Coming full circle

A few pages into Barbara Monroe’s Crossing the Digital Divide: Race, Writing and Technology in the Classroom, I felt like my readings for English 467 had come full circle. We’re back to defining race, but Monroe uses the term in a new way: “Race, as I use the word in this book, refers to people of color, specifically African Americans, Latinos, and American Indians, all of whom as groups have been historically excluded from the matrix of power and wealth in this country” (21). While this isn’t a definition I personally would ever use, it does point to two important understandings in defining race. First, race is not static. It is always changing and is always different depending on one’s perspective. Second, we can gain power over this often divisive word by using our agency to define it in the ways that benefit us. Monroe uses it to point out those who “have been excluded.” We could also use it as a term that denotes commonality rather than difference, as in celebrations of ethnic (racial?) heritage. I think that this may mean my original definition of race still works for me, although I’ve now had the chance to explore and complicate it in various ways. Race is a construction of particular rhetorics, used for a particular end in a particular social realm. And regardless of the origin of the word, it doesn’t have to be used with treacherous intentions.

I am reminded–as was Monroe on page 30–of Paulo Freire’s goal of critical consciousness and liberatory pedagogy. In his Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire advocates helping the oppressed (whoever they may be) by teaching them to help themselves. They must be able to see the structures they have to work within and then cultivate a desire to do so. Anything less is pantomime. I particularly like thinking of race, rhetoric, and technology as addressed by Freire through bell hooks. In Teaching to Transgress, hooks points out the openness of Freire’s work and life (and examines and ultimately comes to terms with his sexist language). It seems to me that this treatment of the oppressed speaks directly to the issues of access we’ve been discussing all semester. hooks admonishes us (teachers, in a broad sense) to work as cultural healers, utilizing and modeling tactics for disrupting hegemonic power in ways that are sustainable and productive.

One example of such a tactic comes in Monroe’s second chapter, “Putting One’s Business on Front Street.” In this chapter, Monroe discusses a globally networked learning environment (GNLE) in which 27 Detroit High School sophomores and 27 University of Michigan upperclassmen interacted within a mostly electronic mentor/mentee relationship. Her attention to local and cultural contexts was exciting, and it was fascinating to read actual excerpts of the students’ correspondence.

The cultural differences were interesting and a bit frightening. For example, Monroe concluded that the DHS students who “performed” their mentors’ introductory emails by using “falsetto voices and with much body English” and “making fun of a person by overdramatizng his speech and gestures” were working within an environment that was “celebratory,” “good-natured fun” (44-45). While I realize that I might be rankled by these students’ treatment of their mentors because my culture is closer to that of the mentors than the mentees, Monroe could have done a much better job of explaining the culture clash at this juncture. As someone interested in navigating the complexities of culture and race in particular audiences, she should have been attuned to the audience of her book.

I think the study itself could also be critiqued because it is somewhat dated. The correspondences were conducted in the 1996-1997 academic year, and the book was not published until 2004. Dynamics at DHS with access and technological understanding have certainly changed in that time, and it would have been interesting to see some acknowledgment of that. (But, this is a common critique of technology-based books and a problem that is not easy to overcome.)

The parts of this study I was most interested in were the female-female partnerships that were so successful, and code-switching done be mentees, and the “Implications for teaching.” I find that analogies pertaining to sex-based oppression often help me understand “the race problem” better than I would otherwise be able to. As such, it came as no surprise to me that the female-female partnerships were generally successful. The discomfort surrounding the sharing of romantic details was an interesting cultural difference to ponder, though. Monroe’s discussion of the students’ code-switching likewise provides food for thought on the complex discourse communities these students navigate, despite the fact that standardized tests often label such students as “failing.” So far as implications for teaching go, I was particularly interested in Monroe’s note that English teacheers should be aware of “race-based cultural differences when designing their curricula” (64). Monroe gives the example of using rap music as a pedagogical tool. While some might think this would be appropriate for a school system with a high African-American demographic, DHS found that it posed problems for the religious African American communities that many of their students came from (65). Care must be taken in making such moves.

“Storytime on the Reservation” was also intriguing, and this is the chapter where Monroe returns to her original–problematic, in my opinion–premise that “electronic media–mainly, movies and e-mail–can bridge the gaping maw between home and school literacies” of students. I’m old-fashioned, I know, but I resist the idea of basing a child’s education on anything other than good reading. Electronic media can be supplements, and a medium like the Kindle is synonymous to books. But substituting movies and e-mail for books seems to be a very bad idea to me, and one that Monroe doesn’t support well enough for me to change my mind. She does mention that this is cultural, and this is part of my resistance. In a primarily oral culture, movies might be a better medium for instilling critical literacy. I concede that this could work … but the movies would have to be carefully chosen given the nature of Hollywood today, and while e-mails and texting are fine means for getting students to write, I still think they must be able to code switch to SAE to reach their fullest potential. In short, I don’t think it’s responsible to encourage teachers to switch to using movies and email as their main pedagogical tools without providing a good deal more explanation and support on how to make these tools work for instilling critical consciousness in students.

In this end, though, I think my critique stems from my having goals that are different from teachers at the schools that are discussed. The local needs and goals are far more important–though many politicians don’t realize it–than ensuring all students speak and write SAE flawlessly. In answering Cindy Selfe’s call to come up with more methods for critical engagement, I think Monroe does a fine job. It’s my own cultural situatedness that prevents me from accepting her suggestions. (Although I’m not saying my caution is an incorrect response, just qualifying it.) I wonder at her audience for this book, and I hope she’ll write the new book that is suggested by her closing statement that we need to “teach all children, not just children of color, to become interethnically literate” (125).

Works Cited

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Tran. Myra Bergman Ramos. New York: Continuum Publishing Company, 1968. Print.

hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge, 1994. Print.

Monroe, Barbara. Crossing the Digital Divide: Race, Writing, and Technology in the Classroom. New York: Teachers College Press, 2004. Print.

Selfe, Cindy. Technology and Literacy in the Twenty-First Century: The Importance of Paying Attention. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 1999. Print.

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