Monday, June 04, 2007

Blogging, like exercise or anything else that takes/is work, becomes more and more difficult to get back to the longer you've been away from it.

I've been away from both blogging and other related academic work for a couple of weeks now, and it has been rough getting back into them.

This morning I reread Paula Mathieu and James Sosnoki's essay "Enacting Cultures: The Practice of Comparative Cultural Studies" from Robert Yagelski and Leonard Scott's edited collection, The Relevance of English. And rather than (re)invigorating my own project, it only served to deflate me/it.

In this essay Sosnoski and Mathieu address a particular complaint against cultural studies and its alleged lack of pedagogical success: "its reliance on 'cultural critique' as a pedagogical technique" (325). By this they mean the way that cultural critique is imposed upon students and viewed by them as a "moral imperative" (326). In this way, they argue, 'cultural critique' is not rhetorically an effective technique. They point to advocates of cultural studies, such as Libby Miles, who complain that this technique ends up being "formulaic and flat" (qtd. in Sosnoski and Mathieu 327).

Sosnoski and Mathieu study the complexities of the problems with this common form (cultural critique) of cultural studies pedagogy. One problem is based on students entering the classroom determined "to resist or refuse any teaching they find 'political,' 'feminist,' or promoting what often gets misnamed 'reverse racism'" (327). Sosnoski and Mathieu argue that this resistance isn't necessarily due to an inherent conservatism, but rather is driven by the dominant culture -- corporate controlled media -- that "constructs a conversation that labels pedagogies that ask students to be critical of social and cultural practices as merely code words of the plotting advocates of critical correctness" (328).

Sosnoski and Mathieu argue that students view 'critique' as requiring that they renounce their daily lives and associated cultural practices, and through an understanding of this student perspective we can begin to understand how this pedagogical approach can be viewed as a "moral imperative." Sosnoski and Mathieu seek to "introduce students to a form of cultural criticism that makes productive use of students' everyday experiences and critical abilities rather than merely inspiring their ire" (328).

Nothing here so far is particularly "new" or "different." Sosnoski and Mathieu are addressing, and even tentatively aligning themselves with, common arguments against a cultural studies approach/pedagogy. And, on the other hand, Cultural studies, which is itself often conflated with or misconstrued as critical pedagogy, does also share some similarities with critical pedagogy and these types of pedagogical approaches are often put under the canopy of radical, emancipatory, or liberatory pedaogy. Critical pedagogy has its roots in Freire who would indeed find Sosnoski and Mathieu's goal of making use of or starting from the everday lives and already in place critical abilities of their students as an admirable goal and one inherent to critical pedagogy. The question of course is how does one do this while simultaneously avoiding the pitfall of the "moral imperative" that Sosnoski and Mathieu are so concerned with.

The proposed "answer" (according to this essay) comes in the form of a cultural studies-oriented first-year writing course created by Mathieu and Jennifer Cohen. In order to escape the primarily negative function/outcome of critique, the pilot composition course, "Reading, Writing, and Enacting Cultures," asked students to examine current university culture (in this case focusing on its electronic presence by comparing the web page of their university and its coverage of a topic of the student's choice to that of another university).
Asking students to perform this concrete comparison allowed them to begin criticism as a place of their own interest and choosing. Also, rather than asking them to 'critique' by using an existing theoretical model, their criticism was derived from comparing one cultural site to another. Rhetorically, comparison allows students to look critically at a practice without forcing them into an impossibly negative space, which often results in resistance or cynicism. (333-334)
Comparative criticism (as opposed to other existing theoretical models) is not restricted to current conditions; it can also address possibility -- i.e. the future. By asking students to "imagine better ways to teach and learn" through the 'imaginative' essay on an ideal university, Mathieu and Cohen claim to have escaped "the purely negative space of critique" (334). They believe that "helping students articulate desires for a better world and to initiate discussion about different views of the ideal is a worthwhile political and pedagogical goal" (336).

In the essay's final section, "Don't Stop at Criticism: Enacting Culture," Sosnoski and Mathieu address the idea that writing pedagogies that have emerged from a cultural studies perspective tend to cast students as merely ananlysts. They point to Alan France as an example of a scholar who has critiqued textbooks that solely ask students to "analyze the culture around them as a sort of cultural critic by closely examining and picking apart texts," leaving students in an analytical but passive position (337). Mathieu illustrates ways in which the course she and Cohen created urged students to take action by making Web pages to publish their views. Some of these writings now exist as actual links on their University's official Web page.

Here is an example of a cultural studies based writing class that is critiquing campus culture. It is essentially doing what my own project argues a cultural studies based writing course should consider doing. This is how I ended up deflated. How is my argument different? How do I distinguish my argument from arguments already being made?

1) It seems that the choice of studying and analyzing campus culture was a somewhat arbitrary choice for Mathieu and Cohen (although I don't know that this is the case, as they don't detail their exact decision making process); whereas I tend to argue that it should be not just one choice among many, but the very starting point for a cultural studies based writing classroom.

2) I would like to call more attention to the ways in which corporate influence in education is not so obvious, more transparent -- for example, in the form of proprietary software, academic labor, writing practices that contribute to the creation of a labor force under capitalism. So that the exploration doesn't begin and end with what is lacking, missing, underdeveloped from one University website to another, but how decisions being made -- corporate ones -- are directly and indirectly affecting the campus that students inhabit both part-time and full-time.

3) My project is based, in part, on a gap identified by Richard Ohmann in his Afterword to Left Margins -- the pedagogical project that Ohmann noted missing from the cultural studies collection in 1995 was a critique of campus culture. Mathieu and Cohen's class helps to fill such a gap, but it is only one example. Where are the others? Are there others? These are questions I might also grapple with. One example alone can't necessarily fill a gap.


bowerr said...

It has been some time since I read the Sosnoski and Mathieu from the Yagelski and Scott collection, but I do tend to agree with what they and you are thinking in that "critique" fails students in the classroom because the rhetorical and political process is too removed or, as Bruce McComisky believes as well, cultural critique is too ethically prescriptive in its execution. So it seems to me that what you've outlined here situates your project fully enough and taking into account how the examples are used and that the project is completed is what will matter.

The fun will be in the details, so keep it coming!

VTmtngrrl said...

Thanks for the links!! I haven't read the McComiskey book, which I'm a bit surprised about. Though I recognize the name, I can't believe I never read his work, which apparently seems to pose similar and additional, important questions as/of my own work. How does this happen? I read and read and read and still miss so much!

The comic provided some much needed lightness of heart:) And thanks too for the encouragement (also much needed).