Friday, October 22, 2010

Voice and Normativity

Yesterday, in one of my graduate courses (Composition Theory and Teaching Writing), we were talking about the work of Brodkey, Grimm, LeCourt, Port, Denny, and Villanueva. Some really interesting critiques/theories arose. For me, the most compelling idea-- given my interests in voice, authenticity, and grammar-- was the notion that one can only have a (writing) voice if she/he is close to the center/the norm. As a middle-class, well-educated, white woman, I am very close to that norm, which means I have been granted access to my "voice," and I never considered that the language of education might deny others their own.

I have since begun to understand that when students are far from that normative ideal, their voice is denied, labelled incorrect. Instead of embracing these different voices, education seeks to mold it into the language of the white middle class. Furthermore, in order to do this, students are forced to give up their accented language, which is ripe with their ethnic, cultural, and familial ideology and identity.

This idea is frightening. As a composition teacher, I unconsciously enact this middle class ideal all of the time. How many alternative voices am I squashing by saying, "This is a bit too conversational," or "This is a sentence fragment" or the dreaded "This sentence reads awkwardly"? On the other hand, when we have a society which functions primarily on middle class capitalist/consumerist ideals, is it right to dismiss these notions of middle class correctness and accept all voices as correct in my classroom? Should students be forced to make that choice? Is it ethical to teach them code-switching, or is that teaching them to lie about their identity? 

Furthermore, once they have given up those working class ideals, it seems that students (or any one for that matter) can never truly go back. In my own life, my friends would certainly look at me funny and even think that I was pretentious if I began to talk about Foucault's theories of inscribing power in Discipline and Punish and their relationship to democratic education. It is something I simply cannot do if I want to remain an accepted member of our group. I must stifle my educated voice because it is incorect. If I wanted to fully embrace my scholarly identity, I most likely would have to give up my childhood friends. It seems that in order to enact one class role, I must give up the other. For me, these are minor denials of self, but for someone far from the center, they are forced to give up much more. 

Fan Shen's "The Classroom and the Wider Culture" is a perfect example of this. Shen came from China and was taught that the use of "I" was bad. He should never be concerned with the personal, the "I'; he should only be concerned with the collective "we." In American composition and culture, however, we are obsessed with the "I," and so to write well for school, Shen had to embrace the "I" and leave behind the "we." It wasn't just a shift of language, but a shift of ideology. He had to give up his Chineseness to become Americanized.

Truly, there are so many questions I am left with. How can I ethically teach when my views are clouded by classed ideologies? How can I advocate a "good use of voice" when it's clear that by invoking standards of grammar and English, I am pushing a certain voice on my students? After all, grammar is a set of rules for the most unruly thing-- language. While it sounds like a good idea to have a standard middle ground, whose middle ground is it really? Is it fair that some people are coming in closer to that "middle ground" than others and yet all being held to that same standard? And finally, if grammar is all about normativity, is it productive to enforce it, especially in a cultural that proclaims its appreciation for diversity and individuality? 

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