Harvard Educational Review
  1. Writing Permitted in Designated Areas Only

    By Linda Brodkey

    Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996. 315 pp. $21.95 (paper).

    The quality of my teaching is ultimately in the writing [my] students do. If any of them write to be read, after years of being graded but not necessarily read, then I consider myself to have done well by that class. (p. ix)

    I pulled this quote from the beginning of Linda Brodkey's book, Writing Permitted in Designated Areas Only, to illustrate what I found to be a consistent thread throughout — her focus on teaching writing to students as a means for them to express their thoughts and ideas to others. It may well be argued that this is the purpose of all writing teachers, but Brodkey moves beyond this mere statement of a general purpose and develops an entire theoretical framework that folds back onto her practice as an associate professor of literature at the University of California, San Diego. The framework she builds focuses on writing education for the liberation of the minds and the imaginations of her students. She states:

    I equate literacy with democracy, and suspect all definitions of literacy that either exclude writing or subordinate writing to reading of eroding everyone's civil liberties and civil rights by barring most citizens from access to publication, one of the most important public forums for sustained critique of government in any participatory democracy. (p. 2)

    Brodkey puts herself at the center of the discussion of the teaching of writing, using herself as example and focus of critique. Rather than telling educators what not to do, she presents what she has done. Some may criticize this as self-promotion, but her actions are an example of her full participation in a dialectic, democratic process of education. In introductions to each of the four parts of her book, Brodkey develops the context of her practice. She presents her background in Education, her writing in Publications, her speaking in Presentations, and her classroom practice in Teaching.

    In Part One, "Education: Writing on the Bias," Brodkey begins her story by reflecting on her own experience in learning how to read and write as a child growing up in Quincy, Illinois (population 40,000+), in a White working-class home. She weaves a story from her recollections and establishes for her readers a clear understanding of her personal relationship to writing. The reader may glean the essence of the relationship between the author as a child and the forces that shaped her life in a rich description and thoughtful critical analysis of her childhood social situation.

    In Part Two, "Publications," Brodkey presents seven examples of her own writing about writing and literacy, including one cowritten with her colleague Michelle Fine. Each of these seven examples addresses various themes, including the process of writing, literacy as an expression of ideology, and expressions of critique in teaching writing. I found the theme of writing as an act of democratic participation to be the strongest. Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary defines democracy as:

    a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held elections.

    Brodkey extends participation in democracy beyond mere voting in "periodically held elections," and presents writing as another, more powerful way to participate. As agents with the skills to express ourselves through writing, we have the ability to influence the practice of democracy in our cities, towns, neighborhoods, and country. She states:

    If composition can be said to abet the middle-class illusions of meritocracy, then the deregulation of writing is about replacing that empty promise with pedagogy that honors the First Amendment by teaching students that freedom of speech is meaningful only if the citizenry is literate. Not just functionally literate. Literate. Not just fluent. Literate. Literacy is attitude, entitlement, the entitlement that middle-class privilege masks in prescriptions but that writing lays bare in the sheer force of the desire to see and to get readers to see what can be seen from where the writer stands. (p. 72)

    In Part Three, "Presentations," Brodkey focuses on a specific period of her career when she taught at the University of Texas. There she came face to face with the forces of "common sense," which all too often in an intellectual debate are reactionary in origin and effect. Brodkey describes and documents examples of opposition to multiculturalism from the administration and faculty at the university surrounding the composition curriculum, "Writing Across Difference." Having played a key role in the development of this rejuvenated curriculum for the introductory course, "English 306: Rhetoric and Composition," she was also at the center of the controversy when powerful forces led by key faculty and high-ranking university administrators dismantled attempts to implement this curriculum. She quotes the university president, William Cunningham:

    Multiculturalism has become a code term for some people, signaling efforts to politicize the curriculum by promoting a particular ideology. We must not, and we will not permit such developments. (p. 183)

    Her struggles at UT were a turning point in her career. She states in the introduction to Part Three:

    The four unpublished papers presented at CCCC [Conference on College Composition and Communication] and the two lectures that complete this section were written after the University of Texas summarily scuttled the syllabus entitled "Writing about Difference" [for the composition course, English 306]. For a couple of years, no matter what the topic of my paper, most of the questions at the annual conference were about what happened at Texas. (p. 156)

    Although not all her work during this period directly addresses the issues surrounding the English curriculum revamping efforts, it reflects what she calls "the heat of negative publicity" and the "chilly aftermath of administrative censure" (p. 157). The chapters in Part Three show the honesty, earnestness, and intellectual toughness with which she approached her work.

    In Part Four, "Teaching," Brodkey begins by addressing the issues raised by the "Writing about Difference" curriculum. The first essay includes the controversial curriculum outline, and the second, coauthored with one of her former graduate students, Richard Penticoff, centers on this curriculum. She concludes with five essays authored independently by five of her graduate students from her course "Ethnographies of Literacy." Brodkey ends where she began because, as she states in her introduction, "the quality of my teaching is ultimately in the writing [my] students do" (p. ix). By concluding her book with these essays, we are left with what Brodkey most prizes as a hallmark of her accomplishment as a teacher — her students "writing to be read."

    R.H.T.
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    Abstracts

    Ethnicity and Education Forum
    What Difference Does Difference Make?
    HER Board
    Between Nationality and Class
    Stanley Aronowitz
    Latino Studies
    New Contexts, New Concepts
    Juan Flores
    Dancing with Bigotry
    The Poisoning of Racial and Ethnic Identities
    Lilia I. Bartolome, Donaldo P. Macedo
    Communities of Difference
    A Critical Look at Desegregated Spaces Created for and by Youth
    Michelle Fine, Lois Weis, Linda C. Powell
    Rewriting the Discourse of Racial Identity
    Towards a Pedagogy and Politics of Whiteness
    Henry A. Giroux
    Learning in the Dark
    How Assumptions of Whiteness Shap Classroom Knowledge
    Frances A. Maher, Mary Kay Thompson Tetreault

    Book Notes