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“I Don’t Know”: Engaging with Problematic Moments in Multicultural Education
Radical Pedagogy (2008)
  • Stephanie Jo Kent, University of Massachusetts - Amherst
  • James Cumming, University of Massachusetts

“I Don’t Know” Engaging with Problematic Moments in Multicultural Education Marilyn Cochran-Smith (2000) describes a moment that occurred during a well-known and historically well-received pedagogical seminar that included addressing race and racism. As part of one session, Cochran-Smith invited a Native American colleague to share some of his experiences with the class. He concluded his presentation, near the end of the scheduled class period, by asking, “And what does this program do to help you examine questions about race and racism in teaching and schooling?” Cochran-Smith describes what happened next: Without hesitation, one student teacher, a Puerto Rican woman, raised her hand and said with passion and an anger that bordered on rage, “Nothing! This program does nothing to address issues of race!” After a few seconds of silence that felt to me like hours, two other students—one African American and one Black South African —agreed with her…. I was stunned. With another class waiting to enter the room, students— and I—quickly exited the room. (p. 160) Silences are not necessarily an unusual feature of groups yet a particular quality of silence—occurring suddenly, unexpectedly, and among the entire group —may indicate a problematic moment (PM).1 In her paper, Cochran-Smith, a white woman, reflects deeply on the meaning of such a moment and how it changed forever the way she thinks about racism and teacher education. In this paper, we define and explore the notion of a problematic moment as a discursive site where processes that reproduce social inequality in human relations can be explored. Problematic moments often occur in contexts where groups are asked to investigate biases, prejudices, and the workings of power relations. We suggest that problematic moments can be proactively and constructively engaged as a pedagogical technology for accomplishing subjective and intersubjective changes that enhance social practices of equity and justice. Because of the density of a problematic moment, we have divided the theoretical part of this article into two parts. The first part is a contextualizing literature review that touches upon language, discourse, silence, and multicultural education. The review culminates in the second part with a definition of a problematic moment. Next, we describe the methodology and then describe the case. During the discussion of the case, additional social science theory is invoked. Finally, we expand on several concepts which contribute to the constitution of problematic moments or assist in illuminating their pedagogical potential. Language shapes experience and is the form through which ideas become possible. It delineates the contours of perception and is informed by use in particular social contexts. Because of its strategic role in perception, language is often molded to serve the needs of dominant groups. However, heteroglossic forces are always present, instigating junctures of discontinuity and drawing attention to opportunities for resistance (Bakhtin, 1981). The discursive turn in the social sciences has insisted upon language and language use as formative to epistemologies (Alvesson and Kärreman, 2000; Foucaul, 1972; Freire, 1970). Our application focuses on the analysis of discourses in particularly challenging contexts. Nieto (1999) states unequivocally that “critical multicultural education encourages dangerous discourses” (p. 209). Students’ uneasiness and anger when they discover themselves in these unpredictable discursive zones are sometimes directed at instructors and the content of the course, instead of concentrated reflexively and critically upon themselves (Laubscher and Powell, 2003). In an attempt to regain control in moments when confronted by their students, instructors may be tempted to enact oppressive forms of pedagogy in reaction to their own frustration and uncertainty (Gaztambide-Fernandez, 2003). As grounding for this paper, we draw on poststructural notions of discourse that work to deconstruct positivistic, ahistorical, and depoliticized analyses employed by both liberal and conservative critics of education. We advocate what Trifonas calls a post-critical pedagogy (2003), asking educators to create an interpersonal space with their students where knowledge is generated and identities negotiated through collaborative relations of power (Cummins, 2003). We join with Cochran-Smith and others who insist that “ … teachers have to understand and work both within and around the culture of teaching and the politics of schooling of their particular schools and within their large school system and communities” (1991, 284). The educator’s task is not to break social conventions that sustain the status quo and replace them with new ones, but to explore and model “how much risk [and] emotional labor one can take in allowing one’s practices and discourses to modify and be modified by the world” (Boler and Zembylas, 2003, p. 134). As a field, multicultural education initially sought to understand how schooling is implicated in sustaining a society segregated in terms of race. It has continued to develop pedagogies and programs that seek to provide equal opportunities for all students (McLaren, 2001; Steinberg and Kincheloe, 2001). The field has become more complex as other differences, such as gender, class, and—more recently—ability have been recognized. Locating our paper in the literature on multicultural education has proved challenging because of the complexity and controversy surrounding the terms multicultural education and multiculturalism. Drawing on a wide range of sources, Giroux (2003) points out that multiculturalism covers an extremely broad range of views about the central issues of culture, diversity, identity, nationalism, and politics. In general, the term is used to describe a range of ideologies that aim to undo homogeneous notions of social identity. However, the term has become almost meaningless because it harbors so many conflicting assumptions. For example, Veenkamp (2004) says it is time to give up on the term multiculturalism, as it fosters the misleading ideal that a mix of cultures inevitably leads to a better society. For him, it is too shallow a concept to be useful as a strategy for social transformation. Butler (1997) tells us that oppression can often be characterized by the repetition in society of regulatory identities, knowledges, and practices. In particular, oppression is the repetitive experience, again and yet again, of a limited range of ways for identifying with, thinking of, and relating to others. In other words, of reinforcing monocentrism. The incident related above led Cochran-Smith to wonder about the complicity of multicultural educators in maintaining mundane cycles of oppression (Lawrence and Tatum, 1997), as these operate through institutionalized settings such as the academy. PMs interrupt these routine, repetitive patterns at the discursive level, providing opportunities—if pursued,—to recognize and creatively constitute new forms of linguistic and therefore social interaction. Leander (2002) claims that silence is a rich medium of communication. For him, “limiting discourse analysis to the modality of talk alone leaves out important insights concerning the nuanced nature of participation in interaction, the negotiation of power, and the relations between interaction and social identity” (p. 194). We argue that certain kinds of silence occur as a group-level, spontaneous reaction to the emergence of something that has been deemed unspeakable. These problematic moments indicate the presence of a habitually repressed discourse.2 PMs open the possibility of engagement with the past in ways that allow a group to recognize its discursive institutionalization, permitting “a freeing of collective memory” (Billig, 1996, p. 13), and thus allowing groups to enact new discourses and revised relations. Silences can help a group get in touch with conversational patterns constituted by the past. These patterns must be recognized in the present before they can be de-institutionalized in the future. How topics of discussion are chosen over others, and the specific ways topics are discussed, enact certain rationalization processes about proper or allowable directions of discourse. The moment in Cochran-Smith’s class when students challenged its effectiveness as multicultural pedagogy was a discursive instance where an implicit criticism was made explicit. Implicit criticisms are those which are not fully formulated, but present and ready to be utilized if/when dialogic circumstances call for them (Billig, 1991). Presumably, Cochran-Smith’s methodology incorporated contemporary best practices of multicultural pedagogy, yet these methods were in and of themselves inadequate to integrate counter-discourses with socially allowable discourses. Peter Trifonas makes a similar case in his critique of the logic of critical thinking (2003). Hence, for instructors to actually engage with PMs in the classroom as soon as they occur requires phenomenological use of a self-consciousness which is grounded in pedagogical risk-taking. One successful example comes from Vacarr’s experience with a PM in a class where she was teaching “Stories of the Holocaust” (2001). She explores her own ability, attributed to a spiritual discipline, to respond to an “encounter with difference” (p. 285), claiming: “It is our willingness to step out of the role of the Super Teacher, to reveal our own ignorance, and to engage our students in exploring transformative possibilities that invites students to do the same” (p. 292). In practice, this means making visible and engaging the heteroglossy exposed by a PM by applying discourse analysis critically at the microsocial level, and implicating macrosocial levels through an intuitive application of metonymic imagination.3 By social metonymy, we refer to an alignment of the microsocial, social, and metasocial enacted through discourse. Metonymy is a linguistic process by which meaning is transferred to an idea or object related by association: we extend this conception to include specific microsocial (linguistic, discursive) enactments of widespread cultural—macrosocial—patterns. Our approach suggests the concept of social metonymy as a way to investigate how the past can be recognized in contested moments of discourse, contextually deconstructed through attention to the enactment of social identities in/through that discourse, and openings for social change created by engagement with “the reciprocity of the phenomenological exchange” (Trifonas, p. 220). In the situation explored here, we investigate the boundaries of identities and knowledges apperceived by participants in a special discursive situation – a problematic moment. As the case will illustrate, collusive patterns of discursive repression are historical themes (hence, macrosocial) enacted in microsocial interaction. A given pattern of repression is called into question when groups are faced with a discursively-generated problematic for continuing or changing some constitutive element of their own social interaction, their own social co-existence. A problematic moment is a concept which refers (1) descriptively to the qualitatively unique features and potentials of a certain kind of phenomenological and discursive event and (2) theoretically as a reference point , enabling groups to create meaning about the past’s emergence in the present through proactive recognition and intention to alter social relations previously reified in discourse (Cumming and Holvino, 2001). In the next sections we apply the concept of a PM to an event that occurred in a classroom setting and explore the perceptions and knowledges that become available when PMs are deeply engaged. Methodology We present a problematic moment experienced by one of the authors and analyze it using Norman Fairclough’s (1992) critical discourse analysis. His three-dimensional theory of text, discourse, and social change provides a framework for understanding the relationship between specific, microsocial instances of interaction and broad societal patterns of language use and practice. Fairclough’s framework conceives of discourse production at any moment in time as always being simultaneously a piece of text, an instance of discursive practice, and an instance of social practice. Consequently, Fairclough advocates selecting discourse samples of interruption along the dimensions of text and discursive practice, as these may be indicative of a problem along the dimension of social practice. The simultaneity of these three levels in discourse is the condition of possibility for microsocial, interpersonal interaction to be metonymic of social change in process. Cumming has developed Fairclough’s notion into a conceptual category for a particular kind of group experience (1997). For Cumming, problematic moments are real moments in day-to-day living when group secrets can be exposed and evaluated. Recorded interactions are ideal in order to avoid the vagaries of memory. For instance, if Cochran-Smith had a habit of videotaping classroom interaction, the video could have been replayed and discussed in depth during a future class session. Of course, few instructors currently utilize technology in this manner, although we advocate serious consideration of this as a routine practice. More fine-grained analysis can be performed on problematic moments that are captured on tape and analyzed collectively by participants (Cumming and Holvino, 2003).4 In the following illustration there was also no recording: the dialogue was reconstructed immediately from notes and short-term memory and verified for accuracy with the group soon after the incident.5 After the description of the discursive moment and critical discourse analysis of it, the key theoretical components of a PM will be elaborated to demonstrate that the concept of a problematic moment provides a powerful framework for pedagogical interventions that promote social justice. A Problematic Moment (The Case) The incident we have identified as a problematic moment occurred on 6 October 2003. It happened during the fifth session of a semester-long graduate student seminar at a major U.S. university on the East Coast. A student was facilitating who, as part of course-completion requirements, had familiarized himself with the assigned reading material. Nine students, including one of the authors of this paper (identified as Student 6), and the professor were present with four students absent. The group was diverse in terms of nationality, ethnicity, religious background, gender, sexual orientation, and socio-economic class. Both Jewish members of the class were absent. At the time, only one of these students was known by the others to be Jewish. The fact that it was Yom Kippur was provided as explanation for one student’s absence,. Throughout this particular seminar on rhetorical theory, the group was highly interactive and vocal. The professor was facilitative rather than didactic; conversation was open and free-flowing. The assigned student facilitator was several minutes into his summary, laying out some theoretical questions regarding Kenneth Burke’s essay, The Rhetoric of Hitler’s “ Battle” (a critique of Mein Kampf, 1925). The professor had just interjected a clarification of Burke’s (1984) contrast between frames of acceptance (e.g., tragedy and comedy, allowing us to see ourselves in the other) and frames of rejection (e.g., elegy and the burlesque, in which we don’t see ourselves in the other). The student presenter (Student 1) resumed with the following comment: “I’m confused by Burke’s comment about the duality of the middle class: a cult of capitalism and a detestation of the cult.” General discussion ensued. Several students looked up the specific quote in the text (Burke, 1973, p.194-5). One student raised a question about which middle class (German or U.S.) Burke meant. The professor responded that Burke was well known for the kind of double-entendre that implicated audiences through ambiguity, what Burke himself called perspective by incongruity (1954). Then, another question: Student 1. Was there really a large middle class in Germany? Students 2, 3, 4 and 5. I don’t know. I’m not sure. I’m embarrassed to admit I don’t know that history. I’m not an expert on Germany at that time. Student 6.6 There had to be! There was a huge administrative apparati. There was then a 3-second silence, which is the Problematic Moment we examine in this paper. Professor, “The good thing about teaching a grad seminar for the first time is I get to experiment with what my teachers used to do…. This is a time where we can either move on or I could assign it as a homework question.” The class moved on to discussing the notion of cult. Within a few minutes Student 6 (S6), having recognized the interaction as meeting the basic criteria of a PM, sought to discuss what had just occurred, asking, “Are we distancing ourselves from identification with the German middle class because it could have been us?” Her question was followed by another silence, briefer than the first but still palpable. The professor said it was “an interesting hypothesis”, and the student facilitator described a different, earlier comment by S6 about the dualism of the middle class as “ helpful”. Class discussion again moved on. S6’s attempt to engage a group-level analysis of the particular moment at that time was discursively turned aside. The next morning, S6 emailed the members of the class to elicit their recall of the event, including what they thought and felt during and after the silence. Four students responded via email that same day, three more students and the professor responded after a second request was sent two days later. The remaining student shared his recollections verbally in class the next week. While some of those present did not recall exactly what they were thinking just prior to the sudden silence, all remembered the felt experience of it, including a sense of awkwardness, “wondering why” it was happening, and having their attention brought back from “daydreaming”. The sudden and unexpected silence, which everyone participated in creating,7 was described as “unusual”, it caused people to “wonder” about it, and involved “people … looking at each other, not knowing what to say”. “I was so tired that evening that I was not following the conversation. Daydreaming, I guess. I did notice the silence when we were already in it, and I thought, ‘Aha, a silence. I wonder how long it will be allowed?’” Another student explained, “I heard the question, didn’t think much of it, heard the silence, and was mildly amused that people stopped talking all of a sudden, which doesn’t happen often in [this] class.” Patterns in participants’ self-descriptions of activity during the silence included five of the nine thinking specifically about socioeconomic class; seven of nine considering the silence; and two acknowledging the invocation of particular religious/cultural identities. One student wrote, “It made sense to me for Burke to say that Hitler’s strategy was about the scapegoating of a people (Jewish) for the economic and national crisis, but I was questioning the part of his argument that seems like a psychological argument more than a rhetorical one; Which is, Do people who support capitalism really hate it?” The italics are added to show that while the context of the Holocaust was obliquely acknowledged, the energy of intellectual activity was directed elsewhere, in this instance toward an identification of socioeconomic class. While the specific thoughts ranged broadly, they contain some consistency. Here is one of the more detailed self-descriptions (sent by email): In general, Burke’s comment on the middle-class duality was not surprising to me at all. He in several works mentioned the notion of “dialectical.” In what I believe is the Hegelian sense of this notion, things are constantly related and constantly changing, and to change, by defi[n]ition is to become one’s Other, and a middle class’s Other is anything non-middle class... I was in the process of this thinking and wanted to come up with some “evidence” of such contradictory desires, from literature, film, or whatever form. So I thought of Kevin Spacey’s character in “American Beauty,” who lives a middle class life but desires something different, more. Was [something] fictitious like this sufficient evidence? I was also wondering, until [the professor] said “move on.” S6 was already scheduled to facilitate discussion the following week. At this session, all students who were present during the problematic moment were present, along with additional students who had been absent the preceding week. S6 utilized the turn as student presenter to collectively investigate the PM through a comparison of Cumming’s notion of a problematic moment and Burke’s notion of a terministic screen (1966). Burke explains: “Whatever terms we use, they necessarily constitute a corresponding kind of screen; and any such screen necessarily directs the attention to one field rather than another” (p. 60). While Burke’s focus is on the individual, rhetorical level, Cumming and Holvino focus on the sudden visibility of a pattern of linguistic selections and deselections (2001). It is the fact of an identifiable pattern that indicates a group (e.g., societal) level of discourse. The combination of patterns among what was said, not said, embraced, and/or resisted when said forms the corpus for analyzing any problematic moment. Debate of S6’s hypothesis that the group had enacted a latent form of anti-semitism was vigorous—most of the class disagreed vehemently that it was even a possibility. The class’s overall engagement with this question spilled out into the hallway for an additional half-hour after the class session ended. Three additional hypotheses were raised regarding the nature or essence of the problematic moment. The most popular argument was that the PM was about socioeconomic class. Indeed, half of the group’s members had already provided evidence that they were overtly engaged in thinking about a class question, either directly related to the quote in question or indirectly through contemporary class-based social practices (such as shopping at a health food store or owning an SUV). Another hypothesis was raised by the professor. There is some evidence for his suggestion that the problematic had to do with violating an apparent graduate school norm of avoiding admission of what one doesn’t know. Finally, it was proposed in private conversations that the moment was instigated by S6 acting as a provocateur. Analysis Examining the discursive reconstruction, the original email responses and subsequent debate about this instance is a heuristic attempt to show the identifiable discursive terrain and trajectories in one unique event: we make no essential claim of truth. Analyzing a problematic moment is a strategy to open up discourse into ethical or aesthetic contemplation of the human condition, to move away from any insistence of univocality (Rosenstone, 2000). We suggest it as a tool within a deconstructive pedagogy of différance. (Trifonas, 2003). Applying Fairclough’s three dimensional model and critical discourse theory to what was said during and about this PM yields a framework that bounds the situation. The social context of this specific situation is the institution of the university with its task of teaching students how academics consume and produce knowledge. Academia is permeated by societal-level discourses through which ideologies accomplish their task of providing resources and restrictions about what is possible or not possible to talk about in particular contexts. The reproduction of certain social relationships, social identities, and systems of knowledge and belief are accomplished by the discourse practices occurring within classrooms—in this instance the particular, situated scene of social interaction in a graduate communication program. The purpose of a graduate seminar is for students to learn. Students are expected to take up their role (in a U.S. university) by engaging in conversation with each other and a professor. The professor’s role is to organize and contribute subject matter, guide discussions, and evaluate students’ performance in order to assign grades. In most classroom settings, discursive phenomena are expected to follow certain norms and standards. Trifonas (2003) describes the logic of critical thinking as a practice of determining “epistemic accuracy” such that the “distractions of subjectivity” are nullified. (p. 223) When deviations from academic critical discourse occur, they tend to happen without preparation and the habitual skills of repression/recognition (discussed later) are immediately deployed. When asked to recall what happened during the period of silence, three students admitted that they were daydreaming when the PM occurred. This absence of attention on behalf of some students points to the individualistic nature of participation in this kind of group, one where “daydreaming” might be understood as an element of the intellectual process. Indeed, the content of their daydreaming was often indirectly related to the current discussion (described below). The focus of conversation in a graduate seminar is on theoretical ideas and academic content rather than on the way class members interact with each other. Other kinds of groups, such as T-Groups (Bradford, Gibb, and Benne, 1964), focus on the dynamics people experience, especially those affecting their verbal participation. Process-oriented groups, and most groups at one’s job, would not long tolerate members who daydream. A graduate seminar, however, does not usually have norms to process its experience in the here-and-now because it is focused on a there-and-then discussion of scholarly texts, in this case Burke’s. The reproduction of the roles and relationships between student and professor are accomplished by a complex array of discourse practices including, for example, asking and answering questions, summarizing arguments, and presenting both supplemental and contradictory information. The discourse generated through these linguistic activities can be further subdivided into units of text. The emergence of a PM punctuates an instance of co-enacted performance, bringing the group’s discourse and its dynamics into view. Such a moment, skillfully engaged by educators as a performance of knowledge co-construction, can enable what Trifonas (2003) calls “the rewriting of the self” (p. 221). In our sample of discourse, the first statement is the student question presented as a statement: “I’m confused by Burke’s comment about the duality of the middle class: a cult of capitalism and a detestation of the cult.” Discussion leads to another student question about which middle class Burke meant (German or U.S.) and the professor’s response that Burke often implicated multiple audiences. Then comes the question, “Was there really a large middle class in Germany?” This prompted a number of students to express ignorance with some overlap in turn-taking. S6 then makes the incredulous statement, “There had to be! There was a huge administrative apparati .” (placing special, and grammatically incorrect, emphasis on the last word, attempting to give it the Latin plural). Her claim is followed by an awkward silence until the professor speaks, appearing momentarily at a loss. The production of the classroom discourse itself shows that something has happened to disrupt the normally smooth process of asking and answering questions in this context. One possible explanation is that S6 has usurped the role of the professor as the person who provides authoritative answers to questions. Her statement is not a question but an assertion of fact. However, S6’s statement is ambiguous. Was S6 referring to the administrative machinery that designed the industrial processes of the Holocaust or that which carried it out? Was she suggesting that Germany circa 1925 (the first printing of Mein Kampf) had a large bureaucracy and therefore a large middle class? The statement appears to criticize other class members’ claim of not knowing. The use of the word apparati indicates that the sentence was spoken with particular emphasis. This may have had the dual effect of distancing S6 from collegial alignment and possibly shaming colleagues for their claimed ignorance.8 The euphemisms of “that history” and “that time” demonstrate how unresolved issues of the Holocaust are still present. What exactly is “that history” to which the speakers refer, which “time”? What are they avoiding saying? These are euphemisms for an unmentionable topic. The substitution of vague, indirect language for plain description accomplishes a certain selection of reality, as well as a deflection of reality (Billig, 1999; Burke, 1968). Embedded within a problematic moment, such a replacement can signal questions about what is being repressed – what is being made or kept secret? In this instance we might wonder if it is the historical event, the identifications taking place by virtue of the institutionalized discourse regarding this subject matter, or both. It is natural for the mind to stumble given the task of linking Hitler’s rhetoric with knowledge of the horrors it wrought during the Second World War: the systematic genocide of the large, fully integrated Jewish community and others deemed undesirable. During S6’s initial exclamation and subsequent presentation, the implication of gentiles (non-Jews of any nationality) as bystanders to anti-Semitism was a largely unrecognized—and definitely resisted—element of this classroom event. This could be explained through an alternative, posed by the instructor, regarding certain ironies of graduate student life. Exposing what one doesn’t know is risky—it can raise internalized doubt about being an imposter (Tokarczyk and Fay, 1993) and external judgments from others about one’s ability to perform as an academic. In short, the instructor articulated the (usually unstated) norm in which the process of learning at the graduate level often seems to preclude any admission of not knowing. Concerns about intellectual competition are often experienced through the identity of social class. When one reveals uncertainty, one’s status and sense of belonging can become vulnerable. Additionally, when students do confess ignorance, the professor’s gatekeeping function may be invoked, possibly reminding students that they are being judged. Wellman claims that racism “need not be distinct, in its content or emotional loading, from the more routine form of competitive behavior white people engage in with other whites” (Wellman, 1980, p. 236). For McPhail (1996), the academy is a training ground in how to engage in such a competitive discourse. Ultimately, perhaps students are being judged on their competitive competence. This problematic moment, then, is most likely over-determined by the imbrications of class, anti-Semitism, and racism operating as deeply embedded epistemological justifications for spontaneous behavior. During S6’s presentation aimed at excavating the PM, the previous student presenter questioned his own authorization in at least two ways. He had originally wondered, during his presentation planning, whether or not he could even ask the question about the quote’s meaning (e.g., what did Burke mean by juxtaposing cultish attitudes with self-detestation). Eventually the student presenter decided that the unique learning environment already generated by the interaction within this particular seminar allowed such a potentially transgressive move. However, when he arrived in class that day and noticed the absence of the known Jewish member of the class, he hesitated again. As it turned out, when he arrived at that part of his presentation he “just went ahead.” This raises a third hypothesis concerning the discourse and dynamics of the group in response to a PM, which involves the social practice of individual labeling or scapegoating. Two discursive strategies whose function is to reduce a problematic from the level of the group to the level of an individual’s personality were enacted in the group’s discussion and debriefing. The first was the search for an expert to say whether or not there was a large Jewish middle class in Germany during Hitler’s rise and subsequent misuse of power. The assumption, at first unspoken then later openly acknowledged, was that only the known Jewish member of the class had this specific knowledge. (In fairness, this was based not solely upon her identity, but also upon personality and previous experience with her areas of academic expertise.) The class’s self-described “friendly Jewish feminist” obliged with an answer during the debriefing session: “Not only was there a huge middle class, but they were pitted against an elite to which they knew they could never aspire. It was this division Hitler exploited by scapegoating the Jews as the reason for the middle class’s stagnation.” (Notice that her answer refers back to the issue of social class.) A second mode for avoiding the implications of a group-level enactment of an oppressive discourse is to dismiss provocateurs. S6’s role was not questioned openly in the class however, in private conversation, both the instructor and this paper’s co-author wondered about an instigatory quality in S6’s original comment and subsequent pursuit of the PM. This illustrates ways in which anyone whose spontaneous statement triggers a problematic moment may be perceived in an individualistic way. Personalizing can function to deflect attention away from the potential threat to a dominant discourse and its necessarily embedded interpellations that implicate all group members. Such a rhetorical move minimizes the group-level problematic by trying to reduce it to the level of an individual characteristic.9 Discussion: The Metonymic Move Our analysis acknowledges the evidence and dialectical interaction of all three hypotheses, while reasserting that the moment is best understood – heuristically – as a problematic concerning anti-semitism. As we will continue to illustrate, this explanation is based upon (1) a theoretical understanding of language use that assumes constitutional equivalence between what is said and what is not said (Billig, 1999) and (2) an assumption of social metonymy, that is, of the tendency of macrosocial, historical forces (one could say ideologies) to express themselves in contemporary practices within specifically-situated microsocial interaction. From this view, revisiting and enlarging the context from the physical and normative boundaries of the classroom to a consideration of history, intentionally seeking patterns, lends support to our view. Consider, first of all, that the class was reading about and discussing Hitler’s rhetoric. Specifically, Hitler’s rhetoric in Mein Kampf, in which he lays the foundation for an ideology of anti-Semitic genocide. Second, there is a deeply ironic historical repetition of reading anti-Semitic propaganda on a Jewish High Holy Day. The fact that it was Yom Kippur cannot be simply dismissed. Part of the campaign to demoralize Jews devised by Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda was to deliberately schedule anti-Semitic speeches and deportations on Jewish holy days. Gilbert reports that the practice was so widespread it was referred to as Goebbel’s Calendar (1985). While socioeconomic, academic, and scapegoating themes are indeed recognizable (and therefore recognized and revelant) in the group’s discourse about the problematic moment, the mundane fact of the date, the religious import of the holiday, and its deliberate and horrific historical desecration cannot be de-signified as merely coincidence. Third, logic compels us to notice the absence of anti-semitism even as a possibility in the immediate discourse of the group: this is an omission—given the context—that draws our attention. We argue that a problematic moment does precisely this—it engages our attention, if only for the briefest of moments, on an intimation of something we have been discursively trained not to recognize. The PM itself, the thoughts during the silence of the PM, and the rationales in support of a social class (or other) problematic demonstrate that the impermissible discourse in this instance was one of recognizing anti-semitism. The discourse that was consciously thought and overtly named was socioeconomic class. To label the recognition of social class as a permissible discourse in this instance is not to dismiss its power or presence of class identification in the moment. Instead, it is to draw attention to the complications of group interaction on both the discursive and dynamic levels. The efficacy of repression is the ease with which such a binary choice is made—a substitution of one discourse over another —such that not only are alternative discourses (identities, recognitions) forgotten, but we can also forget that we forgot (Billig, 1999). This problematic moment presented the members of this particular seminar with the opportunity to engage the dialectic between (and among) identities of social class and the Jewish-Gentile binary. Such exploration, however, cannot be performed if the repressed aspect of the discourse remains unacknowledged. It is at the level of social practice that acceptable features of identity are established in discourse as recognizable and unacceptable identities are repressed (not named, not recognized). The dialogic act of repression and the rhetorical act of recognition are requisite skills for remaining within the contemporary genre of academic (and any other) discourse. Repression: A Dialogic Act If we humans possess the rhetorical skills to open up matters for discussion, then so we are equipped with the abilities to close down matters discursively. For every rhetorical gambit to push debate forward, so there must be analogous rhetorical devices which permit discursive exploration to be curtailed. Routinely, we are able to change the subject, pushing conversations away from embarrassing or troubling topics (Billig, 1999, p.51). George Orwell has also pointed out that there is a general tacit agreement in societies not to discuss large and uncomfortable facts. Observations by Cumming in his work as an organizational consultant suggest that the typical response of a group to a problematic moment is to avoid its implications by resuming the discourse as if the moment did not happen. The group acts as if the silence was not significant, a tangent, or otherwise out-of-keeping with the flow of the discussion or the task at hand. Usually, the repressed topic of the PM is simply replaced with another topic as a matter of routine. This is the mechanism of repression captured in Freud’s most common term, “Verdrangung, which literally means ‘pushing away’ or ‘thrust aside’” (Billig, 1999, p. 15). Michael Billig both critiques and rescues Freud from some aspects of his historical legacy that have become part of modernist commonsense.10 A discursive psychologist, Billig demonstrates how repression is dialogically accomplished. He does this through a careful analysis of Freud’s own writing, including how Freud himself repressed knowledge of trends building up to the Holocaust.11 This is one of the ways discourse is ideologically constituted, for ideologies concern that of which people in a given historical epoch do not speak. The notion of repression points out that there are topics of which we could speak, but which, nevertheless, we tend to avoid collectively. Billig (1999) ties the desire to repress to the social construction of morality through discourse – what is and is not talked about, at which times, with whom. He describes the original concept of repression as based in the idea of self-deceit or willed forgetting. We argue that problematic moments direct our attention to the presence of something repressed, to the presence of something made secret. Perhaps engaging with social justice is reducible to the secrets we’re willing to tell? Trifonas also discusses the moral imperatives of critical thinking which epistemologically construct the impossibility of contradiction, generating instead a drive toward exclusively univocal knowledge (2003). It must be understood that repressed secrets are not mysterious, pre-existing, or intrasubjectively ‘real’ of their own accord. Rather, Billig’s reconceptualization of the Freudian unconscious is as the dialogical product of acquired language skills. In a review of Billig’s book, Freudian Repression, Thomas Scheff summarizes: “[Billig] proposes that r epression arises from social practices regarding topics or feelings that are generally regarded in a particular society as too shameful to discuss” (2000, p. 1606). Similarly, this effect is accomplished in thought processes by the provision of a replacement topic – simply thinking about something else. The routine discursive shifting away from certain topics becomes, over time, unremarkable. With repetition, things unsaid become more and more unsayable. Eventually, one also learns not to notice the routine shifting away from certain topics and thus accomplishes repression—the forbidden topic has been made dialogically unconscious. A recent experiment on cognitive regulation validates this dialogic mechanism. “When people encounter cues that remind them of an unwanted memory and they consistently try to prevent awareness of it, the later recall of the rejected memory becomes more difficult” (Anderson and Green, 2001, p. 366). When something cues a group, such as a college class, to the existence of a repressed topic, a problematic moment can occur: something they do not want to talk about unexpectedly surfaces and there is a felt moment (rather than a smooth transition) before the group either rejects or responds to the discursive breach. When a PM occurs, members of the group may experience powerlessness in the face of not knowing the event’s meaning or lacking the language and emotional comfort to talk openly about it. There are perceived—if not actual—risks involved in recognizing the phenomenological presence of something that is supposed to be avoided. Acting into (Shotter, 1984) this presence through discursive recognition in order to excavate meaning initiates movement into the unknown. Such recognition dares to discover and implement new terms and discourses. Recognition: A Rhetorical Act Our conception of recognition is based in an ethic requiring description of “the irreducible continuity among humans, discourses, and institutions” (Supriya, 1998, p. 55). One must judge a PM worthy of description not on a moral (good/bad, right/wrong) basis, but rather in terms of recognizing the PM as an indicator of a group-level process of organizing (Cumming, 1997). In other words, as a moment with potential for learning in Weick and Westley’s sense: A mindful moment in action routines when order and disorder are juxtaposed ... [when] … people can renegotiate which portions of their continuing collective experience they will next forget, render invisible, and silence, and which discontinuous residuals they will treat as current meaningful artifacts of culture (1999, p. 206). When one recognizes a problematic moment, one is identifying a gap in the smooth production of Fairclough’s three dimensions of discourse: the text, the discourse, and the sociocultural. PMs indicate actual breaks with current social practice (the status quo), opening it to challenge and redefinition: they are a kind of Freudian slip on the group level. As such, PMs could be a signal of possibility for initiating a process of structural change. This gap exposes the double movement of Bakhtin’s (1981) centripetal and centrifugal forces: students and professors are forced to align themselves in agreement or disagreement, to identify (in Burke’s sense, 1966) with the recognizer(s) or the repressor(s) either by acknowledging the social identity scripts that have just been enacted, or by rejecting the invitation to enter the discursive unknown. This gap is the zone of delay in différance where educators can instantiate “a way of knowing that involves acknowledging the play of difference as différance” (Trifonas, p. 229). Educators are often cautious regarding this discursive zone (which might be a site of Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development, 1978) because they are wary of implicit attitudes. Billig (1991) explains that implicit attitudes are “those aspects of beliefs, which may not currently be used in explicit argument to justify one’s own position or to criticize counter-positions, but which possess the potential to be used in future argument” (p. 146). Recognizing a PM certainly opens the possibility of additional deeply-embedded implicit criticisms to emerge. We suggest that such emergence can only be countered by pluralizing the discursive options, by recognizing – again – alternative perspectives and the presence and possibility of different directions that the group’s developmental and historicizing trajectory can take. Such a strategy will eventually lead away from one-center, univocal explanations (our heuristic demarcation of anti-semitism) to polycentric (Blommaert, 2005), simultaneously thick perceptions of heterogeneous group experience (Holvino, forthcoming). Earlier, we discussed the act of recognition. Our claim is that not only do problematic moments mark possible originary moments in a group’s developmental trajectory, the act of recognition can enable direct engagement with processes of interpellation and the co-construction of intersubjectivity – in other words, the generation of new social and institutional lifeworlds. Subjectivity and Interpellation We agree with Trifonas’ definition of a “knowing subject [who] knows itself in relation to the perceived boundaries of the self and the limits placed upon its actualization of knowledge by an Other” (p. 220). Such “phenomenological exchange” (p. 220) can be partly understood as the identificatory play of social identities, which often occur without awareness, spontaneously and intuitively (Burke, 1966). In a problematic moment, such identification may lead to a cooperative, even collusive, discursive performance from subjects who are unreflectively constituted by historical strands of ideology contingently associated with particular social identities. The thoughts during the silence of the PM, and the arguments made while discussing the PM the following week, point us to the active identifications enacted by and among members of the group (both expressed and repressed). Some of the ways identifications occurred in the rhetoric class were along national, socioeconomic, and religious lines.12 Some of these were subsequently named (recognized) and others were not. Another division fell along the lines of those who were able to work within a frame of acceptance (either tragic or comic) by considering the possibility of a Burkean performance of identification, and those who moved to a frame of rejection, refusing even the possibility of latent anti-semitism. As noted, some members of the class did, and would still, pose alternative interpretations of what occurred, such as the PM being an instance of classism instead of anti-semitism or a violation of the rules of academic performance.13 In fact, the notable presence of each of these discourses more conclusively points to a problematic moment than our deliberate emphasis upon a single coherent strand. The heteroglossic interaction of all these discourses and the flux of repression/recognition among them is closer to “the whole story” of the full metonymic depth of this unique problematic moment. We maintain our version of the story only because of its heuristic ability to illustrate the complex features of problematic moments along a discrete thread. Whereas Althusser described interpellation as an essentially negative force that institutionalizes subjectivity (1971), Gramsci allows for a bit of navigation by individuals within otherwise oppressive systems (1988). Foucault is interpreted by Sawicki as also perceiving possibilities of at least some agency and utilization of subject power (1991). Problematic moments are sites in which negative forces can be confronted and processes of interpellation turned toward the deliberate co-construction of new, possibly less oppressive ways of thinking and being. They are scenes for the praxis of self-authorization, where persons can confront their own embeddedness in social structures and endeavor to project new relations into the future. Performances are called into question by problematic moments. Subjectivities are exposed, and the processes by which interpellation occurs are not only opened to view, but through the dialogic act of recognition, interpersonal relationships can actually change. Extending Biesecker’s (1999) application of différance to the rhetorical situation, we can conceive of a PM as articulation—as an incident revealing the production and reproduction of subjectivities and their interrelations (see Trifonas, 2003). We suggest that the phenomenological arrival of a PM is the operation of différance at the group level. The result of applying différance to subjectivity is to comprehend the subject, or members of a group, as having identities which are fixed only as the provisional and practical effect of symbolic engagement (Biesecker, 1999). In other words, persons are interpellated into identities in, through, and because of the discourse produced by and around them, particularly those discourses occurring before, during, and after a problematic moment. These discourses continue or interrupt historical and historicizing temporal trajectories. Temporality and Metonymy Fabian has described the notion of typological time, proposing that discourses can be linked to historical epochs (1983). Problematic moments may indicate temporal sites of transition between epochs of discourse, as previously repressed discourses emerge and are recognized. Time draws attention to itself in a problematic moment: some notice duration, some feel impatience, others are not bothered but experience heightened awareness; meanwhile, some think deeply about the topic at hand while others remember related events14. Not only is the usually smooth, continuous synchronic (linear or horizontal) experience of time interrupted, but diachronic (non-linear, vertical) time appears. Time is demonstrably a dimension of this event, not a containing medium for it (Ermarth, 2001). These disruptions that bring time into awareness are one of the conditions that invites the metonymic imagination to seek historical, macrosocial links. Teachers attentive to moments when the passage of time seems to lengthen or slow down can begin to experiment with interventions. Pedagogy and PMs The notion of a problematic moment presents a descriptive and theoretical framework for the analysis of breaches in a group’s dominant discourse when something that has been repressed seeks to emerge, inserting or asserting itself into the privileged realm of socially approved topics. Because problematic moments challenge perceptions of reality, we suggest that recognizing and analyzing the discourses leading to and resulting from a PM offers a practical post-critical pedagogy for multicultural education. Asking members of a seminar to reflect on a problematic moment creates space for students and professors to reflect abstractly on discourses generated during usual intellectual activity. This can help the group uncover hidden discourses operating in individual and collective lives—particularly discourses that arrange and normalize lifeworlds in particular ways (Foucault 1972, 1980). In other words, our claim is that for a brief period of time, a problematic moment destabilizes subjective and intersubjective epistemologies, thus inviting change in individual and group understandings. By unsettling foundations of belief structures, problematic moments create a temporary space in which new perceptions can be developed, intersubjectivity can be reframed, and social relationships transformed. Trifonas states that there is no safe way “to approach the horizon of intersubjective violence” (p. 234). The difficulty of discussing, or even thinking about, what has been systematically repressed can be seen as an effect of discourse. However, any discourse is only effective to the extent that it conceals the mechanisms by which it works. PMs help to bring these mechanisms into view. The task of a post-critical social justice educator is to recognize and utilize opportunities when the discursive machinery and its intra- and intersubjective ‘parts’ can be examined in real life performances, in praxis. We are not claiming that one creates or changes the lifeworld just by talking in the classroom. Social relations are more than the sum of academic discourses. An individual’s subjectively perceived conception of reality has a practical range, contingent upon the variant forms and interweavings of material practices, existing relations, and particular identity performances to which they have been exposed. While there is significant rigidity to discursive structuring and the social relations they engender, there is also the potential for changing them, at least partly, through a persistent application of rhetorically-enacted recognition. A problematic moment generates a group-level experience of discomfort strong enough to overcome habitual repressive mechanisms (individually and interpersonally). This effect of a PM’s sudden appearance is a condition of possibility for the reconstitution of intrasubjective identity and the intersubjective co-construction of social relations. The emergence in the group of a problematic moment manifests implicit criticism of the status quo, of the current state and action of the group’s communication, and of the temporal connection in social relations spanning the past, the present, and the future. Educators who can recognize and ride these currents into the discursive unknown can facilitate powerful learning experiences for everyone present, including themselves. Conclusion Problematic moments interrupt what Burke describes as the “sheer motion” of living (1968, p. 54), presenting subjectivities with an invitation to engage in a metonymic analysis of specific language use in a bounded, contextualized moment of social interaction: to seek evidence of the past’s emergence in the present and exercise judgment about its continuation, as social practice, into the future. At a minimum, we believe PMs mark breaks in hegemonic ideologies where critical reflection can be utilized in the practices of everyday talk; at most, problematic moments offer epistemological opportunities for the social re-construction of reality. In other words, we argue that these moments constitute a site for poststructuralist analysis of the materiality of discourse. A problematic moment begins with a fragment of discourse. As described by McGee, textual fragments are a map of the whole structure of discourse(s) to which they belong (1999). Of course, there is no way to state definitively that our rhetoric class “performed”, as asserted by the professor, “a dramatization of anti-semitism”.15 However, if we invoke the metonymic imagination and expand the pool of data, we discover that historical factors could have established a certain predisposition for the reenactment of an historical discourse. Improving interpersonal and intercultural relations at deeply socialized levels can occur when individuals in face-to-face groups exercise self-reflexivity and collective discursive action in recognition of a unifying visceral experience. We argue that recognition of problematic moments can provide impetus to the modification of underlying linguistic and discursive structures, leading to new patterns of interaction. Initial recognition of the moment as an event is crucial, and repetition and memory are vital to sustain and institutionalize its impact over time. Yet even without immediate or consistent validation and follow-up, the fact of a PM’s emergence—that it happened at all—signals the potential for shifts in consciousness. Problematic moments highlight dialectics of discursive dominance and repression. Identifying and tracking these discursive interruptions in processes of intersubjective interpellation can be a significant pedagogical tool for social justice. End notes 1. Norman Fairclough first used the concept of a problematic moment to refer to moments of crisis in a discourse (1992). 2. We are aware of the controversial nature of the concept of repression; e.g., its use by therapists to help recover buried or “repressed memories” of childhood trauma, and its assumption of an a priori self. In this paper we draw on Michael Billig’s notion of the “dialogic unconscious,” where he reformulates Freud’s concept of repression using theories of language. See Billig, M. 1999. Freudian Repression: Conversation Creating the Unconscious. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. 3. For a practical application of the imagination in the production of knowledge, see Imagining Numbers by Barry Mazur, 2003. 4. In every instance when we’ve shown a group a video of a PM, we have been amazed at people’s natural abilities to discern relevance. They do not need to be taught theory before they engage in a sophisticated analysis of their own discourses. 5. We are indebted to the colleagues, both students and professor, for their willing and insightful participation in this research. 6. Social identities are an important factor in problematic moments. S6 was then 40, a white middle-class lesbian from the U.S., non-disabled, bilingual (English and American Sign Language), a gentile, and a parent. 7. The silence was co-constructed by everyone present; either by stopping/refraining from verbal participation (7/10 people) or by being already disengaged (daydreaming, 3/10). 8. A colleague challenged S6 at the time, claiming that her assertive response violated Burke’s language-as-social-action comic frame of acceptance: “We must name the friendly or unfriendly functions of relationships in such a way that we are able to do something about them…since the names embody attitudes; and implicit in the attitudes there are cues of behavior” (1984, p. 24). In other words, the intimation of blame calls for a response of guilt. 9. There is a common belief that powerful individuals can cause problematic moments in groups. We insist as a conceptual boundary that whatever problems caused by powerful individuals are not problematic moments – they do not occur at the level of group discourse, although they may influence group dynamics. 10. Thomas Scheff writes: “Billig’s use of discourse analysis has the potential of transforming an entire field of endeavor. 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Publication Date
Spring 2008
Citation Information
Stephanie Jo Kent and James Cumming. "“I Don’t Know”: Engaging with Problematic Moments in Multicultural Education" Radical Pedagogy Vol. 9 Iss. 2 (2008)
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