E501 Posting: Hairston v Berlin

Ah Maxine Hairston, she was such a force in rhetoric and composition. She argued her position thoroughly and staunchly maintained her stance. Such adept, skilled maneuvering of debate is truly admirable.  She was usually right, in my opinion, although this time I must challenge part of her argument on the banning of political rhetoric from the classroom.

My line of argument slightly deviates from Hairston’s on the fight to leave all politics outside the classroom. I say everything is political. The fact remains that students (freshman are the main focus for Hairston) are at a university, following structured degree programs, and kowtowing to administrational requirements…all part of the politics embedded in the university institution. So teachers must exercise their influence in the most minimalistic manner possible, but acknowledging with a slight gesture, from time to time, the presence of the political elephant in the room. Pointing out this presence to students is a type of community responsibility, I think. For example, a professor saying, “hey, watch out for the state’s control of education in your degree requirements (like mandatory public speech)!” is a friendly “heads up.” Hairston’s reply to me would probably be “of course! But have the students write about their views on such topics, not just assimilate your opinion on the issue!”

James Berlin would argue the point with Hairston as well by saying that the political, cultural influences of whatever modern age narrative we are living in, are irremovable. The best we can do is see those influences, shut out those we can, and mitigate the effects of those we cannot. Berlin would argue against Hairston’s critique that revealing ideology, when it is encountered, such as social-epistemic rhetoric, is putting “the social goals of the teacher before the educational needs of the student.”  He would say it is inevitable that they will need to know these things, why not teach them in the open forum of the classroom. Berlin cautions, though, how social-epistemic rhetoric tries to push ideology at the center of the classroom-but beware, capitalism, a Jekyl-Hyde individualistic tenet touted by both ideologies, can grab ahold of the classroom if you let it and edge out the students’ involvement.

I agree with Hairston that the diverse classroom is best for learning. With our students coming from diverse backgrounds, as Hairston contends, socio-politico topics will be introduced in a natural process-by the students. I agree with her that teachers must leave space for issues, help students as they wrangle with their understandings and let them apply their findings to their lives as they see fit. The student-centered classroom allows breathing room for this discovery process.

Again I agree with Hairston’s argument that teachers must leave their personal politics outside the classroom door. But, I must admit, it is seductive to think of a classroom of eager minds just waiting for me to lay some ideology on them like Socrates did. Of course, in my dream I would wrap myself in compassion for student’s naïve obeisance of the powers that be, soothe my conscious with a sense of obligation to warn them, but all the while I am walking a fine line between detachment and manipulation. If Maxine Hairston were to follow this frightening scenario and implement my own philosophy against me, she would admonish me to warn my own students of teachers…like me.


Maxine Hairston~ Goin’ Down Swingin’

In Against the Grain, I read Maxine Hairston’s final professional address, titled “A Last Hurrah”, she gave in 1993 at the College Composition and Communication Conference, as a farewell to the profession, and to University of Texas, Austin. She wrote of her life as a young mother, working the farm, and then told of her return to academics, starting her doctorate in her forties. I relate to this “late” start as I too started my academic career in my forties with my bachelors pursuit. Hairston’s reflections on her timing resonated with me: “I think I did better work than I would have at twenty-three, trusted my intuition more and graduate advisors less, and had more confidence in my tastes and my judgment.” I particular adore her for saying: “Women who come back to school after…ten years or more return with energy, excitement, and a good deal of common sense.They know what they want and are not shy about asking for it.”

She made it her goal to be a teacher of composition in a field dominated by men. She was discouraged and looked down on by her male colleagues, she was even given a letter by her department head that her chances of ever getting tenure were “very poor!”  Funny, she didn’t find that letter until years later…yep, after she was tenured.

As a full-tenured English professor, she fought to break “composition’s bond to the literature power structure” at University of Texas. This revolutionary call did not make her a darling of the administration. But her and her colleagues pushed on and eventually the split occurred. Their goal for the department division was to open the way for teaching instruction focused on a student-centered classroom, where they worked to “make students stronger, more confident writers who can think for themselves.”  I see the legacy of this smart move in my Rhetoric and Composition graduate program here at CSU.

Hairston believed the writing classroom was no place for university politics. The classroom was no place for teachers to showcase “ideology at the forefront of their teaching” or push their own “ social agenda before the students’ rights to develop their own voices and abilities.” These were arguments which labeled her a “heretic, a dissenter” against the bright, shiny, new theories of the day.

In her farewell, she told of her new fight as a social reformer, advocating for women’s rights, and ending the “cycle of poverty and despair.” I smile to think of her in the social boxing ring, landing an uppercut square on the chin of the political powers behind social injustice-Maxine Hairston style!

Bold, sassy, a pioneer for women, and an accomplished rhetorician, she is worthy of our praise and emulation!

Maxine Hairston~Learn to write or write to learn?

What should be the purpose of the college writing class today? Let’s talk…

My desire, my passion, is to teach writing in a way to open minds and stretch the imagination. Am I a silly dreamer? Do people even view writing as a vital skill today? Why do we teach writing? Can writing even be taught in this world of wiki and tweet? I want to teach writing, composition, in such a way that others can feel the amazing discovery I felt when I conquered my avoidance of writing. This unearthing of self forms cracks in one’s personal writing foundation. But, how to get others to take the invitation to delve deeper into the world of writing?

One way to make writing more enticing is to apply issues that come up in current events to new writing theory and ongoing research, employ new technologies in communication, and thereby we as teachers STAY RELEVANT to the student’s life.

Also there is no shame in addressing a student’s goals, both academic and professional, and tying those in with the need for writing skills. It’s time the world woke up to the effectiveness of a carefully honed message written for all variety of purposes. The power of the pen must be reestablished! Even a scientist must write effectively within their community if her/his findings are to be communicated and recognized. The connection is there-challenge yourself as a teacher to make that connection. Challenge your students to develop ways of communicating their dreams and goals in writing. And then with little prompting, it is my firm belief, the fledging writer will discover how fun and enjoyable writing can be.

Who will lead us? My feminist side always leads me to research of strong women who write about the tough issues, those who throw the figurative “wrench” in the works of rigid, robotic, assembly line thinking. No matter what their particular area of expertise might be, the women I will present on this blog all have rattled the cage of their academic field and published written materials which changed the world. Not only do they advance new ways of thinking, they use the power of the pen to shout out their ideas. Well done. They are heroines of rhetoric. (I am okay with the feminine form of hero).

I present my first Rhetorica Heroica , Maxine Hairston Ph.D., a writer and teacher of writing who advanced the scholarship in her field by strong, nonconformist arguments.

In my Theories of Writing class, and in private research, I was delighted to discover Maxine Hairston, (1922-2005) professor emerita of English, University of Texas at Austin. Hairston devoted her public life to the study of writing and how to teach composition to students in more effective ways. Hairston’s theories of composition and the mind connection with the writer mirror my own.

In 1982, Hairston wrote as essay titled, The Winds of Change: Thomas Kuhn and the Revolution in the Teaching of Writing in which she portends a paradigm shift from writing pedagogies of her time. It was a shift Hairston eagerly awaited for it meant a richer and more meaningful composition experience for both teacher and student. She lists one of the shifting “winds of change” as teachers who will engage with their students DURING the writing process, not just waiting at the grading period red pen poised to strike (86)! Her wish list also included “writing as recursive rather than a linear process; pre-writing, writing, and revision… activities that overlap and intertwine” (86).   This plea vividly brought to mind my own clutch and grasp process of writing, my own writing heaven/hell, pain/agony style…always with a satisfactory outcome though, amazingly. I remember instructors who ignored my need for help with my writing process and I understand their hesitancy now, they were loyally following the pedagogy of their department.

Hairston shook the English department with her criticisms of how unprofessional it was for university administrators to believe that taking service courses was all that was required to further the scholarship of composition and rhetoric (79). Hairston says this the “apathy…and patronizing view of the essential nature of composition” that will continue to “promote a static and unexamined approach to writing” (79). So she started with administrators, often the third rail of education reform, with her manifesto to improve the relationship between writing, the student, and the teacher. Make it enjoyable-engaging.

This may not seem so earth-shattering to others, but for me, this research is gratifying, and enlightening. I lived through this shift.

I look forward to my next reading of Maxine Hairston’s work: Against the Grain: A Volume in Honor of Maxine Hairston, a collection of Hairston’s essays and articles put together by her former students and colleagues, published in 2002, in honor of her life’s work and influences in the field of composition and rhetoric.

More from our heroine, Maxine Hairston, soon!