Jonathan Alexander and Jacqueline Rhodes’s “Flattening Effects: Composition’s Multicultural Imperative and the Problem of Narrative Coherence”: A Review

Although there are a plethora of articles that incorporate cutting edge, culturally relevant discourse about the politics of multiculturalism in composition classrooms, Jonathan Alexander and Jacqueline Rhodes’s piece “Flattening Effects: Composition’s Multicultural Imperative and the Problem of Narrative Coherence” is uniquely compelling. In this article, Alexander and Rhodes argue that one of the primary problems of contemporary composition classrooms is that the pedagogical process “…is rather bland, emphasizing commonalities that prevent us from perceiving and analyzing critical differences” (431). Thus rather than recognizing and responding to the power of celebrating difference, these pedagogical modalities induce what the authors refer to as a “flattening effect” (431). This flattening effect involves emphasizing commonalities and shared humanity in a manner that elides or effaces the reality of otherness. Alexander and Rhodes identify this otherness in terms of “radical alterity,” which they define as “the critical differences that exist among different people’s and different groups’ experiences of the world” (431). Whether it manifests in subtle or salient pedagogical praxis, the erosion of radical alterity has the debilitating effect of precluding us “from perceiving and analyzing critical differences” (431). The authors go on to point out that any critical multicultural pedagogy must incorporate both an acknowledgment of our shared humanity as well as a clear, conspicuous recognition of our radical alterity. Additionally, Alexander and Rhodes emphasize the importance of recognizing that identities marked by difference must not be reduced to spheres of decipherable, colonizing generalizations which incorporate the idea that the subjugated subject is thoroughly understood. Rather, the notion that identities are often laden with incommensurability and unknowability should be emphasized in the composition classroom in order to preclude individuals within the academic setting from assuming that they possess exhaustive understanding of others. In delineating/defending the importance of exploring and engaging issues of radical alterity, Alexander and Rhodes argue for a more inclusive, open-minded, open-ended approach to language instruction in composition classrooms.

As multicultural pedagogues with more than twenty years of experience in the field, Jonathan Alexander and Jacqueline Rhodes possess extensive knowledge about the politics of contemporary composition classrooms. Alexander is a professor of English and campus writing coordinator. Additionally, he is the director of the Center for Excellence in Writing and Communication at the University of California, Irvine. He is the author of several books, including Literacy, Sexuality, Pedagogy: Theory and Practice for Composition Studies. Alexander is also the recipient of the Charles Moran Award for Distinguished Contributions to the Field of Computers and Composition. Like Alexander, Rhodes has cultivated a formidable career in the field of composition studies. As a professor of English at California State University, San Bernardino, Rhodes’s work is rooted in analyzing the intersections of rhetoric, technology, and materiality. She is also the author of Radical Feminism, Writing, and Critical Agency: From Manifesto to Modem. Additionally, her work has been published in several venues, including College Composition and Communication, JAC: A Journal of Composition Theory, Computers and Composition, Enculturation, and Rhetoric Review. It is also important to note that Alexander and Rhodes are personally invested in the professional research they produce regarding the pedagogical world. In drawing attention to this reality, the pedagogues state: “As a gay man and a lesbian, respectively, we are particularly interested in the taming of queerness in the composition classroom” (431). In addition to exploring the scope and signification of queerness as a sphere of radical alterity, Alexander and Rhodes examine the role that identity sectors such as race and sexual orientation play in constructing realms of otherness that stand in contradiction to the ideology of “shared humanity” that currently proliferates ostensibly progressive multicultural compositional classrooms.

To legitimate their claim that modern day multicultural classrooms are structured in a manner that erodes the reality of radical alterity, Alexander and Rhodes draw attention to the way that narratives about queerness are deployed within the classroom environment. Specifically, the authors argue that “Inclusive narratives of queerness used in many composition courses engage simultaneously in a flattening effect and a flattening of affect—that is, they elide engagement with material differences in the queer experience of the world, both socially and somatically” (431, 432). In making this claim, the authors reemphasize their original argument that the perceived need to promote an ideology of “shared humanity” amongst students of all backgrounds in the composition classroom works to denigrate or deny the reality of difference.  Alexander and Rhodes go on to note that these differences exist while also arguing that recognizing and analyzing them is important. They cite key differences between the actualized existence of heterosexuals and homosexuals to make this idea plain. Specifically, they argue that “…our difference in our humanity is key, particularly in addressing some systemic violence against queers. If Jonathan and Jackie are in danger of being assaulted, it is because they are not straight. He is a queer man; she, a lesbian” (438). Yet in a multiculturalism composition classroom predicated on the idea that emphasizing shared humanity is more important than analyzing radical alterity and difference, the salient interstices between heterosexual and homosexual existence would likely be ignored. In explaining why this flattening effect tends to come into being, the authors argue that it “arises out of the unexamined assumption that “understanding” and then “tolerance” or even “respect” are predicated on “identity” (438). In elaborating on what this limiting concept of identity consists of, Alexander and Rhodes argue that “By identity, we mean not just the acknowledgment that other identities exist, but that those identities are, in essence, somehow identical to (or identifiable with) your own” (438). Within this problematic schema, the need to make everyone alike in an attempt to foster a sense of common humanity works to diminish the reality of difference such that the unique, specific psychosocial and sociocultural realities that individuals marked by radical alterity experience are not recognized or respected.

While the importance of rendering difference an integral component of discourse in the composition classroom is a primary point of the article, the authors also take time to emphasize the fundamental need to make the recognition of incommensurability and unknowability a central element of pedagogical ideology and praxis (440). Incommensurability is a term used to connote the reality that radical alterity creates an interstice between the individual who has been rendered “other” and the person who maintains a position marked by normativity. Unknowability is the idea that there are aspects of an individual’s identity that can never be fully grasped or understood.  In discussing these matters, Alexander and Rhodes note that “If Jonathan talks about his open marriage, then some interlocutors will hit a roadblock in what had been our shared, mutual understanding of marriage in this communicative exchange. Suddenly, his difference as a gay man who is married seems perverse, if not even unaccountable, unrecognizable” (440). The authors go on to note that this schema involves reaching “…a point of incommensurability in which the categories collapse, the bridging category “married man” unable to sustain the weight of a queerness whose difference cannot be accounted for—or fixed—within another category” (440). Here, the authors demonstrate how spheres of radical alterity (such as ostensibly deviant sexual/marital modalities) become spaces in which there is no common basis or “bridge” between the individual who occupies a position of marginality and those whose sexual and marital identities reflect a normative, mainstream ideology and praxis.

One of the greatest strengths of this article is the extensive research it includes. The work is greatly amplified through Alexander and Rhodes’s engagement and analysis of research findings by a wide range of pedagogues who have extensive knowledge about the inner workings and contradictions of composition classroom politics. For example, Alexander and Rhodes engage the work of notable writer Henry A. Giroux upon noting his assertion that there exists a strong need for the engagement of multiple, disparate narratives in the classroom setting. Alexander and Rhodes also reference significant suppositions submitted by renown cultural theorist bell hooks, citing her call for an educational modality capable of transforming consciousness and promoting free expression to expound upon their own arguments regarding the importance of enabling students to use the composition classroom as a medium through which to document their experiences as subjects marked by radical alterity.

While Alexander and Rhodes’s article offers a thorough analysis of the ideological shortcomings that currently stifle acknowledgment and interrogation of difference, the text did have several significant shortcomings. One of the most salient shortcomings was the scant discourse regarding the strengths of pedagogical approaches that involve promoting a sense of shared humanity amongst students from different racial, political, sexual, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Although the writers acknowledge that the promotion of shared humanity is designed to promote mutual respect amongst and between students who occupy disparate epistemological and experiential spaces, they do not delve into how this strategy can function as a gateway into substantive interrogations regarding the shape, scope, and significance of difference.

In considering Alexander and Rhodes’s article as a cohesive whole, the reader should note that while the piece offers a plethora of important insights regarding pressing pedagogical issues, a careful reading of the work engenders a wide range of importunate questions. In fact, the authors themselves pose some. Specifically, Alexander and Rhodes ask: “What kinds of writing assignments might emerge out of acknowledging contradiction and irreducibility, in both discourse and in lived, embodied, material realities?” (445). Other questions posed by the authors include: “How do we engage, in and through writing, the “partial,” the senses of difference that are not reducible to simplistic understanding?” and “…how do we teach in the gray areas between polarized understandings of difference?” (445). Because each of these questions engages how issues of difference can be explored within the classroom in a manner that incorporates acknowledgement/interrogation of radical alterity, a relevant article from which pertinent answers might be attained is Lisa Delpit’s “The Politics of Teaching Literate Discourse.” In this article, Delpit explores the role that race plays as a sphere of radical alterity that can preclude African-American children from excelling in composition classrooms that overtly or covertly privilege whiteness. Delpit also offers practical solutions that can empower individuals who occupy spheres of difference to profit from these traditional educational settings while maintaining a positive, profound sense of subjectivity.

By offering readers a clear understanding of the way that pedagogical approaches centering an ideology of shared humanity impair the process of acknowledging and respecting the reality of radical alterity, Alexander and Rhodes present the reader with a strong argument that legitimates the need for practical change in the composition classroom. And in legitimizing the importance of making the educational setting a sphere for transformation and transgression that leads to enlightenment and illumination, the authors provide their audience with the impetus necessary to provoke positive change and progress.

Works Cited

Alexander, Jonathan and Jacqueline Rhodes. “Flattening Effects: Composition’s  Multicultural Imperative And the Problem of Narrative Coherence.” College Composition  and Communication, Vol. 65, No. 3, February 2014.

Delpit, Lisa. “The Politics of Teaching Literate Discourse.” The Norton Book of  Composition Studies. Ed. Susan Miller. 1st ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2009. 1311-1320.  Print.

 

 

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Jonathan Alexander and Jacqueline Rhodes’s “Flattening Effects: Composition’s Multicultural Imperative and the Problem of Narrative Coherence”: A Review

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