By Seth Kahn
This happens at every annual meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC, the professional organization for teachers of college-level writing).
A conversation breaks out during the Q&A at a panel, or in a workshop, or at the yearly Business Meeting (or why not say all three?) that eventually gets snagged on this question:
Why can’t we get the public to understand and support what we do?
It troubles me to hear so many people who study persuasion for a living underthink the public (Hint: “The public” isn’t an actual group of actual people that anyone can address, y’all!) so much, especially given the quantity/quality of scholarship theorizing the concept. And I’m concerned that people who are otherwise very grounded and realistic about the possibilities for institutional and political change put so much faith in finding the magic words that will cure public misunderstanding of our profession.
Not to put too fine a point on it–we’ve said the magic words, thousands of times, to millions of people, in print and in person and on social media. Our best representatives, two of whom (Howard Tinberg and Linda Adler-Kassner) have already published here, have been arguing from our professional knowledge about writing instruction for years. Just telling the truth isn’t working. Understandably that’s a source of much frustration.
As a longtime activist/organizer, I’d like to offer a somewhat different (but not incompatible) idea–that Linda Adler-Kassner points towards in her recent post here, when she argues “building alliances” as a necessary step in developing successful advocacy. She describes a five-point process that can help us change what we all agree is a frustrating–even threatening– professional situation: Identifying Principles; Building Alliances; Framing; Focusing on Issues; and Working with Facts, Evidence, and Data. The Venn Diagram of Adler-Kassner and Kahn overlaps quite a bit. We fully agree that we need to think carefully about how we frame and talk about issues. Bless her for understanding that we can’t convince everyone of anything, and need to reach who we can. We very much agree that reaching out to like-minded people is crucial to any kind of success.
As clearly as I can say it, I don’t see our approaches as mutually exclusive but instead as an example of Inside/Outside Strategy (IOS). For IOS to work, the insiders and outsiders have to coordinate and be willing to accept very different premises, but there’s no reason why that can’t be true here. If we take Adler-Kassner’s proposal as a pretty quintessential Inside project (exemplified by her willingness/ability to take on national leadership positions in professional organizations) and what I’ll describe below as Outside (based on my lack of interest in a formal leader in pretty much any context), it becomes clear how we might line our approaches up–or at least helps to clarify what we need to know so that we can. One clarification is the focus-point of our models: for Adler-Kassner, it’s principles and values–the kinds of concepts without which alliances don’t have grounding to build from.
From the Outside, organizing and mobilizing are the center of the project. At the risk of sounding like I’m just trading metaphors, the heart of what I’m advocating moves away from alliances and towards networks (a la Hardt and Negri’s Empire) as expressions of collective power. Networks are complex and decentered; there’s no identifiable central leadership for opponents to aim for, which makes them much more difficult to squelch. Whereas alliances are expressions of shared interests, at least in my experience those shared interests become boundaries beyond which concerted efforts won’t go. Networks, on the other hand, afford (if not require) negotiations among different/competing interests–not demanding consensus, but demanding responsiveness to and coordination among differences. And, more importantly, locating processes for responding to those demands at the heart of their existence.
A recent and recognizable example of this kind of network is Occupy, which worked so hard to maintain its decentralized and anti-hierarchical structure that its members refused to name leaders, or spokespeople (see “The Kairos of Authorship in Activist Rhetoric,” a chapter I co-authored with Kevin Mahoney in Amy Robillard and Ron Fortune’s Authorship Contested). The encampments governed themselves via daily (and sometimes more frequent) “general assemblies.” At meetings where sufficient amplification wasn’t available, members would “amplify” speakers via the “mic check” (or “Human Microphone”), creating a literally nameless/faceless poly-voice. There were encampments in cities all over the United States in addition to the first at Zuccotti Park in Manhattan, with little effort among them to coordinate beyond sharing resources and information. To be sure, these tactics have their problems and their critics. All I want is to envision a network in terms that are simple enough to work with.
The approach I’m describing brings several specific strengths to our advocacy. Most important, it’s more responsive to local conditions and variations than even the most flexible centrally-determined positions. It has to be, since nobody is charged with (or authorized to) establish principles from which everything else flows. More positively, it enables members at specific locations to articulate their own principles and to articulate shared principles in very specific ways. It doesn’t demand unanimity or consensus that centralized efforts do. When it works well, this approach creates a level of trust that people are working in concert, or at least not working directly against the efforts of others.
Here, I need to highlight another concept that feels obvious to me, but isn’t. For networks to function well, everybody in them needs to have clarity of purpose (another term, like audience, that rhetoric scholars seem queasy talking about very precisely). We want to convince “the public” of…what, exactly? And more importantly, towards what end? “Making things better” is awfully vague. “Stopping un(der)informed people from making bad decisions” is better, but not yet precise enough; if it were, we’d have done it.
A concrete example:
If you’re on Facebook or the Writing Program Administrators listserv (WPA-l), you probably saw conversations in late April about John Maguire’s blog at the Washington Post (I won’t link to it because I don’t want to send him any more clicks) in which he castigates “writing instructors” for our failure to teach students to write tidily–an old song. Colleagues insisted that “we” have to “do something” about “this,” rehearsed arguments, plotted out strategies for approaching the WaPo editor who posted the blog entry to talk about how we might offer correctives–all worthwhile thinking by great people. But where it kept running aground, and the question I keep asking is about purpose. If professionals agree that his arguments are wrong, what purpose does it serve to demonstrate his incorrectness? More directly–if I concede everything about a post in which somebody proves him wrong, what happens as a result? What do they accomplish by winning?
In the answers to these kinds of questions, the differences between the Inside and Outside approaches come into focus. For Insiders, purposes and audiences wait (if not chronologically, at least conceptually) until we have clear principles and evidence to argue from–in other words, unless we have something to say, the rest of it is kind of a non-starter (for the record, I know I’m oversimplifying this a bit). For me, the message (in substance, that is) emerges from organizing networks; the process of reaching out and orchestrating relationships with others–students, other faculty, managers/administrators, staff and other workers on our campuses, workers and employers in our cities/towns/regions, and so on–determines what we can say.
For example, in October 2016, my faculty union APSCUF (Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculty) struck for the first time. In the three or four months of run-up to the actual walk-out, faculty all across our state system seemed concerned that we were “losing the PR battle” in local/regional newspapers. And we were: the Reading Eagle, and the Allentown Morning Call, and the Erie Times-News weren’t very kind to the union’s positions or preparations. The segment of the membership that was so upset about this wanted our PR people to respond to articles much more aggressively, correcting factual errors, disputing talking points issued by our State System’s spokesperson, debating in comment sections on stories, and so on. We didn’t do that. Instead, our leadership realized that the audience we needed was much more specific: our students, their friends, and their families/support systems. We were able to reach that audience directly via social media (that the State System never really touched or understood); students could interact directly with union members and leadership; we were able to organize with the activists among the student bodies on all fourteen of our campuses using technology we all use all the time already anyway. And it worked.
This ethos underlies my approach to pretty much everything, which is why I find it so frustrating when smart and politically astute colleagues struggle to articulate responses to arguments we all know are misinformed. We can’t solve the problems created by misinformed arguments simply by making better arguments because the arguments our best thinkers and spokespeople already make should be good enough–if that were the litmus test. Of course we should develop better arguments, to articulate whatever we can in terms of agreement about what our research offers, to establish agreement about principles that underlie our commitments to writing, language, pedagogy, and labor, to do more and better research. That, as I see it, is what Insiders are always working towards.
What the Outsider cadre brings to the effort might best be explained by Lee Artz in his essay “Speaking Truth to Power: Observations from Experience,” in which he argues that the speak truth to power trope is limited because it assumes a rational world we simply don’t live in. Instead, Artz contends, we have to speak power, and we do that by engaging in acts of solidarity. If you’re wondering how I’d apply that idea to the problem of the Washington Post, you should be. As I asked why people thought responding to Maguire at the Post website was going to accomplish anything, I kept getting responses that didn’t really answer the question–because all the answers kept making the same assumption: if we argue the right things, the truth will win. Never was there any sense that we might speak power. And that we might do this in any number of ways, most of which aren’t at all the kinds of angry-activist-dirty-hippie kinds of solidarity many people associate with being activists. That is, I’m not suggesting we picket the Washington Post office building until Valerie Strauss resigns, or March for Composition (although the signage is fun to imagine).
I am suggesting (as one example) that we use pieces like Maguire’s with which we disagree to catalyze efforts locally to convince colleagues that the ideas are bad–and having access to so many cliche talking points in his text and the comments helps us prepare for those conversations. Or if your local culture is one where pushing his piece out would create a mob of agreement before you could say anything back, then get out in front of it by starting the conversation about style and correctness from another opening point. Or, hope that nobody notices it and keep talking about issues that matter more. Or:
- Use it in class. Talk with students about it. Listen to what they tell you about how it resonates with (or violates) their expectations for what they’re supposed to be learning. In teacher-prep courses, talk about the expectations it represents, how those are sourced or taken for granted, how they cut against the research and knowledge we’ve done, … all kinds of directions such a conversation could go.
- Let the piece open–or broaden–conversations about labor issues (you had to see it coming). Under what circumstances would somebody willingly teach a curriculum based on Maguire’s book? From my perspective: lacking knowledge of the field or training in Writing Studies or rhetoric; lacking the job security to contest it; needing to simplify the expectations and demands of a program to make it easier to manage and assess; another list that could go on and on, but all sharing in common that they have nothing to do with what we know about quality writing instruction. Or read Sara Webb-Sunderhaus’ essay on involving adjunct faculty in curriculum reform, and imagine how that narrative might incorporate this text into the work she did with her group.
- Ask your internship coordinator (or somebody in your Placement Office) to send the piece out to their contacts for feedback/reactions, taking that opportunity to engage in dialogue with employers about their needs, how they articulate those needs, how responsive any curriculum/pedagogy can be to their demands…. Again, lots of places that conversation might go.
I could keep doing this all day (and by the time anybody else reads this probably will have). What I want to highlight about these ideas is that none of them depends on “proving Maguire wrong,” or convincing any individual publication or editor that they shouldn’t have given him the space to publish the piece (or owe us the space to respond). That’s not to say I think those responses are wrong or bad. I just don’t think they’re sufficient on their own.
Seth Kahn is a Professor of English at West Chester University, where he teaches courses in writing and activist rhetoric, and serves his faculty union, APSCUF, as Chair of the local Mobilization Committee. He recently co-edited the collection Contingency, Exploitation, and Solidarity and has also co-edited the collection Activism and Rhetoric: Theories and Contexts for Political Engagement. He is also currently serving as Co-Chair of the CWPA Labor Committee.