Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

Writing Programs and the Working (Classes) of Progressivism

Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

Writing Programs and the Working (Classes) of Progressivism

Article excerpt

In his most recent book, Gravyland, Stephen Parks expends little space arguing why progressive politics should be central to the work of writing programs, preferring instead to examine how like-minded academics can most effectively promote progressive causes in collaboration with community partners. Parks unabashedly perceives his primary role as a scholar-activist fighting the increasing takeover of the public sector by private interests, as well as the national conservative backlash against the progressive coalitions of the 1960s and 70s. Noting that rhetoric and composition can trace its current academic status back to the open-admissions policies of those decades, policies that reflected a zeitgeist of radical possibility for expanding access to economic and political power, Parks fears that as the field continues to professionalize and gain sway within English departments and beyond, it risks turning its back on the working-class, highly diverse students who made this disciplinary rise possible. For Parks, universities in working-class, urban neighborhoods should not only engage local communities in Ernest Boyer's (1996) sense of mutualistic problem solving and knowledge production; they should also actively work to form allegiances with local progressive organizations and expand definitions about whose voices count as having legitimate intellectual and aesthetic merit. The collaborative work he pursued for years in Philadelphia soundly reflected these convictions, and this work forms the core of Gravyland.

Among numerous topics addressed in this wide-ranging and compelling book is writing beyond the curriculum, a term Parks and Eli Goldblatt (2000) coined years earlier to signify the expansion of writing across the curriculum outside university walls. According to Parks, the concept of writing beyond the curriculum, which seeks to combine the work of composition and cultural studies, represented the increasing incorporation of "public-school partnerships, community writing groups, literacy research projects, and service-learning courses" (p. 10) into the work of writing programs. Each of the book's first four chapters focuses on a different community-literacy project undertaken by the Institute for the Study of Literature, Literacy, and Culture, which Parks co-founded and directed for a number of years at Temple University. This narrative structure, presented in roughly chronological order, allows Parks to offer key lessons learned from grounded experience. Thus, Gravyland offers readers a tale of personal, theoretical, practical, and institutional evolution as both Parks's and the Institute's understanding of how to most effectively use urban university resources to support working-class communities develops over time, self-reflexively challenging its own values and beliefs to cultivate a richer theory of change.

Part of the Institute's original mission was to create forums for community publishing in which people who often do not get to tell their own stories could speak back to the dominant and often stereotypical narratives that others, particularly in the mass media, tell about them. However, over time Parks became increasingly convinced that while this aspect of community publishing is important, it does not go far enough. Rather, community publishing must become the basis for political and economic empowerment through partnerships that "simultaneously authorize the individual's voiced experience and work collectively to address the larger social and political contexts in which that personal voice exists," thereby "linking the act of writing to active community organizing" (p. 33). In this respect, writing beyond the curriculum can enact a hybrid relationship of voices "between individual need and community action" (p. 18). Parks explains that this revised and more actively political mission, which justified changing the Institute's name to New City Writing and creating a publishing arm, New City Community Press, was to a large extent modeled on the United Kingdom's Federation of Worker Writers and Community Publishers (FWWCP), a coalition of working-class writing groups that brought an anti-capitalist vision to publishing by involving "writers in all parts of the writing process, from first draft to laying out text for publication. …

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