February 23, 2014
By Mary Grabar
"Real learning takes place outside the classroom," the late communist history professor Howard Zinn famously said. Zinn practiced what he preached and led his students at Spelman College and Boston University on marches and protests.
The 1960s saw plenty of teach-ins and marches by students and some radical professors. But even then it would have been hard to imagine how the staple of first-year coursework, Freshman Composition, would be used to turn students into activists, subverting the idea of "composition" itself and leaving some students free of any ability to write.
Little Writing, But Plenty of Activism
Indeed, as I learned from reading an article in the journal Hybrid Pedagogy, freshman composition provides an opportunity to display "bravery." In "Social Action and the Status Quo: Bravery in First Year Composition," Susan Gail Taylor refers to the Rhetoric in Action project at the University of South Florida where she was then teaching as a graduate student. The project asks students to engage in activism and then offer their "personal narrative of social action experience." Although the website states that students should use the "writing process" and "academic conventions," much of what they do seems to go far beyond "composition" as traditionally known. Students, instead, are asked to share first-person experiences in "multiple genres," such as "letter, website, video, artwork, flyer, pamphlet, panel, demonstration."
Taylor has given her students assignments at "Take Back the Night" and "Slut Walk" events. She has had them videotape themselves discussing how they have overcome personal challenges. Some students appear to resist, but Taylor tells colleagues, "I've developed a few ways to counteract possible hesitation and prepare my students to inspire others with their actions. For instance, I typically choose a social issue and have students organize and lead flash mobs in efforts to raise awareness."
In "brief moments," of flash mobs—90 seconds to 3 minutes—"students are faced with the power of their own voices (both literally and figuratively)." (One wonders about the "power of the voice" of the student who disagrees with such causes.) Students, Taylor claims, "are challenged to step outside of a traditional essay that discusses action and instead are tasked with becoming the action, thus inciting them to discover their own capacity for bravery and resistance."
Bravery? In her YouTube video of the SlutWalk on September 16, 2011, her mostly female students chant, "what I wear does not mean yes." The male voices make an odd counterpoint towards the end, as does the image of a couple guys reluctantly tagging behind a few paces. Taylor writes under the link: "They made awesome choices in their posters, they were loud and they were proud. Rhetoric was definitely in action! :)"
She explains her pedagogical purpose: "I want to show students how the power of language and the power of action can intersect: they select our chants and the information we use, they design the posters (which I provide), and they choose the locations—all in an effort to have even one person be affected by their work."
Well, yes, this is a form of persuasion, but certainly outside the bounds of legitimate rhetorical persuasion. Such an assignment seems to verge on illegality or coercion, and certainly has little to do with the "art of persuasion," as described in Aristotle's Rhetoric--the foundational text.
Taylor, however, does not seem to be outside the current academic mainstream. The 35,000-member National Council of Teachers of English publishes, among other books, Writing Partnerships by Thomas Deans, which tells composition teachers how to combine "writing instruction with community action."
Deans traces the recent evolution of composition: "As a discipline, rhetoric and composition has adopted the broadly defined 'social perspective' on writing," having "evolved from studies of the lone writer to more contextual understandings of composing; from a narrow, functional definition of literacy, focused on correctness, to a broader definition; from an exclusive focus on academic discourse to the study of both school and nonacademic contexts for writing; from presuming white middle-class culture as normative to analyzing and inviting cultural difference; and from gatekeeping at the university to facilitating the advancement of all students."
Betraying the Original Purpose
Freshman Composition was intended to provide remedial help to students as campuses opened up to a broader mass of students—to the chagrin of traditionalists who wanted to maintain standards. It has been a service course, intended to equip college students with basic writing skills, to be transferred to other classes and then into the workplace. Advanced students could opt out by demonstrating their ability in writing tests, usually some variation of the standard five-paragraph essay. Increasingly, though, students have required remedial help for a course intended to be remedial. I know from teaching such courses that the remediation goes back to sentence-level grammar.
At the same time, I've seen the changes Deans notes: the emphasis on group work and peer review, the politically contentious topics almost exclusively from a leftist perspective, the addition of "visual literacy" as a category of literacy, and the multicultural sensitivities, not only in topics, but in language use.
The shift away from composition instruction to activism is evidenced in articles published in the organization's journal, the College Composition and Communication and in the journal Pedagogy. Similar books, such as Composition and Sustainability: Teaching for a Threatened Generation, Rhetoric of Respect, about "academic-community writing partnerships" and S.U.N.Y. Press's Making Writing Matter: Composition in the Engaged University, offer strategies for transforming classrooms into activist sites. A professor writes in the foreword to Affirming Students' Rights to Their Own Language, "For many of us, the assertion of student language was inextricable from our national and international quest for social justice." Major textbook publishers, like Bedford, are responding to market demand with single-themed readers on Sustainability, Money Changes Everything, Food Matters, and Composing Gender (the last with a cover photo of a female ballerina holding up a male ballet dancer). The upcoming annual meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication is filled with panel discussions on activism; a featured speaker is Black Panther-turned professor, Angela Davis. Her biography notes her "activism," from when she was a "youngster" to her work today as an advocate of "prison abolition."
The radicalization is finessed by statements like Deans'—that the field is expanding beyond a "narrow, functional definition" and shifting from "gatekeeping" to "facilitating the advancement of all students" (emphasis added). In plain English, this means that standards for writing are being eliminated. Furthermore, writing itself is being replaced by visual and auditory forms of persuasion, often in mobs. These are called "brave" actions.
Deans attempts to spread a patina of academic legitimacy over such activism by claiming there is a "coherent and substantial theoretical framework" for it. He cites the progressive education theorist and philosopher John Dewey and Marxist theorist Paulo Freire.
Deans also ludicrously claims that such activism goes back to the ancients. He states that Aristotle's Rhetoric was intended to "intervene in the public sphere," (maybe), and not necessarily be used in today's "school settings," but he ignores the fact that freshman composition is being to taught to young people who should be acquiring knowledge and skills. That is why they are in college in the first place. He also misleadingly refers to Isocrates, Cicero, and Quintilian in the same way of needing "to connect rhetorical practice to civic responsibility." He even uses the "sweep of U.S. history—from Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin to Jane Addams and John Dewey"—to support "experiential learning."
Indeed, if we did go back to Jefferson and Franklin, two men who did have a sense of civic responsibility, we would find an opposite approach, one that values study, introspection, imitation, and debate before taking on the adult duties of "civic responsibility." Franklin in his autobiography describes how he educated himself by imitating the master stylists in the Spectator, by reading widely, and by debating his peers in the Junto club. In such education, the effort is made to gain a perspective outside one's own limited circle. Shouting in mobs is the opposite of what Aristotle, Jefferson, and Franklin had in mind.
We have radical professors promoting the idea that students' own language is good enough, that there are no models for them to read and emulate, that they are to be change agents, participating in mob actions and demonstrating their "bravery" for credit. The end results are sure to be confused, narcissistic, indoctrinated illiterates.
Mary Grabar is an instructor in English living in Atlanta.