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James Berlin’s Rhetorics, Poetics, and Cultures: Refiguring College English Studies

“The history of mankind is the history of the attainment of external power.”

H. G. Wells, The World Set Free

It is a time that may, in retrospect, rival the 1960s in terms of societal upheaval. The Arab Spring is turning into the Arab Autumn, and that by itself would normally merit but a passing glance in American society. It is something other, unconnected to us, and yet, for two months we have had our own American uprising in the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement that has swept the nation and has brought civil disobedience (and tear gas, rioting, and mass arrests) into twenty-first century America. Even before the OWS movement against the excesses of the one percent, the Tea Party began a slow boil of outrage against incumbent politicians and their pork barrel spending. Both movements focus on the elite in America and its misuse of power (see Foroohar).

Though I have not joined either movement, I have found myself questioning the power structures within America, specifically within the American educational system as embodied by Florida and its assessment system. As a high school English and reading teacher, I deal with students who feel disenfranchised with the educational system, though they would not put their feelings into such words. My FCAT level 1 retake students are mostly juniors in high school who have repeatedly failed the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test since they began taking it in the third grade. A level 3 is considered on grade level. In a culture that values scientific objectivity as a measure of success of both teachers and students, these students have been subjected to a decade of assessments that are increasingly rigorous, increasingly numerous, and result in increasing failure.

A decade of failure on the state assessment has left many of my retakers jaded, hating school, and despising reading but saying that education is the most important thing they can do for themselves. They have, in theory, bought the idea encouraged by teachers such as me that they must get their training. They have bought it, that is, until they fail yet another assessment (be it a teacher-made test, a district mandated progress monitoring assessment, or the state graduation exam).

I have discussed some of Berlin’s ideas with these students on multiple occasions this semester, and what follows is a recreation of some of those discussions.

Black, pregnant student comes to my desk.

S1: Miss, I can’t be getting these grades. I’m ready to quit.

Mrs. C: S1, you know you can’t quit. You’ve got your baby to think about.

S1: I know but this test is whack. I’ve never been anything but a 1 and never will be.

Mrs. C: You don’t know that. You just have to keep trying. This could be the year. We’re going to work hard. I’m here for you.

S1 walks away in doubt.

Mrs. C checks her test history, and to her shock, discovers S1 has been a level 1 since third grade.

A few days later, black male student, disgruntled about an FCAT practice assignment, says aloud

S2: Man, this is stupid.

Overhearing S2’s statement, two black football players

S3 and S4: Yeah! Why do we have to do this?

Mrs. C: You have to get your education.

S3: But it’s still stupid.

Black teen mother (who doesn’t make it known she’s a parent but whose friend told me to see if I would be shocked) chimes in

S5: But we’re not stupid. This test makes us look stupid.

Mrs. C: You’re right. You’re not stupid. Let me tell you what I’ve learned in my class.

All students: You’re in class?

Mrs. C: Yes. At USF Tampa. We’re talking about composition theory. And one theory is that there is one standard dialect that is the “right” one to use. It’s the one we use in school, not at home or with our friends.

S2: That’s why we get all this wrong.

Mrs. C: Well, here’s what I want you to do. When you’re taking the FCAT or the ACT, think like me.

Students laugh.

S5: Think crazy! Ha!

Mrs. C: No, really. The test writers. Think about who they are. They’re the old little white men who have no clue how you speak.

Black, female who effectively code switches

S6: They’re really old white men?

Mrs. C: No, S6. But you do have to think like they do and answer the questions based upon how they think.

S6: That makes sense.

S2: That’s not fair.

Mrs. C: I didn’t say it was fair. You want to pass the test?

Students nod their heads.

Mrs. C. Then you’ve got to think and respond as they expect you to.

A few days later, S2 approaches me at my desk, pointing to another FCAT practice item.

S2: Man, why’d I miss this?

Mrs. C. I’m not a man.

S2: You know what I mean. This sucks.

Mrs. C. (Reads the question and his response) Ahhhh.

S2: What? What? Tell me. Tell me.

Mrs. C. S2, you know how to talk so I understand you, right?

S2: Yeah.

Mrs. C. Were you thinking like that old little white man?

S2: Man…..

Mrs. C. Were you thinking like me?

S2 looks at me a bit puzzled

Mrs. C. Remember when we were talking the other day about thinking like the test maker?

S2 nods his head.

Mrs. C. It’s called code switching. When you’re taking these academic tests, you’ve got to switch to the code that the test makers use. You stuck to your code and picked the wrong answer because that makes sense for how you normally think and speak. And from your perspective, yes, it’s correct, but…

S2: But if I’m thinking like them then this other answer is the correct one.

Mrs. C. Exactly.

S2: Okay. I got ya. We’re straight now.

One of the biggest helps to my retaker students has been the fact that I have acknowledged openly and often their intelligence. And they are intelligent. Just recently, the students in class noticed many details in a Salvador Dali painting that I had not noticed despite weeks of staring at the painting (and of trying to discover its meaning online). They then connected those details to possible explanations within the world, to both their experiences and what they have read. During class discussions I have positively accepted their answers and have acknowledged when they have out thought me (something they enjoy and which, when concentrating, they do quite frequently).

In addition, I have acknowledged that there is a “standard” English that the assessments are in. We have discussed how out of 22 people in the room, three of us are white and the rest are Hispanic or black, but the opposite is the case in my sophomore honors English classes. They see the disparity, and I have acknowledged it. I have also alluded to Peter Elbow’s ideas in “Inviting the Mother Tongue” that it is permissible to use their own language in talking in class, and indeed, the students speak Spanish and Black English. They even enjoy a good laugh when I try to join in. But they have also acknowledged to me through their translations of their dialect into mine that they understand that in order to be successful they must, at times, adopt the “economically and politically dominant” dialect found in schools (21).

It might simply be too much for any of us to understand in one semester. We, the students and I, see the disparity. We see how the male, European descendent is valued more than the native or immigrant or feminist voice. But what can be done? Our educational system glorifies No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. Gone are the days when men such as Abraham Lincoln could learn “lawyering” from extensive reading and studying on one’s own so that he could pass the bar exam (Goodwin 45).

But are those days really gone? In this era of testing till one drops (either the student or the teacher), what English studies really does require is a return to the idea from the 1700s of English studies being about reading ability and experience and the knowledge of rhetoric and grammar (Berlin 5). We should no longer elevate the poetic over the rhetoric since it is no longer effective by itself in assisting students in engaging in the culture or even in passing the state exam. By focusing English studies on the binaries inherent in writing and by focusing students on how language is used to shape culture, English studies can teach students how to participate in a democratic society. This is “citizenship preparation” (Berlin 109). It reminds me of my own idealized vision of the men (and some women) of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (e.g. Paine and Wollstonecraft) and their debates on what constitutes liberty, justice, and equality, of how all writing from that time appears, to me, to be politically motivated.

Instead of hiding from the world behind literature, English studies has the potential of allowing “all voices [to] be heard and considered” (110). The classroom becomes a place of dialogue between the students, instructor, authors, and all of the writing that is written and studied as part of the course. The instructor is a guide, much as in the College Board’s pre-AP program called SpringBoard that my district instituted in half its high schools this school year. The teacher’s edition does not have very many answers because answers and the process of making meaning come from where the students are in relation to the texts they are reading, writing, and sharing (see Olson). Instead of teaching the canon that has been taught before, SpringBoard delves into cultural studies and feminist and immigrant and native literatures at all secondary grade levels. It is, for me, a perfect opportunity to explore my ability to begin to guide students in identifying the binaries in “economic, social, political, and cultural arrangements” (Berlin 113) through the reading and writing that students do for the course.

Berlin believes, as I have come to believe, that the instructor helps students to see the “relation of language and power” and how they change over time (118). The instructor’s goals are to help students gain control, to become “active agents of social and political change,” to help them see how “the world has been made and can thus be remade to serve more justly the interests of a democratic society” (122). And instead of meekly laying their heads down as we do more FCAT practice, instead of mumbling “This is gay,” instead of resisting through passivity the power of schools, instead of spending more time thinking that I should leave secondary education because it is like hitting my head against a brick wall year after year, instead of giving up as I have all but done, we (my students and I) can recognize that it is through compulsory education, that those in power create a “trained and disciplined workforce” through enculturation of not just immigrants entering the country (24) but of all nonestablishment voices through suppression of militant ideas (27). Now that are aware of the dominant historical narratives that are the dominant stakeholders’ attempts to maintain control through the ideas of reason and truth which “conceal the irrational forces of domination and discipline” humans use to maintain power (Berlin 67), we can analyze the enculturation process.

Indeed, for the past week we have done something that has kept them from tuning out. We have been discussing Langston Hughes’ “Theme for English B” and its rather bold statement that the speaker, being black, is less free than the professor who is older and white. It was part of the SpringBoard curriculum, and Hughes work is part of the canon of Harlem Renaissance writers we study in high school. But not this poem. My students could not believe we were discussing race and discrimination and that I was admitting that there was a huge difference and that there still is. They know about the achievement gap. What do we do? they asked. We talk about these spaces between, these contact zones, as Bizzell calls them. We meet in the middle to discuss the narrative, to analyze the literature, to write our own themes. And in the next step, they did write their own themes discussing death and love and, yes, discrimination. They moved beyond consumers to producers.

It is all a power struggle, but this ability to analyze the spaces, the difference, the contact zones, can give the next generation the ability to bridge the achievement, political, and monetary gaps by allowing it to advocate for itself. It allows them to see through rhetoric, instead of solely through a gut reaction, the issues of power they truly face and allows them to become purple instead of fragmenting into red and blue, all one or all other. It allows all students the basic ability to comprehend and engage in the world, to be an active participant, a true citizen, instead of an unthinking, merely trained worker. They could become initiators and articulators of thought.

Berlin reemphasizes that all are involved in power play, whether people realize it or not. Even my students, as they ineffectively argue that “This is gay (meaning, stupid)” are attempting to take control. A person’s ideology affects what exists, what is good, and what is possible (Berlin 84). In order for English studies to be relevant to a society in which meaning is based on relationship to other ideas, English studies needs to investigate the convergences of what exists (the contact zones), what is good, and what is possible, determine the binaries that are present, and seek to help students discover their own positions and ideologies (instead of the positions of the establishment) while recognizing the power struggles that occur. By studying the “discursive practices involved in generating and interpreting” (94) literature, English studies will reveal the political codes of society, allow students to determine their position, and allow them to determine how they should respond. This will help students not to be victimized by the dominant power structure and will give them a means of responding, aided by the educational system instead of hindered by it.

But there will be trouble in River City. Not mollifying the others, not keeping them from questioning the system of power, allowing them to THINK will certainly cause unrest. With the ability to analyze and to question the unknown that currently vaguely troubles the younger generation, we provide students with this frightening idea of relativism that postmodernism postulates, that all that we are in contact with, such as the value of money (Berlin 69) is indeterminate by itself. It is the relationship of ideas that gives definition. This would provide successive generations with the idea that puts hell within the reach out of extreme right Christian conservatives: relativism. It is this idea that will cause a fight. Christianity supports Truth. It views the word as black and white, all wrong or all right. Those of us who see grey amidst the black and white, who see purple amidst the red and blue, face marginalization and questions about our truly being believers.

Were the 1960s just a blip? No, they resulted from many factors, including the fact that many, especially the young, were willing to question the established order, what had always been. They saw grey and purple. They were no longer “respecting their elders” by not speaking up. Indeed, they were speaking up and causing others to pay attention to their concerns about war, the monetary structure of American society, about civil rights for minorities and women, and about religion. Should we in English studies follow through, should I follow through, with teaching students to analyze and comprehend the social narrative that has kept revolution down, then we will face unrest. We then will have the difficulty of teaching successive generations not to be inculcated and to continue questioning the establishment.

It sounds just like the 1960s, and the disdain I once had for an era that caused mass interruptions to society is dissipating into respect that so many were willing to question authority. After fifteen years teaching English and reading at the high school level, I believe that I am moving in that direction. It is a direction that is frightening since it is at odds with my respect for authority (I am, after all, in authority) and my respect for the canon of literature. But the definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly while expecting different results. In fifteen years, the results have not changed. Instead, more and more students are failing the state exams (about two-thirds of students where I teach fail the exam the first time they take it), and despite a shift in the composition of my English classroom, I predict that two-thirds of my sophomores will fail the exam this year and will be in my retaker classes next year.

It leaves me with one choice: to continue to search and to question and to show my students how to do the same.


Berlin, James A. Rhetorics, Poetics, and Cultures: Refiguring College English Studies. West Lafayette, ID: Parlor Press, 2003.

Bizzell, Patricia. “’Contact Zones’ and English Studies.” College English. 56.2 (February 1994): 163 – 69. Rpt. in Cross-Talk in Comp Theory: A Reader, 2nd Edition. Ed. Victor Villanueva. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2003. 479 – 486. Print.

Elbow, Peter. “Inviting the Mother Tongue: Beyond ‘Mistakes,’ ‘Bad English,’ and ‘Wrong Language.’” From The Journal of Advanced Composition. 19.2 (Spring 1999): 359-88. Reprinted in Everyone Can Write: Essays Toward a Hopeful Theory of Writing and Teaching Writing. Oxford University Press, 2000. PDF file.

Foroohar, Rana. “What Ever Happened to Upward Mobility?” Time. 14 November 2011. iPad version. Accessed 22 November 2011.

Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005.

Hughes, Langston. “Theme for English B.” Rpt. in SpringBoard, Level 5. 18 – 19.

Olson, Carol Booth. The Reading / Writing Connection: Strategies for Teaching and Learning in the Secondary Classroom. Boston: Pearson, 2003.

Wells, H. G. The World Set Free. Produced by Charles Keller and David Widger. Kindel edition. Originally published 1914.


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