Dawn Boeck – Response for 11.22.11

After completing Shannon Carter’s The Way Literacy Lives: Rhetorical Dexterity and Basic Writing Instruction, I am convinced of her pedagogy of rhetorical dexterity. It takes into account elements of critical literacy (Bizzell; Kells; Freire) as well as the important aspects of making basic writing a political act (Adler-Kassner & Harrington). In doing this, Carter has created an approach that allows students to participate in taking a closer look at their own literacy experiences in connection to the communities of practice, discourse communities, or lifeworlds that are outside of their own perspectives.

What is unique about Carter’s approach is that it allows for students to choose what they will do with this awareness. Carter explains that “a pedagogy of rhetorical dexterity… leaves rooms for those willing to challenge what may be institutionalized oppression, yet it also enables those who would rather not challenge mainstream discourse systems, instead recasting their perceptions of literacy so that they can more profitably adopt to the ever-changing literacies that make up their future, regardless of their politics” (121). Our discussion in class last week touched on whether or not instructors can teach/offer critical literacy without imposing their own “personal, liberal political agenda” on their students. I think that this quote by Carter and feature of rhetorical dexterity takes account of this fear. Carter’s goal here is to negate any type of bias or expectation on students beyond personal empowerment and choice.

In reading about Shannon Carter’s pedagogy of rhetorical dexterity, I was constantly reminded of the project my 1301 students are currently working on: an ethnography of a discourse community. For this project, they were given the opportunity to choose a discourse community that they are either a part of, they are interested in, or one that has impacted them. Many students have chosen to research the discourse communities of their future careers while others have chosen hobbies and other communities in which they are already members. I cannot take credit for this assignment; it comes from the Writing About Writing textbook, the 1301 course reader for all students.

In my own semester research for this class on whether we should teach BW students academic discourse/literacy, I came across an article by Donna Dunbar-Odom (1999) titled “Speaking Back with Authority: Students as Ethnographers in the Research Writing Class” in a collection of essays titled Attending to the Margins: Writing, Researching, and Teaching on the Frontlines (thank you Dr. WM). In this article, Dunbar-Odom makes the argument that by allowing our students (especially “traditionally underserved students” (7) to pursue research through ethnographic methods, “we can bring them into the academy while honoring their expertise” (8). This connects Carter’s emphasis on validating the common ground that students bring with them in their own literacy experiences in various home discourse communities. However, we cannot stop with identification; we must ask students to become knowledgeable and critical of that fact that “not all literacies are equally valuable in all contexts” (117).

I really enjoyed this article in connection to my research this semester as well as to my own experiences teaching ethnography to my students. Dunbar-Odom discusses her students’ abilities to speak with authority when writing their ethnographies on the culture of higher education, incorporating their own experiences in juxtaposition to the experiences of others – sometimes those others being academics, the rule makers. Dunbar-Odom also emphasizes the personal connection that students find in conducting meaningful research in which their own perspective and voice is valued.

In my own (limited) experiences teaching ethnography to my students, I have seen (some of) their interests skyrocket. Granted, this could be partially attributed to the time in the semester and some students needing to make an A on this assignment to pass… Nevertheless, they are more interested and engaged with this assignment. I wish that I had next semester with these same students to continue this project, taking their ethnography of a discourse community and analyzing it from a critical literacy or rhetorical dexterity perspective through various points of contact.