The Other Beautiful Colors

I regret that I missed Asao’s 4C’s address that has generated conversation on the WPA list, including some back and forth discussions about the function of required writing instruction, code-meshing, and white privilege. Some of the conversation has made me uneasy not only about the edgy tone of some of the posts but also about the direction of the field, or let’s say the dominant frame within which teachers and WPAs structure instruction. At the risk of seeming hopelessly outside the parlor, I thought I overheard people challenging the traditional focus on the educated middle-class sociolect in college writing instruction and encouraging sociopolitical discussions in the classroom. The idea, perhaps, is that through these discussions, students might become more sensitive than they otherwise would be to racial disparity and white privilege. 

This summary probably grossly simplifies the discussion and certainly the point of Asao’s address. I shouldn’t weigh in on the discussion when I have only heard echoes from where I am standing on the porch, but I hope discussants will review the similar conversation behind the troubled adoption of Students’ Rights to Their Own Language and a few years later, the Ebonics crisis following the Oakland School Board’s statement that in essence validated all sociolects as equal. This is not to say that an utterance is ever unsituated. The effectiveness of an utterance is largely determined by its response to the exigence of a rhetorical situation (I am aware of the irony of my claim here). There are clearly rhetorical situations in which code-meshing would be cool and likewise rhetorical situations in which code-meshing would be embarrassingly out of place. And there are certainly times when the writer may want to take chances and break through the expected codes, pushing for new meanings and perhaps announcing his or her sense of racial, gender, and/or economic privilege.

I can see the purpose of essay topics addressing rhetorical awareness, codes, and race, gender, and class privilege. Through such discussions and topics, I can imagine that students would learn more about writing, which is presumably (and this is a presumption) why students should be in required writing classes—to learn more about writing. 

But yes, that was a presumption. I don’t think students are placed in required writing only to learn about writing. As many of them know, students are required to take writing classes for bogus reasons—more or less the same reasons for which they are required to take other classes, like chemistry, biology, and history. As most people who have been members of curriculum committees know, turf wars are involved in decisions about what courses are required under the guise of what’s good for the students. Requiring writing courses staffed primarily by instructors, graduate students, and adjuncts has the additional advantage of generating profits for the colleges in which they reside. 

Teachers and writing program administrators now in the field should at least be familiar with these claims and the arguments that scholars like Sharon Crowley have offered in their support. They should also be familiar with the history of the field, beginning with its origin in the late 19thCentury, the claims of student illiteracy and the entrance examinations on which that illiteracy was based. A history, such as Berlin’s Rhetoric and Reality, tracking the trends throughout the 20thand the early 21stcenturies would certainly at least call into question the efficacy of the field, that is, the degree to which writing programs are teaching students anything of value, particularly of sufficient value such that one or two semesters of writing instruction should be required. Those of us who are teaching or were teaching in any particular epoch most likely believe or have believed that our generation finally nailed it while previous generations were not only wasting everyone’s time but may in fact have been misteaching writing. It doesn’t take too much imagination to suspect that future teachers will think the same thing about us.

I have interpreted the conversation generated by Asao’s provocative talk within this historical frame, i.e., that we probably don’t know what we’re doing. Rather, we are acting out as we have been conditioned to act out, generally imagining that we are breaking new ground but mostly repeating in disguise what our predecessors did. Here and there, someone like Paulo Freire breaks new ground.

Examples abound. One only need think of instruction in the first half of the 20thCentury in which exposition was coin of the realm. The New Rhetoric was as much a way of elevating the status of writing teachers as an advance in genre. One could go on rehearsing the trends that have gained favor to be later swept under the rug. I hope that I’m not offending too many people by saying that part of our professional development and chances for publication depends on our knowing what’s in at the moment and how we can appear to our colleagues to be near the leading edge. I am slightly surprised by how much of a cynic I have become.

I am also surprised by the Asao-conversation. I realize I am out of touch (remember: I’m standing outside, on the porch, where I have been waiting for a taxi for some time), but I won’t let my location stop me from having my say. I still like to think about education and teaching writing. I have read Asao’s talk and and some of the consequent, frequently distubing conversation. I was surprised to hear one writer (Eric, I think) claim that the CCC leadership and privileged pedagogy lean toward student-centered, personal writing. That’s quite a shift in the two years since I left the field—and one I would have welcomed. I doubt the claim, but I’ll let it stand. I suspect that academic discourse is still the privileged sociolect and argument the most frequently featured genre, the logic being that required writing teachers need to prepare their students for the kinds of rhetorical situations they will meet in their other college writing classes and most probably in their professional lives.

I would have to write an essay if I were to take on these claims, but I set out this morning with the intention of writing only a brief post in response to Asao’s talk and the subsequent WPA-l conversation—you can see how strictly I have stuck to that purpose. I will simply say here, as I have said in Going North, Thinking West, in several articles, and indefatigably on this blog, these claims about how best to prepare students for subsequent rhetorical situations are, to put it, gently, as waterproof as Mao’s umbrella. They also ignore what I have insisted should be a primary objective of writing instruction: that students enjoy their writing experiences in our classes. The logic behind that objective is that positive writing experiences will most encourage students to embrace writing as a life-long habit in their personal, professional, and civic lives, supporting one of the student learning objectives claimed in most college and university websites—claimed but usually ignored in instruction. How often, for instance, do you see “Promote writing as a life-long habit” listed as one of the objectives on someone’s syllabus? I’m still somewhat shocked that we missed that as an “outcome” in the WPA Outcomes Statement.

Teachers who listened to Asao’s talk might guess that Asao and I are generally traveling down the same road, one I track back to John Dewey, Fred Newton Scott, James Moffett, Paulo Freire, and Ira Shor, to name some of the most notable teachers who privileged students over a pre-designed curriculum. We have both challenged the primacy of the educated middle-class sociolect (EMCS; Asao calls this White language), assessment as testing, and grading. I know that Asao understands the function of language, assessment-as-testing, and grading as social reproduction strategies, part of what Althusser theorized as ESAs (educational state apparatus). We can add to the functions of required writing programs the social reproduction project, disguising its purpose from the perpetrators (teachers) and the subjects (students). From this point of view, we might suspect that teachers who buy into the pretense of preparing student for other academic courses by privileging EMCS, argument, objectivity, research, and citation practices are unknowingly stacking the deck for predominantly Anglo (my preferred label to White), middle-middle and upper-middle class students, merging into the larger social reproduction project of higher education.

I also appreciated the risk Asao took in his delivery. I think there were points in which he veered into unreality, points that Asao and I have chatted about before, so I know that if he is ever appropriately unoccupied and mistakingly reads this post (heading toward a mini-essay), he will at least consider my objections with good will, the same good will he was hoping for from the Anglos in his audience.

The first, which to me is a glaringly obvious point, is that the Anglo sociolect is far from monolithic. Working-class sociolect is about as far from EMCS as Madagascar is from Alaska. So is the working-class habitus. Asao and I have both read Bernstein and Bourdieu backwards and forwards, so I can only assume that this gap was rhetorical. The difference is exponential when one compares the sociolect of Anglo poverty class and the cultural fraction of the Anglo corporate class. 

My second reservation concerns the point of reframing the purpose of our field—and perhaps a Chair’s address—as political. Of course this is not reframing: politicizing the classroom was the dominant mode of instruction from the late 80s until at least the first decade of the 21stCentury—I don’t know whether the politicizing faction has ever retired. Asao and others have, however, redirected it. I would say that given the nature of the current political climate, this redirection would be welcome—if one accepts that the purpose of required writing courses is to reshape culture through the agency of our students. I have certainly had my years in which I adopted this pedagogy; but a closer reading of Freire as well as student resistance (see Berlin) got me back on a fully student-centered track—which is where I began in the 70s. I know that many of my friends disagree with me, but I have preferred to keep my political activity as a para-scholastic project. In the classroom, I have been fully focused on helping students with their writing. 

Assuming that some teachers agree with me, the discussion then becomes how do we help them? I would like to see conversations in conferences and on the WPA listserv move in that direction. That’s quite a different move than might result from performances (and I mean that in a positive sense) like Asao’s. Asao certainly hit some of the high points in his talk: 1. Get over monolithic notions of language; 2. Stop testing. 3. Stop grading. Asao and I have both been on this gig for years. There are strong pedagogical strategies that teachers can employ that will help them create alternative structures for learning that will promote the pleasure of writing. Asao and I also agree that a necessary step involves interrogating the function of higher education (see Disciplined Minds) and required writing programs—I mean uncover how we unwittingly are co-opted into creating spaces for social reproduction in our programs. Such an unveiling is particularly important for writing program administrators because they are the ones who will otherwise be forcing graduate students, instructors, and adjuncts into socially reprehensible practices—reflecting an internal hierarchy that reinforces social reproduction (see Sledd).

I won’t get into the objections against the progressive pedagogy to which Asao and I subscribe. I have defended this kind of teaching (and assessment) ad nauseum (Zen): let’s just say the people who are confident writers in multiple rhetorical situations are more capable of responding to the exigences of new rhetorical situations better than are people who have been trained to write with fear. Rather, I want to move to a final concern about the direction in which performances like Asao’s might take us: I think this kind of identity conversation too easily pitches social groups against each other. I know this wasn’t Asao’s intent, but his performance seems to theorize a dichotomized social structure, the black/white frame leaving little room for the other beautiful colors in the room. I am mostly concerned that people in the field will be squaring off against each other rather than exploring ways of making writing a life-long habit for their students.

2 Replies to “The Other Beautiful Colors”

    1. Thanks, Mark. I might boil this down–I wrote it in response to a conversation that was developing in my professional community (which I have now left)–and people in my community notoriously don’t know when to shut up :). I’ll boil this down for another post. Thanks again.

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