Well, I guess I found myself. Berlin places me squarely within the Expressionistic Rhetoricians’ camp.
“The underlying conviction of expressionists is that when individuals are spared
the distorting effects of a repressive social order, their privately determined truths
will correspond to the privately determined truths of all others: my best and deepest vision supports the same universal and external laws as everyone else’s best
and deepest vision.”
I used Peter Elbow’s Writing Without Teachers back in 1999 when I first started teaching at The New School. I was working in the Fine Art Dept. — the only person teaching “writing” in that department — and my student body was made up solely of visual artists. I had never taught writing before, and had to go with my gut. I chose his book because I liked the title, and because his approach was spot on for what I needed. Empower individuals who are already creative to own their own sh*t, promote themselves, and — most importantly — come to (find : -)) terms with what is making them create in the first place. Voila. Power to the Individual, and that’s what I was hired to do. I also sincerely felt that these individuals were connected to a larger river of all Experience and that their self actualization would help Humanity. Whoa.
“Murray is even more explicit in his first edition of A Writer Teaches Writing: ‘the writer is on a search for himself. If he finds himself he will find an audience, because all of us have the same common core. And when he digs deeply into himself and is able to define himself, he will find others who will read with a shock of recognition what he has written.’ Now there’s another book I wish I’d used back then…
I haven’t changed all that much. Reading Berlin makes me question my own approach and ask myself if I really like what I see. I am, and always have been, super quick to denounce “economic, political, and social pressures to conform.” This must come across to my students in myriad ways of which I am not cognizant. I am just one camp of many teaching rhetoric. I ought to know more about my own agenda and how it may not be giving power to the student body I currently teach. To be an artist is to be part of an elite group. It assumes a greater access to freedom than a lot of my students may feel. I may not speaking to them when I am speaking to “The Individual,” because they may not see themselves as such. I have some work to do.
Social-epistemic rhetoric and Ira Schor. Helping students to “identify the ways in which control over their own lives has been denied them, and denied in such a way that they have blamed themselves for their powerlessness” may be in order. I could certainly use my “creative” skills that I’ve culled from the elite fine arts to help them do that, could I not? If my own rudder was pointed the right way, or something to that effect? If I better understood my goal? My students are often (and they deserve to be) inspired. I would like to think more about how to, as Berlin says, let them not see their disenfranchisement as “inevitable.” My student, Zara, last night said that she felt there was “nothing she could do” to change politics, the world. She said she could only read about it on her phone. I stopped my lecture and looked at her and said, “There is a LOT you can do. Next to bullets and swords and guns, words are the most destructive thing out there. Words have made people do all kinds of things. You have power. Even as a freshman…” and then I went on a longer jag than I should have about how her small experience as a freshman now, in 2019, in an urban school, told with all the simple details of her life, would be super interesting to policy makers and people in power. She kind of shrugged. But I notice that she did write me a personal message in OpenLab, and intends to come see me in Office Hour tomorrow. So. Maybe it helped.
Okay, my personal crisis aside, I did like reading Berlin. I read him in bits and pieces over the course of a few days. I was skeptical at first (as you know we Expressionists are), but found his explanation of Flower and Hayes, of problem solving, of cognitive approaches to Process all very helpful to the discussions I have been having since I read them. I am more likely to pause just a bit longer and try to hear what sorts of assumptions a student is making when he or she is talking about how they think writing was taught to them in high school — and the assumptions that they are taking forward into my classroom. I had a great public talk in class with a student named Peter about how he felt personally judged by a teacher “as a student” when that teacher grades him. I asked him if a student is a person. If he is still my student when he walks out the classroom door.
I didn’t have a single answer for him, but Berlin’s discussion of ideology and Power empowered me to talk, and I think that the fact that I talked at all may have made the students listening to my open-ended questions feel more empowered for themselves.