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September 1, 2006

potential reading (ENG112)

I haven't worked out a balance between readings in the assigned texts (which students are required to buy so I better use) and contemporary/current event readings. I know the issues that are covered in the Text-Wrestler are real and relevant, especially those for Unit 1 (self/other identifications in context and the challenges of self-reflection), but there is something about them that reinforces a sense of individual autonomy that troubles me a bit. It is as if identity/identification is only a social phenomenon, not one with political and economic ramifications. [Take me with a grain of salt: I'm "writing out loud."]

Compare the essays in the text with THE FUGITIVE GIRL ACT by Paul Rogat Loeb. He doesn't wrestle with what it means to be a girl (or a boy, for that matter), but with what it means to be an ally.

I guess I'm wondering what students might do with a requirement that asks them, after the critical assessment of self-in-context, to situate their contexted self in the larger political/economic system. Does it add too much complexity? Is the wording confusing or does Loeb's article provide a clear enough example to illustrate the task?

Posted by Steph at September 1, 2006 3:09 PM


Hey Steph.
I have struggled with how to make the unit one "inquiring into self" essay more connected to issues of citizenship (as both legal distinction as well as civic action) and engagement (both with issues and with communities). I think Lihn did some interesting work with these ideas throughout her whole class last semester, extending the coversation past unit one. You might check with her. Hope to keep this conversation going. Loeb's essays/writings offers some interesting opportunities indeed.

Posted by: Josh at September 1, 2006 3:37 PM

Hey Josh, I'll pester Linh Tuesday. :-) You know Loeb? His essay, "Soul of a Citizen" is one of my favorites of all time. I started "The Impossible Will Take A Little While" last year. The sentiment turns me on (!) but other things keep pulling me away....

Posted by: Steph [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 2, 2006 10:10 AM

Josh, Q2: Your response indicates that my sense of the assigned text is accurate? It took awhile for this to sink in - at first, I thought you were being a good team player by immediately referring me to my very own RCD. :-) Well - obviously you WERE doing that (!), but also you indicated that questions of "citizenship" are not explicitly OR implicitly raised in our text's unit on self-inquiry. Did I get this right? If so, I think this is a serious limitation - no offense to whatever process went into selecting it - but I'm really worried about the pedagogical implication that "persons" or "selves" are actually self-contained: all the recent trends in both the social and physical sciences point to constant and irrevocable INTERACTION and CO-PRODUCTION. (CAPS because I can't do bold or italics here...although there IS a mode I can get into when my tone would get loud and excited. Shhhh....don't tell!)

Posted by: Steph [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 3, 2006 3:02 PM

Indeed, I feel that the opening assignmnet presents some challenges in terms of connecting self to citizenship. However, I don't know that it is inherent in the essays or the assignment, but perhaps a function of the presentation of the assignment. I do feel like the course outline leaves us as teachers significant flexibility to invoke these connections and questions as part of unit one (and throughout the course). I also think that some of the essays in the text (both in the first section and in other parts of the book) can be used to support such an effort. That said, it is far from built in and I think it takes a committed teacher, for whom these issues are of interest and concern, to build that into the course. Thus, not every teacher is going to make these connections.

I am thinking as I type and for that reason it seems worth pausing and letting some of these ideas and questions sit and stir.

More to come.

Posted by: Josh at September 4, 2006 5:22 PM

Hey Josh, so…yeah. I picked Jenkins’ piece to assign because I found a tiny (direct) window for addressing citizenship, but primarily because it situates “identity” in the ways that I think are most formative for today’s youth instead of in the way “identity” was formative for most of us born before the PC boom. This is just coming clear to me during this past week, and your response somehow sealed it for me. Not in the sense of having an answer, per se, but of formulating what I find unsettling, pedagogically, about personal narratives that focus on a single facet of a person’s entire being (such as race, gender, religion, etc).

You wrote that “connecting self to citizenship . . . . is far from built in” to the Unit 1 assignment, therefore it takes teachers’ own creativity and commitment to take advantage of the flexibility (that we are thankfully allowed!) in such ways as to make this connection. In other words (my words, reading deep), emphasizing citizenship is optional. (One could go so far as to say it may actually be discouraged, since the materials do not readily lend themselves to this connection. I’m sure this is not intended, but it could be a widespread consequence…)

I’m afraid my points may already be blurring: they are so interwoven. Having the IDENTITY of a citizen is complex: it isn’t reducible to a single behavior such as whether or not one votes or a legal label that accords certain rights and privileges. Citizenship is about how one chooses to orient oneself as a person-in-the-world, as a person-in-relation-to-others. This is much more complicated – and abstract – than basing identity on ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or any of the many distinguishing characteristics that make us “like” and “unlike” others. What worries me about traditional identity narratives is that they perpetuate politics based on identity at a very particular ideological level: it is a modern mindset. But the young people we’ll be teaching are growing up in a world where identity politics continues to be deadly: do we really want to promote that?

But the alternative is tricky because postmodernism is a new and narrow phenomenon. Telecommunications technologies and mass media have spawned new types of identity that simply do not fit the old molds. These identities are situated in another dimension than the one we grew up in. I mean this as literally as possible: time and space are phenomenologically radically different for today’s youth than they were for most of us. This is what Jenkins’ piece addresses. Yes, gender is in there too (and it needs to be), but gender is the lens that brings this new dimension into view.

Now it’s my turn to sit and stir. :-)

Posted by: Steph [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 6, 2006 1:57 PM

Oh dear... I am afraid, Stephanie and Josh, that you are pulling me into something that will only add to my insomnia. Josh is quite right about how I have attempted to weave issues of citizenship into the course last semester. It was a way for me to make the semester more cohesive for the course, and to bring up something I am still trying to wrap my own head around. I approched the whole thing by thinking about how I can get students to be more responsible as people and of course, "citizens" in this world that they are very much a part of, and not so much as only within the confining labels of women, men, black, white, asian middle-class, and the list goes on. I also approached this being very curious as to what and how students beleive and feel about citizenship, and thus, I embarked on a learning experience ALONG WITH my students, not as someone who lectures to them. So, this is an exhausting philosophy to commit to, and I am not sure if everyone is prepared to teach in this way, at least not in their first few semesters of teaching (although I know this isn't the only way to teach, nor is it an excuse to not engage students). Let's just say that for me, there was a whole lot of rocking to-and-fro after teaching. I try to remind myself that my class might be first time that some of these students are asked to think about something as prevalent as racial inequality or sexism. And it is frustrating when some of them beleive racial inequality is just a thing of the past. And so although most of our readings do not direcly address citizenship, I see it as part of my job to just get students to start thinking about how writing and language is political and to follow this by asking students how they define citizenship, and how they relate other, confining labels, like "first-generation" or "working-class" to what it means to be a citizen in a world obviously (and not so obviously) fraught with inequality and oppression. And, again, how these issues are inseperable from writing and language.

Anyhow, I will be more than happy to talk to you about this... how it went in my own class, and my further thoughts-- formed and not so formed on the subject. I will definitely sit and stir, especially now that you and Josh have stoked my fire... and now back to lesson plans.

Posted by: Linh at September 6, 2006 3:21 PM

Oh Linh you speak to my heart! "I see it as part of my job to just get students to start thinking about how writing and language is political and to follow this by asking students how they define citizenship, and how they relate other, confining labels, like "first-generation" or "working-class" to what it means to be a citizen in a world obviously (and not so obviously) fraught with inequality and oppression. And, again, how these issues are inseperable from writing and language."

What a great discussion question for small groups! "How is writing and language political?"

I might use this in a few sessions (lesson plan 3 or 4, smile). I could imagine doing it in small groups, with each member required to take notes and then write about it for the next class. Have the students group up again to exchange, review each other's papers and then report out a summary...

I used to do all of these activities in one class period, but now I'm thinking about how to make writing an integral part of the thinking process, so why not break up the activity with actual writing? (Perhaps this could be done with time in-class, too. David gave me such a good idea to stop the video (Pink Floyd: The Wall, in four hours!) periodically and have students write right then and there. Another friend suggested I not limit the analysis to students' first few days at UMass but to include high school as well.)

An activity I'll do for Day 2 is adapted from the interviews many folks plan to do on Day 1. I'm stealing this idea from an English teacher who's class I'm working in as an interpreter. (Fringe benefit!!) She gave a lecturette on "raising questions" and "taking notes", then had the students interview each other, take notes, and introduce their partner to the class. I'm going to revise this a bit, and have them WRITE the introduction about their partner and POST them (pending agreement to post publicly) in the class wiki.

I already started it, btw, if anyone wants to check it out. Go to


Click on UMass wiki classes (left navigation bar) and

Select Class:Section 68, ENG112

And we're off!!!!

Posted by: Steph [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 7, 2006 9:42 AM

"How is writing and language political?" What a fabulous question. I have some ideas about this, but I don't feel I've had much experience studying or discussing this issue to be able to contribute significantly to such a discussion, or to lead a class in discussing it. Where do I go/what do I read/who do I talk to to learn more about this?

Posted by: lisha at September 9, 2006 10:55 AM

Lisha, come to us! Here! :-) Here's my theory: if we model learning-through-writing for our students they a) gain respect for us b) become more willing to take the risks we ask and c) contribute back into our conversations. Immense pedagogical implications! You know the adage, "Do what I say, not what I do?" and the correlating fact that people tend to do what they see rather than what they're told?

This relates Directly to questions of citizenship AND to the ways in which language and writing are political. Citizenship requires participation; democracy requires not being stopped by hierarchical boundaries. The politics of language and writing have to do with whose knowledge is accepted, validated, challenged, disseminated...I fully expect my students know things I do not know and think about things in ways I cannot imagine. I am curious!

Similarly, I know all of our peers who are teaching right now, right alongside of us, know all kinds of stuff that I don't know (did I mention I want to know EverythING?)

The fact of having this conversation is subtly influencing my lesson planning. This is what I love! At this point, I've designed an activity where students will FIRST reflect on the identities of their peers based on 1) an initial writing assignment and 2) an oral interview. This means they'll already be thinking about self-representation when they begin the process of writing about thier own identities... (or, I should say this is what I think they'll be thinking about, smile). I'm not sure, yet, what it will look like or how I'll manage this, but I think a bridge is being built that will allow them to make connections between what they think of as their own "autonomous self" and their interrelationships with others. THIS is the entre to citizenship as an identity embodied in practice.

Gee, this was not so clear in my mind until I wrote it! Thanks! :-) Of course, the way it plays out will differ from my envisioning, but hopefully the fact that I have this faint outline will enable me to respond and act proactively to guide us along this hopeful trajectory.

What do you think? Does this match up with or complement any of your ideas?

Posted by: Steph [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 9, 2006 12:47 PM

Steph, Lisha, and Lihn.

My experience, and thus my reading list, in regards to these issues is decidely less "language oriented" then I wish it was - I am on the look out for more in terms of language and citizenship. But a few names from my work on democratic education include: bell hooks, Myles Horton, Keith Morton, Rick Battistoni, and John Saltmarsh for starters. There is also some really interesting stuff by contemporary pragmatists like Richard Rorty and Richard Poirier.

For myself, I feel as though this conversation has grown beyond the bounds of just the virtual world. Said another way, I am having a hard time really processing and considering these issues in this virtual medium. I guess I function better when I can immeadiately bounce ideas back and forth in a more immeadiately discursive forum.

Coffee anyone?

Posted by: Josh at September 11, 2006 2:46 PM

Coffee! Let's do it. When? How about sometime this weekend? (I can't really breathe until then.)

I'm all game for face-to-face, but I hope we can also come back to this afterwards.... my theory is it isn't just the reading or the in-classroom teaching, but it's the act of struggling through this conversation in a public space that ENACTS at least one version of citizenship. (And includes the benefit of being able to be read, considered, contributed to by others...)

Email forthcoming!

Posted by: Steph [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 11, 2006 8:57 PM

Josh - Linh, Lisha and I did meet for coffee, it's too bad your schedule changed and you couldn't come. :-(

I took a few notes, which will hopefully help further this conversation. Linh and Lisha, I've embellished a bit to try and make the rough notes I typed sensible, PLEASE correct any misconceptions and separate your ideas from mine anywhere that it feels important, ok? :-)

Lisha brought up the way that language is so dichotomous (at least English is) - forcing people to choose either/or categories. Linh fleshed out the political element of categorization, saying the categories can then be used to narrow people's thinking. One of the results of such narrowing (which I note could be unintended) is that people with so-called minority identifications are "set up" in various ways. Also, minority labeling can (has?) already worked to produce a kind of invisibility so that those people who belong or ground themselves in "majority" identities don't see the categorizations themselves as problematic.

We had some conversation about ways to get students out of the binary, yet also recognized that doing this by itself is insufficient because then it bypasses the problem of the binarization as if it can just be erased so easily. Such a move is not critical - by which term I mean to invoke the presence, use, and misuse of power (I'm not sure if Linh and Lisha share this definition or mean something else/more).

Linh did also raise the binary of citizen/noncitizen. "What does the word citizenship mean? What are its benefits? What about those who are not positioned as citizens?" I think this is the crucial question of our age (the age of intensifying globalization). Linh also asked an important variation of this question, "How does a student's non-citizenship affect our teaching?" (Expanding on my notes), Linh clarified: Do we alter our style to accommodate a non-citizen being in the classroom? How does the non-citizen experience being in our classroom?

I was pretty jazzed by our talk, which stretched beyond the hour we designated. :-) I was so inspired that I posted in another blog that I've opened but am not doing much with until I have a group of authors who want to participate as equal partners. It somehow seemed a better "place" for those thoughts than my own blog, at least for now.


Posted by: Steph [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 8, 2006 2:34 PM

Hey everyone... I just stumbled upon an interesting entry in a blog I look at regularly - it asks what digital media may portend for participatory democracy. It also links to what sounds like a great essay called "Weblogs and Emergent Democracy" here are the two links:



Posted by: Josh at October 24, 2006 12:55 PM

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