Nonfiction and interviews.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

English 620 Lit Review #4

The following satisfies an assignment for a graduate seminar in research methods.

(#4: Peer Reviewed but not Writing Studies Source)

Zelleke, Almaz. "Basic Income in the United States: Redefining Citizenship in the Liberal State." Review of Social Economy 63.4 (2005): 633-48. Web.

What problems or issues is the writer exploring? 

Dr. Almaz Zelleke
Sociologist Almaz Zelleke articulates and challenges three of the dominant attitudes regarding citizenship and the amelioration of poverty in the U.S. in her 2005 scholarly essay “Basic Income in the United States: Redefining Citizenship in the Liberal State.”  She then presents what in her view is a much more sound argument for citizenship criteria, defined by universal basic income.  With the three dominant attitudes and policy prescriptions she critiques, the first is the paternalistic approach which claims individuals can only achieve citizenship and economic independence through paid work.  The paternalistic approach also presupposes there is enough paid work to go around for everyone.  The second approach she critiques, civil republican, “also sees paid work as the path to full integration into society, but its advocates emphasize the ideal of reciprocity as the basis for conditioning income benefits on paid work” (636).  In other words, society provides the necessary conditions to provide work to the poor, and the poor must perform that paid work.  “Fair workfare,” A. Guttman and D. Thompson term it (Qtd in Zelleke 639).  Finally, Zelleke examines the third dominant category of theorizing citizenship, the socialist argument for work requirements.  In this approach, public work is shared by all and all receive benefits.           

What position does the writer take?

The paternalist approach is easily punctured; Zelleke points out the many who work full-time yet barely obtain subsistence levels.  She cites paternalist writers like Lawrence Mead who endorse continued economic dependence on government benefits for individuals who work but are still poor, which essentially leads to a subsidization of low-wage employers.  She argues, “Work requirements for the poor do not lead to a genuine independence, but only to a form of ideologized independence that obscures their structural subordination in the contemporary economy” (638).  Zelleke finds the civil republican model more attractive than paternalism, but takes issue with the way civil republicanism neglects unpaid work in the home or community as a factor in the scheme of social cooperation or social prosperity (640).  She critiques the socialist model of work requirements for a similar reason: socialist theorists impose “a uniform view of what activities are valued and rewarding on all citizens, rather than letting individuals choose for themselves” (643).  Zelleke finds the socialist solution “egalitarian” but not “liberal” (643).     

How is the writer intervening in an ongoing conversation?

Zelleke intervenes by providing thoughtful critiques of three dominant attitudes towards citizenship, the first of which (paternalism) dominates policy prescriptions of both major parties in the U.S., and then she advocates universal, unconditional basic income as a key to universal citizenship and as a way to eliminate poverty which persists in the richest societies in the world (644).  She furthermore intervenes in the debate about basic income by presenting a particular argument in favor.  For Zelleke, “the market is no less important a sphere of citizenship than the polity, and the ground rules should be similarly egalitarian” (645).  In other words, basic income would contribute to the common good in capitalism because it would allow for all to shape and contribute the market, including the then relative poor and those whose life choices do not conform to dominant mores (646).     

Where does the writer leave the issue?

Zelleke leaves the issue with a plea to supporters of universal basic income.  She wishes that these supporters will “offer an attractive alternative vision of a pluralistic society in which all citizens have a guaranteed and inalienable minimum of economic, as well as political autonomy” (646).  She knows that there is a substantial amount of (misguided) moral baggage embedded in the culture which views poverty as a certain type of pathology that must be stripped away.  Zelleke ends reiterating that our libertarian economic sphere and our paternalistic social sphere is the worst of both worlds (646), which is precisely why advocates of an alternate vision must present arguments which appeal even to market fundamentalists.      

How does this extend/challenge/complicate your thinking as a researcher?

Methodologically, Zelleke does not get too fancy.  Fine by me.  She relies on statistical, archival information, figures on Earned Income Tax Credits and so on, and she analyzes the work of prominent scholars who forward certain visions for social policy: Lawrence Mead (Paternalistic), Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson (Civil Republican), and Andre Gorz (Socialist).  She notes where certain thinkers break with the mainstream; for example she writes, “Here, Gorz differed markedly with most American welfare theorists...” (642).

One area I wrestled with as a researcher is in her framing of basic income as a good to be achieved through and due to the capitalist system.  This recognition of the good of capitalism - giving the devil his due, one (I) might say - shapes and frames her whole argument in favor of universal basic income.  Zelleke articulates clearly that adopting her argument for basic income requires one “[overcome] leftist distaste for the institution of the market” (644).  I thought, “But my distaste for the market is so strong!”  As a researcher, I’m not ready to give the devil his due, so to speak, as Zelleke does when she writes, “To be sure, libertarian capitalism is a mixed blessing, responsible for so much of the inequality and insecurity the welfare state is designed to mitigate, but responsible also for the surplus that makes a generous welfare state, or basic income, a possibility” (646).  Instead of giving the devil (so-called libertarian capitalism) his due, I think we should instead unmask the ways libertarian capitalism is an illusion, as I do in this blog post from 2011.  We should illuminate the ways big businesses and the wealthy are actually the primary beneficiaries of welfare, and how we don’t really have a capitalist system -- we have more of a state-bureaucratic-capitalist system with heavy state subsidies, protections, and research & development for big business.  With that being said, I also recognize that not everyone will be persuaded by that tack.  Zelleke’s rhetorical and ideological framing of her scholarship may work better to persuade certain market-oriented audiences of the necessity of basic income.  Which is why I applaud her methods, even if I am not ready to adopt them myself.             

 U.S. Basic Income Guarantee Network Board Member Allan Sheahen discusses the guaranteed income bill with Mark Crumpton on Bloomberg Television's "Bottom Line."

Thursday, March 19, 2015

English 620 Lit Review #3

The following satisfies an assignment for a graduate seminar in research methods.

(#3: Popular Press Source)
What problems or issues is the writer exploring?

In “Schools don’t have to fail: Here’s how we fix education,” Peter Grey builds upon a critique he made of the U.S. K - 12 education system in a Salon article one month earlier.  His claim is that “our educational system ... imprisons children’s bodies and minds and undermines their natural curiosity and zest for learning.”  This problem is one which many left-libertarian thinkers have explored since the advent of compulsory, industrial-modeled schooling at the start of the 20th century.  Before that, his prescriptions remind me of those put forth by enlightenment thinkers like David Hume, up to John Dewey and Bertrand Russell, all the way to Maria Montessori, Paulo Freire, and Noam Chomsky. 
In addition to stifling creativity and zest for learning, Gray sees current schooling as something that exacerbates economic inequality when it should be a remedy against it.  The education system, he writes, “fails children who come from economically poor families at far, far higher rates than those who are more well off ... [because of the] competitive, teach-and-test system of schooling, which pits student against student in the striving for grades [and] shoves a wedge between those who already know and those who don’t.”

What position does the writer take?

Gray establishes a failing, conformist status-quo and positions himself against it.  He believes every human being, regardless of familial background or economic situation, begins life with the capacity to inquire and create.  Schools should cultivate those creative and inquisitive impulses by promoting self-directed interest in a variety of intellectual domains and through horizontal collaboration, he says.  In opposition to the status quo, where children are seen as receptacles into which one pours information on a systematized, industrial scale, Gray instead seeks to identify his pedagogy with natural progression - “our children will grow like the branches of a tree, reaching out in all directions to find the sunlight.” 

How is the writer intervening in an ongoing conversation?

The writer is intervening in a national, popular, non-scholarly venue to let the general public know about his research and the burgeoning movement of students, teachers, and parents in favor of self-directed democratic learning.  His intervention is not, however, a response to a specific comment or development in the education system.  It is more a response to the general state of things and a prescription, also general, of the way things might change to reflect the libertarian and democratic principles he describes.  Gray makes this intervention with an imaginative scenario: telling us about a democratically managed, educative community center; with argument: based on the premise that his pedagogy allows for nature to take its course, like a rose blooming; and he uses economic statistics: he measures the per student cost of education expenditures and claims self-directed, democratic learning entails lower costs.  He cites his own research in a democratic school to back up this claim.    

Professor Peter Gray on 'why children play.'

Where does the writer leave the issue?

The writer leaves the issue on a positive note for the educative transformation he advocates. 

“With each passing year, an increasing percentage of families are taking their children out of standard public and private schools, because they see the harm the schools are inflicting and the benefits of a different approach. Many of these families are opting for home-based self-directed learning for their children, and others are finding or creating democratic schools. Some democratic schools and community resource centers for self-directed learning are opening up in inner cities, deliberately aiming for a mix of children from middle- and low-income families and offering free tuition for those who cannot pay. These people are leading the way in the educational transformation.”

Gray also ends the article with an invitation for the reader to get involved in the democratic schools movement, which he says can only take place “from the ground up.”  Literally, the last word of the article is hyper-linked to his website, which features a blog and a directory of democratic schools and self-directed homeschool networks around the U.S.   

How does this extend/challenge/complicate your thinking as a researcher?

I admire the ethic from which Peter Gray composes this piece for a popular audience.  He sees the best in students, and humans, and wishes to cultivate those free, creative impulses.  Numerous comments below criticize Gray for holding a much too rosy view of humanity, especially of low-income learners, but I think those reproaches are false.  As a pedagogue and one who aspires to devote the bulk of my scholarly research towards a statement of teaching philosophy, I think it is a simple point, but correct nevertheless - students by and large respond to and form learning identities based on educators’ expectations.

One area where Gray’s article extends or complicates my thinking as a researcher comes when he mentions that he has conducted research in a democratic school.  This in-person research not only bolsters his claims about the results of the pedagogical methods he advocates, but it also allows him to measure the costs associated with traditional schooling against those of democratic schooling.  In my project, where I hope to craft an anarchist statement of teaching philosophy for first-year writing, I had planned to rely on philosophical and pedagogical theory, but now, I likely will conduct and draw from anonymous, written exit interviews with my students in order to gain insight into the success or failure of the pedagogical methods I advocate.  These would be similar to traditional instructor evaluations except that I may pose questions which pertain more specifically to the ways - both materially and in terms of the ethical stance - my classroom might differ from more traditional first-year writing courses.

Finally, in my research, I would like to include a more holistic view of the learner and of the really-existing economic system under which we/they currently live.  Gray claims that “Our rapidly changing economy puts a premium on self-motivation, innovation, and the continued, life-long ability to acquire new skills and evaluate new ideas.”  While I agree this is true in certain privileged sectors, it is not true for the vast majority of the economy.  Even today, capital needs obedient workers for a variety of menial, mostly low-income positions.  The point of democratic, libertarian education, in my view, is to then transform society and the economy so that individuals will not be forced to rent themselves as tools in the hands of others.       

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

English 620 Lit Review #2

The following satisfies an assignment for a graduate seminar in research methods.
(#2: Recent Academic Source)

Hesse, Douglas. "The Place of Creative Writing in Composition Studies." College Composition and Communication 62.1, The Future of Rhetoric and Composition (2010): 31-52. JSTOR. Web. 09 Feb. 2015.

A Useful Move

Douglas Hesse, in his essay on the divide and potential interplay between composition and creative writing, makes several moves which I found useful, especially as a burgeoning scholar who keeps a foot in each English Department realm.  (This semester, I’m finishing coursework for a PhD in Rhetoric and Composition, and I also teach creative writing, participate in a graduate-level creative writing workshop, and work in an administrative capacity as the Assistant Director of Creative Writing, all at the University of Louisville.)  Hesse does well in terms of his research methodology when he gives the reader an overview of the conversation about creative writing in the field of composition; the first of three parts in his essay he titles, “Where We’ve Been.”  He uses data from CCC, perhaps the most influential journal in the field, and does not appear to shape the narrative of composition’s involvement with creative writing in order to suit his ends.  Hesse writes, “A generous count shows around 20 ... [s]ubstatial articles with creative writing as the focus [in the sixty-year history of CCC]” (35).  He likewise finds 284 articles which contain the words “creative writing,” and another 66 with the words “imaginative writing” in the sixty-year history of CCC.  This type of research, in order to find what’s missing from the conversation in a field, has become much less time consuming with the advent of certain databases.        

A Bigger Lens?

One area I thought a larger scope might benefit Hesse’s work is when he writes about the cultural participation and proliferation of texts in the digital age:
What explains the drive to matter in the world, a drive grinding most garishly in extreme cases: Richard Heene’s balloon boy hoax across Colorado skies and world televisions, Tareq and Michaela Salahi’s crashing a White House state dinner?  Perhaps human genetics, perhaps more likely social constructions – or rather, a counter construct, against anonymity and alienation.  Exploring the absence of traditional economic motivations for sharing writing online, James Porter simply notes that “people write because they want to interact, to share, to learn, to play, to feel valued, and to help others” (47).   

By posing such a large question, essentially, “Why do humans produce utterances of one kind or another?” and remaining within the field of rhetoric and composition, Hesse is bound to get a surface-level, though accurate, answer.  My impulse in this situation would have been to turn to the work of the anthropologist Ernest Becker.  Becker developed broad but verifiable arguments for why people in symbol systems produce signs.  Perhaps Hesse didn’t want to find himself down a rabbit hole, and perhaps that’s why he’s a prominent English professor, and I’m not (yet, at least), but sometimes I feel like the answers rhet/comp scholars produce to questions we face in the field come up unfulfilled because we are not willing to look to relevant work from other disciplines.     

About as fair and accurate a summation of Ernest Becker's work as one will find in an 8 minute YouTube video.

Continuing the Conversation

Hesse’s essay represents a valuable contribution to an under-discussed conversation about possible interactions between creative writing and English composition.  Much of the divide in composition he talks about seems to be between expressivist vestiges and those interested in political and ideological critique.  Hesse cites Gary Olsen who hopes “that the field would accomplish ‘much more than teaching students to “express themselves”’ by helping them to ‘learn to engage in ideological critique ... to effect real change in their lives’” (39).  However, I would like to extend the conversation to include creative writing which does engage in ideological critique and lead to societal change.  This is what artists and writers who have not given up do.  I think composition classes are appropriate places for this endeavor, and as the “academy’s pleasant porch or rec room” (35), I would like to use creative writing in my composition classrooms to help students think critically about power, assessment, time, resources, and the role of play and fun in their lives.