Postmodern Rhetoric in the Composition Classroom
James A. Berlin of Purdue University believes that “the complexities of theory have immediate pedagogical applications,” and he describes these implications in his essay entitled “Poststructuralism, Cultural Studies, and the Composition Classroom: Postmodern Theory in Practice.” He says “the classroom is the point at which theory and practice engage in a dialectical interaction… all teachers of rhetoric and composition are regarded as intellectuals engaging in theoretical and empirical research.” Because a central tenet of postmodernism is there is no absolute truth, teachers can only present “best practices,” and these can be fluid based on the teacher, the students, and the point in time at which the course is taught.
Because postmodern theory teaches that a person is formed by the various competing and contradictory discourses that surround him or her, teachers have the responsibility to help students identify those discourses. They can be language-based, like the media, school, and everyday conversations with friends, or sign-based, like clothing, stance, and environment. Identifying these discourses can help students make sense of the competing agendas thrown at them, as well as the subtle influences of their own society, language and learning. They can then understand themselves better and make more informed decisions, and eventually question why things in our world are the way they are and seek innovative and forward-looking alternatives.
Binaries of language
Berlin points out that language in postmodern theory is not a transparent mode for reporting ideas. Rather, language is a “complex system of signifying practices that construct realities.” For example, words have meaning through contrast, not because they simply refer to the object they represent. In Berlin’s example, “man” has meaning because it contrasts with “woman,” “boy,” and “ape.” In each set of words, one usually has the privileged status (for example, sir/madam, chef/cook). When students realize these dichotomies, they can better understand how their word choices can carry loaded meanings, and that other’s word choices can show their agendas and personalities. In essence, “signifying practices [language and semiotics] shape the subject, the social, and the material – the perceiver and the perceived.” This means that no-one is free from ideologies.
An ideology is an interpretation of the facts that defines what exists, what is good, and what is possible. Culture reinforces some ideologies and makes them seem “natural and timeless rather than historically situated social constructions.” Students often think there is a choice between the Truth and an ideology, that each account is just an interpretation of “what really happened.” However, postmodernism says that there is no Truth, just a range of ideologies to choose from, since the words we use to tell anything are themselves an ideology. This means instructors cannot just teach academic texts as “truth,” they must also teach the competing ideologies of the workplace and the media, for example. Instructors must also accept a wide range of different points of view on any given subject. Berlin believes composition teachers should give students the terms and background necessary for identifying and discussing these ideologies in their own work and others. Of course, the idea that this is important to students’ education is in itself an ideology with an agenda, but postmodernism says that as long as it is recognized the receptor can do with it what they will.
The conflicted subject
The subject of any work, as well as the author, is seen through the postmodern lens as “multiple and conflicted, composed of numerous subject formations or positions.” Students exemplify this when they give presentations in class, by dressing, speaking, and standing differently than they would normally. They have different personas for different occasions. Likewise, different kinds of writing require different voices, even though they may be on the same subject or to the same audience. Therefore, it doesn’t mean anything to say to students, “be yourself,” because each person has multiple versions of themselves. A more useful instruction would be we can only understand, explain, and even take part in our life experiences through language, so any account we tell is true to ourselves because it is a product of language of this particular moment in time.
The teaching of genres is further broken down when students realize that all parts of composing are culturally coded. Genres encourage certain kinds of messages written in certain kinds of language, not always to produce “clear and effective communication,” but to also make the author adopt a certain ethos. These ethos are ideological and coded, so students develop an understanding that no genre of writing is more objective than another.
Because language is so essential to life and yet is so variable based on the person using it and the moment in time, there is no official way of using language. Berlin explains “a given language or discourse does not automatically belong to any class, race, or gender.” Each group has specific discourses that they use to promote their agenda, but each person also has their own discourse within that group. Therefore, how a message will be received is completely out of control of the sender, because an audience is an unpredictable combination of group roles and individuality. This voids the old ways of teaching certain forms of writing for certain subjects, and better prepares students for the unpredictable nature of audience response.
Berlin, James A. “Poststructuralism, Cultural Studies, and the Composition Classroom: Postmodern Theory in Practice.” Rhetoric Review v11 n1 (1992): 16-33.