the composition cultural studies classroom

In our teaching practicum, the TAs are reading Berlin: "Poststructuralism, Cultural Studies and the Composition Classroom" (1992). Here are a few representative passages:

social-epistemic rhetoric
will enable senders and receivers to arrive at a formulation of the conception of
the entire rhetorical context in any given discourse situation, and this will be done
through an analysis of the signifying practices operating within it. Thus in composing
a text, a writer will engage in an analysis of the cultural codes operating in
defining her role, the roles of the audience, and the constructions of the matter to
be considered.

The teacher must then recognize and
resist inequities in our society-the economic and social injustices inscribed in
race, ethnic, and gender relations, relations that privilege the few and discriminate
against the many. This classroom is dialogic, situating learning within the realities
of the students' own experience, particularly their political experience. The dialogic
classroom is designed to encourage students to become transformative
intellectuals in their own right. Studying signifying practices will require a "critical
literacy."

Our
main concern is the relation of current signifying practices to the structuring of subjectivities-of race, class, and gender formations, for example-in our students
and ourselves. The effort is to make students aware of cultural codes, the competing
discourses that are influencing their formations as the subjects of experience.
Our larger purpose is to encourage students to resist and to negotiate these
codes-these hegemonic discourses-in order to bring about more democratic and
personally humane economic, social, and political arrangements. From our perspective,
only in this way can they become genuinely competent writers and
readers.

I offer this reading because I think it effectively communicates the foundations of a cultural studies pedagogy in composition classrooms. This approach, now more than 20 years old, remains prevalent among teachers of composition, and it certainly resonates with many of our current TAs who also deploy cultural studies methods in their literary research. Berlin's Rhetorics, Poetics, and Cultures was an important book for me in graduate school in the mid-nineties. When I was a Brittain Fellow at Georgia Tech later in the decade, I taught an introduction to cultural studies course, and my first publication (in Theory and Event) was about teaching cultural studies. 

In other words, I've been there. My response to cultural studies today is that while it identifies real problems, I find the explanations unsatsifying and the programmatic solutions less so. Looking at the passages above, given the realist ontological perspective I offer here, it is not surprising that I would be unsatisfied with move of translating everything into "cultural codes." This is a classic move of the period, however (and one that is still prevalent): seeing the world as text. In the second passage, the teacher is charged with resisting inequities. That's fine. To a degree, don't we all bear some ethical obligation to address these matters? Why teachers in particular? And why, as is implied here, do composition teachers have a special role? 

The final passage though is the key matter. One begins with the premise that "hegemonic discourses" are influencing the formation of student subjectivity. The pedagogic goal is to reveal the operation of hegemony/ideology to students and help students resist and negotiate hegemony. Why? Presumably to alter the formation of student subjectivity. Since the hegemony creates inequities in the pursuit of its own interests and survival, it clearl influences the formation of student subjectivity in order to convince students to tacitly accept the order of things, at minimum, and potentially to convince students (and all citizens) to participate in the reproduction of hegemony. Taken to an extreme, the goal becomes changing students' political views. This is the charge made against such pedagogies by conservatives, though I don't know how common such extreme versions are.

In any case, I'm not interested in the politics of this business. Personally I do not have a specific democratic "arrangement" that I am seeking to propound. I also don't have an issue with teaching cultural studies… in a course where learning about cultural studies was a stated objective. In composition, however, I am uncertain of its value in helping students become (better) writers, not because I think writing is a neutral, apolitical activity but because I'm not sure that a critical-theoretical knowledge of the politics of writing is that useful. To be clear, I wouldn't today take up a cultural studies methodology; I am more interested in speculative realist, assemblage theory, actor-network theory kind of approach. But I'm not planning on teaching that stuff in composition either. The closest I would get is asking students to examing the objects and networks that participate in their compositional practices so they might, on an experimental basis, shift them and see what happens to their writing. It doesn't always work to produce "better" writing, but it does hopefully communicate a sense that writing practices can be changed, which I think is better than continuing to write in the same network and hoping that you get better results. However I wouldn't be asking students to read Latour to get there in the way that cultural studies classes so often ask students to read Foucault or Barthes. Not because the reading is too hard, though maybe it is, depending on the students, but because it really doesn't get you very far toward this goal of students following the objects in their compositional networks.

If there is a shift I would want to make in student writing practices that has a potential political effect, it would be in moving students from "writing to transact" toward "writing to inquire." In the former, the goal is efficiency, taking the shortest path to some predetermined objective (typically listed in the assignment sheet). One articulates a position one is familiar with, meets the obligations of the assignment, and avoids complications. This path undoubtedly leads to the articulation of various commonplaces, each of which will have a recognizable political valence. Cynically one might say that a cultural studies pedagogy is really about teaching students a different set of commonplaces. Certainly cultural studies commonplaces would be famliar to anyone who attends the conferences I do, because we hear them repeated for days. Ideally though, no pedagogy would do that. Instead, when writing to inquire one is obligated to follow through on the complications one discovers, to describe in detail until the generalities one began with no longer make sense, and to accept that one will not end where one began. That is, through writing, our views should be changed. Not with each word or sentence or blog post, but over time our encounter with the world beyond us, starting with writing itself, should change us. The longer one writes in this way, the harder it becomes to cling to these ideological positions that worry cultural studies classrooms.

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