Tuesday, January 17, 2012


As I mentioned, I have been reading the December 2011 issue of CCC (I took the inter-session break more or less off).  I wrapped it up yesterday, actually, and, as ever, I found it quite engaging.

Of particular interest to me was Michael-John DePalma's "Re-envisioning Religious Discourses as Rhetorical Resources in Composition Teaching: A Pragmatic Response to the Challenge of Belief."  In the article, DePalma argues that the pragmatism outlined by William James obliges composition teachers to allow the use of religious discourse by students of faith as a means to negotiate the tasks of composition and to perform the acts of knowledge production that are often encouraged in first-year writing.  In doing so, DePalma articulates the commonly-held dichotomy between religious and academic understandings, citing a fair amount of scholarship to assert that the view is widely held before applying James's pragmatism to undermining the view.  He also provides an extended case study of a former student's writing, using it as an exemplar of successful classroom performance by a student who is very much a person of faith.  DePalma is careful to point out the difficulties attendant upon opening mainstream composition teaching to the use of religious resources, but he argues that the benefits to teachers and students justify enduring the challenges thereof.  The article is an effective outline of a pedagogical approach, one well-grounded in theory and speaking to common sense.

While I am going to copy the above summary over to one of my teaching resources, I am for this venue interested more in articulating a response to it.  I have very much felt the discord that DePalma points out between academic and religious discourse.  Having only relatively recently returned to the practice of faith--and not really being very good at it--I find myself uneasily negotiating my identity as a church-going man and a scholar.  All too often, I do find myself caught between my desire to believe in something greater than myself and the trained need to question that information with which I am provided.  This is not aided by the tendency towards professed atheism among those in higher education; I feel as though I must be circumspect in admitting to my membership in a faith community around those with whom I share scholarly endeavors, for I have long known them to deride those who do--and for no other reason than articulating the fact of their faith.

I suppose that in some ways I deserve the unease I feel.  I spent quite a while actively rejecting theistic belief, and even now, I am apt to call the beliefs of others into question--even those whose beliefs ostensibly agree with mine.  So on one level, I am being forced to take what I dish out, and I really ought not to complain about that.

But accepting something as just does not mean that it must be enjoyed, and in DePalma's article, I find there is much to consider.  In New York as in Louisiana, I have classrooms full of students who form their identities in large part around their faith--and the faithful in New York tend to be very much so, since there is nothing like the social pressure towards religious conformity that I experienced growing up where I did.

I went to school with a televangelist's kid, if that clarifies.

In addressing those students, many of whom do form their understanding of the world in large measure through their faith traditions, I have had to tread carefully.  I do not know enough even about my own faith tradition to discuss it in great detail; how, then, can I have meaningful conversations about what my students believe?  And how can I satisfactorily address issues where their beliefs conflict not just with my own but with more broadly held principles of equal treatment and the rejection of stereotyping?

It is because I find myself obliged to address such questions that DePalma's article speaks to me as it does.  I look forward to trying to integrate it into my own work.

Work Cited
DePalma, Michael-John. "Re-envisioning Religious Discourses as Rhetorical Resources in Composition Teaching: A Pragmatic Response to the Challenge of Belief." CCC 63.2 (December 2011): 219-43. Print.

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