The democratic classroom

"You're a Berlinist," my pedagogy instructor once proclaimed to me after a discussion of the text on “Rhetoric and Ideology in the Class” by noted scholar James Berlin. And yes, to paraphrase the immortal words of President John F. Kennedy, "Ich bin ein Berlinist...” I am a Berlinist.

With respect to the above text, one of the key points that I wish to focus on here is Berlin’s de facto statement of purpose at the top of the chapter, when he notes that he wants to “read Freire’s critical pedagogy across an epistemology that takes into account the indeterminacy of signification, the fragmentation of the subject, and the interrogation of foundational truth” (105). That’s a lot to unpack there, but Freire’s critical pedagogy is probably a good place to start since Berlin refers to this chapter itself as an “emendation to Friere.” While I should probably be more familiar with Friere by now, what I gather from Wikipedia is that much of his larger project involved framing teaching as an inherently political act. Which is to say, because it is almost impossible to fully account for the influences of culture, history, society and class that permeate the academy, and all educational projects on some level, teaching is never truly neutral or without some political dimension to it.

To the extent that they are referenced here in the text by Berlin, I tend to agree with many of Freire’s ideas, particularly Berlin’s observation: “For Freire (1970) to learn to read and write is to learn to name the world, and in this naming is the program for understanding the conditions of our experience and, most important, acting in and on them” (106). As a composition instructor, I have never found a better articulation of not only what it is that we try to do as instructors, but also its value to our students, and perhaps its larger value as a discipline within the academy.

Also, on a personal note, having had the opportunity to teach Comp, as well as literature and creative writing, I eventually came to realize that while the curriculum changed for each of these classes, on a fundamental level I was basically always teaching the same thing—how to talk about the thing we were trying to study in the course, be it rhetoric, literature, or creative writing. In other words, each class was an attempt to develop a language for naming the world (of rhetoric, or lit, or creative writing), as means helping each student write his or her own program for understanding the conditions of their experience with those forms, be it as a rhetor, a reader, a storyteller, a poet, etc. And this last point brings me a full circle, as I believe that the specific comment I made to my professor that prompted her to proclaim that I’m a Berlinist was my frustration with the divisions or departmental borders that various academic institutions seem to keep erecting (or reinforcing) between the various disciplines—as if to say that the use of anaphora in A Tale of Two Cities is somehow an entirely different species of animal than MLK’s use of it in his “I Have a Dream” speech. For these reasons, I say to you Mr. Gorbachev, tear down these walls.

But back to Berlin, a bit later in the text, I also took note of his point that since the teaching of reading/writing means that we are also teaching our students “a way of experiencing the world” this dictates that the writing classroom follow a dialogic model. As Berlin describes it, this is a classroom model that encourages the teacher and the student to continually engage in an ongoing dialogue or conversation (110). Unlike a lecture model, which situates the student as a passive recipient of knowledge from the instructor, this dialogic model employs “heuristic strategies” designed to point the student toward self-learning, a kind of epiphany that reveals to the student his or her own usage of language, and how it not only shapes his or her understanding of the world, but thinking itself. Likewise students come to recognize how their textual selves are shaped by their individual “location” within a number of different social/political/economic/cultural spheres (111).

A potentially more challenging pedagogical practice to express in the classroom might be Berlin’s emphasis on the establishment of an acutely democratic classroom model that attempts to remove the “institutional limits on engaging in learning, satisfying skills, play, and communication” (108). Berlin offers a means of moving toward this principle in the classroom by asking students to draw up “a set of rules to govern” the discourse (112). Other forms of democratizing the classroom might include allowing students to choose their own topics and involving them in the assignment design and parameters.

Herein I am reminded of Donald Bartholomae’s seminal text, “Inventing the University.” I recall first reading it a few years ago, but frequently return to it because of its importance to me as an instructor. This was the first text that really introduced me to the notion of being initiated into an academic discourse community, as well as the idea that there are different types of discourse communities, each with its own—I wouldn’t say wholly unique or exclusive—but perhaps specialized or idiosyncratic form of discourse (589). Perhaps this is also one of the reasons that these “borders” or divisions keep getting erected between varied areas of study. Perhaps over time, and within the institutions of the academy, our differences in the modes of discourse create the impression that there are somehow more fundamental differences in our approaches to learning and understanding in varied fields of study. Just an idea.

Either way, this last point makes me want to jump ahead in the Bartholomae text to his citing of Pat Bizzell’s work on researching the special characteristics of academic discourse, wherein Bizzell states that “a main focus of writing-across-the-curriculum programs is to demystify the conventions of the academic discourse community” (610). I feel very strongly that this demystification process is integral to initiating students into the academic discourse community because instead of attaching a false qualitative value to the discourse (i.e. this is how ‘smart college students’ communicate at the university level) it exposes the language and modes of the academy as being simply another form of communication within a context-specific circumstance. Hopefully the literacy narrative assignment serves to convey this very idea to students by placing a value on other forms of literacy and discourse.

In addition, by presenting the conventions of the academic discourse community to students in a way that hopefully makes it seem less formidable, this demystification might also help students negotiate the issue of appropriation. On the topic Bartholomae observes: “Our students… have to appropriate (or be appropriated by) a specialized discourse, and they have to do this as though they were easily or comfortably one with their audience.” This idea of appropriating and/or being appropriated by the discourse, seems to be epitomized by the usage of commonplaces, which ‘basic’ writers often attempt to employ as a means of conveying their point. Yet in the process, those commonplaces sometimes exert an influence all their own on the text, and by extension on the writer.

According to Bartholomae, "the usage of commonplaces,” illustrates Barthes' notion that “the moment of writing, where private goals and plans become subject to a public language, is the moment when the writer becomes subject to a language he can neither command nor control… A writer does not write… but is, himself, written by the language available to him” (597).

Hence, ask not what your commonplaces can do for you, but what you can do for your commonplaces.

Written by Mark DiFruscio