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Composition Forum 17, Fall 2007

Gonçalves, Zan Meyer. Sexuality and the Politics of Ethos in the Writing Classroom. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2005. 216 pp.

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Velina Manolova

Zan Meyer Gonçalves’ book Sexuality and the Politics of Ethos in the Writing Classroom applies the idea of identity performance, as conceptualized in queer theory, to a pedagogical project of rethinking the function of ethos in the composition classroom. Though the book’s emphasis on theory is minimal, Gonçalves’ pedagogy is loosely informed by Judith Butler’s performance of identity theories, Shane Phelan’s theory of specificity as it relates to intersectionality, William P. Banks’ idea of embodied writing, and Anne Herrington and Marcia Curtis’ idea of a sponsoring institution. This review will engage primarily with the author’s application of identity performance and intersectionality, while briefly addressing her use of Banks. While Goncalves invokes the theorists named above in her introduction and in a few other places throughout the book, her primary source of inspiration and pedagogical insight is UMass at Amherst’s Speaker’s Bureau—an educational outreach program housed in the university’s GLBT resource center. Gonçalves conducts interviews with and observes the public speaking strategies of several Speaker’s Bureau student volunteers, and applies their rhetorical performances to a broader theory of identity performance in the writing classroom.

Gonçalves opens a potentially fruitful dialogue between (queer) identity performance theory and composition pedagogy. “Queer theory and practice” she writes, “provide a way to articulate…the sophisticated work of rhetorical identity constructions” and “to rethink the importance of ‘ethos’ as a primary site for rhetorical work and learning” (xiii). The book holds out a promise of empowering both queer students and composition students in general by applying the carefully crafted rhetorical performances queer youth employ as survival strategies in a heteronormative world to the critically conscious writing classroom. Gonçalves’ main goal is to make all students aware of the ways in which various discourses frame their identity performances and to provide students with the tools needed to gain rhetorical agency within those discourses.

This book provides a useful introduction to the ethics of sensitivity required in responding to the needs of queer students, especially for teachers not already familiar with the importance of these issues, providing them with helpful strategies for encouraging critical thinking and self-scrutiny of identity performance in their students. However, teachers who are already concerned with engaging their students to think critically about the various social forces that inform their subjectivity might find the book an at times uninventive and uncritical rehearsal of the issues that cultural studies courses have raised for at least a decade now. As a result I find the book offers a somewhat facile interpretation and application of intersectionality, its difficulty accomplishing its own self-professed project of discouraging confessional narratives, and its over-anxious desire to mold the student into a particular kind of critical subject.

One of Gonçalves’ putative pedagogical aims is to steer students away from performing the kinds of identities in their writing that they assume their teachers already expect them to perform. In offering an example of these kinds of identities, Gonçalves paraphrases Thomas Newkirk, who

notes that the ‘selves’ students construct in their essays most often reflect an audience who values romantic, sentimental, pastoral, or confessional genres, not an academic English department audience who values modern and postmodern literary genres. In the process, students lose their academic audience, and academics dismiss, or perhaps simply miss, the selves, the ethos, students do create. (8)

I am not entirely sure that Newkirk’s list of student “genres” is anywhere near representative of the kind of writing students actually produce. In my own teaching experience, however brief, I have consistently seen students write for an audience that values humor, satire, and biting criticism. Whether the students think of these styles of writing as “postmodern” is a different, perhaps irrelevant, question. The paraphrase of Newkirk suggests that “postmodern literary genres” are indeed what composition students should be writing. If true, perhaps this disconnect is not the fault of the students’ assumptions about their academic audiences, but rather of the expectations of academics who for whatever reason might be unreceptive to writing that does not fit their ideal genres, “postmodern” or otherwise. As Joe Marshall Hardin explains, one of the critiques of applied cultural studies in the classroom in recent years has been that “cultural studies infantalizes students by constructing them as naïve readers who need only to be ‘enlightened’ by the critical teacher” (43). I would amend that statement by saying that it is not cultural studies that infantalizes students but the perspective of the academic reluctant to recognize critical thinking when it manifests itself in forms not dependent upon the theoretical discourse commonly associated with cultural studies.

Thankfully, Gonçalves is less guilty of infantalizing students than the audiences Newkirk describes. In response to what she sees as a mainstream cultural imperative for students to write confessional genres, Goncalves asks, “can we teach writing from an identity perspective so that it leads to rhetorical development instead of ‘confessional’ writing?” (14). Her answer is yes, but only if we can model a pedagogy after Banks’ performance of “embodied writing,” using Banks’ method of “not merely ‘confess[ing]’ his experiences [but] fram[ing] them to create meaning for himself and his audience” (14). The student volunteers at the Speaker’s Bureau, she maintains, are able to do just that, creating allies with audience members by performing the identities of both insider and outsider in relation to the dominant culture. An example is “Viany,” who begins her story by telling the audience that she was suicidal in high school. After she and her closest friends came out, they established a support group, which helped her cope with the psychological trauma of being gay in high school. Coming to the University of Massachusetts and living on a “diverse” college campus helped even more, as it gave Viany the opportunity to inhabit multiple identities: “I could be in a sorority and be gay and do everything I want” (38). Gonçalves observes that Viany’s story closely follows the rhetorical model with which the Bureau provides its speakers: “begin with an insider performance, reference the effect of being positioned as an outsider, and end with a reference to finding a community where it is relatively safe to inhabit what the dominant culture sees as conflicting roles (‘be in a sorority and be gay’)” (38). Unlike Gonçalves, however, I’m having difficulty understanding how following the rhetorical formula offered by the resource center and presenting the audience with a narrative that they already know and expect—“I wanted to kill myself when I was a teenager, but now I’m fine, as I’ve found a place where I’m accepted for who I am”—gets away from the confessional mode and creates meaning. If Banks can frame his story in a way that puts him in the role of educator rather than confessor, Viany’s story is already framed for her by a ready-made rhetorical model that does not seem to offer much room for any narrational style outside the confessional mode.

In fact Gonçalves’ very methodology in her ethnographic study of the Bureau’s speakers seems to blatantly structure and create a discourse of confession. She collects testimony from the students through two methods—a privately conducted interview and observation of their public conversations with the campus community during the Bureau’s open forum and panel sessions. In the interviews, she asks the students questions that probe them to foreground the intersectionality of their various socially marginalized subject positions, often extracting from them revelations of truths they either chose not to disclose or did not consider discussing in their public speeches. Commenting on Viany’s presentation at the Bureau panel, Gonçalves remarks that “notably, Viany did not choose to reference her ethnicity—Puerto Rican—in her opening story, which would mark her as an outsider in the dominant culture; nor did she position herself as an insider to the Puerto Rican community. In her interview with me, she spoke of how other Puerto Rican high school students shunned her when she came out, telling her that she should ‘act Puerto Rican,’ not ‘white’” (38). What Gonçalves would have wanted Viany to reveal in her public presentation, so as to construct an arguably clichéd narrative of overlapping oppressions, she elicits from her during her private confession.

As her interaction with Viany suggests, Gonçalves’ model for strengthening student ethos by encouraging students to take into account the different identities that they perform in different rhetorical situations is derived from what might be an oversimplified conception of intersectionality. When Gonçalves lacks the opportunity to put words in students’ mouths that testify to their subjection to overlapping oppressions, she interprets their testimony freely and manages to arrive at interpretations that even her well-chosen student quotations in no way suggest. The following statement comes from an audience member at a Bureau presentation, offered as a response to the presentations of Viany and Vincente—a gay male (and also Puerto Rican) student:

I think just because you are both so close to our age and you’re both beautiful people, it helps me to understand. You didn’t try to be anyone but yourselves. You’re just like us. Helps me differentiate that the only difference is who you love, and it doesn’t matter if they’re male or female.

In Gonçalves’ interpretation, “this young woman of color took up the ally role offered by the speakers and tried out an ideology new to her, ‘gay people are just like us’” (52). That the woman’s insight had nothing to do with her race does not seem to concern Gonçalves. Nothing in the woman’s statement suggests “You’re just like us” means “Gay people are just like people of color.” Rather, her insight is a radical one because it comes from the position of an insider in the dominant culture, a heterosexual person, who, after listening to a few stories told by her queer peers, arrives at a profound transformation of her previously held beliefs about queerness by realizing that there are in fact no fundamental differences between gay people and herself, indeed that gay people’s difference is a socially fabricated fiction. Contrary to what Gonçalves implies, the woman’s revelation attests not to a sense of solidarity deriving from her identification with social difference, but rather a debunking of “difference” itself.

Gonçalves’ ethnographic study of intersectionality and identity performance at the Speaker’s Bureau informs her pedagogy in the writing classroom, where she views ethos as “the conscious creation of specific identity performances in order to position audience members as allies and move them to action” (90-91). Among her central aims in the classroom are “invit[ing] students to see themselves as agents in and subjects of multiple and competing discourses and to identify the ‘truths’ those discourses support” and “guid[ing] students to address the important and enduring differences in identity-based values between themselves and their audiences” (91). Admirable as this project sounds, I wonder if her methodology, while aiming to encourage students to resist replicating a monolithic academic discourse, runs the risk of, in Hardin’s words, “making the critique and resistance of dominant values and ideology into a game that the student can master to earn a different kind of academic approval” (54-55). I doubt that the genre of personal narrative is capable of circumventing the confessional mode, but perhaps it is not the students’ confessional impulse that we need to resist, bur rather, our own impulse to direct their confessions towards particular political aims. Despite her best intentions, what Gonçalves’ project seems to invite from students is not the production of writing that subverts the academy’s construction of student identity, but rather a kind of formulaic modeling of the discourse of cultural studies that does not necessarily require a critical engagement with that discourse. If composition pedagogy aims to encourage critical thinking and a critical awareness of performed identity, then it must abandon the assumption that students enter the writing classroom as uncritical automatons thirsting for indoctrination in the discourse of dominant ideologies. Only by believing in students’ ability to think critically on their own terms can we hope to invite a meaningful dialogue about the ways in which we build ethos and the ways in which ethos-building itself is constrained by the various discursive contexts we inhabit.

Works Cited

Hardin, Joe Marshall. Opening Spaces: Pedagogy and Resistance Theory in Composition. Albany: SUNY Press, 2001.

Newkirk, Thomas. The Performance of Self in Student Writing. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1997.

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