Performative Student Writing in the Cultural Studies Classroom
Linda S. Watts, PhD
In the twenty-first century it is almost commonplace to hear, particularly within programs, about the importance of student encounters with different voices and perspectives in their course-based reading experiences. Required readings for such courses often feature unconventional prose by such contemporary writers as Toni Morrison, Susan Griffin, and Gloria Anzaldúa. It is still comparatively seldom, however, that college courses invite undergraduate students to write in such a manner. Although most educators recognize the value of multivocal and nonlinear texts as student readings, discussions of classroom practice rarely take up in explicit ways the corresponding importance of students registering those encounters with experimental texts through their own performative writing acts. With all their claims to diversity, multiplicity, and inclusion, our celebrated new pedagogies for the study of culture seem infrequently to address the implications of these curricular transformations for educator paradigms of student writing. Pedagogical innovations in terms of required reading content, while important, are not sufficient to achieve inclusive practice within the classroom. As educators, we need to rethink our approaches to devising writing assignments, altering and opening our views of the forms student response might fittingly take, or complicating our notions of what it might now mean to assign, respond to, and evaluate student writing.
Educators have long engaged in debates concerning the best practices for promoting student voice during classroom discussion. We have been less articulate regarding how these issues of student voice may be engaged as thoughtfully in terms of student responses to writing assignments. In fact, higher education’s increasing reliance upon scoring rubrics for student writing only serves to intensify the problem. That is, in our attempts to make expectations more transparent for students, we have too often reduced success to a recipe, such as a rubric often represents. Although rubrics do help students understand the assessment model in place for their classes, they simultaneously communicate to students the degree to which teachers seek to assess student work through a single standard of excellence. Metrics often represent attempts to enumerate the component criteria for that unitary standard. The paradox here is that at the same time that we, as educators, find ourselves challenging received notions of a canon of appropriate classroom texts we have actually become more narrowly prescriptive in terms of assessing and student writing. The danger in so doing is that both students and faculty will begin to think about undergraduate writings—and the ideas they convey—in a formulaic manner.
This pedagogical gap has not gone unremarked. For example, as early as 1974, the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) passed a resolution on “Students’ Right to Their Own Language,” stating:
These rights, I would argue, are not confined to variations in usage. Rather, students benefit from a learning environment that recognizes that academic excellence may take multiple forms. Indeed, in the case of some enterprises, students are entitled to an educational setting that supports students as their writing explores innovations in both form and content.
By endlessly reactivating such academic formulas as the five-paragraph exposition or the five-page essay with our undergraduate assignments, we run the risk of single-mindedly persisting in calling upon students to write only in conventional ways and with one unified voice or solitary argument, as if anyone has just that. In addition, many of the specific and most familiar rhetorical forms assigned in undergraduate courses are often closely tied to disciplinary cultures, which at their best constrain and at their worst preclude attempts at conveying new ideas and understandings. Although these conventional compositional forms have the advantage of familiarity, they may not always prove sufficiently hospitable to the complex questions educators now long to see their students address. My wish is to engage other educators from a variety of learning settings in an exchange of their ideas and experiences with evoking and responding to experimental/multivocal/nonlinear forms of student writing. Insofar as these questions are very much a part of my own concerns as a teacher, I will take this opportunity to share a bit about my own classroom.
The course to which I will refer as a case-study was an undergraduate colloquium in American Studies. This junior level class, entitled “Place and Region in American Culture,” introduces the practices of interdisciplinary work in cultural studies, particularly those works in which concepts of place, region, or community function as central categories of analysis. The course outline and writing assignment sequence are appended to this article. Members of the colloquium explored the methods by which writers/workers in and across various existing academic disciplines (including history, sociology, geography, and art history) have approached a single subject: the experience of the spaces they occupy. Within a historical framework, we examined specific works treating such topics as building forms, land use patterns, material culture, mental maps, artistic representations of region, and notions of spatial affiliation. In the process, we paid special attention to the capacity of such writings to convey the relationship between place/region and issues of gender, race, and class. Readings for the course ranged widely, most often pairing a traditional course text in cultural geography, such as Frederick Jackson Turner’s piece on “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” (1893) with a companion text from another discipline, such as sociologist Murray Melvin’s Night as Frontier: Colonizing the World after Dark (1987). Through this particular pairing, students tested out the concept of “frontier” as it might be applied to both spatial and temporal relationships. These pairings of reading not only helped students to see multiple perspectives on a course term or concept but also to place their perspectives in dialogue with one another. In this way, students gained an understanding of the sense in which cultural meanings are variable rather than fixed, conflictual rather than consensual. As students develop an appreciation for such discourse, they also become more motivated to venture their own insights through writing.
An inclusive curriculum demands more than modifications to the reading materials featured within each course. That is, if our teaching shifts only in terms of the readings assigned, then the instructional and explanatory master narratives supporting exclusion and hierarchy not only remain in place but also go uncontested in the sense that these paradigms continue to name alternative writings (and the populations of readers, writers, and voices each text represents) as peripheral to the course’s project, as concessions enjoying a cosmetic or provisional role within the course of study. That is, students are still being required to approach their own knowledge production through conventional means and the conventional meanings they were configured to contain. If the past twenty years of curricular rethinking, transformation, and debate have succeeded only in expanding the canon, rather than in questioning the logic of value it implies and the model of learning routinely summoned in its defense, then little can be expected to change about the way students see their position as thinkers and writers, whether within the classroom or outside it, or the way students regard writing as a form of social action. If ours is to be an inclusive and empowering alternative pedagogical practice, it may be necessary to acknowledge the measure in which that has always meant a reframing of terms and conditions through a dialogue/multilogue rather than through a simple refutation of prevailing premises or findings.
Within this context, the language of our writing assignments takes on special importance, both in the way it casts a course’s issues and represents student writers’ relationships to those issues. Do our assignments require more than deference, even in critique, to the writers of primary course texts, secondary readings, or texts spoken or otherwise presented by the instructor? Do our assignments recognize and affirm the authority of student writers? Do we balance our enthusiasm for critical inquiry with its larger role in creating insight? Do our assignments urge students to complicate rather than oversimplify our understandings of cultural conflicts or experienced social inequalities, such as those corresponding to race or gender? Do our courses and assignments strive to build capacities (awareness, empathy, cooperation, conflict resolution, innovation, advocacy on behalf of others, creative coexistence) rather than remain content to transmit information or skills?
By devising writing assignments in which students are invited to create knowledge rather than just accept or reject the knowledge others have already made, we strive to create course activities in which student writing carries some sense of agency and consequence. What follows is a sample assignment from “Place and Region”:
This assignment addresses itself to the ways in which members of cultures encounter difference, including race, gender, sexual identification, class, and ethnicity. While students new to multicultural debates may distance themselves from academic jargon (and/or conflate such terms as “oppression,” “suppression,” and “repression”), the idea and experience of exclusion tends to be an immediate one for many students regardless of demographics, and a fairly direct way to open questions relating to the significance of a self/other distinction. Tuan’s remarks establishing a dynamic beyond egocentrism and ethnocentrism also underscore the sense in which both systems proceed from a (troubled and troubling) concept of self-interest. By considering the landscapes in which one operates either as an insider or an outsider, students find opportunities to situate their sense of others in relation to those landscapes they identify as open and closed to them.
Of course, reconfigured writing assignments may yield new and sometimes unanticipated pedagogical dilemmas. As William E. Coles, Jr., author of The Plural I, notes in his narrated writing assignment sequence on the social construction of expertise, if students are to be expected to challenge so-called authorities, they must operate on an idea of their own authority to speak and write autonomously (Coles 17-18). If, as Henry Giroux notes, students are to meet a revised, multicultural curriculum with more than homilies about the comforting fiction of American pluralism, they must have the opportunity to pursue writing assignments that require them to attend and respond to injustices rather than merely to recite them (Giroux 17). Furthermore, if, as Derek Owens suggests in “Beyond Eurocentric Discourse,” students are asked as readers to engage with a wide range of writing forms, including unconventional and performative texts, then they are entitled to assignments in which they may enact these varied forms of writing and their representations of contested meaning. Such opportunities for student writers may best be realized through assignment prompts that call upon students to become agents of meaning—by design rather than by default, and without fear of reprisal for temporarily setting aside the mode of theme-writing that claims for itself a linear narrative of certainty through monovocally patterned argument (Owens 95).
In the context of this course assignment, I wish to discuss one student paper in which the issues Owens raises are very much present. The writer of this paper, after reading one of the required course texts, Susan Griffin’s Woman and Nature: The Roaring inside Her, along with a variety of independent readings concerning immigration and eugenics movements, elected to present a course writing in which he employed more than one speaking voice. The influence of Griffin’s work seems key here, with its “two voices posing conflicted visions of reality” (Griffin 108). Indeed, in discussing Woman and Nature, Griffin has commented on this multivocal imperative of her text in this way:
These two voices speak through a single text, sometimes interrupting one another, sometimes standing in juxtaposition, and sometimes drowning one another out of speech. This principle of voices engaged in a contest for meaning carried over, in a somewhat altered form, into the student papers
In that particular assignment, for example, one class member had occasion to consider his own relationship to his collective past, particularly in the degree that his readings in eugenics both shocked him in their inhumanity, and chastened him about his distance or estrangement from an ethnic identity. His writing employed a multivocal strategy—one voice that serves as a composite of eugenic texts, another that represents his own consciousness, and still other voices which represent his ancestors, still seeking a dialogue with him. Just as Griffin’s multivocalism observes a progression from separate speech acts to contested, conjoined ones, witness this student writer’s narrative strategy for suggesting his movements in awareness while reading Frederick Jackson Turner.
This example suggests how it is not merely helpful for students to have course opportunities to engage in multivocal writings. For some kinds of discoveries and interventions, it is indispensible. Multivocal writing allows student writers to attend to a variety of cultural forces operating simultaneously in the analysis of a situation or the cultivation of an awareness. It also acknowledges the need students often feel to write themselves and their responses into their papers in a more complicated, polyvalent manner. Finally, it makes it possible for forthright student writers to challenge conventions of thought or statement.
Along with the challenges multivocal student writings pose to educators devising assignments are the challenges multivocal student writings pose to teachers seeking a similarly transformed approach to paper comments and evaluations. In a conventional assignment calling for academic writing, instructors can employ familiar strategies for guiding, commenting, and assessing student work. The fixity of a form such as the five-paragraph essay makes it possible to envision an ideal response, and exemplars can be constructed to embody optimal responses. In such a situation, students focus their attention on mastering the conventions of an existing writing form or genre. Teachers can present the essay template in class, model its use, and proceed under the expectation that students will adapt it to the degree—however slight—necessary for their individual topics or arguments. As drafts take form, instructors can coach student revisions accordingly. Once students submit papers, faculty members can use, adopt, or adapt countless available rubrics for scoring five-paragraph essays. Although content still matters in such a scenario, much of the emphasis of teacher comments and evaluations remains on assisting students in perfecting the paper’s pre-envisioned form.
On the other hand, assignments that allow for or actively elicit performative student writing may—and likely will—shift the manner in which both students and faculty members engage writing. In such a context, there is no obvious format student responses should ideally take. While teachers may furnish samples of effective approaches fashioned by previous class members, such samples cannot function as exemplars in the same way they do when there is a single, most appropriate form for student papers to take. Similarly, classroom process must move beyond modeling the use of a standard writing format. Classroom instruction related to the performative writing assignment tends toward what Paulo Freire calls “problem-posing” education, teaching to stimulate critical consciousness rather than chiefly to transmit information (Freire 60). Student revision also becomes more variable, depending upon the form of expression a student writer selects to convey a personally meaningful response to an assignment. Faced with a completed piece of writing, the instructor cannot simply use a ready-made, genre-driven assessment rubric to score student work. Neither can s/he offer comments directed solely to advice on how a student might refine the use of a familiar form of academic writing. Instead, teachers find themselves writing comments calling for students to: (1) develop the alignment between their writing forms and their writing purposes, (2) complicate their thinking through the writing process, and (3) write reflectively about the choices they have made as writers and articulate their rationale for those choices. Such comments are less about correcting student errors than about deepening student engagement with questions of consequence for student writers and their readers.
In other words, it is understandable why it has proven simpler for college instructors to welcome unconventional readings into their classrooms than it has been to invite similarly performative student writings. Writing of this kind makes new demands of instructors as well as students. While motivated teachers are ready to entertain new challenges, absent additional resources (including but not limited to adjustments to faculty workload, time release for course redesign, reduced class size, and recognition for faculty effort) these new demands can be genuinely daunting. There is something both easier and safer about writing assignments that involve more predictable prompts and products. Nonetheless, if we, as cultural studies educators, expect students enrolled in our courses to be courageous about taking intellectual risks, including those about which they feel unsure or underprepared, so must we be willing to leave our instructional comfort zones. If we are to be thorough-going in promoting the vitality of a culturally-reflective and reimagined cultural studies curriculum, it will likely take more than a transformed reading list. We can do more than assign free-thinking readings for students; we can—and perhaps need to— inspire, nurture, and prize equally original student writings.
Course Outline and Assignment Sequence, “Place and Region in American Culture”
A. Place and Region as Categories of Analysis
Carl Sauer, “The Seminar as Exploration” (October 1948)
Raymond Williams, “Community” from Keywords (1976)
Clifford Geertz, “Ideology as a Cultural System,” in The Interpretation of Cultures (1973).
B. American Studies as Movement(s)
Gene Wise, “‘Paradigm Dramas’ in American Studies: A Cultural and Institutional History of the Movement,” American Quarterly (1979)
Robert J. Berkhofter, Jr., “A New Context for a New American Studies?” American Quarterly (1989)
Pierce Lewis, “Learning From Looking: Geographic and Other Writings About the Cultural Landscape,” American Quarterly (Biblio. 1983)
II. COMMUNITIES IN CONFLICT
A. Reading Conflict in the Courts
Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft (1974) [pp. 1-36, 80-109, 179-216]
Records of Salem Witchcraft (1692)
Upham’s Map, Salem Village (1692)
B. Reading Conflict in the Built Environment
Excerpts from Rhys Isaac, The Transformation of Virginia (1982) [“Shapes in the Landscape,” “Figures in the Landscape,” “Church and Home,”]
Cary Carson, et al, “Impermanent Architecture in the Southern American Colonies,” Winterthur Portfolio (1981).
C. Reading Gender Identity in the Landscape
Annette Kolodny, The Lay of the Land: Metaphor as Experience and History in American Life and Letters (1975)
Frederick Jackson Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” reprinted by the American Historical Association (1893)
Paula Gunn Allen, “Who Is Your Mother?: Red Roots of White Feminism” (1986)
D. Reading Racial Identity in the Landscape
Melvin Dixon, Ride Out the Wilderness: Geography and Identity in Afro-American Literature (1987)
Richard Wright, “The Man Who Lived Underground” (1945)
III. COMMUNITIES IN CRISIS: THIRTIES AMERICA
A. Region and the Community Study
Helen Lynd and Robert Lynd, Middletown (1929) [excerpts]
Robert Redfield, “The Little Community,” in The Little Community (1956)
B. The Politics of Regional Image-Making
M. Sue Kendall, Regionalism Reconsidered: John Steuart Curry and the Kansas Mural Controversy (1986)
John Steuart Curry, “What Should the American Artist Paint?” Art Digest (1935)
C. Participant-Observation and the Documentary Tradition
James Agee and Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1939) [excerpts, including Evans photographs]
James Curtis, “‘An Art For All That’: Walker Evans and Documentary Photography,” in Mind’s Eye, Mind’s Truth: FSA Photography Reconsidered (1989).
IV. COMMUNITIES IN TRANSITION
A. Renewing a Regional Literature: The Southern Tradition
Kaye Gibbons, A Virtuous Woman (1989)
Eudora Welty, “Place in Fiction,” in Ben Forkener and S. J. Patrick Samway, eds., A Modern Southern Reader: Major Stories, Drama, Poetry, Essays, Interviews and Reminiscences from the Twentieth-Century South. (1986)
Flannery O’Connor, “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” in The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor (1986)
B. Refusing Patriarchal Inscriptions on the Landscape
Susan Griffin, Woman and Nature (1978)
C. Historic Preservation and Neighborhood Reinvention
Brett Williams, Upscaling Downtown: Stalled Gentrification in Washington, D.C. (1988)
D. Time-Bound Communities
Murray Melbin, Night as Frontier: Colonizing the World After Dark (1987)
J. R. Roebuck and W. Frese, “The After-Hours Club: An Illegal Social Organization and Its Client System,” Urban Life (1976)
E. Tourism and the Sense of Place
Dean MacCannell, “Staged Authenticity: Arrangements of Social Space in Tourist Settings,” American Journal of Sociology (1973)
Excerpts, Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class. New York: B. W. Huebsch, 1899, 1919. [Preface, “Conspicuous Leisure”]
Excerpts from Come Mek Me Hol’ Yu Han’: The Impact of Tourism on Traditional Music. Papers Presented at ICTM Colloquium in Jamaica, Published by the Jamaica Memory Bank, 1986.
Although in recent years there has been a marked movement away from broad discussions of group traits contributing to something called “national character,” we continue to work within programs/movements called “American Studies,” which is by definition a regional (national) approach to the study of culture.
Do you take this title-- American Studies-- to be a matter of interpretation, or mere convenience? Would you argue for the continued use of this title or term? If not, with what name would you replace it-- and why? If our chief impulse is toward interdisciplinary and/or comparative scholarship, is there something to be gained by renaming “American Studies” as “Cultural Studies”? What benefits, if any, would be lost in such a renaming?
Do you consider region a compelling category of cultural analysis? Is it helpful to think in new ways about the means of defining regions? For example, cultural geographer Wilbur Zelinsky suggests that a “new geometry of cultural space may have begun to materialize in the United States,” to which he refers as the “voluntary region.” Rather than relying on the notion of consensus (or homogeneity) he might say undergird s a concept such as “national character,” “voluntary regions” instead emphasize diversity, conflict, and subcultural associations. With what definitions of region should we be most concerned? In other words, which definitions of region tell us most about the meanings of a culture?
At the outset of our seminar, we discussed the contributions of such cultural geographers as Y-Fu Tuan. In his 1974 study, Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes, and Values, Tuan argues that “Egocentrism and ethnocentrism appear to be universal human traits, though their strengths vary widely among individuals and social groups.” He defines egocentrism as “the habit of ordering the world so that its components diminish rapidly in value away from self,” and ethnocentrism as the learned behavior by which one comes to “differentiate between ‘we’ and ‘they,’ between real people and people less real, between home ground and alien territory. ‘We’ are at the center. Human beings lose human attributes in proportion as they are removed from the center.”
Discuss landscapes of exclusion in terms of the issues of egocentrism and ethnocentrism.
In their introduction to the landmark collection, Humanistic Geography: Prospects and Problems, editors David Ley and Marwyn Samuels observe that:
In what respects and by what means might this rediscovery of humanism invite us to think about and work toward a more humane environment? What would that environment be like?
Throughout our discussions, we have invoked (and sought to evoke) the subjective experience of landscape, a phenomenon to which we have referred as the “sense of place.” You might wish to construct an analysis of a particular site, in which you both document the configuration of the built environment (floor plans, elevations, photographs, sketches of the grounds, etc.), and analyze that same environment in terms of its experience (whether by those familiar or unfamiliar with the site). For example, how does the arrangement of parts, functions, ornament, or placement of a building guide the manner of its use, enjoyment, and relation to surrounding structures?
Coles, William E. Jr. The Plural I: The Teaching of Writing. Upper Montclair, N.J: Boynton/Cook, 1988.
Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum, 1970.
Giroux, Henry A. “Post-Colonial Ruptures and Democratic Possibilities: Multiculturalism as Anti-Racist Pedagogy,” Cultural Critique 21 (Spring 1992): 5-39.
Griffin, Susan. “Thoughts on Writing: A Diary”. The Writer on Her Work. Ed. Janet Sternburg. New York: Norton, 1980.
Ley, David, and Marwyn S. Samuels, eds., Humanistic Geography: Prospects and Problems. Chicago: Maaroufa Press, 1978.
Owens, Derek. “Beyond Eurocentric Discourse.” Works and Days 16 (8:2) (Fall 1990): 87-101.
“Resolution on Affirming the CCCC ‘Students’ Right to Their Own Language,” NCTE website at www.ncte.org, accessed June 25, 2008.
Tuan, Yi-Fu. Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes, and Values. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1974.
Zelinsky, Wilbur. The Cultural Geography of the United States. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1992.
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