Critical Communication Pedagogy
In this autoethnographic work, authors Deanna L. Fassett and John T. Warren illustrate a synthesis of critical pedagogy and instructional communication, as both a field of study and a teaching philosophy. Critical Communication Pedagogy is a poetic work that charts paradigmatic tensions in instructional communication research, articulates commitments underpinning critical communication pedagogy, and invites readers into self-reflection on their experiences as researchers, students, and teachers.
- Front Matter
- Back Matter
- Subject Index
- Introduction: Stolen Moments in Critical Pedagogy and Communication
- Book Goals
- Organization of Our Book
- Stealing Away from Here
- Interlude: How to Read This Book (or, My Dad Read This Book)
- Chapter 1: Critical Communication Pedagogy: Shifting Paradigms
- You Think You're a Comm Ed Scholar?
- Box Checked
- Reading Freire for the First Time
- Communication Intention, in Tension
- Desire and Critique in Communication Education
- Mentoring—Getting it, Right? Getting it Right
- On Joining the Community
- Chapter 2: Naming a Critical Communication Pedagogy
- Implications: Living the Commitments of Critical Communication Pedagogy
- Chapter 3: Critical Communication Pedagogy in the Classroom
- Shaping and Taping: Reading Critical Communication Pedagogy Through Foucault
- Just A(nother) Rehearsal: Reading Critical Communication Pedagogy Through Butler
- Caught in the Current: Reading Critical Communication Pedagogy Through de Certeau
- Reading Critical Communication Pedagogy
- Chapter 4: Writing, Researching, and Living: Critical Communication Pedagogy as Reflexivity
- Chapter 5: Compromise and Commitment: Critical Communication Pedagogy as Praxis
- The Syllabus as Critical Intervention: Safely Vulnerable
- Vic's Story: Resistance Languaged
- Making the Tapes: Lost Translations
- On Doing Critical Communication Pedagogy
- Chapter 6: Nurturing Tension: Sustaining Hopeful Critical Communication Pedagogy
- Save the Crisis for the Holidays
- Keeping Honest
- “The Time is NO/W,” or “Freedom Isn't Free”
- Subject: Help!
Copyright © 2007 by Sage Publications, Inc.
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Fassett, Deanna L.
Critical communication pedagogy / Deanna L. Fassett & John T. Warren. p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 1-4129-1625-9 (cloth) — ISBN 1-4129-1626-7 (pbk.)
1. Communication—Study and teaching. I. Warren, John T., 1974- II. Title. P91.3.F366 2007
This book is printed on acid-free paper.
06 07 08 09 10 11 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Acquiring Editor: Todd R. Armstrong
Editorial Assistant: Camille Herrera
Project Editor: Astrid Virding
Copyeditor: Jamie Robinson
Typesetter: C&M Digitals (P) Ltd.
Indexer: Pamela Van Hass
It's tempting to dwell in the seeming absence of community—feeling out of place, ignored, excluded. But community is what you make of it. In its finest moments, community feels like home, like celebrations and sunshine and understanding. In its finest moments, community feels like the fantasy of coming home, of falling into step, of open arms. But community is so much more. … It's the messy home, the argument on the stairs, the scrabble for attention. We've been blessed to find ourselves in communities that support and nurture us: Our families, our alma maters, our institutions, our departments, and our classrooms. And though these places have felt like home to us—in all its beautiful and messy senses—it is in our continued relationships that they come to matter. We don't find communities; we forge them. Each and every day. In our communication. It is this sense of community we'd like to celebrate here, by giving thanks to all the people who helped to shape and strengthen this work: our colleagues—both the ones down the hall and the ones around the country who work in small ways toward great ends—and our students—who model for us in so many ways what it means to love and be loved, to be part of a growing community.
We would also like to thank our reviewers—our work is much stronger for their caring and considerate advice:
Sarah L. Bonewits Feldner, Marquette University; Shannon Broke VanHorn, Valley City State University; Patrice M. Buzzanell, Purdue University; Leda Cooks, University of Massachusetts, Amherst; Keith Nainby, California State University, Stanislaus; Deanna Sellnow, North Dakota State University; Jo Sprague, San José State University; and Kristen P. Treinen, Minnesota State University Mankato
Moreover, we would like to express our deepest appreciation for Amy Kilgard (whose insight, support, and creativity were invaluable to the early designs of our cover art), our copyeditor Jamie Robinson, and the kind folks at Sage, including and especially Todd Armstrong, Camille Herrera, Sarah Quesenberry, Astrid Virding, and Deya Saoud.[Page viii]
Conclusion: Grappling with Contradictions[Page 155]Mentoring, in and Through the Critical Turnoff
“It's another case of the critical turnoff. …” I feel very sage, very clever as I say this, but Meg is not amused. Tendrils of smoke swirl up around her face, her furrowed eyebrows, and off in the direction of the Central States Communication Association's conference hotel's piano bar where attendees are enjoying an especially loud version of a Motown classic. She shakes out her match—“I guess I don't get what that means. … I'm teaching intercultural … we're going to have to talk about power, about privilege … and I keep having to get up on this soapbox. If I don't point out how they're not getting it, how they're just reproducing racism and sexism and homophobia, then I don't know who will.” It's the point in the conference where everyone has had just a bit too much—too much to drink, too much to say, too much to process—and all I really want to do is talk about something else … something fun … something unrelated to school. But now I have to account for myself, to explain what I mean, to keep professing even when I'm supposed to be off the clock: “The critical turnoff. … It's like people interested in critical theory get so caught up in the critical imperative, in what they feel is just or purposeful or meaningful that they can't see they're turning people off. Nobody wants to hear they're hurting others … even if you say they don't [Page 156]mean to, that's still a pretty tough sell. …” And I'm pretty sure Meg knows what that means, though it's hard to tell from the top of my soapbox.
We end this book by asking the question of what it means to be a mentor, an adviser, a person in the world who attempts to guide others through the messy wilderness of critical inquiry in communication pedagogy. We ask about how to do this in ways that keep the stakes high, the potential tangible, and the tread light. We end here with a view into the process—for that is, in the end, what we have tried to articulate. We have tried in this book to avoid, as much as we could, the prescriptive detailing of what one should do, how one should research, or what position one should take in particular studies or arguments. We have described what we called a critical paradigm shift in the field, named a series of critical commitments, given examples of applying critical theory, examined both reflexivity and praxis as exemplified in research and teaching, and defended a philosophy of research and teaching as mutually constitutive; however, we have not given specific values to believe, specific stances to take, specific politics to advance. We have shown how we struggle in doing this work, how we assume the stances we take, how we engage politics in the classroom as we do, and how we try to position ourselves in relation to the others in our lives. If anything, we have shown how to struggle, how to grapple with the ideas and issues that working with, living in, critical scholarship demands of you.
In this final thought, this final collage of words, we ask how specifically one might imagine mentoring in/through this paradigm. Often mentoring in our lives takes the form of advising, but often it is much less formal, occurring in places and times we least expect it. We reflect here on those professors who mentored us as well. Indeed, you, the reader, will mentor, are mentoring, the students, teachers, family members, and friends around you. For instance, we have long considered each other mentors, even though we completed our degrees at about the same time and occupy similar positions in the academy. Mentoring needs no specific role, no specific place in the hierarchy of academic or social life. We try here to imagine what mentoring might, could, should look like within this logic. And we end with mentoring for very specific reasons; we believe that mentoring, the act of working collaboratively with our mentors and mentees, provides the kind of dialogue that makes this paradigm worthwhile. In the act of collaboration, in the moment of community with students and teachers, we see the true potential of living the critical life; yet, in the critical life, as Pelias (2000) suggests, one can feel bogged down with the weight of critique. Here, we consider the role of mentoring and again try to model the process, a means of living and [Page 157]working within critical communication pedagogy. After all, we cannot define critical communication pedagogy as what happens only in the classroom or within the pages of our journals and books; sometimes it occurs in a hotel bar, surrounded by conference attendees and cigarette smoke, with kind folks like Meg and her friends.
I can't help but think of my own adviser, who sat across from me in her office as I proposed what I wanted to do for my dissertation and said, “I've read all the critical pedagogy crap I want to read.” At the time I felt caught, trapped in between my adviser's seemingly idiosyncratic desires and my own ideological commitments. It never occurred to me that she might be right, that there might already be enough sanctimonious, holier-than-thou critical work, and that I might do better to walk a different path. At the time, I felt she was asking me to walk a conventional path, an unreflective path, and perhaps she was; but, as I work with my own advisees, I finally see her meaning: There is quite enough work that focuses on critique and not hope, enough research on teaching that begins on the intellectual equivalent of “You know what's wrong with you?” I've spent years harboring resentment regarding her power, her ability to shut me down in that moment, but with each passing year, and with each new graduate student advisee, I come to realize something of the truth in her words: I cannot abide more work that casts students or teachers as judgmental dopes. But then, how might a caring, critical educator (who demands critique and change, but also hope and possibility) begin to effectively mentor students and teachers who want to follow this path?
I remember thinking that advising and mentoring grad students would be easy.
My first year in the department, I'd had a very good experience, been very productive, taught challenging and popular seminars, and been asked to serve on many graduate committees. I even perfected the proper pose for sitting in defenses—asking the hard questions, demonstrating that I had read and engaged in the document. I would be the member who asks the question, the one that cuts to the heart of the matter.
When I earned “graduate faculty” status early, I remember others telling me to be wary, to not jump too quickly, but advising my own students seemed a choice reward. And doesn't “early” sound good? Sound sexy? Sound like something you would want as a young assistant professor? So I jumped, landing in the middle of something I did not expect.
[Page 158]Every adviser is, by necessity, marked by her or his mentors. My own adviser was sharp—sharp with her mind, her wit, her critique. She is respected for her ability to cut to the quick, to find what underlies the argument and strike it into relief. As I think about my own mentoring style, I have tried to do this—to cut to the chase early and guide students toward making their arguments—to be sharp myself. But I also wanted to do something none of my own mentors had done for me—I wanted to be the good friend, supportive, unthreatening. In my own education, I chose advisers I respected, but that meant making them heroes, putting them on high pedestals, forever casting about for their approval and fearing I'd come up short. But in working to be the kind, personal adviser, I fear students cast me as easy. If I'm too informal or too jolly, they don't always take me seriously; requests become suggestions. How must the jolly seem when I ask them to make profound revisions before their dissertation can go to committee? Perhaps it feels like a paradox: How do they know who I am in a given moment? How do they balance the shifting power relations, the mystery of who I am and who I'm trying to be?
“Here's what I think … if you can't trust my advice, then I think you need to choose an adviser you can trust.” Even as I say this, I realize that's not precisely what I mean to say, but I'm tired, tired of being second-guessed and challenged about whether I'm really asking for reasonable changes to this student's prospectus or whether I'm asking him to “write the book now.” Rather than explore how these changes are meaningful or why they're justified, I've taken that grappling off the table; I've made this conversation about power, about whether he'll need to find another adviser.
I admit that I have a bias—that when I'm working with students in my office, I have particular directions, paths I want them to chart. I guess this is not such a big surprise, as everyone has learned from someone. My former graduate adviser and I share many research interests—she begat me, in a sense, and I will inevitably begat others. However, this bothers me more than I suspect it bothers some others; as a “critical” adviser, I believe in searching out the passions they have, not just reiterating my own. Further, I specifically frame my job as a guide and facilitator, not a sage, never the kind of person who uses graduate students to further my own research goals.
[Page 159]Yet, when Lana is in my office to discuss her dissertation, I push her to find a theoretical frame for her work. She offers a few choices, but as I listen to her, I find she really needs something more complex, something more … I hand her Garfinkel (1967) and Fenstermaker and West (2002); the ethnomethodological frame will help her see her participants' sense making and allow her to articulate how gender is constructed in moments of interaction. When she leaves, I feel like a good adviser; Lana is genuinely grateful (or at least appears to be). Of course ethnomethodology is only a side note in the qualitative methods course she took from me, not really a subject she would have had the time or ability to investigate until now. Of course, I like ethnomethodology because of its similarity to performativity, the major theoretical frame I use. Of course, that connection will have the chance to grow as we proceed, improving my own scholarship. And, of course, as a consequence, this dissertation went from hers to mine. And I did it all under the premise of “critical” advising. Suddenly, I suspect my abilities, turned off by my own shortsightedness.
I want to call all my advisees to apologize, to explain that if I had only known more when I was working with them, I would have done a much better job. There are many famous renderings of this sort of story, told by people who have been working with students much longer than I have. But still I wonder, what sort of “job” would I aspire to “do”? In the end, I have seen students to completion of their masters' degrees, to employment in community colleges, to continued graduate study in doctoral programs. I have seen them ask critical questions of themselves and their own students, and of that I am impressed (and sometimes a bit surprised). On the other hand, I wonder whether I have shown them my grappling, my struggling, enough? Of when I didn't know whether a prospectus meeting was a work-in-progress, roll-up-your-sleeves meeting or a meeting to defend the first three chapters of the thesis? Of when I didn't know how do draw out that deeper analysis, the one that really did justice to their data? Of when I couldn't think of a silky way to reveal my vulnerability so I simply cast the issue in black and white: Either trust me or find someone you trust.
The soapbox is a common trope in my work with graduate teaching assistants, especially as they come to explore power and justice with their own [Page 160]students; sometimes I have the sense that the soapbox is their bully pulpit for promoting social change, but at other times, I wonder whether the soapbox is really more of a bludgeoning tool, a means of battering students into particular lines of thinking or ways of seeing their lives and their connections with others.
It's natural for Meg to want to stand on her soapbox, to call out, to call down from the mountaintop that her students need to pay attention, to see how their communicative actions and inactions shape the lives and experiences of others, to see how they build, and may therefore also change, racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, ageism, ableism, and other forms of oppression. And for some students, students like I was or like Meg is, that's enough. But what of the vast majority of students who have heard all the critical pedagogy crap-political correctness-bleeding heart liberal humanism they can stand?
Freire (1970/2003) argued that a pedagogy of the oppressed was just that: a pedagogy of, not for, not on, not to. In arguing for a midwife model of teaching and learning (what Shor, 1992, and others have called a problem-posing pedagogy), where teachers work to draw out what students already know rather than deposit knowledge into them, fully formed, Freire articulated a means for the critical project. Freire knew the challenge of drawing people in and drawing them out, when the temptation is to demystify, to tear down, to push in, to rupture.
How do we reveal the machinery of social oppression in a way that illuminates and enlivens students, that doesn't eclipse their sense of agency by suggesting there's little they can do to effect material change to their lives? In our own research, we spend considerable time trying not to make our argument sound like a personal attack. That is, when we write on culture, gender, sexuality, privilege, power, oppression, and the ways systems of power are products of ongoing, mundane, communicative acts in which we all participate, we strive to not create a straw argument, just telling people they are bad human beings who oppress with each and every act. As our mothers taught us, you get more bees with honey. To this end, we have designed our research to shed light on the systems of oppression and privilege that have created us as subjects, to ask how we each are products (and, thus, producers) of social processes, to balance individual agency with the systemic nature of power.
As we work with students, we ask similar questions of our own practice. That is, it feels too easy to simply tell students to repeat our own vision of [Page 161]the world, to just fit within our own ideological commitments. What we try to do is more Freirean, building from their own voices and desires, posing problems back to them, asking them to theorize their own positions.
At a recent conference, we both sat in the bar with a new doctoral student who was feeling blue about her position in her department. We became the subject of her story because we were not a risky audience, neither of us her current faculty. She spoke of feeling out of place, about feeling at odds with her students and her professors. In our “critical” way, we listened patiently, posing questions back to her about her assumptions, about how she was positioning her new faculty, about expectations, about how coded messages from faculty are not uncommon and may be offered as a way of pushing her to be better, to do more, to achieve. She nodded and then shifted topics.
Later, we wondered whether we had just reinscribed her location, making her more accustomed to or helping her find peace with this marginalized location. On the one hand, we believe that her faculty does like her, does believe in her. On the other hand, we see her hurt, feeling incompetent. And though we didn't mean to, we worked to make sure she stayed there.
But this suggests the difficulty of advising, of trying to be a mentor who can meet the needs of critically minded, intelligent, and socially aware students. It suggests the lack of models for doing it well. If in that moment again, would we make different choices? Probably not. Why? Why would we do this reproductive work if we now see its potential violence? Because, like our own disciplinary mothers and fathers, we are the product of complex, historical social systems that emerge through (and must be reenvisioned through) communication. To be critical advisers, we must take seriously the pedagogy of advising and allow ourselves to be as changed as by our relationships as our students are; this has yet to be fully explored. This failure to account for the relationship between adviser and advisee, the failure to write about it in ways that do it justice and help create practices that give rise to compassion and accountability, is to reproduce the status quo. Seeing that student nod convinced us there must be other ways.
How do we reveal the machinery of social oppression in a way that illuminates and enlivens students, that doesn't eclipse their sense of agency by suggesting there's little they can do to effect material change to their lives? We don't know. And that's the problem.
I think it was when my Butler and Scott (1992) volume Feminists Theorize the Political disappeared that I realized, with some reluctance, that perhaps some of my books were, in fact, being stolen. Now I don't mean that [Page 162]my loving graduate students, my advisees, my scholars-in-training, secretly broke in to my office, Mission Impossible style, and stole my tattered copy of Butler and Scott, though it does make me laugh to think of them in my office at 3 AM holding up my book laughing and cheering their liberation of my property. In my mind, I see these students standing in my office, stocking hats pulled low on their foreheads, swinging precariously from high tensile wires, flashlights gleaming, searching for seemingly obscure texts that fulfill their academic desires. Part of me revels in this image.
I suspect, though, that it is most often an accident: They see a book that might help them with an idea, they ask to borrow it, they use it, they put it on a pile of books in their own offices and, as time moves on, they forget it is mine. It eases into their own collection; it becomes familiar enough to pass as something that has always been there, as something that should be there. Five years from now, they will pick it up and, upon seeing my name on the front page, realize that it was once mine and that, after all these years, they forgot to return it to me. Maybe horrified, maybe amused, they will realize that they could send it to me, but they will fear the awkwardness of it, the weirdness that such a gesture might create. Such fears may just prevent them from doing it. Quietly, they will place it back on their shelf and never speak of it again, even when they see me at conferences and reunions.
Much of mentoring is like this. I think mentoring is about offering up some sense of ourselves with the awareness that we might not get it back. Every time I lend a book out to a graduate student, I do so knowing that it might not make it back home, that that piece of myself may never return. I remember the last time I lent a book, my copy of Schlosser's (2002) Fast Food Nation, to a student. I remember thinking, “Wow … I'll be surprised if Josh actually returns this, even with his promise.” The book is still MIA and, even after sending a couple of vaguely threatening emails, I suspect the book is gone for good. So why loan the book in the first place? On some level, I lent Schlosser because I'd read it and I believed Josh would find use in it. I wanted others to know its secrets, its lessons. And there is the desire that with that book, a part of myself will be known too. Wishful thinking, perhaps, but I like the idea of him making that book and those ideas a part of his way of seeing. So the book is gone and I've stopped trying to get it back.
When I think about mentoring, on some level, I have come to see that I've taken much more from others than I have given. I think about a professor from college I really admired, I really loved. I based my syllabus on hers, borrowing some of her language to describe the kind of classroom I wanted to create. In using that syllabus, I steal from her, using that idea to facilitate my teaching. Indeed, I have stolen many assignments from former professors—a favorite of us both is the “weekly writing,” stolen from Lenore Langsdorf, a beloved grad school mentor. I have also stolen much less tangible items: [Page 163]forms of address (I prefer John because I was convinced by an undergrad professor that such choices generate different kinds of respect from students), classroom interaction styles (reading-centered, discussion-style formats), and advising styles (based in part on interactions I had with professors who were not my advisers). In these moments, I have stolen, borrowed ideals I now hold quite dear to myself; they are part of how I define myself. Perhaps the borrowed book, once of my collection and now on someone else's shelf, represents a kind of need fulfilled. Perhaps, on some level, someone just needed something more than I could provide by myself.
That said, let me be clear that while, on some level, I really do love the images of my Mission Impossible students dangling from wires in search of scholarship or of the moment when they realize they have borrowed a book of mine forever, in the moment, it really ticks me off. It is in the moment of going to the bookshelf and seeing the book's absence, knowing it should be just there—right there between Bordo's (1999) The Male Body and Cleto's (1999) edited book Camp. It should be there, but it is not. The empty space, hidden by shifting shelves, is nevertheless there and, without the book, I must turn to http://Amazon.com to replace, again, this missing book. I struggle with the dissonance of knowing that my book is now missing in action, of knowing that this gift (my Butler and Scott volume, for instance) was not my choice, and loving that these students wanted that gift in the first place. How do I reconcile the desire to provide what I need for the students in my life while also wanting, desiring, and coveting my own “stuff”? It is hard to feel good about Butler and Scott's new home when I miss it.
To my advisees: If you have the Butler and Scott book, you can keep it. As if you needed my permission. … I bought a new one this morning.
Tonight, I participated in a beautiful graduation ceremony. I always walk away from each of these ceremonies feeling loved, feeling as though I make a difference in the lives of real people with real goals and possibilities. But this year is different; this evening I have hooded my first two graduate students, and they will go away. They will go away and make fresh starts in new locales with new advisers and new lines of research. They have taken what they will from me, and my hope is that they've taken more of the good than the bad, and they will make what they will of it.
Once I've removed my regalia back in the office, hanging it carefully so I won't have to dry clean it for next year, I start to cry. I won't be their adviser anymore. Some advisees are hard to say goodbye to, especially when it's not exactly goodbye; they move on to other programs and encounter new ideas and new professors and new ways of being scholars and teachers. You run [Page 164]into these students at conferences, but they're no longer your students; they're someone else's. You know they're becoming your colleagues, but that's an awkward transition because you still have so many more things you want to say, so much more advice you have to give. With each year, with each graduate student, you learn more and more that you would have done better, that you would share now, if only you knew how.
Grappling is trying, with all your might, to hold on to the shifting, the contingent, the liquid nature of critical inquiry, the ebb and flow of power, the evaporating “it” that you saw right before it disappeared. We grapple because that, in the end, is what we have—only the process of investigation remains. We grapple, we seek, we try to love the process and believe that it, in the end, is the point of the critical journey we undertake.
Critical communication pedagogy is ultimately about the journey, rarely the destination. Indeed, most “critical” books and articles we've read (and some we've written) disappoint in the end, for they usually offer some final thought that never quite seems to do enough, never seems to respond to the problem they've set out to address. Indeed, this book may now fit that description, not quite doing enough for you, the reader, now that we've reached the end. But what we hope you have, is a process of inquiry, a method of doing and reflecting, and a reason for engaging in that work in the first place. We are inspired by the work we have read, moved by the people we've met, and overwhelmed at the potential of our (and your) scholarly lives. From Jane to Vic, from Meg to Melody, we have found joy in our work, relevance in our quest, and hope in the conversations we've shared. May all your journeys reward, all your questions matter, and all your hopes grow. Critical communication pedagogy is what we make it—may we all build a better tomorrow by listening to each other and imagining our futures together.
“So you can see the critical turnoff all around you—just look at all the professors who say they're critical and then reproduce all the screwed up power-laden political bullshit they claim to challenge….”
“Do you mean Profes—”
“Ugh … I can't talk about it, Meg … I don't want to get into who does what; you know who they are, and it doesn't help either of us to dwell on the specifics except to strive to be more consistent than they are, to practice what we write about and share with our students.” Of course I want to name [Page 165]names; it's a conference and, as with most conferences, we've both seen our unfair share of dysfunctional faculty advances, parries, and dodges. But that's not the point. The point is calling out our own inconsistencies, calling out the places where we're trying to “get it” and just don't, yet.
“Here's what I try to do, but I'm not sure it's the only way. It's just the way I can figure out right now, at this point in my life. I try to show my students how systems are really relationships between people that become rigid and ‘thing-like’ over time, and then I try to show how we—myself included—buy into those systems even when they hurt us and others. It's like trying to show the architecture of power, and if I can do that, then I don't have to get on a soapbox, because my students can explore how they're shaped by that architecture—and how they work to create that architecture—themselves.” Meg seems satisfied by this answer, as though I'm just as sage and clever as I sometimes think I am. And, while this answer sometimes satisfies me, I'm still uncomfortable. Meg lights another cigarette, and offers one to me, “So all I have to do is show them the architecture, then I can offer my perspective as one of many.” “Yes,” I say, but I know it's not that easy.
I can want to model a process and fail in so many possible ways. That I've failed in these ways does not, however, mean that the process is a failure. Failure is uncomfortable, but it is also generative; it is also productive. That I articulate my struggle is what matters. But can Meg see that I, too, am struggling?[Page 166]
Included here is our essay “(Re)Constituting Ethnographic Identities,” first published in Qualitative Inquiry (Warren & Fassett, 2002). We have included it here to illuminate and extend our analysis in Chapter 5. Does reading the article, in its entirety, shape your understanding of Vic's story? How does reading it influence your assessment of our effort to include, explore, and draw implications from his story?
This essay was our first article-length exploration of many of the issues and questions that gave rise to this book: What are our roles, our goals, our obligations as we enter the intersections of pedagogical and methodological contexts? When, how should we act, and in what way does such action help or hurt those others in our lives, those folks we come into contact with as we live our scholarly lives?
This essay does not answer these questions—indeed, we felt we left so much unsaid, so much unexplored, that we wrote this book; but, as a first installment of our consideration of critical communication pedagogy as reflexivity and praxis, pedagogy and method, we felt including it as an appendix here might provide some clarification as to our own history with these critical ideas.(Re)Constituting Ethnographic Identities1
This paper begins with a study of others, but like most, tells us more about ourselves. It's funny that way. We began, both of us, with the need for dissertation topics. What to do, what to write, what will get us done and off to some new place, some new beginning, somewhere else. We both began in the site/sight of others, the qualitative quest—go into the field, go to the people, go to those ‘others’ and study them, figure them out, and then report back (and, by the way, make some original contribution to the discipline along the [Page 168]way). Yet, as we reflect back on the projects we undertook, the people we studied, the questions we asked, we find that we learned the most about who we are, what we do, and what we need to do and write as ethical, cultural studies informed, scholars.
Both: At this point…
DLF: just a year and a half after defense, I would say that much of my difficulty stems from my positionality within my own discipline … perhaps this is why we're in a time and place where we're contemplating the self in relation to the others we study …
Both: At this point…
JTW: just months after completing the dissertation, I would say that much of my difficulty stems from my positionality within the research agenda … perhaps this is why we're in a time and place where we're contemplating the self in relation to the others we study…
Both: At this point…
We're getting ahead of ourselves. This project, this paper, has three interrelated goals. First, we strive to document what it means to be scholars in communication who struggle, with some success and some frustration, to write and live the academic life with an allegiance to the philosophy of cultural studies—to do scholarship that acknowledges the political nature of research, always foregrounding our speaking and listening bodies as the basis of our reading of others. Second, we aim to uncover the mechanisms—the political, cultural, social mechanisms—that are at work in producing social identities. This is to say, our effort here is to argue that the “subjects” we study are performative accomplishments—that their subjectivities are historical products in an ongoing process of (re)creation. The constructs of “educational risk” or “whiteness” are not natural nor neutral, but rather unnatural, strategic, normalized performatives—they are constituted again and again to maintain political and social power. Third, we consider how these constructs of “the other” get reified through our research while constituting our authoring selves. Thus, we argue here that cultural studies bestows a gift upon qualitative research: the responsibility of reflexivity and the reminder that our research, of how we write it, of whom is its subject, and of whom we subject it to, constitutes the authorial self as well as the participants' identities themselves. Not only are we a performative accomplishment of our research, just as are our participants/co-researchers/subjects, but we continue to reiterate their/our problematic identifiers even as we struggle to resist the baggage those constructs carry.
[Page 169]Both: I came to my dissertation…
DLF: alternating between apathy and resistance—apathy because I knew if I followed the steps I could finish, and resistance because I've been wanting to do something I cannot fully articulate and I don't find exemplars in my field. This is complicated by the tensive relationship I hold with the subject matter of my dissertation.
JTW: I struggle between feeling like a critical cultural scholar working to undermine the power of racism, while also feeling like an opportunist banking on the latest academic fad.
Both: I study education from the perspective of a communication scholar.
JTW: I see my dissertation in the crossroads of several bodies of literature, bodies of researchers, and, of course, the bodies of my research participants. In this two-year ethnographic study considering the performance of whiteness in the classroom, I have struggled to maintain a balance between traditional critical performance ethnography and more experimental forms of scholarship, knowing that each fall victim of suspicion in the field at large.
DLF: I see my dissertation relegated to the periphery of my discipline, strewn about the “wrong side of the tracks,” to a messy place scholars can avoid if only we speed up, stick to the map, and keep moving. In my interviews, I have struggled to maintain a balance between helping students and teachers succeed in the existing educational system and inviting those folks to help challenge and change that very system, knowing that, by flaunting order and convention, I risk further ghettoizing my research and their lives.
Both: On the one hand,
DLF: One could say that I study at-risk students. More specifically, one could say that I study how students come to be construed as “at-risk” or “successful.” And still more specifically, I study how such constructions come to challenge or sustain more global, cultural values regarding the nature of education, of studenting and of teaching.
JTW: One could say that I study whiteness. More specifically, one could say I that I study how students come to and reproduce whiteness as an identity, levying power over others.
Both: On the other hand…
DLF: One could say I study the art of researching, of seeing how others get constructed by the act of research. How we are co-constituted in the [Page 170]research project? The articulation of “at-risk” in my research remakes risk each and every time I write it. Even as I try to address and challenge notions of “at-riskness,” I restate, remake, and, thus, reinscribe risk. I struggle with deconstruction, knowing that I am laying theoretical bricks as fast as I can tear them down.
JTW: One could say I study the art of researching, of seeing how others get constructed by the act of research. The naming of “whiteness” in my work not only serves as a deconstructive move, but also remakes privilege, theirs and mine, through that voicing.
What's in a name? People look at us, saying, “You look like a John.” “You look like a Deanna.” “Your name fits you.” But the name is not who we are—it is just a sense making device, allowing us ease at distinguishing between each other. Yet something happens in the repetition—something that makes the name more than just a way of distinguishing us. The name takes on a power of its own, making it somehow a part of us. It becomes us—our bodies, our faces, our voices, our expressions seem to capture the name, to make the name an almost essential part of us. Names have this power—they grow in symbolic power until our bodies and our names become indistinguishable.
Names carry social and political power too. We hear names like “Barbie” or “Ken” and our minds fill with implications, often creating self-fulfilling prophecies in which we create and situate those people into pre-established categories. “His name is Ken, can you imagine a better name?” The current crisis surrounding September 11th comes to our minds as we hear of children being born with the name “Osama,” knowing the power of such naming to bring about the social power of shaping who those children will be as they grow up with that signifier. Names shape us.
One might say that the act of naming, the act of connecting and repeating an identity with a linguistic symbol, helps to constitute who we are. The act of naming, the act of making John's and Deanna's, so shapes us that we fail to understand ourselves outside of that construction. It becomes so normalized, so much a part of the mundane nature of who we are that it is impossible to imagine ourselves outside of that frame of mind. And if a name can have this power, we wonder what the naming of race or academic achievement might do to who we are—[what] might those labels, the repetition, the sedimentation, the normalization of whiteness or riskness, do to how we interact with each other? What's in a name? Names don't simply hold or identify power; they are power.
[Page 171]Both: We encounter scholarly others.
JTW: “Abolish” the white race?
DLF: The subjects were determined to be “at risk”?
JTW: To choose blackness or brownness as a way of politically disidentifying with white privilege?
DLF: At risk of what? Of not passing a class? Of not finding a job? Of not living a fulfilling life?
JTW: We are whites who have been “transformed” by our experiences? Who gets to claim they can abolish their own race and still have the luxury of being taken seriously?
DLF: Locus of control? Compliance gaining? Verbal aggressiveness? Who gets to choose which traits and states amount to a whole human?
JTW: Choose blackness? Choose brownness? Choice?
DLF: The students were observed … Who observed them? Why? To what end?
Both: Isn't there another way?
DLF: I grow cautious of the dangers of passive voice constructions.
JTW: I grow cautious of the dangers of assuming my whiteness is the same kind of choice as whether to spread butter or cream cheese on my morning bagel.
DLF: I grow cautious of the dangers of treating students like objects. I grow cautious of erasing my voice in my research, as if I am not there. As if this is not me reading them. As if I am not there.
JTW: I grow cautious of the dangers of treating performance as pretend, as not-real, as the always already false. I grow cautious of researchers, activists, performers, scholars asking me to abolish whiteness—to abolish that identity which is so integral to who I am. To abolish my whiteness as if I am throwing out an old shirt. As if I can stop doing that which [is] in my tissues, not as some essential quality or attribute, but in my tissues through each and every act I have done, continue to do, and know I will do in the future. Only whiteness can have the gall to suggest that one can suddenly refuse to do what has made it powerful—that is the ultimate institution of power. To deny it while still getting the privilege it provides.
[Page 172]DLF: So much of what I [have] written is for my peers, for people who have been conducting research on locus of control, on verbal aggressiveness, on communication apprehension. I question their work; I ask them to step outside themselves, outside of their research, to consider other ways of seeing. Who am I to judge them? What right do I have to say this? Am I Cassandra or the court jester?
JTW: I grow cautious of the dangers of erasing the power of performance as a metaphor for racial constitution.
DLF: I grow cautious of the dangers of erasing the power of performance as a metaphor for educational success and failure.
Both: Isn't there another way?
Performance has a long tradition of dwelling in the realm of pretense. It is considered fake, the inauthentic carved out of “real” life. Yet it is the metaphor of performance, and the kinds of rehearsal processes that it embodies, that draws us to this theoretical frame. That is, how can the notion of multiple, embodied, and socially practiced repetitions allow us to see how we perform our daily lives. On whose scripts do we rely? What levels of difficulty do we have when we try to negotiate our performances of self with others?
Recently, one of the authors was caught and questioned in the everyday maintenance of his/her performance of self. In his/her office, a queer student poses the question: “Are you gay too?” The queer-identified professor, caught in the everyday slippages of performance, is faced with the consequences of his/her performances of sexuality. How does the professor respond? How does this professor, a straight-appearing but bisexual-identifying woman in a monogamous heterosexual relationship, negotiate the complexities of this performance of self? How does she respond? Who she “really is” is complicated, fuzzy, always a negotiation of time, place, and circumstance. What we “really” have are the performances—who we are is the performance of self, the repetition of identity that gets cast and recast before self and others. The question, “Are you gay too?,” is an appeal to “truth,” but the question itself is really more telling than any answer.
Looking at identity through the lens of the performative means understanding how who we are is a continuing process of acts—a consequence of multiple actions, namings, and significations. The educationally successful student is born not at that subject's literal birth, but through a process of naming—a process that is influenced by economics, history, race, gender, and other political classifications. They/we are created through schooling and social processes that maintain the production of identities. The student [Page 173]we cheer as successful is successful precisely because of the cheers, the constant naming of her/him as such, and the perpetuation of certain characteristics over others. In the same logic, the white subject is born into a complicated system of race—a system that has echoes of past violence, past struggles, and past privileges. They/we are not born at the literal birth, but are made through performative repetitions, the repeated messages of who they/we are. Even skin color, a fact that is often assumed to be biological, is a performative accomplishment—it is the product of social norms that have, through highly regulated sexual politics, produced a skin pigment that carries the political signifier of privilege.
Our identities are a product of repetition, of a continual process of recasting subjectivity until those names, those categories, become so normalized that they fail to seem like we created them in the first place. It is the power of the acts to feel so sedimented, so natural, that demands a performative analysis—only a performative analysis that examines how identities get created and maintained through performance that can shed light how inequalities are sustained through daily actions.
JTW: I am in an interview. The thrill of the ethnographic enterprise rises in my blood, pushing me toward the end of my chair, pushing me. The Diet Coke in my hand feels cold, a small drop of condensation falls from a plastic indention, falls from the slightly scuffed container, falls on to my hand. I smile and look at her, my interviewee. Karen, her brown straight hair teasing her shoulders, has her legs crossed, her kind face smiling at me. Karen is a thirty-something-year-old student in the class I am observing and has agreed to spend some time with me, answering some questions. I look at my notes: “So, Karen? How do you think the class understands culture?” I look up, the question asked, the tape rolling, the process underway. Karen shifts in her seat, uncrossing and re-crossing her legs. “I think this class understands culture in politically correct terms. Uh, in terms of accepting people's ethnicity, other's, uhm, values. And you know, I probably mentioned at the beginning of class, I'm not very politically correct. Don't aspire to be.”
DLF: A pretty, dark-eyed woman has been tracking the conversation while sipping a Diet Coke. I can tell she is paying attention because her posture changes ever so subtlety when one speaker's statement gives way to the next. I have asked this group of students to discuss what characteristics make up a good student. There are several people at the table, more women than men, more white than not, and each appears to be participating if not with zeal then with gameful [Page 174]courtesy. Just when the rest of the folks in the room seem comfortable with the idea that anyone can be successful in school if she or he works hard, the dark-eyed woman sets down her Diet Coke and suggests, somewhat tentatively at first, “… but even if everyone worked hard then there is still going to be a couple of people that are going to get pushed aside—if everyone is trying to get up there, as you get older, competition gets harder, and you get pushed back.” This gives me some pause.
JTW: I am startled. I kind of blink at her, still smiling but blinking in a confused blur. “What does politically correct mean to you?” I know it is a loaded question and I tell her that, yet it had to be asked, I had to ask it, had to and so I did: “What does politically correct mean to you?” Karen begins talking. “Politically correct to me means that I'm not really entitled to any of my own opinions because they might offend someone else.” Karen continues but I am no longer listening, no longer hearing her voice. I look at her in what feels like slow motion. I see her lips move and yet all I hear is the first line. I look down to the recorder which is still turning and am relieved that it will catch what I can't. I smile, nodding, picking up just words and phrases: “the kids in our class go out and get bombed, I go home and take care of children … I'm involved in church, we're just totally different … The whole notion of politically correct that plays itself out in the multicultural thing that we are taught is that it is okay for me to offend you, but don't you dare offend me …” She continues in what will amount to thirty some pages of transcript, this nice woman who I no longer feel I know, no longer want to know. I want to interrupt this interview, but I'm gathering. The critique comes later—after a careful ethnographic process. Bad ethnography is when we rush to judgment. So I wait, I nod, I record, I transcribe, I code, with anticipation of critique … later.
DLF: At first, I was pleased to hear a cynical view, someone with suspicion akin to my own. Then, as I considered her words more carefully, I began to wonder: Who pushes? This pusher is not as simple as you or me, but then again this pusher is as complicated as you and me. Each of us is a part of this system of pushing, either through action or inaction; what does it mean when such a young, bright, friendly woman assumes that success is limited and gatekeeping is normal? Furthermore, what does it mean that I allowed the comment to pass by unnoticed, unchallenged?
[Page 175]JTW: I smile as she continues talking, knowing that this moment, this little moment will be a spotlight of the dissertation, a powerful moment. The uneasiness of the interview begins to fade as I anticipate the possibilities. I smile, I nod, I record, I anticipate critique. I am witnessing whiteness in the process of creation, a remarking of privilege, a maintenance of domination. A spotlight in the dissertation.
DLF: Ahh … but I do notice. I rush—to my notes, to my adviser's office, to my computer—to capture the moment, to articulate the best instance of something I'd long suspected, to demonstrate that we do, in fact, limit our understandings of, and thus our possibilities for, educational reform through our own talk. One … brief … moment … of … clarity … of … order … of proof … And in that moment, I mistake the clarity for truth, for engagement, for understanding.
Both: Isn't there another way?
DLF: We interview.
JTW: We collect.
DLF: We transcribe.
JTW: Fieldnotes—only 200 pages of text.
DLF: How much does it cost to transcribe that?
JTW: We code.
DLF: We code.
Both: Will you double check this for me—intercoder reliability? Why yes I will!
If we use scare quotes, does that make it all right? If we call attention to the construction, the normalization of that naming process, does it alleviate the problem? Are we off the hook now? Can we rest easy in the belief that we are the critical ones, that we are the ones who know better?
We believe two things about categories and the labels we use to describe those we study. First, most of them predate us. That is, we did not choose “academic risk” or “whiteness” as ways of separating some people from others. They are, in many ways, outside our immediate control. In fact, it was the labels that in many ways drew us to the issues involved in those struggles: the needs of “at-risk students” or the unearned privilege [Page 176]embedded in “whiteness.” Yet, only once we invest ourselves in those particular areas of research do we begin to see the ways that the label, the name, the identity itself is problematic. Then, we find we lack the language to undo the power of the label—now the label that drew us to those ideas constrains our ability to resist its power.
Second, those labels do have a usefulness that is not easy (nor necessarily desirable) to erase. Scholars talk about identity markers (gender, race, sexuality, etc.) as performative identities—that is, we enact these identities through language and gesture, sediment them through time until they appear to predate the label. Thus, gender is a process, a performance we learn and continue to enact throughout our lives until we naturalize those actions, failing to understand that it is through the acts themselves that identity is created and maintained. In this logic, we begin to think our actions stem from gender. This is the complete internalization of these norms, these now normalized acts. However, even as those scholars discuss identity as performatives, they nevertheless acknowledge the real effects those performances have in our daily lives. The failure to do our race or sexuality right results in punitive consequences ranging from subtle looks to physical violence. Within this frame, the use and examination of identity within and through these labels serves a productive purpose—it is a way of examining how we, through our language choices, separate people. It is a way of examining how, through naming, we levy power in unjust and unequal ways.
As scholars who believe each of these principles to be true, we find that the labels themselves chafe us, rubbing us raw as we struggle to undermine the stability of these categories. We complain over steaming cups of coffee, over turkey sandwiches at lunch, and over beers late in the evening, searching for a new way of speaking, a new way of talking about these identities. Our fear is simple: if we believe that identity is maintained through the repetition of naming, through the reiteration of category systems that preserve the inequities of power, then each and every time we use “at-risk” or “whiteness” in our writing, in our teaching, in our discourse, we recreate and maintain both systems of power. An article on riskness or academic success in education, even if it seeks to question the damage that such a label can do to a child, inevitably recreates the very idea, the very possibility of that identity. Our research is caught in a paradox; it is … a critical project that seeks to expose power systems, while simultaneously remaking and maintaining that power.
So, what good do our scare quotes “really” do?
DLF: I'm not sure where to begin.
JTW: Eventually every class I observe goes there. I know what will happen before I get there.
[Page 177]DLF: I keep at it though, trying first one tack, and then another.
Both: It's the time in the
Both: where I encounter
JTW: the KKK.
DLF: A student who tells me she's suicidal. I took her to Subway for a sandwich. She had so much to say. Jane was a former student of mine, a hotel management major, a young, black and Italian, woman with a 2.8 GPA and some difficulty petitioning into regular admission status.
JTW: Tom is a young man, very thin and very pale. He often wears old black T-shirts that are faded and worn, displaying a rock band logo from the eighties. He is fairly vocal, takes on racial issues in class—the typical moderately liberal Midwestern young white male, if there ever was one.
DLF: Jane is bright and friendly, plays basketball like she's on fire even though she's only five feet tall.
JTW: That's when he brings up the KKK—the extreme example of white racism that is so often called upon to separate the liberal white anti-racist from those people, those racists. Often when the KKK is brought up in class, the students would do one of two things in order to construct themselves as ‘not-them.’ First, there is often a pitch change, a raising of the pitch with a twist of southern dialect. This nonverbal marking not only places racism geographically south of them, but also relies on common assumptions about the ignorant south, the stupid southern racists. Second, the KKK stories have to be larger than life, the most extreme. The bigger the separation from mundane everyday life, the more the KKK gets framed as the easily recognizable antithesis of themselves. Thus, they get constructed as the sympathetic white wo/man who is astonished and angered by this example of racism. Additionally, the KKK serves as an active example of racism, localizing racism to a single intentional act—that KKK guy did this, said that, hurt them—and allows systemic racism to be obscured, hidden.
DLF: I don't know what to do when she says, “I'm evil and it doesn't do anything but stress me out.” I think she's joking: smiling, I ask what [Page 178]she means by evil. She says, “I don't know if you want to delete this, but I'm kind of semi-suicidal.” And so, where should I begin?
JTW: And so Tom begins.
DLF: In many ways I was well-prepared for qualitative research. I understood how to write questions, how to establish a rapport in an interview, how to sift carefully through the finer details to find the big picture. And yet, in so many other ways, I was wholly unprepared, left vulnerable. You might say I had just enough knowledge to be dangerous. I remember once, hearing someone at a conference ask Dwight Conquergood a question about how to exit the ethnographic site, how to know when or how to leave. I remember thinking I wouldn't need to worry about this; I wasn't going into the field, so to speak, I was going to talk with some people and learn about their lives. It was going to be a clean kind of qualitative research. No one would need me, and I could keep my distance. I wanted so desperately for Jane to be in jest, to be teasing me, tastelessly, but she wasn't. I had invited her to talk, and she had something important to say.
JTW: “This one time, I was in Chesterville. I was in this Denny's and, well, you know that Chesterville is the KKK base in this area, right? So anyway, I was with my brother and we were going to get Van Halen tickets and we went to this Denny's first. We were sitting close to the door and they came in with their black outfits and those crosses and all, that's how we knew who they were. That and they looked like assholes. Anyway, I was sitting there wearing my Jim Morrison T-shirt and they picked us to talk to. They called us faggots cause we had long hair and then spit on the table. Luckily not on our food though. They sat in the back and a friend of mine had to serve them. He said they were bad tippers. They left him like three pennies pushed into their mashed potatoes. That's worse than not getting a tip!”
DLF: How shall I write Jane in this moment? How shall I write myself? I do recall, with some strangled sense of pride, that I attempted to take care of Jane first. She told me about her best friend's recent death, her sense of isolation, her overwhelming sense of dread in the face of innumerable obligations—financial, professional, scholastic, interpersonal, familial. I wish I could say the interview was farthest from my mind, but I was acutely aware of the tape recorder, of her vulnerability, of my inexperience, of my professional obligation. Professional obligation? What is my professional obligation in these sorts of instances? Once she'd shown me a picture of her friend and [Page 179]wiped the tears from her eyes, I gulped back my own [tears] and asked whether she'd like to continue with the interview. Brightening, she said “sure.” We each took a deep breath and continued. If I say I went with her to see a counselor, does it redeem me from worrying about whether I'd have to erase the interview?
JTW: My hand is quickly trying to get down the story Tom tells, the sweat from the plastic of the pencil makes it occasionally slip. I grow both troubled and excited by the details of the story, this story by this very pale thin young man who has often noted his sometimes rocky relationship with his girlfriend. I grow troubled and excited to watch as he narrates this story, interested in the identities he constructs for us: heterosexual but the victim of homophobia, white but the victim of the KKK. He is the target and subject of KKK discourse, but can tell it in a way that still allows him to discuss the quality of their tip. My pen continues writing. There is so much here. I begin to underline key words in the passage I just copied down: Jim Morrison shirt, KKK base, looked like assholes, not on our food though, bad tippers, Van Halen tickets, faggots. I am curious about this tale—what does it do, how does it help construct Tom's identity? How does it construct the anti-racist white guy that is also the victim? Further, how does it make non-white folks feel to hear these stories about the KKK and their white victims?
DLF: As I write about education, or students, or teachers, or “at-riskness,” or whatever it is that seems to be my purview anymore, I can't do it in the same way I used to. I used to write energetic essays about what labels might mean, a dispassionate-passionate account of my own sense of others' lives. It's not that simple anymore. I am a part of what I study. On one level, this is as simple as how we understand risk. Risk is not an amalgam of traits, of race plus sexuality plus school inequities equals increased likelihood of failure; risk is instead a metaphoric understanding scholars apply to make the painful, the difficult less so—less painful, less personal, less visceral. But, if I render Jane's life in rich detail, to what extent do I re-create all the stereotypes of the at-risk student? Jane's from a poor background, she's biracial, she's small; her life has been marked by tragedy, by family crises, by disruption. That doesn't do her justice.
JTW: As I walked back to my office that day, I was smiling. I was happy to have good data for my study, for my dissertation, for some conference paper, for the ears of someone who might hear it and think [Page 180]I was smart. I was happy about seeing, marking, and deconstructing racist talk. I was happy. I was smiling. Further, I was happy that this moment uncovered how white subjects are performative accomplishments, how this KKK performance by this white student worked to recreate whiteness. This performance, this one reiteration of racist discourse, worked to make whiteness meaningful. And with that moment, I could mark the making of whiteness. The ethnographic subject in the making. Yes, I was happy. And I smiled.
DLF: I started out my dissertation writing about at-risk students. I wanted to know whether they thought of themselves in that way, and what the consequences of such a discourse might have for how they understand themselves as producers and products of the American educational system. But rather than write a dissertation about “them,” I decided I would have to write one about “us.” Meaning, I would need to think seriously about how I am implicated in the very phenomena that I study. I wonder if I did that?
JTW: I started out wanting to writing a dissertation about white students and racism. I wanted to know how they came to be who I saw in front of me. I wanted to see them in the making. But, I also felt the need to consider myself as an agent in this process. I wonder if I did that?
Both: To begin seeing them making themselves. To begin to see the making of
JTW: and ours.
Often, we dream of graduate school. We dream of sitting in a doctoral seminar, studying philosophy of communication. Our professor draws on the board a stick figure to suggest a person, a living body who is connected to whatever topic we are studying that day. We know this script, we know where she is going and we revel in her presentation. She always draws ears [Page 181]on her stick figures, little half circles to suggest that the person hears, that the person experiences sound. This is her effort to undermine the visual-centric orientation of the academy. And when she draws those ears, providing the story of why she does this, we smile and enjoy the retelling of a favorite story. These dreams of graduate school, those moments in that room, remind us of our first time—our first foray into finding new ways of hearing. What those meetings did for us, like perhaps anyone's experience in graduate school, was to ask us to rethink, to rehear a given issue. The ability to hear something in a different way, to re-imagine that sound with the urgency of possibility, is a skill, a talent, a desire we long for. Under the sedimented weight of history, we crave the ability to ask questions in ways that encourage folks not only to rethink solutions to whatever problems we address, but to also rehear the very subject of the conversation. We desire a language that undermines the stability of the category even as we address it. We long to capture the feeling in our graduate seminar—the feeling of freedom when we come to the epiphany that if we can rehear, we can imagine new possibilities.
JTW: I am sitting on my mother's couch. The sunlight occasionally breaks through the tree outside the three large windows from which I can look out onto the front lawn and the neighborhood street I used to play on when I was young. I am proofing the pages of my dissertation which I brought with me just in case I might have a spare minute during my visit home. My mother enters and we chat about my dissertation. She is supportive, interested, caring—a good mother. I can tell she is not quite sure what it is that I do, not quite sure she buys all this research on whiteness, on racism through the lens of the privileged. She picks up the first few pages and reads a narrative, a performative piece about whiteness as it manifests in a conference panel.
DLF: I am sitting in my new office, trying frantically to write a conference paper that I should have written some time ago. But this is nothing new. As a new professor, I'm teaching four classes, cultivating relationships with students and faculty, attending various departmental and university-wide committee meetings, and attempting to get published; I am quickly becoming an expert on the eleventh hour accomplishment.
JTW: When she has read the first several pages, my mother asks me what I am sure was simple question, yet when I am this deep in the project, I am very bad at answering these kinds of questions. I find I am defensive, worried that anyone might find a hole where I have so [Page 182]much at stake. She notes that she doesn't agree with my reading of this moment, noting that maybe I am making too much of all of this. “Aren't you taking this a bit too far?” I look up, her face is warm and loving, but curious and insightful. There is more to her question than a simple critique of academic masturbation. There is more, something that matters.
DLF: I look at the abstract for the paper—something I wrote nearly a half a year ago, in a different mindset, in a different place—and I attempt to make good on my promises. I recall how thrilled I was at the idea of this project. I would describe how students create at-riskness in the moment; that is to say, I would describe how at-risk students recreate their risk through everyday performative accomplishments. All I would need to do is examine my interviews with students whom the university has identified as at-risk; I would look for moments in their communication that help to keep them at-risk. Maybe they would speak in non-standard English; maybe they wouldn't place value in higher education; maybe they would reveal their lack of preparation. I really wanted this paper to be that simple.
JTW: In my ethnographic research, I have spent a great deal of time studying “subjects” who appear or self-identify as white. I have published what they did, how they did it, and what I think it means. I have critiqued their speech, their actions, and their privilege. And while I have also written about my own privilege, I realize that I have spent very little time reflecting on how I have been constituted in this research site—that my ethnographic self is inexorably tied to the work I do. That as a white scholar who reads whiteness on the bodies and actions of others, I have come to see whiteness and privilege on others, but failed to see how the repeated acts of researching, of writing, and of presenting research works to remake me as an ethnographer. I am constituted as ethnographer just as they are constituted as participants.
DLF: I recall that I asked my research participants whether they thought of themselves as at-risk students. To be truthful, I first asked students if they had heard of the term, and then what they thought it might mean. These folks seemed to know what this meant; they also did not hesitate to offer a sense of themselves as either at risk or not. I am pleased to hear students challenge the researchers' criteria; they did not readily equate demographic traits with their possibilities for change and growth. Some students immediately observed [Page 183]that they were at risk in the same sense as anyone—we are always already subject to perils unknown. Other students felt that they were not at risk; they were individuals who cannot be lumped in with a crowd—everyone addresses challenges in her or his own way.
JTW: But the question my mother asks me is more than simply reflecting on how I am constituted as a researcher, on how I am constituted as a particular kind of ethnographer who does and argues a particular kind of scholarly point. Rather, her question suggests that my reading of them matters—that I am implicated in this work, never neutral. That it too is a form of creation, a form of making. That their performances of whiteness are not their own. That I am not reading them, but rather (re)creating them on the page. I am manipulating their words and their bodies in order to make my ethnographic point. This is not to erase the ways these white students actively created their own privilege in these classrooms, but rather to insist that I am implicated in that production. Further, the writing and presentation of those moments serve as another reiteration of whiteness. That my scholarship, even if it is intended to undermine the structures of whiteness, reinscribes whiteness by making it a possible identity. My ethnographic identities are tied to the production of whiteness, a system in which this paper is now a part. It is the insidious nature of whiteness to grow stronger under the eye of s/he who critiques it. It is the nature of whiteness to allow me to feel pleasure in finding racism, in uncovering the daily maintenance of power, in the (re)constitution of privilege. And through this, I, with pleasure and pain, reconstitute myself and that which I strive to erase.
DLF: This gives me pause. Was I an at-risk student? In some ways yes and, in some ways, no. While I did not meet all of the standard demographic criteria, I can certainly think of times in my life when I struggled to survive in education. And it occurs to me: If I want to learn about how at-riskness is accomplished in everyday moments, I should look at myself. Even as I attempt to deconstruct dilapidated models of educational failure, I repair them in my own assumptions, in my own critique, in my own discourse. And so I attempt to pluck a tensive path between engaging the other in the hope of social meaning and challenging discursive practices by breathing life into them, reinflating them in hopes of helping them explode.
Both: How can one undermine
[Page 184]JTW: whiteness
Both: without simultaneously reconstructing it?
This paper ends where it began. It begins with one of us a year and a half after defense, with the other just months after completing the dissertation. It begins and ends here, where we again meet to reconstitute ourselves, our subjects, our participants, our identities as academic agents working toward social justice, toward articulating a space in the overlap of qualitative research and cultural studies. It is in that space where we feel the freedom of an academic language that privileges the experiential, the communicative, the critical, the performative.
This essay begins and ends with more questions than answers. Those questions leave us asking what to do now, now that we had said this. Paulo Freire once wrote that “changing language is part of the process of changing the world.” We hear his plea; we embrace what we feel is the power behind that ideal—to change the ways in which we conceptualize the problem opens it up to possibility. It is a changed world we desire: an educational system where we hurt students less, a social world where we inflict less racial violence upon one another. We desire that end. And it is to that end that we look at how our research works to remake and rebuild the very oppressive structures we seek to undermine. We ask these questions because to realize our own participation in these systems of power only leaves us as researchers accountable for fostering a new language that serves possibility.
And we do not think this project is without possibility. We do not think we are forever trapped in confines of our language, our bodily actions, or our sedimented ways of thinking and being. For it is exactly the performative power of identity that makes change possible. That is, if we think of identity, those labels and structures which constitute us, as performative accomplishments, then we must also accept the possibility that they can be created differently. But how? How does one go about this project in a way that does not work against us? We can't hope to answer this question for everyone, but we can at least point to this essay, this articulation as a way of changing our language, our talk about how subjectivity is constituted. We believe that the idea that identity is reconstituted and rebuilt through each utterance can be, if we allow it to be, a moment of strength. The notion of rebuilding identity from the sedimented remains of history means that we can, with analysis and reflexivity, rebuild those categories in different ways. We can do this remaking, this reconstituting, with subtle changes—those [Page 185]subtle complexities that can undermine the simplicity of racial category systems, denying the “this or that” logic of race or risk. It is in the reconstitution, the rearticulation of these identity categories that lie the possibility of imagining new ways of relating to each other. The most damning thing one can do to these naturalized structures is point out the constructedness. It is through this altered way of thinking that we hope this analysis begins; it is with this possibility that we offer this critique. And with that possibility comes the hope of less violence, for this paper does end with the hope that by locating the making of social difference we might foster a new way of seeing how systems of oppression and domination persist. This paper began as a study of others, but like most, tells us more about ourselves. It is funny that way.Note
1. We originally performed this essay at the 2000 National Communication Association summer conference on cultural politics. We have maintained much of the form and style to reflect that moment, that time. As with all essays that are constructed at a particular historical time, social positions change and degrees are earned. However, we maintain the voice of the moment here, working to capture the struggle we encountered in trying to articulate our researching selves. We based the dialogical form of this essay on a performative essay performed by Kirk Fuoss and Randall Hill at the 1999 National Communication Association annual convention on a panel entitled “Rehearsing History: Roundtable on Performance Historiography.” Inspired by their mixture of voices, we gratefully acknowledge their influence in the conception and writing of this essay.Influential Sources1993). Bodies that matter: On the discursive limits of “sex.”New York: Routledge.(1991). Rethinking ethnography: Towards a critical cultural politics. Communication Monographs, 58, 179–194. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03637759109376222(1997). Interpretative ethnography: Ethnographic practices for the 21st century. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.(During, S. (Ed.). (1993). The cultural studies reader. New York: Routledge. http://dx.doi.org/10.4324/9780203190784Ellis, C., & Bochner, A. P. (Eds.). (1996). Composing ethnography: Alternative forms of qualitative writing. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.1992). Pedagogy of hope: Reliving Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum.([Page 186]1967). Studies in ethnomethodology. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.(Giroux, H. A. (Ed.). (1991). Postmodernism, feminism, and cultural politics: Redrawing educational boundaries. Albany: SUNY Press.2000). Writing the new ethnography. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.(Hill, M. (Ed.). (1997). Whiteness: A critical reader. New York: NYU Press.1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. New York: Routledge.(1993). Schooling as a ritual performance: Towards a political economy of educational symbols and gestures ((2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.1999). Whiteness: The communication of social identity. Thousands Oaks, CA: Sage., & (Parker, A., & Sedgwick, E. K. (Eds.). (1995). Ferformativity and performance. New York: Routledge.1999). Writing performance: Poeticizing the researcher's body. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.(1998). Performative writing. In P.Phalen & J.Lane (Eds.), The ends of performance (pp. 73–103). New York: NYU Press.(1995). Children and families “at-promise”: Deconstructing the discourse of risk. Albany: SUNY Press., & (2001). Doing whiteness: On the performative dimensions of race in the classroom. Communication Education, 50, 91–108. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03634520109379237(
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About the Authors[Page 203]
Deanna L. Fassett received her Ph.D. in Speech Communication from Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. She is Associate Professor of Communication Studies at San José State University. She has published essays in several education and communication studies journals, including Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, Communication Education, Multicultural Education, and Qualitative Inquiry.
John T. Warren received his Ph.D. in Speech Communication and Performance Studies from Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, where he is currently an associate professor. His publications include the books Performing Purity: Whiteness, Pedagogy and the Reconstitution of Power and Casting Gender: Women and Performance in Intercultural Contexts, as well as essays in several education and communication studies journals, including Educational Theory, Communication Education, and Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies.