Gendered Social Construction

In my previous post I talked about the theory of socially constructed knowledge as used in real life and its benefits in the classroom. Today I want to go in the practice of knowledge construction in classrooms when members of the peer group communicate differently, for which I have to start with Harriet J. Malinowitz.

Malinowitz is an educator, writer, and speaker on rhetorical composition, queer studies, and contemporary social issues. You can find the bare bones of her education and books here and information about her current cause here.

In Textual Orientations, she outlines six criteria created by linguist John Swales that make up a discourse community—the body of people that socially construct knowledge. Without this peer group, this discourse community, without the group of people that participate in these six criteria, there can be no discussion and no socially constructed knowledge. The criteria are defined as such:

–        The group has a uniting goal or conversation topic.

–        Some discussion forum is accessible to all.

–        The forum provides feedback and information relating to the goal.

–        The group creates expectations for the way discussions unfold.

–        There is “an inbuilt dynamic toward…[a] shared and specialized terminology” (Malinowitz 79).

  • They develop their own unique vernacular specific to their goal/work.

–        There must always be enough people in the group who are experts in the field of the goal/work.

A discourse community is not legitimate without meeting these six criteria. So if a classroom cannot come together on one topic, discuss it in readily understood and by relatively uniform practices on a forum that everyone can access and use to inform their own work then there can be no creation of knowledge. The group needs to create a language system that is specific to their needs and reflects their ideologies as accurately as possible in order to be able to communicate ideas towards the goal of creating knowledge. At all times, the discourse community must have a “critical mass” of experts in order to impart their experiences and long-cultivated beliefs upon the novices (80).

If social construction is to be attempted in classrooms, then the students must be gathered together in a discourse community. They must find a common language by which to discuss their topics in conversation with one another not just research individually and present papers to the professor. True knowledge creation, and therefore learning, comes when people share ideas with one another.

The problem in many classes, however, stems from the many different languages shaped by the vastly differing experiences and personal identities of the students involved. Even people who share common causes—for example, those in the gay and lesbian community, as Malinowitz points out—come from nonhomogeneous backgrounds, may communicate differently, and may even identify more strongly with other cultures or identities than the LGBTQ group they are put into by the population majority (81).

Miscommunication and sex & gender stereotyping comes from our desire to have efficient and quick methods of understanding and categorizing others. By lumping a group of vastly different individuals into one umbrella category based on a similar trait of sexual orientation or gender identification ignores and devalues those traits that may lead them to think, feel, or communicate in a way that’s unrelated to the stereotype they’ve been assigned. It leads to a mono-faceted understanding of a group of people that have as many preferences, orientations, and identifications that most Americans are beginning to understand that members of the heterosexual community enjoys.

Sometimes the works of social constructionists like Malinowitz feel pointless—it spends so much time showing how and why our current operations fail to address everyone equally and pointing out all the minor details in our speech that hints at subconscious discrimination that it’s often hard to know what to do with that information. Sometimes, acknowledging that every categorization of human beings is insufficient helps keep you from being lazy. It forces you to consider every angle and keep your mind open to all the uniqueness and individuality possible in a human being.

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Social Construction in the Classroom

I sit in a room with my friends one Friday night debating the true meaning of virginity. My roommate, an attendee of faith-based schools her entire childhood, has a hard time wading through all the different understandings of virginity that college students entertain. You can imagine all the many technicalities we threw at each other while trying to defend our own sense of honor and wholesomeness, but I won’t go into the specifics because we’re talking about social construction here. The key to this discussion is my roommate, who said, “I have to believe in absolutes. I have to believe that there’s one universal definition of virginity otherwise I’ll just collapse into a shaking huddle of confusion. Because if there aren’t any absolute truths then the world is just meaningless chaos.”

She went about solving her existential meltdown by talking with as many willing people as possible about their understanding of virginity. Over a few months, she managed to construct a Truth, capital ‘t,’ that made sense to her based on the experiences and beliefs of herself, her family, and her friends.

That’s a real life example of the kind of socially constructed knowledge that Kenneth Bruffee describes in his essay Social Construction, Language, and the Authority of Knowledge.

One person, in an attempt to make sense of the world in which she lives, takes her beliefs (which have been passed down to her from the institutions she grew up in) and creates a new understanding, a new knowledge, a new truth that is relative to her current surroundings and formed by conversation with others in a social context.

For those who struggle with the idea of relative reality—one that changes based on a population’s culture, history, geographical location, and ideologies—social constructionism can provide a relief. It seems that most of our fears and uncertainties take root in our reliance on cognitive theory: the assumption that there is, somewhere deep inside everyone, an Individual—some original, unique You-ness that exists separate from everything else around it. That there are, then, timeless and changeless entities that live in vacuums. Universal absolutes that have always and will always be true and when we think about them or search for answers to any question, the discovering process is completely individual and internal. Language is merely the means by which we, as Individuals, communicate our unique ideas to everyone else.

But, as my lovely Roommate evidenced, a person can search long and hard for Truth by themselves and just end up talking themselves around in circles. Without other individuals’ beliefs to act as reference points for your own, you can’t create a firm viewpoint.

That does mean, however, that arriving at any sort of “consensus…generated by knowledge communities and used…to maintain community coherence” demands a lengthy social conversation (Bruffee 777). In other words, it’s a lot of work.

It might be easier and more efficient to say, These are the Truths that we’ve hammered out over decades of academic study. We don’t have to bother trying to find the best, right, good way to communicate because they’ve don’t it for us. So here’s the way you’ll write about the opinions you arrived at by this tried-and-true scientific method and logical reasoning. More efficient, yes. Then students can throw their ingredients into a well-oiled internal thought-processing machine and spit out an essay that fits the previously approved pattern of persuasive techniques.

But easy doesn’t always mean better. It’s easier to plagiarize. It’s easier to heat up frozen dinners that you can eat on the couch while you watch TV. It’s easier to send a break up text message than it is to have a face to face conversation. All of the above are both easier and less time-consuming and happen to be deemed unacceptable by society, so why do we consider intellectual laziness acceptable?

Donald A. McAndrews Tutoring Writing tells readers to approach each student as an individual and to tailor their tutoring techniques to that specific student’s needs and learning style. That is not easy. That means that there’s no one, universally applicable approach to tutoring, to helping someone figure out how to search for, construct, and communicate knowledge. That means a tutor will have to show up to each session fully present and ready for a challenge, for a lot of work.

If all educators took that approach, maybe we would hear fewer complaints about the millennial generation being lazy, self-interested, and apathetic. Maybe, if more educators challenged themselves to really challenge their students, there would be more metaphysical late night living room debates and more people actively involving themselves in the construction of knowledge.

The Writing Process Revolution

“I’m going to drill the five-paragraph structure into you until you can write a 20-minute essay in your sleep. You’ll need it to do well on the SATs, ACTs, and APs so you can get into a good university,” said my high school AP Lit teacher. “Of course, once you get there, all your professors will complain that you don’t know how to write.”

She laughed.

Fast forward to my first day of my first writing course in college, which I took for fun; I did well enough on my SATs, ACTs, and APs to warrant exemption from my university’s English requirements. This course was designed to help us find our voice because when people read our work we want them to hear what we have to say.

(Funny words to use when describing textual communication. There’s no actual sound involved in reading and writing, but everyone seems concerned with finding their voice rather than finding their preferred pattern of structural and lyrical style.)

It was now acceptable to write in the first person, start sentences with ‘and’ or ‘but,’ and use ellipses for dramatic emphasis. I couldn’t understand why this was now the norm…the requirement…when teachers had been leading us down the primrose path of passive voice, approved writing processes, and cookie-cutter essay formats for the last 10 years: By looking at ____ you can see that ____ and this is significant because ____. Boom, thesis statement.

But, I’ve now read the first chapter of Walter J. Ong’s Orality and Literacy and have, in my arsenal of rhetoric, an explanation for why we think of sound when we read text, why studying oral language proves troublesome, and why I’ve never heard of this before in my life.

1.       Before writing existed, we communicated in a rainbow of sensory information. We spoke (intonation, inflection, volume) up close and in person (body language, movement, appearance), and our words, once uttered, would never be delivered the same way again (encouraging memorization). Written language allowed for spoken word to materialize in a fixed way that could be studied. Communication transcended the limits of time; language could be altered, added to, preserved, and codified. But writing was, and still is, just a representation of the sounds of oral communication. (Ong, 6-8)

2.       Written language is easier to study than orality precisely because it can be fixed and changeless—an American grade-schooler in 2014 can pick up a copy of the Bhagavad Gita and read words written thousands of years ago in India. Furthermore, a literate person can’t study primary orality, those languages that have no writing system (they do exist!) without seeing words in their mind’s eye. Try hearing “Nevertheless” without picturing it in your head. (8-10)

3.       Interest in the study of orality is relatively new. Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) first advocated the belief that all communication grows from oral speech, but “the scholarly world” has only recently begun examining the significance of “contrasts between orality and writing” in the past several decades (5).

So I can see why a person’s voice and their writing style are interminably linked and why the teaching of writing as a tool for self-expression and public persuasion has not yet triumphed over the standardized education system. The battle has just begun.

Let’s see…

√  “By looking at”

√ “You can see that”

What’s left? Oh yes!

I got to college and all my professors complained that we didn’t know how to write. And, for the most part, they’re right. Anyone who doesn’t love writing will only be concerned with how to get a passing grade; unfortunately, a passing grade for most professors is determined by the standard school checklist:

–          Introductory paragraph with a one-sentence thesis statement at the end

–          Thesis details several key points to be expounded upon in several body paragraphs

–          Each body paragraph houses 1-2 supporting quotes from research material

–          Conclusion paragraph restates preceding work for emphasis

Any average college student reading that list will do what I’ve witnessed many of my friends do—assemble the bare skeleton of opinions and facts and pad it with fluff to meet the page length requirements.

It doesn’t matter to them if they join the unending conversation. It doesn’t matter whether or not their work is interesting, if it can hook or convince an audience, if it’s stylistically or structurally impressive—because none of that really matters to the average professor as much as The Rubric does.

So when the essay is handed in to professors or writing tutors or friends who have given up their night to perform charity peer review, it seems so beyond help that the only thing to do (or so we think) is to make superficial grammar, punctuation, and format corrections and send it back thinking, “Well they must just be bad at writing.”

We aren’t just inherently bad writers. We suck at writing because everyone’s in such a hurry to get to the page.

If Ong and other linguistic philosophers are correct about written language’s dependence on speech, then why aren’t we being encouraged to talk about our writing before we even think about assembling data?

English professor and writing tutor, Stephen M. North’s essay, “The Idea of a Writing Center,” deals with the misunderstanding and misuse of writing and tutoring centers on university campuses. Too often used as “the grammar and drill center, the fix-it shop, the first aid station,” writing centers would be better put to use helping students get their ideas to the page without losing the natural cadence and organizational skills we use every day in verbal communication (437).

According to North, writing centers and tutors exist for students to talk to, so they can get started or be re-inspired along their writing journey, because above all, writing is a student-centered process. Writing is not designed to test a student’s ability to remember facts in a timed, class setting.

If professors want better writers, they should revise their Rubrics to emphasize content rather than format. Tell your students you want to hear what they have to say and you’ll get better essays. Impress upon them that length doesn’t matter, academese won’t guarantee a passing grade, and have them try to talk about their thesis before starting to write…and you’ll get better essays.

How do I know? The only reason I have the courage and ability to write with any sort of style today is because I once had a professor who wanted to hear my voice.