Teach the Change You Wish to See

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” – Nelson Mandela

A question that I have been asking myself many times this semester is, “How do you want to teach?” Well, I should actually say, I’ve been asking myself, “How do you want to impact your students?” When I first applied to become a teaching assistant I knew I wanted to explore the ways in which I could reach every student who came my way, acting as an inspiration to aspiring writers or a source of wisdom to those who just want to pass their general education requirements. What I’ve been learning, though, is that as an educator I have a dual role: guide and informant.

This week’s threshold concept from Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies focused primarily on ideologies in writing. Specifically, as contributor Tony Scott shared, “Writing enacts and creates identities and ideologies” (48). He continues, “an ideology is a system of ideas and beliefs that together constitute a comprehensive worldview…[and are] both formed and sustained by a variety of factors, including religions, economic systems, cultural myths, languages, and systems of law and schooling” (48). As I learned last week, there are many things in life that are actually social constructs, and it turns out that ideologies are yet another addition to my social construct discover collection!

But the threshold concept took it a step further, one that had me rethinking my duty as a writing instructor. Scott posits the question, “What sort of social group do I intend to apprentice the learner into?” (48). Further, he clarifies, “When we seek to ‘apprentice’ students into academic writing, what ideological imperatives are being asserted in the ways we choose to conceive of academic writers and writing?” (50) I personally find the clarification of “academic writing” to be inherently restrictive. After all, earlier in his essay Scott himself even calls some required writing courses “gatekeeping assessments” (50), so for the sake of instructing audience with no clear genre in mind, I began to consider what I want my students to take away from writing in general.

In Dead Poet’s Society, John Keating (played by the late Robin Williams) inspired his students to look at the beauty of literature and written works.

Anyone who has met me knows that I plan to take an inclusive approach to writing, particularly in validating marginalized voices. My counterparts have labeled me the “code-meshing girl” because I can’t seem to stop sharing what I’m discovering about code-meshing and translingual practices at large. Primarily, something I’ve wanted to try and incorporate in my lessons is the sense of educating my classes on the social and historical contexts behind our society’s normalized writing practices (i.e. Standard English and prescriptive grammar norms). I want my students to know why they have been taught to write a certain way and the historical events that shaped current writing pedagogies. Apparently, there is a term for this kind of ideological rhetoric: social-epistemic rhetoric.

Richard Epstein discusses ideologies, linguistics, and prescriptive grammar norms. Source: learningenglis.voanews.com

In his article “Rhetoric and Ideology in the Writing Class”, James Berlin describes the underlying principles of social-epistemic rhetoric. He says that those who adhere to this type of rhetorical ideology “share a notion of rhetoric as a political act involving a dialectical interaction engaging the material, the social, and the individual writer, with language as the agency of mediation.” (489)

Translation? “In studying rhetoric…we are studying the ways in which knowledge comes into existence” (Berlin 489). So essentially, social-epistemic rhetoric seeks to answer the following questions:

  • What are the effects of our knowledge?
  • Who benefits from a given version of truth?
  • How are the material benefits of society distributed?
  • To whom does our knowledge designate power? (Berlin 489)

…and so forth. This approach, according to Berlin, adapts a “democratic” approach to instruction and knowledge-collecting (489), and enables “students to be their own agents for social change, their own creators of democratic culture” (490). A pedagogical approach that utilizes social-epistemic rhetoric, then, can lead to intense self-reflection and enlightenment on topics that are normally glossed over; it “can lead to an examination of the roots of sexism and racism in our culture” (492).

Staying true to my “code-meshing girl” label, I have to connect this rhetorical approach to Vershawn Ashanti Young’s Other People’s English. Young addresses how ideologies are themselves rooted in some form of social construct, claiming “Language ideologies, including ideas about prescriptive grammar, are primarily about social stereotypes and have little to do with the actual structure of language that is seen as ‘incorrect'” (19).

It is virtually impossible for me not to see the connection between Young’s observations of language ideologies and Berlin’s stance on social-epistemic rhetoric. They both acknowledge that there are factors to rhetoric, language, and writing that take on a social nature, and ultimately both authors seem to answer the question Scott asked earlier: “How do you want to impact your students?” Regarding teaching, Young states, “…great teaching involves more than just teaching for book smarts and head knowledge. What we do in the classroom should reflect and help set the pace for all of society” (115). Berlin, I believe, would agree with Young; to close his article, Berlin makes the assertion that “A rhetoric cannot escape the ideological question, and to ignore this is to fail our responsibilities as teachers and as citizens” (493).

Mari’s Musing:

All this time, I’ve been desperately attempting to put a name to a belief that I hold: as a writing educator it is not only my job to help shape future writers by sharing the knowledge I have, but it is also my privilege to act as a guide to help students ask deeper questions that affect our society. I want my students to know why society deems it important to adhere to “Standard English” norms and why certain voices are silenced in the English field and American society at large. This approach to my future rhetoric isn’t to cause trouble or “stir the pot”, but to help my students know exactly why it matters to write. Like Berlin stated earlier, it is my duty as a teacher and as a citizen of the world.

Works Cited

Berlin, James. “Rhetoric and Ideology in the Writing Class.” College English, vol. 50, no. 5, Sept. 1988, pp. 477–493.

James, David. “New Essay: How Does Politics Affect Writing, and Vice Versa?” Wrath-Bearing Tree, 6 Aug. 2018, www.wrath-bearingtree.com/2018/08/new-essay-how-does-politics-affect-writing-and-vice-versa/.

“Rethinking Grammar: Who Makes the Rules?” VOA Learning English, 14 Oct. 2015, learningenglish.voanews.com/a/education-report-rethinking-grammar-who-makes-the-rules/3005148.html.

Scott, Tony. “Writing Enacts and Creates Identities and Ideologies.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth A. Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, pp. 48–50.

Torres, Christina. “Why Teaching About Social Justice Matters.” Learning for Justice, 5 Mar. 2015, www.learningforjustice.org/magazine/why-teaching-about-social-justice-matters.

Young, Vershawn Ashanti. Other People’s English: Code-Meshing, Code-Switching, and African American Literacy. Parlor Press, 2018.

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