Reproduction, Dissemination, & Control in the Classroom

I would like to take as a point of departure for this post the conclusion of Michael Berube’s “Teaching to the Six,” where he observes that, “One signal virtue of teaching undergraduates, then, is that it serves as a powerful reminder that pedagogy should be understood as a means of dissemination rather than a means of reproduction, even – or especially – on those bad days when you are teaching only to the six” (14). My initial response to Berube’s perspective was close to Owens’ – I have a deep commitment to my obligation as an instructor to think beyond the “six” and to employ the proven strategies for reaching out to students who are not already prepared for and engaged in the task of academic writing, and so my gut reaction was to reject what I saw as a kind of complacency on the part of Berube. However, as I’ve been thinking about the questions raised in our readings for this week as a whole, the opposition that Berube sets up in his conclusion between pedagogy as reproduction and pedagogy as dissemination seems more useful to me than I had initially thought. I’m slowly beginning to feel a deep attraction to his concept of pedagogy as dissemination in its fundamental desire to relinquish control over the ways our students receive and employ the tools we give them.

The majority of our readings for this week deal in some way with composition pedagogy as a means of reproducing certain established modes of academic discourse. Bartholomae emphasizes that students experimenting with these unfamiliar modes of thought and communication may produce convoluted or even tortuous prose. Both Bizzell and Delpit deal with ways in which individual identity interacts with that which is being “reproduced” in the composition classroom. There seems to be a point of consensus among all of these pieces that composition scholarship cannot think of “reproduction” as a simple, unidirectional process wherein one powerful discourse is proliferated among students who receive it uniformly. We are being asked to acknowledge, in these readings, that we and each of our students bring to the classroom outside resources, goals, and perspectives that operate alongside and in tension with the discourses seeking to be reproduced. The implication, then, is that any expectation that we as instructors might “reproduce” dominant forms of academic discourse in our students, whether such reproduction is sought or criticized, departs from a flawed premise, underestimating the extent to which individuals resist, complicate, and creatively interpret that with which they come into contact. This strain of our readings resonates directly with Berube’s desire to relinquish some control over the ways students respond to instruction.

The practical question I’ve been thinking about in response to this dialogue concerns the ways we communicate goals to our students and the ways we eventually assess them. It seems clear to me that I want to leave room in my classroom for many kinds of student response. I want students who employ their own linguistic resources in ways that fall outside the academy’s traditions. I also want students who are willing to experiment with academic modes and find out what that tradition is capable of producing. I want to give students “academic” tools without glorifying those over other kinds of tools. I want to leave room for “unsuccessful” attempts while also encouraging a rigorous pursuit of rhetorical effectiveness. However, it seems to me that it’s one thing to want all of these things, to disseminate useful knowledge while acknowledging that I can/should not expect to control how students respond to it, and it’s quite another to think practically about how to create a common mode of assessment for the diverse projects that my students will take on in such an environment. Even more fundamentally, I am grappling with how to articulate course goals in a situation where I know that my students will widely diverge in the kinds of progress they seek and achieve. For the purposes of this post, I’ll simply raise those questions rather than attempting to articulate any possible answers I have swimming around in my brain.

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