If Students Sound Voiceless, It’s Because We Taught Them To

“The writing of individual lives actively constructs culture and politics by establishing the narrative codes, the parameters of subject and community.” (Gibson et al., 71)

“People are experts on their own lives.” (Delpit, 297)

I definitely did not know the half of what I was getting myself into when I chose for class discussion to pair and contrast Michelle Gibson, Martha Marinara, and Deborah Meem’s “Bi, Butch, and Bar Dyke: Pedagogical Performances of Class, Gender, and Sexuality” with Lisa Delpit’s “The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People’s Children.” From the titles, I knew that issues of identity and of power would be explored but nothing quite prepared me for just how intense this research would get. (Is that on me?) In both articles, the place or, more often, lack thereof of individual identity and how it translates or doesn’t to personal power in the classroom–specifically in the writing classroom–is discussed through the lens of each author’s personal experience. As a White, straight female–an identity none of the authors of these articles hold–I found these works to be very revealing on both personal and academic levels.

I believe it is difficult for many of us to conceptualize ourselves as not having one, authentic identity but, instead, of being constructed of many equally authentic identities. Our culture, as emphasized in Gibson et al.’s work, operates as a system of binaries–so assuming one identity invariably means distancing yourself from/rejecting another. Competition is a cornerstone of our culture. This means, of course, that people end up stuffed into these convenient, circumscribed little boxes they did not fashion for themselves. This means in-authenticity is inherent to/in our culture, our classrooms, and our writing.

How? 

I’m glad you asked. According to Gibson et al.’s research, “Increasing our understanding of those who tell stories from the social margins means exploring contradictions–the changing shapes of difference–so we can locate ourselves within/as the process of negotiating class and sexuality.” (79) Basically, the cultural discussion is lacking the input of some much-needed voices that have been brushed aside as they don’t tend to ascribe to/be complicit with the status quo’s binary compartmentalization. And, by excluding these voices from the conversation, we are excluding not only exploration of contradictions when it comes to identity but awareness itself that one’s identity can be contradictory and that’s okay. Visibility promotes acceptance, the opposite shame.

As it pertains to writing and the stories we tell, identity is everything. “Storytelling is the way we compose our lives: all identity, all social construction, begins with narratives” (Gibson et al,. 71). By denying people, specifically students, the ability and the means to express the complexity of their identity and their experience, a great disservice is not only performed but applauded as the pinnacle of higher education. In fact, it seems the education system especially equipped to weed out and further alienate outliers instead of to even attempt to meet the needs of these “out-of-the-box” students. The academy certainly doesn’t seem to appreciate celebrations of individuality and self-determination. I’m reminded of the academy’s dismissive and, really, harsh treatment of “voice.” After reading through these articles though, I think I better understand the academy’s stance. See, voice is reflective of the interplay between the identities an individual assumes and of the complex relationships between those multitudinous identities. When viewed in this light, it becomes clear why the academy would not want students exploring their “voices”–that could lead to trouble for not only the academy, but for the status quo the academy is upholding. 

When one of the authors of the stories shared in the Gibson et al. research recalled, when they were up for reappointment at their university, that a member of the school’s administration told her, “[your] task is to identify with administrators, not students” I literally scoffed aloud because that kind of sums everything wrong with education now. (90) Not only are students subject to these restrictions of identity, but educators as well. When that is the case, how can authenticity in any classroom be practiced? “Lived experience operates to both authorize and de-authorize speech.” (Gibson et al.) By discouraging educators from living their truth, the system is discouraging students from living their truths. Because of the culture of power (which I’ll get to more in-depth in a moment), educators–meaning teachers, professors, administrators–have the power to authorize identity, experience, and voice. When they do not/are disallowed to provide that authorization or legitimization, indoctrination and internalization occurs and so the system is able to uphold the culture of power.

According to Delpit, the culture of power refers to both the outright and the unspoken rules White people have established as norms in society which often–if not always— negatively impact POC who were never intended to be a contributing part of the culture let alone ever benefit from it. And, these rules inform every aspect of society. In many cases, abiding by these cultural rules is what decides your progress and overall success in life. (Abiding by the rules is the culture.)

So, imagine living in this culture of power but being unable to speak the language. Imagine having a voice but it going ignored because it does not speak how it should. Imagine that kind of silencing. You’re not excluded from society by your own choices but by your own voice.

As a White person, I can’t say I’ve ever known this kind of silencing. I probably never will. I’ve felt silenced by other circumstances of my identity (i.e recall the female aspect) but never specifically because of the White part. I was born into the culture of power. I directly benefit from it. What I say and what I write is immediately deemed appropriate and so has more potential to be heard and to be accepted as a truth.

Ignoring the presence of this established power differential in the classroom seems like it should be impossible but when it is so inherent in a society that it is the norm, how it can go unquestioned becomes glaringly apparent those who would question it simply don’t have the voice necessary to be heard, the tone to be believed.

POC have seen the discrepancy since the beginning. Which is something Delpit addresses when she lists, “Those with power are frequently least aware of–or least willing to acknowledge–its existence. Those with no power are often most aware of its existence” as a key feature of the culture of power. (282) And, when issues in the classroom become framed as issues of power, I believe Delpit articulates rather well the reasons why issues arise/exist in the first place. Miscommunication is one of the primary reasons. (Could this be because teacher and student are using 2 different voices, speaking in 2 different codes???) And, mis-identification of what is agitating in the first place is another big reason. By this, I mean mis-identification by administrators who create policies they, in all their White omniscience, believe will address the offending issues but so often miss the mark entirely. (Honestly, they’re playing archery while everyone else is doing lacrosse.) Miscommunication contributes to mis-identification though and both problems arise because no one is listening to or, really, hearing the voices that need to be minded and heard.

“Politically productive identity demands a culturally recognizable political self” says Gibson et al. (73) But, so many people do not have the voices to claim themselves, at least, to claim themselves in a way that will be recognized by the culture their selves reside within. This means political productivity and engagement is forfeit by default. And because policy guides education, that means productivity is down in that arena as well. It really is an unforgiving system.

Aside from that awful realization, another look at how power plays out that really struck me occurred when Delpit says, “It is impossible to create a model for a good teacher without taking issues of community and culture into account.” (291) If educators are unwilling to look at the privileges being a member of the culture of power provides them, very little meaningful progress can occur in the classroom. And, what progress does occur usually occurs at the cost of some aspect of the students’ identity. In order to succeed in a classroom in the culture of power, a part of one’s own individual culture may need to be sacrificed. This is obviously not ideal and, really, cruel.

Students should not be the victims but they so often are.

Despite many assertions that classrooms are “contact zones”, places where diversity can be experienced and learned from, there seems to be a distinct lack of any real appreciation for diversity in the academy or any real belief in the enrichment it provides. With parameters like these in place and enforced, is it really any wonder that student writing sounds dead and lifeless? Voicelss? If anything, that seems to be the goal.  (Convince them to silence themselves right? In a way, I’m reminded of Foucault’s Panopticon.) 

Overall, I found both of these works to be both eye-opening and challenging. The many ways in which liminality is rejected seems to contradict with the very heart of what education is–encouraging explorations of the self and of learning. And, how power structures outside the classroom construct the power structure within–oft to the disadvantage of too many students from the “wrong” cultural background–is utterly horrifying if I think about it for too long. I have flashbacks of moments in classes where I thought fellow peers were just “bad students” but, what if they were just victims of a bad system? A system I benefited from because it was mine to inherent? As both articles seem to suggest, Delpit perhaps more overtly, becoming a better student, writer, individual, etc. requires you set your “self” aside and critique your life. Check your privileges. That seems to be the only way to fight back.

****

~Till next time~

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