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Pedagogy 1.3 (2001) 560-562

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No Mere Passing Interest

Lynn Worsham

Editor's Note: The following roundtable review replies to and continues a discussion of this text that began in Pedagogy 1:2.

Passing and Pedagogy: The Dynamics of Responsibility. By Pamela L. Caughie. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999.

While much has been written about pedagogy in the last few decades--especially in English studies--few works exhibit the sophisticated, rigorous thinking of Passing and Pedagogy. Pamela L. Caughie performs a tour de force in revising traditional approaches to pedagogy. Drawing astutely on a range of postmodern thinkers, she meticulously sets forth a theoretical framework for reconceiving pedagogy in the postmodern classroom and for assuming an ethical stance toward our work as teachers and scholars. Rather than propose a pedagogy in the narrow sense of the term--a set of practices and procedures to be used in given situations--Caughie views pedagogy in its broadest sense: as a social and ethical practice "not limited to the classroom" (2). That is, pedagogy has a deeply ethical dimension, in that it concerns the behavior of those in power (teachers) toward those not in power (students). Reconceiving pedagogy as an ethical practice gives those of us in English studies a way to break through the impasse in a number of debates that have divided the discipline, including those having to do with the role of cultural diversity in academic discourse, with the institutionalization of multicultural curricula, with the relative roles of theory and practice, and with the function of "critical" pedagogy.

Caughie's central trope, "passing," is richly textured and carries numerous meanings (carefully mapped out in the first chapter), but her use of the term alludes above all to the performance of identity. Drawing on the work of J. L. Austin and Judith Butler, Caughie thinks of passing as integrally related to performativity, "a theory of subjectivity that conceives identity as something we do not something we are" (4). The concept of performativity derives from Austin's notion of the performative, in which utterances bring something into being instead of merely referring to an existing state of affairs. Passing, for Caughie, "does not assume that there is a prior or extradiscursive subject position that one acts and speaks from and is responsible to" (4). Rather, it refers to the postmodern notion of identity as something not fixed or stable but fluid and ever changing. Passing enables us to "refuse" the identities that have been handed to us and that continue to shape our responses. As the very form that identity takes in postmodernity, passing allows us to see that we have choices in assuming identities at particular times for particular reasons. For [End Page 560] Caughie, putting one's self-identifications "at risk" is the "first step in an ethics of passing" (13). If privilege constituted through the "pathologizing of the other is the key move of a metaphysical or modern theory of value, then . . . self-divestment through passing as another may be the key move in a postmetaphysical or postmodern theory of value" (12-13). Yet Caughie moves beyond simply suggesting that identities can be assumed or changed at will; passing is more than a metaphor for consciously choosing a new subject position. It becomes a figure for "the anxiety of having no secure position" (13). Moreover, as the book's subtitle suggests, it refers to a dynamics of responsibility. That is, passing also refers to our relationships to, our encounters with, an other. Thus it involves an effort to "divest oneself of privileged subject positions that have been made increasingly untenable by the emergence of certain political and social groups into the general culture, and an effort to resist certain identifications that have long proven to be oppressive by tying our subjectivities to a particular identity seen to be 'given'" (14).

The beauty of Caughie's book, in part, is that her concept of passing refers to pedagogy not only on the microlevel of the classroom but also on the macrolevel of cultural practice and politics. Traditionally, passing refers to a kind of incognito...


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