Tag Archives: Critical Pedagogy

Some Thoughts on the Rhetoric of Education and the Preparation of Community College Teachers

Recently I’ve been thinking of a presentation that my colleague, Sarah Thomas, a professor at the University of Nebraska Lincoln, gave at the Nebraska Writing Project Summer Institute.  The problem that she brought up, as I understand it, is: how do we still have authentic writing and writing instruction in the classroom in an era where the assessment culture, driven by neoliberal notions about the purpose of education, dominate.  One of the audience members, Adam Hurig, who teaches at a community college, had the courage to say that he didn’t get the formative and summative assessment jargon that we were talking about.  I think it is the confluence of these two events that has clarified the direction of my continuing research and my decision to go back to school to get a doctorate.  To be clear: we have to fight the assessment culture that has become the dominant force in education.  And, concurrently, we have to train the teachers who will be practitioners at community colleges with the background and methods that will make them more than just content experts, but also able to talk back to their own institutions and to the education culture in ways that serve students.

I’m sure that these two items seem very different, so let me spend time with each of them and then try to synthesize them in a way that makes my “mad bomber” activism and perspective seem, I hope, a little more sane.  First, I think that most educators would agree that NCLB is a disaster, a failure of epic proportions.  I say that without hyperbole.  And I should be quick to add that by most educators I mean K-12 educators and professors in education departments.  Interestingly, while faculty in English and math departments at colleges and universities bemoan the preparation of their incoming students, they don’t know why the students are that way.  Really, I know it sounds like an over-generalization, but most of the faculty, good and smart people for the most part, know abstractly that NCLB and the testing culture that it has spawned are bad, but they don’t know why exactly and deeply.  Charles Simic, who is one of my favorite poets, is a good example of my colleagues’ attitudes.  In a post called “The Age of Ignorance” on the New York Review of Books website, he lambasts the public’s ignorance and their belief in conspiracies, creationism, love for foolish, yet attractive politicians etc., which he sees as a result of the dumbing down of the high school curriculum over decades.  When I posted this article on my Facebook feed, many of my professor friends were quick to like it and comment with something like an amen.  Of course, Simic fails to mention that we educate more of our populace than we ever have before and that many more students take an advanced curriculum that was only available to the rich 100 years ago.  His post smacks of elitism and it’s just wrong.  The curriculum isn’t to blame–it’s the assessment culture that has made the curriculum huge, but which also precludes the time to investigate deeply and creatively.  He’s right in a way, but for the wrong reasons, and his call from the ivory tower is condescending.  I would love to invite him to the high schools that my colleagues teach at or to the community college where I teach–it’s a different world.

But all of this doesn’t get rid of the fact that my students at my college are shockingly unprepared.  Unfortunately, because of our ignorance, college and university teachers are largely unprepared to undo any of the damage that has been committed to these students because of the test culture.  This fact brings us back to Adam, who I’m using as a cipher, with apologies, who teaches at a community college in Lincoln and to myself who teaches at a community college in Omaha.  We are both highly trained content experts.  We understand the deep teaching of writing, reading and thinking, and we work hard with our students.  However, he and I, like most teachers at community colleges, and I would bet like most teachers at universities haven’t had any methods training or training that gives us a background in the current issues in education.  Teachers like us only know and engage with the rhetoric of education and the current issues surrounding our national discourse on education if we are interested. And there are many many Charles Simic’s out there who would rather blame the curriculum than look deeply at real causes.  Of course, this isn’t new; Joseph Harris in Composition: A Teaching Subject since 1966 speaks directly to this as a cycle rather than something new.  When the sons of merchants entered Harvard in the 1800s, the professors were quick to point out that these students didn’t measure up. Mike Rose in Lives on the Boundary tracks the increasing numbers of students being educated at higher and higher levels.  And never mind that, while my students cannot do the critical thinking that I want them to do, that they instead have digital literacies that astonish.

Simic writes that “A truly educated populace would be bad, both for politicians and for business” and this is true.  The neoliberal ideology and corporate kleptocracy that run our country see students as human capital rather than as human beings to be developed.  Educators fall into this trap too, especially when we talk about the point of education, or the major outcome at the minimum, to be getting students “career ready.” We did not push back on the argument that our culture had about the purpose of an education.  And, unfortunately, we have substituted an education that prepares students to be citizens, activists and better humans, for an education that is interested in mere preparation to be a part of the economy.  We must never forget that those who run the economy aren’t interested in their subjects’ resistance to these systems.

All of which brings me to a recent conference that I attended in Austin Texas called NISOD–I was receiving a teaching excellence award that the organization doles out to its member colleges every year.  One of the keynote speakers was a woman from the Lumina foundation.  She explained that the goal of the foundation was to help 60% of Americans receive a degree or certificate by some date in the near future–the current rate is a little less than 30% nationally, so it’s an ambitious goal. And it sounds laudable right? But this rhetoric is insidious.  For colleges to judge the quality of their offerings, she suggested that we will have to engage in much more assessment, what Sarah called the “data culture” in her equip.  The speaker also made it clear that the reason why we needed 60% of our citizens to be educated with a degree or credential was so that they could engage in the 21st century economy–there was a little talk about being a good citizen, but it was clear that her version of a student was one who engaged with, rather that critiqued and resisted the global capitalism that has resulted in the larges income inequality in history and brought the world to the brink of environmental disaster.  Lumina comes from the latin for light.  As I sat in the darkened auditorium with 500 other award winners though, I could see very little of the light going on with the education professionals there.  It sounds harsh, but community college instructors are largely unprepared to meet and resist the current rhetoric of education which is permeated by the assessment culture that has already overwhelmed and undermined my K-12 comrades.  I was the proverbial canary in the coal mine, but it might be too late.

When I add this up, it this makes me even surer that my research work will revolve around critical pedagogy at the community college.  How do we make sure that our instructors have a broad view of the purpose of education?  We often talk about the poor persistence and completion rates at our community colleges.  And Vincent Tinto, the guru on student retention and success argues in Completing College that it all comes down to engagement.  We see engagement very narrowly in our culture–we see it as enticing students with the promise of future success in a competitive economy.  Perhaps though it is the students’ unconscious resistance to joining the rat race that makes them drop out.  What if instead we taught the whole student, what if we gave them the tools to be activists in their community against those unjust systems rather than worked to conform them in some way to fit within that system?

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Rhetoric of Love in the Classroom

One of the things that I think that happens with my students is that many of their educational experiences have dismissed their reading of the world.  The experiences and perspectives that they bring to the classroom are not validated and are instead thrown away.  Then comes the banking system and the oppression.  The student’s language isn’t appropriate in an academic context, so throw it out—the student does not dress right or act right or talk proper—they’ll never get a job.  So many teachers work from the perspective of deficit and limitation.  Just last week I was sitting in a meeting full of English teachers and someone in the back said “they have to have the foundation of the academic essay by the time that they leave developmental writing.”  It’s shit like this that makes me cringe.  I want to hear how my students read the world and hear what their voice and vision is.  Simply imposing a staid and stodgy form on them so that they can be “academic” is fruitless.  Students disengage in this moment.  They cannot read the world the way that those who have been indoctrinated by the academy and it’s arrogant for us to assume that they need to do so.  Reading the world in the classroom must be reciprocal and recursive rather that unidirectional.

And what I’ve just written is a political act—because if I get a student to believe that their reading of the world is legitimate, then they might resist that rejection in a different and more productive way the next time they encounter a teacher.  It’s still too easy though—teacher power in the classroom can shape us in surprisingly insidious ways.

Students have a right to read the world with their experience.  I assert that this is both a Freirian and a poststructuralist moment.  I’ve been thinking of Corder’s 1985 article “Rhetoric as Love” recently and want to come back to his notion of the self as a narrative.  He writes that the person/subject is always stationing that self within its narrative, that is her or his history and identity (17).  Corder goes on to discuss how these narratives come into contact with one another.  Freire would seem to agree with this sentiment in that his consciousness-raising pedagogy asks the student/person/subject to understand their history and its context.  What Freire is drawing on the student to do then is to understand their narrative in ways that it hasn’t been understood before—and through that process to give the narrative and the history and the subject value.

Return with me then to the English teacher who is demanding that the student understand the academic essay by the end of a developmental writing course.  That demand is for the student to adopt a particular way of creating narrative, and it is one without regard to the student’s own story and history.  It seems, in some way, because of its demand for dominance, to be destined to fail.

Not long after I heard this English teacher, I heard another English teacher telling her colleagues that she was going to start administering a test at the beginning of her classes to see of students could follow directions.  I eavesdropped.  She went on to tell her colleagues that the test would be like one that she had to take when she was in high school.  It would have a series of instructions, with the last one being something like: don’t do any of the other instructions, just write your name on the paper and turn it in to the teacher.  This colleague of mine was sure that this would show students the importance of following directions.  I was silent.  For me, that exercise only ensures humiliation and the disengagement of students.  It would make them feel stupid.  I would be right there with the students too—I’m the type of student who dives right in—I want to do well and please the teacher after all.  But my colleague had a different story for that and a different history.

And I think that the arguments that these teachers are making are serious ones.  The kind of high stakes arguments that Corder argues make people feel threatened when they are opposed.  The arguments as I seem them are: 1. Students should be able to write academic prose; and 2. Students should be able to follow directions.  I like both of those.  And heck, I can follow directions and I can write academic prose, but I don’t think those skills are the most important thing about me, nor do I think that they encompass my personhood in totality.  And there, I think, is the rub.  When we are interested only in one totalizing narrative of what it means to be a student, then we marginalize and dismiss, even oppress, other ways of knowing and learning in the classroom.

Corder wants to see argument as emergence, a sort of Burkean entry into the parlor, but more interior—Corder wants argument to invite us to know the other and for the other to know us.  It’s a much riskier prospect than making sure those darn students get it right and failing the ones who don’t.  Corder makes the assertion and that argument and rhetoric must begin, proceed, and end in love (28).  For me, this move sounds like Freire and his admonition that the oppressed must not become the oppressor and that the binary relationship must be broken.

But what does that mean in the English classroom and how are students going to meet standards if you just love them? I don’t want to be glib here, because being a loving teacher is my goal and my attempted practice.  I know that my students write more and think more than they ever have because they feel valued and heard—two words that I would argue are conditions of love.  I have students who want to keep their narrative—the one where I’m a jerk and responsible for their failure—I can’t always change that.  But if we talk about how we are creating a classroom space and then we work to enact it, then amazing things happen.  They become writers and thinkers and those words become part of the way that they identify themselves in the world—the are more conscious in the Freirian sense.

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