Friday, October 07, 2005

N Train from Brooklyn

It's a rainy, muggy morning here in NYC, and we're back at Def Con Vertiginous--Be Afraid! Don't Worry, Be Happy! Well one upside: Now moms won't be using strollers as battering rams when the trains are crowded. I'm off to Western Mass for the weekend and I don't think there's a subway system up there...

WCenter has had a recent thread about cultural diversity that's really rich. The topics and directions perfectly dovetail with the conversations we have at Stony Brook all the time. Like the listserv discussion, most of the talk centers on how to best tutor to linguistic difference, be it for second language learners or non-majority students among American students. Some folks advocate an awareness of contrastive forms of expression and rhetoric, and other warn of that mindset's intrinsic essentialism. Other folks renew calls to drill folks on certain markers of linguistic fluency, and another camp intones an appreciation for students' right to their own language. Our writing center has those very positions too, and I've tried to get folks to think about the politics of accent and dialect.

To me, a certain identity politics is at play in these conversations, and they tie back to my initial reflections on the Queering article. At the core of this talk about the linguistic features of student writing and the sort of cultural capital on display, there's assumptions about discourse practices that are privileged and those that are marginalized. This play of the marked and unmarked is interesting to me; the other in this talk seems to have an abundance of signifiers, and the unmarked center appears to lack the same level of interrogation. Of course, that's not the case on closer examination: in our continual encoding of folks as Other, we map on to them ways of recognizing not just nationality and race but also more subtly class, gender, and other forms of difference in our culture. I doubt any of us would deny the "reality" of these dynamics; the more important issues involve the material and pedagogical implications of difference.

How do we train tutors to deal with difference that's neither colonialist nor reductionist? How do we help students feel empowered and invited to join in an enigmatic academic discourse community? I don't know that I articulated it very well, but the liminal spaces that arise in conferences are fine occasions for folks to explore similarities and differences in cultural capital. That is, pedagogy doesn't necessarily require the transmission of rules and forms, but a dialogue that fosters inclusion and mutual learning. Not internalizing or owning the codes of linguistic privilege, particularly for someone who is already marked as other, is not a realistic option, but having the agency to invoke those codes or knowing that they are arbitrary and contingent are imperative and ethical information for students to know. Still how do we have those conversations without being ham-handed?

In staff meetings, we talk about the center or privileged discourse in the academy. I've tried to get tutors to be more aware that people's historical and physical proximity to that center isn't innocent, but that all of us have learned some level of codeswitching. However the gap between dialects or vernaculars differs based on a wide set of variables. So then conversations turn to reflecting on the tutors own experiences with struggling to learn those rules to the academic game. I'm lucky in that my staff shares similar forms of diversity as the students who come for tutoring. A number of the Stony Brook tutors are second language learners or first or second generation immigrants, so they connect with the backgrounds that the center's students bring. Of course that's not to say a predominately white, middle class majoritarian staff couldn't tutor to a diverse population, but our critical mass forces folks to question their assumptions. I guess the center is decentered to some degree in our space.

Being gay and working in a writing center has helped me appreciate this complicated play of margin and center in tutorials. I won't go into a personal narrative on that because I'm not really sure that the queer variable is the most crucial. I also come from a solidly working class background, and I'm generally a loner. So being uncomfortable with/at the center comes natural for me. Still, I've learned to be very aware of the dynamic at play in assuming those positions--of being at the center and on the margin, and they seem to depend on one another in a foundational way. I guess it's symptomatic of our society and culture--we mobilize around "us" versus "them," but we also repelled by that mindset. We rally and shore up "us" identity formations, and we have more or less ambivalent or hostile attitudes and perceptions of "them." I don't know that we can ever break from the cycle of othering or whether we even want to on some level, but fostering knowledge of it might transform folks learning experiences. That is, actively fostering such critical interrogation might just be smart pedagogy. Going back to the assessment talk that we're always talking about, awareness of audience and critical thinking seem to be prioritized in most outcomes studies. Hopefully these conversations will continue.

Well I'm off to Costco to buy munchies for the writing center. Thanks for reading this week, and I hope you enjoy Melissa next...

Harry

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