? 

Treading the Line

Hesford’s piece starts quite interestingly with a tweaked form of rhetorization, or seeking to explore a modern phenomenon within composition studies with a text of literary significance . However, as I mentioned before, her approach is tweaked in that she seems to be explaining the current shift towards attempts at unification within the field of composition, through the lens of the sociocultural shift in the United States that has been happening for over a decade. In other words, she draws parallels between the United State’s ongoing reaction to vulnerability and external threats, in the form of reinforced national and global identity, and a similar tactic being used in composition studies, where concrete identity is sometimes sought after. Describing this phenomenon, she writes, “Yet, at the same time, there is evidence of a nostalgic retreat to disciplinary identities and homelands and a resurgent, though not uncritical, localism” (Hesford 788).

I found the way she framed her argument rather compelling as the two social spheres she parallels, the sociopolitical/cultural sphere, and academia, to mesh very well. However, as her argument transitions and evolves, it becomes much easier to understand the validity of her comparison. Composition studies, as a field, has gone through many changes, from being lumped in with English, to being established and respected as a formal field of study. From Hesford’s explanation, it would seem that certain overarching shifts in Composition and Rhetoric are leading to blurred disciplinary lines, and that respected academics within the field are calling for a reversion to a state of recognizable identity. As an aspiring educator and recent convert from literature to Rhet/Comp studies, I can’t help but sympathize and encourage this “nostalgic retreat,” as Hesford puts it. (788)

Those of us who have pledged our allegiances to either literature or Rhet/Comp know that the two go hand in hand, and one cannot necessarily exist without the other. But Hesford’s analysis goes deeper than that age old conflict. Instead she seems more interested in the divide specifically within the field of Rhetoric and Composition. If I understood the piece correctly, she seems to suggest that in the midst of globalization in an academic sense, or perhaps consensus and standardization through the beauty of accessibility, the equally important regional factors and rhetorical trends are being overlooked, resulting in local divergence, for lack of a better term. Things like ethnography, essential for the study of local rhetorics and social development, are being described as setting up binaries. ( 792) But others see this establishment of identity in contrast to others as necessary. Hesford seems to be calling for a reconciliation and linking of global and local trends through ethnographic and rhetorical study. (793) Although Hesford continues to explore sociopolitical, rhetorical methods including philosophies and tactics like non violence, I keep getting drawn back to the “conflict” within our field. I find myself wondering, can exclusivity and a communal mentality exist in balance? I’m not sure if it can, since both mindsets have their own limitations and vulnerabilities. Were is the line drawn between interdepartmental cooperation and amalgamation?

Finally, I must revert to the geopolitical issue at hand related to Western (specifically American) rhetorical strategies in framing national identity in relation to the rest of the world. As Hesford notes, our political language has a tendency to be rather belligerent and promote American Exceptionalism, which ultimately leads to generalizations and the failure, on our part, to establish connections between the past and our concerns for the future. If we are to be truly secure as a nation, we must avoid our own tendency towards ethnocentrism and spend time in self reflection and the objective study of global, historical trends. We must also resist the use of Western rhetorical strategies i.e. the use of our field in the promotion of national aggression and exceptionalism, and an imperialistic national attitude.