Friday, March 30, 2012

A Local Public: The Importance of Context

(just for the record, I really don't care for the new Blogger layout)

Tomorrow is a big day for me. I will be presenting at the State University of New York Council on Writing (SUNY COW), which will be held at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in Manhattan. While I don't want to give away my entire presentation, I do want to take some time to reflect on the reading and thinking I've been doing lately about public writing and engaged Composition programs because I think this is the way that Composition is headed or should, in some ways, be headed.

At the conference, I will presenting on a panel called "Radical Ideas for the Composition Classroom." My piece in particular is "Ethnography and Activist Writing: Sustainable Inquiries for First Year Writing," which I hadn't considered being very radical, but now I suppose it may be. My pedagogical philosophy really aims at giving writing meaning beyond a tool for academic assessment.  I have seen the power that writing and other forms of composition-dependent products (film, photography, painting) can have in our 21st century society when made public. This blog, for instance, started as a class project. I was positive that only my professor and I and, maybe if I was very a lucky, a few select classmates would ever read. Today, since just under two years ago, I've had over 14,000 views here. I know that some of my posts have directly influenced the ways that other think about language and writing issues or helped shape their teaching practices. On a much larger scale, there are campaigns like KONY 2012, the backing behind the documentary, Bully, and the Interet Blackout to stop SOPA from being passed. These public works all started small, just a single individual or a group, but because of their powerful messages, managed to spread via the media and influence many.

Gandhi said, "Be the change you want to see in the world." His words are important ones. They remind us that change starts with one; it is a ripple effect. We spread change through example. In other words, if I do something small, but powerful, others will be affected, and those who are influenced by me may carry the cause forward and find new people to influence, and so on and so forth. When we consider trying to change the entire world, it can be overwhelming, even overwhelming enough to stop us from ever trying. Bringing it down to the micro level, however, as small as the individual or the community, can make the task of creating change more tangible and easier to conceptualize. This is how ethnographic writing can help students approach activist writing. As they learn the culture and the needs of a community, they can start to develop the writing tasks that can best advocate for those specific needs. They see activism in a specific context rather than a broad stroke.

In reading Christian Weisser's Moving Beyond Academic Discourse: Composition Studies and the Public Sphere, my thoughts on the importance of local activism were clarified. Weisser makes it clear that "public" doesn't always have to mean a large, general audience, and that defining it as such is a mistake that professors who aim to teach activist writing often make. He writes:

Students' public writing can have significant, tangible, immediate results if it directed toward publics where both debate and decision making are central goals. As facilitators of public writing, it is important that we help students locate strong publics where their voices can lead to action (111).

Weisser thinks that by bringing the activism to the local level, one can encourage students to perform writing that has a chance to make real change, whereas writing a letter to the editor of the New York Times, for example, is unlikely to produce results. As professors, our job is to help these students make publics and create audiences.

Of course, there are challenges to this. As I am reminded by Nancy Welch's book Living Room: Teaching Public Writing in a Privatized World, many of these public spaces have been privatized and are no longer accessible to students who wish to speak their mind. Depending on the form they choose, real world consequences may also come into play. Protests can lead to arrests. If they share a less-than-popular view online, it may influence how peers or employers perceive them. There are real dangers, ones that I don't always feel equipped to handle as a First Year Writing instructor.

In addition, Michael H. Norton and Eli Goldblatt's essay, "Centering Community Literacy: The Art of Location within Institutions and Neighborhoods" points out that task of ethnographically-linked public writing can be a difficult one because the community does not always want to help growing writers to learn their craft. People outside of academic, for instance, don't always respond with useful feedback that First Year Writing instructors try to develop in the classroom. It may even goes as far as being confidence-crushing angry feedback from someone who simply wants to troll and make others angry online.

Academic standards can clash with activist writing, as well. As Amy Goodburn explains in "The Ethics of Students' Community Writing as Public Text," evaluating activist writing based can be an especially difficult task. What is considered proper in an academic setting isn't always proper in a community setting. The language, the rhetoric, the writing process, and the form are all susceptible to change when the writing leaves the sheltered classroom audience and goes out into the real world.

As Babe Ruth's famous quote goes, though, "Don't let the fear of striking out hold you back." I think despite the risks, students need to be performing writing in a way that is useful to them. Our world is scary: wars, global warming, natural disaster risks, bullying, the American desire for material success, family pressures, gang violence, etc. If I don't give them the tools to deal with these issues, I believe I am doing them a disservice.

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