Bakhtin, Derrida, and the Question of Teaching Composition

This week I responded most to the readings from Derrida, although elements of the Bakhtin appealed to me. The first selection from Derrida brought up a question that troubled Socrates and Aristotle: “is it possible to teach writing without being competent in the content of a discipline?” (7) He seems to think no, which would put him in Aristotle’s camp; you need to know a subject deeply in order to speak (or write) compellingly about it. 

He identifies deconstructionism as a process, not a result; that it aims to question assumptions about what composition is, what symbols are, what communication is; but this must lead to a new model of instruction and thinking about communication. 
Again he says that “If you’re not trained in the tradition, then deconstruction means nothing. It’s simply nothing” (11)
He also says (on 12) that deconstruction is a a process, “not a method or a theory.” And for that reason, it can’t be classified as conservative or liberal; as he understands it, it seeks to conserve many traditions while being open to expanding them.
Says that “deconstruction is America” (13) which, if I’m understanding him correctly, seems quite accurate.
Is cautious when asked about Paulo Freire; simply because he doesn’t know his work, but Derrida points out that calling yourself a deconstructionist is not only insufficient, but may also be a sign that you are trying to manipulate people. 
 
In the Rollins interview Derrida gives a fascinating description of “early attempts to negotiate deconstruction in rhetoric and composition” which were “resoundingly affirmative” (4). 
 
However, amidst all of this debate, I am haunted by the axiom that “the poor you will always have with you.” I readily admit that it’s something of a stretch to put the comment of a first-century Palestinian itinerant preacher in the context of a discussion about pedagogy in the twenty-first century. But it reminds me that many of the greatest humanitarians have focused on individuals rather than systems. Can we “solve” poverty? Probably not. But can I donate to a specific charitable organization? Yes. Can I adopt or foster a child from my own community? Of course. Just as we can’t “cure cancer” it may not be possible to teach a generation to write. Poverty; cancer; illiteracy. These are all blanket terms which afflict individuals, each individual with their own unique history, lifestyle, habits, prejudices, and so on.
 
I am in no way saying that those seeking positive change should ignore systemic inequalities; we should all be engaged politically, engaging in debates and votes that impact our communal wellbeing. However, I suppose I tend to the “think globally, act locally” mindset here: just as Derrida seemed to imply in the interview with Gary Olson, there can’t be a theoretical response to “students these days can’t write well.” Which students? What constitutes good writing? Who gets to answer these questions? Who comes up with the next set of questions? (Of particular note is Derrida’s careful caveat that composition and rhetoric instruction shouldn’t be consigned to any single department; he recognizes that specific students will move towards different fields, and that each field will have its own standards of writing.)
 
As someone interested in teaching English literature and composition, I want to know what teaching tools I can use to try and fire the imagination of students, and from there to help them to put that imaginary framework into compelling, clear language.
 
This touches on Bakhtin’s discussion of the debate about whether speech is primarily expressive or communicative; in order for a student to engage with lessons about composition, there must be a way for the student to find something they want to express. This might mean communicating why a work of art moves them, or how a recent piece of legislation will impact their community, or even how they responded (or failed to respond) to an assigned reading. 
 
But then the writing must also take into consideration the audience; and generally, student composition assignments don’t do that. Who might the student be writing for? How would the answer to that question change their approach to composition? And how do you go about identifying an appropriate audience? 
 
There are instances of these questions being asked; for example, in the Brooke Rollins article, there is a reference to some of the work of Sharon Crowley who sought to bring deconstruction into the classroom, for developing a pedagogy “grounded in the concern for how writing teachers decide on day-to-day classroom practices and what role theory could play in assessing those pedagogical techniques” (Rollins, 16). However, in general it seems that the main thinkers are dealing with a purely theoretical world that seldom touches down to the real world. 
 
My issue is not simply that this tendency to treat literacy as a theoretical ailment that might be eradicated with sweeping statements. This type of thinking also contributes to the scientification of teaching; in a large nation like the United States, we continually judge our national educational progress with a single, inflexible standard. So students in mining towns in Appalachia are subjected to the same writing standards as students in Silicon Valley.
 
To suggest that different groups of students ought to be graded on different standards is not to imply that types of levels of intelligence are concentrated in a particular area; it’s not that Appalachian kids don’t need to communicate well, or to think critically. It is, rather, an attempt to acknowledge and implement the wisdom of the “multiple intelligences” theories and to find a variety of standards by which specific communities and/or specific demographics might be judged according to standards that actually mean something in their respective communities. 
 
If we can take Crowley’s concept of deconstruction in the classroom, and marry it with Derrida’s nuanced approach to teaching composition, then I think we can make more meaningful (and effective) curricula. 

2 thoughts on “Bakhtin, Derrida, and the Question of Teaching Composition

  1. Hey John, really enjoyed this! I especially liked your comments and rumination on a “non-blanket” approach to teaching writing/composition/rhetoric. America, as you mention, has a proven track record for being about as flexible as a brick. One-size-fits-all cookie cutters might be all well and good for actual baking purposes, but, as you argue, this approach falls far short of meeting the educational needs of the multitudinous clusters of diverse groups across America (and the world at large). You also mention that student compositions need to feel “real” outside of the classroom, and this, I think, is an area where Rhet./Comp. programs could flourish–by enacting a decentralized, bottom-up (student-centered) approach to pedagogy, classrooms need not fall prey to the well intentioned (maybe?) but misguided top-down government attempts at cookie-cutter standards.

    1. Thanks for the feedback, Patrick! Glad I’m not the only one who finds some of these theories a little rarified and hard to apply to real-world scenarios. (And “flexible as a brick” is a pretty great turn of phrase.)

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