English Studies and Political Literacy

Here's the second installment of my MLA session-blogging. Two down, two three to go. This is from "English Studies and Political Literacy," a forum which has already been covered at Tech Central Station, the Chronicle, and Acephalous, but I'll throw my notes in there too; why not? As with all my conference-blogging of years past, these are simply notes I took. They're probably direct quotations, but I don't use quotation marks because I don't want to have them in every sentence, and I'm not sure enough of the exact words to use quotation marks. You'll find very little commentary here, because, well, it would take even longer for me to post these if I also offered commentary. Notes are in order of speaker:

Donald P. Lazere, University of Tennessee, Knoxville

In his introduction to the forum, Lazere said that students are caught in a double bind: They need a degree for a job, but they can't afford college. Students are pressured to major in areas that are expedient to getting a good job, not allowed to take a variety of humanities courses. They're also having to work while going to school.

Lazere cited the NEA "Reading at Risk" study and the "literacy crisis": only 21% of students read newspapers. (Note: What counts as a newspaper? In my three years of teaching at the University of Minnesota, when I walk into the classroom each day, nearly all the students are sitting in their desks engrossed in The Minnesota Daily. Some of them read City Pages too, which admittedly is mostly an entertainment guide but also contains some very smart articles about social and political issues.)

In his classes, Lazere assigns The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Nation, and The Weekly Standard -- but students often lack the Hirschian cultural literacy and political literacy to understand what they read in these periodicals.

Lazere went into an aside about Hirsch's "eminently sensible" call for integration of political/social literacy into English studies. Among compositionists, as I recall, it did get a pretty strong protest, mostly based in the argument that "cultural literacy" upholds "the dominant culture" and hinders multiculturalist pedagogies, but correct me if I'm wrong here, please.

High school "civics," in middle class high schools, is often taught by coaches and referred to by students as "a joke." Lazere cited one scholar's (don't remember the name) proposal of a civics section in standardized tests or integration of civics into the reading comprehension part of the test. He ended with a call for projects that transcend culture war, polarization and that instead focus on common goals.

Slightly interesting sidebar related to Lazere: I noticed that people at MLA and on the blogs were referring to Lazere with an air of familiarity, and his name was familiar to me too. When I got to the panel, I realized that Donald Lazere was the man I knew from the protest marches for the Progressive Student Alliance's living wage/anti-privatization campaign for workers at the University of Tennessee.

“How Can Americans under Forty Be Tuned Back In to Following the News?” David T. Z. Mindich, Saint Michael’s College

Mindich picked up the thread about how young Americans don't follow the news. He referenced Jon Stewart's CNN appearance and his statement of, "Stop. You're hurting America."

All power needs to be checked, Democrats or Republicans. In some cases, the Supreme Court was a check. But what's the ultimate check? An informed citizenry and free press. But many 20- and 30-somethings don't read the paper. A study found that if you don't pick up news and politics by your mid-20s, you generally never will. So now we have an age cohort replacement (as previous generations die out) who may not ever follow current events.

Wolfram Pyzer (?) found that the median age of viewers of the evening news is 60. Mindich challenged us to watch the commercials on the evening news to see who's being targeted (he suggested that we might find commercials for Viagra, Depends, etc.). I took the challenge, but with Nightline and not the evening news proper. On Nightline, the commercials were for: TD Waterhouse, eHarmony.com, Cort Furniture Clearance Center, Wickes Furniture, the Ab Lounger, Les Misérables at the Ordway Center, Integrity Bail Bonds, IHOP, and Quitplan. An interesting mix, and I think it could support Mindich's point if advertisers, knowing the age range of the audience, decided to target those at the younger end of the spectrum, who may have more buying power.

But what about the Internet? Mindich asked. Only about 18% of college students get news on the Web. He challenged us to observe students in computer labs on campus; see what they're logging onto: not news. The Internet has not closed the knowledge gap.

Mindich then proposed and simultaneously rejected two theories:

  1. Young people are less intelligent than they used to be.
  2. It's the media's fault.

News is going out of "the news" in favor of what gets ratings. Ads occupy more and more space in newspapers. However, important investigative reporting takes place every day (here I believe he cited Seymour Hersh's Abu Ghraib coverage, and maybe Dana Priest's coverage of the secret prisons too).

Entertainment is a factor; there are many more choices for television programming. People are no longer faced with the choice to watch the news or nothing at all.

Cites Putnam (?): People do have time to follow the news.

What can we do to change this? Understand that students are thoughtful and idealistic. Students feel that the news is pandering. Jon Stewart, on the other hand, assumes that his audience consists of intelligent people. The Daily Show connects with its audience in a way that elevates them, as does NPR, 60 Minutes, and The New York Times (not CNN, though). We as educators have to do the same: connect with young people in a way that elevates them.

Mindich asked, what if we were to give everyone a civics test at age 18, similar to the citizenship test that immigrants have to take? What if the results of this test were available to colleges if admissions committees wanted to look at them?

He concluded by saying that we have an obligation to care what goes on the airwaves. What is the kind of citizenry we want? How should it be reflected on the airwaves? We need to talk to students about how to hold our leaders accountable, and we need skepticism without cynicism.

“Learning Political Literacy through Chicago’s Public Schools: What’s College Funding Got to Do with It?” Kenneth W. Warren, University of Chicago

My notes on Warren's talk are brief; I guess I was taking a break from the flurry of note-taking I did during Mindich's presentation. So, a few high points: Warren said that it's easier to change the curriculum to include cultural diversity -- to prepare a white, managerial class to manage a racially diverse workforce -- than it is to change the composition of the student and faculty body. We're in the Bobby Kennedy model of political literacy: What often happens is that we end up instilling political ideas that are out of step with students' socioeconomic status, so we end up with a more enlightened elite. Most students at Harvard, for example, come from wealthy families; even students who are not particularly bright or talented but who are from wealthy families finish college in high numbers. We who teach at the college level depend on what happens at the primary and secondary level. But primary/secondary teachers feel like they're at the mercy of government, parents, and other external forces (churches and community groups, maybe), and some of them view teaching political literacy as a burden, as yet another requirement and duty. He concluded by saying that we have to change the conditions under which education takes place; that's the only way to effect political literacy.

“Student Conservatism and Political Literacy,” Adolph L. Reed, Jr., University of Pennsylvania

Reed started out by explaining that he's interested in student conservatism: where it comes from. Young people are like sponges, soaking up the campaign of the past 25 years that has sought to move people to the right. Reed then referenced Picture Windows: How the Suburbs Happened, which I'd now like to peruse. He then submitted that what goes on in our classrooms and curricula is going to be driven by the political context outside the academy; the political context bears directly on our own practices. Then he proceeded to give a succinct, yet remarkably evocative, picture of this connection. He said that right now, we're living through corporate, neoliberal reorganization. Different divisions of the same army. David Horowitz' use of the mantra of free speech to intimidate faculty. Marketization of student-teacher relations: the student as paying customer. The growth of administrators -- high-paid functionaries. He cited a colleague's description of universities as "billion-dollar research and real estate corporations with finishing schools attached to them." The growth of private, for-profit universities, and the Bush Administration's tilt of the balance of power toward these. Faculty unionization and free speech under attack. The fact that 3/4 of faculty are part-time adjunct lecturers. How does this translate to teaching? (he asked.)

Then he shifted gears in the conclusion, pointing out that it's easy to get seduced into following the "horse race" aspect of corporate news media. We haven't won anything if Libby gets indicted, for example. Education is turning into a transaction, and the best way to enhance political literacy and participation is to draw students into projects of civil engagement.

“Reading and Political Literacy at Risk in Young Americans,” Mark Bauerlein, Emory University

Bauerlein identified what he sees as the central problem: Even students at top schools are politically ignorant. They know about sports and celebrities, but not about current events, history, literature, civics, and the arts. On these subjects, students have alarmingly low levels of literacy.

We have to remember the heavy burden democracy places on citizenry. Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln all hated the press...Lincoln: "They're reliable. They lie, and re-lie, and re-lie..."

Young people don't know about the transportation bill, Medicare, etc. They have no role in policymaking. We need to frame reading as a way to access policymaking. If we see these deficits as a threat to democracy, we need to emphasize core curriculum -- Bill of Rights, First Amendment, etc. We need to take responsibility. We need more genuine forensics: a little less Foucault, a little more Hayek. Bring in some of the libertarian tradition. It provides more perspective, shakes up polarities. Bring in Reason magazine along with The Nation, etc.

We also need to provide a sense of citizenship that has something positive about it, so that it's not just about negative criticism, but some measure of patriotism -- but not uncritical patriotism; keep the skepticism, but give students something they can espouse. Doing that will yield more long-term political participation than an issues-based course.

“Political Literacy in Rhetoric and Composition Studies,” Patricia Roberts-Miller, University of Texas, Austin

First off, I have to say that Roberts-Miller's presentation wasn't disjointed, even though my notes make it sound that way. My hands were kind of tired of taking notes by this point.

One problem identified by Roberts-Miller toward the beginning of her presentation was that in classes, students learn a lot of factoids, but even the students who get As in the courses often can't answer even the most basic questions about the discipline. Students have to know not only how to use information; they have to want to use the information. They have to want to write. Teachers need to make sure students know that you can praise the opposing side in an argument, or criticize your own side, and that's okay; it's called being fair-minded. The "don't listen to the opposite side!" mentality is a problem. We need more deliberation. If you stop listening to someone when you figure out that the person disagrees with you, your own taxonomy is never tested. Argumentation requires the interweaving of multiple viewpoints; here she cited Habermas' Inclusion of the Other.

Roberts-Miller also posited that maybe some teachers don't want to teach political literacy because 1.) their own is not that high, and 2.) they don't want to have to grade more on content, which such an approach would necessitate. Teachers' view of how students learn needs to change, and teachers also need to reconceptualize "common sense." Students are not empty vessels; they have common sense hypotheses, and we need to work with those.

I just have one thing to add. Like Rebecca, I'm going to reproduce everything Nick Gillespie wrote about Roberts-Miller's presentation here:

Arguably the most surprising presentation was offered up by Patricia Roberts-Miller, an associate professor of rhetoric and composition at the University of Texas at Austin. Roberts-Miller argued that in the classroom, "everyone's politics" -- including that of the professor's -- "should be open to change." She talked about the downsides of what she called "Calvinist political literacy," in which individuals, irrespective of ideology, look for reasons not to engage in political conversation. If Calvinism separates people into saints and sinners whose fates are predetermined and fixed forever, Calvinist political literacy means you don't have to argue with anyone with whom you disagree, because such interaction can only reveal differences rather than persuade.

Channeling radical education theorist Paolo Freire, she warned against thinking of students as "empty vessels" into which knowledge or enlightenment is poured. Rather, they need to be respected and taken seriously even and especially when they appear to be politically reactionary or obtuse.

Most of this is common sense, of course. But what is surprising is that it's coming from a composition theorist. When one digs into press accounts about the most tendentious classes in today's universities and colleges, they are often freshman comp classes. Over the past two decades or so, many of the designers of composition curricula have consciously seen those classes as the ideal place for political indoctrination to a sort of standard left-wing agenda. As one professor friend of mine told me, she's been in department meetings where comp doyennes have declared, "This is our best shot at getting into the minds of students."

So it's heartening to hear someone in Roberts-Miller's position talking the way she does. It suggests that one of the great virtues of higher education -- open-ended discussion -- is hardly a dead letter. Ironically, the beleaguered position of the left in contemporary America, if not the country's universities, may lead to its resurgence as it forced to engage and persuade indifferent -- or skeptical -- students.

Okay, you know what? ALMOST EVERY RHETORIC AND COMPOSITION TEACHER I KNOW COMPLETELY AGREES WITH EVERYTHING ROBERTS-MILLER SAYS HERE. They take all sides of an argument seriously, and they require their students to do the same. What many people like to call "indoctrination" is so, so often simply teachers' attempts to teach students to think critically by being open to all views.

I left the session around the beginning of the question-and-answer period; it looked like it was quickly becoming not so much questioning as a series of 3-4 minute presentations.


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You Win

I ended up commenting on Gillespie's article more than the panel itself. Plus you mentioned what I somehow neglected to...and in ALL CAPS, no less.

We're referring to...

a silly contest in which we were both going to blog this forum. Here's Scott's post, which is better in a lot of ways.

Yeah, I had to use all caps there. It's an important point!

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