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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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Detweiler et al. Feminist-Sophistic Leadership. CE, May 2017. Posted 05/21/2017.

Detweiler, Jane, Margaret LaWare, and Patti Wojahn. “Academic Leadership and Advocacy: On Not Leaning In.” College English 79.5 (2017): 451-65. Print.

Contributing to a special issue of College English on “English and Leadership Studies,” Jane Detweiler, Margaret LaWare, and Patti Wojahn examine current models of leadership in academia and advocate resisting these models in order to re-envision how leadership can enable a more inclusive, collaborative institutional structure. In particular, they take a “feminist-sophistic” approach to consider how a feminist lens enables critique of current models and points to possible alternatives (460, 463).

They find this feminist approach important because of the degree to which decades of critique have not led to a re-valuation of the kinds of service and relationship-building largely undertaken in the academy by women (454). Re-envisioning what leadership can look like and what it can do differently, they contend, will require attention to “intersectionlity,” which they define, drawing on bell hooks, as “the intersections of gender, race, sexual identity, and class that shape the embodiment and enactment of leadership” (453).

The authors note that scholars in the humanities may be inclined to see the devaluation of women as less egregious than it is in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) areas, but the article presents statistics to support a claim that, in fact, for women, “recruitment in the more advanced ranks in our field” is as problematic as in STEM fields (452). Although humanities faculty may be reassured by the finding from a 2009 MLA study that “women make up 67 percent of associate professors” in English and foreign language departments, as compared to only 42 percent across institutions, women in the humanities account for just “43% of full professors—the rank that is a prerequisite for many leadership positions” (452).

In the authors’ view, current models of leadership do not accord with the realities of women’s positions within academic institutions. According to Detweiler et al., the kinds of contributions made by women within the academy are not seen as “leadership” and do not earn access to “decision-making” processes related to governance (455)). These contributions involve mentoring of students and faculty, running programs, and developing relationships and collaborations across institutions (454-55).

On the whole, the authors contend, the expertise required to perform these important tasks is not recognized, with such vital contributions relegated to “maintenance” rather than “leadership” (455). Women, often non-tenure-track, “are disproportionately pressed into service” (455), where “service” is considered secondary to “the ‘real work’ of research” (457).

In addition to devaluing the essential roles women tend to play within institutions, Detweiler et al. argue, current conceptions of leadership do not mesh with the reality of women’s lives both within the institution and in their roles beyond their careers. They note studies showing that women report more time on service and teaching than men, even though men tend to perceive the time investment in these activities as equal (456). The MLA Commission on the Status of Women in the Profession reports that women far exceed men in the amount of caregiving they perform (457); as a result of such discrepancies, women are “not just less likely to advance to full professor levels but also do so more slowly—advancing, in fact, 24 percent more slowly” (454). In another study, “women with children were 38 percent less likely to procure tenure than were their male counterparts with children” (457).

A feminist response to such conditions, in the authors’ view, involves rejecting the call from writers like Sheryl Sandberg to “lean in” to existing leadership structures that feminist scholars “want neither to enter nor accept” (452). Extant leadership roles focus on individual achievement and on maintaining current exclusionary hierarchies that continue to denigrate much of what women are called on to do as service (459). The authors contend that traditional advice about advancement within institutions is “rhetorically savvy but ethically suspect” (459), urging as it does that one exploit one’s opponents and consider advancement as a competitive victory (459), with leadership “as a birthright or as mastery to be achieved by conquest or coercion” (456). Detweiler et al. argue that simply increasing the numbers of women in advanced positions within departments will not suffice (459); instead, women who achieve these levels in governance structures must act on an “ambivalence” about those structures that fuels change (463).

Such change, the authors urge, should embrace collaboration and inclusion meant to create “well-being for all” (461). They advocate Krista Ratcliffe’s “rhetorical listening” as a means to develop “responsive leadership” that acts on the needs of teachers, students, and the community (456). In their view, such leadership will recognize and reward the skills women bring to academic institutions, such as the ability build relationships across diverse communities and to form coalitions (457). In such an environment, service will no longer be seen as a “necessary evil” but rather understood as vital work that keeps programs and institutions running (456-57).

The authors note the difficulty experienced by members of marginalized populations as they use their “considerable rhetorical skill” in the cause of their communities yet risk “being subsumed into the polity and losing identifications with their own constituencies” (459). This risk associated with “leaning in,” they suggest, is related to a “public turn” in composition; in response, curriculum design can encourage students to see themselves as actors, in the words of Mark Gellis, in “polis-like organizations” so that “the teaching of rhetoric becomes, to an extent, the teaching of leadership” (qtd. in Detweiler et al. (459).

For Detweiler et al., such leadership through teaching meshes with Ernest Boyer’s “scholarship of engagement” in which “applied research, the scholarship of teaching and service in leadership” emphasizes the “integral relations” among these activities (461). Adopting this view of leadership will, the authors contend, advance the goal articulated in the MLA Commission on the Status of Women in the Profession by bringing academic advancement “directly into line with the numerous, essential, and vitalizing activities that sustain day-to-day life in colleges and universities” (qtd. in Detweiler et al. 461).