Tag Archives: race

The “Griotic Tradition” and the Multicultural Classroom

In Digital Griots: African American Rhetoric in a Multimedia Age, Adam Banks creates a new framework for thinking about writing pedagogy, and digital writing especially, that allows black students a better entry point into the conversation of digital writing:

My argument in this book is that African Americans should take this griotic tradition to their engagements with technology, becoming digital griots, bearers of this tradition in digital spaces. I also suggest that the digital griot has much to offer teacher-scholars in literacy and composition looking for relevant models of multimodal literacies for their work and that of their students. (27)

In terms of his first goal, then, it’s difficult to see how it can be immediately applied to my own experience as a writing instructor at UD for the simple reason that my classrooms are almost entirely, if not always entirely, white. As some of you have said in your other posts, this makes discussing race and creating a multicultural classroom difficult in some respects. Yet, and this is where Banks’s second goal comes into play, I would argue that creating a multicultural writing classroom, a classroom dedicated to the ethics of diversity, is not only achieved through explicit discussion of race and cultural issues.

First, let’s take a moment to recognize that diversity comes in many ways–though race may seem most readily apparent, discussions of class difference or gender and sexuality issues might be relevant and useful for our UD classrooms if the lack of racial diversity is too daunting.

Beyond that, though, Banks’s text shows us the ways that our writing pedagogy itself is infused with particular cultural values. The assignments we choose, the technology we use, the texts we have students read, and, perhaps most importantly, how we choose to evaluate and how we teach evaluation of texts are all imbued with certain cultural values and biases.

What ends up being so brilliant about Banks’s promotion of the kind of writing pedagogy grounded in the “griotic tradition” is the way that it reveals the cultural context and social significance of any kind of discourse–it reveals all discourse to be culturally dependent.

A traditional writing classroom, one that does not follow Banks, preaches a certain set of values when it comes to writing (concision, structure, linearity, clarity, etc.) that are tacitly raced, gendered, culture-ed (a pun!) but are taught as if they were inherently “good” or “better than” or “academic.” In this classroom, student’s writing is “improved” and they become “better” writers–this environment can be alien and terrifying depending on how far removed the student is from the culture of the university.

What the “griotic tradition” asks us to do instead is teach students not to “improve” their own writing (to change themselves!) but to learn and try on news ways of writing, to understand writing as essentially a performance that you can put on and step out of without compromising your personal identity and without believing in any inherent value of certain types of writing over others. So, even for our classrooms with a marked lack of diversity, we can teach an appreciation for diversity and work to undo the assumptions of superior writing skill created by white privilege.

In the end, I think that Digital Griots does offer us a way to encourage a multicultural classroom even without a visibly diverse student population OR explicit discussions of race. Through a treatment of different texts and discourses that highlights their status as culturally-dependent, inherently-valueless performances, we can at least encourage an ethics of diversity in our students.

(I apologize for the late posting.)

Remixing E110

I’ve found, reading through the posts before I post my own piece to make sure I’m not repeating what’s been said, that for UD I have a stunningly diverse classroom, whereas the class generally looks like this:

http://www.tubechop.com/watch/2542308 (Vine by Eric Dunn).

By diverse, I mean I have four students of color (an African American woman, Asian man, Middle Eastern man, and Hispanic man) and one young woman who (while white) doesn’t match up to the average UD student in that both her parents are Polish immigrants and she herself is fully bilingual. That’s about 20%!

We have not discussed race as a class, although I have brought in questions of intersectionality when students conference research topics with me. The one moment where race came up slightly was in our discussion of Anne Curzan’s piece, Says Who? Teaching and Questioning the Rules of Grammar,” in which she discusses Standard English vs home languages. Still, I am invested in diverse conversations happening in my course as I gain more experience as an instructor. 

I am, however, highly cognizant of Heather’s point about the danger in assigning students the role as “Ambassador to the Other. Carol Powell’s recent campaign at Harvard, “I, Too, Am Harvard” offers one important visual here (of many key images):


I am especially wary of this given my own position at home as explainer and defender of all things bisexual. It’s an exhausting position to be put in and certainly not one I want to place upon any student in my course.

I don’t think Adam Banks, in Digital Griots, gives an explicit answer on how to incorporate black voices in a (nearly completely) white classroom. I do think, however, that digital media offers a way into this conversation for students. We have a multitude of voices immediately available to us. Instead of having students read three essays from the Arak about television, food, and art, an assignment can ask students to respond to “I, Too, Am Harvard.” The accessibility (though I recognize there are absolutely limits to access for many students) of digital writing means that white students (myself included) should no longer have the privilege of being nearly completely uninformed about other races and cultures in the US. The fact that I have the internet means that I can’t claim ignorance simply because the town I grew up in is 96% white (and that is the statistic).

I have a similar responsibility in regards to what I teach. Banks writes, “Every course we teach is a mixtape, a compilation of others’ texts and ideas compiled, arranged, and combined with our own in various critical gestures we hope will inform and challenge our students” (138). I feel as though, currently, my course is a monocultural mixtape (or, perhaps, just a tape in a cultural sense). I ask (require) my students to investigate their own writing processes, their writing itself, their modes of argumentation, and the argumentative and stylistic modes of others. I should be willing to challenge their cultural assumptions as well, at least in the context of language and writing (online or off). When I discuss digital writing as a remix, we can talk about “remix” as a term and its historical/cultural significance. When I talk about academic style (which isn’t too too often), I can talk about the problems with Standard English.

Banks, at the core of the book, argues not only that black culture must have a place in the classroom, but that composition courses should enable “intersectional analysis, intergenerational inquiry, intercultural connection” (33) and do so through the idea of the digital griot – the idea of remix. In talking about the issues Banks has raised and I’ve echoed here, for the UD classroom, the focus does not have to be on only race, which may consistently alienate one student. By building intersectionality into the course, I think that we can have productive conversations about the ways in which we write, argue, question, and think online and off.


Forcing the Issue: Talking about Race in E110 at UD

When reading Banks’ work, I couldn’t help but think of my own E110 classes at UD. My undergraduate university was extremely racially diverse, so I have learned first hand how useful discussions of race, power, and privilege can be in a composition classroom. That said, I think these conversations are only useful when the class contains voices that are diverse enough to contribute varying perspectives. Without these first hand accounts of the effects that race has on writing practices, a discussion about writing studies can very quickly become a discussion about race studies. And while this latter discussion is important to have, I am not convinced that the FYC classroom is the right place for it.

My unease about having discussions of race in E110 at UD stems from the fact that, like Banks, I believe that we should adapt our teaching voice to the communities that we serve. Banks explains the importance for this adaptation in his chapter on community engagement:

One must have a teaching voice, an active voice, a scholarly voice that allows one to teach, politic, build, act, plan, in the idiom of the people—whoever “the people” are in the settings in which we hope to work. And one must teach in the idiom—not just the language practices but the ways of seeing the world, the ways of being in the world, the values, attitudes, knowledge, needs, hopes, joys, and contributions of a people as expressed through their language (49).

I think that it is this belief that makes questions of race appropriate for some first year composition classrooms and not others. During my time at Temple, discussions of race arose organically and felt natural. Racial discussions were a part of the “cultural idiom,” so we never had to have a specific week when we sat down and talked about race. Yet at UD, it seems to me that the norm is to have “the race week” where there is one text about African American studies and the central question of race is put on the table. Even at places like UD, race is an implicit part of all conversations, but because it is not a part of UD’s explicit cultural idiom, it just doesn’t come up. So instead we opt for making it come up. To me, these discussions always seem forced and contrived, which is why I’ve excluded them from my own E110 classroom.

Moreover, I think there is a very real danger of discussing race in an E110 class that is mostly white. In all of my classes, I have had at least one minority student (but never more than three). And although I have never tried to have discussions of race in this 20 white people 3 non-white people environment, I imagine that it would make the minority students feel very uncomfortable—as if they suddenly had to speak for ALL minority students.

I know that not talking about questions of race does not remove the very real implications of white hegemony over academic discourse. But I don’t think that talking about race in a room of mostly white people does either.

All White Remix

When I walked into Alison West 206 on February 11 for my first day as an English instructor, I expected to have at least one black student in my section. But no. When I called roll, white person after white person said “here.” And when they look at me (and heck, even at the headshots of the people whose writing we read), it’s all whiteness.


Why does this matter?

It matters because that isn’t reality.

So when Banks writes in Digital Griots: African American Rhetoric in a Multimedia Age that his purpose is to scratch and interrupt, to play between two disciplinary conversations, one about African American rhetoric and one about composing in multimodal forms (2), I want to go with him. I find his writing to be self-reflective, engaging, and inviting.

But I also feel hypocritical because I haven’t figured out, as a white person teaching white students, how to talk responsibly about race and power. Or more importantly, how to do the work that Banks writes about in his compelling social commentary about rhetorical strategies used by digital griots.

How can DJs’ creative and rhetorical moves come into play when I’m teaching white first year students how to enter the scholarly conversation? Or to see the bibliographic essay as a mixtape, as Banks suggests? How can I help students try “sampling” through their use of someone else’s idea that is vital enough that they don’t just cite it but make it a “looped” and “continually repeated” part of their own creations (26)?

I feel convicted because I know that Banks is right that the “acts of writing, the social networks and cultural contexts in which they occur, and the technological networks in which they take place and are disseminated still involve systems of power, still reflect relationships  between individuals and groups within those systems” (154). My own writing as well as the E110 writing I assign are embedded within a “system of power” that unconsciously excludes or dismisses voices and perspectives of minorities, even as the academy tries to make room for people whose voices were silenced for much of history.

In short, I am utterly persuaded of the richness and possibility in flow, layering, rupture, and remix of hip hop. That process (and indeed, the product of a remix) appeals a great deal more than the staid and patchwritten research paper drafts that cross my desk.

On the positive side, the technologies available to us and to our students can open up startlingly rich combinations, as Banks deftly and creatively discusses (and indeed, performs) in his book.

The question I am left with is this: if “black griotic traditions call for an approach to writing that is committed to the range and flexibility to ‘teach in the idiom of the people'” (155), what can we do if the people in the classroom are. all. white? What then?

x8: Banks, race, teaching, and innovation

I wanted us to read Digital Griots by Adam Banks for three reasons:

  1. I’m worried by how discourse about digital writing seems to be dominated by straight white males. (Perhaps this state of affairs will not shock those of you who are not straight white males.) I appreciate how Banks forces questions of race into our conversation.
  2. We are all teachers as well as scholars and writers, and I like how Banks asks us to think about how we represent the digital world to students.
  3. I admire the virtuosity of Banks’ writing. His book strives to enact as well as state an argument.

For next week, then, I’d like you to respond to at least one of these three aspects of Banks’ work: race, teaching, innovation. Or, ideally, I’d like you to talk about race and/or teaching in a digital age  in an innovative way.

I’m eager to see what you come up with! I feel sure, at this point, that i will be surprised and delighted.

Deadline: Tues, 4/15, 11:59 pm. Comments due on Thurs, 4/17.  Use x8 as your category.