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The Stakes of Engagement with Literature

A while back, Mark Bauerlein at The Valve made a comment that has stuck with me ever since, or part of the comment, anyway:

We’ve done such a poor job of training young people to appreciate the value of literature that most of them see no point, and nothing at stake, in their engagement with it.

Today, Avedon Carol pointed me to Ursula LeGuin's acceptance speech for the Maxine Cushing Gray Award. This excerpt illustrates especially well those stakes:

There have been governments that celebrated literature, but most governments dislike it, justly suspecting that all their power and glory will soon be forgotten unless some wretched, powerless liberal in the basement is writing it down. Of course they do their best to police the basement, but it's hard, because Government and Literature, even when they share a palace, exist on different moral planes. Each is the ghost in the other's bedroom. A government can silence writers easily, yet Literature always escapes its control. Literature cannot control a government; poets, as poets, do not legislate. What they can do is set minds free of the control of any tyrant or demagogue and his lies and disinformation.

The Greek Socrates wrote: "The misuse of language induces evil in the soul." Evil government relies on deliberate misuse of language. Because literary skill is the rigorous use of language in the pursuit of truth, the habit of literature, of serious reading, is the best defense against believing the half-truths of ideologues and the lies of demagogues.

The poet Shelley wrote: "The imagination is the great instrument of moral good." Believing that, I see a public library as the toolshed, the warehouse, concert hall, temple, Capitol of imagination — of moral good. So here — right here where we are, right now — is where America stands or falls. Can we still imagine ourselves as free? If not, we have lost our freedom.

PMLA-related disappointment

You may know that there are lots of web sites that consist of collections of brief quotations uttered by political leaders. They're decontextualized sound bites, pretty much. I tell my students that they may not use these sites as sources for their papers; this is because the quotations are insubstantial and out of context, and they simply will not suffice as evidence to support an argument (it's in the syllabus, even). Imagine my disappointment, then, when I saw the following in the October 2006 PMLA, by brilliant feminist critic Susan Gubar:

It's no laughing matter that the Supreme Court is being reconfigured, along with our traditional civil rights and liberties, by a president whose commitment to education remains in doubt ("You teach a child to read, and he or her will be able to pass a literacy test"), whose military aggression has harmed people here and around the globe ("I just want you to know that, when we talk about war, we're really talking about peace"), and whose tax cuts injure many health and welfare programs ("They misunderestimated me"). As large numbers of women are put at risk by the widening divide between rich and poor ("I know how hard it is for you to put food on your family"), by the incursion into civic arenas of religious ideologies that reinstate traditional sexual hierarchies while failing to mask proliferating ecological disasters ("I trust God speaks through me"), have the goals of feminists been put in jeopardy?

The source cited in the bibliography is The Complete Bushisms. So maybe I'm a fuddy-duddy, but in my opinion this use of sound-bite quotations is not witty or clever. It's lazy, it undermines Gubar's credibility, it alienates a segment of the audience, and it mucks up the otherwise articulate and important points Gubar is making. It aids in lowering the level of political discourse to which I aspire and to which I hope my students will aspire. How can I not allow students to make this type of move when an eminent scholar is doing it in one of the field's top journals? (I mean, I'm still not going to allow it, but there it is.)

What Has Blogging Really Accomplished?

Guest blogging at Feministe, Ilyka Damen poses this question, and the comments are terrific.

The Flyer

This is the first time I've done one of these, but here's hoping it has the desired effect:

3030 flyer

I think I'll revise it as I finalize the texts for the class, and I'm going to try to put the days and time the class is meeting on there too.

Introduction to Rhetorical Studies Course

In the spring, I'm teaching a new course; that is to say, not only is it new to me, but to the university as well. It was proposed a couple of years ago, but I'll be the first one ever to teach it, thereby setting a precedent and possibly affecting enrollment patterns in the course for years to come (pressure!). It's an elective, and I'm trying to make it work with my teaching philosophy, which I'm coming to realize more and more is a Lazerian civic literacy with some Roberts-Miller thrown in, and make it appeal to students in a variety of majors. I think it would be most interesting to English, Journalism/Communication Studies, Political Science, and History majors, but hopefully anyone can get something out of it.

As always, I would love to hear suggestions!

English 3030: Introduction to Rhetorical Studies

This course will bring classical and modern rhetorical concepts to
bear on recent U.S. civic discourse, particularly great orations of
the recent past, such as those found in americanrhetoric.com's online
speech bank, and present-day television political commentary. Opinion
writing in newspapers will also be used.

In the first half of this course, students will learn foundational
concepts of rhetorical studies, including:

• The canons (invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery)
• The species (deliberative, judicial, epideictic)
• The appeals (ethos, pathos, logos)
• Stylistic devices
• Informal fallacies (bandwagon; red herring; post hoc, ergo propter hoc; etc.)

The second half of the course will be devoted to exploring the variety
of texts rhetoric scholars study and the approaches they take to those
texts. We will cover visual rhetoric; feminist and critical race
rhetorics; authorship/intellectual property; and rhetorical studies of
communication technologies including weblogs, wikis, and social
networking tools such as MySpace and Facebook.

The course is designed to provide students with foundational knowledge
of the art of rhetoric. A transferential approach to the material will
be encouraged; in other words, students will be urged to apply the
critical thinking skills afforded by rhetorical studies to their own
areas of interest.

Readings (Partial and Tentative):

Booth, Wayne, The Rhetoric of Rhetoric

Aristotle, On Rhetoric

American Rhetoric: The Power of Oratory in the United States

Bulworth. Dir. Warren Beatty. Perfs. Warren Beatty, Halle Berry. Film.
20th Century Fox, 1999.

Rhetorical Pedagogy

...on the internets! Lesson 1, lesson 2, lesson 3.

Notes toward the design of a composition studies methods course

I imagine that at one time or another I'll end up teaching ECU's Research Design in Rhetoric and Composition course (description -- scroll down). What I'd like to do is take the best aspects of the four (!) methods courses I took at the U of Minnesota, two in rhetoric and two in feminist studies.

In UMN's methods sequence, the year I took it anyway, the first half is an overview of the field, with readings of landmark articles with an eye toward sussing out what the methods and research questions are. We also read articles about methodological approaches, including Davida Charney's "Empiricism Is Not a Four-Letter Word" and others. In this first half, the final project was a lengthy proposal for a pilot study on a topic of our choosing. In the second half of the sequence, we did the study.

When I took the second half of the methods sequence, it had an applied methods approach in which we had guest speakers from the department talk about methods in which they'd had a lot of experience. We talked about survey design, interviewing, case studies, ethnography and naturalistic research in general, experimental design, think-aloud protocol, textual analysis, grounded theory, rhetorical analysis, content analysis, and similar methods. We read Creswell's Research Design, Denzin and Lincoln's The Handbook of Qualitative Research, McNealy's Strategies for Empirical Research in Writing, etc. Since then, they've designed it so that the second half of the methods sequence focuses on one method in depth. So far, they've done it on ethnography one year and case studies the next. While I generally think it's more useful to have a broad background in many methods than a deep familiarity with one method that you may not even be interested in using for your own research, I do, however, think the one-method approach is okay if the focus is either grounded theory or case studies. I'll come back to this in a second.

The feminist studies methods sequence had a heavy focus on the relationship between theory and method -- theory as truth claim, or knowledge claim, and method as how one arrives at a given knowledge claim. I got a good background of methodology at the epistemological level. We talked about the difference between feminist empiricism and feminist standpoint theory, the postmodern critique of knowledge claims, and many other problematics.

So: In my version of the methods course, I'd want to combine that emphasis on methods at the epistemological level -- critiquing the limits of certain methods, identifying questions they can and cannot answer -- with a broad knowledge of many methods, but with an emphasis on grounded theory and case studies, because they are, in my observation, the killer-app methods of composition studies. Finally, I want to make students aware of research design as a concept -- to be able to recognize it when a study is designed well and when it isn't. If one is designed well, the research questions, methods, and objects of analyses have a very clear coherence that makes sense even to a non-specialist in that field (within reason, of course). For example (and this is not a great example, but bear with me), let's say I have:

RQ: How has the teaching of technical writing changed over the last twenty years?
Object of analysis: interview transcripts
Method: interviews with senior scholars in technical communication who have at least twenty years' experience teaching technical writing

Well, okay. No doubt you can get some sense of how the teaching of technical writing has changed from talking to senior scholars who have a wealth of accumulated knowledge. But wouldn't it be better to try to do some archival research along with that -- look at syllabuses from the last twenty years, if available? Textbooks from the last twenty years? Add a method (possibly grounded theory) to analyze the archival data?

I'd do a lot of these kinds of exercises with students, except in a lot more detail.

Oh, and for something completely unrelated, but which I'd like to bookmark: There's an excellent Kos diary entry, The Middle Children of History, on the low level of activism among young people. The author, VoteHarder, pulls together a lot of different phenomena and shows how they work together to exacerbate apathy.

Now in Greenville; the Political Discourse Awareness Project

Whew. We finally got here to our new house in Greenville yesterday. ABF should be bringing our stuff in a few days.

Also, I recommend that you go and check out this post of Holly's about the personal and the political. I have more to say about it, but I'll have to write that post later. For now, I'll just say that I've been thinking a lot about what "political discourse" is, and how it's interpreted and misinterpreted. I'm toying with the idea of doing maybe a weekly post under the rubric of "the political discourse awareness project," in which I link to a couple of posts that I consider to be political discourse, but perhaps many others wouldn't recognize them as such. Then I'd do a bit of explanation of why I think they count as political discourse. Here are a couple:

Badger's essay about trying to get health care coverage for her late husband's illness. This was a precise point at which government (SSI, Medicaid) met the personal.

Then there's this post at Raising WEG about children's shoes and clothes. Here are some excerpts:

Did you know that Payless didn't make a single athletic sandal for "youth" girls (wearing sizes 10.5 to 4.5) this year?  All our old "girly" sandal standbys, Dora and Strawberry Shortcake and Disney Princess, are only available in toddler sizes, through size 12.  Once girls reach kindergarten, however, their mainstream sandal choices narrow down to a few strappy sandals -- most of them with small heels -- or flip-flops.

How did I not notice this?  All week long during VBS activity time, we had four- and five- and six-year old girls tripping over cement walkways and running too carefully through the grass as they tried to negotiate athletic activity while wearing flip-flops.  This is probably a peak age for the embrace of all things girly, and when these girls go to buy shoes, they no longer fit into the clunky Princess sandal that gives them enough traction to climb trees, kick balls, or just climb a standard set of stairs without worrying about walking right out of their shoes.

No, instead they find a light-up Princess thong.  They find an entire shelf full of flip-flops, espadrilles, and thongs.

There is one single youth-sized rugged sandal marketed to little girls at Payless.  It has a one-inch heel.

No little girl can grow to adulthood in American without learning the cardinal rules of shopping. Of course everything about girls' clothing signals the importance of buying new clothes as often as possible. The US economy might crash to a standstill, if ever girls started expecting to buy the thick cotton t-shirts over in the boys' and mens' departments. Imagine what might happen, if my daughters' Target t-shirts had held up to more than a season's worth of washings. Their drawers might be filled with two-year old t-shirts, as their brother's are -- and we certainly can't have that.

I'd like to write that I've given up wondering why preschool girls need to show all of their thighs while wearing shorts, but preschool boys get to ward off cancer-causing skin rays with shorts that come down to their knees. But it would be a lie. Every time I think about this, I get a little apoplectic. There is no physiological difference between the waists, hips, and thighs of preschool boys and girls. What perverse set of sexual standards do we embrace when we teach our four-year old girls to show four times more skin than their brothers?

Have you ever considered how much more time girls have to spend getting ready to go outdoors than their brothers, because of the sunscreen issue alone? Thanks to his t-shirts with actual sleeves and nice long shorts, Wilder is out the door and playing before I have either one of the girls fully slathered.

I find this one to be political due to its far-reaching consequences. Freedom of movement is a fundamental freedom, and girls' freedom of movement is being compromised, subtly, every day. Arguably, this has implications for girls' confidence, physical strength, ability and willingness to protect themselves, consumption habits and economic standing, body image, Title IX, and more.

What do you think? Would you like to see me do a weekly "Political Discourse Awareness Project" post? Ideally this would be a collaborative effort; I'd love it if others would participate too.

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