Course Overview

Our course works from the assumption that writing is tightly bound up with questions of identity. Our writing and use of language draws on our attitudes, values, beliefs, assumptions, and investments; it draws on our experiences; and it draws on our capacities for expression, engagement, and response. Our identities have been shaped by other people, groups, and institutions that comprise our larger society, but our potential for being in the world goes beyond anything we have inherited or learned. Writing can help us come to terms with how we have been shaped as people and how we can continue to grow.

We will frame our approach to questions of identity in terms of diversity, privilege, and social justice. The following quote comes from Lee Anne Bell’s “Theoretical Foundations for Social Justice Education” in Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice, 3rd ed.

Social justice is both a goal and a process. The goal of social justice is full and equitable participation of people from all social identity groups in a society that is mutually shaped to meet their needs. The process for attaining the goal of social justice should also be democratic and participatory, respectful of human diversity and group differences, and inclusive and affirming of human agency and capacity for working collaboratively with others to create change. Domination cannot be ended through coercive tactics that recreate domination in new forms. Thus, a “power with” vs. “power over” (Kreisberg, 1992) paradigm is necessary for enacting social justice goals. Forming coalitions and working collaboratively with diverse others is an essential part of social justice.

Our vision for social justice is a world in which the distribution of resources is equitable and ecologically sustainable, and all members are physically and psychologically safe and secure, recognized, and treated with respect. We envision a world in which individuals are both self-determining (able to develop their full capacities) and interdependent (capable of interacting democratically with others). Social justice involves social actors who have a sense of their own agency as well as a sense of social responsibility toward and with others, their society, the environment, and the broader world in which we live. These are conditions we not only wish for ourselves but for all people in our interdependent global community. (1)

I would add that this goal of participation, recognition, and respect extends to all people regardless of their relation to social identity groups. Some people might fit comfortably in their identification with such groups, but these groups do not exhaust our possibilities for being in the world, our capacities for expression, and our identities. While social identity groups provide a means of situating ourselves among others and articulating certain aspects of our identities, they necessarily obscure differences between and multiplicities within individuals. Our understanding of diversity must ultimately extend to individuals in their singularity regardless of their relation to social identity groups.

At the same time, we can lose sight of how these social groups and social identities shape the world if we focus too much on individuality. For example, to say that “we are all individuals,” “we are all people,” “we are all diverse,” or “all lives matter” obscures the fact that some people have radically different life experiences and are treated differently because of their race, gender, sexuality, class, or another aspect of their social identity. The challenge is to engage with others in their individuality while being mindful of how social identity shapes their experience and our understanding of them. We can also do this with ourselves, recognizing our own individuality as well as the ways social identities and social thinking have shaped our understanding of the world.

Regardless of our attention to these concerns – whether we take them up and pay attention to them or ignore them – they shape our use of language, how we communicate and engage with others, and how we write and what we write about. This class works from the assumption that we are all better off taking up the conversation, both toward the goal of social justice and so that our individual thinking and language is more authentically our own. To put it another way, while I hope you find this notion of social justice meaningful and worthwhile, this conversation has implications for you even if you don’t.

This point echoes part of the quote from Bell above: this conversation confronts us with a sense of “social responsibility toward and with others” and challenges us to be “social actors who have a sense of their own agency.” Part of developing this sense of agency involves coming to terms with how our thinking, values, beliefs, attitudes, investments, and assumptions have been shaped by the world around us. Through our readings, discussions, and assignments, our class will help us develop this sense of agency and, I hope, a sense for our social responsibility as well.

On a final note, I want to clarify that your grade and success in the course does not depend on you sharing my investments, values, and beliefs. You are welcome to disagree, and you are welcome to challenge my thinking. I have read and thought about these concerns quite a bit, but I still have room to grow and learn. That being said, the course will ask you to challenge your own thinking as well. Ultimately, your success in the course depends not on your individual beliefs but on your ability to produce writing that shows critical thinking and an understanding of academic writing conventions and expectations related to analysis, argumentation, research, structure, and style.