Academic journal article Composition Studies

Writing between Two Worlds: Science and Discourses of Commitment in the Composition Classroom

Academic journal article Composition Studies

Writing between Two Worlds: Science and Discourses of Commitment in the Composition Classroom

Article excerpt

The idea that theorists in Composition Studies can provide foolproof strategies for creating an ideologically engaged "community of discourse" has been with us for some time now. Whether this community would have an irenic character, in which all parties learn how to get along and perhaps learn to "agree to disagree," or an agonistic one, in which difference and heterogeneity are valued over and above consensus, we have received no shortage of advice about how to achieve such reflective cultural spaces in our classrooms. The trouble with these arguments lies with the tendency on the part of scholars to revert to idealizations and political abstractions: even when we favor agonistic outcomes, the world envisioned is still kind and gentle, and though we claim to be thinking more carefully about student backgrounds and ideological concerns, we still see their differences as insignificant obstacles to a classroom wherein the many become one. In a recent essay that explores how Mikhail Bakhtin's concepts of heteroglossia and dialogism might inform an irenic multicultural composition classroom, Chikako Kumamoto offers the following vision of the culturally-aware student writer:

[T]he eloquent T is a discourse site of a writer's epistemological ascent to reach a more richly achieved self-her sense of personal order-through a series of her highly selfaware encounters with powerfully patterned culturescapes, each receptive to critical connections and resulting in a new knowledge of herself. (Kumamoto 75)

The tone here is triumphal, and the writer does little justice to the incommensurable conflict among discourses experienced in writing classrooms every day by teacher and student alike.

For all of our theorizing and self-critique, rhetoric and composition scholars tend to minimize the often interminable character of political and moral disagreement among students from various backgrounds, and, like the writer in the quotation above, we simplify the backgrounds from which they come in order to fit them into our arguments. These tendencies, though efficacious for conference papers and journal articles, threaten to undermine the very objectives that we claim to uphold: the intellectual benefit of our students. One might attempt to counter these tendencies by producing a "new and improved" formula for achieving some measure of community in the classroom, but my aim will be more narrowly focused. I will argue that one of the greatest ideological challenges that students face is not the ubiquitous Other that might be sitting in the next row, but rather the collision of public and private discourses. These collisions, such as those between an instructor's academic discourse and a student's religious commitment, are not mere pedagogical nuisances but, in fact, may strain the possibilities of ideological coherence for student writers more generally.

Some scholars operate from the premise that the greatest enemy to a student's grasping of an issue is the tension arising from differing viewpoints. Trish Roberts-Miller expresses this perspective vis-à-vis moral argument: "Arguing from a specifie (and unarguable) moral code means seeing one (and only one) side as the moral one; hence, such arguments are so full of hate" (551). Roberts-Miller seems to fear not that students will have moral perspectives, but rather that they will hold onto those perspectives too strongly, thus opening the door for scorn and exclusion of those unlike themselves. So we are (apparently) left with a choice: if we want a positive, irenic rhetoric in our classrooms, then we will attempt to teach students to, ideologically speaking, play well with others, while if we want sparks and debate, we will foster difference and agonistic rhetoric. Whichever is more preferable may depend upon ideological assumptions and goals or on a given instructor's pedagogical style.1

In fact, the moral components of the issues covered in composition course assignments have already created a difficult situation for our students, a situation scarcely addressed by the irenic-agonistic argument in pedagogy scholarship. …

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