Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Can "I" Fit In?

"This ‘rhetorical identity’ - the presence invested in the text, developed by the writer to accomplish particular persuasive effects in the minds of readers, not only contributes to the writer’s authority/credibility but also helps build a mutual relationship to readers as fellow scholars. Effective rhetorical identity defines a textual voice that is at once distinctive and strongly resonant with readers,” writes Juanita Rodgers Comfort in her essay "Becoming a Writerly Self: College Writers Engaging Black Feminist Essays" (532-3).
I teach 15 and 16-year-old students non-Western literature. Throughout our semester we read a variety of African short stories and essays, poems from India, and novels set in Afghanistan. And as a white, female, middle-class teacher who grew up in the Midwest, I struggle to help students see beyond the “otherness” of the texts we read, to stop holding these texts at a distance, to stop reading them as exotic. The strategy of using model texts that employ the personal as a tool for teaching emerging writers to identify and also write with their own clear “rhetorical identity” (532) is intriguing, especially given that as essayist Juanita Rodgers Comfort points out, many teachers at the secondary level and beyond view the disclosure of the personal as “incompatible with the critical detachment valued in much disciplinary discourse” (527). We teach our secondary-level writers to leave the first-person out of the essay, give them easy rules to remember: spell out contractions and numbers under 10 and never use I, me, my, mine. We religate the role of student writer to outsider, making them “others” as well. We hinder not only our students’ critical engagement with content but also their greater understanding of their own developing identities as thinkers and writers when we forbid the personal stance in their writing. Comfort writes, “If imagining, through composing, is something more significant to students than exercises in critical detachment, and if we do not expect them to remain essentially unchanged by the encounters with the ideas they write about, then composing text must be for the purposes of these students’ education, becoming insurgent intellectuals (to use a term coined by West and bell hooks) who are personally invested in the world of ideas” (521). I want to teach insurgent intellectuals.

Photo by Steven DePolo
Bringing the personal into essay writing, when done with the help of carefully selected model texts, can help our students better understand their voice as thinkers and writers. “Rhetorically,” Comfort writes, “self-disclosures foreground the embodied nature of the self, which, through selective, insightful sharing, can build connections between writers and readers that authorize the writer to make claims to ensure the acceptability of those claims” (522). And so in using these rhetorically sophisticated texts that incorporate personal disclosures, we can also teach emerging writers to understand the personal voice as a persuasive writing technique, a rhetorical strategy and position that writers use for a variety of reasons (523). In doing so, students become a part of the conversation about composing rather than left outside of it. “I am convinced that significant problems arise with student writing precisely when they have not defined and located themselves as effectively self-authorized knowers for their evaluative audiences,” Comfort writes (529). No where is this more true than in the high school writing classroom where students are working not only on defining who they are as readers, writers, and thinkers, but where they are also really beginning the work of understanding their own unique cultures, positions, and identities. And it is in our classrooms, where students have already been told multiple times and multiple ways that their understanding of the world is incomplete, students crave opportunities to make sense of their learning and demonstrate it in personally meaningful ways. Teaching students to recognize and utilize their “rhetorical identity” will serve them well as they write to “assess, define, and assert who they are becoming as knowing beings” (534).

But this will not be easy work. Toward the end of the essay, Comfort suggests that utilizing the work of black feminist essayists is a way of helping increase student sensitivity to the writer’s ethos and better understand why and when writers invoke the personal (533). I wonder if this can be done effectively with high school writers, many of whom have been told time and again to disavow the personal stance, and who when given opportunities to write using first-person strongly lean toward confessional writing. Although I love Comfort’s call for writing instruction that enables “students to recognize the writerly self as a persuasive instrument that can be strategically deployed and to learn to make effective use of their own multiple locations to take personal stands on public issues that transcend the confessional” (531), I wonder if this can be done well with emerging writers who do not have a clear idea of their own locations.

How can we best help our emerging writers understand and develop their "rhetorical identities"?

Essay taken from Teaching Composition: Background Readings, third edition, edited by T.R. Johnson.

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