Thursday, September 19, 2013

Blogging to My PhD: Become a New You! (and Other Educational Endeavors)

College is supposed to change you. If it didn't, it would be hard to justify the time, money, and effort spent attending. The concept of change, renewing, and relaunching is prominent in the ads for colleges across the country. 

There are frequently metaphors centered on "building" or "creating" a "new you" in these advertisements. 

A complementary message is that the "you" that is created will go on to change the world:

What I am getting at here is that the dominant narratives surrounding the purpose for education in America exist within a productive tension between the individual and the community. "Go to college," the ads say "to change your life." They focus on the very individual impact it will have on your existence. You will make more money. You will be more fulfilled. You will be happier with your day-to-day existence. In order to make this point, advertisements (especially those TV spots) tend to rely on a stark contrast between the downtrodden (but always filled with potential) student before and after attending college. The act of transformation is ever-present. 

Transformation, though, cannot happen in a vacuum. (This relates to the recent conversation we had here about there being no "authentic self.") You cannot make more money, after all, unless whatever skills you built fit into a larger economic network of employment. The concept of fulfillment is often tied into the act of helping other people, be it through a career in nursing or creating a much-beloved video game. Even the most personal (and thus the most individual)  of the calls to transformation touch upon a connection to other people. "I now have more time for my family" says the woman in the video ad. "I am a role model to my children." 

So it's a given in educational narratives that there will be a transformation. We will change for ourselves, and we will change the world. There is no clear division between these two transformative acts. They are, in fact, interconnected. The very act of individual changing occurs by interacting with the larger community (represented by the college itself, the classes we attend, the activities we use to fill our time). Essentially, the framing of educational purpose is an agonistic one. There is a tension in place between the self and the larger group, but it is not a destructive tension. Both the self and the whole will change through that tension, and that change is not just a by-product, but the actual goal. 

In Debra Hawhee's Bodily Arts, the transformative/agonistic component of educational theory is explored:
"both athletic and sophistic pedagogy depend on a contractual philia, a tacit agreement to transform"
"while the ancient concept of phusis carried meanings that would fall on the 'nature' side of the contemporary nature/culture divide, the word also suggests 'temperament' and 'character,' and contains a common connotation of 'growth.'Phusis thus already implies a kind of capacity for change, the force encapsulated by phusiopoiesis."
As someone who believes that agonistic tension is a very productive and necessary (and inevitable) part of human communication, it's heartening for me to think of education in these terms. Students enter into the classroom with the understanding that it will (or at the very least should) change them, and--in turn--they change the classroom with their presence. There is an exchange of energy, of knowledge, and even of identity.

This, though, is where things get dicey for me.

Change, Identity, and "Our Own" Language

The connection between language and identity is readily apparent in my classroom because I teach developmental English. The way that we talk, write, and communicate through clothing and body language are all intimately tied up with our sense of self and the projection of that self to a larger community.

Some students enter my classroom desperate for some secret code that will give them the means to project a different version of themselves into public life. They want to know where the commas go, how to avoid subject-verb agreement problems, and how to pronounce "smart" words so that they can project themselves as "smart" people.

They are not wrong. There are many people who will judge them (rightly or wrongly, positively or negatively) by the way they use language.

Some students enter my classroom resentful of any suggestion that their language is "wrong." The people they love taught them this language (or, really, these languages) and it serves them well in many (if not most) of their day-to-day interactions. In fact, if they used the "proper" language of the school setting in many of their common daily conversations, they would be seen as an outcast who was not communicating effectively.

They are not wrong, either. There is nothing inherently better or more intelligent in Standard Academic English, and there are plenty of situations when it is the wrong mode of communication for the given circumstances.

It is with these tensions fresh in my mind that I first read the 1972 resolution on students' rights to their own language:

We affirm the students' right to their own patterns and varieties of language -- the dialects of their nurture or whatever dialects in which they find their own identity and style. Language scholars long ago denied that the myth of a standard American dialect has any validity. The claim that any one dialect is unacceptable amounts to an attempt of one social group to exert its dominance over another. Such a claim leads to false advice for speakers and writers, and immoral advice for humans. A nation proud of its diverse heritage and its cultural and racial variety will preserve its heritage of dialects. We affirm strongly that teachers must have the experiences and training that will enable them to respect diversity and uphold the right of students to their own language.
 I read it and my heart soared. "Yes!" I thought. "These students should feel empowered and capable within their own languages. Why should the elitist norms of the rich and powerful be the only accepted standards?" (My internal dialogue is a little verbose.)

But the more rhetorical theory I research, the more I think about how language develops and what education is supposed to do, the more I bristle at the implications of this resolution and the (well-meaning) practices we put in place because of it.

No one has their "own" language. If they did, it wouldn't be a language. Language requires an exchange between people. If I start calling desks "burgleports," it doesn't mean anything unless you also agree to call them that or to understand what I mean when I say it. Language is inherently shared. No one owns it. It develops in groups; it is used in groups; it is a collective project.

So what I really mean if I say that my students have a right to "their own" language is that somehow "my own" language is not theirs and "their own" language is not mine. That's a problem. It's a problem for my understanding of the relationship between myself and my students, and it's a problem for my pedagogical underpinnings.

Of course, I still understand the motivations behind the resolution. No one can deny that there are race, class, and gender biases wrapped up in which versions of English get considered "proper," and we should be called out on that constantly.

But to say that groups of students (based primarily on their race/class/gender status) have their "own" language somehow suggests that the language I use in an educational setting isn't theirs.

It reminds me of another book from this exam list: David Gold's Rhetoric at the Margins. In it, Gold examines the pedagogical practices of Melvin Tolson, a black professor at Texas' Wiley College. As the leader of the first black debate team to participate in integrated debates in the South, he was very aware of the way racial assumptions impacted his students. Gold had this to say about Tolson's practices:
To Tolson, there was nothing definably "white" in his poetry nor would there have been in the elegant oratory of Martin Luther King, Jr . . . Tolson did not worry about whether the master's tools could tear down the master's house; he did not believe the tools belonged to the master in the first place--or, for that matter, the house.
That line has come back to me again and again as I've made lesson plans and done rhetorical research. What other assumptions do we make about students' "own" languages? Doesn't making that distinction necessarily suggest a belief in our ownership of the "right" language (even if we don't call it the right one)? 

Finally, what does that mean for the educational prospects of students who (through race, class, gender, etc.) have somehow been Othered? If we frame education as a transformation between individual and society, as an opportunity for productive tension, what do we do when we start roping off language (which is intimately tied up with identity) and calling it our "own"? Where does that leave the transformative act of education, and how do we ensure that the transformation that we seek to enact is agonistic, a true exchange between student and educational environment, not merely an assimilation device?


  1. This piece really hit home. I know that I was "persuaded" by the college ads, the smiling faces...I would be one of those people on the Stanford brochure. I would learn and my life, and the lives of those around me, would change. This sentiment best explained my perspective when I entered the world of the university:

    Some students enter my classroom desperate for some secret code that will give them the means to project a different version of themselves into public life.

    I just knew, for various socio-economic reasons that the secret code had been kept from me; Stanford promised, or, at least I perceived them to promise, access to the code. Took me a long time to get over that disillusionment.

  2. As a first-generation college student, I felt like it was a disillusionment I had to get over, too. I have been very happy with my education and am immensely grateful for the life that work has allowed me to build, but it certainly wasn't the clear formula for a "new" me that I thought it would be.

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