Although Readings only mentions critical pedagogy once in the entirety of University in Ruins, I believe his various critiques of what he describes as “the scene of teaching” can be applied to critical pedagogy and much of rhet/comp pedagogy as well. So while Readings doesn’t offer up the following critique in direct reference to critical pedagogy, I am using his arguments as my “lens.”
Readings’ critique of critical pedagogy, though brief, shares similarities with other charges lodged against this particular classroom method—that critical pedagogy is simply a replacement of the professor with the student—an “inversion of the hierarchy so that the students embody the real University” (163). But while the argument may seem redundant, the how and why of how he got to this critique is important, and it is especially important for (the future of) critical pedagogy to take into account.
Readings is of course addressing a specifically bureaucratic university—one he deems as a potentially transnational corporation. He is residing in this “ruined” university as he searches for a “resistance to the discourse of excellence,” and he finds this potential for resistance “in the scene of teaching” (150). As critical pedagogy and much of composition theory dedicate themselves to this scene he describes, I find it especially important that we take into account his arguments. He goes on to argue that this potential can be realized through the decentering of teaching: “By the decentering of the pedagogic situation I mean to insist that teaching is not best understood from the point of view of a sovereign subject that takes itself to be the sole guarantor of the meaning of that process…” (153). Based on this definition, it would seem that critical pedagogy would have this decentering potential—that it is in fact based on this potential (the decentering of teacher as authority), but Readings doesn’t stop there: “Neither the administrator taking the system in hand, nor the professor taking the student in hand, nor the student taking him- or herself in hand will do the trick” (emphasis mine 153). With much of critical pedagogy devoted to the idea of students taking themselves in hand, it would seem, that if we buy Readings’ arguments, critical pedagogy can be problematic and not entirely effective when it comes to resisting “the discourse of excellence.” So that pedagogy is not about creating a resisting or “oppositional subject;” but rather it is about thinking “beside each other and beside ourselves, is to explore an open network of obligations that keeps the question of meaning open as locus of debate” (165).
Readings addresses three pedagogic pitfalls—the second of which can to attributed to critical pedagogy: “the demagogic mode”—“the students’ autonomy is assumed as an a priori given, is asserted from the beginning as the unrecognized condition of possibility of education. Students have the autonomy to decide what it is they know, what it is they should or should not learn…” (157). So while the movement away from expressivism within rhet/comp has often been based on the critique of expressivism’s promotion of the autonomous self, I argue that the self-reproduction of that autonomy is problematically ever present within critical pedagogy as well. This privileging of the autonomous self did not meet its end with the movements away from expressivism; the 1980s social turn in composition also allowed/s for this belief in self-autonomy.
“In place of the lure of autonomy…I want to insist that pedagogy is a relation, a network of obligation…” (Readings 158); so while critical pedagogy seeks potential liberation and freedom from the exploitative structures of society, Readings puts pressure on the necessity of obligation within a specifically bureaucratic University. He sees this freedom/liberation—the myth of the truth setting us free—as a freedom from responsibility to each other. The next step that Readings tackles is to situate this responsibility and network obligations not in a community of consensus, but one of dissensus. In other words, in a community that avoids appeals to nostalgia and a romanticized version of community—“where thinking is a shared process without identity or unity”(192). Certainly this seems to be another idea relevant to composition pedagogy in its own appeals to classroom community through workshop groups, collaborative projects, and peer review. I believe that various composition pedagogies/theories can make better use of Readings’ argument for “dialogism rather than dialogue” (192). In what ways does critical pedagogy in its constant working out of teacher/student relationship with an eye toward egalitarianism turn a blind eye toward the possible use of difference and dissensus? How can we “think beside each other” without simply inverting the classroom hierarchy (teacher/student to student/teacher) as critical pedagogy might be prone to do?