Academic journal article College English

Rhetorical Education and Student Activism

Academic journal article College English

Rhetorical Education and Student Activism

Article excerpt

On February 8, 2010, Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador to the United States, stepped onto a stage at the University of California-Irvine (UCI) to deliver a speech sponsored by the Department of Political Science and the School of Law. A few minutes into the presentation, Oren was interrupted by an audience member who stood and yelled, "Michael Oren, propagating murder is not an expression of free speech."1 The protestor, a member of the UCI Muslim Student Union (MSU), then voluntarily left the meeting and was arrested by local police. More disruptions followed, as MSU members and supporters stood and loudly declaimed a mix of prepared and spontaneously composed sentences that challenged Israel's role in the occupation of Palestine and the legality of Oren's own participation in military actions. The protestors, labeled the "Irvine 11," were arrested, the organization was disciplined by the university, and months later, ten of the group were prosecuted by the Orange County criminal court and convicted of misdemeanor counts of conspiracy and disrupting a public meeting.2 The protest generated passionate and widely varied responses, many concerned with appropri- ate modes of public engagement. What are we as teachers of rhetoric and writing to make of such an event? Which strands of scholarship since the "social turn" in composition studies-the discipline in English studies perhaps most engaged with questions of rhetorical training and public engagement-might help us make sense of a completely self-sponsored public protest, organized by design to violate codes of civility and place itself outside the conventional genres of the deliberative demo- cratic discourse that composition and rhetoric teachers most commonly theorize, teach, and subscribe to?

The Social Turn: inSide The claSSroom and ouT

Along many lines of interpretation, the social turn demanded opening the classroom, or at least repositioning it-placing the writing class, its grounding assumptions, aims, and practices, within a larger world determined by economic and social forces. One could argue that the field has been turned toward the social from its very inception, with the creative response of Mina Shaughnessy and others to the influx of underpre- pared students into universities via open admissions policies of the 1960s. Even the focus on students as thinkers and problem solvers grounding the cognitive process theories of the 1970s and 1980s is arguably "social" in that it imagines a writing class peopled by students with minds rather than dominated by a single authority deliver- ing the truth to no one in particular. But many associate the social turn with a surge in scholarship sparked by challenges to cognitive process approaches (Bizzell 1982; Berlin 1988) and then propelled by Marxist and feminist-influenced scholars in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Power and the political became keywords for scholars such as James Berlin, who in 1988 described "teaching writing as an inescapably political act" (51). Just the year before, Ira Shor's Freirian-influenced Critical Teaching and Everyday Life came out with its incisive critique of the ideological forces shaping working-class students. And when Richard Bullock and John Trimbur's 1991 The Politics of Writing Instruction won the CCCC Outstanding Book Award, the legitimacy of the "turn" was confirmed. Catherine Hobbs Peaden's JAC review of Bullock and Trimbur in fact marks 1991 as a significant year for "cultural-political" publications. With these works and many others, the question for the field shifted from, is the classroom a political space? to, how should power and the political be analyzed and negotiated within the classroom? These are profound questions with which teachers of writing, literature, and culture still grapple.

As convenient a shorthand as "social turn" has been for a complex disciplinary change, we would not want the figure to produce a history like a map with a single itinerary. …

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