Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Blogging to My PhD: Let the Youth Speak!

I'm reading Sharon Crowley's The Methodical Memory: Invention in Current-Traditional Rhetoric. It's a book that is interesting to me from my scholarly perspective and my professional view as a teacher.

Current-traditional rhetoric is the name we've retroactively given a period in rhetorical tradition where style and arrangement (that is, how we put words together on the page) and correctness (grammar rules, basically) became the primary focus of the composition classroom. We now talk about current-traditional rhetoric with disdain, aghast that anyone would ever use the teaching of writing in such a surface-level way and quietly patting ourselves on the back for begin much smarter and enlightened in these postmodern days than our predecessors had the bad luck to be.

pat on the back

Except we totally still do it. The five-paragraph essay, avoiding comma splices, and ensuring a topic sentence for every paragraph are all remnants of this practice we publicly disdain while ordering up textbooks that still enact its tenets left and right. (I do take some issue with using textbook content as an easy way to determine what teachers teach. I mean, who really uses the textbook the way that the textbook tells you to? But that's a blog post for a different day.)

So why are we still using these antiquated holdouts that, as Crowley explains, were already antiquated shortly after they appeared and are long past their expiration date now, especially since the psychology and logic theories they were built upon went out of vogue in their respective fields decades ago?

Somewhat cynically, Crowley thinks it's about control:
current-traditional writing instruction served the academy as a useful mud fence, guarding it from the unsupervised and unconfined sprawl of self-initiated analytical or critical student discourse. . .Current-traditional rhetoric was the control developed within the academy. When students were instructed in it, all concerned could rest assured that few students would produce writing that demanded to be read and heeded.
Current-traditional rhetoric, carrying out Crowley's analysis, works to kill individuality and creativity in a text, making it (and--by extension--the students writing it) sanitized and safe. 

In short, current-traditional rhetoric is the man, and it's trying to keep the kids down. 

Kids (and I use the term here loosely, as we're often talking about college students who are technically adults) have a long history of causing trouble. 

This is because young people tend to be more accepting of changes to the status quo. This is where all those "kids today" arguments come from. The older generation always looks upon the younger one with disdain. They're always listening to horrible music, wearing stupid-looking clothes, getting lazier, and not contributing enough to society. 

home is where the sprinkler is
"And get off my lawn!"

Perhaps it's just because I'm not old enough yet, but I don't put much stock in the "kids today" arguments. I suspect that kids now seem (and pretty much always have seemed) ridiculous and selfish to their parents' generation because kids (all kids) are--relatively speaking--ridiculous and selfish. But they're also idealistic and passionate. 

It's these latter qualities that I'm interested in for the context of current-traditional rhetoric. Young people have been at the heart of many social movements, from SNCC in the Civil Rights movement to the Occupy Wall Street protesters at UC Davis, young people have been socially active. Not until recently, though, did so many young people have so much power when it comes to the written word. 

The gatekeepers of print long controlled the access to widely distributed outlets for writing: newspapers, books, magazines, etc. Sure, student groups have always used flyers and pamphlets to disseminate information, and student-run campus newspapers have always had an important role to play locally, but it's only been with the rise in internet usage and social media that anyone with a computer and an internet connection could have an immediate platform with the potential to reach millions. 

It's interesting that we've seen so many young voices come forward. 

Remember Riley?

While she may be an extreme example, high school and college students across the globe are using the written word in ways that they never have before. What was previously the scribblings in a young girl's diary has become a Facebook post or an entire blog. The raps teens wrote that only their friends heard can be seen by people on the other side of the world on YouTube. 

The results can be positive or negative. Remember when a bunch of teens tweeted racist rants after Obama's re-election? Some of them faced serious consequences for what would once have been a private act of ignorance. After she took to YouTube to make a horrendously racist rant about Asian students, Alexandra Wallace left UCLA amid death threats

With a real audience comes real power . . . and real consequences. 

All that to say that if Crowley is right and the current-traditional rhetoric was aimed at keeping students' voices contained and powerless, then it's not only unethical, but too late. 

Our students are no longer getting shaped for a future in public discourse; they have been creating public discourse long before they hit freshman composition. The realities of our current teaching practices need to match the realities of the digital landscape. 

Our students' voices are powerful; we've always known that, and that's why some have worked to stifle them. Crowley called it a "mud fence," but the levies have been broken by the power of technology. We never should have been holding our students back to begin with, but it's a moot point now. We can't hold their voices back, so we might as well help them learn how to use them well. 

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