Politics

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Rhetoric Carnival: Composition Theory, "Good Writing," and -- Impending Theory Wars?

The second Rhetoric Carnival is in full swing, and I'd like to weigh in on the article we're all reading (yes, article, it's more realistic than discussing a book, I believe), Richard Fulkerson's "Composition at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century," from the June 2005 (56.4) issue of College Composition and Communication. The article is a comprehensive overview of some major pedagogical theories and approaches in composition studies: critical/cultural studies [CCS], expressivism, and procedural rhetoric. From the introduction:

I shall argue that the “social turn” in composition, the importation of cultural studies from the social sciences and literary theory, has made a writing teacher’s role deeply problematic. I will argue that expressivism, despite numerous poundings by the cannons of postmodernism and resulting eulogies, is, in fact, quietly expanding its region of command. Finally, I’ll argue that the rhetorical approach has now divided itself in three.

More on the argument shortly. First, I want to explain where I'm coming from: my personal history as a writing teacher, the experiences I'm bringing to my reading here.

I'm glad Collin suggested this article, because if nothing else, it's going to be a big help to me as I revise my teaching philosophy statement for the job market this fall. To be honest, it's going to be hard for me to identify my own teaching philosophy, because like most graduate students, I have been required to comply with institutional course designs to a significant extent at all three of the schools where I've taught. Starting out, I was in a program where, to use Fulkerson's abbreviation, CCS approaches were favored, at least tacitly; maybe we didn't have to do it that way, but many of us felt we did, and for my part, I didn't have any big ideas or designs of my own. CCS pedagogy, as Fulkerson describes it, involves "having students read about systemic cultural injustices inflicted by dominant societal groups and dominant discourses on those with less power, and upon the empowering possibilities of rhetoric if students are educated to 'read' carefully and 'resist' the social texts that help keep some groups subordinated" (659). We did a lot of analysis of cultural artifacts, including, yes, advertisements. Fulkerson's musing, "Whether cultural studies is as widespread in composition classrooms as in our journals is actually an open question" (659), was to me a welcome one; I know some of us at times felt a little ridiculous doing the kind of hermeneutic unveiling of the text-behind-the-text. But hey, what can I say, we were wet behind the ears, and we did the best we could at the time.

Then I taught at a school where the required textbook was The Prentice-Hall Reader, which we were expected to follow in our syllabi. The edition I used set forth a basic prose models (modes) approach, so, for what it's worth, I have some experience with that.

Now I teach in a department of Rhetoric and Scientific and Technical Communication, and I recognized a lot of my institution's pedagogical approach in what Fulkerson describes as procedural rhetoric of the genre-based composition variety. You can see this influence in the course overview, the required textbook, and especially the course requirements. I've always taught at schools that wanted consistency across sections of first-year composition, and as a result, I don't have much experience designing courses or experimenting with approaches, although looking back on it, I recognize that I've learned a lot working with the three approaches I have used.

Still, it's extremely difficult for me to know, much less explain, what my teaching philosophy is, what I think "good writing" is, how to teach it, and what the larger goals of rhetorical pedagogy are. The one constant for me is the Classical paideia model, with its aim of making rhetors more thoughtful, socially responsible, and literate citizens, in which "literate" is taken to mean a few things. First is the ability to make meaning -- to convey a message to an audience: to have a message in mind to communicate, and to lay it out there for the audience clearly, so that a reader could, if asked to restate the message in his or her own words, do so in such a way that the writer would reply, "Yeah, that's exactly what I was trying to say." Second is the basic ability to evaluate evidence for an argument: what's credible, and what isn't? Third is the ability to engage and inhabit provisionally all points of view on an issue in the Elbow believing/doubting sense. Notice that the first one is more focused on writing, and the last two are focused more on reading, which is part of rhetoric too, a point not quite emphasized enough in the Fulkerson article. It seems Fulkerson would argue that in pedagogical approaches that emphasize reading (CCS, procedural rhetoric/genre-based), the teaching of writing is automatically compromised, that you can't have a good balance. I believe one can, and should, have a balance between form and content.

This leads me into some quibbles I had with Fulkerson's representation of CCS approaches. I find some of what he said about CCS to be sensible, especially his assessment of the Berlin/Hairston debate (665-666):

The standard response [to Hairston's contention that CCS teachers were indoctrinating students] accused Hairston of ideological naivete, arguing that she assumed her own pedagogy to be ideology-free but that since all pedagogies are always already political, she must be incorrect (and thus also unenlightened). Therefore, her critique of CCS courses could be denounced as well as ignored.

Logically that argument means no pedagogy can be accused of indoctrination, because the accuser’s hands would necessarily also be unclean. In other words, there could be no grounds for distinguishing between a teacher who overtly forces students to echo his or her politics in their writing and one who tolerates alternative positions. All education becomes equally indoctrinating; I take such a position to be an obvious absurdity.

Using Toulmin's logic, one could of course be more temperate and qualify it by saying that some teachers could legitimately be accused of indoctrination, and some examine, in Fulkerson's unfortunate terms, "the holy political trinity of class, race, and gender" quite productively without quelching divergent thinking. Only a Sith thinks in absolutes. Still, I think he has a point.

Anyway, one of my contentions is with Fulkerson's "content envy" observation: "Both the lit-based course and the cultural studies course reflect, I suspect, content envy on the part of writing teachers" (663). As I said before, I think that having a balance between form and content is a Good Thing; having a nice, coherent course theme grounds the writing and gives it some context. Maybe he's not arguing against having themed writing courses, but his criticism of mimeticism in writing courses leads me to think otherwise (662):

What we come down to is that the writing in [a CCS] course will be judged by how sophisticated or insightful the teacher finds the interpretation of the relevant artifacts to be. In other words, papers are judged in the same way they would be in any department with a “content” to teach. This is just the way a history professor would judge a paper, or a chemistry prof, or a business prof. Thus the standard of evaluation used is, I assert, actually a mimetic one—how close has the student come to giving a “defensible” (read “correct”) analysis of the materials.

But for an argument to be persuasive, doesn't a writer always have to provide a "'defensible' analysis of the materials," no matter what those materials may be? Fulkerson seems to be conflating CCS with procedural rhetoric here (though he admits that the distinctions among these approaches aren't clean and neat). Besides, there are practical reasons to have a defined theme in a composition course: preventing plagiarism, for example (read that post; it's excellent).

The other minor beef I had was with Fuikerson's representation of the goals of CCS and of expressivism. He claims that, rather than having the basic goal of helping students improve their writing, CCS has as its goal "to empower or liberate students by giving them new insights into the injustices of American and transnational capitalism, politics, and complicit mass media" (661). Expressivism's goal, Fulkerson suggests, is to "foster personal development," in other words, to improve students themselves rather than help students improve their writing. I just don't think it usually works this way in practice. I think that helping students improve their writing is always there. The people I know, for example, who teach "literature-based composition courses," do not simply evaluate writing for a correct interpretation. They attend to a host of other matters related to clarity in style, coherence at the level of the essay, the paragraph, and the sentence, and felicity in language (is that current-traditional?). The goals are more complex than Fulkerson's selected quotations would lead one to believe (I realize that my disagreement could be related more to Fulkerson's sources than to his representation of them).

Final thoughts, for now: In my feminist theory courses, we sometimes talked about "post-postmodernism." Fulkerson's article made me think about the return -- if they ever really left -- of some notion of voice, of emotion and affect, and of writing about personal experience, especially in light of composition's recent focus on studies of violence, trauma, and mourning. I agree with him that expressivism, in one form or another, is widespread and will continue to be (not that that's a bad thing). Also, are theory wars really on the horizon, as Fulkerson suggests? I don't think we'll ever agree on what "good writing" is; should we? Isn't it possible to use a procedural rhetoric/discourse community approach while still respecting students' own languages? Does this approach necessarily have to be hegemonic and disrespectful? Don't all these approaches have merit? At times I felt that Fulkerson's persona in this article was that of a real crank. As I read it, I wanted to defend these pedagogies against his charges and explain the virtues of each, then I wondered if that could be the reaction he wanted. (Now I'm expecting someone to leave a comment saying, "Ummmm, I think you were reading a different article, honey.")

Other carnival posts so far: Derek, Donna, Jeff (twice), Collin, Jenny, and Robert.

UPDATE: Two more posts from Donna.

UPDATE: A post from Amardeep.

Related links: WPA Outcomes Statement for First-Year Composition and a recent-ish Kairosnews discussion, which again saddens me that John Lovas isn't here to provide his rich, intelligent, and insightful observations with us.

Miscellany: I find it odd that Peter Elbow isn't mentioned in the article, not even in the list of works cited. Seems to me a somewhat conspicuous absence.

Parity?

Okay, looks like Medicare and Medicaid are not only not going to cover erectile dysfunction drugs for sex offenders; they won't be covering them for anyone. The article doesn't mention this, but many feminists have pointed out the disparity in prescription drug coverage for years: birth control isn't covered, but Viagra is. I'm wondering, haven't birth control pills and condoms been available at county health departments in the past, if you have an examination there? Is this not the case anymore? I went to the Hennepin County Health Department's site and searched for birth control and other euphemisms I could think of: family planning, women's health, and I didn't find anything. Scary. Maybe they just don't want to talk about it on their web site?

Anyway, from the article:

"It's a terrible precedent, to knock out a whole class of drugs from a formulary," Representative Nancy L. Johnson, Republican of Connecticut, said. "Is the next round going to be hormones for women?"

I'm guessing she's talking about hormone replacement therapy after menopause? Or could she be talking about hormonal birth control insofar as it's available in free clinics? Maybe the government shouldn't cover hormone replacement therapy drugs, especially if there might be a link between too much estrogen and breast cancer. On the other hand, the HRT is supposed to help prevent osteoperosis:

[Rep.] Inslee [D-WA] likened banning payment for impotence drugs to barring arthritis medicines that might help older people continue to play golf or the piano.

I guess that comparison works if you're talking about HRT, but not medicine that relieves physical pain. I don't know firsthand, of course, but I don't think impotence is (edited to add: physically) painful. On to the last paragraph:

But Mr. King said a better comparison would be fertility treatments, which Medicaid does not cover. "I argue that sex has only two reasons, one of them is for procreation, and we don't subsidize procreation in the form of fertility drugs," he said. "And the other reason for sex is recreation, and we should not be funding recreational drugs of any kind, be they psychedelic or for sexual impotency."

Hmmm. The pharmaceutical companies invoke the "compassion" argument, pointing out that impotence is often a side effect of other health problems. I don't know, I'm still forming my opinion on this. If you believe, as many do, that sex is a basic human need, then it does seem kind of harsh to make the means of sex accessible only to those who can afford the drugs. But part of me definitely thinks there are better uses for that $15 million a year. What do you think?

OpenCourseWare Browse

I realized yesterday that I hadn't poked around on MIT's OpenCourseWare in a while. I spent some time browsing the courses on Writing and Humanistic Studies, Women's Studies, STS, Literature, and Comparative Media Studies. Some finds:

I wish I could do more browsing, but I have work to do. I know that back in 2002(?) when MIT OpenCourseWare went live, it was hailed, the only objections -- the only ones I heard, anyway -- being from some who thought that teachers shouldn't be required to make their course designs publicly accessible. Pshaw. How could anyone argue with the clear benefits to students and prospective students? Students can find the courses that are most interesting and challenging to them, allowing for a more individualized program of study, and OpenCourseWare provides by leaps and bounds more insight into the design and content of the course than a title and little blurb in a course catalog does. The one argument contra that does have merit, in my opinion, is the claim that instructors don't have any way to control the look and navigation of the course's site; everything has the uniform MIT OCW look.

What I was really irritated and dismayed by, though, is the sentiment I heard a lot of people express that went something like, "Oh. Well. They're MIT, so they can do that." Eeeyaarrgh! I can't stand this kind of thinking, that you can only do certain things if you're a Big Name. It seems to me to be, if anything, the opposite: that if you're a Big Name, any endeavor you undertake is going to be more high-stakes, and any possible failure is going to be more large-scale and public, so being a small name would give one more freedom to innovate.

Dissertation Fellowship Proposal

What follows is my fellowship application. I know a lot of you have been wanting me to post my prospectus here, and this is a short, readable version. I'm still working out the chapter outlines...and, well, plenty of other questions and puzzles about my dissertation, too.

GENDER, PUNDITRY, AND WEBLOGS: BLOGGING’S CHALLENGE TO CURRENT UNDERSTANDINGS OF POLITICAL DISCOURSE

ABSTRACT

In the last three years, blogging has gained recognition as a phenomenon in online communication, offering ordinary citizens a platform to publish their ideas and a space for deliberative political discourse. However, the majority of the most influential and widely-read political bloggers are men, and issues of concern to women are often not given equal attention, a disparity that has been discussed in the “Where are the women?” debates. I argue that these debates reveal disruptions of assumptions surrounding political discourse. Identifying these points can enrich our understanding of gendered rhetorical practices and the way they are constituted on weblogs.

"I want to be a stay-at-home parent when I grow up."

For young adults: What would happen if you said that to your parents? For parents with children: What would you say if your child said that to you? I'd be especially interested in hearing from stay-at-home parents; how did your family react when you told them you'd be working as a stay-at-home parent?

Feminists have been making the case for decades that motherhood is undervalued, despite its being ostensibly revered as "the most important job in the world." Recent analyses include The Mommy Myth, as well as monetary quantifications like this one and this story that got a lot of press about a month ago.

So even though stay-at-home parenting is worth $130,000+ per year, how much is it valued at home? A lot, one would hope, but this has been on my mind lately, and I'm afraid that based on my own experience and those of my friends and family members close to me in age, it doesn't seem to be worth that much. I'm not necessarily saying I want to be a stay-at-home mother, but if I did, I believe my family's reaction would be a mixture of disappointment, anxiety, and maybe even touches of disgust, betrayal, and anger. In a practical sense, they'd have good reasons: I'd be financially dependent on a spouse, and if I had to re-enter the workforce due to widowhood or divorce, I'd be at a major disadvantage if I'd spent years at home. I don't think that's all there is to it, though, not in a culture obsessed with upward mobility, manifested in bragging rights, vicarious living, etc. My intention is not to pick on my family here, not at all, but I think part of them would believe I was squandering my talents. They want to be able to tell people their daughter (or granddaughter, or whatever) is a college professor with a title of Dr.

The whole thing is sad, and I imagine quite widespread (and far, far worse for men who want to be stay-at-home fathers). I post this because I really want to hear about others' experiences. To what extent is the phenomenon I'm referring to class-related? I'd appreciate any comments you have.

Edited to add: I forgot to include this earlier, but the viciously misogynistic stereotypes I encountered in college also informed this post. I'm talking specifically about the stereotype of sorority women as "breedstock." They major in early childhood education, and they're only in college to find a husband (or, as the joke goes, to get their MRS. degrees). It's all part of the same thing.

And, for context: Right before I came back here, I spent the day with a good friend of mine from college who is a stay-at-home mother with three children, ages 5, 3, and 3 (twins). I had a wonderful time, so I guess I'm experiencing a "grass is greener" effect, and feeling as though if I ever decided I wanted to do that, my family, and many of my friends, too, wouldn't be supportive.

Jumble of links and thoughts

I'm in Alabama until Saturday, and while I've been working at the library here, I've also been watching too much vapid TV and too many movies (we're talking stuff like Bubble Boy, Eulogy, and Wet Hot American Summer). So I have to hit the books, course preparation, dissertation, everything when I get back. But for now, a fluff post with no interparagraphic transitions whatsoever.

Proposals are being sought for a special issue of Technical Communication Quarterly on Technical Communication in the Age of Distributed Work. It's going to be great once it comes out, very forward-thinking.

Note to self: I want to use the famous Margaret Mead quotation: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has" in my syllabus for the class I'm teaching this summer. [Edited to add: Does anyone know what the original source for that is? I hate not having a specific page number or date/place, if it's a speech.] It's called "Group Process, Team Building, and Leadership," and it centers on work done in small groups. It's also one of the courses that fulfills the Citizenship and Public Ethics theme requirement, and usually teachers require students to do group projects on local issues, which I'm very excited about, as this will let me try out a modified version of that city writing/finds research process that Jenny and Jeff talk about. I have lots of ideas already, and a while back I used the new-for-OSX-Tiger built-in news aggregator in Safari to set up a folder of feeds from all the local publications I could think of, so that's helped a lot.

At Jonathan's insistence, I watched the original Star Wars trilogy for the first time. People are shocked that I'm such a science fiction geek but I've never seen those movies. I'm already seeing Star Wars' influence on other movies and series. For example, Data on Star Trek: TNG reminds me a lot of C3PO (telling the captain the odds that some act of derring-do won't work, social ineptitude, etc.) and Moya's pilot on Farscape even reminds me a little of C3PO as well. I must see episodes 1, 2, and 3 now.

I finally created a Flickr account, and I'm wondering why I didn't do it months ago.

Check out this cool Drupal ad for the Free Software Magazine!

For anyone who was scratching his or her head about the relevance and import of the work that's being done on silence (see also Cheryl Glenn's Unspoken), this op-ed piece should clear it up for you.

Am I, like, the only person alive who had never heard of The Red Hat Society until the other day? All the stores around here have Red Hat lady merchandise -- red hats, of course, purple clothing, ceramic figurines of red hats, purple socks with little red hats embroidered on them, etc. Cookie jars, even. I saw the cover of one of the books from far away and thought, hey, that looks like an interesting Linux user/developer group! Seriously though, I told the manager of my local yarn store that they should offer special knitting classes for Red Hat Society women and classes for friends and family of Red Hat women in which they could knit red hats and other red and purple stuff as gifts for them. She thought it was a great idea. I hope they do it; I want to do anything I can to support locally-owned businesses.

Racial and Ethnic Categories in Biomedical Research

I recently attended a conference titled Proposals for the Responsible Use of Racial & Ethnic Categories in Biomedical Research: Where Do We Go From Here? and have been meaning to post a little something about it ever since. Basically the conference's discussion centered on a specific dilemma: Race is, many scientists argue, a biologically meaningless category (though some, including those who have a stake in BiDil, would disagree); therefore, it shouldn't be used as a category in biomedical research. Using it brings associations with biological determinism and perhaps eugenics-tinged value judgments based on racist ideologies. Plus, attributing medical conditions to race ignores a host of other factors, including location; as Morris Foster argued in his talk, participants in studies are often aggregated by race in order to make statistically significant claims, but location plays a critical role in one's health. Isn't it possible, Foster asked, that the people living in one's same town -- whether they're the same race or not -- the people one interacts with on a daily basis, have more of an effect on one's health than people of the same race who live 1000 miles away? (Especially given environmental toxins, epidemics of infectious disease, etc.) Foster supports his arguments with data from a study he's doing on three rural African American communities in Oklahoma and three local tribal communities in Oklahoma.

However, in a racist society with clear disparities in wealth that are closely correlated with race, race can't be dismissed entirely. African Americans and whites do not have equal access to health care (this includes referrals to specialists, health insurance, expensive prescription drugs, etc.), and if you do look at health problems by race, the social context of health and disease is revealed, and as common sense would tell us, there's far more to health than genetics. As Dorothy Roberts argued, reducing health to genetics and looking for a solution in a pill (which not everyone could afford) lets the state off the hook. There are good reasons, from a social responsibility/public policy standpoint, to keep racial and ethnic categories in biomedical research.

Also, Jay Cohn, the patent holder of BiDil, points out that using race as a category (in the biological-genetic sense) can save lives, as doctors can use that knowledge to tailor treatments more specifically to patients, increasing the efficacy of those treatments. Roberts countered (rightfully) by saying that she didn't want a doctor prescribing a drug to her based on what race the doctor thinks she is. Cohn replied that in the clinical trials of BiDil, participants self-identified as African American. This use of self-identification as a sort of rhetorical loophole came up several times, finally spurring me to pass a note to my advisor, who was sitting next to me, that said, "Aaargh! It kills me how they're using "self-identification" as though that were a completely unproblematic concept!"

The role of the market, which was the subject of Gregg Bloche's talk, must also get attention here. All these studies and clinical trials take place in the complex, overlapping, sometimes contradictory institutional contexts of academia, pharmaceutical companies, and government. I might say more about this later, but I'm about ready to wind up this post. The conference organizers put up an annotated bibliography (PDF) of literature on this topic, and I've listed the open-access ones here, if you'd like to do more reading:

The Racial Genetics Paradox in Biomedical Research and Public Health (PDF)

Medically, Race Means Nothing

Categorization of humans in biomedical research: genes, race and disease

Authors warn of inaccuracies concerning use of race in health & social science research

The Meanings of "Race" in the new Genomics: Implications for Health Disparities Research (PDF)

Is research into ethnicity and health racist, unsound, or important science?

Army Recruiters

Today's New York Times had an article about malfeasance in the Army recruitment process. According to the article, criminal and educational backgrounds aren't being checked, and recruiters are even helping new recruits cheat on the aptitude examination, and one recruiter told a recruit "how to create a diploma from a nonexistent school." Niiiice. I immediately thought of this older article, by the same author, actually, which describes the mental stress and depression recruiters are experiencing due to intense pressure to meet quotas, which are down from pre-Iraq years. Enlistment is down from pre-Iraq years. I assume the quotas are the same...

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