Blogbook -- Decolonizing Our Languaging

Entry 41 

I’ve spent the last blogbook post (post 40) making a case against argument (sort of), but I also agree that much college writing does ask for argument and not persuasion in the way that the CCSS, and most other writing standards and outcomes such as the WPA OS, articulate it. There is a lot to be gained by understanding and learning about argument and its textual focus on evidence, linear logics, and arrangement. The impulse to cite sources and start by offering what others have said before you in a discussion practices a kind of honoring and respect to others that is important and helpful in most decisions and exchanges. Citing and acknowledging the words of others can be an act of humility, but it can also be peacocking, off-putting, and disingenuous. College courses and professors often – usually – ask for logocentric writing, writing focused on the individual writer staking their claim in the “they say/I say” format, and college writing tends to favor a stance of “neutrality,” “objectivism,” and reason in the classical Western sense. 

These expectations for languaging in college come from the habits of white language (HOWL, see post 28) historically structured in our schools, disciplines, and professions. They circulate as criteria for good languaging in those places because of the elite white people who established and maintained such places through history, people like the CCSS validation committee and those they reference in their appendix, people like Bryan Gardner, William Strunk, E.B. White, Gerald Graff, Neil Postman, Joseph M. Williams, Lawrence McEnerney, Maxine Hairston, and Richard Fulkerson. 

I name these scholars not because they are bad people. They are not, quite the opposite. I name them because I wish to call attention to their whiteness, and how difficult it is to escape that whiteness. They are all white and draw primarily on habits of white language, white epistemologies and rhetorics of coloniality that create relations of domination for students of color and other minoritized students. These relations harm all of us, even those who are from elite white groups, only the harm is different for them. Our classrooms shouldn’t reproduce these unjust and unequal relations in the name of some modernist notions of “progress” or a paternalistic sense of what’s “best for our students” (note 284). Instead, our pedagogies should, in the words of the decolonial scholar Walter Mignolo, be practices of “delinking” in classrooms in order for all of us to enact decoloniality (note 285). 

Mignolo states that “[r]emoving the mask of the modern/colonial enunciation (the heart of the CMP [Colonial Matrix of Power]) is a fundamental and basic task of delinking and decolonial thinking” (note 286). One way to understand delinking as a critical activity in English language classrooms is to understand it as inquiries about the racialized history and role that particular forms of English have and continue to play in global economic systems of capital, which are maintained by schools and their standards of literacy. HOWL is one analytical tool that helps us delink our languaging from the CMP. It is an analytical tool that helps us interrogate where our habits of language come from, and even that we have particular habits of language that come from historically situated white, elite, masculine, heteronormative, and mostly Christian groups of people. Confronting the ways conventional and hierarchical systems of evaluation and grading reproduce racialized and harmful relations in the classroom is another way to delink in our courses. As you may glimpse here, an antiracist orientation (see post 22) can be vital to engaging in delinking and decolonial work in language classrooms. 

Mignolo is drawing on Anibal Quijano, a Peruvian sociology professor vital to the growth of decolonial studies, and the scholar who coined the term “coloniality of power.” This term references the ways in which domination in South American places have historically occurred by identifying two central elements or dimensions of our world today. The first is that all forms of “labor, production, and exploitation” form “an axis of capital and the world market.” The second is that at the same time the first element was developing in history, which coincides with the development of the U.S.A., the concept of race was also developed to “codify the relations between the conquering and conquered populations” of the globe (note 287). During the “Renaissance imaginary” and the “Enlightenment imaginary,” both racism and sexism emerged as “two constitutive pillars of the colonial matrix of power [CMP]” (note 288). Racism and sexism are shorthand ways to identify these hierarchical relations of power, and call attention to the ways those relations become naturalized, even when we agree that race or even gender are not biological or “natural.”

Race is central to what Mignolo terms “modernity/coloniality/decoloniality.” The terms in this triad, separated and joined by the slashes, are inseparable yet separated. You cannot have decoloniality without coloniality. You don’t have coloniality without modernity (note 289). They are consubstantial to each other, or to use Buddhist terms, they inter-are. Modernity and coloniality and decoloniality are interconnected. The triad, we might say, represents a triple paradox. In one sense, this is the lesson we might take from chapter 1 (posts 1-28) of this blogbook, where I tried to historize race as an historical phenomenon, a concept, a discourse, and ultimately a part of our languaging, through HOWL and the white supremacy of grading.

HOWL circulates in the ways we talk to each other as teachers around the watercooler or in the teachers’ lounge. Just like the authors of the CCSS, we too cannot escape the whiteness, but we can notice it, counter it, and most of all, not brush aside such countering as nonsense or complaining, or pie-in-the-sky dreaming of idealized classrooms and instruction. Countering is how we delink. It’s identifying the epistemological and ontological constructions that make our standards and habits of language seem so natural, so right, so universal. 

Without the hierarchies embedded in our logics and judgments, without HOWL as our standards – without a single standard to guide our judgments as teachers – we must depend on other things in our teaching than ranking and judging in the conventional sense. Think of this conventional teacher-judging as judging to rank students or their performances. The central impulse or question is: How good is this writing or how good is this student as a writer? Once we engage in languaging learning as acts of delinking, once we enact decolonial languaging, our practices of evaluation become interrogations of our languaging without the need to rank. We act compassionately through our reading and assessing of student languaging. Our central impulse or question can be: What do I mis/understand about this writing and what does that mis/understanding reveal to me about my own languaging? 

From Rogers to Aikido

It may seem like I’m suggesting we focus our teaching of writing on the Rogerian argumentation model, which came out of the theories of the psychologist, Carl Rogers (note 290). While not formulated as a rhetoric, Roger’s method came out of his psychiatric work with patients and small group sessions. It was meant to help individuals understand and empathize with others. Rogerian method was a way for finding common and middle grounds in order to make decisions, and was also a way for opposing people to hear each other better. It is a decidedly different orientation to argument than the Western, Greek-influenced, agon-centered, logocentric method that I’ve been describing as typical. Rogerian argumentation as pedagogy feels less colonizing, I think. 

But it is still Western, focusing on individuals’ points of view and arguments -- that is, it takes as a premise that there are competing points of view that are attributable to individuals, that there is an us and a them. It’s often framed in writing classrooms as a gentler way to win logocentric arguments. Logos is still central. Rogerian argumentation attributes positions to individuals in order to find what is common between them with the goal to win or come to some mutual decision. 

The goal is never to interrogate the epistemic grounds by which any given languaging creates its position(s) or the terms by which the exchange occurs. While it could be, the goal in most Rogerian framed exchanges is not to understand the most ethical and sustainable decisions possible, not to delink the epistemic grounds of each utterance in the exchange, not to deeply attend to the various ways any given course of action will affect each person or group involved in the exchange. There is nothing inherently decolonial or antiracist about Rogerian models of argumentation. You would need an antiracist orientation to use such a model as a way to teach writing in a course if you wanted it to do antiracist work, if you wanted your classroom not to harm your students. 

Don’t get me wrong. The Rogerian method is a doable alternative to a winner-take-all, conflict-based argument model, but it still easily prioritizes HOWL as the main way to communicate and value expressions, particularly in language classrooms. This reinforces white language supremacy if explicit care is not taken to identify and counter or delink HOWL. The Rogerian method doesn’t dwell on the relations, the in-between places that form power and exchanges when looking for common ground. It does focus our attention more on the people in the exchange – that’s good – but the terms of most or all exchanges are still Western and work through or from HOWL.

From Buddhist Inter-Being to A Philosophy of Reciprocity

Barry Kroll’s Aikido-influenced way of teaching argument might be seen as a similar method, but there is a difference. Because Aikido is centrally about protecting all parties in the conflict, its orientation is us together, not you against me. It really isn’t agon, a fight. It’s a dance that requires everyone. If you’ve ever seen an Aikido exhibition, you’ll know what I mean. This orientation to the world is more context- and harmony-based, which some researchers say is a distinctively East Asian way of understanding the world (note 291). Mignolo acknowledges the importance of this orientation too and its centrality in delinking narratives of modernity that reproduce coloniality. He explains, “Most of culture and civilizations on the planet see relations while in the West we are taught to see entities, things” (note 292). 

He’s speaking of the distinctions between the ontological orientation of the West that creates racism and sexism through naturalized hierarchies, and in the process, elides how we come to know such “things,” that is, hides the epistemologies of racism and sexism. He’s also alluding to the ways Western European epistemologies have codified a Cartesian mind-body separation and a nature-culture split. These assumptions are crucial to Western ideas of argumentation. 

A similar critique of the dominant Western orientations to the teaching of writing can be found in Robert P. Yagelski’s Writing as a Way of Being. His argument is that the act or practice of writing is a “way of being” in the world and connected to the person/writer and environment, which is not the way it is conventionally taught in college classrooms. A student writes a paper. The paper doesn’t write the student, and the student does not become human because of their acts of writing. 

Yagelski disagrees. He claims writing is ontological, and is not separable from who we are or how we come to be in the world, and how we understand ourselves in the world – that is, understanding languaging as a way of being helps us understand how we falsely separate ourselves from our environments, our world, and create exploitative practices that have caused us to live in environmental crises of sustainability. Yagelski is not arguing a decolonial practice, even if much of it agrees with decoloniality as a practice, but his first few chapters on “the crisis of sustainability,” which critiques Western, Cartesian ways of understanding our relations to the world and language are useful ways to delink such Western and white habits of language that become our standards and outcomes (note 293). The critique also reveals why our current orientations toward language and outcomes are so naturalized that they are difficult to resist.

Another way to understand what I’m getting at is to understand languaging as encounters, as engagements with people in particular historical contexts. How we come to this place to engage and what this place affords us in our engagement are just as important as our points of disagreement and the things we bring to the exchange. Equally important is the way we each are a part of the other’s orientation. To invoke Kenneth Burke’s dramatistic pentad, from one way of viewing things, I am a part of your scene, an actor in your drama, your action, or your purpose. Or I am a part of all of these relations in our engagement, separated yet inseparable. We are only a whole together, consubstantial and interconnected. We are a part of our mutual relations. We are not separated, but slashed together and apart: you/me/us/here/languaging/(mis)understanding each other.

As Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist monk and long-time social activist, has said, we “inter-are” (note 294). Aikido understands that you and I are situated in time and place in particular ways, facing particular directions, moving along our own vectors, yet connected. We both need each other in order to be what we are in the places we are at, and we need to be safe. This, to my view, is a broader, less individualistic, less Western, and less whitely orientation to language. It’s also a more compassionate and sustainable way of engaging one another on the soil that allows us the occasion for such exchanges. And it may afford us the necessity of noticing that soil, its history, and its health. The soil is an actor in our drama too. This orientation doesn’t need to replace HOWL, a focus on text and claims, but sit next to it in our classrooms. HOWL is paradoxically needed too. 

I’m reminded of Robin Wall Kimmerer, the indigenous biologist. While not a writing teacher or rhetorical theorist, she offers an example of one kind of Potowatomi-inspired rhetorical ethic based on an indigenous philosophy. She calls it the “philosophy of reciprocity.” She’s thinking about all the gifts that sustain and make life possible on Earth. She explains that someone has told her before that it is arrogant to think that we can “give back to Mother Earth anything approaching what she gives us.”  Kimmerer says, “I honor the edbesendowen, the humility inherent in that perspective. And yet it seems to me we humans have gifts in addition to gratitude that we might offer in return” (note 295).  

Kimmerer’s students, who are out camping with her for several weeks for an ethnobotany class, discuss their responsibility to the Earth for what it freely gives us. She listens. They come up with a range of creative ideas. Kimmerer concludes, “This is our work, to discover what we can give. Isn’t this the purpose of education, to learn the nature of your own gifts and how to use them for good in the world?” (note 296). Taken as a rhetorical philosophy that might guide our standards for languaging in classrooms, Kimmerer’s philosophy of reciprocity seems an ethical and sustainable option, one that builds and feeds us with each other’s languaging, and one that might offer alternatives that sit next to, not necessarily replace, HOWL.

In a CNN expose, “Losing Languages, Losing Words,” by Moria Morava, and designed by Sarah-Grace Mankarious and Marco Chac√≥n, Kimmerer discusses language in this reciprocal way. Her comments reveal some of the epistemic violence done through an unexamined use of HOWL, which she compares to her own indigenous Potawatomi languaging practices: 

As Kimmerer learned, Potawatomi contains a structure that differs from English in its denial of human exceptionalism. While English separates humans and things by pronouns – he/she/they or “it” – Potawatomi is more concerned with what is living and what is not. And all living things, human or not, are offered equal grammatical value.

“In English, you and I would never refer to each other as ‘it’ -- but we feel free to call trees ‘it,’ and flowers and insects ‘it,’ Kimmerer said. “The ‘it-ing’ of the world that English does … is a kind of permission for an exploitative economy. When we call them it, we set them outside our circle of responsibility.” (note 297)

Kimmerer enacts a decolonial languaging by delinking the ways pronouns are used in English to separate us from our world, to create relations of exploitation that harm us all by first harming the soil and trees and plants and animals and air and water and oceans. She reveals the epistemic violence of English pronoun use. In a very different way, a similar lesson can be taken from Yagelski’s discussion of writing as a way of being. Kimmerer shows us just how we language ourselves into relations of separation from our planet, languaging in ways that create deadly apocalyptic relations to the air, soils, and waters. And it all can be seen in how we refer to a Tree as “it.” Our HOWLing language does not afford us ways to enact Kimmerer’s philosophy of reciprocity. 

However in a reciprocal classroom, students strive to learn to understand their own languaging gifts in community, as relations that tie them to or separate them from others, their places, and their histories. They practice giving their words to the world and those around them from a place of reciprocal gratitude, not claim-staking as in “they say/I say” methods, which calls forth the settler colonial practice of stealing land (“staking a claim”) from Indegious peoples in the U.S. This also means that when we listen or read others’ languaging, we deeply attend to them -- both their words and themselves -- humbly with respect and thanks, even if we don’t understand them completely or agree. 

That is, listening and attending to others’ languaging does not need to mean we agree, but it is more than simply “agreeing to disagree.” It’s agreeing to emphatically understand and respect, agreeing to continue to listen on others’ terms first. And most crucially, agreeing to speak back what we hear others saying, and what we hear underneath their words, the worldviews, the values, the assumptions, the consequences. We agree to delink in our languaging. We agree to name and attend to the consequences of our languaging in order to compassionately language for others’ benefit.

Yeah, it sounds idealistic and impossible. That’s only because we don’t “normally” think or language in decolonial ways. We tend to language in colonial ways, ways that colonize, ways that exploit and separate us from others and our world.  

In a reciprocal classroom, students and teacher also frame their responses as their own, not universal ones. And responses to languaging are about understanding our own ways of languaging, which can help others understand theirs. Responses to language and people are not about changing other people, but nurturing relations with them. We exchange gifts together. Such a gift from another is a sacrifice they’ve made for you. A gift of language from another is a gift of a part of that person, and can be a symbol of connection, of our inter-being-ness. So of course, the goal should be to protect everyone in the engagement, all the language gift-givers. And so, from a classroom of reciprocity, ranking or grading language-gifts is not only rude and disrespectful but not reciprocal in the way I’m translating Kimmerer with Aikido, Yagelski, and Hahn.

Now, I hope you can hear how I’m thinking about how to teach languaging in ways that reveal the ways our words move in the world, the conditions we live in, and what consequences our languaging has on different people, situated differently in the world. I’m not assuming sameness in people or in how we attend to words, our world, and others. The alternatives to argument I’m describing are rooted in human activities and environments that require a host of languaging habits. Here’s a few I’m thinking are important at this moment: 

  • Listening first to others and listening to the places that afford us exchanges
  • Acting compassionately toward others, finding compromise, and offering self-sacrifice as the basis of the ethical
  • Finding middle grounds through deep humility and resisting agon and position-taking
  • Enacting reciprocity, gift-giving, and the protection of everyone in a place, which includes protecting that place because it is vital and consubstantial to everyone – it too is alive (and a life) and deserves respect not exploitation or the denial of its own sacredness
  • Considering the conditions and consequences of our languaging as more important than any individual’s motives or reasons
  • Accounting for each person’s politics and social positioning in language exchanges
  • Crafting sustainable gift-giving discourse – that is, languaging that sustains, does no harm, and always tries to heal 
  • Cultivating a willingness to sit bravely in the company of paradox

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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.

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