essay, personal log, teaching

What is my classroom? What is my activism?

The U.S. election results of Wednesday, November 9, 2016 were heavily felt by those in my social networks. Among the grief, mourning, and general disbelief that followed into the next few days of work and class discussions, many of us inevitably moved from shock into anger and then wanting to act. Calls to become part of different movements became part of everyday conversations and every new uptake shared from one friend to another served to ignite a passion to prevent the coming disasters and to impart, where possible, hope that in energizing action there was the possibility for a better, more progressive future among a variety of situations and across so many different fronts. Out of – or perhaps in fear of – a great darkness, many people sought to come together and shift into a clearer pursuit of social justice causes.

Yet, among these discussions was also a cluster of concerns directly at the heart of academia. Starting with a need to comfort those students who were hurting in the same ways we were, pockets of conversations became about trying to find ways to think about the classroom as a space for activism and then, at the same time, about how to pair individual activism and the role of social justice in the classroom. Were we to suddenly become missionaries, seeking to convert our students at all costs? Were we, at the other extreme, to be silent and closeted about our feelings, positions, and identities? Was there, in all these choices, some way to work through how to pursue activism and a place for speaking to students without, it was feared, turning off the ability to teach them at the same time? Among the outcomes, objectives, and assessment considerations of everyday academia, was there a way to present ourselves, as hurting, grieving people, within the illusion, even weakly, of a detached instructor? Or was such an approach a false performance that it would hurt our ethos even more, presenting a position we did not hold and could not maintain without hurting ourselves in the process?

In trying to work through my own conflicting emotions and provide even a little assistance to colleagues and friends around me, I turned to those who had more experiences with activism than I did, and often those who had been in academia longer. “What”, I asked more than a few people, “is the role of activism in the classroom? And what resources can I turn to for help with this?” And while many could relay experiences and their own takes on how to deal with situations and ethical frameworks for thinking about helping the hurting, there was always a moment of turning to me and of expecting my own thinking on the subject. The response, as it came from two of the more forthcoming colleagues, was nearly the same at the end of long e-mail chains and in-person meetings: “I can give you advice, but at some point, you have to choose your own path.”

In pursing this, and in connection to my own study of methodology construction, I turned to earlier feminist thinkers and those writing about the composition classroom. As often the frontline for dealing with the issues of heavier-than-normal assessment responsibilities and frequently lack of funding while also being required to turn out the seemingly impossible task of showing “learning” in a sixteen-week period, composition instructors are positioned as both the gatekeepers for institutional control and those with the least amount of power at the same time. For many universities, all in-coming students must take a composition course to attempt to normalize writing skills and so the composition classroom becomes one of a battleground for how, on the one hand, granting students the ability to find their own voices and enable critical thinking skills while also following, frequently, very constrictive institutional forms and approaches dictated for how students must construct certain genres and follow very prescriptive methods. For the field of writing and composition studies, in which I count myself a member, this is a constant vigilance for ways of working through pedagogical approaches, trying to understand contingent positions, and teach in such a way to explain writing without commanding it, to try to balance on a knife’s edge the task of instruction and enculturation without calling it as much.

It is in the mess of trying to understand the composition practices and of the ways technologies often play a part in how it is accomplished that Sullivan and Porter (1997) wrote Opening Spaces: Writing Technologies and Critical Research Practices and set forth ways to try to perform research and understanding of writing studies and, at the same time, a form of activism that enables the performer as an instructor and researcher. In defining research, Sullivan and Porter (1997) write of it as: “critical practices (praxis) that acknowledges the rhetorical situatedness of participants, writing technologies, and technology design and that recognizes research as a form of political and ethical action” (p. 15). For Sullivan and Porter (1997), research and its enactment is “not innocent or neutral, despite the attempts of many to make it appear so” (p. 144). There is a direct movement from within the feminism construction in their framework that calls for a “care for others”, “respect[ing] difference”, and to “liberate the oppressed through empowerment of participants” (p. 110) as part of a greater call for justice tied into the “space and material conditions” of a “heuristic operation of rhetoric” (p. 115). It is not merely the responsibility of a researcher to collect data, but to do so in a way that has, within its construction, a deeply ethical component that should empower the participants and include them always, seeking not to expose them in the work of research, but to make them better than they were before, either through direct intervention or in giving them knowledge they did not already have.

Following soon after my own reading of Opening Spaces, I also read through Royster and Kirsch’s (2012) Feminist Rhetorical Practices: New Horizons for Rhetoric, Composition, and Literacy Studies, which sets out a framework for how feminism ideals could be followed in how research is conducted and in the ways of thinking through research issues. Yet, instead of the challenge of “care” and “liberation” put forth by Sullivan and Porter (1997), Royster and Kirsch’s (2012) show a very internal feminism, one which critical imagination (p. 71-83), strategic contemplation (p. 84-97), social circulation (p.98-109), and globalizing the point of view (p. 110 – 128) are the key component of all considerations. Theirs is not one of overt, but of first examining the ways in which research is practices is at the center of a scholar’s own identity performance and should, after taking steps of thinking through, across, and beyond the borders of her context, embark on the work of “rescue, recovery, and (re)inscription” at the very core of feminism and its use within research. Before research, comes the moment where the researcher is making sure she is doing her own best to build a methodology and in using methods which show care and respect the ways in which she might be, before even starting, overdetermined in a way in which she should disclose her own biases.

While Royster and Kirsch (2012) are writing to a different audience and in a different context than Sullivan and Porter (1997), they have become, in my mind lately, a way of thinking about the extremes of approaches to activism in research and the classroom. In my own articulation of the Opening Spaces paradigm, there should be a constant case for “opening” and freeing participants. Positioned as closer to a second-into-third wave of feminism, this is one of conversion. Students, in this way of thinking, can and should be converted to your own way of thinking and should be challenged, in a weaker case, to think beyond the beliefs they enter the course holding. The role of the instructor is one of missionary to those who do not know and who might not have heard yet of the truth you hold as an instructor. While some disagreement might be allowed, there are very solid views of the world that are not allowed and should be converted, if possible.

In such a conceptualization, either end of fundamentalism fits into this case. Be it conservative or liberal, the instructor is one of power, influence, and force in the classroom in the purest form. As the center of the classroom, they must take all opportunities to impart what they know and how they know it as the way to think through any project. There are no other frameworks than that of the instructor, be it any number of ways of thinking about the world. The instructor is the god, and there shall be no others allowed or considered.

On the other extreme, in the Feminist Rhetorical Practices paradigm as I have come to think of it, there is an indulgence of the student as a source of truth. As an expressionism to the much more current-traditional model of the Opening Spaces way, this is a student-driven approach that places the enabling of student voice and of the use of imagination and considerations of leading the way in the classroom. There are no fixed points of standing firm and anything is considered, allowed, or discussed to any end. The instructor is a manager, reminding of the scheduling and of the few rules of space and progress, but is not one of direct interference. The students are left up to rule themselves and of seeking out their own progression and growth. A very hands-off approach, students can write whatever they want as long as they are writing for the course itself.

Yet, for as terrible as either extreme is, and, yes, unfairly associated to Sullivan and Porter (1997) and Royster and Kirsch (2012) who, no doubt, land nowhere near where I have placed them in this model, there is also an extreme middle, a pedagogy of neutrality presented by Kopelson (2003) in “Rhetoric on the Edge of Cunning; Or, the Performance of Neutrality (Re)Considered as a Composition Pedagogy for Student Resistance” that seeks to ask if “students are ideologically encumbered by much more than expectations of schooling’s general or even composition’s specific neutrality” (p. 117). In coming into the composition classroom, students must face off against identities which challenge them and ways of thinking that may stand in direct contradiction to their own at the same time. To combat this often-dangerous mix of overdetermined identities of how instructors are thought to act and the ways in which institutions construct these space, Kopelson (2003) suggests a “performance of the very neutrality that students expect from their (composition) instructors, and from education more generally” as a “rhetorically savvy, politically responsive and responsible pedagogical tactic” in the classroom (p. 118). Through becoming the “objective” instructor many expect, the resistances to engaging in ways to approach critical thinking can be opposed and students, who might be expecting the tyrant or the manager, are, instead, meet with a middle that does not challenge directly, but opens itself, as Kopelson (2003) explains, through “a deliberate, reflective, self-conscious masquerade” which “feigns itself . . . in the service of other — disturbing and disruptive — goals” (p. 123). While the “neutral” may appear so, it also allows for cracks with invitation toward a dialogue, although not in a direct classroom space, of opening in contexts which might help a student or allow for a more humanist response. Although “hidden” in the classroom, this middle extreme could also be either other extremes behind the mask, playing as neutral in one space and not another. However, as Kopelson (2003) concludes, “How might we speak, as whom might we speak, so that students listen?”, placing the considerations always on how to shape pedagogy within its own rhetorical context with students at its center (p. 142).

As for myself, I am none of these extremes. However, I am parts of these, and have considered how each could, in turn, work best for some context. Personally, I am turned off by the early extremes, liking neither to be a perceived tyrant, nor fully permissive of all things. Yet, I am not the middle extreme, either, not liking the hiding away of my identity, even if Kopelson (2003) may not mean it as such, in a way that restricts my ability to teach by closeting all but the smallest parts of myself. Of course, in all these considerations of the extensions of activism, I am reminded of the privilege that allows for such musing. To have a choice means I am in a dominate place and can choose some things, being not overdetermined as a certain person in a certain place and unable to resist. Yet, despite these articulations of different possible extremes, I find myself a conglomeration of parts, of ideas and models, and of my own experiences. I must, like the advice given me, make a choice somewhere and draw a line as to how I will act out activism, if I will embed certain values in my pedagogy, and then how to enact them in a consistent and ethical way.