Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Multi-culturism & composition classrooms

Recently I wrote a short essay about the much valued dialogic approach in composition classrooms as well as to cast a doubt on the outcome of students' “skills” as a writer.  It appears to me that the issue of multiculturism is at the core of dialogic teaching. 

Hidden Agenda - Multiculturism

In America, writing well is highly regarded and could lead to a financially fulfilling life.  It is a reality that job after job descriptions include writing (along with oral communications) as one of the core qualifications for the kinds of career college graduates would most likely pursue; the job market expects a college graduate to possess well-developed writing skills.  If one wants to join the ranks of management, excellent writing skills could be of utmost importance as it would compensate for a lack of specialized knowledge in a certain field.   Although the medium is different, the notion was pointed out even in the ancient times by Gorgias who argued that good oratory supersedes any specialized knowledge. – even physician’s.  An engineer will remain as an engineer but the one with writing skills - a certain way with words – won’t be anchored to just one particular field;  thus he/she would be blessed with mobility in life.  In this instance, the use of the understandably subjective adjective to indicate the quality of writing – good or bad, I know I would be questioned as to “what constitutes good writing.”  But let us be realistic.  Many of you who are reading this, I assume, are current or future composition teachers; I highly suspect you don’t have a model or standard of good writing by which you grade (judge) your students’ papers (products).  From the students perspectives, many enter writing classrooms to learn how to write an essay, how they can fill the blank screen with well organized, coherent and error free sentences, and how they can apply the skills to a real life situation from the expectation of a classroom, the state of “being taught” experience.  Up until the mid 20th century, it is the norm that writing was taught to “heed stylistic precepts, selecting correct words and punctuation, mimicking gracious prose.  Grammar study… is a “drill,” in the foundation of rigorous language training since the Middle Ages” (Eight Approached to Teaching Composition introduction: x).
Around the late 70s, many educators started casting doubts in the way writing was traditionally taught and sought alternative ways to accommodate the notion of writing being discursive.  The so called “process” was promoted and formularized in such a way that it has become the standard practice in composition teaching.  One’s quick on-line search would land overwhelming numbers of diagrams or charts of “process”es unlike no other methods.  As you know, ‘process’ ordinary includes a few or several steps that consist of the following: free writing, revisions and final product with some variance between the steps, and it occasionally is connected with ever popular cognitive studies to have the look of a scientifically applicable method.  However, the process does not make you write well as it is merely an assumption that one’s writing improves during multiple revision processes. 
Peter Elbow in his book Writing without Teachers writes in the preface: “Most books on writing try to describe the characteristics of good writing so as to help you produce it, and the characteristics of bad writing to help you avoid it” (v).  He goes on to say that the book is not about correctness of anything.   In this book, he introduces writing philosophy to live by which he stumbled upon:
In order to form a good style, the primary rule and condition is not to attempt to express ourselves in language before we thoroughly know our meaning; when a man perfectly understand himself, appropriate diction will generally be at his command either in writing or speaking (14).
It is probably an interpretive difference; however, I would argue how “appropriate diction” can be at my command by just knowing fully what I mean, which is a mere conceptual stage.  Appropriate diction, I suppose, is a tool to convey exactly what I mean to others but for this, one would need to learn the proper way of writing that can be taught as skills to master by teachers. 
Kevin Porter in his article “A pedagogy of Charity: Donald Davidson and the Student-Negotiated Composition Classroom” criticizes traditional teacher’s roles by calling it a pedagogy of severity in which problems and faults are being focused with red ink markings and negative comments. He claims “that is shutting down of dialogic possibilities, assigning labels and making corrections instead of asking questions and searching for new answers.” (576).   He argues that “[the] pedagogy of severity disrupts dialogue” (585).  This dialogic way of teaching composition appears to be highly valued and behind this trend, I believe, stands the force of multi-culturism. I tread this issue very carefully by saying that I am in no way renouncing the ideology – being an “alien other” myself.  But it could potentially be creating the notion of “anything goes” in writing.  Elbow says in his another essay, referring to the speaker of non-standard English and ESL learners, that he tries to make a safer place for all of them and that “classroom can be a safer place for such language than most sites of language use” (“Inviting Mother Tongue: Beyond “mistakes,” “Bad English,” and “Wrong Language” (642).  Porter also touches on the issue of multiculturism, stating: “Charitable attributions of truth and rationality are what create common ground for contact between individuals in a multicultural classroom” (590).  This valuing of multiplicity appears to be ubiquitous in the current composition pedagogy; nothing could be unacceptable in the name of plurality by which it means there are no definite right or wrong answers, wrong usage or ‘bad’ writing.  In their rhetoric asserts notable improvements in students’ writing, which imply that they even believe errors or habitual use of non-standard English need to be corrected.   Citing  as an example Gloria Anzaldua’s work, a staple-like status in the multicultural discourse, Ming-Zhan Lu in her article “Professing Multiculturaism: The Politics of Style and Contact Zone” states,  “[Yielding] to the authority of the ‘better educated’ appears conservative – indicating a passive stance towards the hegemony of ethnocentrism and linguistic imperialism” (470).  Running the risk of being labeled as a totalitarian thinker in criticizing much embraced multiculturalism, I say that it is important to speak and write the language of hegemonic language of dominant culture.  In fact, that was the very reason why the oppressor paid attention to what Martin Luther King Jr. had to say.  If he did not use the hegemonic language and the use of metaphors best appeal to the hegemonic culture, what he said or wrote as in "letter from Birmingham jail "would not have had much impact as forceful as to lead a series of historical movements.   
Works Cited
Elbow, Peter. “Inviting Mother Tongue: Beyond “Mistakes,” “Bad English” and “Wrong Language.” Cross Talk in Comp Theory A Reader. Ed. Victor Villanueva and Kristin L. Arola. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2011. 205-233. Print.
Elbow, Peter.  Writing without Teachers.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1973, 1998. Print.
Lu, Ming-Zhan. Professing Multiculturalism: The Politics of Style in the Contact Zone. Cross Talk in Comp Theory A Reader. 467-483.
Porter, Kevin J. A Pedagogy of Charity:  “Donald Davison and the Student-Negotiated Composition Classroom”  CCC The Journal of the Conference on College Composition and Communication National Council of Teachers of English Vol. 52 No. 4 June 2001.  P547-611 Print.
Donovan, Timothy R. and Ben W. McClelland. ed. Eight Approaches to Teaching Composition.  Illinois: NCTE, 1980. Print.









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