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Pedagogy 2.1 (2001) 115-117

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Freirean Voices, Student Choices

Barry Alford

A persistent problem for any first-year composition instructor is voice. How, exactly, do we teach our students to think in the complex, rich ways we expect and value? How do we help them own the problems and discourses that emerge from the encounters with texts and ideas we initiate? Anyone who has been at it for long has read more than a fair share of sterile essays that presume to compare, contrast, or provide a pro-con analysis and are linked only by their singular lack of creative or critical thought. That is, we are constantly confronted with evidence that the rhetorical choices we teach our students to use do not necessarily encourage them to think.

Students, particularly students inexperienced in negotiating these problems, need to hear themselves and their fellow students think out loud before they write. So we need to support a broader sense of literacy, one that engages students in a community of speakers and listeners going about the messy business of thinking through a problem rather than a community in which the problem is always already solved by some compartmentalized application. Student "voices" should have public, unscripted involvement with other students, the instructor, and texts before we ask them to go behind closed doors and grapple with the solitary process of writing about it.

Of course, composition studies has always given a nod to Kenneth Burke's (1967) idea that in academic writing students must figure out how to enter an unfamiliar conversation that was going on long before they began listening. This gesture is at the heart of David Bartholomae's (1985) notion of students "reinventing" the context of their discourse. It is less clear how students who do not speak the language are supposed to make that happen, particularly when they find themselves following some formula for organizing the topic instead of the trail of their own thinking. What these methods lack, even in the early process models that encourage "talk," is a way to make connections that move the students' writing from an assignment to a thoughtful essay.

The most concrete way I know of making this move is to engage my students, and have them engage each other, in the formation of topics and strategies in the classroom. This Freirean idea is the key argument in Ira Shor's Empowering Education. Shor, an outspoken advocate of putting student voices in the classroom, has long been the chief interlocutor of Paulo Freire, the late Brazilian literacy educator and author of Pedagogy of the [End Page 115] Oppressed. In brief, students' talking to each other plays an essential role in the way they develop ideas and create rhetorical strategies that they can hone and develop in their writing.

I use the schema that Shor outlines to promote discussion in my composition classes and to help my students grow into subject positions they can use to think and write. Shor (1992) delineates three kinds of topics: generative, topical, and academic. Generative topics come from the students' experiences and are in their own words, as general and emotional as they might be. Topical themes move the subject matter into the public domain, using news accounts and a more public style. Academic themes move the topic toward some standard of critical analysis. My goal is to create an academic subjectivity out of the students' own experience instead of asking them to occupy one constructed by someone else. I do not encourage them simply to write the way they speak or to get comfortable in the generative or topical phase. I want them to earn their way into a meaningful academic voice instead of merely learn how to imitate one.

The first step is to listen. As Shor constantly reminds us, students are all too accustomed to being inundated with "teacher talk," which is used to control the classroom and guide, or stifle, their thoughts. Listening to my students, sometimes longer than I would like, by giving them free rein in classroom discussions helps make them owners of the classroom and the...


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