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Earle, Chris S. Habermas and Religion in Public Life. CE, Nov. 2018. Posted 12/21/2018.

Earle, Chris S. “Religion, Democracy, and Public Writing: Habermas on the Role of Religion in Public Life.” College English 81.2 (2018): 133-54. Print.

Chris S. Earle discusses the issue of students’ inclusion of religion-based argument in writing classrooms. He links this concern to the problem of democratic deliberation in a diverse society in which religion plays an important role for many citizens.

He notes scholarship in composition regarding non-religious students’ resistance to argument drawn from religious belief and the concomitant problem of religious students’ need to bring their deep convictions to bear on questions of policy (134). He finds two often-used pedagogical approaches: encouraging critical thinking by asking students to recognize the existence of multiple viewpoints, and a focus on audience by developing reasons that would be persuasive to people who lack a religious commitment (134-35). In Earle’s view, these approaches do not address aspects of the problem that he considers additional “obligation[s] of democratic citizenship” (135).

To explore these obligations and suggest fruitful approaches to them, Earle proposes the “translation proviso” of Jürgen Habermas (135). In Earle’s reading, this theory recognizes the possible contradictions underlying “Value pluralism.” Habermas finds religious conviction important in democratic life because it can provide “a counterweight to forces . . . that threaten to instrumentalize human life” (135). But, Earle writes, Habermas also contends that reasons given in public debate must ultimately find expression in “terms acceptable to all involved” (135). These tenets set up a tension between “inclusion and reciprocity,” concepts Earle presents as central to “translation” (136-37).

Inclusion, in this view, means that all voices are heard. Reciprocity requires all interlocutors to express these views in ways that audiences will accept. Paradoxically, Earle argues, the need for inclusion requires religious views to be honored, yet reciprocity requires religious views to be subject to “validity claims” that they may not be able to accommodate. The result can be that arguers end up bringing “private reason” to decision-making, resulting in an “irreducible moral pluralism” in which stakeholders’ insistence on being included clashes with the refusal to subject their viewpoints to full debate (137).

Earle presents John Rawls’s solution as the elimination of “reasonable comprehensive doctrines” from “public debate” (137). Citizens would be limited to arguing for their positions through “the public use of reason” (137). For Rawls, public reason is founded on widely shared democratic and constitutional principles, whereas for Habermas, public reason can include “any reason that can be ‘defended as being in the best interest of all considered as equal moral and political beings’” (Seyla Benhabib, qtd. in Earle 137).

According to Earle, both Rawls and Habermas offer the “translation proviso” as a means to overcome this problem. For Rawls, religion can enter public debate, but religion per se does not provide the kind of reasons that can be accepted across the broad audiences engaged in such debate. Religious arguers must, “over time,” produce “a public translation” that will lay out their claims in terms accessible to all (139). Earle draws on the example of Jeffrey Ringer’s student who linked his religious convictions to “the democratic principle of free will” (139).

For Habermas, Earle contends, this version of the proviso means that religious arguers often may find the need for their positions to be “watered down”: was the student forced to “background his core beliefs in order to satisfy an audience or assignment requirements” (139)? If so, translation burdens religious arguers more than non-religious ones.

Earle writes that Habermas tackles this limitation of translation, first, by adding “an institutional filter” that would require public translation only in specific public settings like “courts, legislative bodies, and the discourse of elected officials and candidates” (1140). Earle claims that for Habermas, this adjustment allows religion to work as a moral force in the larger public while being converted to what Habermas called “generally acceptable language” in formal policy-making environments (qtd. in Earle 141). Working with this distinction can encourage students to distinguish between claims based on doctrinaire religious authority and those appealing to a broader “moral insight” (142).

Earle recommends setting this process in motion by encouraging students to write for many different audiences, assessing how reasons may need to be translated for different contexts and genres (142-43). Still, he contends, excluding religious claims from formal decision-making contexts may cause religious students to be constrained in ways that non-religious students are not (143). As an approach to addressing this problem, Earle presents Habermas’s depiction of translation as “a cooperative task” (144). In this view, a process of “reciprocal-perspective taking” in which respondents “listen to each other, reflect upon the limits of faith and reason, and [are] willing to modify their proposals and commitments” can result in more equitable exchanges across divisions (144).

Earle cites the critique of Maeve Cooke that generating broadly accessible reasons, even through reciprocity, may prevent students from accepting reasons that do not match “what sounds familiar” or is “compatible with what they already know” (145). Reasons that embody difference, Earle notes, may often be those of “less powerful groups” (145). He posits that, responding to Habermas’s proviso, students working together to generate diverse claims may learn to hear a fuller range of voices. Instructors should especially help students locate “real opposing voices” rather than generating their arguments prior to engaging specific points of view (150; emphasis original).

To reinforce the emphasis on listening inherent in reciprocity, Earle examines Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” used by both Rawls and Habermas to illustrate translation (147-49). Earle illustrates the ways in which King articulated his understanding of the views of those who opposed his practice of civil disobedience before “drawing connections and identifying shared premises between God’s law and, when just, constitutional law” (148). Earle contrasts this act of translation with the rhetoric of Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue same-sex marriage licenses on the grounds of religious freedom. Paramount for Earle is the refusal of Davis and her supporters to listen to and examine in good faith the views of those she opposes, with the result that she did not try to justify her positions to those audiences as true translation and reciprocity would require (149).

In Earle’s view, Habermas’s understanding of translation would move writers away from seeking out opposing views simply to recognize or rebut them (150). He acknowledges that hoping students, regardless of their religious commitments, will truly hear views that they find unacceptable and, in the process, “critically reflect upon the partiality of their perspectives” (150) is an “ideal” rather than a common result (152). He urges accepting the role of religious as well as non-religious points of view as a crucial component of “accepting as unavoidable what Habermas refers to as the democratic confusion of voices” (152). In such an ideal, Earle writes, members of a democratic society “might find a basis for agreement and even consubstantiality on something other than the content of our beliefs” (152).


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Thomson-Bunn, Heather. When religion and academic norms conflict. CE, Jan. 2017. Posted 01/19/2017.

Thomson-Bunn, Heather. “Mediating Discursive Worlds: When Academic Norms and Religious Belief Conflict.” College English 79.3 (2017): 276-96. Web. 10 Jan 2017.

Heather Thomson-Bunn describes a study on the reactions of composition instructors to students who incorporate their religious views into their writing coursework. Forty lecturers or graduate student instructors at a large “Public Midwestern University” responded to a survey and seven experienced instructors also participated in interviews (278-79).

The discussion focuses on Christian students because, Thomson-Bunn hypothesizes, the Christian religion intersects with higher education in especially salient ways, with the result that it is with these students that “instructors appear to have the most frequent conflicts” (278). She defines Christians as “followers and/or worshippers of Jesus Christ, whose commitment to their faith is a significant (if not the significant) dimension of identity” (278). Thomson-Bunn refrains from modifying “Christian” with other labels because in her findings, the students themselves did not claim these labels (279).

In her literature review, Thomson-Bunn explores previous composition scholarship on religious discourse in academic settings, citing several recent volumes to contend that the topic is “an increasingly visible area of scholarship” (276). Views range from rejection of the possibility that religious discourse can find a place within academic norms to the contention that instructors should help students find appropriate ways to examine and articulate their positions (276-77).

The survey and interviews revealed ways in which instructors felt that Christian students often had difficulty with “academic norms,” in particular those associated with “critical thinking,” “audience awareness,” “appropriate use of evidence,” and “tolerance” (280).

Difficulties involving critical thinking, according to Thomson-Bunn’s findings, revolved around differences in the kinds of discourses religious students found meaningful and the kinds composition instructors felt were appropriate in secular writing classrooms. Citing Thomas Amorose, Thomson-Bunn notes that religious discourse “privileges received meaning over constructed or contested meaning” (278; emphasis original). Similarly, citing Douglas Downs, she explores the claim that religious discourses are “discourses of affirmation,” while those of the composition classroom are “discourses of inquiry” (280). Instructors in her sample seem to find Christian students struggling to see their views as fluid and context-based and to consider them in the light of a range of perspectives, practices that the instructors saw as central to successful academic work (281).

Thomson-Bunn suggests that teachers may not always fully articulate their definitions of critical thinking so that students understand why they are being asked to develop certain habits of thought (281). The result, she finds, can be that students feel that their teachers are rejecting them personally or their faith specifically, rather than advocating for a useful approach to academic tasks (282-83). Teachers’ attitudes, Thomson-Bunn posits, may reflect a sense that their relationship with Christian discourses is a “battle” to be won, an approach that may obscure the more productive uses of critical thinking (283).

Issues involving audience awareness emerged as instructors answered a question as to whether it was “appropriate to incorporate religious beliefs into academic writing” (283). Ninety-eight percent of the participants “answered with a version of “it depends’” (283). Instructors suggested that issues of faith were more appropriate to “personal narratives,” which they tended to contrast with other forms of writing deemed more specific to academic discourse, such as argumentative writing (283). Thomson-Bunn quotes an instructor who postulates that some religious students may not realize that the tenets of their faith are not “a fact for everyone” (qtd. in Thomson-Bunn 285) and thus do not recognize the need to “accommodate” an audience as diverse as that of academia (284). Thomson-Bunn offers examples of Muslim graduate students who were able to incorporate an examination of their religious beliefs into academically appropriate intellectual work (284), but suggests that many students lack the “rhetorical dexterity” such accomplishments require (286). Study participants expressed concern about how to respect students’ values while simultaneously requiring them to adhere to academic norms (285).

Instructors expressed similar concerns about how to address students’ use of personal experience and/or Biblical material as evidence in argumentative writing. Thomson-Bunn notes that personal experience has been considered legitimate argumentative evidence by many groups, such as “women, ethnic minorities, LGBT communities” (286). Instructors find premises based on Biblical infallibility problematic because such arguments may assume that “received meanings and values” should be “automatically accepted” (287) rather than subjected to critical evaluation.

Thomson-Bunn notes an instructor who bases judgments about the acceptability of evidence on its effectiveness in a “specific rhetorical context”; this move, Thomson-Bunn argues, eliminates the question of whether or not the student’s “beliefs are correct” (288). Religious students, she points out, share with all students a need for help in determining how to choose evidence for specific situations (288).

Thomson-Bunn finds that “tolerance” for diverse views has become, at least implicitly, “one of the purposes of instruction within the academy” (288). This particular academic norm is of concern in her study because the question, “What characteristics come to mind when you think of a Christian student?” (288) generated responses like “Judgmental,” “Not very open-minded,” and “Suspicious of ideas that challenge their faith” (288-89). No contrasting terms, such as “very open-minded,” emerged (289).

Thomson-Bunn reports a study participant who was taken aback by an intolerant statement from a religious student but who also worried that she responded by “shutting down the conversation” and avoiding “teaching ‘gay’ texts for two years,” responses that she deemed, in fact, emblematic of her own intolerance (289). Thomson-Bunn finds that many instructors respond to the expression of intolerance from religious students by declaring certain topics off limits in their classes (289).

Thomson-Bunn encourages “work[ing] through discursive conflict, rather than avoid[ing] it or inflam[ing] it” (290). She cites one study participant who felt that “critical responsibility [for helping students through such conflict] lies with the instructor” (qtd. in Thomson-Bunn 290). Following Beth Daniell, she suggests that what may look like resistance may be students’ efforts to “work through new ideas” (291).

One instructor addresses the use of the Bible as evidence by conducting a full-class discussion rather than one-on-one conversations with specific students. This tactic, according to the instructor, allows other students to make audience responses and differing interpretations of the text visible and to allow Christian students to examine audience further by re-imagining themselves as audiences for the religious texts of other faiths (292).

Another strategy involves helping students analyze texts that do meet academic norms while drawing on faith, such as the 1805 text “Red Jacket Defends Native American Religion” and “A Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King, Jr. Through such texts, students can analyze the rhetorical power of specific textual moves to alienate or appeal to diverse audiences (293).

Finally, Thomson-Bunn argues that by finding ways to respond constructively to religious values in the composition classroom, teachers can “model the very kinds of tolerance and critical thinking we want all students to exhibit” (294; emphasis original).


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Staley and Leonardi. Teacher Education for Gender and Sexual Diversity. RTE, Nov. 2016. Posted 01/04/2017.

Staley, Sara, and Bethy Leonardi. “Leaning In to Discomfort: Preparing Literacy Teachers for Gender and Sexual Diversity.” Research in the Teaching of English 51.2 (2016): 209-29. Print.

Sara Staley and Bethy Leonardi present the results of a literacy methods course for preservice English language arts teacher in which practices for supporting LGBTQ students were foregrounded. The authors argue that the “disturbing number of lives lost in recent years among youth who identified or were perceived to identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning” demands attention from educators who have failed to address “the resounding silence around gender and sexual diversity (GSD) . . . that has long pervaded teacher education” (209). The authors contend that LGBTQ students often report feeling that “school was often an unsafe place” (209). Staley and Leonardi discuss the results of a curriculum designed to help novice teachers make their classrooms more welcoming to such students.

The course was piloted in Fall 2012 and the study conducted during the Spring 2013 semester at a large public university in the Mountain West (214). Students in the course were about to commence student teaching (215). Primary data consisted of transcripts of
“two whole-class fishbowl conversations” conducted during weeks 4 and 16, and a blog that students began working with in week 4 (216). The researchers provided specific prompts for the blog. Of the seventeen students in the course, sixteen agreed to participate; three were eliminated as data sources because they contributed only minimally in the assigned venues, so eleven who self-identified as female and two who self-identified as male participated (215).

The researchers, both doctoral students, co-designed the course and the study (215). Staley was the “lead instructor” and Leonardi a “participant observer in three class sessions” as well as a facilitator of various components of the course (215).

The analytic framework for the course and study involved a “queer theoretical perspective on the problem of heteronormativity in schools” that urges teachers to disrupt dominant assumptions that sexuality functions as a binary in which heterosexuality is normal and other forms of sexual identification are deviant (211). The authors contend that such an approach is preferable to standard anti-bullying programs that “locate the problem in individuals, rather than in institutional practices that encourage bullying and oppress on the basis of sex, gender, and sexuality” (212). Staley and Leonardi combine this approach with that of Kevin K. Kumashiro, who casts anti-oppression education in terms of “desire, resistance, and crisis” (213, italics original) and of Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön, who encourages “leaning in” as a way of overcoming the resistance that can derail the process of “unlearning” long-held views about topics like sexuality (222; italics original). The authors define “leaning in” as “a moving toward discomfort, rather than away from it, and inquiry into what can be learned from such energetic responses as emotional pain, fear, and discomfort” (223).

These analytical perspectives led Staley and Leonardi to focus on manifestations of emotion in their data, as well as reactions to the course’s emphasis on the role of teachers in disrupting heteronormativity (217). They identified emotional responses as “discomfort,” “desire to disrupt,” and “desire to resist.” A recurrent theme in students’ responses involved “how” to further GSD-inclusive curricula; this marker was labeled “wrestling with praxis.” As a result of this coding, students were categorized as “dedicated disrupters,” “discomforted,” and “resistors” (217; italics original). The discussion centers on the “discomforted” because this group of eight students exhibited significant changes during the course (218).

The emotional shifts experienced by the discomforted students began with “shock,” “incredulity,” and “disbelief” as they confronted claims in the course readings that school environments were not uniformly progressive and that teachers were often not protected when they attempted to incorporate anti-oppressive curricula on GSD issues (218-19). The students became aware of their own lack of knowledge about responses to LGBTQ concerns in schools and the failure of their own educations as preservice teachers to address these concerns (219). The beginning teachers’ own experiences in grappling with classroom incidents in which they did not know how to disrupt heteronormative oppression led to a shift to “wrestling with praxis” as they began to search for viable tools to protect students (220).

Staley and Leonardi report that these searches and discussions led to positive results as discomforted students in their class began to be able to articulate “specific examples of actionable steps that literacy teachers could take to disrupt heteronormativity,” including recognizing the need to move beyond simply including LGBTQ-themed literature in the classroom (221). The authors note, however, that this increasing practical grounding did not alleviate the students’ sense that there were no simple solutions or “path[s]” they could consistently follow but rather that learning to address oppressive behavior in the classroom was a matter of “ongoing labor” (Kumashiro, qtd. in Staley and Leonardi 222).

The authors provide two examples of students who responded to the emotional crisis generated by unlearning familiar assumptions by “leaning In” to their discomfort. These two students “each began to frame their discomfort as generative and necessary—not as something to be resolved, once and for all” (222). These two responses emphasized the importance of considering mistakes as ways to move forward and of recognizing fear in challenging situations as a necessary component of acting in circumstances where there will never be clear answers (223-24).

Noting that language-arts teachers are especially well-positioned to bring GSD concerns into curricula, the authors call for a deliberate focus on these concerns in teacher education (224), so that teachers have tools that allow them to “move beyond inclusion” to active resistance to heteronormative agendas (224). They note that their own curriculum might have productively incorporated awareness of the necessary emotional journey in their course framework, recognizing and “celebrat[ing]” early “glimmers of leaning in” (225; emphasis original). Student teachers, they argue, will benefit from learning a greater “tolerance for discomfort, uncertainty, and ambiguity” (225). Further, they encourage efforts to engage prospective teachers whose cultural values, for example religious views, make grappling with GSD issues even more problematic than for others (225). The authors endorse the concept of leaning in to discomfort as a way to draw preservice teachers into the “ongoing labor” of anti-oppressive education.

 


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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).