By Mary Grabar
After spending four depressing days this month at a meeting of 3,000 writing teachers in Atlanta, I can tell you that their parent group, the Conference on College Composition and Communication, is not really interested in teaching students to write and communicate clearly. The group's agenda, clear to me after sampling as many of the meeting's 500 panels as I could, is devoted to disparaging grammar, logic, reason, evidence and fairness as instruments of white oppression. They believe rules of grammar discriminate against "marginalized" groups and restrict self-expression.
Even noted composition scholar Peter Elbow, in his address, claimed that the grammar that we internalize at the age of four is "good enough." The Internet, thankfully, has freed us from our previous duties as "grammar police," and Elbow heralded the day when the white spoken English that has now become the acceptable standard, will be joined by other forms, like those of non-native and ghetto speakers.
Freed from standards of truth claims and grammatical construction, rhetoric is now redefined as "performance," as in street protests, often by students demonstrating their "agency." Expressions are made through "the body," images, and song--sometimes a burst of spontaneous reflection on the Internet. Clothes are rhetorically important as "instruments of grander performance."
So panels focused on everything but the written word as traditionally understood. Offerings stressed civic engagement, multi-media, sustainability and “eco-composition,” multilingualism, student self-assessment, student extra-curricular experiences, student “engagement,” cross-disciplinarity, hip-hop, Native American traditions and languages, digital storytelling, “queer rhetorics,” “feminist rhetorics,” “visual rhetorics”—and all the usual ethnic grievance communities: Chicano, African-American, indigenous, etc.
The shift to the sub-literate or anti-literate has evolved from the 1960s revolutionary project to dismantle Western civilization through the institutions, primarily educational. The change has taken place incrementally, from the rather tentative early addition of multicultural literature to the established canon; to the mandating that class, race, and gender be studied in composition; to the deconstruction of “Eurocentric” discourse in search of codes that maintain imperialism. Such discourse imposed Western standards through the very elements most would view as laudable: the search for truth in a logical, fair, honest, and ethical manner, the standard codified by Aristotle.
Inventing New Forms of White Privilege
Since most scholarship in the field concerns the invention of increasingly convoluted conspiracies of “white privilege,” discovered through increasingly primitive forms of communication (with scholars now even focusing on animal communication) there is not much to learn. People at the meeting already know what they are going to hear: all of them are oppressed. At the newcomers session we were told not to be too concerned about attending panels, but to take breaks, go to a party sponsored by the textbook publisher Bedford, and spend time networking.
A performance, by the White Horse Singers, opened and closed the early morning address by Gwendolyn Pough of Syracuse University. The thousands of assembled English teachers stood and faced the trio of drum-banging Native Americans--as homage and thanks to “indigenous peoples whose nations are rooted in the lands we now call ‘Atlanta’ and ‘north Georgia,’” as we were told after one of many greetings in a Native American language. We were advised to “Stand outside your comfort zones,” learn to read the Cherokee writing on the cover of the program, and attend as many indigenous workshops as possible.
Pough, a romance novel author and self-described “sister-outsider,” specializes in hip-hop and black women’s writing for a “radical critique of disciplinary knowledge.” She encouraged us to educate for “human greatness” as she flashed Power Point images of Kanye West interspersed with quotations from past CCCC chairs.
“We are bigger than comp/rhetoric. . . . We do language,” she declared to nods of agreement. Because we do “critical analysis,” we occupy the most important position in the academy. But her own comments and repeated references by others to Marxist theorist Paulo Freire, “post-capitalism,” and “Marxian” readings, betrayed her call for neutrality when teachers engage in classroom discussions of “what is good for society.” In bypassing the traditional modes of argument, teachers deny students the very tools necessary to make any “critical analysis” of their teachers’ political objectives.
The political objectives could not be missed in the panel, “Barack, Bush, and Beck (Oh, My?): Political Ideological Discourse Theories,” which attracted about 50 participants, more than five times as many as most. Chair Greg Wilson’s (Iowa State University) salvo of his “hope that you brought righteous indignation” brought some chortling and eye-rolling.
After congratulating attendees for their intelligence proven by their contempt for Glenn Beck, Drew Loewe, from St. Edwards’ University, launched into what he saw as Beck’s misuse and misrepresentation of the word, “Constitution” (“’Constitution’ as Ideograph: What Hundreds of Glenn Beck Transcripts Can Teach Us”). Loewe’s study revealed that the word “Constitution” appears most often and functions thereby as a populist “ideograph,” a “wellspring for group consensus,” and therefore a building block for a certain ideology--in Beck’s case, “reactionary.” Even the historical and legal scholars on Beck’s program have nothing of substance to say about the Constitution, Loewe maintained.
A similar attack came from Greg Wilson from Iowa State as he claimed that George W. Bush made no legitimate claim that harsh interrogation techniques against terrorists produced useful intelligence (“Bush Administration Torture Discourse: Unpacking the Ideology and Justifications Using Articulation Theory”). But these assertions about ideology as the real motivator behind Bush’s torture policy (articulated in his speeches) were not backed up by any evidence from Wilson himself.
Joseph Telegen of Western Carolina University, conversely, claimed that Barack Obama, whose “contemplative nature” made him a welcome alternative to Bush, brilliantly and innovatively aims his rhetoric at a mysterious “’Fourth Locale’” (somehow beyond the three locales of appeals to the left, right, or middle that less gifted orators use). “A More Perfect Union” speech “interrogated” (a well-worn postmodern cultword) “racial extremity” without denouncing Jeremiah Wright, thus returning to shared core principles. Telegen, in his teaching, advocates these Obamian communicative strategies, on which he wrote his thesis.
A lively question-and-answer session followed, focusing on Beck’s “in-group” strategy. Loewe’s claim that Beck of course would have “zero chance” of being invited to this conference was met with knowing laughter.
Such political partisanship was accompanied by a presumed effort to present knowledge, “in a broader way,” as it was in “Writing the Real World of Student Work.” The “work” of students employing “hand-mind knowledge” in menial jobs like burger-flipping should be “honored” in the classroom, said a co-director of a “Poverty Studies” program. We need to “think critically about how dirty work can be reframed, recalibrated, or refocused to honor all work and workers,” we were told. The paper “’Wage Slaves’ Speak Out: Midwestern Monologues,” modeled on the Vagina Monologues, similarly illustrated how such “performance” can replace the old worker-unfriendly rhetoric.
My own work duties as an instructor of composition forced me to miss a paper on “Tea Party Rage” on Thursday afternoon. But after sleeping off the headache induced by all the drumming, I was at the Atlanta Marriott to attend the Friday 8:00 a.m. session “’Unrelated Kin’: Building Kin Relationships with Critical Race Theory and Out-Loud Public Literacies in Rhetoric-Composition Studies.” Here again a presumed “critical thinking” was applied against the teacher’s political enemy to engage students in protest “action.” Panelist Jody Ludlow advocated using “critical race theory” to expose what she claims is the promotion of “white privilege under the false veil of fairness,” in the language of Nebraska’s Initiative 424 against affirmative action. But through the example of Ludlow and approximately 95 percent of conference participants, it became clear that one must condemn one’s own “white privilege” to be allowed a place at the CCCC table.
Carmen Kynard of St. John’s University, however, detected “codes that maintain whiteness” by four editors who rejected the “word-bonding” of Kynard and her freshman coauthor. They could not appreciate the “unexplainable-yet-felt thing inside of us that tells us as African Americans that we can keep on keepin’ on. . . .” to borrow a phrase from the said submission. More rejection of white standards came from Pepperdine University’s David Holmes, who directs his scholarship away from the traditional eloquence of Martin Luther King, Jr. to the colloquialisms of Ralph David Abernathy.
More lurking racism was analyzed in “Rhetorics of Racism, Protest, and Alliance: Decolonial (Multi)-media(ted) Responses to AZ SB1070,” a “featured session.” Facebook policies sanction a “colonialized vision.” Hip-hop artist Willie Northpole, however, offers hope in the form of a “black-brown alliance,” according to Marcos Del Hierro, from Texas A&M. I caught the thesis from the video: “they did it to the blacks, they did it to the natives.” The notion that borders are “fixed,” as the Tea Party maintains, is not a legitimate claim. Students study protest slogans like “the people united” in Spanish and “bodies”--protestors who create a “purposeful space” to “re-member” bodies “dismembered by colonization.”
Back to words on the page: Kennesaw professor Rochelle Harris began with her Freire-inspired idea of multiple reading of stories (because a “correct reading” takes away “humanity”). The nine college students each read a short portion of a collectively written paper that analyzes Harris’s pedagogy in teaching world literature. Not surprisingly, all attested to the benefits of writing in a character’s voice, bonding by doing “research shares,” and learning “tolerance through understanding.” But the last reader,” a business major, defied the post-capitalist mood of the conference by proclaiming that he not only got the benefits of cultural understanding, but that “knowing about the world helps me make more money.”
"Fashioning Queer Relations"
My next session returned to the more popular topic of bodies. In “Fashioning Queer Relations: Fabricating, Crafting, and Designing Identities through Bodies and Texts,” I learned that courses on “The Body” are taught with such textbooks as Longman’s The Body and Culture. Clothes are “instruments of grander performance.” “Straightening Our Hair,” a bell hooks essay arguing that black women do their hair to conform to white standards, seemed familiar to everyone. I also learned that fashion photos of Michelle Obama offer opportunities for assignments in analyzing racist white sartorial standards. The relevance of all this to teaching writing is obscure.
In “The Contested Female Body: Competition, (Trans)National Identity and Wholeness in the Rhetorics of Plastic Surgery,” I found myself handling mastectomy bras and prostheses, and reviewing a breast pathology report and post-mammography letters for the impersonal language that indicated hostility to women. I learned about breast augmentation in Venezuela and eyelid surgery in South Korea--to conform to Western aesthetics. One paper focused on a professor’s experience with “agency and victimization” with a plastic surgeon selling her a jaw implant. Whether the increase in plastic surgery was evidence of women’s power or weakness, or evidence of becoming transnational or national, was left for future rhetorical analysis, no doubt in another convention hotel.
In “High School to College: Student Learning, the Common Core Standards for College Readiness, and the Politics of Readiness” the complaint was that standards violate the “professional rights” of the teachers who value things outside of the standards, like creativity, ambiguity, and activism. I was surprised and pleased, though, to hear Russell Berman of Stanford University promote foreign language learning. But the other panelists did not note that such study would call for memorization and practice, and instead griped about how the Common Core Standards ignored their input, like the 21-page response of the NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English under which CCCC operates) that criticized the exclusion of social, civil, and aesthetic purposes. Richard Miller of Rutgers gave an impassioned indictment of the “eradication of ambiguity” in the mania for testing. More curiosity inspiring offerings are available on the Internet (like the interactive site TEDx that features “thinkers” like Al Gore and Bill Clinton) than in the unchanging history textbooks. But by all indications, the social, civil, and aesthetic purposes are aimed in one ideological direction, for many audience members offered suggestions about getting students “heated” about the unfair demands of testing, especially in such education department courses as “What Is Power?”
There is much to be concerned about regarding Common Core, like a burgeoning Education Department subsidizing testing and publishing companies and putting the final brick in place for a national curriculum. But the objections here were to any infringement on teacher autonomy. Standards and evaluative methods would infringe on the freedom teachers feel in evaluating themselves, as Heather Thomson-Bunn did in her presentation about her “Writing Religion” class at Pepperdine in the next session, “A Higher Good: Morality, Faith, and Subjectivity.” Her class rejects the “artificial binary” of keeping academic and personal writing distinct. It was deemed a success by the written responses to her questions by a Muslim student who had visited a Jewish temple.
Dayna Goldstein of Georgia Southern University, however, admitted that her paper “Our Post-Humans Relations Don’t Understand Our Symbolism: Developing a Critical Morality in the Networked World,” has no bearing on the classroom. To find a legitimate moral authority in an age where neither transcendental, objective, nor subjective standards obtain any more, Goldstein studied BDSM play groups (Bondage, Discipline, Sadism, Masochism) and dogs (dogs, yes). In BDSM, Goldstein explained, participants act from constructed identities and therefore adopt a moral system based on what is immediately “useful.” Role-playing BDSM participants do not see a higher personal or metaphysical meaning in the sadistic acts committed on them. Dogs, similarly, do not attach any such meaning to the actions of those they interact with. Both groups, because they act outside of morality based on traditional standards, offer good models for determining justice.
The final event, “Prison Writing: Pedagogy, Representation, Research, and Action,” presented a consensus about justice, though: prisoners should be made aware of the injustices committed against them by a system based on “retributive justice” rather than “restorative justice.” To this end, Tom Kerr not only labors on behalf of the enlightenment of prisoners but also his own students at Ithaca College. He found prisoner-correspondents for his class by sending letters describing his goal of replacing retributive justice with restorative justice through “meaningful dialogue.” Students’ questions for prisoners have concerned overcrowding, imprisonment for possession of marijuana, and Eastern religious paths. One inmate replied that the “War on Drugs” was one of the “greatest tricks” by politicians, for marijuana was no worse than alcohol. Students then wrote essays in the form of open letters and conference papers, as well as academic papers.
My only experience with this topic occurred when my teaching the Inferno inspired a student to give a copy to her incarcerated brother-in-law to set him straight.
Sarah Higinbotham of Georgia State University, like her seven co-panelists, had a soft spot for incarcerated victims. Although she did not intend it this way, I think we can see a solution to the country’s plummeting literacy levels in her video of two North Georgia inmate-scholars. These high school dropouts proudly recited extended passages from The Merchant of Venice and Measure for Measure—and not in the Ebonics that CCCC panelists would insist “honors” their culture. So consider: If it can be done in prisons, why not the places where these panelists teach, like Rutgers, Georgia Southern, and Ohio State? If they have authority figures, regimented schedules, strict rules, dress codes, and discipline, regular college students too might be able to recite difficult passages of speeches, as well as to memorize the parts of speech, logical fallacies, spelling rules, the coordinating conjunctions. . . . the possibilities are endless!
But then such an approach would obviate the need for junkets to convention hotels where professors share strategies for eliminating the traditional rhetorical tools for uncovering and exposing their specious arguments. That administrators and paying customers at respectable colleges and universities continue to support such daffy activities should be the subject of some real “critical thought.”
Mary Grabar is an English instructor in Atlanta