Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Dominant discourse and the teaching of writing

As a writing instructor, I am often looked to as an "authority" on writing--one who knows and perpetuates the rules and conventions of writing in academia. Students ask, what do you mean by “literate”? Why do we need to make “claims” and use “authoritative sources” to be considered “good” writers at school? Who assigns these meanings and what do they represent? Academic writing lies within a dominant discourse. Discourse is not only the language we use or the way we write; it is the ever-changing ideologies, values, and beliefs we demonstrate and perpetuate in society, both verbally and non-verbally, consciously and subconsciously. As a result of this demonstration and perpetuation, certain ways of writing, talking, thinking, acting, expressing, or living become “good” and those that do not fit the mold are often made inferior, disempowered, or labeled as “alternative” by those in power. Dominant discourse empowers those within it, segregates those who aren’t, and perplexes those who recognize its complexity. This inherent power struggle in dominant discourse is difficult to avoid when talking about writing with students (and shouldn’t be avoided, as I will assert).

I feel as though it is part of my job as an academic writing instructor to uphold the dominant discourse and share its conventions and rules with students, especially since I know that students will encounter many instructors, bosses, and co-workers who will expect them to know and follow all the rules of dominant discourse. As Sue McIntosh explains, writers in academia will be “rewarded for [their] ability to express clearly, in a sanctioned generic structure (e.g. essay, report), the knowledge of others. Some believe that they have no choice but to accept these 'generic structures' as good and right and worthy.” Yet, I struggle with the boundaries of dominant discourse that often reject personal experience, emotion, non-academic audiences, non-academic language and non-linear arrangement. With regard to writing as a reflection of dominant discourse, Donald Stewart states:
 We cannot expect people to perceive the world through the eyes of persons whose languages, and, hence, perceptions of the world differ radically from their own. However, I think it is time for us to acknowledge this much: the teaching of arrangement in our composition classes over the past one hundred years has been largely a promoting of atrophied and inflexible structures which seriously inhibit perceptions which are not culture bound.
Even if they are supported in one venue, attempts made to write outside dominant discourse expectations are often assimilated and dominated to "fit the form" in the end. 

The meanings dominant culture assigns as “correct” affect the way people communicate, what and how students learn, and what and how teachers teach. I try to be cognizant of the dominant discourse in which I participate when teaching, but since I help to make up the dominant discourse, I often feel that I cannot effectively look at or talk about the discourse as an outsider. So I am left with a dilemma concerning academic writing—do I teach students the rules of writing and being a “scholar” as they have been established? Can I take responsibility as an instructor to help students and other instructors recognize the dominant discourse and its effects? Or do I sit back and try to let others figure it out for themselves, since being able to talk about dominant discourse means I am inherently a part of it?

Scholars in hybridity, critical negotiation, critical pedagogy, critical multiculturalism, and politics of difference/recognition raise potential solutions (all while staying cognizant of their own place in dominant discourse). According to Bronwyn Williams, educators must know the ideological bases on which their pedagogies and theories are built and make this transparent to others. Academics should reconsider how the dominant discourse affects those who have been marginalized, othered, or made invisible. Linda Flower offers “an intercultural (versus simply cross-cultural) dialogue ask[ing] people to put aside privileged and/or familiar ways of talking to one another in order to enter a far less predictable rhetoric of inquiry.”  Keith Gilyard poses “alternative” discourse, proposing space for individuals to negotiate their positions and identities through various means of communication. At the same time, Thomas West offers “hybridity” and a “praxis of shelter” as means of interrogating discourse. 

Yet, creating an “alternative” or hybrid discourse may only further marginalize those who may fit its definition. By adapting spaces of hybridity, we must recognize a possibility that, as Bhabha notes, “a ‘third space’ has been employed to describe a benign and ultimately progressive and positivist multicultural synthesis that creates a new culture of pluralistic tolerance.” Thus, simply saying we are “tolerant” is not the ultimate goal. Neither is ignorance. So what is the goal? I do not have a solution to this problem, but I do argue that we (writing instructors or “instructors” of anything) should make continuous attempts to critically negotiate our places and influences in dominant discourse and welcome manifestations and arguments that break down the power structures inherent within it.

Works Cited

Alt Dis. Ed. Keith Gilyard. Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook Publ., 2002.

Bhabha, Homi K. “Culture’s Inbetween.” Questions of Cultural Identity. Eds. Stuart Hall and Paul duGay. London: Sage, 1996.

Flower, Linda. “Talking Across Difference: Intercultural Rhetoric and the Search for Situated Knowledge.” College Composition and Communication. Urbana: Sep 2003. Vol.55, 1. 38.

McIntosh, Sue. “A Critical Writing Pedagogy: Who Benefits?” QJER. Queensland:  2001. Vol. 17, 2.

Multiculturalism. Ed. Charles Taylor. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994.

Stewart, Donald C. “Some Thoughts on Arrangement.” JAC. 7, 1987.

West, Thomas. Signs of Struggle. Albany: State U. of New York, 2002.

Williams, Bronwyn T. “Speak for Yourself? Power and Hybridity in the Cross-cultural Classroom." College Composition and Communication. Urbana: June 2003. Vol. 54, 4. 586

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Katie. This is a throughtful and thought-provokind piece. The question of how to teach within the dominant discourse without denegrating or ignoring other forms of discourse has challenged and fascinated me for years.