CCR 611: Avoiding Neutrality

I found a lot of rich material from today’s readings, so I guess I’ll just pick a thread and run with it: neutrality.

As Horton notes, “Neutrality is just following the crowd. Neutrality is just being what the system wants us to be. Neutrality, in other words, is an immoral act” (102). In this context, neutrality is immoral because structures remain in place–be they of racism, classism, etc.–that thrive on the status quo. Thus, to remain neutral, one perpetuates the problematic momentum that already exists.

This resonates with Kynard’s observation on the rhetoric of student “need” that often gets invoked by teachers and administrators in the face of more radical critique. As she writes, “the trope of what students need is usually claimed as politically neutral territory for
a rather conservative mode of curriculum and instruction” (93). Such needs, argues Kynard, “are for the monolithic student, the monolithic kind of college writing requirement, the monolithic argumentative essay, and the monolithic college assignment” (93). In this way, doing nothing, one is siding with the status quo.

But two tensions arise here. First, as Freire notes, as a biology teacher, you need to teach biology and not critique alone. In the same way, as a writing and rhetoric teacher, you need to teach writing and rhetoric.

In answer to this, they argue one can never teach the subject “in itself, ” as it is always historically and socially constituted, with the possibility of different positions. Being on the critical side, then, one wants to challenge the neutral “just the facts” approach and point to larger social contexts and the oppression laden in these structures.

Tension two: in order to do so without being another oppressor, one needs to begin with the “people’s knowledge,” with where they are at, and not dictate or direct through the authority of office or expertise. As Freire argues, “I would say that we have to go beyond the common sense of the people, with the people. My quest is not to go alone but to go with the people.” And to get at that, one must first listen, like the story telling that Horton describes as a “seed” for later fruition. And one must keep listening and discussing. This is “educating.”

I see a connection here with Shore’s focus on “frontloading” student discourse at the start, trying to drop away from “expert” discourse initially and give the students a voice. This voice can then mingle with the voices of experts, even conflicting with the chorus, but it must first find a confidence or articulation first.

However, one thing I find that did not seem to crop up in the readings is the tension of other student voices. In the readings, I often saw the teacher needing to negotiate this boarder of neutrality and indoctrination. But I often see other students imposing subject positions on others or trying to constantly push back into more neutral discourse amid this tension. I’ve “frontloaded” student discourse before, but when such discourse makes people uncomfortable initially, the conversation dies–sometimes for weeks, or a whole semester.

Part of it is my own need to manage things, but peer pressure, institutional norms, personal discomfort, and other elements also inhibit discussion, not just my own position or class structure, though these do too. Just as one tries to use the class as a window into the surrounding world, the surrounding world enters the class–sometimes for best, sometimes for worst.

As a teacher, I recognize when Kynard states, “how you
situate yourself and your understandings of Black Power/Black freedom struggles also situates how you understand race and the presence of color-conscious students in the classroom. Those who ignore Black Freedom struggles may unwittingly promote white privilege” (92). This was one of the more powerful lines in the piece (of many), as I think it cuts to the heart of why I as an instructor believe in these discussions–and could point to why I may have them with students.

But I still struggle with finding ways to break the comfort of the neutral in productive ways. Students can often get critical under Graff’s model, for example, because it has the critical distance of talking about “experts,” not their own subject position. Students can say, “They say” and not “I say” in the semi-public class. But they may not absorb anything, as the topic could remain distant or “academic.”

So for me, the question becomes: How do we create productive conflict, not destructive conflict–conflict that can build coalitions or wake consciousnesses without fracturing or individuating? At this stage, I’m still trying to think through answers and am of the mind that this debate is also dialectical and ever-becoming. But I think one should dwell in that space, rather than claim a false neutrality.

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