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Williams, Mark Alan. Religious Discourse in Student Writing. CE, March 2015. Posted 04/07/15.

Williams, Mark Alan. “Transformations: Locating Agency and Difference in Student Accounts of Religious Experience.” College English 77.4 (2015): 338-63. Print.

Mark Alan Williams addresses the difficulties religious students face in the academic setting of a college writing classroom. He particularly sees this difficulty as arising from the effects of dominant depictions of religion dispensed by public media and figures like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson (339). These “official” representations insist on dogmatic or monolithic approaches to religion that lead critical scholars in composition studies to endorse a “conflict narrative” that casts religious students in negative terms and limits options for dealing with religion in student texts (341, 344-45).

Williams argues that these dominant approaches may not accord with students’ religions as they themselves see and practice these faiths in their everyday lives (341). Students attempting to position themselves in relation to their religion may feel incapable of challenging such “hegemonic” portrayals, and, Williams contends, may lack a suitable discourse or effective models for crafting a “religious middle” where more varied, even progressive practice may be pursued (340, 342). Efforts of academics to engage students in critical examination of their views often fail to recognize students’ struggles with the ways in which power and culture constrain their agency and ability to express the complex nature of their lived faiths. Williams argues for strategies that will allow students more agency to define their religious positions. Such strategies will address productive “frictions” among various religious discourses and between religious discourses and academic goals (339, 359).

Building on work by A. Suresh Canagarajah, Williams proposes “translingualism” as a fruitful approach to students’ religious discourse when it enters writing classrooms (349-51). Growing out of work on “World Englishes,” Canagarajah’s view of translingualism focuses on the degree to which language is created and determined by the everyday practice and interaction of users, who bear responsibility for the shape it takes (349). In this view, “accommodation” of varied language use allows “code-meshing” that opens the possibility of new codes that permit new social and cultural formations (349-50). Williams parallels this view of language with the “formational perspectives on religion” of anthropologists Bahira Sherif and Talal Asad, for whom religion, like language, only exists in the ways it is practiced in lived experience (351). Williams provides examples of groups within religious contexts meshing official doctrine with lived revisions to destabilize and reinvent received depictions of religious practice (352-54).

To explore translingualism’s effects in a classroom setting, Williams recounts the work of a Muslim woman who drew on different assignments, including a researched problem-analysis paper and an op-ed discussion, to explain her faith to academic readers (355). For Williams, the student’s use of the op-ed format to mesh her personal experiences as a Muslim woman in American society with the academic argumentative register effectively laid the ground for his acceptance of her redefinition of widely disseminated negative terms (357). Illustrating his claim that religion is created and recreated in use, Williams cites the student’s evocation of the personal as a demonstration of how

the religious personal becomes a critical tool enabling writers to more authoritatively flesh out the practical . . . meanings of religious life for academic peers and instructors whose representational context has predisposed them to grant greater legitimacy to monolithic, negative images of religion. (358)

Williams contends that the student’s efforts at defining herself within and against these multifaceted discourses allowed her access to the tensions between her practical enactment of Islam and the more rigid structures within which her enactment had to evolve (358). Thus, he contends, writing invites students to examine the relations between the power formations that work to constrain religion and the individual practice that can reshape it. Through writing, students can be encouraged to find a voice with which to work out their own interpretations of their faiths without sacrificing their commitments, as instructors resist “insulating them from change or . . . forcing change,” instead providing them “the opportunity to examine these relations for themselves” (359).

Author: vanderso

I'm a recently retired associate professor of English in Southern Indiana. I've been teaching writing for twenty-five years, but I feel I have much to learn about how people really learn to write. In this blog, I'll be sharing research and thoughts and hopefully gathering information from others about the process of learning to write.

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