What you describe with OU’s FYWP is similar to so many systems undergoing change. For every centrifugal effect of political power, there is a corresponding centripetal force. In other words, as we stretch the limits of symbol definitions, we see a corresponding response to a more conservative status quo. More on this below, but first a few thoughts about the terms “service” and “marginal,” words I suspect pre-determine our response to this structural change at OU.
To describe the marginalized Other, to narrate a story about dominance and marginalization, is to diagram relationships of power and subservience. Yes, social systems do have dominant and marginalized powers, but a few key dynamics of these descriptions may be in order:
- The relationship is not simple. That is, there is no simple System A and System B which are separate in power and definition. The relationship is always dynamic in nature;
- We are not separate from one or the other, so our placement in either is by definition biased, emotionally-charged in a defensive position;
- Foucault describes power as narrative which affords purpose. To describe one system as “service” (re: servitude) is to presuppose its opposite of liberation, thus creating the narration. To return to service is—in terms of the narrative—repugnant.
Working with these, I offer a few ideas in terms of what “authentic literacy” or “civic literacy” might suggest.
As you admit, OU requires a program to offer fundamentals of academic discourse. The absence of such a program would negatively impact the work of other departments and create a vacuum which would see it filled one way or another. Such necessity, then, is itself a form of power, not merely “service.” (As Lincoln well understood, the South was economically reliant upon its “service industry.”)
However, the idea of seeing one system as “marginalized” or “in service” is to identify it as lesser in political power. Yet such an identification is illusory, a simplification of a more complex relationship. Here, I think, is where authentic literacy as active political engagement avails us well.
One of the first roles of a teacher of authentic literacy, I believe, is to examine the classroom as a text for deconstruction. In other words, the service role of writing in the disciplines is itself a subject of inquiry in the Dept. of Writing and Rhetoric. Here students actively explore the necessity of academic skills to fulfill a Bachelors degree against what critical literacy might be in a broader context.
One of the first roles of a teacher of authentic literacy, I believe, is to examine the classroom as a text for deconstruction.
I find myself doing this even in the high school classroom. Confronted with a very limited definition of literacy inquiry in my Advanced Placement classroom, I widen the net of inquiry by openly teaching and labeling the College Board definitions of literacy and offer other definitions through the year. My students simultaneously learn the methodology of passing an AP exam while also recognizing that they are not limited to this method. I do the same thing with the five-paragraph essay model assigned to our curriculum under the banners of “learning the basics” and “consistency.” We write such an essay and also a parody of it. This year, my teaching of Medea to juniors broadens to an application of ends and means of ethics; my look at Of Mice and Men for sophomores includes an examination of Steinbeck’s loaded language to enhance his themes and analyses of two film versions to test how this enhancement translates across mediums.
In this way, every course in the Dept. of Writing and Rhetoric lends itself to its own deconstruction. The OU campus is a text for an engaging—and truly authentic—literacy.
I was excited to read about the three core areas of instruction for the department. I hope that these three are areas which overlap all course numbers and do not themselves dictate any artificial divisions or territories within it. After all, the power of rhetoric is in its absence of pre-defined content and focus on critical method.
The OU campus is a text for an engaging—and truly authentic—literacy.
Yet methodology seems to be part of the centripetal force you are running into. To describe civic engagement as “writing op-eds,” of course, severely limits the potential for action. (I am suddenly thinking of “flash mobs” as a postmodern demonstration technique.) Students should write editorials for possible publication, but a critical examination of the demographics and power of the chosen medium must accompany such an assignment. Who do they hope to influence? What language would be chosen to do so? How might such impact be measured? If the same argument were to be directed to peers or to senior citizens or to the homeless, how must the language change?
In the end, the recipients of student discourse write back to them. Newspapers, blogs, and biology professors are texts which do something to our students. Until we understand their strategic moves in the narrative of power, we cannot reply.
Can we bring all the professors of the department to this position of ongoing dialogue about their own instruction? Not easily. Our minds will reify and simplify back to the status quo wherever possible; engagement in authentic literacy is infinite and exhausting. Part of us must always expedite inquiry back into “a lesson I can teach today.” We can’t blame them for this. . . but that is a subject for critical inquiry, too.
For myself, there is an unpredictability in my teaching today which would challenge the best of Madeleine Hunter’s tight lesson planning. This leaves those of us in literacy instruction in an enviable and dangerous position: we can teach anything, even our own service to a critical citizenry.
P.S. I am excited to introduce Ms. Erin Parra to our discussion. A future English teacher, Erin will be student teaching with me later this winter.