Interrogating “passionate contracts.”

I don’t want to discuss Kelley’s major premise (questioning the practices of teacher preparation).  Rather, I would like to focus on implications of her biographical critique of teacher practices.  Before I move to important questions we might draw from the text, I want to interject my reading of this critique.  I applaud her questioning teachers’ identities and the impact of those identities on curriculum.  However, I also resent the notion that what I value in ELA is somehow limiting.  I would not engage in a project of redefining English studies (assuming that there is ever a stable definition of English studies, or any studies), but I would engage in a project of redefining English pedagogy.  Does that make me an enemy of progress?  Does that mean that I do not value the needs of my students?  I don’t think so, but I am also a construct of those values.  I question those values, and allow others to interrogate them, but my process of interrogation has only strengthened my positions.  I value the aesthetic and ethical discourses in literature (I think that rhetorical and political discourses are more appropriate in composition, but there is some overlap).  I am the teacher she describes as “bemoan[ing] impoverished imaginations malnourished by global popular culture and untuned to a sense of cultural heritage and the great literature that characterizes it” (62).  I know that Dr. Stearns and many of my classmates in previous classes find these values antithetical to authentic literacies, but I have never heard a compelling argument that abandoning major aesthetic works benefits our students.  I would argue that the “can’t, won’t, don’t” attitude held against aesthetic texts should be directed to a failed and incoherant pedagogy, as I’ve written about elsewhere.  And I am certainly prepared and willing to challenge and accept challenges to these beliefs.

That said, I would suggest, along with Kelley, that the most important question we can ask as educators is the one we have already attempted to answer: what is our essential narrative that describes ELA?  We should interrogate ourselves and each other hard on this point.  It is something we are reluctant to do because of the intensely personal nature of this narrative.  But, like Kelley, I think we need to recognize the public spheres that this narrative will define in our professional lives, and therefore it must be held to the most severe scrutiny. 

Kelley states that “English is a construct, not a given or an essence.”  If it is constructed by personal encounters with the discipline, can anyone, including Kelley, give it a shape?  Does she even attempt one in this piece?

Are we uncritical about our positions?  I find it demeaning and insulting that teachers (and, here, pre-service teachers) are treated with the kind of disdain that suggests that we lack the ability to question our own values without the facillitation of one who possesses the specialized knowledge that allows us to do so.

Do we reproduce our beliefs through our pedagogy?  If so, I think there are some further questions.  Is there a pedagogy that does not reproduce our values on our students?  Is Kelley arguing that this kind of reproduction is fundementally harmful, or are there beliefs that should be reproduced?  Who gets to decide, and why?

You may have noticed, but I want to say here that I find some of these discussions about curriculum unhelpful for our purposes.  I think that more pressing questions confront us than whether we are thoroughly questioning our own beliefs.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s important when thinking about the Big Picture, but it has little to do with practical (the word Kelley chooses to demean with quotation marks) pedagogical concerns.  These statements are every bit the ideological constructs that they proport to work against.  Being liberally-minded (and I’m generalizing here), I think we all see the value of an equitable, socially responsible curriculum.  But how do we acheive that in our classrooms-where we may have some control over curriculum (likely not complete or majority control, however), but we certainly have a say about pedagogy.  What have we learned from these theorists about classroom practice?  About assessment?  About how texts should be taught?  About standards?  We should be taking up this discussion along with what these authors have to say about the nature of our discipline.

J. Degan

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5 responses to “Interrogating “passionate contracts.”

  1. sunyprof

    Jerry, you raise good points here about the Kelly article. I do think you miss — or at least don’t take up here — several of her key points. But I’ll only speak to a bit of what you say and leave the discussion to Tuesday night.

    First, Kelly’s emphasis on the disconnect between what teacher candidates learn in their methods classes and the realpolitik of schools is an important one for us to consider as is her focus on the politics of English. My current student teachers are experiencing both that disconnect and the political nature of it in their first week in their host teachers’ classrooms. You ask the important question how do these theorists help us understand “how texts should be taught?” The answer to that question is decidedly political and emanates from one’s personal aesthetic/set of understandings about texts and textuality. Our beliefs about what English is, what texts are and who adolescent readers are or might be drive practice.

    True, these are essentially theoretical questions–thus the theory we embrace determines the practice(s) we put in place.

    But you suggest that “big picture” thinking is “unhelpful” to our work when that is the only kind of thinking I find helpful. Questioning our assumptions is necessary to considering the pedagogies that will flow from them. I’m not sure how if we have only some control over curriculum, we have any more control over pedagogy. How are the two divorced in practice?

    How DOES the project of redefining (or interrogating) Eng. Studies differ from the project of rethinking pedagogy? In the Beers’ chapters we are reading this week, for example, they seem one and the same.

    While I agree with you that abandoning what you deem “major aesthetic texts” (about which there is considerable contoversy) will not insure an engaged or critical reader, certainly believing only that reading “the great books” (a highly political construct to begin with) will support adolescents’ literacy learning in a flat world seems simply misguided to me. One emphasis can or does drive out all others in the classrooms I visit.

    Understanding Kelly’s questioning how the “geographies of English” are limned, how they are comprehended and reconstructed by the mapmakers–i.e. classroom teachers–and the inevitable conflicts that arise from those different interpretations, different foci, etc. is essential to our taking up identities as ELA teachers. KES

  2. jmdegan

    If I give the impression that thinking about the marcropolitical controversies about curriculum and purpose in ELA education is unhelpful, then I would like to revise that position. I do believe that critical engagement in these problems is important. However, I do differentiate between this larger project and the possibilities for individual action. Whether we agree with it or not, curriculum is mandated. I don’t like the implications of NCLB any more than the next person, but it is the backbone of the profession for the time being. We can affect change locally by thinking about individual pedagogy. While Kelley is points out that defining English studies is an important starting point, I think that her overall premise that teachers are uncritical of their positions is as misguided and myopic as Erin Gruwell’s assumptions about “other” teachers in her school. I find it frankly insulting.

    I would also point out that the “flat world” is a highly political construct about which there is considerable controversy (I wonder if the correct approach to flat world pedagogies is one of compliance or resistance). In fact, one central problem with these essays “troubling” the ideological foundations of ELA is that they do not recognize the political implications of their own ideologies, or they assume their inherent value. Kelly says that teacher beliefs may or may not be “worthy of reproduction.” True enough, but who gets to decide? Why is that decision more or less authentic than the personal beliefs one is working against? And what is the end of such inquiry?

    I would argue that most pedagogies value reproduction: that is, the transfer of skills/knowledges from an expert to a novice. I would argue that the singular vision of ELA studies (even if that vision suggests its pluralism) is not an authentic practice. Even you, Dr. Stearns, have values that define your practice. But are your values inherently superior to mine? I would argue that they are not, but nor are they inferior. Instead, they define individual strengths and inform individual projects. To insist that either of us defect from our values (unless of course those values are determined without question) diminishes the breadth and quality of education. Professionals utilize their strengths to meet personal and professional goals. Those strengths often define the identity of a professional. And yet, Kelly does not acknowledge the professional standards that teachers do and should hold themselves to. Just because I value aesthetic and ethical discourses in literacy does not mean that I do not understand and support other discourses.

    Differentiate your instruction. Provide multiple contexts for student learning. Engage your students’ experiences and ideas. These are strategies for creating a classroom discourse that empowers students. I would argue that this substance is more important than any content. That’s the difference between pedagogy (strategy) and curriculum (content).

    I want to point out also that I do not suggest that aesthetic texts alone should form the base of the curriculum. I just disagree with the position that aesthetic texts are somehow inauthentic and inapplicable within the construction of what Yagelski calls the “literate subject.” I would argue that literacy requires students to grapple with a wide range of complex texts, and aesthetic texts are an important part of this construction.

    Kelly says that “competing versions of English are deeply political; they are about relations of power and the extent to which they are sanctioned, reiterated, and challenged through subject English.” Okay. Certainly, authorized knowledge is a political construct (Foucault has much to say about this). I would also agree that it is troubling, but necessary, to publicize the private in order to engage in a meaningful critique of our values. I would challenge the assumption that different versions of English are “competing.” They may conflict, but they may also collaborate. The relations of power should be exposed, but I look to collaborative meanings to create productive learning spaces.

    J. Degan

  3. sunyprof

    J, I thought it made some sense to try to respond within your text rather than “about” it. Forgive the caps:

    If I give the impression that thinking about the marcropolitical controversies about curriculum and purpose in ELA education is unhelpful, then I would like to revise that position. I do believe that critical engagement in these problems is important. However, I do differentiate between this larger project and the possibilities for individual action. NOT SURE WHAT YOU MEAN HERE…Whether we agree with it or not, curriculum is mandated. WHAT CURRICULUM IS MANDATED? DO YOU MEAN THE BROAD GOALS OF THE ELA STANDARDS? I don’t like the implications of NCLB any more than the next person, but it is the backbone of the profession for the time being NCLB DOES NOT MANDATE A CURRICULUM FOR ELA TEACHERS. TRUE, THE ASSESSMENTS SUGGEST THAT NCLB MANDATES THAT STUDENTS CAN READ, WRITE AND REASON. NO ONE OF US WOULD DISAGREE WITH THAT EXPECTATIONS. We can affect change locally by thinking about individual pedagogy. TRUE …While Kelley is points out that defining English studies is an important starting point, I think that her overall premise that teachers are uncritical of their positions is as misguided and myopic as Erin Gruwell’s assumptions about “other” teachers in her school. I find it frankly insulting. I AGREE OF COURSE ALTHOUGH I WONDER A GOOD DEAL ABOUT WHY SO MANY TEACHERS I ENCOUNTER — TEACHERS IN ELA CLASSROOMS ALL OVER CNY — ARE UNCRITICAL OF WHY THEY TEACH WHAT THEY TEACH. THAT IS SIMPLY A FACT. I WOULD NEVER SAY THAT ALL TEACHERS ARE UNCRITICAL. OF COURSE NOT. I WAS ONE OF THEM (STILL AM) FOR MANY YEARS. BUT MANY ARE. THAT IS HOW IDEOLOGY FUNCTIONS–TO NORMALIZE, TO MAKE NATURAL THAT WHICH I AND/OR KELLY IS ARGUING SHOULD BE PROBLEMATIZED.

    BUILT IN TO CURRENT IDEOLOGIES OF SCHOOLING ARE SAFEGUARDS (AND THEY WORK PRETTY WELL) AGAINST ANYONE’S THINKING TOO MUCH ABOUT WHAT SCHOOLING IS REALLY FOR/WHAT CONSTITUTES THE “LITERATE SUBJECT,” WHAT SHOULD WE TEACH, ETC. ETC. THAT KIND OF THINKING MOSTLY TAKES PLACE ON VERY SUPERFICIAL LEVELS.

    SEE BEERS’ ESSAY…

    INTERESTING THAT THE BIG “NEWS” ON SYR. NEWS CHANNELS DURING THE FIRST WEEK OF SCHOOL WAS ABOUT THE NEW SURVEILLANCE EQUIP. ON SCHOOL BUSES. I WATCHED THIS STORY IN DIFFERENT INCARNATIONS OF IT OVER AND OVER WONDERING WHERE WERE THE STORIES ABOUT TEACHING AND LEARNING IN CLASSROOMS AROUND CNY. ONE WOULD NEVER HAVE THOUGHT TEACHING/LEARNING WERE THE ENTERPRISE AT ALL IF THEY HAD ADOPTED THE MEDIA’S VIEW OF THE FIRST WEEK OF SCHOOL. I WONDER HOW MANY VIEWERS FOUND THAT SCHOOL BUS STORY OF THE HOUR “ODD?” NO ONE I SPOKE WITH.

    I would also point out that the “flat world” is a highly political construct about which there is considerable controversy (I wonder if the correct approach to flat world pedagogies is one of compliance or resistance). THE POLITICS OF THE FLAT WORLD ARE OF COURSE UP FOR GRABS AND A SITE OF RESISTANCE/CONTESTATION/ETC. ETC. BUT THE REALITY OF THE FLAT WORLD IS NOT A POLITICAL CONSTRUCT. FROM MY PERSPECTIVE, IT JUST IS. WHAT WE THINK ABOUT IT AND WHAT OUR RESPONSES ARE TO IT–YES THAT’S SUBJECT TO CONTROVERSY AND ENDLESS DEBATES. In fact, one central problem with these essays “troubling” the ideological foundations of ELA is that they do not recognize the political implications of their own ideologies, or they assume their inherent value. I KNOW YOU HAVE MADE THIS ARGUMENT BEFORE BUT I WOULD LIKE SOME EXAMPLES OF WHAT YOU MEAN WHEN YOU SAY THAT “LIBERAL” CRITIQUES OF EDUCATION ARE UNPROBLEMATIZED BY THOSE WHO OFFER THEM. KELLY’S THESIS IS FOCUSED ON MAKING A CERTAIN POINT (SET OF POINTS) ABOUT THE “GEOGRAPHIES OF ENGLISH.” SHE DOES THAT IN A PROVOCATIVE AND TELLING, FOR ME, WAY. HER CRITIQUE IS ONE THAT I HAVE LIVED — BOTH AS A PUBLIC SCHOOL TEACHER AND AS A CLASSROOM OBSERVER. Kelly says that teacher beliefs may or may not be “worthy of reproduction.” True enough, but who gets to decide? GOOD QUESTION…WHO DOES? Why is that decision more or less authentic than the personal beliefs one is working against? NOT SURE WHAT YOU MEAN HERE. ARE YOU ASKING WHY ANYONE’S BELIEFS ABOUT WHAT SHOULD BE TAUGHT IN SCHOOLS IS ANY MORE AUTHENTIC THAN ANOTHER’S BELIEFS ABOUT SAME? And what is the end of such inquiry? WHAT IS? I’M NOT SURE WHETHER YOU ARE SUGGESTING THE INQUIRY IS UNPRODUCTIVE OR THAT THE END IS IRRELEVANT OR??

    I would argue that most pedagogies value reproduction: that is, the transfer of skills/knowledges from an expert to a novice. I would argue that the singular vision of ELA studies (even if that vision suggests its pluralism) is not an authentic practice. WHOSE/WHAT SINGULAR VERSION ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT? Even you, Dr. Stearns, have values that define your practice. ABSOLUTELY. But are your values inherently superior to mine? NO, OF COURSE NOT.I would argue that they are not, but nor are they inferior. Instead, they define individual strengths and inform individual projects.YES, TO BE SURE. To insist that either of us defect from our values (unless of course those values are determined without question) diminishes the breadth and quality of education. IS ANYONE SUGGESTING THAT WE “DEFECT” FROM OUR VALUES? TROUBLE THEM PERHAPS. ENGAGE OTHER VALUES PERHAPS. INTERROGATE THEM IN THE LIGHT OF CURRENT CONTEXTS/MILLENNIAL STUDENTS, YES. Professionals utilize their strengths to meet personal and professional goals. Those strengths often define the identity of a professional. And yet, Kelly does not acknowledge the professional standards that teachers do and should hold themselves to. NOT SURE WHAT YOU MEAN HERE…IS THIS A PROJECT SHE SHOULD BE TAKING UP? THAT IS, ACKNOWLEDGING PROFESSIONAL STANDARDS FOR TEACHERS? I DON’T SEE HER CHAPTER AS BEING ABOUT THAT PARTICULAR ISSUE. Just because I value aesthetic and ethical discourses in literacy does not mean that I do not understand and support other discourses. OF COURSE.

    Differentiate your instruction. Provide multiple contexts for student learning. Engage your students’ experiences and ideas. These are strategies for creating a classroom discourse that empowers students. I would argue that this substance is more important than any content. That’s the difference between pedagogy (strategy) and curriculum (content). RIGHT…

    I want to point out also that I do not suggest that aesthetic texts alone should form the base of the curriculum. I just disagree with the position that aesthetic texts are somehow inauthentic and inapplicable within the construction of what Yagelski calls the “literate subject.” OF COURSE. I HAVE REPEATEDLY SAID IT’S NOT EITHER/OR..IT’S NOT EITHER TEACH “HUCK FINN” OR TEACH CHRIS CRUTCHER. IT’S TEACH, OR RATHER SUPPORT, ALL OF IT. I would argue that literacy requires students to grapple with a wide range of complex texts, and aesthetic texts are an important part of this construction. YES, WE HAVE BEEN OVER THIS GROUND MANY TIMES AND WE ARE IN COMPLETE AGREEMENT.

    Kelly says that “competing versions of English are deeply political; they are about relations of power and the extent to which they are sanctioned, reiterated, and challenged through subject English.” Okay. Certainly, authorized knowledge is a political construct (Foucault has much to say about this). I would also agree that it is troubling, but necessary, to publicize the private in order to engage in a meaningful critique of our values. I would challenge the assumption that different versions of English are “competing.” They may conflict, but they may also collaborate. YES, OF COURSE WE HOPE THEY DO. The relations of power should be exposed, but I look to collaborative meanings to create productive learning spaces. DON’T WE ALL!!

    THANK YOU FOR YOUR WILLINGNESS TO ENGAGE IN SUCH STIMULATING CONVERSATION!! I’M GRATEFUL FOR IT–ALWAYS. K

    J. Degan

  4. jmdegan

    Dr. Stearns-

    I also am grateful for the conversation.

    I want to clarify a few points and, for the sake of simplicity, state my critique in as simple terms as possible (and I think it has changed slightly since my first statements-the value of a thorough interrogation, no?).

    First, I take issue with Kelly’s implication that teachers are uncritical of their subject matter. I understand that many go along like lemmings, but I wonder if that is a failure of the certification/preparation process (as Kelly suggests it is). I wonder if the certification of undergrads who have a rudimentary (if that) understanding of the theoretical foundations of English contribute to the problem. I can’t imagine that a person who is truly highly qualified in the field could assume that there is a singular vision of what ELA is. Perhaps I’m out of touch on this one, because I cannot understand the position she is working against.

    Second, am I incorrect in my assumption that Kelly is advocating that students see their construction of English as “an existing emodiment of unresolved historical contradictions” indicated by the pluralisms that have always run through the discipline? Because this deconstructive method (breaking down valued binaries) seems unresolved in the essay, and in fact contradict her assessment that a judgment can be made to value the reproduction of one discourse over another.

    Third, I want to clarify my position on curriculum vrs. pedagogy. I might be toying with personal definitions here, but I see curriculum (even if, as NYS and NCLB do in ELA, it is a collection of benchmarks) as an externally imposed construct through which we work. Locally, schools might mandate that certain texts be taught, or other benchmarks set. That is the context in which we teach. Pedagogy is more personal. I can construct a pedagogy around the curriculum to make it more meaningful for students and myself. I’m not sure I’m making this clear. I may have very little control about the content taught in a classroom, but I have a lot of control in constructing a meaningful context of that content. Does that make sense?

    Fourth, I want to address this bit about my critique of “liberal” revision. It’s not the revision that I am critical of. And I wouldn’t call my critique against liberalism. I am just skeptical of theorists who are so invested in systems that attept to explain everything. In the case of Apple’s Marxian critique, the reduction of everything institutionalized as ideology, and everything revolutionary as other than ideology, strikes me as an ideological construct. I am wary of totalizing structures, which is probably why I gave up my ambitions toward the Ph.D. It seems that literary scholars are no longer interested in the things that interest me. Other than postcolonial theorists, I cannot find critics who are engaging in a critical discussion about ethics, which seems such a fundemental part of literary inquiry to me. But I digress. I hope that clarifies that issue. And I don’t know where you get this impression that I’m some kind of reactionary. I’m a proud democrat (the first in my family).

    Last, and I’m pleased that you agree with this point, I do not think that discourses of English are engaged in competition with one another. Kelly does not offer an alternative to this idea of competitive discourses, but I think that these contradictions she wants us to be troubled over can be unravelled through collaboration between these discourses. So we do agree on something once and a while, don’t we.

    J. Degan

  5. sunyprof

    Jerry, we agree on all the important things and you reiterate many of those agreements in your post and comments here. Note that Suzanne brings more of Kelly to the fore. One factor that separates what it is we know and believe is my many years experience as a teacher working with or alongside (very different!) teachers. KES

    P.S. I sadly agree w/what you say about undergrad programs here. The issue is less a failure of will/knowledge/intention, etc. but more just the lack of time to do well what I believe we need to do to prepare teachers.

    In fact, right now, I am fighting to keep a required foundations of ed. course in our undergraduate curriculum. Duh!

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