Thoughts on Ethnic Studies and Composition

April 7, 2010

Later today I am participating on a panel discussion as part of Defiance College’s McMaster’s Symposium. The conference theme is “Democracy and Education in the Face of Rural Change.” I will be giving a short overview of my academic perspective on the theme; I’ve elected to simply reflect on Ethnic Studies and Composition as tools for community empowerment and democracy. This is merely a sketch:

My academic home is divided between American Ethnic Studies and composition. And, while these fields are rather divergent, I think that many of the tools and orientations enacted in Ethnic Studies can powerfully contribute to the teaching of effective, constructive discourse in the composition classroom; and this can prove crucial to our identities as citizens and foster cohesive bonds which are essential to a democratic society.

Ethnic Studies is largely concerned with the social and historical construction of race, though, as we will see, it is also concerned with gender, sexuality, and class. Ethnic Studies is not the only academic discipline which examines race and ethnicity. The social sciences often examine race as a factor in human behavior and community; and the humanities take multiculturalism very seriously.

What sets Ethnic Studies apart are its academic orientations, its research methods, and its goals. First and foremost, Ethnic Studies examines the social and historical construction of race by adopting an emic or insider approach—it recognizes and validates the experiences of individuals and societies who have experienced and lived racial constructions. It then orients itself among these multiple experiences by placing ethnic identities within the matrix of race, class, gender, sexuality and, more recently, place. By listening to human experiences with race and racism and then reading those experiences as intersecting with other social constructions, Ethnic Studies works to develop an intricate, evolving portrait of the ways race is lived in the U.S. This sympathetic, intersectional approach to identity is then enacted in research which is often community-based and self-empowering and is always designed to combat inequality.

In order to clarify what Ethnic Studies is and does, we could consider how Ethnic Studies might help us better understand a community like Defiance. Ethnic Studies research into social change and cultural identity in Defiance would not simply chart the causes and effects deindustrialization, globalization, and suburbanization. Rather, it would examine the ways residents of Defiance have negotiated and influenced this process; a major goal would be examining the ways Defiance residents have been active participants, not simply pawns, in rural change. Moreover, this research would be inherently comparative and would seek out commonalities and divergences among the diverse populations of Defiance, with an emphasis on intersections of race, class, gender, sexuality, and place. A major project would be considering the role race and racial difference and processes like immigration, both recent and historic, have had on Defiance and placing those discussions in communication with other forms of identification, most especially class. Lastly, although inherent locally, this ethnography would seek out broader patterns and work to place Defiance in communication with other communities, both those nearby, like Bryan and Napoleon, but also Fort Wayne, Toledo, and Detroit, and those far away, including locations outside the U.S. which are connected to Defiance through networks of human or capital.

The orientation of this research—localized with a sensitivity to comparative and intersectional experiences—and its methods are designed to foster community empowerment and community engagement. By listening to and documenting the agency of its subjects, Ethnic Studies helps encourage and empower its subjects; and, by tracing community dimensions and comparative cases, Ethnic Studies can point out fault lines and sources of strength that can be used by civic leaders and community activists.
So far I’ve tried to explain Ethnic Studies and its application to a community like Defiance. But, I am also a composition teacher and I think our work in the writing classroom can positively interact with the community empowerment of Ethnic Studies.

Obviously, the first and foremost goal of any writing class is the cultivation of capable, confident writers. Our first job is to teach the foundational skills and conventions of academic writing. To achieve those goals, I take as a guiding principle the centrality of process. On the one hand, I organize my classes around the writing process and structure assignments and the semester around teaching students to explore, draft, and revise.

On the other hand, I emphasize to my students that writing, like all cognitive skills, is a life-long process which begins with our earliest acquisition of language as babies and doesn’t stop until our final breath. By taking this long view students can, hopefully, see that writing is not something to be learned and mastered in one semester; it is a skill and a craft to be consciously cultivated over their lifetime.

By orienting ourselves thusly, I and my students can better recognize and account for the diversity of writers we have within our classrooms. Any single writing class will have outstanding, accomplished writers and students who have basic literacy problems, not to mention all those other students who fall somewhere between these two extremes. By taking the long view, I can help my accomplished students see that they have further to go and I can empower the weaker writers in my class by reminding them that though they have a long way to go, they can succeed as writers. And, by helping students see this about themselves and each other, I can ideally help build a community of writers which is comfortable with difference, confident in its cohesion, and committed to better all its members.

It is this last point which brings us back to Ethnic Studies’ orientations and goals and, in a roundabout way, to democracy. I believe strongly in cultivating communities; and, I believe strongly in cultivating constructive, community-oriented discourses. By embracing the insider perspective and community empowerment of Ethnic Studies and marrying it to a process-oriented writing classroom in which community and constructive discourse are emphasized we can, I hope, foster a better awareness of our own identities and, more importantly, a sensitivity to the locations, experiences, and perspectives of others. And, if we are more aware of our interrelations and are more practiced in constructive, sensitive dialogue we can rebuild the communal ties which are essential to a functioning democracy.

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