College Composition Weekly: Summaries of research for college writing professionals

Read, Comment On, and Share News of the Latest from the Rhetoric and Composition Journals


Leave a comment

Johnson, June. Teaching the Literature of Witness. CE, Mar. 2020. Posted 06/27/2020.

Johnson, June. “Overcoming Reader Resistance to Global Literature of Witness: Teaching Collaborative Listening Using The Devil’s Highway and What is the What.College English 82.4 (2020): 351-80. Print.

June Johnson writes about the pedagogical challenges of using the “literature of witness” to engage readers’ emotional responses to suffering and injustice in the lives of people different from them.

Citing scholars Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, Johnson lists the features of “literature of witness” as

a first-person narrator’s account of suffering and survival, the obligation to tell the stories of the dead, and grounding in cultural and geographic specifics. (353)

The goal of teaching this literature, in Johnson’s view, involves developing readers’ ability to care about strangers and recognize similarities of humanity, without, at the same time, “either subsuming cultural differences within our own cultural frames or accentuating them” (352). Paradoxically, Johnson writes, efforts to engage emotional empathy may exacerbate resistance and even trigger hostility to the sufferers readers encounter in these texts.

For Johnson, citing Martha Nussbaum, narrative writing and literature are the means best suited to draw out emotional responses (351). In the case of literature of witness, the effort to gain empathy through storytelling is “justify[ed]” by “the genre’s outcomes in the world” as attitudes and behavior change; as a result, Johnson considers these texts to have “an overtly persuasive purpose” (353).

Drawing on work within language studies on the role of emotions in decision-making and attitudes as well as in fields such as cognitive psychology and theories of critical reading and “collaborative rhetoric,” Johnson also turns to Krista Ratcliffe’s concept of “cultural logic” to explore the ways in which readers may resist the emotional force of works like literatures of witness (352). Noting that a cultural logic, in Ratcliffe’s words, is “a belief system or shared way of reasoning within which a claim may function” (qtd. in Johnson 354), Johnson examines ways in which these cultural logics may limit readers’ responses to the stories of suffering presented in the specifically situated accounts of refugees, immigrants, and others whose accounts challenge the preconceived assumptions of developed Western societies.

One form of resistance, in Johnson’s view, is “Shock and Fascination Followed by Patronizing Dismissal” (354). Readers may experience a “voyeuristic response” to horrors that seem unimaginable, then move on to cast such horrors as distant and irrelevant in their own lives. Geographical areas where suffering takes place can be seen as needing to “work their way out of their problems” on their own in order to emulate more “developed” countries (355).

Citing scholars studying efforts to ameliorate global suffering, Johnson identifies a second form of response: “Sadness and Indignation Followed by Emotional Overload and Helplessness” (355). In these cases, readers are overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem and “retreat into emotional self-protection” when no solutions are offered or seem possible (357).

Finally, readers may experience “Fear and Defensiveness Followed by Denial and Retrenchment” (357). In this dynamic, Johnson contends, issues of national security and economic well-being compound with protectiveness over identity to shift attention to questions of responsibility, as members of privileged societies resist blame for others’ suffering (358).

In order to alleviate the effects of these resistances, Johnson writes, respondents must fundamentally change, and she posits “collaborative listening” (354), practices that draw on work by Carl Rogers, Peter Elbow, Donna Qualley, Krista Ratcliffe, and sociologist Robin DiAngelo (353-54). To guide students into these “rigorous listening” experiences (358), she proposes teaching two specific texts, Luis Alberto Urrea’s The Devil’s Highway and Dave Eggers’s What is the What.

The Devil’s Highway recounts a non-fiction border tragedy in the form of a postmodern novel: a desert march by 26 Mexican migrants, 14 of whom died on the journey. Johnson argues that rhetorical features of syntax and structure immerse readers in transformative identity challenges in ways that traditional narrative strategies may fail to do (359). In her view, the text induces collaborative listening via such moves as a “disorienting narrative structure” that requires readers to “struggle to make sense of the text as the characters struggle to make sense of a journey” (361).

She writes further that the text creates “shifting character identities” with postmodern juxtapositions of characters including Border Patrol agents and “coyotes” or smugglers as well as the migrants (363). Dialogic narrative includes a shift to second-person through which she writes that readers are “[c]aught off guard” and “place[d] . . . directly into the shoes of the walkers”; this shift, Johnson claims, undercuts what Carl Rogers called “our very natural tendency to judge” (qtd. in Johnson 360). In Rogerian fashion, Johnson contends, the text also “listen[s] to” readers’ concerns and further opens a space for engagement (364; emphasis original).

Johnson also defines Eggers’s book as “postmodern narration” that “teaches collaborative listening” (366). The full title is What is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, A Novel; Deng, a refugee from civil war in Sudan, worked with Eggers over many years, deciding with him that “a shift to fiction” with Deng as the first-person narrator would be most effective in conveying Deng’s story (366). Johnson writes that a “fragmented narrative” that moves forward and backward in time in recounting events from 1987 to 2004, from Deng’s experiences in the Second Sudanese Civil War to his life as a refugee in America, emphasizes the “unknowableness” of these experiences for Western readers (Elizabeth Twitchell, qtd. in Johnson 367). In Johnson’s view, this radical difference undercuts tendencies toward “ethnocentric representation traps of racial privilege and cultural superiority” (367). Instead, she believes it encourages us to collaborate in the search for “agency and meaning” (368).

The text also focuses on the irony that Deng’s search for safety in the United States led him to become a crime victim as well as a victim of cultural oppression (369), undercutting what Michelle Peek calls the “rhetoric of rescue and promise” in which Western readers might find solace (368). Johnson also explores the use of direct address to other “narratees, “ such as the young man guarding Deng while his apartment was robbed; for Johnson, Deng exhibits a “listening” stance that acknowledges readers and their views (370). She also argues that his “reflexive grappling with his subjectivity” over the course of the novel disrupts readers’ attempts to construct a familiar identity for the narrator, thus inviting understanding of the instability of comforting assumptions (372).

Johnson suggests low-stakes practices such as free-writes, journals, or letters to self that teachers can use to introduce students to difficult texts like the literature of witness. These activities should encourage students in:

(1) creating probing dialogues with self that address positionality; (2) curbing judgments and revising assumptions by living with/in multiple perspectives; and (3) embracing ongoing reflexivity that focuses on open listening as a rhetorical stance and an ethical choice. (373)

 

 


Leave a comment

Accessibility to print for visually-impaired persons–The Marrakesh Treaty

This information may have been widely circulated among composition professionals; I have not encountered it in any of the journals I’ve been accessing for this blog. At the same time, I’ve summarized some articles dealing with access for students with different disabilities, so I felt it might be useful to supply a link on this issue.

I received this link through a controversy that arose through my creative-writing blog. If you’re interested in the specifics (which involve intellectual-property issues that may resonate for some in composition), you can read the posts here and here.

A respondent to the second post introduced me to the Marrakesh Treaty. This treaty, which the U.S. has joined, allows authorized non-profit sites to post works for “blind and print-disabled” persons regardless of copyright.

As an author with my own books for sale at commercial sites, I was unaware of this new treaty, and from what I’ve seen, few in the creative-writing blogosphere were aware of it. If you have had experience with its provisions, please share. If not, and you would like to know more, you can check out a brief discussion and links to both an overview article and the treaty itself.

You should be able to reblog and share both this notice and the posts regarding the intellectual-property discussion. The reader’s comments on the second post in the series provide useful information about access for print-disabled readers.

I hope this information is helpful to some visitors to this site.

 


Leave a comment

Blatant Self-Promotion: King of the Roses 99 cents at Amazon next week!

KOTR Tatiana300KING OF THE ROSES

Mystery and romance at the Kentucky Derby!

“An impressive debut by a superb writer!”–Publishers Weekly

Buy at Amazon


Leave a comment

Bailey & Bizzaro. Research in Creative Writing. August RTE. Posted 08/25/2017.

Bailey, Christine, and Patrick Bizzaro. “Research in Creative Writing: Theory into Practice.” Research in the Teaching of English 52.1 (2017): 77-97. Print.

Christine Bailey and Patrick Bizzaro discuss the disciplinarity of creative writing and its place in relation to the discipline of composition. They work to establish an aesthetic means of interpreting and representing data about creative writing in the belief that in order to emerge as a discipline its own right, creative writing must arrive at a set of shared values and understandings as to how research is conducted.

Bailey and Bizzaro’s concerns derive from their belief that creative writing must either establish itself as a discipline or it will be incorporated into composition studies (81). They contend that creative writing studies, like other emerging disciplines, must account for, in the words of Timothy J. San Pedro, “hierarchies of power” within institutions (qtd. in Bailey and Bizzaro 78) such that extant disciplines control or oppress less powerful disciplines, much as “teaching practices and the texts used in schools” oppress marginal student groups (78). A decision to use the methodologies of the “dominant knowledges” thus accedes to “imperial legacies” (San Pedro, qtd. in Bailey and Bizzaro 78).

Bailey and Bizzaro report that discussion of creative writing by compositionists such as Douglas Hesse and Wendy Bishop has tended to address how creative writing can be appropriately positioned as part of composition (79). Drawing on Bishop, the authors ascribe anxiety within some English departments over the role of creative writing to “genre-fear,” that is, “the belief that two disciplines cannot simultaneously occupy the same genre” (79).

They recount Bishop’s attempt to resolve the tension between creative writing studies and composition by including both under what she called a de facto “ready-made synthesis” that she characterized as the “study of writers writing” (qtd. in Bailey and Bizzaro 80). In the authors’ view, this attempt fails because the two fields differ substantially: “what one values as the basis for making knowledge differs from what the other values” (80).

The authors see creative writing studies itself as partially responsible for the difficulties the field has faced in establishing itself as a discipline (79, 80-81). They draw on Stephen Toulmin’s approach to disciplinarity: “a discipline exists ‘where men’s [sic] shared commitment to a sufficiently agreed set of ideals leads to the development of an isolable and self-defining repertory of procedures” (qtd. In Bailey and Bizzaro 80). The authors elaborate to contend that in a discipline, practitioners develop shared views as to what counts as knowledge and similarly shared views about the most appropriate means of gathering and reporting that knowledge (80).

Creative writing studies, they contend, has not yet acted on these criteria (81). Rather, they state, creative writers seem to eschew empirical research in favor of “craft interviews” consisting of “writers’ self-reports”; meanwhile, compositionists have undertaken to fill the gap by applying research methodologies appropriate to composition but not to creative writing (81). The authors’ purpose, in this article, is to model a research methodology that they consider more in keeping with the effort to define and apply the specific values accruing to creative writing.

The methodology they advance involves gathering, interpreting, and representing aesthetic works via an aesthetic form, in this case, the novel. Students in nine sections of first-year-writing classes in spring and fall 2013 responded to a “creative-narrative” prompt: “How did you come to this place in your life? Tell me your story” (84). Students were asked to respond with “a creative piece such as a poem, screenplay, or graphic novel” (84). All students were invited to participate with the understanding that their work would be confidential and might be represented in published research that might take on an alternative form such as a novel; the work of students who signed consent forms was duplicated and analyzed (84-85).

Data ultimately consisted of 57 artifacts, 55 of which were poems (85). Coding drew on the work of scholars like K. M. Powell, Elspeth Probyn, and Roz Ivanič to examine students’ constructions of self through the creative-narrative process, and on that of James E. Seitz to consider how students’ use of metaphor created meaning (85, 86). Further coding was based on Kara P. Alexander’s 2011 study of literacy narratives (86).

This analysis was combined with the results of a demographic survey to generate six groups revolving around “[c]ommon threads” in the data (86); “personas” revealed through the coded characteristics divided students into those who, for example, “had a solid identity in religion”; “were spiritually lost”; were “uncertain of identity [and] desiring change”; were “reclusive” with “strong family ties”; were interested in themes of “redemption or reformation”; or “had lived in multiple cultures” (86). This list, the authors state, corresponds to “a standard analysis” that they contrast with their alternative creative presentation (86).

In their methodology, Bailey and Bizzaro translate the “composites” identified by the descriptors into six characters for a young-adult novel Bailey developed (88). Drawing on specific poems by students who fell into each composite as well as on shared traits that emerged from analysis of identity markers and imagery in the poems, the authors strove to balance the identities revealed through the composites with the individuality of the different students. They explore how the characters of “Liz” and “Emmy” are derived from the “data” provided by the poems (89-90), and offer an excerpt of the resulting novel (90-92).

They present examples of other scholars who have “used aesthetic expressions in the development of research methods” (88). Such methods include ethnography, a form of research that the authors consider “ultimately a means of interpretive writing” (93). Thus, in their view, creating a novel from the data presented in poems is a process of interpreting those data, and the novel is similar to the kind of “storytell[ing]” (93) in which ethnography gathers data, then uses it to represent, interpret, and preserve individuals and their larger cultures (92-93).

They continue to contend that embracing research methods that value aesthetic response is essential if creative writing is to establish itself as a discipline (93). These methodologies, they argue, can encourage teachers to both value aesthetic elements of student work and to use their own aesthetic responses to enhance teaching, particularly as these methods of gathering and representing data result in “aesthetic objects” that are “evocative, engage readers’ imaginations, and resonate with the world we share not only with our students but also with our colleagues in creative writing” (94). They argue that “when the ‘literariness’ of data reports [becomes] a consideration in the presentation of research,” composition and creative writing will have achieved “an equitable relationship in writing studies” (95).

 


1 Comment

Shameless Personal Plug (posted 06/08/15): My Books Online!

Just a quick note to announce that my mystery/suspense novels, published in the 1980s and 1990s before I went back to school, are now available online as ebooks. As it happens, they’re about horses and horse racing, so they’re sort of timely. They will be available for pre-order until July 1 at $0.99 at Barnes &Noble, iBooks for Apple devices, and Kobo, and then at other online retailers for $2.99. To learn more and read sample chapters, please check out http://www.virginiasanderson.com. Tag under “summer reads”!