Wednesday, March 10, 2010


This blog is moving. Please update your bookmark to reflect the home of my new blog:

At least for now, CRT's past entries will remain at this address. The new blog will include all past entries as well.

Thanks for following!

Monday, January 18, 2010

Bringing in Linguistics

I've just begun Spring courses (I love this time of the semester; it's so optimistic!) and one of my new ones is a required doctoral seminar in linguistics. Although I don't come from the linguistics side of English, the two linguistics classes I've had have been really wonderful experiences. This one is shaping up the same way, and that's the reason for this post: I'm writing a paper I need to think through and/or get feedback on.

The paper (a draft of which is due this week) is supposed to be on my area of interest with a linguistic twist (which I'll get help adding later if I can't do it now). My basic idea is to look at some women's health websites and do a linguistic analysis of the rhetoric I find there.

So far, the sites I'm thinking of using are giving me some interesting perspectives on the intersection of culture and technology as they pertain to the linguistic representation of women's health. I started by simply doing a Google search of "women's health." My first result was the popular magazine, which I bypassed since I want to look at web-based texts. Of the four I ended up choosing from that first page of results, two are government operated sites. (The others are WebMD and an indie-looking site run by something called the Glam Publisher Network.)

So what I'm thinking about now is this: Why does the government have such an interest in women's health?

Some reasons are obvious. Some not so much. Some are altruistic. Others are sinister.

The government would have a vested interest in women's health as it pertains to reproductive health because managing reproductive health is like managing the makeup of the next generation. When thinking in class- and race-based contexts, that's kind of scary.

But the government also (presumably) has a responsibility to provide access to healthcare for less fortunate women. Because women account for higher numbers of the impoverished than men, this benevolent function could account for some of the emphasis on women's health.

And there are a myriad of other reasons that I'm still teasing out as to why there is so much government interest in women's health. (Feel free to comment.) But I can't help thinking of Mary Daly's contention that gynecology is a male construction to oppress women ...

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Saving Lives

How's this for a culture that uses technology to vital purpose and engages every day with questions of rhetorical silencing: nursing. In Saving Lives: Why the Media's Portrayal of Nurses Puts Us all at Risk, Sandy Summers (RN, MSN, MPH) and Harry Jacobs Summers show that, indeed, the media's portrayal of nurses is unfair--to say the least.

As a former member of the media, though, I recognized myself in some of their critiques. And my automatic response is to critique right back. I could easily have been one of the reporters who writes that "doctors put the victim back together." But my argument is that such a use of the term doctor does not refer exclusively to MDs. Doctor is a broad term. It can refer to PhDs and dentists. Of course, it refers to MDs, but it can also be used to reference any medical practitioner--nurses included.

(In a similar vein, Summers and Summers critique instances when people who are not nurses are referred to as such; it seems to me that we are encountering a problematic conflation of general and specific terms. After all, one who nurses is a nurse, whether or not they are a CNA or LPN, just as one who doctors--including nurses--can be broadly referred to as doctors. The resistance to this seems to be an issue of hierarchy, or professional class.)

So why does my counter-argument fall flat, thus meriting this post? Because of two things: 1) not all journalists think like me, a fact largely due to the fact that I've always had one foot in academia and, more importantly 2) any decent rhetorician (journalists included) knows that intention doesn't make a lick of difference. The public doesn't read doctor and think that includes nurses. The Summers' book isn't so much about what journalists write ... it's about how the public perceives what journalists write. And there are a lot of misconceptions out there about nurses, including the idea that they're all women and that all doctors are men. There is work to be done here on the part of journalists, the public, and nurses themselves. And, happily, this is exactly what Summers and Summers propose, asking that nurses take a role in altering their public image and, in Chapter 11, providing a sort of how-to manual for a variety of professionals to create more ethical portrayals of nurses. I would add to this that the most basic of solutions is for us all to be more aware of the rhetoric we use and how intention differs from perception.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

On "All Our Relations"

One book that I had hoped to read for a recent research project--but didn't because I ran out of time--was Winona LaDuke's All Our Relations. Luckily, I did have time to do some reading in this text before returning it to the library, and I was stunned at reading of the Mothers' Milk Project.

LaDuke's first chapter chronicles the struggles of the Mohawk Indians who live in the northeastern U.S. near a large General Motors plant. The plant dumped toxic chemicals in "SuperFund" sites, and those chemicals found their way into the water supply. LaDuke follows Mohawk activist Katsi Cook, who tries to involve women in activism.

"The fact is that women are the first environment," according to Cook. "We accumulate tocix chemicals like PCBs, DDT, Mirex, HCBs, etc., dumped into the waters by various industries. They are stored in our body fat and are excreted primarily through breast milk" (18). In fact, a study found a 200 percent greater concentration of PCBs in mothers who ate fish from the St. Lawrence River.

Now, I don't want to come off as the stereotypical tree-hugging academic liberal. (And, truth be told, I don't actually have a lot in common with that stereotype.) I have family that has worked for GM, and while the company has been less than generous (or even fair?) to its employees in recent years, it did provide millions of solid jobs for millions of people who would not otherwise have been nearly so well paid over several decades. I do not want to vilify GM. However, it does appear that the company has been less than ethical and responsible in many of its actions pertaining to the environment. Perhaps the more informative question is one of motive. Did GM shirk its responsibilities because of ignorance, costs, or just because it could get away with it?

In 1996, Chief Scientist to the World Wildlife Fund Theo Colburn gave an address at the State of the World Forum in which he said: "Every one of you sitting here today is carrying at least 500 measurable chemicals in your body that were never in anyone's body before the 1920s" (21). Colburn said 2,500 new chemicals are developed every year. How is anyone supposed to keep up with that much new information, let alone figure out how each of those chemicals might affect the human body?

Can we hold a company like GM responsible for being up to date on all chemicals they use? (That's not a rhetorical questions. I'm not sure of the answer.)

The one surety? Things are always changing, and this presents a challenge for native populations and cultures. But other cultures can make a difference by doing as little harm as possible.

In LaDuke's final chapter, she discusses the U.S. takeover of Hawai'i, and some bits are stunning in their demonstration of the ignorance of dominant cultures in the area: "The final eviction threat was fulfilled February 14, 1997, when the [National Park Service], hell-bent on its park of historic Hawaiian culture, evicted the Hawaiians" (168). Brilliant, eh?

But there is hope.

I was particularly struck by LaDuke's account of the island of Kaho'o'lawe, which the U.S. took martial control of the day after the Pearl Harbor bombing. Since that time, it was used as a test site for weaponry ... until 1990, when then-President George Bush ended pratice bombing there and returned the island to Hawaiians.

Friday, December 18, 2009

A Slight Change in Direction

Well, perhaps the title "a change in direction" is actually misleading.

This blog was originally created for a graduate level course studying race (which I renamed culture early on), rhetoric, and technology. The description of this blog (to the right) says exactly that, and I plan to leave that information up. But the class has ended (sadly, because it was wonderful) and I'm not ready to let the blog die. I plan to continue to post whenever I run across something that seems to fit the criteria set forth by the class (and, admittedly, when I have time).

I'll probably also continue to widen the criteria in order to be able to post things that perhaps don't quite seem to fit. I'm not really sure on that count yet, but the topics of race/culture, rhetoric, and technology provide a pretty broad umbrella. We'll see what happens.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Coming full circle

A few pages into Barbara Monroe's Crossing the Digital Divide: Race, Writing and Technology in the Classroom, I felt like my readings for English 467 had come full circle. We're back to defining race, but Monroe uses the term in a new way: "Race, as I use the word in this book, refers to people of color, specifically African Americans, Latinos, and American Indians, all of whom as groups have been historically excluded from the matrix of power and wealth in this country" (21). While this isn't a definition I personally would ever use, it does point to two important understandings in defining race. First, race is not static. It is always changing and is always different depending on one's perspective. Second, we can gain power over this often divisive word by using our agency to define it in the ways that benefit us. Monroe uses it to point out those who "have been excluded." We could also use it as a term that denotes commonality rather than difference, as in celebrations of ethnic (racial?) heritage. I think that this may mean my original definition of race still works for me, although I've now had the chance to explore and complicate it in various ways. Race is a construction of particular rhetorics, used for a particular end in a particular social realm. And regardless of the origin of the word, it doesn't have to be used with treacherous intentions.

I am reminded--as was Monroe on page 30--of Paulo Freire's goal of critical consciousness and liberatory pedagogy. In his Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire advocates helping the oppressed (whoever they may be) by teaching them to help themselves. They must be able to see the structures they have to work within and then cultivate a desire to do so. Anything less is pantomime. I particularly like thinking of race, rhetoric, and technology as addressed by Freire through bell hooks. In Teaching to Transgress, hooks points out the openness of Freire's work and life (and examines and ultimately comes to terms with his sexist language). It seems to me that this treatment of the oppressed speaks directly to the issues of access we've been discussing all semester. hooks admonishes us (teachers, in a broad sense) to work as cultural healers, utilizing and modeling tactics for disrupting hegemonic power in ways that are sustainable and productive.

One example of such a tactic comes in Monroe's second chapter, "Putting One's Business on Front Street." In this chapter, Monroe discusses a globally networked learning environment (GNLE) in which 27 Detroit High School sophomores and 27 University of Michigan upperclassmen interacted within a mostly electronic mentor/mentee relationship. Her attention to local and cultural contexts was exciting, and it was fascinating to read actual excerpts of the students' correspondence.

The cultural differences were interesting and a bit frightening. For example, Monroe concluded that the DHS students who "performed" their mentors' introductory emails by using "falsetto voices and with much body English" and "making fun of a person by overdramatizng his speech and gestures" were working within an environment that was "celebratory," "good-natured fun" (44-45). While I realize that I might be rankled by these students' treatment of their mentors because my culture is closer to that of the mentors than the mentees, Monroe could have done a much better job of explaining the culture clash at this juncture. As someone interested in navigating the complexities of culture and race in particular audiences, she should have been attuned to the audience of her book.

I think the study itself could also be critiqued because it is somewhat dated. The correspondences were conducted in the 1996-1997 academic year, and the book was not published until 2004. Dynamics at DHS with access and technological understanding have certainly changed in that time, and it would have been interesting to see some acknowledgment of that. (But, this is a common critique of technology-based books and a problem that is not easy to overcome.)

The parts of this study I was most interested in were the female-female partnerships that were so successful, and code-switching done be mentees, and the "Implications for teaching." I find that analogies pertaining to sex-based oppression often help me understand "the race problem" better than I would otherwise be able to. As such, it came as no surprise to me that the female-female partnerships were generally successful. The discomfort surrounding the sharing of romantic details was an interesting cultural difference to ponder, though. Monroe's discussion of the students' code-switching likewise provides food for thought on the complex discourse communities these students navigate, despite the fact that standardized tests often label such students as "failing." So far as implications for teaching go, I was particularly interested in Monroe's note that English teacheers should be aware of "race-based cultural differences when designing their curricula" (64). Monroe gives the example of using rap music as a pedagogical tool. While some might think this would be appropriate for a school system with a high African-American demographic, DHS found that it posed problems for the religious African American communities that many of their students came from (65). Care must be taken in making such moves.

"Storytime on the Reservation" was also intriguing, and this is the chapter where Monroe returns to her original--problematic, in my opinion--premise that "electronic media--mainly, movies and e-mail--can bridge the gaping maw between home and school literacies" of students. I'm old-fashioned, I know, but I resist the idea of basing a child's education on anything other than good reading. Electronic media can be supplements, and a medium like the Kindle is synonymous to books. But substituting movies and e-mail for books seems to be a very bad idea to me, and one that Monroe doesn't support well enough for me to change my mind. She does mention that this is cultural, and this is part of my resistance. In a primarily oral culture, movies might be a better medium for instilling critical literacy. I concede that this could work ... but the movies would have to be carefully chosen given the nature of Hollywood today, and while e-mails and texting are fine means for getting students to write, I still think they must be able to code switch to SAE to reach their fullest potential. In short, I don't think it's responsible to encourage teachers to switch to using movies and email as their main pedagogical tools without providing a good deal more explanation and support on how to make these tools work for instilling critical consciousness in students.

In this end, though, I think my critique stems from my having goals that are different from teachers at the schools that are discussed. The local needs and goals are far more important--though many politicians don't realize it--than ensuring all students speak and write SAE flawlessly. In answering Cindy Selfe's call to come up with more methods for critical engagement, I think Monroe does a fine job. It's my own cultural situatedness that prevents me from accepting her suggestions. (Although I'm not saying my caution is an incorrect response, just qualifying it.) I wonder at her audience for this book, and I hope she'll write the new book that is suggested by her closing statement that we need to "teach all children, not just children of color, to become interethnically literate" (125).

Works Cited

Freire, Paulo.
Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Tran. Myra Bergman Ramos. New York: Continuum Publishing Company, 1968. Print.

hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress:
Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge, 1994. Print.

Monroe, Barbara. Crossing the Digital Divide: Race, Writing, and Technology in the Classroom. New York: Teachers College Press, 2004. Print.

Selfe, Cindy. Technology and Literacy in the Twenty-First Century: The Importance of Paying Attention. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 1999. Print.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

How the Irish Became White

I've been reading Krista Ratcliffe's Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness for another class (English 483: Studies in Rhetoric and Style) and stumbled upon her interesting discussion of race. She defines it as: "a fictional category possessed of all-too-realistic consequences" (13). This seems to jive with previous discussions of race on this blog and in this class.

She also brings up the book How the Irish Became White, which is of great interest to me based on heritage and my general interest in race and culture. I haven't read the book, but here is an interesting review. The book apparently discusses how the Irish, an oppressed "race" in America, became "white" by juxtaposing themselves against Northern freed blacks. By joining "whites" in subjugating "blacks," they assimilated and became thought of as white.

This is also an interesting topic in terms of Certeauian thinking ... what tactics and strategies do we use to re-produce ourselves in order to construct particular social identities and meet particular social goals?