Berlin and technical writing

When we discussed it in class last week, I wasn’t feeling a strong connection between Berlin’s social epistemic rhetoric and my own class, Technical Writing (ENGL 3323). In the current curriculum we focus explicitly on workplace writing, which I think is entirely appropriate for my students, most of whom will soon become engineers. I do not share the belief, implicit in some of the theoretical work on this subject, that preparing students for their future professional lives (or even their other academic courses) merely serves to further the “evils” of capitalism. I’m not ashamed of focusing exclusively on students’ ability to write, or of situating that writing in the context of their future  work. As I mentioned in class, the attitude I take is that my students make things. They make machines and construct buildings, and  ensure that they function safely, as with the 15% of my students studying Fire Protection and Safety. If I can better prepare them to do that work, I feel like my own efforts have social value.

But after our discussion, I spent the next few days thinking about our curriculum, and my own defense of it. I can’t remember how vehement I was about it during class (lately I seem to be picking a new fight every day), but I had strong feelings about the subject, and would have gladly defended our approach to the course. I have long felt that composition pedagogy emphasizes political action in ways that I would not be comfortable with in my own classroom, even if I were to teach First-Year Composition instead of tech writing. But my occasional self-righteousness is often tempered by the realization that I can be (and often am) completely full of s***. And I was curious about what Dr. Lewis had mentioned about incorporating ethics into her previous 3323 classes. So I decided to do a bit of reading about ethics in technical writing.

Based on my efforts so far, it seems to me that incorporating ethics into the curriculum revolves around two key issues: 1) How language enacts different versions of reality, and 2) Ethical decisions in document creation and design. Issue #1 addresses the long-held belief by members of the scientific community (and many technical writing pedagogues) that language merely needs to be clear, so that it objectively describes what exists in the real world. This is known as the “windowpane” theory of language, and it quickly becomes problematic when issues of science and technology interact with sociopolitical reality. For example, Dr. Lewis described the Nazi memo that some of you read in the History of Technical Writing course last year (see next image). The author, a German bureaucrat named Just, writes his superiors with recommendations about improving the efficiency of the trains that brought millions of victims to the death camps. Far from being merely neutral, his language reflects and makes possible the dehumanizing attitude that was prevalent toward Jews and other victims of the Nazi regime. Their humanity is entirely absent from the memo, which refers to them merely as pieces or load. For example: when the doors are shut, the load always presses against them. Elsewhere they are rendered invisible by the use of nominalization:

Because of the alarming nature of darkness, screaming always occurs when the doors are closed.

The point is that although some topics addressed by technology are entirely objective, such as the width of a connecting O-ring in an assembly, others are culturally defined. And if we ignore how we as a society create these definitions, by focusing purely on the technical aspects of a problem we risk ignoring its real human consequences. I think this is at least part of the purpose of showing students the Just memo, although those of you from last year’s History course are more familiar with it, so feel free to correct me if I’m getting that wrong.

The second issue concerns ethical decision making. Many of the textbooks that address ethics focus on case studies in which engineers made important ethical choices that had life-and-death consequences. For example, before the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster (1979), another plant run by the same company had difficulty with the reactor core. The head engineer at the plant reported the design flaw to management, but did not want to emphasize the magnitude of the problem, presumably for reasons of political expediency. As a result, he buried that information in the middle of his final report, a section many readers typically skip over. He did not  take additional steps to emphasize the potential consequences of the problem, which would have made harder for management to ignore the problem.

In contrast, before the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion (1986), engineers at Morton Thiokol took a firm ethical stand against pressure from management over a design flaw involving simple rubber O-rings. Though supervisors pushed them to underplay the potential dangers for fear of postponing a launch that had already been delayed, in part because Thiokol was negotiating a $1 billion contract with NASA. But in the memo below, dated seven months before the explosion, the engineer assigned to investigate the flaw refuses to gloss over the seriousness of the problem.

The result would be a catastrophe of the highest order- loss of human life…

There’s much more to the concept of integrating ethics, but those are some of the key points. Another topic worth exploring in the context of employing a social epistemic approach is the service-learning approach. I’ll talk about that in a few weeks during my paper presentation.


On technology

There was a brief moment in one of our classes this past week that’s gotten me thinking about Berlin; where he falls short, and where he has ahead of his time. I honestly don’t remember who said it exactly, but the notion was simple–that Berlin’s advocating an education that, in part, focused on getting students to be active participants in a democratic society has become a paradigm more and more fueled by technology in the past generation than any other.

I struggle with technology in the classroom. Not in any ability to use it, that is, but rather the reliance on its use. I often wonder if I use tech too much, or if I fall on it as a crutch. My background is in film studies and I find that I can explain concepts quite easily through visual analysis. At the same time, I run through a cost-benefit analysis in my head for film clips: do I really need to show my students a five or ten minute clip to get a point across when something shorter or simpler will do?

In that vein, I think of the criticism of Berlin, such as Maxine Hairston, who argue that this kind of education focuses too much on ideology and not enough on writing. Having read her argument, I can say with a small amount of pride that not once did I hit my head against the wall. It took a great deal of self-restraint. I see her point (despite my yelling at the screen that the purposeful omission of an ideology is an ideology unto itself…but I digress) but I don’t think it’s well founded. Many other composition theorists and practitioners argue that as facilitators, we should be meeting students at their level, seizing those “teachable moments” when they appear. Students, in this moment of history, have realized that the world has gotten smaller. It’s so prevalent: thousands of TV channels from all over the globe, social networks, ubiquitous computing power–and it would be easy to argue that because it’s everywhere, it’s nowhere. But given the dynamic nature of technological evolution, the visibility remains.

Interactive media has created interactive consumers of text. Student that we teach want to get involved, want to tackle the big issues. This is the seizable moment, where we can meet willing students at their level. For people like Cornell West or James Berlin or Mike Rose, writing has to do something, it has to engage–both author and audience. That, I believe, is the answer of social epistemic classrooms. Berlin writes that “in composing or interpreting a text, a person engages in an analysis of the cultural codes operating in defining his or her subject position, the positions of the audience, and the constructions of the matter to be considered. These function in a dialectical relation to each other, so that the writer must engage in complex decision making in shaping the text (90).” That’s one part of the equation; students write not in a vacuum, but in a dynamic social climate where they must navigate using critical thinking and rhetorical analysis.

This is where I still struggle with technology. Students bring laptops, smartphones, iPads, or other pieces of technology into the classroom and I’m not sure how to handle it. I own all of those and I don’t necessarily use all of them every day for classroom purposes. I see plenty of instructors writing up how to use QR codes, twitter, or posterous in classrooms, and I don’t get it. I don’t know how or why I would use many tools technology provides, especially in a writing class. It’s not that I’m unwilling to use it, but I can’t yet see how those activities are better than getting pen to paper. I admit, it’s an odd paradox that goes on in my head. I read what Berlin writes and it makes so much sense, yet I falter: “The work of social-epistemic rhetoric, then, is to study the production and reception of these historically specific signifying practices. In other words, social epistemic rhetoric enables senders and receivers to arrive at a rich formulation of the rhetorical context in any given discourse situation through an analysis of the signifying practices operating within it (90).” I get that. I get that one of the goals must be to endow students with the ability to navigate through an ever-expanding social dynamic and to wade through historical circumstances in order to produce texts that will satisfy an audience. And I know that our discourse includes iPads and smartphones and thousands of apps all designed to help students. I guess I’m just not sure if those objects will get students to think, engage, and create–to do things, or if they will just clog up an already saturated media environment.

I guess I’ll have to (re)think a few things.

Bringing Berlin Up to Date and Into Comp 1113

After finishing Berlin, one question that was on my mind, and likely on the minds of some of you was well, was “how do I incorporate this into Comp 1113 or 1213?” So I started thinking about what essays in the sequence would lend themselves to incorporating some of Berlin’s lessons. While I understand that his goal is to have social-epistemic rhetoric at the heart of the entire course, and while I think that is probably possible, I have decided to solely focus on creating a unit for Essay 3 in Comp 1113 that mirrors but updates Berlin’s television unit. Like Berlin’s description of his unit, I’m not going to lay out specific lesson plans, but the overall approach I would take, the general direction of lessons, and finally, an assignment sheet that asks students to write a comparative analysis of the subjectivities two sitcoms The Middle and Modern Family attempt to create for the audience and the effects the medium of television has on shaping those subjectivities.

Where to Start

Like Berlin, I would start by introducing the class to Fiske’s Television Culture and the heuristic used for analyzing television programs. I think this image is helpful for understanding the heuristic. Fiske’s Television Culture. The questions that would be used to drive the unit are these, “What imagined realities are The Middle and Modern Family representations of?” and “How are these shows coded constructions?”

Students would be assigned to view a number of episodes of these shows which are available through a number of online players, but we would also view at least one episode of each show together in class. Each episode without commercials is about 20 minutes.

The Middle

A working class family from Indiana.

The Middle follows the ups and downs of a working class family in suburban Indiana. Frankie Heck, the mother, works as a used car salesperson while Mike Heck, the father, works as the foreman of the local quarry. They have three children, Axl, Sue, and Brick. Axl is a junior in high school who excels at sports but struggles with academics, Sue has just started highschool and is completely oblivious of her own nerdiness, and Brick excels in school and is a prolific reader but is socially awkward and in a special “social skill building” group. Episodes revolve around the children’s problems at school, Frankie’s problems at work and home, and the gradual decay of the Heck home.

Modern Family

Modern Family is in fact the story of an extended family: the patriarch, Jay Pritchett, his second wife Gloria and his stepson Manny; Jay’s daughter Claire Dunphy, her husband Phil and their children Haley, Alex, and Luke; and Jay’s son Mitchell Pritchett, his husband Cam Tucker and their daughter Lily. The tag line for the show is “One big (straight, gay, multi-cultural, traditional) happy family.The Pritchetts and Dunphy’s all live near each other in sunny southern California in large and stylish homes. Jay works, but it’s not very clear exactly what he does – something with designing and installing closets – the viewer rarely sees him working. Phil is a real estate agent, and Mitchell is a lawyer. Gloria, Claire, and Cam all are stay at home parents. Manny, Gloria’s son, is excentric, smart, and ultimately a hopeless romantic. Haley is the popular girl in high school who struggles academically and is constantly on her phone texting. Her sister Alex is the exact opposite. She is unpopular and takes school very seriously. Luke, while sweet and naive, may or may not have ADHD. Cam and Mitchell adopted Lily from China.

Part 1: Reality

I would begin the unit by having students look at each show’s representation of “reality” that is forwarded through the raw materials. Over the course of a few days, I would have students identify the appearances, environements, etc. of each show. This analysis may lend itself nicely to a jig-saw type of activity, with groups of students focusing on one aspect of the raw materials and then bringing their findings back to the rest of the class.

For example, analysis of the environments of these shows may lead students to note the disparities between the Heck’s home, which is constantly falling apart, and the spacious and spick and span homes of the families in Modern Family. Students will notice the Heck’s home is outdated with old olive colored applicances compared to the stainless steel appliances in the homes on Modern Family. Berlin’s students noticed differences in home decor in Family Ties and Roseanne, and that this sense of taste was related more to class affiliations than finance (129). This distinction may be made between the sense of taste of the Heck’s and the Pritchetts/Dunphys and  can be expanded beyond home decor to include looking at the families’ sense of taste concerning family activities, family vehicles, etc. (The Heck’s drive an old station wagon, which may be based on finance, but Jay drives an Audi and Mitchell and Cam drive a Prius, which are more based on class affiliation).

Another aspect students can analyze is the problems that the families face. Berlin’s students noted that the problems the families in Family Ties and Roseanne faced were in general related to income, job stability and class (130). Students could analyze a number of episodes taking note of the problems the families face and what these problems are related to. Two episodes in particular came to mind when I considered family problems.

This episode of The Middle deals with Frankie and Mike considering walking out on their mortgage. They are in desperate need of a new roof, but can’t afford one. Other families in the neighborhood have foreclosed on their houses, and the Frankie and Mike consider moving to an apartment complex rather than “being both above and below water.” When compared to the issues faced by the Prichetts and Dunphys in this episode if Modern Family (Claire – whether or not to run for city council or continue to stay at home taking care of the kids, Mitchell and Cam -whether or not to chase after the guy who rear-ended their Prius, Jay and Manny -how to handle the “Bieberization” of America), it is easy to see how the problems the families face are related to income and class. It would also be interesting to have students look at the gender codes across the classes.

Part 2: Representation

Students can then move to analyzing the ways editing, lighting, music, etc. are used to create the realities presented in these two sitcoms. Just as we ask students to analyze an author’s choices in a written text, we can apply these same skills to director’s choices in television. Once again, a few days may be spent analyzing and discussing different technical aspects and their contribution to the imagined reality.

Part 3: Ideological Codes

Discussion of the sitcoms can then move to how the reality and representation are organized by ideological codes. I think looking at the ideological codes in The Middle and Modern Family will result in rich and lively discussion. Even within Modern Family there seem to be many ideological contradictions, but these contradictions don’t seem to bother viewers (they didn’t really bother me until I started to think about it for this blog post). While Modern Family may be breaking new ground in that they are presenting both nuclear and non-traditional families (the modern family), the show holds to very traditional gender roles and stereotypes. Claire, Gloria, and Cam are all stay-at-home parents, reinforcing patriarchy and stereotyping gay males in the process. While neither Cam nor Mitchell are particularly masculine, the more effeminate Cam stays at home with Lily.

Part 4: Socioeconomic Environment

Berlin’s lessons involve looking at a text “successively within its generic, ideological, and socioeconomic environment” (125), so once the initial analyses of reality and representation have taken place, I would move toward looking at these sitcoms in their ideological and socioeconomic environments.  While Family Ties and Roseanne were products of different economic times (130), Modern Family and The Middle are being produced in the same economic time, and they even air on the same network on the same evening with only a half hour in between. Students can also research the ratings of these shows.

Hopefully exploring the larger socioeconomic environment will lead students to similar realizations reached by Berlin’s students:

 “They begin to understand that television’s presentation of family and the place of work in it are related to popular perceptions of ‘the real,’ ‘the normal,’ and ‘the everyday.’ In other words, the family the largest segment of the television audience chooses to watch is a function of its self-perception, and this in turn is as much related to its conception of what it would like to think is true as to what in face exists.” (130)

I think these two sitcoms are an especially interesting case study in our current socioeconomic climate. Lately, there has been a lot of discussion concerning the disappearing middle class. See for example, this NPR story, “American Dream for Middle Class: Just a Dream?” about new research that indicates that one out of every three Americans raised in the middle class will fall out of the middle class as adults. Students might consider the ratings of The Middle and Modern Family and the potential implications the ratings have given our current socioeconomic condition.

Part 5: Formation of Subjectivities

Next students need to describe their own reactions to the two shows, and “explore their reasons for preferring the version of work and family found in one or the other program, investigating the class, gender, race, religious, and ethnic codes that they have been encouraged to enact” (132). By identifying what students find worthy of emulating, they can start to identify the different subject positions the shows try to create for their audiences.

I think students will require a discussion of what “subjectivities” actually means, and I found Faigley’s quick recap of the subject helpful in the opening of Fragments of Rationality:Postmodernity and the Subject of Composition.  He goes into much greater detail later in the book, but in the first few pages he explains the modern subject as pure consciousness that is detached from the world and that language provides the modern subject access to reality. In contrast, the postmodern subject is a subject whose consciousness originates in language. The postmodern subject is an effect of discourse (Faigley 8). Working with the postmodern subject, students can identify the different effects (subjects) the discourse of The Middle and Modern Family create with their realities and representations.

Connecting to Comp 1113

When considering where this unit might fit into the Comp 1113 essay sequence, I felt that Essay 3 was a good fit. The departmental guidelines for Essay 3 (Comparative Analysis) say that “students should write a thesis driven essay which analyzes and/or draws connections between two or more texts. In this essay, the analytical frames may be more loosely-defined than the one used in essay two.” So for this essay, I suggest using Berlin’s socio-epistemic frame to compare the two texts of The Middle and Modern Family. I’ve created an assignment sheet for this essay, which I would love to get feedback on as I would like to actually teach this unit in the future.Comparative Analysis of Sitcoms Assignment Sheet

It’s a man’s world: women’s ordination in a sola scriptura setting

This is a very personal blog.  I love the Bible, and during this course I have learned some things about myself, and have observed some shifts in my thinking, particularly about ideologies (thanks, Crowley).  If you don’t want to read about religion, feel free to pass.  But I find it relevant to our readings, if not in the classroom, in our attitudes and in the spirit of searching for ways to communicate with each other a la Berlin, Ratcliffe and hooks, at a minimum.  To explain, I quote Steve, as I have found that “ideology influences every person’s perception of reality as well as their own place within this reality, and who they are in relation to this reality….”  My ideologies may run too deep for my own comfort.

Prior to reading Ratcliffe or hooks, I would have accepted the rejection of my North American church to ordain women as a denominational fact, dismissed it as frustrating, and gone on my merry way.  I really don’t care whether men or women are ordained ~ my concern is whether they are truly following God’s calling as demonstrated by their words and actions.  Interestingly, my first awareness of rhetorical listening (kind of) was this past summer at my camp meeting.  A husband-and-wife team who pastor in the Caribbean held a marriage seminar and early on, presented the most astounding finding (to me):  until sin occurred, i.e., Eve bit into the forbidden fruit ~ she and her husband were equals.

Therefore, that first act of sin mandated man’s dominance over women; hence, the first woman enabled a “man’s world” to exist.  (See Genesis 1:24 [creation of Eve] and Genesis 3:16 [man will rule over woman]).  This epiphany made the following story quite remarkable for me personally.

My denomination has made a Biblical stand that women cannot be ordained.  They can be elders (although that is unacceptable in many geographic regions of the church), but cannot baptize.  I have never understood this, except for cultural reasons.  Almost 20 years ago, the worldwide church entertained the ordination of women during its worldwide Annual Council. This was a controversial issue, one that is being resurrected in what I believe is a timely matter.  The particular matter I am referring to occurred at the October 2011 Annual Council.  You can visit to learn more about what the church is doing to investigate ordination of women, but in the meantime, let me share the parts that relate to our readings.

As noted by Berlin, “… ideological prescriptions are in continual conflict for hegemony, with the groups in ascendance calling on all of their resources of power to maintain dominance in the face of continual opposition and resistance,” (p. 93). Last month, during the church’s Annual Council, women’s ordination came up, and the North American Division officially rejected the invitation to pursue investigation of the matter.  This is a “continual opposition” to a real issue that is causing oppression to women in my church.  Church leaders from Europe opined that “opening doors for women in leadership would strengthen growth of the church in Europe.”  I know Berlin was referring to English studies, but the discourse in this Annual Council is filled with ideological prescriptions, supposedly based on the Truth.  And yet…

One church president from an African region stated that ordaining women “would give me a lot of problems.”  Gulp.  On the flip side, Ella Simmons, the first woman elected as a general vice president of the worldwide church, spoke to the African delegates who opposed the motion:  “We talk about unity.  What is this unity?…what we are describing is uniformity that is more akin to the bondage that grows out of mind control.”  This woman is African-American, and her comment strikes me as one of daring, given her position, and one of pain, hurt and frustration.  She was speaking at a gathering of the church’s world Annual Council, mostly attended by men.  But it was a European man who pleaded with the Council to understand that in his society, children are “taught from their first hours that men and women are equal; it is very hard for them.  We are losing many young people who feel that this is a matter of justice.”  A MAN is yearning for equality for women.  Simmons’ reference to “bondage that grows out of mind control” reminds me of Berlin’s reference to ideology’s way of maintaining dominance.  The church must not be its own worst enemy and exclude women from ordination without a clear Biblical warning against it.  But Simmons also sheds light on hooks’ mention of slaves. When Simmons refers to bondage, surely she is remembering her ancestors, whose bodies were “the concrete site of suffering,” (p. 224).  Does the rest of the leadership get it?  Are they able to “learn from spaces of silence [women who are marginalized by men in honor of their holy code] as well as spaces of speech [Simmons],” (hooks, p. 226).  And Simmons’ African-American counterpart, a male pastor and church leader, is explaining the delicacy of the situation when he “says” gulp~this is gonna be tough for my constituents to swallow.  He should read hooks’ admonition to  “take the oppressor’s language and turn it against itself [to] make our words a counter-hegemonic speech….” (p. 227).

As Micah suggests, “…epistemic rhetoric theory…posits that language is socially constructed, and so meaning is socially constructed, and so our conceptions of reality are socially constructed as well.”  I believe the exchanges in the Annual Council give rich meaning to this concept.  How will women progress in a man’s world if the women don’t stand up, take risks, and make the Council’s language “into more than the oppressor’s language?” (hooks, p. 224).  This is 2011, not 211.  The church doesn’t want to modify its stance, its reality, of a male-dominated religion, and consequently is encouraging “continual conflict for hegemony,” (Berlin, p. 93).
Hooks refers to Rich’s poem “The Burning of Paper Instead of Children” that reprimands marginalization, whether it be via domination, racism and/or class oppression.  I hear, in Simmons’ comments, the oppression that Rich and hooks rely upon to help their readers reflect on their cultures.  As Steve wrote, “The important point to observe here is how individuals are situated within a wide range of significations, but that individuals also retain a level of agency to make change happen.”  Simmons and many other high-ranking female church officials are situated in a conservative, sola scriptura denomination.  I subscribe to it, but the dilemma:  Will Simmons and other women, like first female Adventist pastor Dr. Hyveth Williams, below, “make change happen” or will they have to rely on the men free them from their so-called Biblical oppression?

 P.S.  I followed up on this print version of the Annual Council and found this:  “North America voted October 31 to fully participate in the world church’s recently launched study of the theology of ordination while also reaffirming the division’s unique policy of allowing ordained or commissioned ministers to serve as presidents of local conferences and missions.  The latter action, voted by nearly a 3 to 1 margin, broadens the opportunities for non-ordained leaders to be elected to the top position in any of the 58 conferences that make up the 1.1 million member church region.  The pair of votes came three weeks after the North American Division’s request for a variance in the world church’s model constitution to allow for the broader leadership opportunities was turned down by the church’s Executive Committee in its Annual Council session. The model document states conference leadership can only be held by an ordained pastor; the NAD policy, while valid within its territory, places the region at variance with the constitutional template.”  (Retrieved from

Someone, somewhere, is listening to the oppressed.  I am one of the some.

The social epistemic classroom’s ability to unpack language’s binaries, power structures, and other forces in history that create “conflicts and contradictions” provides an interesting atmosphere for students to gain insight into their world (Berlin 122).  At the beginning of this semester, I read Berlin’s oft-quotes article entitled “Rhetoric and Ideology in the Writing Classroom.”   For those of you who haven’t read this short piece, Berlin extends an analysis of the three main branches of Composition theory:  cognitive, expressionism, and social epistemic theories.  After reading this article, I thought hard about what kind of writing instructor I am and came to the conclusion that I am a social epistemic.  But I’ve always had one caveat with its theories.  I really resisted the idea that  students must be taught to identify the ways in which control over their own lives has been denied them, and denied in such a way that they have blamed themselves for their powerlessness” (680).  I use this quote for two purposes: One, that I do teach my student to uncover underling factors that control their behaviors.  We look at such texts as ads, movie trailers, songs, and even grocery stores to unearth hidden ways in which designers coerce consumers to behave.  When I examine a local grocery store in class, my students are always surprised to find that the milk, which is always needed to any shopper, sits at the back of the store to lure shoppers into buying other items that they may not need.

But after reading Rhetorics, Poetics, and Culture, I think my resistance to ideological discussion may be partly due to my inexperience with Berlin’s theories.  He claims that “the aim of the course remains the same in all situations: to enable students to become active, critical agents of their experience rather than passive victims of cultural codes” (113).

In order to begin this process of critiquing codes, I ask my students to perform The Method.   Adapted from David Rosenwasser and Jill Stephen’s textbook Writing Analytically, The Method is a process for students to unpack a text.

The process, if done correctly, enables students to begin reshaping how they think about a text.  Often, I use The Method as a way to begin analyzing for the rhetorical analysis essay.  Most of the time, students do not spend enough time thinking critically and dwelling on the dada presented in their selected text.  Working with this process in class, facilitates student’s thinking so that they will be prepared to confront analyzing texts on their own.

Using The Method, instructors can begin the process of “encouraging…complex reading and writing strategies and practices” from our students (Berlin 120).  I do not suspect Berlin began his courses by jumping into the complicated nature that language plays in our lives.  I can only think he developed strategies to help students begin to see how language and ideology factors into our culture.  For me, The Method is where I begin to help my students reshape the way they “see” language.  For Berlin, “we are thus committed to teaching reading and writing as an inescapably political act, the working out of contested cultural codes affecting every feature of experience” (14).

Subject Formation within Social-Epistemic Rhetoric: Matrix Pedagogy?

There is a unique aspect of social-epistemic that Berlin highlights which I believe is worth exploring for the pedagogical implications it assumes. Berlin writes, “Social-epistemic rhetoric is the study and critique of signifying practices in their relation to subject formation within the framework of economic, social, and political conditions” (Rhetorics, Poetics, and Cultures 83).  The interesting point that stands out to me as I reread this self-admitted “dense formulation” (ibid) is the detail about “subject formation.” As I stop and think about this idea in relation to teaching first-year composition, I have come to see social-epistemic rhetoric in a new light—one that informs a classroom practice that I did not at first see.

Ideology and Subjects

In chapter 5, Berlin sets up his discussion of social-epistemic by first describing the function of ideology within discourse by outlining the work of Goran Therborn’s The Ideology of Power and the Power of Ideology. Berlin writes, “From this perspective, ideology interpellates [brings into being] subjects—that is, addresses and shapes them—through discourses that offer directives about three important domains of experience: what exists, what is good, and what is possible” (84).  In other words, ideology influences every person’s perception of reality as well as their own place within this reality, and who they are in relation to this reality. Of course, the three “domains of experience” are methods of interpretation (more complicated than mentioned here) that allows a critic to observe this influence of ideology on the subject. The important point to observe here is how individuals are situated within a wide range of significations, but that individuals also retain a level of agency to make change happen. As Berlin explains, we are not just “unwitting product[s] of external discursive and material forces. The subject negotiates and resists codes rather than simply accommodating them” (85).

Pedagogical Implications

There are some interesting pedagogical implications that social-epistemic rhetoric assumes with this focus on “subject formation” and the recognition of agency (or being agents of change) within the ideological influence of discourse. Berlin writes, “Most important, it [social-epistemic] has maintained a commitment to preparing students for citizenship in a democratic society” (87). My purpose with this discussion is not to herald the development of “democratic citizens,” but to focus in on the implications of seeing our students as malleable subjects within a sea of significations that require our students to negotiate their own subjectivity (whether consciously or performatively). In this way, my role as a writing instructor is more than just increasing literacy and critical thinking skills; we are tasked with the duty of awakening our students in a way that is analogous to the Matrix, when Morpheus presents Neo with two pills (one to stay asleep and the other to wake up from the dream that is the matrix).  My one concern is that instead of waking “the one,” our students are more like the “Dude” from the Big Lebowski: 

Dr. Seuss Meets James Berlin

Hooray for Diffendoofer Day by Dr. Seuss was published posthumously with some help from children’s author Jack Prelutsky and illustrator Lane Smith. A young boy who attends the Diffendoofer School in Dinkerville, a very special school with very unique teachers, narrates the story. Published in 1998, only two years after Berlin published Rhetorics, Poetics, and Cultures, this Seussian classic is a prime example of classroom environment Berlin encourages English departments to adopt. Filled with silly named teachers who reject the conventional, boring, dreary style of teaching, Diffendoofer School is the ideal representation of the social-epistemic ideology. Even though Berlin is targeting college English departments in his book, the Diffendoofer School more than meets the challenges set by Berlin in terms of the goals of education.

Berlin writes that “We must finally provide a college education that enables workers to be excellent communicators, quick and flexible learners, and cooperative collaborators” (Berlin 50). The unconventional methods employed by the teachers in Hooray for Diffendoofer Day create situations in which students are asked to do more than memorize facts and figures, fostering an environment where students develop more than study skills.

Miss Bobble teaches listening,

Miss Wobble teaches smelling,

Miss Fribble teaches laughing,

And Miss Quibble teaches yelling.”

These teachers are at the crux of the participatory classroom Berlin describes, as they “[share] the right to dialogue while never relinquishing the authority to set certain agendas for class activities” (Berlin 103). Activities at the Diffendoofer school include “how to tell chrysanthemums from miniature poodles” and “how to put a saddle on a lizard or a leopard,” and each teacher brings a different specialty to the classrooms. “The aim of the course [like those at the Diffendoofer school] remains the same in all situations: to enable students to become active, critical agents of their experience rather than passive victims of cultural codes” (Berlin 104).

Thus, when it comes time to take “a special test to see who’s learning such and such – to see which school’s the best” Miss Bonkers quickly assures the students of their success, because the Diffendoofer school has taught the students how to think. As I read through Berlin’s explanation of the social-epistemic classroom, I kept thinking that this was ultimately the unspoken goal of the composition course. To Berlin, students should be exposed to a variety of texts that allow them to locate “the unsaid and excluded elements that constitute a text’s meaning, the reader develops a sensitivity to the gaps, inconsistencies, and disparities that are an element of all signifying practices” (Berlin 91). 

In Hooray for Diffendoofer Day the narrator reports that the test had questions about poodles and frogs, listening and laughing, but there were also questions “about other things we’d never seen or heard, and yet we somehow answered them, enjoying every word.” The same “sensitivity” Berlin suggests readers will develop is represented by the critical thinking skills the Diffendoodfer students use to answer the questions about things they have never encountered. The goal in both Berlin and Miss Bonkers classroom is the same: provide students with opportunities to engage in a variety of situations in a way that prepares them to apply the same skills to new, unfamiliar terrain.

Also, just as Berlin sets his social-epistemic rhetoric in contrast to previous movements such as democratic literacy and Fordism, the Diffendoofer School is the foil of the Flobbertown school. In miserable Flobbertown everyone does everything the same; they dress in one style, they sing one song, they never dance, they never play, their lunches have no taste, and their dogs have no bark. Flobbertwon functions like an assembly, producing students who are incapable of original and critical thoughts. According to Berlin, “Writing is thus discovery and invention, not mere reproduction and transmission” (Berlin 81). In this contrasting pair, social-epistemic ideology as found in the Diffendoofer school clearly falls under the category of “discovery and invention”, leaving the mere reproduction and transmission of information to Flobbertown.

“Thus, in choosing the texts we are to read and in providing the interpretive strategies we are to use in responding to them, English studies plays an immensely important role in consciousness formation” (Berlin 55). I believe education at any level should play an important role in consciousness formation (although I recognize Berlin’s primary focus in the English classroom). The Diffendoofer School provides an over the top representation of what a true social-epistemic classroom should look like. A place where teachers abandon the idea of a uniform, dreary, assembly line approach to learning, and embrace all of the knowledge that can be gained from lessons on building robotic rats, teaching ducks to sing, and “tying knots in neckerchiefs and noodles.” The social-epistemic classroom is a liberated place where creativity and exploration meets learning and thinking.

I Don’t Know What I Don’t Know

Rotring Fountain Pen. Original Gelatin Silver Print by Roger Mullins.

Berlin confounds me. His writing is reasonably clear, and I am passingly familiar with some of the theorists and theories he presents, but I had difficulty engaging with the latter portion of his book.  What I’ve decided to do here is to attempt to suss out the ideas of which I seem to have a grasp, wrestle with them a bit, and ask for clarification from anyone in the room.  Here goes.

Early 1990s America was in recession. Bush I was saddled with his broken pledge, “Read my lips. No new taxes.” Clinton based his campaign on the catchphrase, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Regardless of the efficacy or lack thereof of government economic policies, the news was filled with the sounds of pundits gnashing their teeth and images of them wringing their moist hands (much like Dickens’s Uriah Heep) in despair.

The argument (or at least one part of the argument) during this time was that American students were not prepared to compete in 21st century economies. Business leaders called for reforms that would produce better workers for corporate America (many of the criticisms of education went to the core issue of inadequate technical skills: math and science in particular). The counter-response from educators (simplified here) was that higher education should not mimic corporate practices; universities are not sites  of production; education is not a product; we (the professoriate) are not managers of assembly-line instruction as measured by standardized testing and Learning Outcomes (NB: I assume all readers are familiar with learning outcomes, and have experience constructing them for individual courses. They were contentious in the 90s, as I remember, but a given during the past decade).  I’m including a link from Napa Valley College regarding learning outcomes because I taught as an adjunct there for twelve years, and this document informed my role on many levels during my last year of teaching there (2009). Learning Outcomes derive from the notion that education must be measurable, and that all disciplines must engage in codified practices from which follow standardized and demonstrable results.

Berlin addresses these tensions in chapter 3 where he writes “I do not wish to suggest that schools are blameless in the recent economic crisis. They must indeed reexamine what they are doing. Yet expecting business to provide ideas and direction for the effort is a mistake. First of all, when corporate leaders attempt to dictate what ought to take place in universities–in order, that is, to prepare better workers–they commonly offer a host of contradictions” (52).

My resistance to the changes proposed–and eventually adopted by many schools–was due to my distrust of a corporate approach to a liberal education. I felt then–and am troubled still–that education today is seen as a means to a job, a means of obtaining specific skills and task knowledge that creates technically astute individuals who are also compliant workers; if institutions of higher education co-opt the corporate model, then education limits participation in a democratic society by reducing the language of dissent and privileging the language of consent (by which I mean workers in the new economy, as trained by the new education, buy in to the capitalistic-democratic values  of free-market enterprise without questioning the inherent flaws of that system and in fact ascribe moral inadequacy to those who do not prosper under this system). I’m reminded of Orwell’s cautionary tale, 1984.  In particular, I refer to Newspeak, described by Orwell thus: “Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought, and this purpose was indirectly assisted by cutting the choice of words down to a minimum.” We live in an age when rapid “communication” is made with 144 characters, or with text message abbreviations that strip and reduce language to a form of haiku. When we reduce language, we impair complex thought.

I do not suggest that Berlin’s vision is so dark. He goes on to say that “Trying to adjust the college curriculum exactly to the minute configurations of the job market is out of the question. At the same time, I do not think what we in the academy can simply ignore the advice of employers” (53).  The dance between higher education and corporations is often difficult; I remember being that awkward 13 year-old at the middle-school dance: girls on one side of the room, boys on the other. (I couldn’t find anything from the late 60s. We didn’t have that kind of technology then).  That university research has often served and benefited corporations is indisputable. The tension lies in who has agency: the academy, or the corporation paying for the research.

In what direction, then, does Berlin want colleges to go? “Colleges ought to offer a curriculum that places preparation for work within a comprehensive range of democratic educational concerns”(54).  His claim, later, is “In short, education exists to provide intelligent, articulate, and responsible citizens who understand their obligation and their right to insist that economic, social, and political power be exerted in the best interests of the community. . . the work of education in a democratic society is to provide ‘critical literacy'” (55). At this point, I’m with Berlin. If anything, I try to teach to this model. I encourage students to recognize that language is power, that all language directed at them is designed to appeal to them, to manipulate them to action or promote conformity. I show them, for example, a variation of this image:

  From this we talk about image and symbol and how we agree to conform to a particular pattern. Though the shape of the sign and language upon it is the same, the pattern here seems more like a suggestion, or ironic, rather than an imperative, and our response changes as a consequence.

I’ll end rather arbitrarily, I’m afraid. Berlin continues his discussion of the tensions between commerce and education by saying “Finally, the new economic democracy would require consumers whose buying habits are intelligent responses to the needs of the community, not simply an extension of personal interest” (56). I don’t see how this concept meets the needs of corporations. Corporations do NOT want an intelligent consumer. Corporations require a consumer who is driven by personal interest. Sut Jhally, in his film Advertising and The End of The World, addresses this corporate interest well. The full video is available at the library in the media center.

While I would hope that Berlin’s work furthers the ideal of educating students to recognize “that language is never innocent, that it instead constitutes a terrain for ideological battle” (140), I’m skeptical that we’ll develop the intelligent consumers he suggests an economic democracy requires.  This has been a somewhat rambling post, but I do hope that I’ve at least made clear that I do not believe the academy should be merely a place to create good corporate citizens and willing consumers, but that it should be a place where an intelligent and engaged citizenry can be fostered. Anyway, that’s my:

And just for fun:

Semi successes and failures in rhetorical listening.

How can we know what is so natural to us that it is no longer visible to us? One answer to that question . . . is listening” (Ratcliffe 28).

While reading through Ratcliffe, what was so natural as to be invisible to me started to become more and more visible and audible. More than any of the other texts we’ve read this semester (yes, even more than Crowley), I found myself thinking about Ratcliffe’s concept of rhetorical listening constantly: while listening to this PRI interview with Jean and Joan Millington, the “Godmothers of Chic Rock,” while watching this segment on The Daily Show, particularly the round table discussion sparked by Ann Coulter’s remarks; while conversing with friends and family; and while reflecting on my own experiences in the classroom. All of these instances were perfect opportunities for rhetorical listening, but for this blog post I’ve decided to focus my analysis on a conversation I had with a friend and then on a particular classroom experience.

A Call from Tiffany*

Last week, a friend called to tell me about the rough week she was having at school. This video will offer a quick recap of our conversation. (Unfortunately, my first version was lost in an epic coffee spill, thank goodness the lap top survived. My second version isn’t as fancy or developed. Sorry. Also, you may need to pause the video to read the text. I wasn’t able to adjust the timing. Every program has its hiccups.)


My intentions for using this conversation are not to invite nor pass judgement on Tiffany, although as Ratcliffe suggests to her graduate student who tried to befriend a black classmate, the effects aren’t always those we intend. My intentions are to show how in this fifteen minute conversation with a friend, I was able to engage in some rhetorical listening moves, even though I may not have been able to identify them at the time. Keep in mind that this video includes only the bare bones of the conversation and virtually no context.

Context for my conversation with Tiffany

Tiffany and I have almost nothing in common, yet we’re friends. This has meant that over the course of our friendship we have encountered numerous topics on which we disagree. Now, the more that I reflect on our friendship, the more I realize how closely my interactions with Tiffany have resembled rhetorical listening. On page 33 Ratcliffe says that “by focusing on claims and cultural logics, listeners may still disagree with each other’s claims, but they may better appreciate that the other person is not simply wrong but functioning from within a different logic.” Whenever Tiffany makes a claim that I disagree with, I am constantly reminding myself to remember her background and history and her identifications and disidentifications. This doesn’t mean that I come to agree with her, it means that I have a better understanding of why she makes that claim. Without knowing exactly what I’ve been doing, I’ve been trying to, as Ratcliffe explains, “negotiate [my] always evolving standpoints, [my] identity, with the always evolving standpoints of [Tiffany]” (34).

In sharing this experience, I also am not trying to pat myself on the back or brag about my rhetorical listening abilities. I only want to suggest that my eyes and ears are starting to pick up on things that were previously invisible. So here comes my counter-example. In this second situation, I would have benefited greatly from Ratcliffe’s tactic of listening pedagogically.

Teaching world literature to students in middle class white suburbia

If only I had read Ratcliffe years ago. My second teaching job was in the wealthy suburbs of south Jersey. The student population was not diverse — at all — and the senior curriculum was World Literature. From among the options on our reading list, I selected Kite Runner as a jumping off point for the year.

I personally enjoyed reading the novel, it’s topical, and I thought it would hold my students’ attention. While reading my students were required to keep reading journal entries. Many of my students responded to the novel similarly to the ways I had responded to it, but then there were the students whose responses I did not  anticipate – but I might have understood them better had I listened to them rhetorically.

What an ungrateful brat

I found one of my student’s responses to be so insensitive, so ignorant, so . . . AHH! It made me angry. SPOILER ALERT! At the end of the novel, an Afghani child whose parents were executed in his presence, who was sent to live in an orphanage that could not provide for the many orphans, who was then taken from the orphanage by a Taliban official who sexually abused him, who was then rescued from the Taliban official and told he would never be put in an orphanage again, who was then told he would have to go back to the orphanage, who then tried to commit suicide, who then survived and was brought to the U.S., lives with his new family for a year without speaking. At the end of the novel, he finally smiles.

One of my student’s responses included these comments: “I don’t understand why he would try to commit suicide. It seems like he was just being over dramatic about the whole situation. And I think it was really rude and ungrateful of him to not even say ‘thank you’ to his new family. I mean, they brought him to the U.S. all the way from Afghanistan, the least he could do is say ‘thank you.'”

This response enraged me. Far from rhetorical listening, this student couldn’t even consider putting him/herself in this little boy’s shoes. While this comment is the one I remember most vividly, there were many students who at one point or another expressed resistance to the novel, its characters, and its themes.

What I did but maybe shouldn’t have . . .

Ratcliffe notes on page 147 that, “student/teacher resistance is not always based on an unwillingness to hear but sometimes on an incapacity to hear, an incapacity grounded in a lack of reflective lived experience or in a lack of the work necessary to understand commonalities and differences.” When I considered my upper-middle class white suburbia students’ resistances to this novel, these two incapacities seemed to be the problem. So what did I do? I couldn’t make them have reflective lived experiences (although that’s what Claire did to Haley in this past week’s episode of Modern Family), so instead I went the route of working on understanding commonalities. I decided to pair Kite Runner with the film Persepolis, and I asked my students to view the film looking for aspects about growing up that are universal. Oh boy . . .

First, did you notice that I said I went the route of working on understanding commonalities and left out understanding differences? I was as Ratcliffe diagnoses, “gravitat[ing], almost by default, toward places of common ground, that is, places of commonalities with other people, texts, and cultures” (32).  In my approach differences were “glossed over or erased, left outside the circle of consubstantiality.” Is it possible I took such a Burkean stance on identifications because my students were operating as postmodernists who perceived commonalities as “impossible or as impossibly naive?” (32). Second, did you notice I missed the important step of Move #5: Exposing the perceived “universality” of tropes and that universality is a situated term (152-153).

If only I had known Ratcliffe’s tactics of rhetorical listening, I would have still done my Kite Runner/Persepolis pairing, but I would have gone about it differently. Just as Ratcliffe shares how she wishes she had handled her student’s response in the Cornel West discussion differently, I wish I had handled that reading journal response differently and the subsequent cramming of my stance down my students’ throats. While my ears have been perking up these last two weeks, I hope that I continue to hone my rhetorical listening skills.

* Psydonym