This past week, we discussed Eric Darnell Pritchard’s Fashioning Lives: Black Queers and the Politics of Literacy. While I will not and cannot speak for my peers, I will not hesitate to say that the book was an absolute tour de force. Pritchard grapples with the immense pain and hardships of those who lie outside of our heteronormative society’s “acceptable” lifestyles (particularly black people who identify as queer) with both an astute understanding of dense theory and a refreshing, unwavering optimism. While our conversation of the work was soul-stirring (a term I borrow from Rachel’s own reaction to the book), the main takeaway of our conversation was the question we closed on: Can Pritchard’s approach to literacy save lives?
Literacy’s different forms
Our discussion began with a brief exploration of what, exactly, literacy is. We reached the conclusion that traditional perceptions of literacy are outdated and inaccurate: people can be literate in all sorts of subjects and in all sorts of ways, and perhaps most importantly, just because a person is literate does not mean that they will magically be catapulted into a better life. In fact, literacy normativity, as Pritchard calls it, is “the use of literacy to create and impose normative standards and beliefs onto people whom are labeled alien or other through textscapes that are experienced as painful because they do damage or inflict harm” (28). To combat these damaging literacies, Pritchard introduces a concept he calls restorative literacies, a way of using literacy to create a space of one’s own, a refuge away from oppression where one can heal wounds and come to practice self and communal love. These spaces and literacies are not constructed in opposition to oppression, but completely outside of it, creating a space solely for those who have been hurt by literacy normativity.
Love and Revolution
Something that really stood out in Pritchard’s work and our class discussion was his focus on love—not necessarily romantic love and desire, but self care, self-worship, and communal support. While most theoretical texts come from a good place—certainly the texts we have read throughout the semester have been written with the intent of improving the lives of students, educators, and various other communities—it is refreshingly unusual to have a book like this so explicitly and unapologetically focused on self love and care.
Another term that gave power to Pritchard’s work—in fact, it’s the last word in the entire book—was revolution. Pritchard closes his book by writing, “And what this theory might do is nurture, illuminate, and enact the very self- and communal love that fuels the very literacy actions examined throughout this book. In short, a Black Queer Literacies is what I would call a revolution” (252). There are many words he could have used here, but revolution, to me, feels the most powerful. This final line feels like a true call to arms, an invitation to reject literacy normativity and encourage others to do the same to create a world where literacy does in fact live up to its traditional definition—a skill that betters the life of everyone who acquires it, not just a privileged few.
Can This Approach Save Lives?
In regard to the question I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the answer we reached as a group was yes, Pritchard’s ideas of restorative literacies, self love, and communal revolution can indeed save lives. Forgive me if I’m getting too personal here, but as we discussed this question, I was struck by an incredible wave of peace. Here we were, a small group of people with a myriad of different backgrounds, lives, interests, and goals packed around a table on a chilly Thursday night. Most of us are graduate students, not quite yet at the apex of our goals, many of us not yet immersed in the field we are drawn to. As we were discussing how we can heal and prevent damage caused by violent and oppressive literacies, how we can teach our students, our peers, our children, and ourselves, how we can construct our own worlds full of freedom and love and power—well, it certainly felt like the beginning of a revolution to me.
“Truth…..speaks…..out! Truth…speaks….out! Truth…” The chant of Prophetess Vera D. Nathaniel accompanied us as we walked out of the Riverwest Radio Station– an old alternative video store reconverted, as their mission explains, in “a community platform for education, advocacy and creativity, as well as an outlet for marginalized and alternative voices”. Riverwest Radio started to emit in March 2014 after President Barack Obama signed the Local Community Radio Act in 2011. This act was the result of a long battle led by several organizations, among them Free Press and The Prometheus Radio Project against communication corporate control and inequality in media access. Local eclectic voices follow one another from one display store window to the other, where the recording tables are tightly nestled. Anybody local (from the Riverwest neighborhood or its surroundings) can make a show proposal and become a producer. They can also suggest a story and the radio will try to match them with a producer or include the story in a special event programming.
Riverwest Radio is a promising project against dominant narratives, as a peek at its show title listing suggests: The Anti (anarchist show), AbilityMKE Now! (bring abled disabled together), Ayo Sis (drag queen show), Disability Rights, Bing Bong Crunch (collective search histories), EXPO: Ex-Prisoners Organizing, Young Black & Opinionated, etc. Whether the shows have a focused or more global interest, whether they have an informative or entertaining aim, they are overall presented by a great diversity of people, which reflects the neighborhood–-one of the most diverse in Milwaukee, but where gentrification happens quickly. In this context, Riverwest Radio can help render visible “the influence of cultural structures (such as race, gender, class, etc.) on everyone’s life,” structures that “whiteness in the US (in its desire for stasis) occludes” (Ratcliffe 129). It can offer a space where rhetorical listening can happen, where listeners can understand –or rather as Krista Ratcliffe defines it in Rhetorical Listening, where they can stand under discourses, “letting discourses wash over, through, and around us and then letting them lie there to inform our politics and ethics” (Ratcliffe 28). Riverwest Radio offers a platform where diverse community stories and voices can be heard and where their listening “with intent” can thus broaden our cultural literacy (Ratcliffe 28).
Eric Darnell Pritchard in Fashioning Lives: Black Queers and the Politics of Literacy underlines the importance of literacy in creating meaning in socio-cultural contexts, in building identity and in creating community. He advocates for “restorative literacies” against normative literacies that create discourses “marginaliz[ing], ostraciz[ing], and condemn[ing] people for their identities and other ways of being” (Pritchard 28). Considering the tension resulting from the stark segregation in Milwaukee and the gentrification of the Riverwest neighborhood, I was surprised not to find shows at Riverwest Radio that offer “solely resistance to or defiance of oppression and marginality”–which would contribute to “reductive narratives”(Pritchard 35). Instead, I find shows that are just addressing everyday life, politics, sports, music, literature, art, video games, drag shows, etc. By offering a safe place for diverse voices, including queer blacks, to engage literacy on their own terms, “for one’s own desires, pleasures, fantasies, hopes, and needs,” Riverwest Radio can support “restorative literacies.”
As Prophetess Vera D. Nathaniel started her show by her usual chant, I left Riverwest Radio where I was interviewed for Rive Gauche (Interview #111), a show interested in French people and culture in relationship with Riverwest and Milwaukee. I felt welcomed by a community in a neighborhood I had moved in only two months earlier. At the radio, I was welcomed for who I was: a gay woman, a poet, an immigrant, without a raised eyebrow or that slight hint of discomfort when I mention my wife. I talked about my life and my poetry, with just the stumbling of words and thoughts due to the daunting microphone. It felt good.
Picture from Riverwestradio.com
This week, we read Vershawn Ashanti Young's book, Your Average Nigga: Performing Race Literacy and Masculinity. As we discussed Young’s experiences and arguments, we shared key terms, ideas, and topics that we thought were central the readings.
In his book, Young tells his personal story, including how education separated him from his family and friends, and from a black, masculine identity. However, in his profession in the field of education, he felt singled out for being black among mostly white colleagues. Young shares his experiences because he knows that he's not the only black man who has felt such things.
In each of these areas of his life, he had to leave a part of his identity behind.
Young realized that he made specific rhetorical moves in order to signal certain identifications to certain groups of people (110). While this rhetorical dexterity may be applauded or praised, it is mentally and emotionally exhausting for the speaker. One classmate pointed out that Young describes his existence as liminal: he is always between identities. We wondered if the image on the cover of the book was speaking to that at all (below).
Young suggests that when people are forced into changing their speaking and writing in certain contexts, they are linguistically performing. These “Linguistic Performances” are tied to identity, including racial identity, and cause a sense of “Linguistic Schizophrenia” (96). Linguistic Schizophrenia happens when people feel they have to switch from performing one part of their identity to performing another. It is like switching between multiple personalities in order to guard against discrimination, insult, or violence.
Specifically, Young speaks of black males who feel pressured to make different linguistic and rhetorical choices whether at home, at school, or at work in order to fit the identity expected of them in those contexts. When Young performed his academic identity in academic circles, he felt that he was insufficiently masculine or insufficiently black. When he performed a black, masculine identity around friends and family, he felt insufficiently himself as well.
He claims that this problem is due in part to education, which is standardized and normalized by the dominant culture (white people). Black males tend to view elementary education as white and feminine, and fear not being seen as masculine by their peers (90). And so, they give off an attitude of not caring. Young argues against some scholars we've read about this semester, including Rosina Lippi-Green and Lisa Delpit, refuting their claims that black student merely need access to certain codes of power, i.e. 'Standard English' in order to be successful in the marketplace (94-95).
Young declares that education must change. He introduces the idea of 'code-meshing' as a way in which everyone – regardless of language – can benefit, because it's “more in line with how people actually speak and write” (7). He claims it is more effective than 'code-switching', which makes people use separate codes of language in contexts such as home and school, performing partial identity linguistically. Code-meshing allows people to mesh codes rhetorically, freeing them to use their full linguistic repertoires.
We wondered how this would work in education, leading us to ask:
We are learning to be willing to grapple with tough topics without clear answers. This complex topic deserves more attention from educators, not only in writing theory but in practicing possible solutions.
At the end of Young’s book, he is still grappling with validating his full identity. He is currently the chair of the CCCC, and caused a heated discussion by not writing his Call For Papers in 'Standard English'. How can we continue grappling with the realities of linguistic performances, linguistic schizophrenia, and systems of education... and how they affect peoples’ daily lives?
Examples of code-meshing:
Gloria Anzaldúa: "How To Tame a Wild Tongue"
Jamila Lyiscott: “3 Ways to Speak English”
Vershawn Ashanti Young: "Should Writers Use They Own English"
~ DK ~
The reading that produced this week’s discussion was Krista Ratcliffe’s Rhetorical Listening, a book that asks its readers to consider the rhetorical value of listening consciously to the beliefs and experiences of others. Ratcliffe calls this practice rhetorical listening, which “signifies a stance of openness that a person may choose to assume in relation to any person, text, or culture” (17). In order to explore how this happens, Ratcliffe delves into the history of rhetoric, theories of identity, and strategies for listening to others rhetorically.
As a class, some issues we focused on were those of identity vs. identification, non-identification, invisible whiteness, and Ratcliffe’s overall message for the field of Rhetoric and Composition.
Identity vs. Identification
Ratcliffe spends ample time discussing identity vs. identification. In class wondered if there was much of a difference between the two, and, if so, what was the significance? We came up with a few thoughts, but what resonated with me the most is the idea that all of our individual identifications are part of what makes up our identity. The significance of this lies in the fact that if we try to read someone based on one identification, we can easily lead ourselves to stereotyping. Because of this, Ratcliffe urges us to focus on non-identification as a tool for rhetorical listening.
Because one can (even inadvertently) use identification to objectify people, non-identification asks us to see the whole person and to “admit that gaps exist” (73) in what we know about those we are listening to.
With a need to clarify non-identification further, we wondered, does a place of non-identification mean that one does not claim their marginalized identity? We considered how one goes about non-identifying. Through discussion we determined that maybe non-identification means you’re not putting up barriers as the listener. It’s, as one classmate said, “disidentifying yourself, not for the sake of yourself, but for the sake of what they’re saying” because learning happens when we use “the capacity to hear” and feel the “obligation to listen.”
We also wondered whether one can really be in a space of non-identification, especially if identification is not just how you see yourself, but how society sees you. After all, we’re constantly being shaped by the concepts and tropes around us, and we also reproduce them.
Despite this, Ratcliffe seems to emphasize that all people need to search for understanding and connection with others. To develop understanding, those in spaces of power need to recognize unearned privilege, while also engaging in discourses other than their own. Rhetorical listening requires us to, as another classmate put it, “understand the context, but still make the choice to not let that context inform the relationship, the listening.” By being accountable for our social positions, we can practice non-identification and aim to listen without objectifying others.
Ratcliffe’s work makes it clear that not having to acknowledge race is a privilege. Often times in America, race may be invisible to white people, but it remains visible to non-whites. This invisibility of whiteness is something many don’t want to discuss, but Ratcliffe argues that choosing to not discuss race isn’t the answer. She makes it clear that avoiding racial discussions perpetuates the privilege of not having to talk or think about racial issues in our society. While some white people may feel uncomfortable discussing race, non-white people have to deal with the day-to-day realities of not being white, putting them in a position that forces the issue of race into their lives.
One classmate pointed out that “White people might not think of white in terms of a race category,” whereas other races are seen as categories, “in silos, so to speak.” One key idea that stood out to me is that Americans in the dominant culture often see their culture as “that’s what America is,” but it’s only one view of the country. However, this isn’t the case because, even if they think their life is the norm, Rachel reminded us, “everyone else has a qualifier in front of them.” This racial qualifier is an identification often pushed upon people, one that often gets falsely equated with identity, rather than a single identification.
Implications for Rhetoric and Composition Studies
With this knowledge, Ratcliffe hopes that, first and foremost, we practice listening rhetorically, and discussing the gender and race issues that makes us uncomfortable. One person reminded the class that, “So often, when these issues are addressed, it’s in a non-productive, narcissist way.” The focus is on the self, not on society and others. By utilizing rhetorical listening strategies, we can work to avoid this self-centered trap.
Some strategies that stood out to the class included:
Rhetorical listening asks us to listen in spaces and ways we are not used to. We must spend time thinking through how we can responsibly and respectfully hear the words around us in order to move past dysfunctional silences and into a place of productive listening.
In English 812 this week, we created timelines of the major events and concepts in writing and English pedagogy that we’ve read about and discussed over the last few weeks. Interestingly, some of us brought larger social movements into our timelines, illustrating the effects of cultural context on pedagogical trends. These timelines helped us to track the ways in which the approaches to teaching English have evolved and fluctuated in tandem with these larger social movements.
We then shifted our focus to the book Language Diversity in the Classroom (2003), which was written in part as a response to surveys conducted by the CCCC and NCTE. These surveys revealed a disconcerting lack of teacher knowledge about language diversity. This book sought to fill in some of those gaps and provide a platform for discussion among scholars in the field.
On Erasure and Forgetting
Some of us raised the specific issue of teaching in the field of English as a Second Language (ESL) and questioned if the field has or has not changed in terms of approaching English as a “global language.” In Language Diversity in the Classroom, Victoria Cliett explains that English teachers should not focus on “a solely domestic concept of ‘standard English’” as to do so would put the field at a disadvantage in the global community (67). Cliett goes on to discuss the Honolulu conference which, in 1978, “produced a formal statement…that affirmed the need to continue inquiry into the development of English as an international language,” essentially calling into question the primacy of Standard American English (68).
To this end, a group of student teachers were studied to determine what effect knowledge of World Englishes would have on their attitudes and pedagogies. These TESOL masters students were provided varying levels of instruction on World Englishes and language diversity; the results, not surprisingly, demonstrated that teachers who had exposure to more, and more complex, instruction on language diversity had indeed developed more nuanced perceptions of students and their varying languages.
All of this 1970’s studying of and pushing for an increase in language diversity training for student teachers raised the question of why this largely doesn’t seem to be happening even now in 2018. It is concerning that so much work and thought has been put in on this subject, yet the average English educator in America may still not be receiving training on language diversity. The work of decades passed seems to go largely unrecognized, and sometimes erased, in the larger field.
That said, more small change may be occurring than we realize. For example, there is at least one course – titled Language Acquisition for Children of Diverse Backgrounds – that is focused on linguistic diversity as part of UWM’s teacher training program.
The concept of work erasure was once again raised with the discussion of the CCCC committee’s compiled materials for teachers, a project the team worked on for four years in the 1980s, but then decided not to publish. The ultimate choice not to go forward with the work was in response to the diminishing conversation about language diversity in the classroom at the time.
Another 1980s event that is discussed in Language Diversity in the Classroom is California’s passing of the English Only law. California was the first state in the nation to pass such a law in modern times and it is explained that the state was targeted for this action as a result of its very diversity. We discussed the ways in which this targeting can be read as a form of racism and an attempt to silence home and family languages and diminish cultures.
Thinking in New Ways: Think Tank session
To delve into the subject of tangible classroom changes, we held our own think tank session to begin breaking open our own perceptions of teaching and learning. To do this, we thought about classroom spaces, where learning occurs, activities for learning, assignments, means of giving feedback, and what we perceive as positives experiences of language and culture. We placed these concepts alongside the goals of dialect equality, awareness of language diversity, contextually-responsive pedagogies, and rhetorical effectiveness.
Some of the key points from our think tank included:
There are many additional books on the value and intentional use of varied dialects. Code Switching: Teaching Standard English in Urban Classrooms by Rebecca S. Wheeler & Rachel Swords and Code-Meshing as World English (Vershawn Ashanti Young & Aja Y. Martinez) are two such works for further reading.
This week we examined the assumptions educators and institutions have about students for whom standard American English is less accessible or for whom it is accessible but only at the expense of their own cultural language and individual identities. Our readings, Mina P. Shaughnessy’s text Errors & Expectations: A Guide for the Teacher of Basic Writing and La Vona L. Reeves’ article “Mina Shaughnessy and Open Admissions at New York’s City College,” served as the basis for this discussion.
The Complexity of Basic Writing
Turns out there is nothing basic about the often maligned “basic writing” (BW). Shaughnessy’s examination dispels notions about writers of basic English as unintelligent, illogical, or careless. Shaughnessy focuses on errors precisely because “teachers’ preconceptions about errors are frequently at the center of their misconceptions about BW students” (Shaughnessy 6). One class participant asserted, the errors themselves are intelligent errors that occur when one confronts a written system that differs from one’s own.
Our discussion also delved into cognition and practice, two related aspects of learning that are sometimes incongruent. A student of any age or ability can know the rules that govern writing or even the mistakes to avoid but that knowledge does not necessarily prevent errors from occurring, especially for a student whose language, culture, or class has competing or contradictory linguistic rules of usage. By contextualizing learning, teachers can better serve their students. Essentially, “a teacher must ask not only what he wants but what the student is most ready to do and what, from a reader’s viewpoint, is most important” (Shaughnessy 120).
The Academic Writing Trap
Our most lively discussion centered on Shaughnessy’s assertion, “for the BW student, academic writing is a trap” (Shaughnessy 7). This resonated with us as graduate students because though we had successfully navigated the academic landscape, one presumably easier for many of us because of our privileged positions upon entry, we too had experienced some of the “traps” of education.
Academic writing can be subjective, and professors often have idiosyncratic preferences that influence how they assess student writing. Students potentially confront inconsistencies in instruction that compel them to alter their writing for the purposes of pleasing a teacher. The writing then becomes increasingly less authentic and purposeful.
Codes and rules of academic writing and academic success overwhelmingly favor those already familiar with them. As Delpit expressed, “the rules of the culture of power are a reflection of the rules of the culture of those who have power,” so “success in institutions…is predicated upon acquisition of the culture of those who are in power” (25). These codes however are not easily mastered because what
may seem “simple” or even “universal” to a native speaker is incredibly complex and often obscured for someone positioned outside the culture of power (Shaughnessy 38-39).
The role of Class
Several of us commented on the role of class and how it might affect an individual’s likelihood of success. This week’s readings explicitly referenced economic and social class as factors in education. Reeves’ article “Mina Shaughnessy and Open Admissions at New York City College” dispels the assumption that students who take advantage of and directly benefit from open enrollment and nontraditional matriculation requirements are overwhelmingly students of color. In opposition to public perception, the City University of New York’s (CUNY) largest “enrollment increase had been in non-Puerto Rican Roman Catholics, including the city’s Italian, Irish, Polish, Haitian and German youth—first and second-generation Americans” (Reeves 123). Although examining current data related to nontraditional educational programs and the populations they benefit is necessary to substantiate a similar claim today, few would argue that class is a factor in access to education.
We found the readings both stimulating and bewildering. Among other questions, we asked, how can we prepare students for success or expand the current possibilities for success without a transactional exchange that requires a loss for a gain? Why are we not learning other dialects or celebrating linguistically rich communities instead of adhering to an antiquated education model that has proven inadequate? How does teacher education contribute to the prevailing assumptions and practices and how might it improve?
While there are no easy answers to these and other questions, the readings gave us much to consider going forward.
Delpit, Lisa. Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom. New York: The New Press, 2006. Print
Reeves, La Vona L. (2002). Mina Shaughnessy and Open Admissions at New York’s City College. Thought & Action, 17(2), 117-28.
Shaughnessy, Mina P. Errors & Expectations: A Guide for the Teacher of Basic Writing. New York: Oxford UP, 1977. Print.