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Pedagogy 5.1 (2005) 151-156

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St. Ovid:

The Patron Poet of the Contact Zone

[Works Cited for Roundtable]
Professing in the Contact Zone: Bringing Theory and Practice Together. Edited by Janice R. Wolff. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 2002.

Professing in the Contact Zone brings together a broad range of writing teachers to discuss the implications, both theoretically and as they play out in a variety of classrooms, of Mary Louise Pratt's notion of the contact zone: "social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power, such as colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths as they are lived out in many parts of the world today" (4). Almost every contributor to the volume quotes or paraphrases this sentence—and it's a good sentence—and then explores how such a zone operates in the articulation of different readings, writings, and teacher-student-administrative relationships. Rhetoric, the multiple uses of language for multiple purposes, serves as a revelatory site for the operations of contact zones. Power is always at work and all of us are always in the flux of the formation of cultural hybridities.

Given the histories of violence that have shaped the present, and the violence in the present that will shape the future, these are necessary investigations, driven by the hope that our teaching can, as Janice Wolff notes about the function of the book itself, "help bring this desire for change closer to fruition" (xx). The text is divided, somewhat arbitrarily, into "Spaces," "Clashes and Conflicts," and "Community." The fourteen essays included in the volume are all well written, and each one helps to illuminate the functions and frustrations at work in the contact zone. It would be particularly useful in libraries and English department lounges, where teachers could use individual essays to illustrate for themselves, teaching assistants, and students the difficulties and rewards of the encounter with cultural difference. [End Page 151]

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Mary Louse Pratt first presented her generative address, "Arts of the Contact Zone," as the keynote of a Modern Language Association conference in 1990. Professing in the Contact Zone, consisting of essays written at a variety of times for a variety of purposes, appeared in 2002. My review of this material appears in 2005. Wolff begins her acknowledgments with "It seems a long time ago." It does indeed. What were you doing in 1990? What has changed, for you, in the intervening fifteen years?

A decade and a half has passed since Pratt first articulated the concept of a contact zone, with her primary exemplar being the 1,200-page letter of Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala that was written in a "mixture of Quechua and ungrammatical, expressive Spanish" (3). The letter somehow ended up in the Royal Archive in Copenhagen, was then presented in a paper in London in 1912, appeared as a facsimile in Paris in 1937, and finally, in the late 1970s, as "positivist reading habits gave way to interpretive studies and colonial elitisms to postcolonial pluralisms, that Western scholars found ways of reading Guaman Poma's New Chronicle and Good Government as the extraordinary intercultural tour de force that it was. The letter got there, only 350 years too late, a miracle and a terrible tragedy" (3).

But, as we all know, the "there" that is the letter's recipient—that's us—will simply serve as a relay point for its ongoing and unpredictable travels that may well lead to its being lost once again in the shifting sands of interpretive theory and practice. For now, however, it is with us, thanks to those transmitting stations, and, in particular, thanks to Pratt's reconstitution of the letter as a "contact zone." That is the principal idea that has so far proved useful for us as North American scholars and teachers. (I don't know how the term has been received and modified in other parts of the world.)

Professing concludes, rather oddly, with Richard Miller's "Afterword: On the Teacher's Zone...


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