Thursday, November 18, 2004

the expressivists versus the poststructuralists--again

This morning I read David Bartholomae's response to Stephen North (published in PRE/TEXT in 1990). This essay/article was written in response to an earlier piece in PRE/TEXT that North had published--a piece I have not yet read but hope to get to today. While on many fronts I can sympathize with what Bartholomae has to say about North, this is probably because I am less than sympathetic to the expressivist movement, which Bartholomae deems North a part of. On my own knowledge of North (who is a faculty member in the department where I am working on my PhD) I wouldn't necessarily call him an expressivist, but this is all beside the point.

I guess the point is that this "war" between the expressivists and the social constructionists/poststructuralists has been going on within the field of composition for a long time, and the field is in need of a third party candidate--in my opinion. I mean the two end up negating each other in this weird way: The danger inherent within the expressivist paradigm is a writer who is too wedded, too close to the writing. It is a matter of the personal taking over in a way that erases difference (as Bartholomae points out) because it is all about "me." Bartholomae argues that teaching "late-adolescents that writing is an expression of individual thoughts and feelings...makes them suckers and...makes them powerless, at least to the degree that makes them blind to tradition, power and authority as they are present in language and culture." On the other hand, I have to ask if the social constructionists/poststructuralists--of whom Bartholomae could be representative--have really saved us from these dangers. Because as I see it, we are left with the dangers of a too detached and therefore too depoliticized writer. We are left with a neutralized form of the subject--divorced from agency that could potentially lend itself to political praxis and democratic society. Now this, of course, begs the question of what the purpose of academic discourse is. Is it about critical citizenship in a democracy, as I have put down here (there is that critical word again...problematic now, after the Michael Warner lecture, in its own way)? Or is it about something else (the possibilities are numerous)?

But also, in terms of the expressivist movement leaving students "blind to tradition, power and authority," I have argued elsewhere that Bartholomae does the same thing when he encourages students to "be Freire,""write like Foucault," "respond like a teacher," etc--thereby perpetuating tradition, power, and authority, without leaving students room to intervene in it in any way; without leaving students the opportunity to address the social constructedness of such writing assignments as Bartholomae gives in Ways of Reading.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

resisting resistance

Henry Giroux has been critiqued by Marxists (as well, I am sure, by many other theorists/scholars). He has been accused of being complicit in the capitalist system because of his focus on race, gender, sexuality, ageism, etc. But in "Reading Texts, Literacy, and Textual Authority" he readily admits that meanings and experiences deemed legitimate "and what forms of reading and writing matter are largely determined by those groups who control the economic and cultural apparatuses of a given society." Is it because he uses the word "largely" controlled by..., rather than exclusively controlled by...that there is a problem? Later, Giroux makes the argument that "textual authority is about the struggle over culture fought out at the level of ideological representations and the exercise of institutional power." Is it a problem that he sees the struggle for culture fought out somewhere other than between the classes? Is it because Giroux's approach is not to change the "groups who control," but rather to "empower students" that there is a problem here?

He has been held accountable for using loaded words like "student empowerment." And yet again and again I am seduced by Giroux. I am called to action and passion through his words. And here I am almost ashamed to admit to this. What kind of trouble(s) can we get ourselves into when we start talking about empowering students, which in a rhetorical way always sounds so positive? I know the problems exist, but whenever I read Giroux I find myself forgetting what they are.

So I want to think about resistance. I want to resist and challenge resistance. Giroux is big on resistance--encouraging teachers to challenge ideology, commonsense, epitsteme, whatever you want to call it, through "adding new categories of analysis." I'm not sure what those categories would be per se, as analysis can be argued as the one of the most hegemonic concepts in the English department. Can we construct analysis specifically to be counterhegemonic?

Last week I went to an interesting lecture given by Michael Warner on the idea of "uncritical reading/thinking," and I would assume this could lead to "uncritical" writing. In his lecture, Warner addressed our obssession with critical thinking (i.e. thinking like us, thinking in a certain way as deemed appropriate/acceptable within the walls of higher education)--in this way critical reading/thinking has become the "norm"--it has, in fact, become ideological, invisible, commonsense. Uncritical reading/thinking is seen as unsystematic and naive (amateur). And Warner comes to question why we need to rule out and shut down these other kinds of reading/thinking. I know that there is a connection here somewhere....

Many students resist our need, desire, prompts to have them resist their culture--the one they know, the one that has comprised their experiences. And yet, we think we know better--we want to give them a consciousness so that they can rise up and revolt. This is an exaggeration, of course, and goals vary from classroom to classroom, but the first thing I need to do is question analysis. Ironically, Writing Analytically, is the title of the text I use in the class I'm currently teaching. Because writing analytically is somehow valuable, but what if it is not the only "best" way?

Giroux describes his approach as a "project of possibility," and that possibility is for constructing a student experience leading to critical (there is that word again) citizenship and democracy. These are admirable goals. The problem I'm having with all of this is getting bogged down in theorizing and defining. What is a citizen? Who is a citizen? How do we define citizenship?

Although the essay to which I'm referring ("Reading Texts, Literacy, and Textual Authority) was written in 1990, I get the feeling that Giroux still believes that the dominant view of English departments is that of a site for the dissemination of Western culture. Is this still a dominant view? And is it the view inside or outside of the department? Inside of outside of the institution?

Saturday, November 13, 2004

a little bit of history

I just finished reading the first three and half pages of Richard Johnson's "What is Cultural Studies Anyway?" published in 1986/87 in Social Text. I was half there while reading, half of my mind was on playing tennis, as I have a USTA mixed doubles match this afternoon, and it scares me. A lot. Anyhow, the other part of not paying close attention is that this article is a little bit of history. 1986 was a long time ago now...especially for a field like cultural studies. I need to know the history. I know that. I need to get a grasp on how the field has changed--if it has at all. In fact, the idea of cultural studies, as a "field" is part of the focus of Johnson's article--"the pressures to define" cultural studies as something relevant, as a field. Higher ed. likes fields. Higher ed. likes codified knowledge. Still, it is hard for me to focus on where the field was, when I am still trying so hard to get a grasp on where cultural studies is. Now.