Tag Archives: activism

New essay in Broken Pencil

I have a short piece in the newest issue of Broken Pencil (#74) about my experience making and distributing anti-Trump zines at a pro-Trump rally. You can read about it here, though I’m really looking forward to getting the print version in a few weeks. This was a weird piece for me to write, as I felt both shame for not having the courage to stand up to the hate I saw, but also some pride for how quickly and seamlessly the zine came together for what was a very memorable day in the City of Syracuse.

Transformation & Rhetoric

I spent the last few days reading Burke’s Grammar of Motives and Wayne Booth’s Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent and trying to come to terms, temporarily at least, with the question of transformation.

For Burke, the question is conspicuous enough in the introduction: “What is involved, when we say what people are doing and why they are doing it?” (xv). His method for answering the question, of course is the pentad: “what was done (act), when or where was it done (scene), who did it (agent), how he did it (agency), and why (purpose)” (xv). For Burke, considering the relationships — or ratios — among these terms helps shed light on the why people do and say what they do. If I understand GOM correctly, the pentad can be used in a variety of juxtapositions in situations that have some degree of ambiguity, though various combinations of the pentad require certain considerations. For example, ratios making use of scene (as a container or boundary) are more spatially determined while act-agent ratios are naturally more temporal/sequential: “The agent is an author of his acts, which are descended from him…” (16). This isn’t to say, however, that such authorship is reducible or easy to understand. Motives are always essentially enigmatic and the pentad seems to disregard literal statements in order to embrace and reveal ambiguities, which provide a space in which transformation becomes possible. As a critical tool for drama, GOM seeks to identify the “the resources of ambiguity” (xix), as a lens of interpretation necessary for figuring out why (purpose) in a given setting (scene), a certain character (agent) decided to do X (act) by means of Y (agency). This makes sense for rhetoric too, if the goal of a person or thing’s communication or action is to change something else — a situation, a person, a behavior, or a means. We use rhetoric to transform within spaces of ambiguity. But the question of transformation for what purpose (i.e. motive) is complex.

I don’t claim to have much of an application for Burke’s pentad per se (see Allison Hitt’s smart use of the pentad in analyzing the overcoming narrative in disability studies) and I trust it’s going to be a matter of time before I see how the it functions consistently as a device in the field; however, the relationship between transformation and ambiguity discussed in GOM reminds me of Burke’s discussion of identification in Rhetoric of Motives. In ROM, Burke uses murder narratives (Milton’s Sampson being what I remember most) to frame the desire to transform; for Burke, the desire to kill is a “desire to transform the principle which that person represents” (13). Such transformation “involves the ideas and imagery of identification. That is: the killing of something is the changing of it and the statement of the thing’s nature before and after the change is an identifying of it” (20). In the past I’ve used this passage to explore arguments about the death of print — to understand its essence in the so-called afterlife — but if we tone down the drama and say that by “killing” we mean instead the changing of another’s mind, perhaps this idea can be expanded to broader conversations about the nature of rhetoric. After all, Burke does say this in ROM:

“Terms for identification in general are wider in scope than terms for killing. We are proposing that our rhetoric be reduced to this term of wider scope, with the term of narrower scope being treated as a species of it. We begin with an anecdote of killing, because invective, eristic, polemic, and logomachy are so pronounced an aspect of rhetoric.” (20)

In other words, killing is like rhetoric in that both share transformation as a goal; likewise, such transformation is also a way of identifying — of bringing two things closer together through consubstantiation. Soon after this passage Burke notes that we need rhetoric because we are divided. We need rhetoric for consubstantiation, or for acting together (21). “If men were not apart from one another, there would be no need for the rhetorician to proclaim their unity” (22). Without reducing too much then, an important purpose or motive for rhetoric is identification and consubstantiation — to bring people together in a world divided.

Booth’s argument in Modern Dogma is essentially the same, but his methods and warrants vary from Burke’s. He shifts from a dramatistic inflection to an explicit concern for the state of public rhetoric, asking: “How should men work when they try to change each other’s minds, especially about value questions?” and “When should you and I change our minds?” (12). The questions arrive as he sketches five dogmas created from two schools of thought deriving from 20th century modernism: a positivistic, behaviorist, empirically-driven view called scientism, and a value-ladden, romantic, relative view called irrationalism. Both’s five dogmas align with Burke’s pentad: The first, which is discussed in Chapter 1 is motivism (agency), which reduces all behavior to “non rational conditioning” (32). This dogma relieves people of responsibility since certain actions or behaviors can be explained through grand narratives or personae. The next four are discussed in Chapter 2 through a close reading of texts by 20th century philosopher, Bertrand Russell, who for Booth serves as the patron saint of modernism, embodying both the scientismic and irrationalist perspectives. Russell’s view of “man as an atomic mechanism” (agent) in “a universe that is value-free” (scene) (50) as well as his “principles of knowing” (act) (55), serve as dogmas two, three, and four. Dogma five considers the “the purposes of argument” (purpose) (77). Taken together, these dogmas shove reason aside “slic[ing] the world into two unequal parts, the tiny domain of the provable, about which nobody cares very much, and the great domain of ‘all the rest’ in which anyone can believe or do what he pleases” (85). In other words, Booth divides rhetoric into the proverbial open hand and closed fist and because of our inability to discourse, he worries that in a value-saturated world — where doubt and skepticism is the only means to knowledge — the closed fist has become modus operandi. Rhetoric in this sense is viewed as a means “to trick or sway or condition or force or woo men to believe or do what the persuader desires” (87) and Booth seeks to challenge this perspective an offer alternatives to modern dogma in Chapter 3. In many ways, he seeks to return rhetoric to the classical Roman ideal of “eloquence in the service of wisdom” (89), founded on some kind of stasis or shared agreement, or perhaps in the Augustinian ideal of using rhetoric to teach effectively, where “[t]he process of inquiry through discourse … becomes more important than any possible conclusions, and whatever stultifies such fulfillment becomes demonstrably wrong” (137). Another way of understanding Booth is to say he articulates a mean to transformation through Burke’s identification: to identify with another requires a process of consubstantiation configured through inquiry.

As a teacher, I’ve always hoped for such consubstatiation. As Selber mentions in Chapter 5 of Multiliteracies for a Digital Age, as teachers we should take more (albeit smart) risks with our students and co-learn or co-inquire into emerging technologies. That said, as a rhetorician, a zinester, and an occasional activist, there aspects of Modern Dogma that seem naive. Aside from its methodology, which rests an entire argument on one close (if that) reading of a 20th century logician, I’m uncomfortable with Booth’s cartooning of public demonstrations. Perhaps I’m too far removed from the 60s to know, but the problem seems to lie in the lack of discussion of agency in the Burkean sense: as “the means or instruments [an agent] used” (xv) or “a means by which one gets reports of the world at large” (xx) in a rhetorical act. Considering media conglomeration, for example (a problem even in 1971), only a select few have any control over — or access to —  certain kinds of knowledge. It’s fitting that he uses an underground, anonymous, pro-cannabis zine called Seed in the first pages of Modern Dogma to illustrate the fall of reason, or what he later sketches as the irrationalist perspective. As counter-rhetorics, zines have traditionally served a specific function — providing an alternative voice when none seemed to be available. This leads to another part of Booth that’s unnerving: a lack of properly contextualizing some of these dogmas. Though I agree that one of the fundamental challenges of subcultures is progressing beyond a negative identity (that is, defining one’s self as “over against everyone and everything else” (130), as he mentions of the irrationalists in Chapter 4), such a negative identity begins as a response to a hegemony that always already attempts to subsume (or more accurately, consume) it.

How, for example, would Booth interpret the Trayvon Martin protests happening this week in NYC, LA, Oakland and even in smaller cities like Syracuse? Would he call them part of “a national habit” existing “partly because people seem convinced that they cannot try them out meaningfully in other ways” (146)? Or would he deem them legit because they’re based “in fact (not just personal conviction) supported by good reasons, good reasons shared or potentially sharable by the community that is relevant” (148)?

As with most of the readings I’m plowing through the first time this summer, I need to re-read parts. I understand Booth is trying to theorize a rhetoric that reconciles  reason and value  through a process of identification. In the last chapter he uses art as a potential means for this. And while I agree with this, and agree we need strategies for assent, I still understand the necessity of a collaborative, organized (yet peaceful) closed fist when faced with dense and disgusting forces: laws like Stand Your Ground that are embedded in a scene of creepy American gun culture and a racist  justice system that allows six white jurors to acquit a murderer or expects one in three black men to be jailed in their lifetime. Progress and transformation takes time. Without rhetorical accretion that is public and embodied, such change takes even longer.

“We have to do better”: Another state-sponsored jeremiad

Because I’m a permanently certified 7-12 ELA teacher in NY, I recently received an email from NYSED Commissioner John King, Jr. introducing EngageNY.org, a “one-stop shop for resources related to New York’s Race to the Top Reforms” and the Common Core Standards for various educators: teachers, of course, but also principals, administrators, and researchers. While King’s email reads like an honest, direct appeal, it’s also fairly predictable: “we” have to get better at educating our students in order to prepare them for college and careers.”If we want New York to be competitive in the global marketplace” he argues, “[w]e have to do better.” While he concedes that educators have heard all this before and promises that the State will provide further support beyond EngageNY.org, it doesn’t deter him from ushering the state’s primary mission:

“…the longer we delay, the more students we deny the opportunity for success. Tough times demand hard work. The best way out of these tough times is to build a workforce ready to take on the economic challenges of the global economy. If we slow down reform, we’ll shut down opportunity for millions of our students.

I’ve been on this list for close to eight years, and I can’t remember a time when I’ve received anything else from it, so it was bit jarring to receive it just before Thanksgiving. It was also a useful coincidence that I read Linda Adler-Kassner‘s book The Activist WPA (2008) and Skyped with her the previous week for CCR 632.

The Activist WPA begins from the premise that literacy is often framed in ways that position students, instructors or WPAs as deficient. In essence, it says: “we have to do better.” That frame has been deployed via a 100+ year-old narrative structure called the progressive pragmatic jeremiad: a trope that started with Dewey and other early American education philosophers which claims that critical intelligence is necessary for an effective democracy. Without literacy, the jeremiad goes, our nation is doomed. Over time this jeremiad has been co-opted by less and less progressive interests and has given way to “beltway consensus.” That is, nationally sanctioned narratives such as No Child Left Behind, The Spellings Report, and Achieve’s Ready or Not has shifted agency away from local educators; national, private assessment firms, such as ETS, and other technocrats assume to know what students need to learn, based on a list of elite thinkers and multiple choice tests. In many cases, districts are forced to comply to the agendas of these bodies in order to access funding, such as Race for the Top.

The appropriate response from literacy activists, argues LAK, is to do two things: (1) know our own principles — which surface through personal narratives — and (2) to organize/strategize to advocate for those principles (hence, the “activist WPA”). She revisits a quote from legal realist scholar Karl Llewellyn: “Strategies without ideals is a menace, but ideals without strategies is a mess [sic].” LAK offers up three strategies for WPAs in terms of this argument. She attributes each approach to different informants:

Interest-based organizing, AKA grassroots work, extends the work of one of the most famous community organizers, Saul Alinsky. With interest-based organizing, issues emerge from relationships that are fostered through dialogue at relational meetings. Such issues are readily definable, meaning they are actionable: “something you can do something about.” They are different from problems which “are so large as to overwhelm action” (Chambers qtd in LAK 100).

Values-based organizing is the most academic, long-term strategy that comes from linguist George Lakoff; it seeks to address the ways in which language determines how an issue is framed: “shaping the message, setting out the terms for discussion, [and] determining the direction” (107) of the conversation. “Through language,” LAK notes, “values-based organizers believe people can discover and articulate the values at the core of their central beliefs” (110). In order to successfully deploy this strategy organizers must identify their own values (or their Writing Program’s), identify others who share those values, and “[develop frames that reflect values, and [use] those frames to shape issues” (113). Essential to this model is for organizers and participants to argue for what they want, not for what they do not want. The bears repeating for most academics.

Issue-based organizing is borrowed from the late MN Senator Paul Wellstone’s political campaigns; it blends the previous two approaches in that organizers start from a political agenda and build community from key issues from that agenda; the issue is often extended so that values become explicit and new issues can be tackled: campaigns “involve moving from short-term goals (tactics) within the contexts of longer-term ones (strategies)” (118).

Four common steps unites these three approaches. First, each of them begins with organizers identifying their principles, regardless of whether the issue requires a tactic or a strategy. Next is using those principles to establish goals and allies. Third, all use a dialogic approach to action. Finally, each approach is designed to develop community through self-interest. As LAK argues, the smart organizer would “mix and phase” these three models, “depending on the needs of the community and the demands of particular projects” (127).

It’s interesting for me to reflect on the my leadership with the Writing Center in light of some of the details of The Activist WPA. I found myself wondering which approaches were most successful (or could have been) in revitalizing the Center and to what degree I was really an “activist” since I never really felt like one. During our Skype conversation with LAK that week, we asked her about the difference between those terms. “Organizers,” she said, “develop strategies to become activists. I’m very much about organizing, and organizing for change. And I think when you organize for change that makes you more than an organizer” (thanks, @ahhitt for helping me get that right). I always felt that my institutional role as a staff member was to play supportive organizer to the larger Writing Program, not to engage as an activist (which implies disruption and antagonism). I asked LAK about how these roles might limit certain kinds of change. She acknowledged that hierarchies will always affect this kind of work (“the academy is second only to the military in terms of hierarchical structure,” she added).

But the more I think about, perhaps my definition of activist is too dramatic. Through dialogue with many stakeholders, our Center was able to convince the Writing Program to create a permanent, standing Writing Center committee in our Program. The committee led us to led to articulate principles and outcomes, to conduct SWOT analyses of various constituents, and perhaps most timely, gather effective assessment data. We created two new online services that boosted access to our services, embedded a consultant in the community, and began to put staff members in regular dialogue with each other through recurring meetings. People know change is rough, change is hard, but it’s also slow and takes place over time.