Gold – Rhetoric at the Margins: Revising the History of Writing Instruction in American Colleges

Gold, David. Rhetoric at the Margins :Revising the History of Writing Instruction in American Colleges, 1873-1947. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2008. Print.

In Rhetoric at the Margins: Revising the History of Writing Instruction in American Colleges, 1873-1947, David Gold re-historicized the history of writing in American colleges during the late 19th century and early 20th century by including accounts from three colleges and universities outside of the typical liberal arts institutions that are commonly included in such histories. Gold argued that including these other formal sites of writing instruction would provide a fuller and more nuanced history of composition and rhetorical education in the U.S. during that time period:

“I argue that each of the schools in this study championed intellectual and pedagogical traditions that diverged from the Eastern liberal arts model that often serves as the standard bearer for the development of English studies and rhetorical education. Furthermore, by emphasizing community uplift and civic responsibility and by validating local institutional and demographic realities, these schools created contexts in which otherwise moribund curricular features of the era—such as strict classroom discipline and an emphasis on prescription—took on new possibilities. Indeed, I suggest that the epistemological schema that have long been applied to pedagogical practices may actually limit understanding of those practices.” (xi)

Gold stated the three goals of the text were: “( 1) to recover important histories that would otherwise be lost and give voice to the experiences of students and educators of a diverse past; ( 2) to complicate and challenge the master narratives of rhetoric and composition history and the ideological assumptions that underlie them; and ( 3 ) to demonstrate persistent connections between the past and the present in order to help develop richer pedagogies for diverse bodies of students” (x).

To reconstruct the histories of writing instruction at Wiley College, Texas Woman’s University, and East Texas Gold analyzed archival  resources including: catalogues, course descriptions, student and faculty class notes and essays, contemporary newspaper and governmental reports, letters and diaries, interviews and oral histories. Gold argued that “What we have dismissed as current-traditional rhetoric often represents a complex of interwoven practices, both conservative and radical, liberatory and disciplining, and subject to wide-ranging local and institutional variations” (5).

One of the most compelling examples of how generalizing histories and theories of  writing pedagogy based on a monolithic notion of liberal arts education drawn from a limited selection of “mainstream” liberal arts colleges and universities can be found in Gold’s analysis of black liberal arts and rhetorical education at Wiley College, a historically Black college (HBCU). Exploring these histories that have been marginalized are important to the future of writing instruction, according to Gold, because writing instructors and program administrators use these histories to policy and curriculum decisions.

Gold argued that James Berlin’s (1987) taxonomies have been treated as mutually exclusive and discrete: “One is either epistemic or current-traditional in pedagogical practice and never twain shall they meet” (17). Tolson’s rhetorical practices, however, did not fit into any simple category: “…rather he combined elements of classical, current-traditional, liberal, social-epistemic, and African American as he saw fit” (17).

This example along with others from the other two institutions examined in the book, reinforce Gold’s primary argument that our interpretations of composition and rhetorical theory, like the theories themselves, are socially constructed, in constant flux, and must be understood in context.

Once again, an example of the importance of this type of contextual understanding can be seen in professor Melvin Tolson’s pedagogy at Wiley College as it related to race, power, and language instruction. Gold highlighted how Tolson would not have seen his prescriptive teaching of Standard American English as being in conflict with his opposition to white supremacy:

“For Tolson, language instruction gave his students the tools to actively resist the pressures of racism, conservatism, and capitalism. The question of whether the master’s tools could be used to tear down or rebuild the master’s house never came up, as it never would have occurred to him that the tools belonged to the master in the first place” (153).

He concluded:

“Our inheritance as rhetoric, writing, and language instructors in the American academy is a rich one, and the late
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are a vital part of that inheritance. Then, as now, writing instructors worked to expand educational opportunities for new constituencies of students, fought against what they saw as the reductive rhetoric of previous generations, and sought to promote citizen-ship through rhetorical instruction. This is a past that not only deserves to be remembered but might also bear some repeating.” (156)

Thelin – Understanding Problems in Critical Classrooms

Thelin, William. “Understanding Problems in Critical Classrooms.” College Composition and Communication. 57.1 (2005): 114-141. Print.

In this article, William Thelin critiques critics of critical pedagogy in the composition classroom, Richard Miller and Russel Durst. In short, Thelin asks that baby, critical pedagogy, not be thrown out with the bathwater, challenges, mishaps, and uncertainties that may occur in the classroom. The critique, however, is not the focus of his essay; Thelin provides additional classroom research to show how imperfect critical pedagogy practices/ results can provide valuable insight into achieving the goals of critical pedagogy.

Thelin collected data in the form of student essays that critiqued the “failed” writing course they had participated in with him that semester and offered specific reasons as to why they did not meet their mutual expectations. The 21 students were a mix of white and African American  students across social class lines and genders.

He cites himself in an article with John Paul Tassoni to say, “Students empowerment and challenges to the status quo obviously could not run as seemlessly and still be what they claimed” (2). He continues:

If everything in a critical classroom worked as well as some accounts of critical pedagogy make it seem (see Rosenthal as one example), we would not have a transformation of a classroom. We would have a recasting of the typical hero model of teaching where the instructor rescues students in need of saving (127).

One of the main reasons (signified by five student responses) students gave for things not going well in the classroom was that students were “not used to freedom/ contradicted previous classroom experience” (128). No students argued that students should no co-develop curricula with the instructor (130).

Thelin interprets his classess’ “blunders” as learning opportunities for intructors and students. As an instructor, he sees opportunity to improve his pedagogy by listening to students’ voices more and understanding their understanding of democracy and education. For his students, he holds out hope that they will be better equipped to handle a critical pedagogy class in the future; more and not less critical pedagogy is necessary to have successful democratic classrooms.

Shor – Why Teach About Social Class?

Shor, Ira. “Why Teach About Social Class?” Teaching English in the Two Year College. 33.2 (2005): 161-170. Print.

In this article, Ira Shor gives a brief overview of his critical teaching method and then focuses on why he emphasizes social class in his course at the City University of New York college he teachers at. He contextualizes the Two Year College within the political and economic climate of the 1970s to the present. Pointing to the increased Harvardization/corporatization of education he asserts that most students at Two Year Colleges are trying to complete degrees under difficult circumstances at underfunded institutions and depending on shrinking promises of financial reward upon completion. These are the students that Shor says most need to understand issues of social class if they are to be equipped to advocate for themselves out in the world. This understanding, however, does not come from traditional banking educational methods, but by developing critical thinking skills.

What teachers can do, if they believe learning for democracy is our professional responsibility, is to develop students as critical citizens whose thinking and acting include tools for class analysis of their lives, their reading lists, their majors, and their society (168).

Shor – Can Critical Pedagogy Foster Activism in This Time of Repression

Shor, Ira. “Can Critical Pedagogy Foster Activism in This Time of Repression.” : Radical Teacher. 79 (2007): 39. Print.

In this brief article, Ira Shor explains how he uses the problem-posing method in his first year writing class in order to engage students in concrete relevant writing in a democratic classroom environment. With a class of approximate 30 working-class students from diverse background Shor facilitates a process of co-creating the course syllabus. He also uses questionnaires on the first day to determine generative themes that the students later vote on to determine  topics of inquiry. Shor begins with low stakes writing assignments and information that students already have on their selected topics. The students then proceed to research and collect data which Shor says he lets speak for itself without polemic lectures.

In the end, Shor says,

“‘Research’ here was not an abstract or ritual schmooze through steps but a disturbing process of provocative questions raised by virtually any topic in our society” (39).

Shor – Critical Pedagogy is Too Big To Fail

Shor, Ira. “Critical Pedagogy is Too Big to Fail.” Journal of Basic Writing. 28.2 (2009): 6-27. Print.

In this article, Shor’s goal is twofold: First,  he addresses similarities and differences between his grading contracts and his colleagues Peter Elbow and Jane Danielewicz.  While Shor grades the quality of student work on a wider A-F basis, Elbow and Danielewicz only grade quality if a student work is deemed a “B” or better. Another difference is that Shor negotiates the grading contract with his students to construct the classroom as a public sphere, where Elbow and Danielewicz’s contracts are nonnegotiable. Shor asserts that these practices are particularly important in a neo-liberal climate where students need to develop democratic agency. Secondly, Shor addresses a misperception of his pedagogy in Danielewicz and Elbow’s essay regarding polemics in critical pedagogy. Shor says that polemics and proselytizing is not necessary or appropriate in the classroom. He cites himself in Empowering Education to reiterate the point:

Teachers who treat the classroom as a political meeting can expect stiffened resistance from students as well as more vigilant policing from administrators. . . . Dialogic, democratic teaching rejects sectarian posturing. Students cannot be commanded to take action and cannot be graded on their consciousness. (196-97)

Gaugan – From Literature to Language: Personal Writing in Critical Pedagogy

Gaugan, John. “From Literature to Language: Personal Writing and Critical Pedagogy.” English Education. 31.4 (1999): 310-326. Print.

In this article, John Gaugan explores what it means to engage in liberating pedagogy in the writing classroom. Through various examples from his English courses Gaugan shows how he navigates the fine line between helping students critically question what they “know” and the world without imposing his own agenda of democratic values. His questions are similar to those of Elisabeth Ellsworth (1989). Part of his solution is grounded in on-going dialogue; not telling students what to think, but continuously encouraging them to rethink (315).

Gaugan labels his teaching “social epistemic” or “cultural studies” and admits that this model can fall into the traditional, nondemocratic banking model. However, Gaugan states that while he selects the themes and texts of his course, his course remains more student-centered than teacher-centered:

Despite these admissions,  I  don’t  think my teaching is traditional.  My classes  are more student- than teacher-centered, more  language-  than literature-focused, more  process-  than product-oriented. I question  or suggest  rather  than insist or prescribe. I ask  students  to  consider  their privileged position. I  try to make  them  think  –  but not exactly  as  I do.  I share my point of view but welcome  theirs. I  encourage reader  response. I don’t own a teacher’s manual. (325)