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Pedagogy 5.1 (2005) 145-151

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Entering the Contact Zone(s)

[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.

In the introduction to Professing in the Contact Zone: Bringing Theory and Practice Together, editor Janice R. Wolff provides a broad overview of the elasticity of the contact zone metaphor by reaffirming its vastness. It is a place of discourse not only for instructors but also for administrators and "all those who inhabit spaces where sociolinguistic contact is made" (xiii).

The fourteen essays in the collection provide a broad but provocative overview of the practice, theory, and approaches associated with Mary Louis Pratt's metaphor. Wolff deserves high praise for having the courage to construct a safe house within the pages of the book that allows each of the authors to honestly examine contact zone pedagogy. Unlike proponents of some thin-skinned paradigms and pedagogical approaches, Wolff invites a robust dialogue of affirmation, open questioning, and thoughtful, honest criticism of contact zone theory and practice through the collected essays.

"Arts of the Contact Zone," Pratt's landmark essay that helped spawn contact zone theory and practice, is fittingly included as the opening essay. Pratt's definition of contact zone theory is worth repeating to set the context [End Page 145] for both the collection of essays in the book and the parameters of this review: "I use this term to refer to social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power" (4). The essays in the book—and indeed most contact zone literature—use this definition as the basis for calibration.

Grapple and grasp with contact zones I do. As an English instructor in a small, rural community college in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, I experience both ends of the polarized spectrum of what makes open enrollment both richly rewarding and utterly challenging. Much like basic training in the military, my education and teaching at the university level couldn't possibly fully prepare me for the unique contact zones I experienced in real-life frontline experiences at the community college, where it's not uncommon for a retired police officer to be sitting next to the seventeen-year-old dual-enrolled high school student, next to the displaced mill worker, next to the working mother. I am above all things a teacher. I teach sometimes as much as twenty-four credit hours a week per semester (if I'm feeling particularly spunky) but never fewer than sixteen. I value practical pedagogy. It is from this background and experience that I set myself in a space to critique Professing in the Contact Zone.

Paul Jude Beauvais, for example, provides a wonderfully practical and theoretical essay in section 1 titled "First Contact: Composition Students' Close Encounters with College Culture." Beauvais is honest and thorough, providing the reader a front-row seat as he uses a composition classroom to explore with his students the multiple types of "first contacts" that first-year students experience at the university. Beauvais attempts to put students in a position of being able proactively to interact with various zones on campus as they shape their own identities. He concludes by suggesting that "intellectual identity is most likely to have immediate relevance to students if it enables them to participate immediately in the shaping of the institution where they conduct their own studies" (35). Beauvais also provides appendices containing detailed assignment sheets and explanations for his classroom approach.

As a community college instructor who also takes part in overseeing adjunct faculty, I need this sort of nuts-and-bolts approach with practical examples. With sixteen credit hours, it isn't practical to pursue the abstract and theoretical—and there is no demand from administration to publish and show off my writing chops to the rest of academia. In fact, doing that too much might inadvertently give my dean the impression I have even more free time that needs to be exploited. [End Page...


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