Tag Archives: class

Pedagogy and Oppression

The following is a partial response to readings in Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Teaching to Transgress done for a seminar class on pedagogy …

Investigating “the people’s ‘thematic universe’—the complex of their ‘generative themes’” through dialogic means seems to me a really smart place to start thinking about teaching (96). Whether it’s teaching to a group of peasants, potential revolutionary leaders, or a class at a public school in the Midwestern U.S., an investigation of the group’s guiding generative themes will help the teacher learn about the context of the class and adjust accordingly. I think most teachers (at least most teachers in our department) do this unconsciously, or perhaps just without explicitly talking about it. I know I’ve done it, without realizing it, in past classes that I’ve taught. After all, it’s hard to work at disturbing entrenched ideologies in, say, a critical inquiry class unless you first have taken the time to “investigate people’s thinking about reality and people’s action upon reality” (106). The difficult part of this process, I think, is to remember to involve the students—explicitly—in uncovering the generative themes of a group. If we forget to involve the students, and instead just study them IRB-style, as we have been conditioned to do, we are engaging not in Freire’s problem-posing pedagogy, but in an antidialogical model that perpetuates the teacher’s domination of the students. This requirement for student participation has always seemed to me to be the weak link in Freire’s ideal pedagogy. What is a revolutionary leader to do if the oppressed simply don’t want to be liberated? I suspect Freire believes he answers this question in his final chapter when he says that the oppressed must be awakened to their own position as victims of conquest, division, manipulation, and cultural invasion. He says that, “the leaders go to the people in a spontaneously dialogical manner. There is an almost immediate empathy between the people and the revolutionary leaders: their mutual commitment is almost instantly sealed” (164). I don’t buy this, even a little. Maybe the problem here actually is transference to an institutional classroom in the U.S., but I’ve never experienced this phenomenon as a teacher or as a student.

Though I love most of this book, and I can fully get behind the general attitude it espouses, I do encounter a number of difficulties like this in putting it to use. Perhaps what I’m feeling is a dissonance between the kind of open education Freire is actually theorizing and the institutionalized education system here in the U.S. It seems that there are just too many problems with picking up the “pedagogy of the oppressed” from the countryside of Brazil and plopping it down in the middle of Illinois. Are my students here really oppressed? But maybe this dissonance is the result of my subject position as a middle-class, apparently white, heterosexual person of privilege. bell hooks doesn’t seem to encounter the same problems that I do with this transferance, “Because the colonizing forces are so powerful in this white supremacist capitalist patriarchy (in the U.S.)” (47).

In an effort to make some meaning from Freire’s work that is relevant to my own teaching context, I’ve been searching out works that showcase the usage of his pedagogy of the oppressed in classrooms in the States. In doing so, I found myself relying also on hooks’s interpretation of Freire, largely because her words on his work—especially her thinking about “a generous spirit, a quality of open-mindedess that I feel is often missing from intellectual and academic arenas in U.S. society” (54) and her point that “ … notwithstanding that there is so much that remains liberatory … Freire’s own model of critical pedagogy invites a critical interrogation” (49)— have been so influential in my own understanding of it.

Ownership, Bodies, Legality: Culture in Tech Comm

This post is a critical response to readings in English 451: Cultural Studies in Technical Communication

It is unsurprising that the part of Williams’ text that interested me most came in “Owning the Self in a Disowned World.” Williams, in her curious style of narrative anecdote and theoretical reflection, discusses the case of a woman charged with homicide after a miscarriage, and juxtaposes it against the case of a woman suing for the right of her fetus not to be in the prison she herself has been sentenced to; meanwhile, she remembers the case of a woman jailed to protect her fetus from drugs (183-184). “My head is throbbing because these cases don’t make sense to me … I’m not sure I believe that a child who has left the womb is really a separate person until sometime after the age of two. The entire life force is a social one …” (184). While this passage is of interest to me because of my research in technical communication and gender studies, especially as it relates to reproduction and women’s bodies, I also think it gets to the heart of Williams’ book. Time and again, she argues (with herself, with the world) over the disjointedness of trying to impose neat legal limitations on human beings who are so complexly, messily, socially un-limitable and whose “legal rights” often overlap or are taken up in frightening and unjust ways.

The whole book is a passionate, angry, sad response to the fragmentation imposed on people, people like Williams. More than once, she notes her own isolation as a single black professional woman. In many contexts, she wrestles with the notion that “allowing the separation in order to benefit the real mutuality, they enslave themselves to the state” (185). Reading this on the heels of This Bridge Called My Back, I often found myself conflicted about the promise of unity for women, for people of color, for gays and lesbians, for the poor. I struggled to read this text. It was emotionally difficult, both in terms of sheer exposure (an eleven-year-old slave girl impregnated by her white master! the acceptance of that girls’ descendants that the master is also part of their inheritance! A fifteen-year-old black girl raped physically, then again in the media/social aftermath!) and in terms of my own implication (as a white woman, my thoughts about affirmative action programs are a hopeless mess of conflicts). There were many subjects on which I agreed with Williams; there also were areas where I disagreed but recognized my own privilege and historical context as influencers in my disagreement.

(The one disagreement I just have to mention is Williams’ idea to stage “guerrilla warfare” by secretly impregnating white women with black sperm (188). Although she then does “disclaim this as a serious exhortation,” she does so defensively. I found her entire treatment of the issue to be highly problematic; to me, any case of a woman impregnated with sperm—black or white—that she did not want—regardless of why she didn’t want it—is a form of rape, and Williams does not deal with this violent trespass into female bodies as a feminist issue at all.)

I was so involved with Williams’ book that I now find myself worrying about involving the field of technical communication in this response. Much like Williams’ students who claim she doesn’t teach law, I find myself struggling to connect the content of the book to the subject of our class. But at the same time, these subjects—race, gender, sex, disempowerment, oppression, subjugation, discrimination, hate, privilege, the veil of transparency—are endemic to technical communication. Mark Hannah exhorts technical communicators to re-envision their own production of legal rhetoric and technical communication teachers to take up legal issues in the classroom. At stake is that technical communicators “not see themselves or their companies simply as subject to or victim to the limits and restrictions of the law” (14). Hannah’s work could perhaps be seen as a response to Williams’ book; here is a way to do something about all the injustices she makes visible.

(Hannah’s suggestions, of course, represent just one angle of a whole spectrum of responses. As Christian argues, there is no need to produce a particular theoretical response representative of my own situatedness and stick to it “as if I were a mechanical man” (53).)

I have brought legal rhetoric into my own classroom when I teach technical communication. My students study a body of lawsuits surrounding nail gun accidents. However, the combination of Williams and Hannah’s pieces have prompted me to reconsider the way in which I present this information. I have asked students to think in complex ways (including thinking about social class and gender) about how instruction manuals for nail guns function rhetorically. Now, I’ll add some new subjects of focus. I’ll ask students to look at the lawsuits themselves and examine the ways in which we value law as neutral or transparent, and I’ll ask students to review each others’ work (as Hannah demonstrates on page 19) with an eye to legal potentiality.

This seems a small step in the face of a text like Williams’. For now, it’s all I know to do.


Works Cited

Williams, Patricia J. The Alchemy of Race and Rights. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1991. Print.

Hannah, Mark. “Legal Literacy: Coproducing the Law in Technical Communication.” Technical Communication Quarterly 20.1 (2011): 5-24. Print.

Christian, Barbara. “The Race for Theory.” Cultural Critique: The Nature and Context of Minority Discourse 6 (1987): 51-63. Print.

Can the Subaltern Confess?

Notes–just some passages of interest–from the following book chapter:

Casarino, Cesare. “Can the Subaltern Confess? Pasolini, Gramsci, Foucault, and the Deployment of Sexuality.” The Rhetoric of Sincerity. By Ernst Van. Alphen, Mieke Bal, and C. E. Smith. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2009. 121-43. Print.

These passages resonate with me somewhere between my interests in the socialization of sexuality and issues of authorship and sincerity. I’m still working out how, but maybe putting these pulled quotes in close proximity to one another will show some themes.

  • Casarino suggests that “sincerity is the standard both of itself and of insincerity” (121). That is, one cannot define insincerity without first defining sincerity.
  • He also posits that there are three types of sincerity – sincerity, insincerity, and real sincerity (meaning it exists in an encounter with the real) (122).
  • Casarino surveys “the nexus of relations binding confession, sexuality, and subalternity–a nexus that, as I will try to show, presupposes a definition of sincerity as production of truth” (122).
  • Casarino looks at Pier Paolo Pasolini’s documentary Love Meetings (based in Italy), Foucault’s review of that film, Foucault’s The History of Sexuality, and Antonio Bramsci’s essay “The Southern Question” (again, in relation to Italy). The documentary consists of Pasolini questioning people he meets in public places about sexuality, often answering for them when they hesitate. Casarino notes that Pasolini “want(s) to extract the ‘logical’ truth from the interviewees, but that, in reality, one will have to settle for less, namely, ‘at least psychological truth,’ or in other words, at least a part if not the whole” (125-126). The subjects of Love Meetings were subaltern–“Either Southerners or children, or both” (127-8).
  • The documentary is non-confessional because it is not used “in orer to reveal–either in words or in bodies–that hidden truth of sex which is hidden by necessity and by definition. He uses it, rather, in order to plunge into that gaping abyss between words and bodies which opens up as soon as the physical presence, tactile behavior, bodily movements, facial expressions, or affective registers of the interviewees express a truth that can neither be hidden nor be revealed, a truth that can neither be affirmed nor be denied from the standpoint of confession” (127).
  • Casarino says, The History of Sexuality “turns confession into nothing short of an infectious pandemic” (130).
  • “For laughter, of course, is often one of the most powerful weapons available to subalterns of all sorts” (141).
  • “It is almost as if Pasolini is trying to convince the poor children of the Southern slums that he is much more like them than like those two boring old farts. It is almost as if he is attempting to strike a secret alliance with those subaltern subjects as well as to disavow any allegiance with the pontificating adult representatives of the intellectual bourgeoisie” (142-3)
  • “The former (the children) do not really care what words they speak, and hence their bodies can enact and display a sublime inaptitude to confess. This inaptitude points to other pleasures, other sincerities, and other truths–and puts them all beyond our reach” (143). (this is the conclusion of the essay)

Bringing in Linguistics

I’ve just begun Spring courses (I love this time of the semester; it’s so optimistic!) and one of my new ones is a required doctoral seminar in linguistics. Although I don’t come from the linguistics side of English, the two linguistics classes I’ve had have been really wonderful experiences. This one is shaping up the same way, and that’s the reason for this post: I’m writing a paper I need to think through and/or get feedback on.

The paper (a draft of which is due this week) is supposed to be on my area of interest with a linguistic twist (which I’ll get help adding later if I can’t do it now). My basic idea is to look at some women’s health websites and do a linguistic analysis of the rhetoric I find there.

So far, the sites I’m thinking of using are giving me some interesting perspectives on the intersection of culture and technology as they pertain to the linguistic representation of women’s health. I started by simply doing a Google search of “women’s health.” My first result was the popular magazine, which I bypassed since I want to look at web-based texts. Of the four I ended up choosing from that first page of results, two are government operated sites. (The others are WebMD and an indie-looking site run by something called the Glam Publisher Network.)

So what I’m thinking about now is this: Why does the government have such an interest in women’s health?

Some reasons are obvious. Some not so much. Some are altruistic. Others are sinister.

The government would have a vested interest in women’s health as it pertains to reproductive health because managing reproductive health is like managing the makeup of the next generation. When thinking in class- and race-based contexts, that’s kind of scary.

But the government also (presumably) has a responsibility to provide access to healthcare for less fortunate women. Because women account for higher numbers of the impoverished than men, this benevolent function could account for some of the emphasis on women’s health.

And there are a myriad of other reasons that I’m still teasing out as to why there is so much government interest in women’s health. (Feel free to comment.) But I can’t help thinking of Mary Daly’s contention that gynecology is a male construction to oppress women …

Saving Lives

How’s this for a culture that uses technology to vital purpose and engages every day with questions of rhetorical silencing: nursing. In Saving Lives: Why the Media’s Portrayal of Nurses Puts Us all at Risk, Sandy Summers (RN, MSN, MPH) and Harry Jacobs Summers show that, indeed, the media’s portrayal of nurses is unfair–to say the least.

As a former member of the media, though, I recognized myself in some of their critiques. And my automatic response is to critique right back. I could easily have been one of the reporters who writes that “doctors put the victim back together.” But my argument is that such a use of the term doctor does not refer exclusively to MDs. Doctor is a broad term. It can refer to PhDs and dentists. Of course, it refers to MDs, but it can also be used to reference any medical practitioner–nurses included.

(In a similar vein, Summers and Summers critique instances when people who are not nurses are referred to as such; it seems to me that we are encountering a problematic conflation of general and specific terms. After all, one who nurses is a nurse, whether or not they are a CNA or LPN, just as one who doctors–including nurses–can be broadly referred to as doctors. The resistance to this seems to be an issue of hierarchy, or professional class.)

So why does my counter-argument fall flat, thus meriting this post? Because of two things: 1) not all journalists think like me, a fact largely due to the fact that I’ve always had one foot in academia and, more importantly 2) any decent rhetorician (journalists included) knows that intention doesn’t make a lick of difference. The public doesn’t read doctor and think that includes nurses. The Summers’ book isn’t so much about what journalists write … it’s about how the public perceives what journalists write. And there are a lot of misconceptions out there about nurses, including the idea that they’re all women and that all doctors are men. There is work to be done here on the part of journalists, the public, and nurses themselves. And, happily, this is exactly what Summers and Summers propose, asking that nurses take a role in altering their public image and, in Chapter 11, providing a sort of how-to manual for a variety of professionals to create more ethical portrayals of nurses. I would add to this that the most basic of solutions is for us all to be more aware of the rhetoric we use and how intention differs from perception.