Category Archives: Berlin

Germans (and French)

I will post more later, but my initial thoughts upon reading were immediately about so many of the (German and French speaking) philosophers and theorists of the 19th and 20th Centuries who have been wrestling with questions of power and language for years.  Berlin of course is circling around or engaging ethics and theories of ethics that I do believe should be a regular part of pedagogical discussions and theories….I will write more later but I enjoyed the reading very much; the text felt very much like a repetition of others’ ideas yet in a way that can certainly be applied concretely to the classroom……

Interdisciplinary Thought…

I think that one of the most helpful moments is Berlin’s turn to Shor’s commitment to “interdisciplinary methods”–it is through this approach that there is a possibility of “taking down” what Shor and Berlin refer to as “false consciousness”.  Practically speaking, I feel it is here that we can really hold onto something.  Through an inclusion of numerous disciplines, we can begin to question assumptions, look at language, history, socialization, power structures, the role of desire and the commodification of desire, etc.  I will say more in person but I do want to suggest that this moment is one that can truly be useful in our teaching experiences.  That this is “the real” that we might strive for in some way.

Berlin, sans my own personal Wall

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.

Madonna, "Express Yourself"

The ideology of language

Well, I began my day by spilling some coffee all over my computer. It now sits at home, drying out (hopefully) so I’m a little late to this. And a little grumpy.

I did agree with Aaron’s complaints about Berlin’s tone, and posted a few notes about them on Aaron’s post. That said, I do think the ideas here are important to remind ourselves of (and warn ourselves of.) Of course, it’s important to ask ourselves what ideologies our pedagogies are promoting and whether that promotion is ethical (is it, for example, ethical to promote a particular political ideology? Even if it’s the “right” one? Is that what writing class is for?) But I also think it’s important to remember the ideology behind language systems, as Therborn claims. (“ideology is transmitted through language practices that are always the center of conflict and contest” (478)). In other words, as most of us would agree (but as some other faculty may not) there is no “correct” or “incorrect” language, but a battle over language practices based on ideology and power. I’ve found when I have discussions about this with students, they really engage. Berlin goes on to explain that “ideology carries with it strong social endorsement, so that what we take to exist, to have value, and to be possible seems…inevitable” (479). Again, I’m probably preaching to the choir here, but I like the way he phrases this: we don’t notice the air we breathe.

The discussion of cognitivism is interesting, though somewhat dated. I have a strong interest in the intersection between science and the humanities, and I hope that, what I see as the false divide is somewhat lessened from what it was when this was written.  I don’t think that it’s entirely negative that cognitivism seems kinda “sciency,” as Berlin seems to intimate. I don’t have a negative feeling toward science, though I do have a negative feeling toward science-as-pinnacle-of-human-knowledge, and I think current cognitivists worth their salt don’t buy into the science/ humanities divide. I mean, I don’t actually believe in absolute static “facts,” but neither do most scientists. Again, I think this false dichotomy was kind of big (on both sides) at the time, but I don’t think it serves anyone. I certainly don’t think anyone who’s not insane– or at least anyone who doesn’t have an understanding of SOCIAL FREAKING FACTORS, FOR EXAMPLE, would claim that psychologists can, as Berlin claims (483) isolate the environmental features of children who will get good grades, make big money and get good SAT scores. I would hope, at least, that this discussion has been reframed to a discussion about how the system is set up to favor certain people over others, as opposed to having to do with anyone’s cognitive skill.

I mean, I guess this is what Berlin is getting at with his social-epistemic rhetoric, but I wonder about this a bit too. He seems to argue for Shor’s pedagogy that “students must be taught to identify the ways in which control over their own lives has been denied them…” (490). Okay, sure. But… again, this is maybe our era, but, perhaps students can also explore ways in which they’re complicit in a system? This seems like it’s set up to paint students as victims– and if this is the case, what is the role of the teacher? Savior again?


Ideology and history

I first read Berlin 10 years ago when I started studying rhet-comp seriously. And, like Aaron’s initial reaction, I was pretty blown away by what I saw as the heart of the article: that we should be as aware of why we teach the way we do as we are of what we teach. At the time, I was surrounded at the community college where I was teaching by a clear separation of pedagogies: some were student-centered, many others were what I came to know as current traditional, and the CT bunch always denigrated both expressivist and social-turn instructors as being “too lenient, too concerned with students, and not rigorous enough.”

Unfortunately, I think that battle is still raging, or maybe not even recognized as a battle by people who haven’t read Berlin (or more current writers) or who aren’t aware that there’s a battle at all, and maintain a CT  adherence to rhetorical modes and traditional grammar. Happily, I don’t believe this group of ours is in that category. But having this issue brought up for conscious discussion is, for me, perhaps the most important aspect of this article.

One other thought I had about how it’s written is my memories of being in a doctoral program in the mid- to-late-1980s. Cultural studies (media studies, for me) was fighting for acceptance in U.S. higher education (the Brits were already there), and there was a major paradigm shift, taking us from more textual analysis to Marxian political-economic theory and cognitive psychology. I and my fellow grad students found a lot of the newer theoretical stuff to be both patronizing/patriarchal (even when written by women) and almost incomprehensible in its formal language and lecturing tone. Much discussion ensued, the consensus of which was that the new paradigm, struggling to take make a place as a rigorous field along with psychology, economics, etc., chose the formal academic essay as its genre for convincing the skeptical. What I’ve read of rhet-comp from that era is, in many cases, similar to Berlin in tone and formality, largely, I suspect, as a way of establishing the field as a true discipline.

Forgive the digression (too many pain killers), but I think reading Berlin now is an exercise in historical research and a raising of consciousness for people who were trained in literature and not in composition (the case with most English faculty), demonstrating that current composition pedagogy is not a fad, but is in fact a reflection of how ideology works on us as teachers… and why we should take it seriously.

Never Innocent

“This should be apparent that a way of teaching is never innocent. Every pedagogy is imbricated in ideology, in a set of tacit assumptions about what is real, what is good, what is possible, and how power ought to be distributed.”

This is the underlying premise not only for Berlin’s article but for his entire obra. Becoming conscious of the fact that whatever we do is linked to the social construction and distribution of power and disempowerment is the essential lesson, for me, from Berlin. When we talk of transfer, half the battle is becoming conscious of our and our students intentionality. Like transfer, Berlin’s key message of becoming conscious of the ideological imbrication of our pedagogies is also half the battle.

If we teach a course with a sense of managerial consciousness where students are being trained to become good servants of corporations so they can increase profit for the companies, move up the corporate latter, and ensure their own financial survival, that’s fine. I get that. Students have to get jobs. But I believe that we have a charge as instructors to attend to civic responsibility, and so if we are teaching students how to survive in a corporate environment without teaching them the role that corporations have in the imbalance of power and the exploitation of people, then we are not attending to the civic component. Whatever we teach carries an ideological implication with it. That should be basic, but it’s not always.

Fortunately, for our little group, we collectively seem to already understand that, but that may not be true for a lot of people who are teaching composition. This essay was published 31 years ago, and I think that as a group we have likely internalized much of what goes on here. Compositionists don’t have these discussions anymore (thank goodness, actually), but these types of cognitive mappings were being written when there was fierce competition for the professionalization of composition. It all started with Richard Fulkerson’s “The Four Philosophies of Composition.” It’s good that the field has moved past it, but there’s some historical relevance that’s good to be aware of. Unless you want to take a semiotic critical- pedagogy approach to composition, something that a  lot of people have done, Berlin may be  best read as a glance into the history of the professional formation of composition studies and less as a practical approach.

I would say that I find his description on 489 of subject formation is a pretty good precusor to what we understand today as intersectionality.








Last, I did want to mention one delightful reference Berlin made when he referenced William Lutz and “English Composition as a Happening.” I couldn’t say what Geoff Sirc, who championed Lutz, might say about our own curriculum development revolving around transfer, but if you  get a chance and if you are of the artsy incilination, check out Sirc’s book as well as his other pieces. Sirc’s book has been made downloadable, so that’s a nice development of events.

Berlin and his Happy Medium of Social-Epistemic Rhetoric

So I’m getting this crazy feeling of deja vu, and maybe it’s because it’s late and I’m tired and I’ve been reading too many things and commenting on them, or maybe it’s because I may have once read this exact same Berlin article a little over a decade ago during my teaching pedagogy class at Emerson…. but this feels like a familiar Goldilocks argument:

Cognitive Rhetoric is too pseudo-scientific and normative and minimizes any variation in thinking, learning, and writing processes, which is unacceptable if we see our students as varied learners who are situated in a cultural setting….

Expressionism is too focused on the individual, and minimizes the impact of disempowering social structures and puts a false agency on students, pressuring them to emerge as triumphant by eschewing disempowering institutions (I liked the bit where he notes that “this rhetoric also is easily co-opted by the agencies of corporate capitalism, appropriated and distorted in the service of the mystifications of bourgeois individualism”…. which I think is a gigantic issue that corporations have exploited in marketing to millennials… but anyway)….

And then, ta da! Social-epistemic rhetoric, which rolls so easily off the tongue, is the happy medium. Embracing the dialectic of self as situated between the individual and the social! Perfect!

My favorite part is when Berlin acknowledges (or perhaps, concedes), that “social-epistemic rhetoric attempts to place the question of ideology at the center of the teaching of writing… It is obvious that I find this alternative the most worthy of emulation in the classroom, all the while admitting that it is the least formulaic and the most difficult to carry out.”

It is difficult to carry out an interrogation of the ideologies that put our students at a disadvantage with the world! But it is also rewarding to get underneath the power of corporate marketing and systemic inequality. And yes. It is DIFFICULT.

Thanks for clearing that up, Berlin! Anyway, I enjoyed reading this but also felt frustrated. How to take from this best practices for actually having productive conversations with students about ideologies, and becoming more active social agents?

Right now we are deep into discourse communities, and just starting to unpack the idea that if you convince an audience of your point or argument, perhaps you can inspire an action response from them… how do I work explicit understandings of ideology into that? Or is the issue just for comp instructors to be aware of how all rhetorical teaching is shot through with ideology, like the idea of “correct = Standard written English”?

Interesting, and problematic, and it’s now far past my bedtime. Looking forward to seeing everyone tomorrow!


Chaucer's Canterbury Tales Clerk

Disappointment and Respect

Though I have long admired James Berlin, I haven’t read his work for many, many years. My interests have shifted into other (primarily cultural studies) directions. Though the moves were, in part, in response to what I had learned from him and people of similar stance, they led me to concentrate on topics other than the ones that concerned him. Still, in terms of attitude, I found much of what I discovered in this piece resonating with my own—and yet the article put me off, my very feelings on reading it actually shocking me, given my reverence for the author.

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