bonnie lenore kyburz
I was drawn into the field of Rhetoric and Composition when I read Mike Rose’s Lives on the Boundary: The Struggles and Achievements of America’s Underprepared (Free Press, 1989). I myself had been radically underprepared for college when I began “studying” in the early eighties. For the most part, I studied punk rock, performed in several bands, rarely went to class, and was eventually placed on “permanent suspension.” Returning to college years later and far more ideally motivated, Rose’s stories activated a desire in me, and I began to wonder if I might do the kinds of good work he had done. I responded positively and soon became fairly enchanted.
By now, you are registering my words as one of many “conversion narratives” we find so often within the field. I hope that you see also that my enchantment derives from my failures, from my “borderland” experience; it is my sense that working in the interstitial spaces of institutional life has been the difference. I am drawn to disorientation and disruption as states of being most conducive to change and emergence. I find pedagogical value in seeking to work within the liminal spaces we find moving ghostly within academic life. And it is from these liminal spaces of possibility that I find my motivation to help students develop a disposition to textual ambiguity and inquiry that motivates critical habits of mind, practice, and being.
If pressed to articulate my pedagogy briefly, I might say that I encourage an active, student-centered, inquiry-based pedagogy. In my classrooms, I try to help students develop problematic, engaging questions and concepts that are interesting both as “academic” subject matter and also as cultural artifacts/texts about which students desire further awareness or through which they wish to articulate some emergent disposition or affect or fully-developed argument. The student writing or “composing” that I promote may evolve as a traditional written text; it may also emerge in non-print form, although there is always a print component to the work I assign, given an academic context that continues to privilege print-based expression and argument.
Because of my concern for examining language in the context of thinking about knowledge and power--as a way of motivating rhetorically effective projects that want to surface, examine, analyze, deconstruct, and respond strategically to our emergent awareness of power relations in discourse--my students do not, responding to the demands of academic culture, always adopt alternative forms or hybrid styles in shaping their projects (in fact, our work shows us that often, regrettably, they should not do so). Nevertheless, by raising the possibilities of alternative rhetorics—which are obviously operational beyond the academy as multimodal texts, such as TV, film, and websites, the kinds of texts with which our students most likely engage—it seems likely that through our work together, students may develop an appreciably critical disposition toward textuality. That is to say, my hope is that our work together motivates rhetorical awareness that prepares them to encounter and engage in textual practices in a wide variety of contexts, to respond to existing texts with care and sophistication, and to produce their own engaging and effective arguments within a given cultural context.
Finally, I want to emphasize that I abhor pedagogies that call upon students to become simply obedient. Instead, I encourage students to explore by thinking critically, spontaneously, and with a sense of possibility as they work to problematize positions in multivalent exchanges that shape the classroom experience. Through such exchanges, I hope to promote pleasure and excitement as natural components of engaged, communal inquiry. I encourage students to see themselves as capable of guiding inquiry through dialogue, collaboration, peer mentoring, and (some) negotiation of course aims and texts. Over time, such practices seem to promote students’ emergent critical and analytical thinking practices, engendering writing/composing skills that evidence increasingly sound reasoning and rhetorical sophistication.