Mapping the Middle Road :
An Exploration of a Possible Route to Classroom Agency
The discussion between composition theory and practical pedagogy has always been an animated one; theories emerge, only to be met with "How do I apply that in the classroom?" or "What does that have to do with what I'm actually teaching?" Nowhere has that been more evident in recent years than in debates over postmodernism. Postmodern theory has gained popularity largely due to the powerful critique it offers of existing positivist ideas; because it decenters power relationships and hierarchies, it gives previously silenced groups a voice with which to critique structures that have until now been taken for granted. Postmodern theory claims that there is no objective truth that is located outside of the constructions of language and society; thus, any "truth" is open to examination and critique. This provides scholars, especially composition and rhetoric scholars, with a very powerful can-opener to use on discourse. However, postmodern theory runs into several obstacles at the practical level.
By its very nature, postmodernism cannot be defined in positive terms. Lester Faigley claims that no satisfactory definition of postmodernism exists, and in fact "when it can be defined, the provocativeness of postmodernism will have long since ended." (Faigley p. 4) He does however list what postmodernism is not, and what it critiques: the existence of a stable, coherent self; objective truth that can be apprehended by scientific logic; the neutrality of knowledge in a political sense; the transparency of language. "There is nothing outside contingent discourses to which a discourse of values can be grounded - no eternal truths, no universal human experience, no universal human rights, no overriding narrative of human progress." (Faigley p. 8) So, to restate Faigley somewhat, postmodernism cannot offer positive directions, only critical analysis - and that critical analysis cannot be grounded anywhere. This brings up an even more telling problem with postmodern theory. If everything is contingent and relative, if there is no truth that anyone can rely on, then how does one act in accordance with postmodern principles? To bring the discussion down to the classroom level, how does one teach if everything is purely relative? It certainly makes grading a bit trickier, just to name one particular stumbling point. This leads to what I tend to call "postmodern paralysis," an inability to act in the classroom without violating one's theoretical principles. Also, very few people are comfortable with pure relativism. Most instructors will admit, when pressed, that they do have certain values, principles, and ethics. How do we leave these at the door of the classroom without looking like hypocrites to our students?
The concern for ethics in the classroom, particularly the composition classroom, is not a new one by any means. Richard Weaver, writing in the 1950s and early '60s, wrote of composition instructors, "[Those who instruct] are turning loose upon the world a power. Where do we expect the wielders of that power to learn the proper use of it?" (CPR p. 77) Just as postmodern theory holds that language and knowledge are not innocent or neutral, neither can we pretend that as composition instructors we are simply teaching an innocent skill. Few of us would feel comfortable if one of our students, taking his instruction in persuasive argument to heart, turned and used that skill to defraud the elderly of their life savings. While this is an extreme and possibly ridiculous example, it does point to the fact that, though we don't wish to dictate our values to students, we nevertheless have them. Postmodern theory seems to leave us no place for these values inside the classroom.
The other main problem that postmodernism presents is that of inaction. Because it calls all hierarchies into question, a postmodernist cannot advocate a particular plan of action ahead of any other and still remain postmodern in outlook. The moment you walk into the classroom and say, "I believe this is the right way to write" - or even if you don't say it - the very fact that you are advocating a way of doing something makes you drop out of the postmodern fold. This is the "postmodern paralysis" to which I alluded earlier. Richard Weaver again displayed inklings of this paralysis when he wrote "Dialectic is epistemological and logical; it is concerned with discriminating into categories and knowing definitions... That would be sufficient if the whole destiny of man were to know. But we are reminded that the end of living is activity and not mere cognition." (CPR p. 64) Weaver in the 1950s was calling for both accountability and action on the part of rhetoric and composition instructors - two things which postmodern theory seems unable to provide.
The two questions we need to ask, then, are "How do we bring values and ethics to the classroom without dictating to the student?" and "How do we act?" In my view, the two questions are interlinked. The answer to the former lies in viewing the classroom situation first and foremost as a dialogue, not a monologue. Those who feel that any advocacy of values on the part of the instructor will somehow automatically convert students to that view are, in my opinion, insulting the students. Much as we sometimes might wish it, instructors do not have mystic hypnotic abilities. The student always has a choice to accept a presented viewpoint, or not to accept. It is true that students try to gauge their writing according to what they feel the instructor "wants to hear," but I would say that this most frequently takes place in classrooms where the instructor tries to conceal personal biases. If the instructor makes it clear to the students that she is getting her biases in the open for the purpose of starting a conversation within the class, then students will naturally be more open about oppositional views they might have, since those views have been invited and encouraged. Pat Bizzell argues along similar lines in "Beyond Anti-Foundationalism to Rhetorical Authority: Problems Defining 'Cultural Literacy'", although she goes as far as to argue in favor of attempting to persuade students to one's viewpoint as valid pedagogy (Bizzell p. 673). Bizzell does not deny that values are influenced by social constructionist forces, but tries to make a place for agency by showing that social construction of values can be an active process of consensus, and not merely a passive acceptance of what emerges.
Chaim Perelman was also concerned with values and their construction by social groups. For Perelman, audience was of the utmost importance, as an active participant in the rhetorical process. "Argumentation, unlike demonstration, presupposes a meeting of minds," he writes (PNR p. 154). Like Kenneth Burke, Perelman feels that audience identification and cooperation are key parts of any rhetorical act. Thus he I think would agree that a classroom situation is a dialogue in which the students are active participants. He falls right alongside postmodern theorists in recognizing that what any group of people accepts as true will vary from community to community, and that those accepted truths are to some extent created by the community.
But I would argue that he avoids being unable to discuss values because he recognizes the place of hierarchies in socially-constructed frameworks. Hierarchies can and do exist, and rather than attempt to decenter power structures as postmodernism does, Perelman would rather attempt to recognize and work with those hierarchies. In order to achieve that "meeting of the minds" referred to earlier, the speaker or rhetor must take the time to understand the audience, and specifically the importance the audience attaches to various ideas, values, and concepts (PNR p. 168). If one understands the relative value an audience gives to a concept, then one has a better chance of having an actual dialogue with that audience, rather than opposing monolgues. Robert Trapp goes a bit farther and shows that we can sometimes find the principles by which an audience organizes its value hierarchies. He uses the example of an audience which believes in both right-to-life and the right for all people to live in safety. If this audience is then discovered to believe in capital punishment, holding that killing a few people would make the majority more safe, "an observer might conclude that the principle of utilitarianism (the greatest good for the greatest number) is the principle on which the audience's value hierarchy is based." (Trapp ch. 4) If the organizing principles behind an audience's value-hierarchy are understood, then we have a still better chance of engaging the audience in dialogue.
This sort of understanding is not enough, however. Since we, too, have our own value-hierarchies that we bring to a conversation, trying to leave those values aside and claim a sort of objectivity will most likely fail - or worse, appear hypocritical. Given that hierarchies of values will exist in various discourse communities, and that those hierarchies will change from community to community, we need some sort of tool that will let us acknowledge these shifting priorities and yet still allow us to act. The sort of casuist method espoused by Perelman and by Stephen Toulmin becomes not merely a valuable approach, but a necessary one. Toulmin believed in a middle ground, where one could hold a set of absolute values that would provide overall direction, and yet apply those values reasonably after looking at the particulars of each individual case. "Absolute values" here is not intended to represent unchanging Platonic ideals or universals that somehow exist outside the human sphere; this is, in fact, one of the ideas Toulmin specifically critiqued. "The absolutist reaction to the diversity of our concepts thus emancipates itself from the complexities of history and anthropology only at the price of irrelevance." (CPR p. 91) Toulmin also felt that holding an absolutist position stifled rather than encouraged debate. He uses the abortion controversy to show how, by holding extreme and absolute views, the activists on both sides have effectively made a resolution impossible. On the other hand, Toulmin felt that pure relativism was not the answer either, since it ultimately allows one no standards from which to make any sort of judgment, and judgment of some sort is required in order for one to act.
Where Toulmin discovered his agency was in the idea of "type cases," general situations and principles to which one compares the individual problem at hand, allowing for unusual circumstances. This idea is a useful one insofar as it allows for flexibility. Having some general precedents from which to work allows one to compare ethical situations in a manner that is not strictly binary. This need for flexibility can easily be seen by examining one particular value - say, "freedom of choice." One might believe in freedom of choice at the general, abstract level, but when the question is made more specific - does one have freedom to choose to commit suicide, for example - the value might need some modification. Or perhaps the question becomes more specific - should a physically healthy college student have the freedom to choose to commit suicide? Or yet more specific - should your own child have the freedom to choose to commit suicide? By refining the question to a more and more specific, situational level, we can see that most values for most people exist along a sliding-scale continuum. This foregrounds the need for a casuist approach, an approach that relies neither on fixed, unchanging absolutes nor wholly decentered, relativistic stances..
One natural objection to Toulmin's type-case basis for casuistry is that Toulmin does not foreground from where exactly one draws one's general principles and type cases. Here is where both Perelman and a dialogic outlook can helpfully inform the discussion. Any social group has its hierarchy of values, and the writer or instructor is always part of multiple social groups. Thus, certain values and viewpoints will be foregrounded for the writer, but he or she has the freedom to choose among those sets of principles, selecting and arranging the set that he or she feels is most applicable at that time and place. That selected set of principles then becomes that individual's set of standards by which to examine individual and particular cases.
Jean-François Lyotard, dissatisfied with pure relativism but unwilling to embrace essentialism, also shares a Toulminesque view. Faigley, paraphrasing Lyotard, states, "The claim to know what justice is in advance of the case in point leads to terror." (Faigley p. 235) Robert Trapp problematizes inflexible principles as well.
"Moral principles designed to prohibit a person from keeping a secret, telling a lie, having an abortion, or committing suicide are tyrannical because they take the responsibility for moral decision-making from the individual and attempt to place it on an assumed-to-be objective and separate moral principle." (Trapp ch. 4)
What Toulmin, Lyotard, and Trapp all call for, in effect, is accountability, just as Weaver was calling for in the 1950s. Both relativist and essentialist views of ethics can ultimately lead to a state in which no individual can be accountable, either because everything is decentered and socially constructed, or because as Trapp observes ultimate moral responsibility resides outside the individual. By charting a middle course between the two and emphasizing situational choice, one recovers both agency and accountability.
The charge that this casuist approach lays one open to, of course, is that of hypocrisy.
"For, you see, even if there is no right and wrong, you can find grounds to criticize another person by contrasting what he has espoused with what he has actually done. In this case you are not making any judgement whatsoever as to the correctness of his views or the morality of his behaviour - you are merely pointing out that he has said one thing and done another." (Stephenson, p. 190)
However, such a view requires a very black-and-white, binary sort of view of ethics, and ethics is hardly a binary subject. To draw an analogy, imagine trying to pilot a sailboat into harbor. You want the sailboat to reach a specific destination, but unfavorable wind might cause you to veer a bit; an incoveniently-placed reef might mean a more substantial deviation; perhaps you might need to swerve around a smaller craft to avoid wrecking it. Do any of these deviations mean you are insincere about making harbor? Of course not; you simply adjust to pressing circumstances and correct back to course as best you can afterwards. That deviation in course is better than being inflexible and wrecking the boat, right? A casuist approach to ethics need not be viewed as hypocritical; instead, it can be viewed as having the flexibility to adapt to circumstances while still holding to a general course.
This "general course" should be understood as itself being contingent, naturally. It is the rare individual who has but one guiding principle by which to operate, or whose principles never come into conflict, or whose principles do not undergo some modification over the span of a lifetime. What does frequently happen, though, is that in examining a particular problem or situation, we use a limited set of our total ethical guidelines, since not every principle we hold is relevant in every case. The sailboat metaphor above is meant to serve as an example of the casuist process at the small scale, recognizing that we have many different courses we steer over the long term.
A casuist approach can, however, lead to a sort of tired relativism, a lack of conviction in which we cannot strongly advocate any particular stance. Since everything is situational, the casuist's oft-repeated phrase is, "It depends." Students, especially freshman composition students, who are being asked to alter or unlearn a lot of the critical habits they bring from high school, tend to be uncomfortable with nothing more solid than "It depends." They might feel the instructor is "hiding something," keeping the "right answer" from them for some reason. In addition, how do we provide students with a sense of agency if everything is contingent and relative?
Allucquère Rosanne Stone presents a model of subjectivity based around Anne Rice's famous vampire, Lestat. For Stone, Lestat represents a powerful image for rhetoricians, a being who is fully conscious that all humans are enmeshed in subject positions, and who himself is fully part of none of them. The vampire, to Stone, is free to move among subject positions precisely because of that conscious awareness of them; he chooses roles as you or I might choose clothing, selecting outfits to serve a purpose, but always living in the spaces between. The vampiric vision Stone offers is a freedom of sorts, an awakening to the awareness that we are not bound by the subject positions society offers us, but that we can choose among them, exercise control over which we take on, and even take a hand in their construction.
This would lead us straight back to relativism, if it were not for the fact that Stone's metaphor can be continued further. Louis, the mortal whom Lestat embraces and to whom he transfers the "Dark Gift" of vampirism , is uncomfortable with Lestat's easy acceptance of the vampiric life. Where Lestat, living in the spaces between and not fully part of human society, simply used his abilities to their best extent, Louis' main concern was, "How do I use my vampiric abilities so as not to do too much harm to those around me?" He still felt himself to be human, which Lestat did not. We have to find ways of using the viewpoints afforded by conscious, assumed subjectivity without losing our connection to those around us. If everything is a consciously assumed role, it can be very easy to become jaded or cynical about things which other people see as essential, and which still retain importance for them. We have to remember that, while it might well all be "an act," or "just socially constructed," that "act" is still real, with real effects and consequences, and does not exist in some detatched, artificial framework. This connects back to Perelman and the importance of understanding the audience's hierarchy of values. If there is no understanding, then what is likely to result is a state of two opposing monologues. If there is understanding, but no ethical framework within which we stand, the dialogue can be viewed as cynical or hypocritical, in which the rhetor is simply "using" the audience. We cannot simply use our understanding coldly, as Lestat might; there must be, for lack of a better word, an empathy brought to the rhetorical situation that will aid the ongoing dialogue.
To take this from the ethereal down to the concrete, we as teachers of composition should carefully examine how the roles we consciously assume in class might affect our students. If we decide to experiment with, say, putting control of the class in the hands of the students for a week, we need to examine beforehand how that role of "powerlessness" will affect the students, both during that week and then afterwards when we re-assume the traditional role of teacher. If we put out the persona of a sympathetic advisor to whom the student can bring any and all troubles during office hours, how will that affect the student when grading-time rolls around and we now have to be to some extent judgemental? We need to be aware not only of how our chosen roles aid or hinder us, but how those conscious choices impact those around us.
Pat Bizzell offers a similar approach through the concept of "positionality."
"Under the concept of positionality it would not make sense to say that being black entails particular innate characteristics, such as stronger emotions than whites. It would also not make sense to say that being black is the same as being white, that color itself is a meaningless category, and anyone who imagines that differences can be attributed to it is deluded. But one could choose to work from a position that both acknowledged the shaping power of current cultural interpretations of ethnicity and aimed to transform the negative meaning of color differences." (Bizzell p. 673)
Stone and Bizzell provide us with ways of reimagining a Toulminesque casuistry in such a way that we can recover agency. We may not be consciously aware of every subjectivity we inhabit, but we can learn to be more aware - again, an analog, sliding-scale visualization rather than a binary, either-or way of seeing. Even if we cannot fully escape social construction of ourselves, we can at least take control over part of the process. By taking control of those subjectivities we are aware of, and combining that with the attitude that the classroom situation is a dialogue, not a monologue, we can show students that it is possible to have ethical stances, and yet be flexible; we can take a stand in the classroom and say, "I believe in my approach to teaching," since it will not rely on "objective truth," but rather on guiding principles to which we individually and collectively adhere. I am not, by the way, attempting to state that there is one set of principles to which we as instructors suscribe, but rather that in taking a teaching job within the community of a particular university, one is enmeshed in a set of Perelman's "hierarchy of values," constructed by the students, faculty, and administration combined. The instructor then must chart her own particular course, being fully aware of not only the surrounding influences but also of the subjectivity she herself brings to the classroom.
What I hope I have shown in this essay is one possible route past the obstacles which postmodern theory inadvertently puts in our way in the classroom. I still feel that a postmodern approach is a valuable and valid critical tool, but because it leaves little room for either firm ethics or for agency its role in the classroom has limitations. The path I have outlined is only one possibility, and certainly needs to be explored more fully; there are other writers who are in the process of working out this problem in different ways. I feel, however, that a casuist approach in which an instructor foregrounds the classroom situation as a dialogue rather than a monologue, does not try to conceal his or her own personal ethics, and encourages students to take control of their own individual subjectivities, has a great deal of potential for getting us past the paralysis of postmodern theory and recovering a sense of agency in the classroom.
Northern Arizona University
Bizzell, Patricia "Beyond Anti-Foundationalism to Rhetorical Authority: Problems Defining 'Cultural Literacy'," College English Oct. 1990
Enos, Theresa and Stuart C. Brown, eds. Professing the New Rhetorics 1994 Blair Press
Faigley, Lester Fragments of Rationality 1992 University of Pittsburgh Press
Foss, Sonja K., Karen A. Foss and Robert Trapp Contemporary Perspectives on Rhetoric 1991 Waveland Press, Inc.
Stephenson, Neal The Diamond Age 1995 Bantam Books
Stone, Allucquère Rosanne The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age 1996 MIT Press
Trapp, Robert : Unpublished manuscript, appearing on the Worldwide Web at http://www.willamette.edu/cla/rhetoric/courses/argumentation/readings.htm