Volume 15, Issue 1        Editorial:
Teaching Writing for Social Justice
The collective efforts of English teachers in the United States to improve their working conditions in the 20th Century are well-documented. NCTE was founded in 1911 in response to protests by New York City teachers to abolish a “Uniform Reading List” that served as the basis of a popular college entrance examination (Berlin 33). Wanting entrance exams that tested “abilities developed, not information acquired,” these teachers saw the reading list as dictating what they could and could not teach (Berlin 34). Embracing the Progressive view of Dewey and Addams that classrooms should be embryonic democracies where learning by experience makes students resources for one another, NCTE brought the lists to an end in 1931.
In the 21st Century, American college writing teachers are professionally organized, and many of us embrace an “epistemic” or “sociocultural” view that language is a social, “mediational means” we use to “control…our behavior from the outside,” ideally not in a “fossilized” but transformative way (Daniels; Vygostky 57, 68-69). That is, we belong to communities that speak with political force and understand that language use is rhetorical, social action. Still, we let ourselves embrace the social relevance of our individual utterances on the assumption that once the word is written, the cause is won. We see the speaking subject, whether teacher or student, as a social actor, and we forget, as Nancy Welch reminds us, that “the effectiveness of…[our] rhetorical strategies [is]…contingent upon extra linguistic factors, including social position and credentials” (26). Who is writing counts, and so does using that writing to promote reform. Therefore, as Welch adds, “we can teach and learn the attitudes, relationships, and practices that are the preconditions for imagining oneself and others as participants in social policy making and agents of social change” (15).
In this issue are five accounts of writing teachers who embrace composing as a social, epistemic act to construct emancipatory classroom publics.
Joy Arbor’s “Investigating Us-Them Thinking for Social Justice” explores how objectifying “us-them” thinking can be a barrier to social justice work. In her article, she describes a pedagogy where students learn to identify us-them “language uses in texts and their local worlds” and the psychological tendency to “other” people unlike ourselves. This article argues that to promote social justice in the writing classroom, teachers can encourage students to recognize us-them language uses and respond to writing assignments where they “engage with their own personal ‘others.’”
In “Social Justice and the Composition Classroom,” Peggy Johnson describes how a composition course designed to teach students social justice may allow constituents to confront a problem common at many schools: “the widening gap between the privileged and marginalized.” Johnson illustrates how both students’ “critical writing skills” and “social awareness and advocacy” may develop simultaneously with a curriculum that integrates Catholic social teaching.
In “Affect and Social Justice Pedagogy,” by Susan Adams Delaney and Kelly Concannon Mannise use theories of emotions and affect as means for understanding how they, as teachers, emotionally responded to writing tasks designed to promote critical reflection. On the basis of their analysis, they make a case for “greater reflexivity” as teachers create social justice writing pedagogies.
Kevin Clouther approaches the problem of how students can resist social justice pedagogies they experience as “indoctrinating” in his contribution, “Teaching—Not Prescribing—Twain and Ellison.” Specifically, teachers may have students focus on how their consciousnesses as readers are shaped by “literary representations of social justice.” He shows how, for example, emphasizing authors’ “attention to humanity” in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Invisible Man can allow students to think critically about civil rights.
Finally, Peter Fernbach’s “I-Search for Social Justice” views Ken Macrorie’s alternative to the traditional research essay as a “pragmatic postmodern research methodology” that enables students to experience democracy as informed citizens. When students I-Search, they enjoy a “bridge between oral and written communication” in crafting work that demands they be genuinely creative, that is a “social process with a culturally and personally significant end.”
It took more than the eloquence of one New York City teacher in 1911 to abolish the Uniform Reading List; it took a public that spoke with one voice. Our writing classrooms and centers and programs, secondary and postsecondary, must be such publics if we would teach writing for social justice.
Berlin, James. Rhetoric and Reality: Writing Instruction in American Colleges, 1900 – 1985. Urbana: Southern Illinois UP, 1987. Print.
Daniels, Harry. Vygotsky and Pedagogy. London: RoutledgeFalmer, 2001. Print.
Vygotsky, Lev. Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Ed. Michael Cole, Vera John-Steiner, Sylvia Scribner, and Ellen Souberman. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1978. Print.
Welch, Nancy. Living Room: Teaching Public Writing in a Privatized World. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2008. Print.
Nichole Bennett-Bealer, Ph.D.
Director, Learning Center
Northampton Community College
Tom Friedrich, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of English and Director of Freshman Composition
State University of New York at Plattsburgh