Blogbook -- Only White Men

Entry 39

Let’s look deeper into the CCSS’ appendix to understand the fullness of the problem of whiteness, which is a bigger problem in the academy than just the CCSS. This problem comes from the historical and material conditions we live in. The anonymous authors of the appendix draw on only white male university professors and writing researchers to make their point about the outcomes of writing classrooms being mostly logocentric and “argument” based. They reference Gerald Graff, Neil Postman, Joseph M. Williams, and Lawrence McEnerney. They quote Williams and McEnerney of the University of Chicago Writing Program, and explain that the authors “define argument not as ‘wrangling’ but as ‘a serious and focused conversation among people who are intensely interested in getting to the bottom of things cooperatively’” (note 264). 

This ain’t a bad way to think about arguments, for sure. I like the focus on “getting to the bottom of things” through cooperation. But it isn’t the only way to approach arguments, or discussions, or solving problems, finding answers, or developing new questions to enduring situations.

But we might also ask: What does it mean exactly to “get to the bottom of things”? This metaphor has embedded in it a Western, linear logic, a ladder metaphor, which assumes an answer or a bottom to get to. It smells like a paternalistic orientation – with an emphasis on the “pater” (father) – when we make it an organizing principle to our pedagogies and lessons. Who are the ones we often think of when we think about who must get to the bottom of things? Parents? Those in charge? Those who know better and must dole out rewards and punishments? 

“Wait until your father gets home. . .” that used to be the saying. Maybe it still is. I don’t know if it is a real thing mothers say in homes to their kids because my mom wasn’t home most of the time. She was working three jobs. I was by myself with my brother. Waiting for my mother to get home was a chronic thing, and it was a good thing when she got home. Thus in my home like many others, there was no dad to come home and get to the bottom of things. I never knew my dad, but I’ve heard the saying and it seems relevant when I hear something like “let’s get to the bottom of things” from two white men. 

The phrase used by Williams and McEnerney is not just a euphemism or a colloquial way of saying something. Our words make us and our orientations to the world. Our words also orient us toward or against others. They give away our orientations, our habitual ways of walking around and using words with and against others. 

Argument as getting to the bottom of things even cooperatively isn’t the only way to approach teaching languaging to students. The indigenous writer and professor Thomas King in The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative suggests that stories are a fundamental way we language ourselves and our worlds into being, how we make meaning and think. His common refrain in the book is: “The truth about stories is that that’s all we are.” This feels like an important foundation to what Aja Martinez has taught us in Counterstory: The Rhetoric and Writing of Critical Race Theory. Martinez shows how important critical race theory’s practices of counterstories are in confronting and disrupting the dominant white narratives that make our institutions and world. Perhaps my counterstory above to the script of “wait until your father gets home” is an example. If the truth really is that all we are is our stories, then for heaven’s sake we need to preserve and encourage counterstories that are oriented against or in tension with the dominant white narratives that surround us. 

Christopher W. Tindale, whom I mentioned in the last post (post 37), suggests several other modes of languaging in his book The Anthropology of Argument, such as languaging practices that use myth, place, or the kisceral. Given what we see in contemporary movements like Black Lives Matter, arguments that go beyond logos, that tap into different human dimensions, seem vital. Doesn’t a crowd in front of a police station chanting peacefully, “defund the police!” mean something? Doesn’t a tweet or tshirt that demands that we “say their names” and lists the names of Black people killed by police call us to take on a different kind of argumentation than getting to the bottom of things? Shouldn’t those discussions or arguments be taken seriously? 

In Talkin and Testifyin and Black Talk, Geneva Smitherman offers numerous ways that Black English draws on and affords a range of various practices that make for rhetoricality, ways that are quite different from conventional white ways of languaging and that come out of Black experiences in the U.S. More recently, April Baker-Bell has made similar arguments in Linguistic Justice: Black Language, Literacy, Identity, and Pedagogy. Carmen Kynard has also drawn important histories of Black liberation movements to language practices in Vernacular Insurrections: Race, Black Protest, and the New Century in Composition-Literacies Studies. And in The Open Hand: Arguing as the Art of Peace, Barry Kroll draws on the Japanese martial art of peace, Aikido, to consider new, nonviolent ways of teaching argument in writing classrooms (note 265). When we place approaches of folks such as Thomas, Martinez, Tindale, Smitherman, Baker-Bell, Kynard, and Kroll next to the very conventional CCSS and OS – that is, when we explicitly orient ourselves and our students against such standards and outcomes as primarily white – our teaching languaging can become antiracist. It becomes less about only white men. 

The biggest problem for me about the CCSS appendix however is that none of the writing experts cited have engaged with antiracist scholarship, or the scholarship on race or other critical cultural topics that deal with racialized literacies and languages. The exception to this could be Gerald Graff. Although not a scholar on race or racism, Graff has offered book-length discussions on the problems with “the culture wars” in schools and colleges, as well as the ways such places overly value elite and overly specialized jargon and language, while avoiding engaging with popular culture and life outside of the academy. His solution is to “teach the conflicts,” a decidedly logocentric, white, middle class, masculine, agonistic approach, that is textual in nature, yet one that does leave room to include non-dominant voices next to canonized ones (note 266). 

The authors of the CCSS appendix cite his book, Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind, in order to make the point that “‘argument literacy’ is fundamental to being educated” and that “[t]he university is largely an ‘argument culture’” (note 267). You likely can hear in the title of his book the focus that Graff places on text and ideas, logos, in his “life of the mind.” It’s a promotion of the habit of white language of an individualized, rational, controlled self in and through reading competing texts in classrooms, that is, in “teaching the conflicts” textually and rhetorically. Graff’s approach also calls upon hyperindividualism and an unseen, naturalized orientation to the world that prioritizes the rational and controlled discourse that, as he argues, both public and academic debates share, even if they use different jargon to do so. In short, Graff HOWLs. 

His argument though is truthful in a descriptive sense, but is it ethical in a pedagogical sense? Doesn’t the teacher need an antiracist orientation to temper the white language supremacy of classrooms and disciplines and teachers themselves? I’m thinking of alternatives like Carlin Borsheim-Black and Sophia Tatiana Sarigianides’ Letting Go of Literary Whiteness: Antiracist Literature Instruction for White Students, which offers examples of ways to confront the whiteness of the cannon of literature in high school English classrooms (note 268). Graff’s argument is enticing, in part because he draws on his white working class roots, without naming the whiteness (of course), and because it asks teachers to consider resisting the status quo by allowing difference and conflict to exist as central in the classroom. It feels critical, and it is from one angle. It’s certainly better than just teaching canonized texts. It gives space in classrooms for BIPOC and other authors previously ignored. But how and under what conditions do those voices enter, if they even enter at all? 

Graff’s methods and orientation to the enterprise of literacy learning in schools is Western and whitely. It is based on conflict, on opposing sides. It embraces the white habit of hyperindividualism so that those sides can wrangle out their logocentric ideas in order to get to the bottom of things cooperatively. But whose voices and texts are most available to those classrooms? Whose will immediately seem to be viable to consider in the “conflicts” that are entertained? What criteria will be used to make decisions about what texts to read and place in conflict? What voices that make up the conflicts are most available to the teacher or students? 

This approach can valorize self-reliance, self-sufficiency, self-control, and “survival of the fitness,” without seriously questioning the nature of “fitness.” Through examining the competing claims in texts, we, teacher and students, are to figure out who wins the war. But the war is fought on white Western rhetorical terms in white dominant classrooms and usually with white teachers such as Graff, raised and trained in white places. Conflict in white terms defines how to teach literacy and literature for Graff. This easily turns argumentation and writing into mostly a game of winning and losing.

Key to Graff’s approach is “joining the conversation,” which means one must learn the ways to engage in a conversation in writing first, then you can make your contribution in the established ways. You learn how to fight and what it means to win a conflict in the ways that those in the past have done so. How did others do this thing before you got here? The approach makes perfect sense. It suggests a student be informed about both how to do language and what positions have come before them, as that student enters discussions and debates, as they write into them. It’s respectful to elders and those with more time in discussions we wish to enter. But it affords little to no room for new ways to enter and have conversation, let alone new definitions for what a “conversation” is. Given who has been allowed to talk, all these language parameters are elite white parameters. All the rules for engagement come from elite white places, people, texts, and languaging.  

This pedagogy is best illustrated in Gaff and Birkenstein’s immensely popular college textbook for writing courses, They Say/I Say. The book offers a series of rhetorical templates that epitomize language moves that occur in typical academic writing (note 269). In the introduction, the authors explain: “What makes writers masters of their trade is not only their ability to express interesting thoughts but their mastery of an inventory of basic moves that they probably picked up by reading a wide range of other accomplished writers” (note 270). 

All a student has to do is copy the template sentences and replace the key blank spots with their ideas and the authors they are using. Eventually, the template sentences, the rhetorical moves, the habits of language they embody, become the student’s habits. This happens through models and mimicry. But these templates come from only one group of people, one place, the white authors who wrote and published before us that are encapsulated in the templates. They come from the habits of white language that already have been dominant. It is a not-so-subtle way of maintaining elite white English hegemony by colonizing the languaging of all students: “Language like this. Do as the white authors before you have done.” 

If it were used as a descriptive study alone, the textbook They Say/I Say has lots of uses in classrooms. But the textbook is easily used badly. It could be used in classrooms as a way to get students to copy -- literally copy -- the white discourse, the template sentences, in it as the main way to do college writing. This leaves little room for differences or nondominant habits of language, or a critical attention to those templates themselves. In fact, it’s a great way to set the rhetorical terms of conflict in favor of white habits of language without labelling them as such. There is no criticism of them. There are no alternatives suggested. 

But what we don’t hear much about in this approach are the white supremacist places that the They Say/I Say’s templates invoke. When we ask students to use a template to form part of their languaging, we simultaneously ask them to embody a place that is conjured by that language template, a place that may be quite foreign to the student, or even antagonistic toward them. Tindale discusses the use of place as a way to understand particular ways of reasoning in argument. He opens the chapter, “The Places of Argument,” by explaining: “we are creatures of place, rooted in physical environments that have an influence on how we reason” (note 271). Tindale isn’t saying that place is an appeal in the way one might use appeals to logic or authority of a speaker, place is an aspect of humans and so their reasoning processes. We are in many ways consubstantial to the places we inhabit. 

Drawing on historians and sociologists, he quotes the British professor and author of numerous award-winning books of nature and people’s attitudes toward nature, Robert Macfarlane: “Landscape scapes, it is dynamic and commotion causing, it sculps and shapes us not only over the course of our lives but also instant by instant, incident by incident.” Tindale argues that the localness of people, the ways our places make us and our reasoning, means that there is no “common sense” shared too broadly. Instead, common sense is a “nostalgic reach for a level of shared experience that was never present” (note 272). 

I would add to Tindale’s conclusion that common sense, like Graff and Birkenstein’s common templates, which act as rhetorical “commonplaces,” are whitely ways that teachers and discourse itself reassert white language supremacy by assuming one kind of place in our languaging, which amounts to one kind of languageling. Thus the places we invoke or inhabit in and through our languaging in classrooms also make us or reflect us as embodied languagelings. But what happens when such white common templates do not match the languagelings in the classroom? I think Gloria AnzaldĂșa offers an answer in her famous discussion of “borderlands.” Her entire book, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza is essentially a discussion of the ways that settler colonial processes make the places we circulate, which then have different and deadly effects on the colonized than the colonizers. These effects are embodied, geographic, historical, and linguistic (note 273). 

Using Graff and Birkenstein’s templates to teach how to enter textual conversations is not just a tacit white language supremacist colonizing practice. It also reproduces blindly the languaging of only white men. This creates classrooms as only white masculine spaces. 

Why do I bring up the argument of place, common sense, and Graff’s previous work in this discussion of the CCSS appendix? Because they use him as an authority on language in the classroom. Graff, like the other white men refenced, is but one place in the cosmos of composition teaching. He’s likely the most knowable reference many readers recognize of those referenced in the appendix. He comes from and has operated primarily in a white university space, and he promotes through his scholarship and textbook the languaging of that white place, a place that has a history of mostly white men moving, talking, and writing. 

Graff’s approach is a step in a good direction, but he could easily be misused in the classroom, in my view. In fact, the CCSS appendix might contribute to this misreading of Graff by omitting important information about what he stands for. What the authors quote is a very conventional idea from him that can mean a number of things: In college, students must argue. College is an “argument culture.” While from one sense, this is true, it is not the whole truth. It is also superficial. It doesn’t get to Graff’s version of argument, teaching particular kinds of white conflicts in whitely ways, nor does it explain his borrowed version of the “conversation” metaphor that he and Birkenstein use (note 274). 

They get the conversation metaphor from Kenneth Burke’s concept of “the parlor.” The parlor metaphor is itself a white middle class metaphor. It conjures the image of many people entering and leaving a heated agonistic, unending conversation in a “parlor,” an elite white male-dominated place. Burke describes it this way: 

Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally's assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress. (note 275)

The point I’m illustrating is that we are not simply following one white rabbit. The problem ain’t just Graff. Once we follow the rabbit, we find out that everything is white, the rabbit, the hole, the carrots, everything, so much so that it’s hard to see the whiteness for all the whiteness. The whiteness of the rabbit and its hole do not seem important anymore. In fact, they seem neutral, just part of all rabbits and all holes. But what about gophers and moles and ants and the thousand other animals and insects in the ground in other kinds of holes and burrows? So I’m not picking on Graff and Birkenstein. There is much to learn from their text. I’m trying to identify the conditions in our classrooms that create the ways we come to receive something like their text, and the CCSS, and the OS. 

For instance, consider Barry Kroll’s ideas of argument. Kroll has an innovative and decidedly non-Western way of teaching argument in college writing courses at Lehigh University. Kroll uses philosophies, theories, and bodily movements from Aikido, the Japanese martial art invented by Morihei Ueshiba. Aikido is famous as a martial art that focuses mainly on defense that also protects the attacker. In The Open Hand: Arguing as an Art of Peace, Kroll shows how he uses Aikido to teach students ethical ways of languaging together in an already contentious world. The idea is to use words in a way that helps you position yourself next to those who may disagree with you. 

Argument for Kroll is not conflict in the Western sense, but an exchange that potentially creates peace, protects others first which of course protects you. Arguing as an art of peace is an orientation toward languaging that asks students to focus first on their ethical responsibilities not to harm others, to foster peace, and to see ourselves as interconnected. It ain’t an never-ending, agonistic, position-taking conversation. We do not enter a conversation in the Burkean sense. Cooperation isn’t always assumed or possible, even as a compassionate orientation toward others is. This is, of course, how I interpret Kroll. Instead we find ourselves in conditions that require us to protect and foster peace. We respond with the open hand, which may also be on our hearts. We stand or maneuver ourselves in ways that are aloof from the agon, the conflict, refusing to fight in an us vs. them way. 

And ironically, Kroll is another white man talking, even if about ideas and embodied ways of engaging that come from Japanese bodies and places. Is Kroll just doing the historical white settler colonial thing? Is he appropriating cultures and practices of color for his own advantage? How do I square that with what I’ve already said? Without Kroll we don’t get argument as the art of peace for classrooms, which I think is an important counter to dominant white ways of HOWLing and may offer ways to create counterstories that Martinez promotes. But without Morihei Ueshiba Kroll doesn’t get his ideas. And I should note that Kroll is a long-time practitioner of Aikido, so he’s quite invested in what it is and means. 

Perhaps I can find comfort in the fact that Kroll is resisting his whiteness and the white Western rhetorical traditions that make us all in U.S. classrooms. Maybe I’ve not looked hard enough to find a Japanese rhetorician who articulates the same ideas, perhaps with Japanese orientations to language and the world. I too have work to do. Our work in writing and literacy classrooms shouldn’t come from only white men.


This blog is offered for free in order to engage language and literacy teachers of all levels in antiracist work and dialogue. The hope is that it will help raise enough money to do more substantial and ongoing antiracist work by funding the Asao and Kelly Inoue Antiracist Teaching Endowment, housed at Oregon State University. Read more about the endowment on my endowment page. Please consider donating to the endowment. Thank you for your help and engagement.