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Obermark, Lauren E. “Misfitting” and Disability in English Graduate Studies. Nov. 2019 CE. Posted 01/28/2019.

Obermark, Lauren E. “Making Space for the Misfit: Disability and Access in Graduate Education in English.” College English 82.2 (2019): 173-203. Print.

Lauren E. Obermark examines the English graduate school experience through the lens of disability studies, incorporating the concept of the “misfit” to analyze responses to a survey she conducted at the “midsize regional public university” (179) where she is an assistant professor.

She reports that her own graduate education, where she regularly felt she “did not fit the graduate school mold” (173), aroused her interest in issues of access in English graduate programs like the one she attended and the one in place at her institution. To key concepts of access and disability, Obermark adds “wonder,” which she draws on Tanya Titchkosky to define as “a multipronged and exploratory orientation” (177) that can be “uncomfortable” because it is “outward-facing and change-focused” (178). She describes her survey as an act of wonder; her grounded-theory approach to the responses leads her to conclude that many assumptions underlying common models of graduate education create unacknowledged “pedagogical misfits” and diminish access in these programs (176).

Disability scholarship leads Obermark to argue for understanding disability studies as a form of inquiry into concerns that affect everyone as these studies consider how the “collaboration and interdependence” that improve conditions for people with disabilities can enhance everyone’s lives (176). Such an approach, she contends, makes questions about access “generative” rather than casting access as a way of correcting a specific problem through “accommodations” that can create more obstacles than they remove (174, 193-94).

Noting that institutions implement procedures that attempt to resolve access problems, Obermark describes many such efforts as part of a “disability bypass,” which renders people needing different forms of access invisible as their needs have supposedly been met. In graduate schools, she argues, this bypass takes the form of insistence that no student succeeding in academia meets the definition of disabled (182). Obermark’s survey examines the ways she believes the university and the students alike bypass or deny the existence of students for whom extant forms of access mean struggle (181).

For the concept of “misfitting,” Obermark turns to the scholarship of Elisabeth L. Miller and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson. Quoting Garland-Thomson, Obermark writes that “a misfit is a result of incongruence or ‘awkward’ juxtaposition” and therefore “does not imply a problem with the environment or with an individual” (177). A premise that emerges from the survey data is that misfits occur when established norms are wrongly assumed to work well for everyone. In Obermark’s view, such misfitting can affect access, especially as it often goes unnoticed (177).

Obermark’s institution offers an MA and an MFA, which feature many overlapping classes for students working toward a number of goals, such as credentialing for their secondary teaching jobs or preparing for PhD work. Of the ninety-five students offered the survey, thirty-two participated(179). Opening questions asked about the “most common in-class approach and the most common assignment” in the students’ experiences (183). By wide margins, students reported that whole-class discussion was the most common approach and an academic essay the most common assignment (183).

From open-ended comments, Obermark concludes that many students question whether the class discussions really serve either the learners or the course goals as effectively as they might (184). Student comments note the tendency for a few students with strong oral skills to control discussion, in one case describing this environment as “repetitive and even a bit intimidating for those not ‘in the loop’” (184). Another called such discussions “unstructured and random” and not clearly aligned with assigned materials (185). A student who found the reading challenging wrote that the discussion did not provide the access to the material that she needed (185).

Student comments about the essay assignments, in Obermark’s view, constitute “a deeply enculturated essay allegiance,” with students contending that only the traditional essay correctly showcases graduate-level skills (188). Obermark counters that much recent scholarship in digital and multimodal communication suggests that a wider range of options might be fruitful (188).

For Obermark, students’ sense that they are expected to succeed in these situations even if they are not comfortable with them suggests that students have internalized a message that those for whom the accepted process is not the best fit are not actually “fit” for graduate school (185). She characterizes “reverse accommodation” as a common assumption on students’ parts that it is “their job to figure out and work through” any issues they encounter with the teaching methods considered the norm (190; emphasis original). Rather than questioning how the norms could change, Obermark argues that students see adaptation as their only recourse. The ability, in the words of one respondent, to “just muddle through and figure it out on our own” is seen as the duty of a graduate student in English by students and professor alike (191). Misfitting, in this view, is the misfit’s fault.

Maintaining with other disability scholars that “accommodation” is not “access,” Obermark argues that accommodation as generally provided “requires a great deal of emotional labor from students,” making it their responsibility to inform and educate their instructors individually about their needs, thus “reliev[ing] the professor (or the institution) from making a wider change” (192-93).

For Obermark, the students’ struggles to accommodate the traditional academic assumptions raise the question of what the field of English studies really wants. She responds to “water cooler” assertions that graduate school should be rigorous and the material difficult with the contention, quoting Anne-Marie Womack, that “The way to teach difficult material well is always to make it more accessible” (194). The failure to provide this access leads Obermark to wonder whether the field “really want[s] [graduate education] to be accessible or inclusive in meaningful ways” (195).

Acknowledging that colleagues may see student struggles as “an ongoing reality” (195), Obermark asks questions about her respondents’ attitudes toward disability. She reports that for students currently teaching, learning about disability issues makes them more aware, not just of specific disabilities, but also of difference and diversity generally in their own classrooms (196). Such awareness, she contends, suggests that the teachers acknowledge their responsibility to change rather than requiring their students to adjust when their fit to norms is not perfect (196).

Obermark writes that examining how graduate students manage their fit in current graduate-school culture might encourage an open-ended and ongoing conversation, perhaps triggering small changes in the pedagogical practices that are often taken for granted (195). She offers examples of alternative practices that can welcome other ways of learning rather than promulgating what she considers a “take it or leave it” message (177), which she believes drives students out of graduate programs when they perceive that their abilities are not those the field requires. Thus, in her view, awareness of misfitting is a step toward creative thinking: improving access generates new approaches that she believes enhance access for everyone.


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Boler, Megan. Affect and Media Literacy. RTE, Nov. 2019. Posted 01/09/2019.

Boler, Megan. “Digital Disinformation and the Targeting of Affect: New Frontiers for Critical Media Education.” Research in the Teaching of English 54.2 (2019): 187-91. Print.

Megan Boler contributes a “provocation” to an “In Dialogue” section of Research in the Teaching of English focusing on “Media.” She calls for attention to the influence of emotion in rhetorical communication, particularly in social media (187).

Boler argues that media literacy scholars and educators “lag behind advertisers and tech companies” in understanding the power of emotion to elicit responses (188). Social media, she writes, have enabled propagandists with this kind of understanding to target and manipulate public opinion in new and more powerful ways. In her view, such agents deliberately stoke emotional responses in order to create anger and division as well as distrust of public fora (187). In today’s media, Boler argues, “emotion and affect have become central currencies” in today’s “(digital) attention economy” (188).

To examine how media literacy education addresses the sophisticated use of emotion she describes, Boler’s team did a “preliminary review” of nine media literacy handbooks from 2017 and 2018 (188). She finds that these handbooks exhibit a consistent “cognitive bias,” focusing on fact-based critique including the recognition of “questionable URLs, . . . biased language, or missing sources” (189). Only four mention emotion at all.

She reports on one of the latter that provides guidance on recognizing “intentional” emotional appeals in fake sources but, in her view, absolves consumers of responsibility for their own emotional engagement. Another provides classroom activities that encourage students to “identify how the source affected their emotions” (189). While a first step, this approach, Boler feels, isolates emotion as an individual response (189).

Boler suggests a “pedagogy of discomfort” that asks students to examine the effects of identity, peer pressure, and other “unconscious emotional habits, patterns, and assumptions” that influence responses to media (190).

Emotion, in this view, is “not merely an ‘add-on’ that can be understood through a checklist.” Instead, emotion and affect are “fundamental,” Boler contends, and should be central to media literacy scholarship and education (190).


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King, Carolyne M. Reading as Embodied Practice. Comp Studies, Spring 2019. Posted 09/16/2019.

King, Carolyne M. “The Reader in the Texbook: Embodied Materiality and Reading in the Writing Classroom.” Composition Studies 47.1 (2019): 95-115. Web. 09 Sept. 2019.

Carolyne M. King argues for increased attention to the material aspects of student interaction with texts as they read. In her view, helping students understand how their situated physicality shapes the reading experience will enhance their ability to create meaning (97). She contends that writing pedagogy, particularly as it addresses reading in a pair of widely used readers, takes only “limited” account of the material process of reading (96).

Examining references to reading in a range of textbooks, King notes that they encourage activities such as underlining and highlighting, as well as marginal annotation, but states that attention to the “bodily involvement” and “sensory aspects” of these behaviors is nonexistent (98). She maintains that the textbooks fall short, as well, in considering how different media affect students’ ability to follow standard advice about effective reading; even when new media are addressed, attention to these experiences “largely focuses on changing technologies, . . . subtly giv[ing] agency to literacy tools as they act upon the body” (98) rather than on how students’ meaning-making activities change.

King draws on research by Christina Haas, Kristie Fleckenstein, and Sondra Perl to ground the claim that context and physical involvement, such as Perl’s “felt sense,” affect how readers respond to and make use of texts (97). Disability studies extend this understanding by illustrating, in King’s view, how classroom practice often advances what Rosemarie Garland-Thomson calls a “normate,” defined in King’s words as “the physical manifestation of the collective, un-stigmatized characteristics of a culture” (101). Normates provide expectations about what students should be able to do with a text without regard for the differences in the lived experience of individual readers, for example projecting a textbook as “an object that all students can carry, hold, and read” (101). King finds textbooks a rich area for study of these expectations because they purport to “describe what students should do when reading” (101).

King develops her argument by analyzing two textbooks that focus on reading but are widely assigned in writing classes (102), Ways of Reading by David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky (Ways) and The Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty, by Mariolina Salvatore and Patricia Donahue (Elements). As sources of “authoritative instruction in how students should read,” these books, in King’s view, provide opportunities to investigate how they further a normate treatment of the material features of reading (99; emphasis original).

An illustration demonstrates that the two books provide closely spaced text with narrow margins and minimal white space (103). King argues that such formatting choices make assumptions about a reader’s ability to focus on small text and discourage interaction other than underlining and highlighting (103). The texts do not suggest anticipation of a reader who might need a magnifying glass, for example, and could not take in the page “holistically,” as this format invites (104). King suggests that variations in font, unlike the uniform features of these texts, might encourage student awareness of how such features affect their engagement with a text (104).

For King, the metaphors the books use to describe reading also pay inadequate attention to the embodied aspects of interaction with a text. Ways calls reading a “conversation,” but, King argues, does not envision how different bodies might understand or participate in conversation differently and thus respond differently to the metaphor (105). Elements offers a “transaction” as its metaphor, using the embodied language of “voice” but, King contends, focusing on thinking, stating that “reading involves . . . thinking the thoughts of another, inhabiting someone else’s mind” (qtd. in King 105). King writes that readers cannot inhabit the minds of others whose minds may have been shaped by different material experiences (106). Both texts, she argues, portray a sense that “the body can be transcended” and that thinking can exist outside of situated individual realities (106).

She critiques the books’ use of “a real—not hypothetical—student to exemplify their ideal reading process and outcome” (106). The student narrative in Ways “is intended to describe the embodied experience of the common student,” but in order to do so, the authors refrain from naming the student or providing any physical detail of the student’s appearance or of his activities as he enacts the ideal process (107). Similarly, Elements presents a successful student who is given a name but no other identifying details, such as age, race, or college status; according to King, the student’s actual successful strategies are not shared (108).

King draws on other critiques of these narratives to argue that the students in question are presented as having successfully modeled “teacher-sanctioned practices” (108) that they found accessible because “the material conditions of their prior existence most closely align with the classroom” (109). King argues that differently embodied students might interact with the two texts very differently than the “idealized” students in the narratives (107); their different responses, attributable to their different lived realities, risk falling outside the normate established by the texts.

Contending that for students, “the body houses their sociocultural identity,” King suggests principles and strategies for making students more aware of how they physically interact with texts. Encouraging “multiple ways of knowing” (110) and a range of modes and physical activities such as playing with visual elements and fonts (111), King writes, can raise students’ awareness of how different texts make them feel and act, and help them locate their own most effective strategies for reading (112).

When our textbooks privilege a version of reading that is not embodied and which does not emphasize the materiality of reading, our classrooms actively construct barriers for students whose embodied, material realities do not reflect an assumed norm. (112)

 


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Fleming, David. Fear of Persuasion in English Language Arts. CE, July 2019. Posted 09/02/2019.

Fleming, David. “Fear of Persuasion in the English Language Arts.” College English 81.6 (2019): 508-41. Print.

David Fleming expresses concern that English instruction at all levels has banished “persuasion” as one of the rhetorical arts. He argues that scholars and practitioners in the English Language Arts should reconsider the importance of persuasion as a central element of human communication and reinvigorate it as part of the language curriculum.

Fleming examines the history of “persuasion” from ancient Greek culture through present-day curricula like that included in the Common Core State Standards for preK-12 classrooms and currently taught in college composition classes. The Greeks, he points out, considered persuasion a god in the form of Peitho, seen as a vital force in all forms of political and cultural life (508), particularly because of its power to bring people together (509). The god, however, had two sides, one involving “eros, beauty, and seduction” and the other including “logos, speech, and reason” (508-09). Its seductive powers mean that persuasion “needs discipline” if its practitioners are to maximize its worth without giving in to its “vices” (510).

Fleming draws on the contrast between the Isocratean rhetorical tradition and the Socratic philosophical approach to illustrate persuasion’s complex history. The Socratic tradition turned to a dialectical search for truth, characterizing persuasion as the ability to “mov[e] crowds of uneducated listeners” (509). This strand, Fleming writes, led to “modern philosophy,” as developed by thinkers like René Descartes, John Locke, and Immanuel Kant, for whom “disagreement” was to be taken as a “sign of error” on the part of one of the arguers (511).

In contrast, Isocrates, in a tradition continued by Quintillian and Cicero, argued for rhetorical practice “centered on language, literature, and the arts of social influence, rather than mathematics, dialectic, and truth seeking” (509). This tradition, Fleming writes, appears as well in the late eighteenth-century British Enlightenment, with the work of George Campbell and Hugh Blair. Fleming states that in Campbell’s view, persuasion was the most important of the four aims of discourse because it acted on the “will” and generated action (512).

Fleming reports that this respect for persuasion as one of a range of forms of discourse continued through the nineteenth century in United States education. John Franklin Genung’s “influential 1886 textbook” considered persuasion “sovereign” among rhetorical aims because it spoke to “the whole man—not to his mind alone, but to mind and heart and will” (Genung, qtd. in Fleming 513). U. S. education in these years is characterized as an “oratorical culture” with a “backdrop of momentous social issues” (513), in which powerful public speakers influenced public opinion and spurred action.

In Fleming’s view, persuasion lost ground in education as “scientific, technical, and commercial pursuits” replaced the “traditional arts,” writing supplanted speaking, and persuasion became “weaponized” for commercial and political ends (514). Educators began to consider persuasive tactics as a form of domineering violence and urged a turn to argument seen as “inquiry, discovery, or communication” (Amy Knoblauch, qtd. in Fleming 515).

Argument as opposed to persuasion, Fleming indicates, experienced a resurgence with Stephen Toulmin’s 1958 The Uses of Argument, in which, in Fleming’s view, “practical reasoning” cast argument as “all about justification, the relationship of statements, not of people” (516). Educators, he contends, came to see argument and persuasion as separate kinds of discourse, with persuasion the negative form. This opposition, Fleming writes, runs counter to the rhetorical tradition, in which the two work in concert (516). Fleming notes that a search of CompPile he conducted finds mention of persuasion “declining precipitously” in college writing literature from the 1990s (516).

Fleming cites Kenneth Burke’s argument that persuasion is inherent in communication and defends persuasion through the claims of political scientist Bryan Garsten, who focuses on the role persuasion plays in democracy. Like Burke, Fleming writes, Garsten urges us to recognize the ubiquity of disagreement; for Garsten, persuasion requires respect for those with whom we disagree, including an awareness of their right to freely reject our claims. Acknowledging the legitimacy of persuasion, in Fleming’s view, validates our “situated capacity to judge controversial matters” rather than handing judgment over to “a sovereign public authority of some kind” like a monarch or “reason itself” (519-20). In Garsten’s words,

The presumption . . . that there is such a thing as persuasion that lies between manipulation and pandering . . . is the presumption of democratic politics. (qtd. in Fleming 520; ellipses in Fleming)

Fleming documents the rejection of persuasion in the Common Core State Standards, which provide benchmarks for English and math in preK-12 education. The Standards privilege argument defined as “a reasoned, logical way of demonstrating that the writer’s position, belief, or conclusion is valid” (qtd. in Fleming 522). Text from the ELA Standards, Fleming maintains, makes clear that arguing from ethos or pathos is inferior to arguing from logos—in Fleming’s view, dismissing “the key insight of Aristotelian rhetorical theory, that persuasive argument is a matter of ethos, pathos, and logos” (523; emphasis original).

Fleming explores online resources spreading the view that persuasion is to be avoided because of its appeal to the emotions rather than “facts, reasons, and evidence” (ReadWriteThink.org, qtd. in Fleming 524). Fleming contends that this distaste for persuasion may be a reaction to poorly designed timed writing prompts that asked students to take positions based entirely on subjective experience (527).

He expresses concern that few scholars in rhetoric and composition have addressed the “hyperlogical” slant driving current approaches to argumentation (528). Some have examined the fact vs. opinion binary that Fleming believes exacerbates the rejection of persuasion. Analyzing an NPR segment on a sixth-grade argument assignment, Fleming challenges the claim that “facts” can be opinion-free, contending instead that students will be better served in a polemic culture if they understand that “their arguments are always based on evidence that is itself always constructed, contingent, and debatable” (532).

The example in question presents students with two sets of opposing facts, in Fleming’s view failing students by not providing the tools to assess situations where both sides may be partially right or wrong (533). Moreover, in his view, students are not allowed to use appeals that would gain adherence in a real-world decision-making context. He argues that an opinion can be an embodied “judgment” resulting from joining argument and persuasion rather than uncoupling them (533-34).

Fleming sees persuasion as a form of communication that “tries to move others while still respecting their autonomy, that appreciates the legitimate role of character and emotion in human judgment and action” (535). Rejecting this art, he claims, can lead to a belief that anyone holding opposing views is in error, “even evil,” a situation “more ethically dangerous” than the vices attributed to persuasion (535).


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Gindlesparger, Kathryn Johnson. Ethical Representation in the “Study-Abroad Blog.” CE, Sept. 2018. Posted 10/15/2018.

Gindlesparger, Kathryn Johnson. “‘Share Your Awesome Time with Others’: Interrogating Privilege and Identification in the Study-Abroad Blog.” College English 81.1 (2018): 7-26. Print.

Kathryn Johnson Gindlesparger analyses the ethical dimensions of “study-abroad blogs” that students produce to document their trips. In Gindlesparger’s view, such blogs as currently constructed by study-abroad planning agencies like International Student Exchange Programs (ISEP) enable problematic representations and identifications. She argues for a more thoughtful, ethically aware approach to such responses to study-abroad experiences.

Gindlesparger’s analysis focuses on three of thirteen first- and second-year students enrolled in her 2012 “Contemporary Europe” class; the class addressed “tensions that may go unnoticed” if courses are “less inclusive of internationally traumatic subject matter” (8). Students recorded their experiences during a three-week trip that included two Holocaust sites and one “youth center for Bosnian refugees in Berlin” (8). The three students gave permission for their materials to be included in the study and participated in reflective interviews five years later (9).

The study-abroad industry, Gindlesparger writes, is experiencing an “explosion,” with shorter trips now the more common format (9). She reports that institutions find the trips to be revenue-generating vehicles; she sees the student blogs not only as ways to share experiences with home audiences but also as marketing tools (9).

Gindlesparger’s first object of analysis is an ISEP “advice column,” “How to Write a Study Abroad Blog: 5 Tips for Success” (11). She contends that the genre as constructed by this document and others like it, including her own assignment sheet, positions students to respond to exposure to others’ trauma in troubling ways.

The five tips reported by Gindlesparger are “Write,” “Reflect on your experience,” “Share photos,” “Keep it short,” and “Be honest” (12). Essential to the tip advice, she states, is the emphasis on “positive experience” that can be depicted as “action”: the advice sheet instructs students to “keep your content to what is most exciting and noteworthy” (qtd. in Gindlesparger 12). Examples in the sheet, in Gindlesparger’s view, suggest that for U. S. students, a study-abroad experience allows them to act as “conquerors of a passive world” that is their “playground” and to consider their trip as “a vacation-oriented experience” (12).

This configuration of the rhetorical situation inherent in a study-abroad trip, Gindlesparger writes, turns the experience into a means by which the students focus on their own “personal growth and development” (Talya Zemach-Bersin, qtd. in Gindlesparger 10). In this view, growth that results from encountering less affluent cultures or sites of trauma can translate into the accumulation of “cultural capital” (9), such that students may “use the misfortune of others to explore their own privilege” (8).

Gindlesparger finds that directing students to make connections between what they encounter and their own experiences contributes to problematic representation and appropriation of cultures and historical trauma. In particular, she argues, the exhortation to relate personally to what study-abroad students observe creates problems because questions about “what surprised you or what you have learned” are “arhetorical tools that can be applied to any situation” (13). The blog tips, as well as the perceived need to allow students freedom to choose their own subjects, make no rhetorical or ethical distinction between visits to a concentration camp and a beach day (14).

The blog entries and later interviews of Gindlesparger’s three study subjects explore the genre demands of the blogs. In Gindlesparger’s analysis, “Eric” responded to a meeting with a Holocaust survivor by “positioning her life experience as entertainment for Eric’s gain” (15) as he casts her history as a “tragic masterpiece” and a vivid “painting” for his consumption (qtd. in Gindlesparger 15). Eric has difficulty moving beyond his earlier school readings on the Holocaust as he tries to relate to an individual whose experiences may not have been captured in those readings (16). In his interview, Eric notes his earlier urge to handle the experience by “tying a bow on it” (qtd. in Gindlesparger 16).

According to Gindlesparger, “Emily” “overidentifi[es]” with Nazis assembled in a Nuremberg stadium used for rallies when she imagines that she can put herself in the Nazis’ shoes and assigns her own values to their response to Hitler (17), contending that they might have felt “helpless” before Hitler’s tactics. Gindlesparger argues that the blog genre insists that the “complex intellectual task of trying to understand” Nazis must be “‘exciting,’ ‘awesome,’ or at least show how [Emily] is bettered” (17).

Gindlesparger writes that Alyssa’s response to the Mauthausen Concentration Camp is the “inciting incident” for her study (18). Alyssa’s blog entry attempts to relate the experiences of the camp victims to her own ROTC basic training (18). Getting up early and the arrangement of the camp trigger identification with the prisoners (18), to the point that “[t]he gas chamber experience was something I could somewhat relate to” (qtd. in Gindlesparger 18). In her interview, Gindlesparger recounts, Alyssa focused on the blog’s mandate to keep her report “awesome” by writing something “readable and enjoyable” (19), with the result that she was discouraged from dealing with the emotional experience of the concentration camp.

From the interviews, Gindlesparger concludes that students resist addressing discomforting experiences, choosing instead the tactic encouraged by the blog genre, “identifying from similarity” (20). This kind of identification glosses over differences that might challenge students’ complacency or comfort. Gindlesparger turns to Krista Ratcliffe’s concept of “rhetorical listening,” in which participating in what Ratcliffe calls a “genuine conversation” can allow “working through their own discomfort” to become “the students’ end goal” (20). Gindlesparger proposes Dominick LaCapra’s “empathetic unsettlement” as a way to undercut inappropriate closure and resist the temptation to see others’ horrific experiences as somehow accruing to an observer’s spiritual gain (20).

Noting that the three students were “genuine, caring sympathetic people” who did their best to respond to expectations as they understood them (19), and that two of the three found it hard to explain their blog entries (21), Gindlesparger suggests more attention to the rhetorical demands of the genre itself as part of the “predeparture preparation” (21). She also recommends calling attention to the time-intensive nature of working through unsettlement, in contrast to the genre’s demands for fast, brief responses, as well as asking for revision after contemplative work in order to allow students to reevaluate “tidy” responses (22). Similarly, exploring students’ own positionality in preparation for exposure to others’ trauma and creating opportunities for more extensive interaction with difference during the trip can enable students to “identify from difference rather than similarity” (23). Gindlesparger finds these pedagogical choices important as composition increasingly engages with audiences and experiences outside of the classroom (23).


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Lynch, Paul. Writing as Spiritual Exercise. CE, July 2018. Posted 08/17/2018.

Lynch, Paul. “Shadow Living: Toward Spiritual Exercises for Teaching.” College English 80.6 (2018): 499-516. Print.

Paul Lynch writes about a state of mind experienced by some seasoned writing teachers that he equates with Thomas Newkirk’s “emotional underlife of teaching” (qtd. in Lynch 500). Drawing on Paul Kameen’s depiction of this state of mind in Writing/Teaching, Lynch describes it as a point at which a well-developed set of teaching practices ceases to make classroom practice meaningful (499-500).

Further exploring this phenomenon, Lynch considers Bill Readings’s contention in The University in Ruins that teachers who see themselves as a “rhetor rather than magister” find that their “mastery” of teaching practice may not mesh with the need, as a rhetor, to “redefine pedagogy as ‘a relation, a network of obligation” rather than as a platform from which to dispense knowledge (qtd. in Lynch 500; emphasis original). Recognizing the contradictions between the accumulation of professional expertise and an understanding of teaching as relational leads, in Lynch’s view, to questions like Kameen’s “What am I doing here?” In Lynch’s view, teachers cannot easily resolve this contradiction and should consider instead, in Kameen’s words, “living in the shadow of [the question’s] imperative” (qtd. in Lynch 501; emendation in Lynch).

Central to the kind of mastery composition specialists commonly value, Lynch proposes, is faith in reflection as a means of becoming a critically aware teacher. Citing Kathleen Blake Yancey’s discussions of reflection, Lynch writes of the assumption that reflection can aid teachers just as it can students by allowing them to “consciously and therefore critically reflect on their own success and failure with an eye toward improvement” (502). Such reflection commonly involves exploring one’s experiences through writing. Donald Schön, in The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action, further develops the view that by combining “technical knowledge and practical experience” (503), experts like teachers can assemble a set of responses to the problems they encounter.

Lynch turns to critiques of reflection as a means of resolving the problem of the “emotional underlife” teachers may encounter. From Kenneth Burke he takes the concept of “trained incapacity” to argue that a teacher faced with a loss of faith in his or her professional practice may resort to reflection as an attempt to increase mastery, which may make responses to complex relational engagements “automatic” (Schön, qtd. in Lynch 504) and, in Lynch’s view, a grounds for “boredom, burnout, and breakdown” (504).

Casey Boyle similarly suggests that reflection as commonly understood “operates on a destructive subject-object distinction” that assumes that people can separate their “agency” from the environment in which it is created and perpetuated, examining their actions rationally to improve them based on technical assessments of success (505). Lynch also draws on Robert Yagelski’s views, in Writing as a Way of Being, that written reflection as often practiced sees writing “simply as a way to record and express one’s experience,” whereas writing can also be viewed as “an experience in and of itself” (507).

Lynch proposes that the feelings expressed by Kameen and Newkirk “cannot be addressed by a reconsidered lesson plan or a revamped pedagogy” (507); indeed, in his view, resorting to these strategies compounds the problem. He suggests instead the use of writing as a form of reflection as experience that he calls “spiritual.” Spirituality, in his view, need not be specifically religious but can serve as a way of “liv[ing] in the shadow of questions that do not seem amenable to reflective thinking” (507-08) and thus avoiding the need for control that may lead to “demoralization,” defined as a feeling that, for the teachers in question, moves beyond frustration that old ways no longer work to an awareness that “they’ve lost any sense of which ways might” (505).

Lynch draws on Foucault to propose a regimen of “care of the self” (qtd. in Lynch 508) that includes “practices through which subjects might shape themselves” (508). This self-formation addresses character through, in Debra Hawhee’s words, “intensive attention and discipline, painful repeated exercise” (qtd. in Lynch 509). Among the exercises that promote self-re-shaping is a form of writing related to the development of “[p]hilosophic wisdom,” which, for Lynch, is not about acquiring topic mastery but rather “a matter of living a certain way of life” (509). This view counters the view that Lynch, via Foucault, attributes to Descartes, in which the self can be held apart from the knowledge it acquires, with the result that the knowledge does not affect “the structure of the subject itself” (qtd. in Lynch 510).

Similarly, Lynch cites the philosopher Pierre Hadot, for whom the “study of philosophy in the ancient world was more concerned with how the student lived than with what the student knew” (510). As an example of how writing furthered such a “spiritual program,” Hadot and Lynch reference the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, which they present not as exercises to portray experience but rather to engage more deeply with it (510-14). The spiritual exercise of writing for this purpose allows Aurelius “a chance to examine his conduct” each day (511) and to prepare himself for “the challenges of . . . daily living” (512). Aurelius’s view, quoted by Lynch, is that

The art of living is more like the wrestler’s art than the dancer’s in this regard, that it must stand ready and firm to meet whatever happens to it, even when unforeseen. (512)

In order to develop this stance, Lynch proposes, philosophical wisdom requires engaging rather than lamenting “the writer’s daily struggle (shadow boxing) against himself” (512). Lynch sees this kind of self-formative writing as important in the effort of “dwelling within a network of obligations,” which teachers must accept if they are to survive their encounters with the emotional underlife (512).

Contending that more experienced and capable teachers are among the most prone to confront this emotional quandary, Lynch concedes that reflection as most often understood can increase knowledge, but argues that knowledge alone is not sufficient (513). The kind of written reflection as spiritual exercise practiced by Aurelius and other philosophers, he asserts, can offer a way “to practice interdependence” rather than increase control (513). He argues that such exercise may bolster what Hawhee calls “a pedagogy of association” (qtd. in Lynch 514), that is, a pedagogy based on relationship and obligation:

Why would our students want to associate with us? And how will we be formed by the association? These are the kinds of questions that we might answer by practicing writing as a spiritual exercise. (514)


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Dubisar, Abby M. Mother-Based “Buffer” Rhetorics. CE, Jan. 2018. Posted 02/11/2018.

Dubisar, Abby M. “Mothers Against Gun Violence and the Activist Buffer.” College English 80.3 (2018): 195-217. Print.

Abby M. Dubisar responds to a call to recognize, value, and study “knowledge production by women” (195). She finds that rhetorical studies has not paid adequate attention to such knowledge production, especially that by African American women (195, 211, 213). In order to show how attention to rhetorical work by African American women can illuminate important strategies to serve the needs of communities and causes, Dubisar provides a case study of the group Mothers Against Gun Violence (MAGV) in Syracuse, New York (195-96).

Dubisar’s focus is “mother-based buffer rhetorics” (212). She defines “buffer rhetorics” as “embodied position[s]” that can appeal to wide audiences; as “a networked tactic” that both allows interaction with audiences and serves as a “unifying” force within communities responding to grief; and as “a stance that ranges from presence to direct action, able to be mediated online as well as in person” (196). She finds these rhetorics at work in a number of contexts, “as activists strategize ways to put themselves between public audiences and perpetrators and their victims and mourners” (196).

Dubisar presents the work of mothers of slain gun-violence victims to demonstrate how buffer rhetorics enable activists to lay claim to effective rhetorical identities and keep issues publically visible (211). Dubisar’s project grew from the 2008 Ray Smith Symposium: Feminist Rhetorics for Social Justice, in Syracuse; she took notes on MAGV speakers and went on to investigate media coverage of MAGV (196-97).

The author connects her study of MAGV with other rhetorical scholarship that examines the use of “maternal activism” (197) to further struggles for social justice. “Public mothering” has been studied for its ability to foster identification across racial and contextual boundaries (199). In Tamika Carey’s words, mothering rhetorics are “rhetorics of healing” (qtd. in Dubisar 198) that can appear in public spaces and in social and public media as well as in fiction and nonfiction (198).

Founded in 2005 by Helen Hudson after her stepson’s death by gun violence, MAGV illustrates how, as a buffer rhetoric, the rhetoric of public mothering functions to intervene with the younger audiences most likely to be affected by gun violence at the same time that it empowers activists as “liaisons” between grieving families, affected communities, and institutions like police and hospitals (200). Public mothering assures young audiences that they are cared for and valued (197), while “[i]dentifications in mothering and expressions of love for children, even grown children” draw in “disengaged white audiences” who may tend to blame family dynamics for violence and crime (201). In Dubisar’s view, risks that the use of motherhood as a persuasive strategy will “essentializ[e] mothers as a monolithic group” (198) can be overcome by careful use of the trope.

Noting Jacqueline Jones Royster and Gesa E. Kirsch’s understanding of rhetoric as “embodied social experience” (qtd. in Dubisar 200), Dubisar explores the embodiment inherent in MAGV’s activism. She illustrates this embodiment with the example of vigils that reclaim spaces where violence has occurred, pictures of people holding hands as “physical touches of care,” and an image of Hudson hugging another grieving mother, an action that “protect[s] people from the camera’s gaze and exposure to others” (202).

Dubisar sees such “invitation[s] to grieve” as encouraging more embodied action as community members, especially young people, are moved to speak up when they see signs of imminent violence (202). Members of MAGV also interject their physical presences into events and make themselves visible through speeches and videos. Dubisar provides the example of Lepa Jones, president of MAGV, who was featured in a 2015 news story and video in Syracuse and again in a video interview in 2016 (203). Dubisar argues that Jones is able to translate her presence into an appeal for solidarity, casting community members as “family” who have shared embodied experiences (203-04) and standing in for young people who may be cast as the cause of violence by white audiences (205). These efforts, Dubisar writes, allow MAGV participants to “make a mourning stance an activist role” (204), one that can remain visible beyond specific moments and events (211).

Dubisar further discusses how MAGV action creates networks, both to share comfort and to reach young people “who need support and to hear the message that they are loved and appreciated” (206). This networking extends to public office and to participation in other service organizations such as the Trauma Response Team, which calls on MAGV to step in between the many actors involved in a violent event, like families, hospital personnel, police and sources of financial support (206).

Involvement in these networks as mother-based rhetors generates authority and expertise as well intervention that contrasts with that of officials and social workers (207). Noting that such action cannot completely combat the extant “systemic racism and pro-gun legislation,” Dubisar contends that the group’s rhetorics of care provide “essential” connections among diverse groups who are working to limit gun violence (207).

The work of MAGV, Dubisar states, is also “mediated” in that it expands through media and mediates in that it actively enters spaces where young people are likely to congregate to assure them that they are loved (208). She illustrates the media influence that derives from the group’s mother-based rhetoric with a public-service video narrated by Hudson and other members. This 38-second video, “Dead is Forever,” which was shown widely in the area in venues where young people would see it, spoke directly to youths, urging them to see themselves as the children of mothers who would suffer if they were killed. The public-service announcement, which claimed space between “a police-produced antiviolence PSA and a news report about gun violence,” urges young people “to identify with their moms in a new way” by imagining themselves as capable of “pleas[ing] their mothers and mak[ing] them proud” (210).

Dubisar cites the embodied, networked, and mediated work of maternal spokeswomen like the mothers of Emmett Till, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and Michael Brown to illustrate specific examples of the “range of strategies African American women invent and adapt, both when asked to respond to violence and to sustain attention to an issue” (213). These strategies, in Dubisar’s view, deserve increased attention from rhetorical studies as forms of knowledge production by women.