Sunday, March 4, 2012

Becoming Fluent in the Rhetoric of Empowerment

I read an article by Elizabeth Flynn called  “Composing as a Woman” wherein she assigns gender to different rhetorical styles and notes that these differences (linearity and nonlinearity) are related to unequal places in the social order. The article focuses on American English and American comp studies.

In response, I am troubled that Flynn advises women to cling to and celebrate their non-linear approaches. Instead, I think that oppressed people (whoever they are) might consider becoming adept in the linear rhetorical approach as a way of finding a stronger place in the social order. 

Obviously, there are problems with that approach as well. For example, what might be lost or overlooked without the nonlinear perspective? 

Rhetorical Fluency
Maybe it's similar to teaching speakers of nonstandard dialects to be fluent in standard dialects, so that they are able to shift back and forth as the situation demands. Maybe women should be as "fluent" in a linear rhetorical approach to writing as they are in a nonlinear approach. 

After all, isn't part of rhetoric choosing which approach is right for the occasion? Furthermore, isn't advising women to continue to write in a way that is indicative of a lower place in the social order a way of fossilizing women into that lower position?

"Feminized" Comp Studies
Flynn points out that, thanks to process pedagogy, wherein the teacher nurtures rather than directs, composition studies have been "feminized." Feminist scholars, who are usually in the same department as comp programs, note that the marginality of comp departments may be linked to the marginality of women.

I am intrigued by these observations and their implications. But instead of exploring them, Flynn delves into the question of how the findings of feminist researcher apply to student writing.

The Social Differences
Feminists argue that men and women differ as a result of an imbalance in the social order. What are these differences?
  • We identify rather than stress difference: First, research suggests women have different self-conceptions and modes of interaction as a result of our early relationships with our mothers. Girls never give up our primary identification with our mothers, whereas masculine identification stresses difference from others, including the mother.
  • Morality equals responsibility rather than rights: Women tend to define morality in terms of conflicting responsibilities rather than competing rights, illustrated by metaphors of a web and a ladder, respectively. 
  • Interpersonal is considered feminine, while abstraction is considered masculine: In regards to intellect, our culture labels abstraction and the impersonal as “thinking,” in contrast to the interpersonal which it labels as “emotions;” two modes of thinking our culture attributes to men and women respectively, although they are present in both genders.   
  • Intuition plays as strong a role in intellectual development as authority does: Women’s stages of intellectual development are linked to the development of an authoritative, public voice as well as the ability to integrate intuitive knowledge with externally acquired knowledge.
How does this play out in writing?
Flynn wanted to know if these relational, moral and intellectual differences find their way into women’s writing in first-year composition. It's an interesting question, but to answer it Flynn did not use a scientific approach. Instead she chose student writing samples that already met her criteria, i.e., she chose female students’ writing that focused on relationships and males students’ writing that focused on achievements. 

Flynn advises writing teachers to provide a critical perspective by making gender differences in behavior and language the class subject of investigation. This alerts students to “the possibility that gender affects the way readers, writers and speakers use language” (433).

This seems like an interesting and productive approach to critical cultural studies. 

To Write Like a Man, or Not
But next Flynn's bias takes over, when she advises teacher to alert female students of the limitations of attempting to “think like a man” in order to take part fully in our culture. She explains that to compose as a woman is not to avoid composing as a man, since identity through differentiation is a masculine concept. Instead, she writes, composing as a woman is active rather than reactive; it is to make connections “between facts and ideas which men have left unconnected” (435). 

So Flynn is pointing out that abandoning a nonlinear rhetorical approach would be to lose possible connections and insight. 

I have to agree when it comes to thinking, but in regards to writing, there is more to consider. Flynn also notes that the differences between men’s and women’s thinking and writing are less related to their gender than to their placement in the social order.


Social Inequality and Nonlinearity
These differences, Flynn writes are “the result of an imbalance in the social order, of the dominance of men over women” (425). Therefore, the linearity is the rhetorical style of dominance, and the nonlinear the style of the oppressed.

If that is true, then it is all the more important for women and others who may lack social status to be able to present their insights in a way that has resonance and power in the culture.

In other words, I argue that for optimum rhetorical effect on the dominant culture, those who occupy a lower place in the social order (women or whoever they might be) should, after arriving at their ideas and insights via nonlinear avenues, present them in the fashion that has greatest impact on the dominant culture.

The Trouble with Nonlinear Approaches
Reading this article brought to mind also a young woman I know, who is attempting to define for herself what it means to be a woman. This is an example of conflicting responsibilities defining morality.

At 18, “Amanda" instantly acquired three step-children. Now at 23, she works full time and goes to school half-time. When she comes home after work, she cooks and cleans and does everyone’s laundry, then does her homework after everyone goes to bed. Last night on the phone, she laughingly told me she is near a nervous breakdown. 

But her definition of what a good woman/wife are do not seem to permit her to rearrange this situation. Personally, I would already have had the nervous breakdown, run away from home or, at the very least, delegated aggressively. Only Amanda’s youth and inner strength have allowed her to tolerate it thus far. 

These conflicting responsibilities define Amanda's morality. To suggest that she change this situation, in the interests of fairness and sanity, is to suggest she become less of a woman. Meanwhile, her husband is busily defining his morality by his rights, to have a “good” woman to take care of these matters for him, the right to a meal waiting on the table, the right to have his expectations met.

I am interested in how Flynn's observations apply to first-year composition, but her article, just as it seems to promise to answer my question, ends. So I still don’t know. 

Yet, I feel that I have observed this conflict in the writing of two different students. One is a freshman, female and 18 years old, who has difficulty crystallizing her profound ideas into her essays. She thinks she has done it, when the ideas are still scattered and hidden within her lack of structure. The other is a graduate student trying to draw elements of Native American epistemology into her academic writing. In both cases there is a struggle between linearity and nonlinear thinking, between abstraction and interconnectedness. 

The grad student solved her rhetorical problem with a river metaphor, where one idea flows into the next and there is no pretension to abstraction, no pretending that anything can exist independently of its context, a notion strongly echoed in the writings of Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin.

All Flynn offers is the caveat that women should not “immasculate” their writing, not attempt to make their writing masculine. Is that what we do when we pretend anything can be abstracted? Is that what we do when we structure our essays, develop our ideas in paragraphs?

I don’t think so. But perhaps I write like a man.

I tell students that the structure is a way of being considerate of the reader’s time. Opening paragraphs hint at what is to come. Topic sentences do too. The reader needs these to decide whether to read at all! 

Writing for Empowerment
After considering Flynn's article, I am left to continue pondering the questions:  

If we teach students in the American university writing classroom to master a linear structure for their thoughts and writing, will that raise their standing in the social order?

Could teaching linearly structured writing be a way to challenge oppression?

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