Flat Discussion

I recently facilitated a graduate course discussion of a collection of texts. It’s a fairly typical assignment in a graduate seminar to ask the grad students to take one week and lead at least part of the week’s discussion. I’ve led these kinds of discussions before, but I don’t particularly enjoy them.

As I was preparing for this, I kept asking what is it that we expect of/as grad students when we assemble?

Flat-discussion seems to be the prevailing mode of graduate education in rhetoric and composition. We might ask of graduate students that they read generously or critically, that they engage in more activity-based work surrounding their writing projects, or that they read/discuss in particular ways or with particular facilitations in mind (such as a read-pair-share model, or other kinds of writing-as-preparation-for-discussion models).

This may be a limitation of my own memory or experiences, but I’m unclear as to why. Is it simply comfortable? Traditional? The lingering hauntings of literature programs?

It seems strange to me for a field that has such a vested and historical interest in the class room seems so… unimaginative in the education of its future educators. Our connections to pedagogy and education are vast and run deep, our scholarship on the teaching of undergraduate students is equally vast and deep. And while, I hear rumblings of a growing interest in understanding how graduate students are educated in our field, there seems, to me, a curious lack of practice/praxis there.

I’ve used the term flat-discussion to refer to the mode of graduate education that I’ve come to be most familiar with: go read one book or five-to-six article, come sit in a circle, and let’s talk. I use the term flat here both to evoke a particular sense of dryness and lack of dynamism, but also to suggest that it assumes a particularly flat ontology of the discussion, of equal participation, that seems to fail to account for the unevenness within classroom dynamics. Perhaps this underpinned by the idea that we are all, at ‘this level’ beyond or critical of such power-dynamics in graduate classrooms, which seems to me to be a particularly white-utopian view of a classroom or of graduate education.

Put slightly differently, flat-discussion fails to account for the unevenness of emotional labor it takes for participants to engage with that discussion, particularly when we are often asking graduate students to explore questions that involve certain subjectivities, questions of justice and violence, and implications of our being and knowing that each impact us unevenly.

Our classrooms are not apolitical, which seems like an empty commonplace when we talk about the undergraduate classroom, but when we turn our tassels at commencement, we do not somehow transcend politics when we enter new classroom spaces. I have no prescriptions for this for the ‘perfect pedagogy,’ but I can at least ask what that we consider our graduate pedagogy with the same rigor that we attend to undergraduate education.

With this particular class session, we read a number of texts that dealt with intersections of technology, identity, and embodiment. I asked my peers to think of, or bring, a text (defined broadly) that they felt like mediated an identity or group of experiences they had (I used Love, Simon as an example to talk about gay-coming-of-age/coming-out experiences, the experience of being outed, but also how this was rooted in a white-gay-‘universal’-“It Gets Better Project”-model of gay narratives). When they came to the room, I’d set out a series of writing technologies:

  • Pen and paper
  • Chalk (for the chalk board)
  • A note that asked them to compose on their laptops (and to consider sound, video, picture, etc.)
  • A note that asked them to compose on their phones (and to consider sound, video, picture, etc.)
  • Play-doh
  • Legos
  • Construction paper, scissors, and clue
  • Watercolors and watercolor panting paper
  • Printer paper and paints
  • Markers and construction paper
  • Banner paper and markers

I briefly introduced the authors and texts and raised the same question I am attempting to raise here before outlining that this session would be run in a series of workshops. The first is modeled after a workshop I first did with Brianne Radke for WIDE-EMU 2016 and I’ve since adopted for a first-year writing activity. I asked them to just compose for a minute with the technology in front of them and then to use that same technology to compose something that responded to memories, affective responses, limitations or affordances that arose from their composing.

Afterwards, we talked about that experience, reflected on some of our compositions and what motivated them, and connected the exercise to some of the readings. This was the first workshop.

After, I asked them to recall the text that I asked them to think about before class and to either draw a network or write a short reflection that put the text they thought of in conversation with other texts or histories that are either tacitly or actively evoked in their original text and what futures that text makes possible for them to imagine. We did a similar follow up of talking about the experience, reflecting on our compositions, and connecting to the readings. For the last piece, I asked them to do the same activity as they did for their text for themselves as composers and instructors with a final similar wrap up. The idea was to think through our histories and how our identities are mediated in texts and through the discipline, and, in turn, to think through what futures are possible to imagine out of them.

The intent was to change to locus of discussion/emotional/subjectivity work from the center of the circle we all sit in for flat discussion to the space between the composer and their composition, in the hopes that we can connect out of that shared experience instead of discussing/critiquing texts. I don’t know that I was wholly successful in doing that, but I think it was a useful exercise to think through what graduate education is supposed to be and how we can acknowledge the unevenness involved in participation.

I was really impressed with the work that my classmates were doing. Even though while they were playing with Legos they, like my first year writing students when they say the activity “feels like Kindergarten with a purpose,” said that it just felt fun, they made really awesome connections between their lived experiences and what the technologies made them imagine and compose.

It was also a lot to try and put into one class session, and perhaps a series of activities trying to do too many things at once. I can also see how some of my colleagues might have felt that I didn’t respect the attention they’d given to each of the readings, if that was how any of them felt, since I did not linger on any one argument or textual argument—but even then, part of that was a conscious effort to encourage different relationships to the texts we read for the week and to create spaces for those relationships.

But I’m glad for the work that my colleagues did, and I think the activities did at least some of what I wanted them to. And I am glad for the chance to have thought with my colleagues around this question of what we expect of and as grad students when we are gathered. We should all be thinking about the conditions of participation, the ways in which we are precariously situating certain bodies.

Notes: Lauren M. Bowen, “The Limits of Hacking Composition Pedagogy”

Bowen, Lauren M. (2017). The limits of hacking composition pedagogy. Computers and Composition, 43, 2017, 1-14.

Summary:

Bowen traces and analyzes hacking as a concept and as a metaphor adopted by compositionists, critiquing the use of hacking as a pedagogical metaphor for writing.

Keywords: composition, hacking, pedagogy, rhetoric, writing studies

Sources:

Richardson, Timothy. (2014). The authenticity of what’s next. Enculturation, 17.

Yergeau, Melanie, Elizabeth Brewer, Stephanie Kirschbaum, Sushil K. Oswal, Margaret Price, Cynthia L. Self, et al. (2013). Multimodality in motion: Disability and kairotic spaces. Kairos, 18(1).

Quotations:

“An analogous pedagogical model would also be built on the unsubstantiated assumptions that classrooms—and hackerspaces—already host diverse populations and that adopting a merit-based system ensures that learning happens outside of institutionalized systems of oppression” (p. 9).

 

Notes: Gust Yep, “From Homophobia and Heterosexism to Heteronormativity: Toward the Development of a Model of Queer Intervention in the University Classroom”

Yep, Gust A. (2002). From homophobia and heterosexism to heteronormativity: Toward the development of a model of queer interventions in the university classroom. Journal of Lesbian Studies, 6(3-4), 163-76.

Summary:

Yep discusses the ways in which heteronormativity exists structurally and develops an activity that Yep integrated into a classroom to get students engaged in understanding LGBTQ experiences and heterosexual privilege.

Keywords: affect, communication, LGBTQ, pedagogy, queer, queer rhetorics

Quotations:

“These pervasive messages promote and maintain the ideology of heteronormativity, that is, if ‘you are not heterosexual, there is something wrong with you.’ When such messages are internalized and incorporated into one’s conception of selfhood and identity, they become internalized homophobia and they constitute soul murder” (p. 169).

“For LGBT individuals, heteronormativity creates the conditions for homophobia, soul murder, psychic terror, and institutional violence. In addition, such violence is experienced and negotiated differently based on the individual’s race, class, and gender. For heterosexual individuals, interrogation of heteronormativity means understanding their unearned privileges and perhaps seeing how sexual hierarchies limit personal freedom, human creativity, and individual expression” (p. 174).

Notes: Michelle Gibson, Martha Marinara, and Deborah Meem, “Bi, Butch, and Bar Dyke: Pedagogical Performances of Class, Gender, and Sexuality”

Gibson, Michelle, Martha Marinara, and Deborah Meem. “Bi, Butch, and Bar Dyke: Pedagogical Performances of Class, Gender, and Sexuality.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 52, National Council of Teachers of English, Urbana, 2000.

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Keywords: Composition, Writing Studies, Pedagogy, Critical Pedagogy, Queer, Queer Rhetorics, Feminist Rhetorics, Class, Sexuality

Sources:

Minh-Ha, Trinh. “Introduction: She, the In- appropriate(d) Other.” Discourse 8 (1986/1987): 3-9.

Rich, Adrienne. “When We Dead Awaken: Writing As Revision.”‘ Ways ofReading. Ed. David Bartholomae and Anthony Pet- rosky. 4th ed. Boston: Bedford Books, 1996. 549-62.

Quotations:

“Through our “stories,” we hope to complicate the notion that identities can be performed in clean, organized, distinct ways by examining and theorizing our own experiences of class, gender, and sexual identity performance. We want to acknowledge the conscious ways we perform our multiple subjectivities and to examine our political/economic/ pedagogical uses of those performances” (70).

“In marking stories “lesbian” or “working class,” the lives contained therein are less invisible and give the narrators-students and faculty-a political site from which to speak and act. Playing with the notion of an “essential voice” allows the storytellers to claim a recognizable, politically engaged identity from a narrative that is already academically codified; however “speakable,” this politicized voice emerges from a self-empowerment that hinges on an appeal to universalities of class and sexuality, a self-empowerment that depends on binary oppositions” (72).

“Writing students define “real me” voices as safe, static, inherent, and inviolate; public voices, though, are required to listen to other public voices, and listening can cause uncomfortable changes. The tension, the uncertain space writing teachers and students find between the familiar, “real me” voice and an emerging public voice, should not necessarily be resolved with already codified positions; rather the tension should be a space to work from and with because the language of any personal narrative contests static identities” (72-73).

“The space created by opening up identity allows for a more open-ended model of collective identity and poses hard questions about the nature and definitions of political subject positions as one is both enlarged and oppressed by constantly shifting alliances” (75).

“[M]any issues of diversity are so fully embodied that they cannot be meaningfully discussed, but rather exist primarily in the realm of performance” (79).

“These three stories illustrate how my butch performance (and I use that word hoping you will attend to the difference between, say, dramatic performance and embodied performance) impacts my various interactions in the academy. Because I am butch, I am visible as a lesbian; I am often asked, for  which is mostly invisible. instance, to be the “token dyke” on campus” (82).

“Students and faculty see my butchness as powerful, especially as contrasted with femme experience” (82).

“Whenever a circumstance allows for it, I perform my identities as a femme lesbian, a survivor of family violence, and a recovering mental patient” (85).

“I wanted to perform for those administrators an identity they usually associate with students they characterize as”not college material”and then complicate it with an identity they usually associate with professionals they characterize as”successful.”” (90).

“Without consistent interrogation, over time, acts that originate as political resistance can become familiar and institutionalized, thereby losing their power to create change” (92).

 

Notes: Haivan Hoang, “Campus Racial Politics and a ‘Rhetoric of Injury'”

Hoang, Haivan V. “Campus Racial Politics and a “Rhetoric of Injury”.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 61, National Council of Teachers of English, Urbana, 2009.

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Keywords: Composition, Pedagogy, Critical Pedagogy, Minority Rhetorics, Critical Race Theory

Sources:

Himley, Margaret. “Response to Phillip P. Marzluf, ‘Diversity Writing: Natural Languages, Authentic Voices.’” CCC 58.3 (2007): 449–63.

hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Winans, Amy E. “Local Pedagogies and Race: Interrogating White Safety in the Rural College Classroom.” College English 67.3 (2005): 253–73.

Quotations:

“This article is interested in the ways diversity discourse, in a twist, can advocate for racial accountability while also undermining those same struggles” (386).

“Indeed, injury is perhaps the trope through which we understand racial accountability. To be sure, the trope has been fundamental to identifying and remedying those injuries caused by racial prejudice, but there are also worrisome ways in which the rhetoric of injury gets taken up. As college writing faculty, we should be troubled by injury’s articulations in campus racial politics. We see claims to and refutations against victimization, a desire to occupy injured subject positions, and excessive attention to individual distress and anxiety. We live in a privatized system that scrutinizes so very closely the wounds of individuals that it deflects attention from the material conditions, cultural systems, and histories that produced racial injustice in the first place” (386-387).

“[W]e might take care to foster students’ understanding of the historical production of racial difference, its impact on writing/speaking positions, and the ways in which difference is rearticulated in the present” (387).

“[T]he salvationist impulse among some teachers is not only the counterpart to a minority student needing salvation; the savior suggests moreover a triangular relationship with the presumed victim and the injurer. With diversity writing at the nexus of savior, victim, and injurer, students have few productive subject positions from which to write—especially if the student is cast as one who injures himself or herself. Indeed, what does diversity ask us to become?” (389).

“[D]iversity is a performative, albeit an infelicitous one. The self-involved dialogue between Cain and Abel, pervasive claims to victimization, and an interest in guilt and shame: these cue diversity’s performative nature… Public institutions… structure understandings of race, and these structures have enacted, are based on, and potentially carry on America’s vexing racial legacy” (389).

“One challenge is that diversity calls up authentic bodies that are part of taken-for-granted racial categories” (390).

“Within the university, college writing faculty are in a position to foster students’ rhetorical engagement within their campus communities; such work could encourage students to critically read a rhetorical context that matters to them and to articulate their concerns accordingly” (402).

“As a start, composition pedagogy must challenge the unfettered belief in the logic of individualism, the belief that inclusion and awareness of academic rhetorical conventions alone will eradicate unequal rhetorical agency. A critical race praxis, I propose, requires a deep sociohistorical inquiry into articulations of race over time as well as serious deliberation over community values” (402).

“A rhetoric informed by the commonplace of social responsibility, one in which students productively recognize and make use of their authority, rather than personal injury, in which students deny all agency, would better enable students to forward their democratic rhetoric” (405).

Notes: Renee Moreno, “The Politics of Location”

Moreno, Renee M. “”The politics of location”: Text as opposition.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 54, 2002.23574889382_0ae23acd76_o

Keywords: Composition, Pedagogy, Critical Pedagogy, Critical Race Theory, Minority Rhetorics, Writing Studies

Quotations:

“In a university, is the project of literacy (reading and writing) a tool for control and colonization, considering here that literacy in institutional settings is also used to socialize students to the uses of language and discourses in educational institutions? By reclaiming native language” (223).

“By telling history as stories, I assert that Galeano reimagines how identities are linked. This point is important in educational institutions—to rewrite the histories of linkage and connection and to describe how these play out in schools, despite efforts to keep people separated. I am especially interested in how, as bicultural subjects, students might begin to use textual locations to define and shape resistance, to define themselves collectively, and to unmask power when it is operating in the classroom and in pedagogy” (225).

“I wonder, is it so hard to imagine (and perhaps even to permit) “basic” writers to write, to read, and to imagine themselves through their texts? This is my starting point, to examine the context of writing within an academic setting, to examine how writers respond, and to contextualize my argument with histories” (225).

“I was interested in providing them with a safe space (however institutionalized) in which to explore the topics of race and ethnicity and to experiment with language, and I wanted to create an “oppositional” space within this traditional institution” (226).

“I have always told students that we all have stories to tell, something to say, that the classroom is a place where we listen to these stories, where we begin to co-construct knowledge and meaning” (228).

“Today, however, educational institutions are less and less interested in the needs of underrepresented students and the places from which these students come. As the institution is getting less attentive to the needs of the most vulnerable students (one effect of whittling away at the gains of affirmative action) and as services are being downsized, there is still a need to direct classroom practice to attend to the needs of these students” (235).

“For me, the most important call to action is to think about those students who are occupying our classrooms and to see classrooms as a hopeful space of transformation, as a location that might get us closer to developing those new intellectual frameworks to which Hayes-Bautista calls attention” (237).

Notes: Jill Eichhorn et al., “A Symposium on Feminist Experiences in the Composition Classroom”

Eichhorn, Jill, et al. “A Symposium on Feminist Experiences in the Composition Classroom.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 43, National Council of Teachers of English, Urbana, Ill, 1992.

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Keywords: Feminism, Feminist Rhetorics, Pedagogy, Critical Pedagogy, Safe

Quotations:

“As we explore the ways we have been named, inscribed, objectified, exoticized, silenced, and coopted by male-dominated discourses, we simaltaneously engage in the articulation, negotiation, and collective re-vision of our gendered, ravial and class locations” (298).

“One difference we explore, among a multiplicity of differences, is that feminist graduate students and faculty who teach composition we do not experience the same level of authority in the classroom as white male, middle-to-upper-class graduate students and faculty” (298).

“Taking up a feminist politics of location in the classroom, as Adrienne Rich observed, means taking differences seriously. It also means taking the responsibility to construct critical classroom spaces ‘where [we and our] students can come to see ambivalence and differences not as obstacles, but as the very richness of meaning-making and the hope of whatever justice we might work toward” (299).

“As feminist teachers of writing we want to question those pedagogical models which privilege only an atmosphere of safety or a completely maternal climate” (299).

“How can we teach for radical change if we don’t challenge our students’ androcentric readings of literary texts or their classist, sexist, racist, and homophobic discourses as they arise in journals, essays and class discussion?” (300).

“Can there truly be ‘safe space,’ in or out of the classroom? Should there be? Is there in our desire for a safe space also a refusal to recognize that our different locations—as men or women, as Anglos or people of color, as faculty or graduate students—are and have always been unequal?” (300).