Monday, February 23, 2009

Cognitive dissonance: OW!

The method of Cambridge College, where I am earnestly studying teaching ESL, is to create cognitive dissonance in students. At least in my case, they are succeeding.

I spent most of the past week avoiding writing a reaction paper, because I did not know how to react. I did know that something about the topic at hand--the notion that teaching is always political, always supporting or contradicting a discourse--was bothering me. I had such a bad case of cognitive dissonance that, nauseated and suffering headaches, I was ready to quit graduate school under the pretext that I needed to be available to make G. dinner in the 3 weeks leading up to his PhD defense. (This is partly true--we are both slightly a mess, he more than I, and the situation is troublesome. Only the cats remain sane, as sane as cats ever are.)

I was also troubled greatly by Foucault, who asserted that the struggle for control of discourse is the struggle for power, and that language is never neutral, but power is neutral. Dude. What?

I reread the chapter on which I was to base my own reflections. I felt nauseated. I hated Foucault and did not understand Fairclough. I felt trapped, like I was being instructed to become a radical activist, and radical activism is against my nature. It was like asking a fish to jog, or a bird to live in the sea.

Eventually I figured it out. I prefaced my reaction by stating my personal philosophy: I distrust extremes; like Aristotle and Buddha, I believe that wisdom lies in the middle places. I therefore could accept the idea that teaching is usually or almost always political and seldom neutral, but I could not abide the idea that teaching is always political and never neutral.

I discovered, then, approached from the middle places, that I could accept parts of Freire (students are not empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge), most of Cummins (collaborative v. coercive education), and especially Bordieu's ideas about language as cultural capital. I also appreciated Tollefson's classification of descriptive v. evaluative approaches to language.

But I concluded with my gut-level distaste for Foucault, noting that perhaps I dislike his notions of "struggle" because I see myself as a bridge-builder, not a warrior. I confessed to being mystified by Fairclough, perhaps needing more examples of CDA in action.

You know what? I don't have to be a radical or an extremist. I do not value radicalism, extremes, absolutes. I believe more harm than good comes from entrenched, absolute ways of thinking. And that does not mean I should drop out of my master's program.


Bill Stankus said...

I'm not certain it's required to have absolutes and be in the extreme. Successful extremists are adaptable. And, if not for extremes there would be no middle.

Some might also believe, and I'm one that does, the middle zone is the one that's entrenched. Perhaps fear of change, perhaps not enough gathered experiences. Whatever it is that causes caution and restraint is a significant factor keeping many in the mid zone.

The middle, neutral area also seems willing to let others make decisions. They want others to take the risks related to growth - the middle is partly a breed zone, a nursery and a place of artificial safety. It's chock full of constructs.

Extremes and the middle do co-exist, it's just some will stand on mountain tops and others will be content to look at photos in a magazine.

Personally, I think Life is best if both extremes and neutrality are experienced. Living a zig zag course offers that possibility.

Ann Forstie said...

I don't think it matters which is preferable, extremes or middle places. What matters is that you adapt the course's philosophies to your own (or, in rare cases maybe, vice versa). And if you need to reject its more absolute positions in order to continue pursuing this particular interest, do it!

It's not like you're disagreeing blindly; you seem to understand the content well, and you have given it serious thought. That's probably the point of the reaction paper.

There's a LOT that can be said about extremes and absolutes and the mainstream and the benefits and disadvantages of all of the above, but that would take much thought, and I suspect you don't have the energy to deal with it right now.

(Personally, I'm perfectly content with my magazine photos. I'm just not ambitious in that way.)

PS. Wouldn't it be nice to have some sort of food service that would prepare meals (or ingredients) for you when you don't have time? Like what friends and neighbors do when someone has a child or experiences an illness? Wish I could be out there to put such plans into motion...

kStyle said...

Bill: Where are we all running to? Why climb the mountain? Just to do it? For the view? Do, do, do. Why not be, be, be? Why not contemplate the mountain from below it, sipping tea, breathing in and out?

I take your point that people can be entrenched everywhere on the spectrum. Flexibility is key.

My philosophy is to let the extremists wear themselves out shouting and fighting their battles. I will be here baking bread and dancing, and hopefully showing other simple kindness.

Ann: You're right, of course, about the point of the paper. It's good to broaden one's thinking, even if one discovers she does not agree with the new thoughts.

Yes, if I had time, I would start that food service with you! It must exist somewhere...for a fee.

Bill Stankus said...

I see no difference between doing and being. I've done both the mountain top and the breathing in and out at the lower levels.

And I am not running to or from anything.

Nor do I feel I'm a fighter or a zealot. I have no interest in converting others but I will speak up for myself if necessary. Live and let live is a basic tenet.

Basically, we live once and die. I have enjoyed all my experiences - from intellectual studies, dealing in abstractions, drinking tea on quiet mornings, swimming with whales, making things with my hands, teaching, listening, conversation, collecting, understanding, be oblivious, nurturing, loving, passion, sharing ... and being aware of the world I live in.

Without experiences we know nothing.

So why limit oneself to a single path?

kStyle said...

I don't disagree with anything you say, Bill. I think you might misunderstand what I'm saying. I am not a zealot, either. That's what I mean.

Narya said...

There were times when Foucault made me roll my eyes a bit, but I still liked him. I liked Bourdieu much much better, if the truth be told, though his message does not differ from Foucault's in many or most of the significant points.

Language is NOT neutral; it cannot be. (That was, in fact, the essential point of my dissertation.) Power is neutral in the way that a hammer is neutral: you can use it on a nail, or a forehead; you can struggle with someone over who gets to control the hammer. And the struggle for control of the discourse is the struggle to frame and define the world. Suppose, for example, that your students have to choose what to call you: Ms. kstyle is not an option. If you are married, you must be defined as Mrs. G. If you are not married, you are defined as Miss k (i.e., your father's name). You are defined in terms of your relationship to a man, and you may have no independent means of identification. That is a discourse, and, constructed that way, it creates a particular space and power w/in that space.

Or so I hear.

p.s. word verif = derricor--did they thing Derrida was watching over these proceedings, even though his name was not mentioned?

kStyle said...

Narya--But why can't language be a neutral tool, like power? It seems arbitrary to say that language is not neutral, but power is. I feel like the reverse could be true: Power is not neutral, but language is.

Your example is helpful, however. I think a weakness of the chapter I read was a lack of specific examples.

I think, also, that I'm not really a Marxist, and these social historians were at least heavily influenced by Marx. I mean, yes, Marx has great ideas, but I believe in the power of small business, entrepreneurship!

Derricor, marvelous!

Narya said...

Short answer (to the question of why language cannot be neutral): because language is intertwined with practice.

Because language is not a clear pane of glass through which we view a world, but, rather, language constructs the world. It is not the only thing that constructs the world, of course, but it is one of the main ways by which we apprehend the world.

Which is not to say that every single last thing is a Big Struggle for Power; though sometimes I think it is.

Part of Marx's point, I'd say, is that capitalism works against small business and entrepreneurship. Certainly small-business owners own the means of production; the question is how they treat their workers. I would argue that the bakery was large-scale exploitation writ small and that I was, indeed, alienated from my labor.

kStyle said...

Narya, it is a crime against minds everywhere that you are not a professor! Thank you for clarifying these points for me. And I agree with you: Sometimes things are a struggle; sometimes not.

Which reminds me! G. and I are seriously considering a summer long-weekend in your town. If this pans out, I demands more discussion about this topic.

Ann Forstie said...

Continuing the tangent: If the summer long-weekend thing happens, let me know! I'm sure I could convince Jesse to make the trip, too.

Larry Jones said...

Wow! I sure hope there's a way down from the ivory tower after you get that degree.

kStyle said...

Larry: I was told that my diploma will come with a rope ladder. Better be true!

Seriously, though, you make a good point: The textbook I'm currently HATING is by an author who does not teach ESL. She teachers teachers to teach ESL. As far as I can tell, she has never, herself, taught ESL.

Narya said...

Well, y'all are certainly welcome to visit! That would be fun! It would require some advance planning, given the way my social calendar seems to fill, but there should be plenty of weekends for hanging out.

As for the explanations, well, it's pretty much what my dissertation was about, so I've thought about it long enough such that I had BETTER be clear. But thank you!

and as for extremes and middles, it also turns out that one person's middle is another's extreme, and vice versa.

kStyle said...

We'll let y'all know what we're thinking, when we start thinking it in a more clear way.

Side note: It's a circle, not a line, in my conception of extremes and middles. Another way of putting it: when there are opposing arguments, usually they are both correct. In general (if we can really generalize this much), I believe that the world needs more synthesis, not more divisiveness.

Re extremes, I am not against anyone else diving in deep ends; it's just not for me. And, on a discourse/philosophical level, I suppose I mean to say I am not for dogma.