The Complications of Berlin’s Original Call to Teach Writing as Citizenship

Berlin concludes his book with a rousing call to writing teachers and scholars about what we do and what we hope our students will do with us. He says,

Writing courses prepare students for citizenship in democracy, for assuming their political responsibilities, whether as leaders or simply as active participants. Writing courses also enable students to learn something about themselves, about the often-unstated assumptions on which their lives are built. In short, the writing course empowers students as it advises in ways to experience themselves, others, and the material conditions of their existence — in methods of ordering and making sense of these relationships.

I can remember in grad school reading this passage and feeling invigorated, feeling that I’d made the right choice. Fuck the money, I wanta teach writing! I wanta teach citizenship, not just in a democracy but democratically! It was empowering to me because I could hear in conversations with other grad students that we all thought this was right: citizenship and empowering students to see or uncover assumptions that build their lives in and through language. Yeah, that kind of a classroom sounded, and often felt at that time in my life (the early 90s), revolutionary, felt critical, felt like critical consciousness, as in bein’ like Freire. That’s the work I wanted to do. After reading the book, I  had a better answer to why I thought the writing classroom was — is — so central to higher education, to education generally, to being human, a languaging-using animal. The writing classroom built critical citizens, prepared them for democracy.

At the time, I had the sense that we all knew these things, that this was the new paradigm. I was so enamored by the ideas, by having a clear definition for what I did, by seeing “epistemic rhetoric” as a path, even method, not just for critical awareness but social justice. But I didn’t listen to the other voice in the back of my head, the one that asked, “but isn’t there something missing? What is left out?”

Perhaps my enthusiastic response to Berlin’s important book was in part due to how this passage (and maybe the whole book) leans so much on a few Weaverian god terms: “citizenship,” “democracy,” “political,” “responsibility,” “assumptions,” and “empower students.” These were — and still are — important terms in my classrooms and pedagogy, important to the labor I ask students to do with me in those classes, important to being critical and to language work that leads to social justice. So what’s the problem? What’s missing? What is missing, I see now, was me, or rather, students and citizens like me. I don’t think we knew very well how to fit Berlin’s ideas to the more complex languaging, racial, gendered, and sexualized landscapes that the U.S. has always had in our society and in our schools.

Over the next twenty some years, I would come to see a limitation in not the purpose or goals stated by Berlin, but in how I and many others were able to articulate and enact these purposes and goals in our classrooms and writing programs with and for our diverse students. What kind of citizen building do we end up enacting in classrooms? What kinds of assumptions do we tend to learn about with our students? And (here’s the important part) what kinds of citizens and assumptions do we tend not to learn about or explore (and here’s the other important part) in our writing assessments, in our grading, evaluating, assessing, and responding, in our rubrics and standards used, in our assignments and processes of drafting and revision? I think, Berlin couldn’t see his own whiteness, or masculinity, or abledness. He surely could not incorporate some way to talk about his own white, male, middle-class subjectivity into his good call. I have often feared that the only critical pedagogy available to writing teachers and students in most places in the U.S. is a white critical pedagogy, or a critical pedagogy unable to see its own raced, classed, ableist, and gendered subject position. Many have made such critiques of Berlin and the kind of social epistemic rhetorical pedagogy he offered, but I’m not sure if as a field of teachers we’ve done much more than what Berlin has offered us. We often say we do, but how have our labors and languaging changed? I wonder.

I’ve said it before, writing assessment drives most of the learning in a writing classroom. Standards used (against) students always harm them, limit them, create unproductive failure (as opposed to productive failure). If I’m correct, then Berlin missed pointing this out in the book, and it too is part of our next steps as a field, as I see it. Berlin tells us the purpose of the writing classroom, but that’s not the same as getting to the goal, or the journey. What are the kinds of labors that make up citizen building? How do we read and judge — and teach students to read and judge — in ways that serve critical, democratic citizen building? How do we deal with judgment without falling back on white, middle class standards? Does Berlin offer ways to think about subjective judgment — that is, judgment that always necessarily comes from a subject position in time and space, which must be explained? We ask students to judge, we judge, and the rock bottom of the matter is, to teach writing is to teach judgment — that’s teaching how we are subjected to discourse, to echo Foucault. I missed this in my initial enthusiastic response to Berlin, but by the same token, he helps me see this issue today.

I think our job now as rhetorical scholars, writing scholars, and writing teachers is to draw out the learning-labors that build citizens, each of whom hold unique subject positions, but are learning in relation to larger structures of languaging, to academic discourses, to the hegemonic. And this is both a challenge and a wonderful gift to us.

-Asao Inoue, University of Washington Tacoma

 

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