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The Audacity of Difference

Many thanks to all of those who participated in last week's more interactive piece and gave me feedback as to its effectiveness. This week, I read "The Challenge of Contingency: Process and Turn to the Social in Composition" by David Foster. It seems that, in reading through this piece, Foster's battle is with difference in and of itself.

I agree that process theory is effective in that it provides a method through which instructors can devise feedback. I also agree that post-process theory can complicate the question of whether writing can be taught. In addition to this, I believe that some of the best teachers create perpetual students who continuously have questions, who might have ongoing battles and struggles with their chosen subject. However, in those battles and in those struggles, there is motivation to understand as opposed to pure frustration. It's possible that the allegory of the battle doesn't apply to everyone, but I found it to be one that could pair well with Foster's ideas.

It is Foster's belief, from what I understand through this essay (mind that opinions may have changed since publication), that added consideration of social and cultural backgrounds in writing instruction are what lead to hostility and conflict in the classroom. It's the differences that make the classroom difficult for the instructor to regulate.

I have had drastically different experiences in that it is not the addition of consideration of social and cultural backgrounds in writing instruction that create conflict, but the way that subject matter is handled.

Consider the following questions.

To what extent is writing a social act?

What makes up your background/how you identify yourself? Try to include as much information as possible including demographic.

How and from whom did you first learn to write?

To what extent does the trajectory of your writing instruction frame the way you conceptualize the act of writing?

If any of your demographic information were to be different from the way it is now, what kind of literature would you have been exposed to? What kind of instruction would you have had? Try to envision different possibilities.

Imagine you are entering a classroom for writing instruction. Will every person in that classroom have the same backgrounds and identifiers as yourself? If not, do you enter that environment anticipating conflict or an opportunity to learn?

Once again, to what extent is writing a social act?

The aim of these questions is to hopefully address that, in an environment of writers, each person will naturally bring their conceptualization of writing (something that can be influenced by one's background) and that this is unavoidable. It doesn't have to lead to conflict, but there are consequences to not addressing that there will be differences. Some of these differences will be social and cultural.

Every person will come in with their histories, their ideas of who experts in writing are, ideas based around authority. The following is an excerpt detailing findings from a study on multicultural learning environments:

"The class consisted of sixteen African American students, two white students, and one Asian student. In classroom discussions the instructor--also African American--encouraged students to give equal privilege to various interpretive perspectives, including both textual analysis and personal-experience responses. Studying the interactions of one small, multiracial peer response group within the class, Leverenz notes that while in whole-class discussions the African American students generally supported experience-based personal responses to texts, in one multiracial, small group a white student--an experienced academic reader and writer--dominated the discussions with other group members (an African American and a Korean American) by advocating a traditional text-based perspective. 'In the larger classroom setting' where discussions were guided by the instructor, says Leverenz, the white student's claims were 'a minority view loudly opposed by many of her students,' but in the separate response group, the white student 'was able to assert her views without opposition' because 'neither [of the two other students] had the experience or success with reading and writing about texts that might have given them the confidence to oppose [her]' (181). These other students, both women of color, remained silent but resentful of the white student's power."

While there is a lot to unpack, I find that I'm missing a great deal of information. Many of my readers might notice that while the majority of the students were identified by only their race, the white student in the group was identified by both her race and by her experience as an academic reader and writer. Is Frost stating that none of the other students have experience as academic readers and writers? Is Frost stating that the training and discussion material of the other students in this group, because many of the insight was experience-based, was less valuable? Why not, instead of giving a vague description of the point of contention, be more direct about the type of text being read and the nature of the views?

More simply, the study that Frost presented as evidence to support his point reads as vague, that the goal of the essay wasn't adequately supported.

In a piece that's intended to be nonfiction, even if it is argumentative, it can be helpful to acknowledge and present limits, but the kind of evidence used to support tools that readers can use should not be so broad as this. Otherwise, it can negate its purpose, especially if the answers to questions regarding missing information can disprove the argument of the essay that it's used in. That said, even if the evidence is vague and limiting, it can at least help to provide some concrete takeaways. The study of the multicultural classroom did not achieve that.

Many of my long time readers know that I am a great admirer of Octavia Butler and her worlds. Here, I have linked a pdf of one of her short stories, "Speech Sounds." For anyone who has not read this story before, there is violence, some sexual content, and mention of obscene gestures which also include mention of nonconsensual acts. Reader discretion is advised, but I do recommend reading this story before moving forward.

This story can be read as an illustration of why both culture and literacy matter, why both should exist together and what is lost without it. My interpretation of this story, in that, is that if aspects of literacy are removed (creating forms of impairments in this case), we are left with cultural and social backgrounds that affect how we perceive others. However, my intention behind choosing this story in particular surrounds its connection to conflict, to resentment, and to its causes.

Literacy in itself has been stripped from people either fully or partly, though some [like Rye] remember when literacy was a gift that people had taken for granted. There is a scene where Rye meets someone who can read. Only knowing this, rage and resentment steadily builds inside of her as she remembers when writing and reading were her life. Then, she comes to understand that he cannot speak or understand spoken word when his professional life relied upon that. What, then, did that resentment become and what is the true nature of this story's conflict?

I interpret the center of the conflict to be misunderstanding. I'm thinking specifically about Butler's description of physical gestures used in place of what we consider standard communication to be "just short of contact." The act of contact is not complete because, in the act of processing information, it's more difficult to interpret. Physical gestures leave more room for error. In a world that Butler has presented, fewer people have the ability to express crucial parts of who they are.

An Exercise

  1. Consider your needs in communication. Can you identify them directly? If not, think about the people with whom you can most comfortably speak and consider what they do that make you comfortable with them.

  2. Do you work best in a group or by yourself? Consider the pros and cons of each situation.

  3. How well do you work with people from different backgrounds? Try to be as honest with yourself as you can. Consider what your working relationship is or what it would be with people who are different from you in terms of race, sexuality, gender, religion, or any other means by which a person can identify themselves.

  4. How easy is it for you to fill your needs in communication with people who are different from yourself?

  5. To what extent do you help people to fill their needs in communication?

  6. Now, let's revisit this question. To what extent is writing a social act?

A big thank you to all of my readers who have given me feedback on my posts thus far. I would like to continue to try and make more of my posts interactive if I can. After reading Frost's essay, I found that I did not agree with its premise, but did want to unpack some of the points and bring in some of what I felt was missing. I hope that my readers will take something from this post and I would love to know more about what you would like to see in the future!

Would you like to discuss some of your reflections? Let me know by filling out the contact form or using the chat function of this website. You can also become a member of Purposeful Prose, make use of my forum, and more directly engage with all of my posts.

As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts!


Butler, O. E. (2005). Bloodchild and Other Stories (2nd ed.). Seven Stories Press.

Foster, D. (1999). The challenge of contingency: Process and the turn to the social in composition. Post-process theory: Beyond the writing process paradigm, 149-162.

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Vita Viviano
Vita Viviano
Jul 16, 2021

I so agree that much depends on disposition -- entering a classroom anticipating a conflict or seeing it as an opportunity to learn. This And, yes, you are so right to point out Frost's preconceptions! In addition, the exercise not only is a crucial act of self-reflection but also a valuable tool for instruction. The Butler story is an apt illustration as well as an enjoyable read. Thanks so much for another insightful blog!!!


Jul 16, 2021

Interesting post. As you know, of course, inclusive pedagogy is a hot topic these days, and there are many very helpful resources on ways that cultural differences among students can be turned to an advantage rather than a liability, while ensuring that under-represented students are not left behind or excluded. Look forward to reading the Octavia Butler story!

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