Feminism

Looking for feminist activist (paid) work in the Twin Cities?

Apply for this position as a Grassroots Organizer with NARAL Pro-Choice Minnesota.

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?

Congrats, Profgrrrrl!

Congratulations to Profgrrrrl for winning the Technorati competition for the trip to BlogHer. Profgrrrrl won for her entry on How Blogging Has Changed My Life. I know, I should have entered the contest too; I didn't find out about it until the day before the deadline, but still I should have given it a shot. Oh well, I'm glad Profgrrrrl is getting to go. She'll blog about all the sessions, that's for sure.

Memorial Service for Allison Crews

A little while ago, I got back from the Minneapolis memorial service for Allison Crews, who passed away recently. It was absolutely lovely. I've got pictures if you'd like to see, but to describe what happened, most of the people there, if not all, were parents, and most had met Crews in person. They had a spread of food and a selection of drinks, and we chatted for a little while before gathering in a big circle and speaking. One woman had written a spoken word piece and did an impassioned, heartfelt reading, after which were some tears. Several other women spoke, and one woman sang; she was wonderful. Lots of children were there, and they wandered freely throughout the circle. I hadn't prepared anything to say myself, but while others were talking I thought of something. I was too shy to say it at the memorial (I didn't know anyone there), but I'll say it here.

Most of the people who spoke mentioned the importance of carrying on the work Crews started, the feminist work of helping young mothers (and by extension, all mothers, all women, all children, and all men). What I was too chicken to say was basically that I hope to help effect change in higher education, specifically to make it more child- and mother-friendly. These changes include putting changing tables in bathrooms on campus, implementing free on-site day care for the children of both students and faculty, and a host of other measures. I can only imagine how hard it is for young women with children to get through high school and get into college, and often when they get there, they're some of the most intelligent and dedicated students in the classroom. I want to help make sure the attrition rates of student parents, especially single mothers, are monitored and if they're high, that they're attended to appropriately. I don't have the numbers to support this, but my suspicion is that young parents in college are an "at-risk" population in some ways, and another suspicion I have is that the needs of student parents could be met with accommodations that university administration could make fairly easily.

After the informal eulogies, one woman brought out a PDA on which she had loaded Crews' well-known essay When I Was Garbage. She read the first paragraph, then passed the PDA along. Each person read a paragraph, and I actually got to read my favorite paragraph, the epiphanic one:

I grew during those weeks, not only physically (60 pounds!) but emotionally and spiritually. I meditated, prayed, screamed, cried, slept, wrote, read and thought. I realized I was more capable than I was being led to believe. I made my decision, 38 weeks into my pregnancy. I informed my boyfriend of this decision. "I am keeping the baby. I don't care what anyone says or feels. I WILL NOT lose my son. They want any baby, and I only want mine!" My boyfriend and I were going to tell my parents the next evening at dinner. I fell asleep quickly, not sobbing into my pillow like I had grown used to doing during those pain and growth-filled three months. I was keeping my baby.

It was a simple, powerful memorial service, one of the best ones I've attended.

Other essays by Crews:

And So I Choose (You've GOT TO read this one)

The Reproductive Rights of Minors

Your Government, Your Rights

Ten Things You Can Do To Protect Reproductive Freedom

Another grab bag

Cool! Someone has put photos of my knitting on Wikimedia Commons. On another knitting note, I taught Tiana, daughter of Rachel, to knit last night! I hope I did an okay job.

In the latest issue of Genders, there's an analysis of "Extreme Makeover": Beauty, Desire, and Anxiety: The Economy of Sameness in ABC's Extreme Makeover. Interesting stuff, well worth the read.

There's a special aggregation of bloggers who are posting about iLaw 2005. Not all the posts are about iLaw, but at least it's an attempt to put all the weblogs that might have iLaw notes in one place. Of course, in a perfect world, they'd all use Drupal and create an iLaw 2005 category, and then we could have category-specific feeds. :-) Nevertheless, I'll be reading. I wish I could be there; it looks fascinating.

But if I were at iLaw, I wouldn't get to go to the memorial for Allison Crews this evening. By the way, it now appears as though the cause of death is uncertain, but who knows if "a friend" is a reliable source. I guess we'll know more later.

What I've been reading

Prof. B. posted yesterday about the death of feminist activist Allison Crews, who was involved with Radical Cheerleaders, Strap-on, and especially Girl-Mom, a feminist online community for young mothers. I read Girl-Mom periodically about four or five years ago, when it was sometimes linked to from the Ms. boards, but I spent hours yesterday over there, reading the forums and the stories. Three you must read: Outside the Radar, A Mother's Fate, and of course Crews' germinal essay When I Was Garbage. In a feminist-themed composition course with a unit on teen pregnancy, all three of these would be required reading, and while it sounds inappropriate to talk shop in the face of this loss, I only do so because I want to acknowledge Crews' major contribution. To get an idea of how many people she affected, see the comments in the first two posts to her LiveJournal. There are memorials for her taking place in several cities, including Minneapolis. I didn't know her, but I think I might attend anyway.

Books: I finally finished The Picture of Dorian Gray last weekend. Took me a while to pick it up again, and when I did, I read it slowly. I have an intense appreciation for every sentence of Wilde. Although I'm tempted to read The Almond, the next novel on my list is Frances Burney's Evelina. When in my master's program, I took an eighteenth-century literature course, and during the time we were to be reading Evelina, I had a lot of other work to do, so I blew off reading the book and was quiet in class the days we (they) discussed it. For that, I've felt like an idiot loser ever since, so I want to read it now as atonement. Plus, it's an epistolary novel, and I haven't read one of those in a while.

Inside Higher Ed linked to Open Wounds, an essay by Chad of Physician, Heal Thyself. It's a must-read along with the Girl-Mom stories. I'm going to have to read his blog more often.

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.

Syndicate content