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Pedagogy 3.3 (2003) 435-439

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Community or Contact Zone?
Deconstructing an Honors Classroom

Phyllis Surrency Dallas and Mary Marwitz

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At the Modern Language Association Literacy Conference in 1990, Mary Louise Pratt (1999: 584) identified "contact zones" as "social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power" (see also Bizzell 1994; Miller 1994; van Slyck 1997). Pratt juxtaposes "community" with "contact zone," defining the former as an imaginary, idealized construction, suspect because its assumed unity suppresses rather than liberates marginalized voices. She is especially disturbed by the dangers posed by an idealized vision of community that legitimizes the professor as authority (Pratt 1999: 590-93), a concern informing our approach to an introductory composition sequence for honors students.

Given that students often suppose that there is an idealized community of readers for texts, we wanted the curriculum to end students' search for one voice speaking the truth. We hoped to provide provocative readings that, [End Page 435] as Richard E. Miller (1994: 408) suggests about Pratt's notions of idealized structures, would create contact zones, liberatory because students and teachers must "learn how to read, understand, and respond to the strange, sometimes threatening, multivocal texts." While pleased with our course design, we faced challenges in deconstructing the "honors" identity and in the classroom's power dynamics. As we planned the course, "Seeing and Writing," we realized that the honors students would probably have a strong sense of community. The Georgia Southern University Bell Honors Program, an endowed four-year program, lends itself to this strong sense because its students take courses together and study all year with the same writing instructors. Our middle-class student population was not greatly diverse. Aside from one Bulgarian, our students were American-raised and almost all from small towns in southern Georgia; aside from one Asian American—an adopted Korean—they were white. They uniformly considered themselves academically talented, and almost all had majors tending, as Maynard Mack Jr. (1996) observes of most honors students, "toward the sciences and vocationalism."

To ensure that these students were not seduced by a false notion of community, we chose texts that required them to examine different perspectives and that we hoped would encourage diverse responses from them. We read symbiotic texts, those with common plots and characters (Mary credits David Cowart for the idea of symbiotic pairs). For example, we paired The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with Mary Reilly, Jane Eyre with Wide Sargasso Sea. We tried, as Phyllis van Slyck (1997: 155) writes, to construct a different contact zone, where "students examined texts which foreground and critique different cultural groups' attitudes towards a common issue." Pairing canonical accounts with postcolonial (Wide Sargasso Sea) and with the marginalized (Mary Reilly), we wanted to decenter traditional readings and require students to rethink and reread both literary and personal texts. As our students learned to recognize that the symbiotic texts questioned assumptions about social class, gender, and culture that were embedded in the urtexts, we hoped that they would begin to question assumptions about themselves.

To reinforce the liberal arts foundation of the honors program and to prevent our voices from dominating, we invited faculty from women's, postcolonial, and biblical studies to guest-lecture. These guest speakers, embodying the disparate voices of the academy, served, as one student noted, as "a kind of symbiont to the usual professors." Furthering the theme of multiple perspectives, we offered alternative readings of the texts through scholarly articles and through our own responses to the texts. Although the students [End Page 436] indicated that they sometimes felt as if they were serving "two masters"—a key phrase from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—we wanted them to appreciate that readers can and do respond to texts as individuals.

Rather than accommodate the additional, often contradictory viewpoint of the symbiont, however, these students tended to use the second text as a "corrective" for the first and to reduce the complexity of the paired readings...


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