Ellen Cushman: Liberatory Pedagogies and Civil Participation

English: Photo of Paulo Freire

English: Photo of Paulo Freire (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ll now begin a series on texts dealing with questions of social activism in the practices of rhetoric and composition scholars, starting with Ellen Cushman’s essay “The Rhetorician as an Agent of Social Change” (College Composition And Communication 47.1 [1996]: 7-28). As my previous post on Elbow indicated, these issues are never far away when we’re talking about writing and writing instruction, so we might as well get down to it, right?

Cushman’s essay is a good place to start because she raises some questions about the relationship between academic work and social activism that will be good to keep in mind when when we turn to the work of Paulo Freire, Mike Rose, bell hooks, and other scholars relevant to the field. In fact, I hope Cushman’s essay will serve as an antidote to some of the problematic assumptions that can follow from well-intentioned approaches to pedagogy and social action. If your orientation is anything like mine, you’ll need such an antidote, because the approach to critical pedagogy we’re comfortable with, i.e. teaching to raise consciousness in the classroom, isn’t adequate to her goals, and in fact leads easily into a lot of problems that can have the reverse effects of what we intend: specifically, reinforcing the hierarchies and institutional roles that treat teachers as all-knowing, active subjects and students as passive receptacles of the knowledge offered by teachers, in other words, the “banking” concept of education described by Paulo Freire, whose work informs Cushman’s and whose image, unlike hers, was easily obtained by a cursory online search.

Instead of a particular pedagogical program, Cushman advocates greater involvement with the community surrounding the university, and while I think she also means this on a more general, figurative level, in her case she means explicitly bridging the gap between her institution at the time of this essay, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and the neighborhoods adjacent to the campus. The social change she seeks to effect is not a raising of the consciousness of university students through cultural critique in the classroom, but reciprocal assistance to community members who can benefit from the specialized training of rhetoricians, while simultaneously offering those scholars the opportunity and permission to learn from their experiences and perceptions. I’m getting a little ahead of myself here, but I want to be careful not to frame these ideas in language that leads us back to the banking concept in which “the teacher thinks and the students [or community members] are thought about” (Pedagogy of the Oppressed 73). She writes:

Some critical theorists believe that the primary means of affecting social change is to translate activism into liberatory classroom pedagogies. This paper seeks to address other ways in which we can affect social change, something more along the lines of civic participation. (7)

I want to note that Cushman does not oppose “civic participation” to “liberatory classroom pedagogies” here, but seems to regard them both as potentially helpful avenues of social action. The problem with relying solely on “liberatory classroom pedagogies,” however, is that in that case the rhetorician doesn’t participate as such in civic life outside the academy. In order to enable this civic participation, rhetoric and composition scholars must bridge the gap between their universities and the surrounding communities. To illustrate this gap, Cushman describes the Approach at Rensselaer,  a massive stone staircase that was “Once an access way to the university on the hill, literally and figuratively” (9), but which had been allowed to fall into utter disrepair by the mid-1990s when Cushman wrote her essay due to disagreements about maintenance responsibilities between the school and the city. For Cushman, the Approach exemplifies the distance between universities and their neighboring communities. She writes,

Everyday, we reproduce this distance so long as a select few gain entrance to universities, so long as we differentiate between experts and novices, and so long as we value certain types of knowledge we can capitalize on through specialization. (10-11)

So one of the issues Cushman raises that we’ll do well to keep in mind, and I think this one might be the most troubling, is that the nature of professionalization in the discipline, including its emphasis on specialization and intellectual property, itself enforces a gap between scholars and the communities next door. Cushman’s own experiences, described in this essay, testify to the persistent difficulties of bridging this gap while remaining invested in the profession’s standards and values.

She draws on the work of Malea Powell to describe how professionalization encourages a “colonizing ideology” in which academics must stake a claim over a particular subject area, defending this claim and displacing any other scholars who happen to already be situated there:

If the scholarly territory happens to be occupied by other scholarly endeavors, our job demands that we show how these original scholars fail to use their territory well, thereby giving us manifest justification for removing their theories from the territory through expansion, co-option, or complete dismissal. In some fundamental ways, we shirk our civil responsibility and always already enact violence under the guise of objective distance, and the thin veil of ‘creating’ knowledge. (11)

Obviously, this colonizing ideology applies not only to the work of other scholars, but to the people we theorize in the course of staking out an academic specialization for ourselves. The alternative isn’t a complete disavowal of scholarly work, but an approach to scholarship that “take[s] social responsibility for the people from and with whom we come to understand a topic” (11), that is, a scholarship that doesn’t theorize about people, but in communication with them. This means seeing ourselves as participants within a community rather than experts postulating about the community from the privileged position of the ivory tower.

Cushman is careful to make plain that she’s not talking about making rhetoric and composition scholars social workers, or an army of saviors from on high marching into their communities to deliver liberation. Instead, she’s asking us to reflect on our roles in the communities we’re already part of, both the academic community and the larger community of which the academy is part, and how these roles relate to one another:

I am asking for a deeper consideration of the civic purpose of our positions in the academy, of what we do with our knowledge, for whom, and by what means. I am asking for a shift in our critical focus away from our own navels, Madonna, and cereal boxes to the ways in which we can begin to locate ourselves within the democratic processes of everyday teaching and learning in our neighborhoods. (12)

At this point in her essay, Cushman goes on to offer examples from her own experience of what this might mean and how it might work, or not work. It’s a section well-worth reading for how it illustrates both the approach to civic participation Cushman advocates and the pitfalls of professional, academic perspectives. I’m not going to describe the remainder of Cushman’s essay in detail for the sake of keeping this post near the one-thousand word mark and in the interest of not boring you to death.

I do want to touch on one, last, major point in Cushman’s essay, however, and that is that we should be careful of assuming that only broad collective action is helpful or constitutes legitimate social action. She writes that “Most current accounts of activism in cultural studies don’t do justice to social change taking place in day-to-day interactions,” and argues for a greater appreciation of “the ways in which people use language and literacy to challenge and alter the circumstances of daily life” (12). In other words, Cushman advocates a conception of social action that isn’t exclusively invested in “sweeping social upheavals” (12), but in the ways the scholar’s specialization can benefit community members in their daily pursuit of better lives for themselves and their families, which might include such apparently mundane tasks as assisting them with applications for loans, jobs, or housing, as well as helping them articulate their perspectives in ways that might help their voices be heard where they’ve previously been dismissed or ignored (and, I should note here, it’s important that this civic participation is reciprocal and that the scholar not see herself as a savior liberating the masses; what community members have to offer the scholar are their own perspectives and experience and the authorization of the scholar’s theorizing of the community they both participate in).

Cushman anticipates the claim that such an approach to activism consists merely of “coping devices” (14), and she articulates an able defense that I’m not going to cover in detail here. One question that Cushman’s work leaves open for me, however, is whether this form of activism challenges the status quo, or only assists members of the community in improving their material conditions while perpetuating it. I don’t want to suggest that the latter would be a fault; I certainly don’t object to people seeking better standing for themselves, but I do want to maintain a space for critiques of the larger social order as a whole or in part. I don’t believe such critiques and the kind of civic participation Cushman describes are mutually exclusive, however, and I’d like to think that she’d agree with me. So, a better question would probably be: how can liberatory pedagogy and civic participation both be utilized to promote social change in-and-outside the academy? Or, even better, what can liberatory pedagogy learn from civic participation?