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

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).


Leave a comment

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).