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Pedagogy 1.3 (2001) 564-573

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Thinking along with Foucault

Jeffrey P. Cain

Ways of Reading: An Anthology for Writers. 5th ed. Ed. David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky. New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1999.

Although I did not have a phrase for it at the time, I spent a year or so in the early 1990s as a devotee of "initiation" pedagogy. 1 Possibly because I was undergoing my own ritualized encounter with professional discourse, I loved the method by which Ways of Reading endeavored to negotiate and theorize a cogent middle ground. The book seemed calculated at once to help students and to challenge them, providing for rigor as well as opportunity. In time, however, I found that, despite interesting and energetic class discussions, only a few of my students generated writing that displayed a grasp of the concepts that we had been examining. When I moved from teaching "regular" freshman composition to basic writing, I drifted away from Ways of Reading; I wanted a text that offered "more structure," so I used Mike Rose and Malcolm Kiniry's (1998) Critical Strategies for Academic Thinking and Writing: A Text with Readings.

I remember feeling that I had learned what I could from the experience of teaching with Ways of Reading. I thought that perhaps the selections were simply "too hard" for my first-semester students (and much too difficult for basic writers). Later I concluded that the methodology in Ways of Reading was benevolently manipulative; it purported to empower students even as it lured them into the inescapable web of assimilation into academic discourse. Resistance was encouraged but futile. Yet neither the view that Ways of Reading is the ultimate embodiment of common ground in the contact zone, nor the opposing idea that it is an intellectual game of Survivor, in which those who fail to grasp difficult academic writing get graded off the island, seems appropriate. The Ways of Reading methodology--for it is much more a system than it is a book--challenges teachers as much as it does students, a fact that I did not understand when I first began using it. [End Page 564]

Since then I have come to believe that, like it or not, I must start a composition class with the students' cultural and intellectual constructs in mind. To assess a textbook's potential to build on those constructs, I have found it valuable to approach the text from a student's point of view. For the purposes of this article, I will therefore cast myself as both teacher and student (not a difficult feat in these latter days of postmodernism), admitting, of course, that my persona as essay writer lurks in the background as a deconstructive third term. What would it be like, then, to assign myself a question from Ways of Reading, write a response to it, and consider the results?

The teacher part of this imaginary experiment lasts only a couple of seconds, because Ways of Reading provides well-developed writing prompts as well as longer, carefully sequenced assignments. A suitable example occurs after the excerpt from Foucault's Discipline and Punish, "Panopticism." The third prompt in the "Assignments for Writing" displays many of the precepts characteristic of the Ways of Reading pedagogy (344-45):

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Foucault's argument in "Panopticism" is the way it equates prisons with schools, hospitals, and workplaces, sites we are accustomed to imagining as very different from a prison. Foucault argues against our commonly accepted understanding of such things.

At the end of the chapter Foucault asks two questions. These are rhetorical questions, strategically placed at the end. Presumably we are prepared to feel their force and to think of possible answers.

Is it surprising that the cellular prison, with its regular chronologies, forced labor, its authorities of surveillance and registration, its experts in normality, who continue and multiply the functions of the judge, should have become the modern instrument of penality? Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons? (pp. 341-42)

For this assignment, take...


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