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).

Contact(ed) Ethos

In day three of the two week graduate assistant instructor training, we talked a lot about teaching personas and how we come to these personas. We riffed on Malea Powell’s  “Learning (Teaching) to Teach (Learn)” and her CCCC address in which she asked us to consider all our relations. A gesture toward collective. A gesture toward a complexity that surrounds, fills, informs, and constitutes performances of the layers of ethos that spread across subjects, where there may have only been one visible subject. A question that may appear simple: are we not the sums of our relations?

We took a moment to make representations of some of our relations—those who we carried with us, who were never far, who were inflected in our ways of thinking. On white sheets of paper with an outline of a gingerbread person, we filled in stylized representations of those who were (not?) already there. They were collected and taped to the chalk board at the front of the room, just behind where our WPA, Derek Mueller, facilitates this workshop—now standing among the visible, no longer absent, presences.

That space is a powerful space to sit and listen to and feel the silences, the apparitions, the sense of self.

Drawing heavily from postmodern theory, the queer theory traditions that I’ve read readily discuss the fragmented self, or the instability of the “I”. This tradition has widely informed my understanding and use of ethos. While talking about our ethical responsibility to one another, Judith Butler perhaps frames this best when she says, “The “I” that I am is nothing without the “you” that you are.” Which is to say that I can only come to know my self and the boundaries of self once I recognize a boundary of other. Butler may not necessarily be talking about questions of ethos, but certainly troubles any stable same-self and places self as interrelated.

To return to the activity in this training, to have attention called to the hazy boarders of self, other, and relationship presents a necessary vulnerability and intimacy. This activity requires a sort of felt sense of who is near and around me as well as acknowledges a certain amount of slippages between where I end and another begins. For me, it was a moment of feeling, perhaps for the first time in this way, ethos as contact(ed). Rather than dissolve the self or the rhetor, feeling the touch of another as constitutive is to take seriously social responsiveness and self-positioning.

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Later in the session we discussed part of the textbook that graduate assistants in EMU’s FYWP use to teach, Understanding Rhetoric. In this discussion, we talked about the third issue, “Writing Identities.” In this issue, there is an illustration of a mirror, cracked into four pieces, with four fragments of a face split across the mirror. In this illustration, selecting performances of self becomes central and visible. We adapted some of this illustration to talk about our performances as instructors. For an activity, we had four boxes in which we had to draw representations of three aspects of our self that we could perform proudly or easily in front of a class and one that we were nervous about.

While digressing from the prompt stylistically, I remember being immediately struck with the idea of Pop Art in the Warhol sense. I hastily sketched out four iterations of me with the same structure in each frame and trying to use bright colors, made-negative imaging, and simple alterations to convey, if not separate performances of self, points of slipping.

It was an endeavor that I see as inextricably linked to the first activity, perhaps drawing on Ben Rafoth’s IWCA address, which discusses Warhol, in that he suggests Warhol’s moves demand different questions “Who do we not see, even when they are present? In other words, drawing out the human potential in a writing center requires social understanding to bring about agency” (22). Rafoth suggests that Warhol’s paintings ask who the subject is by enacting his images’ multiplicity through their iterative yet fragmented nature.  It seems as though these images convey at once singularity and multiplicity: the unified image is gained through contacts of the self.

If we were to explore ethos as contact(ed), what does that even mean or look like? How does that map on pedagogically? What would it mean to enact a pedagogy of contact—that embraces the vulnerability and intimacy at the hazy, messy slippages between self and selves? I’m not sure. I am still trying to listen and feel. Nor am I necessarily convinced that the rough, drafty space of this blog is the right venue for a deeper exploration.

An contact(ed) ethos may necessarily be responsive to the others present, absent or not, and feel them touching back. Understanding ethos that way means being adaptive and ethically and etheticly responding.

A Brief Listing of Citations

Banks, William P. “The Values of Queer Jacketing: What Happens When Student Writers Go Gay?” MEAT Journal 1.2 (Winter 2005–06)

Butler, Judith (2015). “The Ethics and Politics of Nonviolence.” Presented at Oakland University.

— (2009). Frames of War: When is Life Grievable. New York: Verso.

Powell, Malea (2012). 2012 CCCC chair’s letter. College Composition and Communication, 64(2), 423-431.

Malea Powell (2006). “Learning (Teaching) to Teach (Learn)” in Peter Vandenberg, Sue Hum, and Jennifer Clary-Lemon (eds.) Relations, Locations, Positions: Composition Theory for Writing Teachers. Urbana Free Library: 571-580.

Rafoth, Ben (2016). “Faces, Factories, and Warhols: A r(Evolutionary) Future for Writing Centers” The Writing Center Journal 35.2, 17-29.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky (1990). Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: University of California Press.

What and Who We Sponsor

In EMU’s two week graduate assistant training workshop, we were asked to write our literacy narratives. Below is my draft for that assignment:

Literacy seems to always be a deceptively easy word to define. It may be easy enough to use it as the ways in which one comes to communicate with others—often discussed as being through reading and writing alphabetic texts. However, if literacy is only talked about as reading and writing alphabetic texts, there is something that seems flat and emptied about it. Literacy has the capacity to understand communicative acts and practices as culturally located and imbricated with the technologies used to create or surround such acts (See Haas, 2008; Cushman, 2011; Shipka, 2011).

When I was in preschool, my teacher asked my class what we each wanted to be. Many of my male peers responded with “lawyer,” “doctor,” “astronaut,” or “president.” Many of my female peers replied with similarly interspersed with answers such as “mother,” “wife,” or “princess.” I answered that I wanted to be a mermaid and was immediately informed that this was not an appropriate answer—it is hard to be a successful mermaid in this economic climate—and so I answered with father and was again shot down. Defeated, I answered writer. Whether out of spite, stubbornness, genuine interest, or some premonition of a four-year-old’s intuition, it is an answer that I’ve stuck by ever since.

I include this as an opening anecdote as it at once sets up my journey toward understanding writing and literacy, if simplistically, but also seems to meaningfully come into contact with the boundaries of acceptable literacies that permeate the educational contexts I’ve inhabited since disciplinarily or institutionally. In many ways, my teacher and my answer pushed me in a direction that made visible these demarcations of valued and acceptable literacies within education—I could be a writer because that was something that was understood by my teacher to be something appropriate for a male student proceeding into grade school to pursue.

My family moved from Delaware to Virginia when I was eight, midway through the school year. That year would be the first that I encountered standardized testing. The SOL’s. I failed the test in Virginia history—a subject widely taught in early education in Delaware. By whatever assessment apparatus was used, I landed in a series of “slow track,” remedial classes going forward. This lasted until my family moved to North Carolina when I was twelve, where I would be tested again and placed into all advanced classes. How does this connect to literacy—and why is this writing so episodic? My momentary occupation of this system was yet another encounter of boundaries, of ways of being and knowing that would be valued in an institutional context. This is not to say that this essay should be concerned with the woes of standardized testing—in fact, it was in some of these remedial classes that I was able to play—really play—with writing. I was able to tell stories and communicate through more experimental language, but technologies: I composed through Legos and toys, I wrote an essay through still shots of myself using sign language that I edited post-print, I learned code from a friend and turned in a hacked version of the school’s website as a final.

The writing strategies I’d been able to explore in that setting allowed me to subversively compose in future settings—though often unsuccessfully until later into my undergraduate experience at East Carolina. After hearing many of the questions I had about writing and my interests within English Studies, my mentor, Will Banks, encouraged me to change my area of focus from Literature to Rhetoric and Composition and to apply for a job as a peer tutor in the University Writing Center. The writing center and my classes that focused in rhetoric and composition gave me a vocabulary to talk about writing and to explore the possibility of writing much more formally with instructors and mentors who encouraged playfulness as a form of invention.

But what I’m struck with, even now, is how these literacies I’ve discussed all take place within classrooms for instructors, or are in service of such enterprises. Why haven’t I described the cruising practices I learned in gay clubs and bathhouses? Or the ways in which queer neighborhoods and spaces can be “read” as much as they are navigable or traversable? Or the ways that I learned to code my performance of self with levels of masculinity so that I would appear nonthreatening to the cis/hetero men that I interact with in professional settings? Or the countless other literacies or literacy moments that my cultural positioning as a queer person informs my sense of self and citizenship, my research, and my pedagogy? I feel this is largely because of those interactions with boundaries of acceptability I interacted with earlier on that have been continually reaffirmed. Literacy, with all of its bagginess as a term, within institutional contexts seems to make so much distant, inaccessible, and invisible. Instead, conventional uses of the term literacy seem to only promote a certain list of activities, technologies, and products, promoted by sanctioned professionals, within certain contexts. Subversion of such should only be done cleverly and not too radically in order to avoid discomfort (What would a student think if they knew their instructor had history in the baths?).

However, as a potential literacy sponsor, am I to also affirm these boundaries that surround and contain acceptable literacy? Would that be “professional”—another word that seems coded with implications to appear, perform, and act in ways that support a white, cis/heteropatriarchy (See Cox, 2012)? Are there ways to explore the subversive and potentially disquieting capacity of literacy productively and still set up students for success, in so far as success is measured?

I don’t mean to suggest that my classroom explores the cruising practices of gay men. Though, I do intend to raise the questions surround why it does or does not explore those practices and forms of communication, to raise the questions of what and who we sponsor. I was fortunate to have mentors that sponsored disruptive and subversive literacy practices and I intend to do the same in my own work.

Brief List of Citations

Brandt, Deborah. (1998). “Sponsors of Literacy.” College Composition and Communication, 49(2), 165-185.

Cox, Matthew B. (2012). Through Working Closets: Examining Rhetorical and Narrative Approaches to Building LGBTQ & Professional Identity Inside a Corporate Workplace.

Cushman, Ellen (2011). The Cherokee Syllabary: Writing the People’s Perseverance. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Haas, Angela M. (2008). “Wampum as Hypertext: An American Indian Intellectual Tradition of Multimedia Theory and Practice. Studies in American Indian Literatures, 19(4), 77-100.

Shipka, Jody (2011). Toward a composition made whole. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: University of Pittsburgh Press.

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).