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Pedagogy 4.2 (2004) 215-240

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The Transitional Space of Hidden Writing:

A Resource for Teaching Critical Insight and Concern

We are faculty members from different disciplines but with a common interest in teaching about issues that, while difficult to address, have the potential to enlighten students about problems common to all human beings. Mary's experience is in composition and rhetoric. Her course takes as its topic of inquiry the often troubling and controversial issue of American class structures. Its goals are to strengthen students' higher-order thinking skills and critical insight, thus leading to improved critical and analytical writing. Richard's experience is in religious studies. His course aims to inculcate awareness and concern in his students about twentieth-century genocide, and writing is central to that process. By "concern," he means that he wants students to care that genocide occurs, to mind that it occurs, and to feel some responsibility for genocide and its prevention. Both courses hold writing as central to intellectual work and both grapple with difficult, sometimes threatening, material.

Genocide materials obviously convey traumatic events and ideas, especially when they raise issues such as rape, religion, and ethnicity. These issues are neither foreign nor remote to many students, yet raising them in the context of historical episodes of genocide can challenge students' assumptions about history, their own society, and the general beneficence they tend to associate with the world in which they live. Most terrifyingly, the genocide [End Page 215] class can also raise the specter of our complicity and implication in, even our guilt for, such crimes against humanity. Put in theological language, genocide confronts us with evil, a topic that raises thorny pedagogical problems. If evil becomes banal or quotidian, students "get used to it" and cease to find it remarkable or disturbing. Conversely, when evil becomes too terrifying (perhaps because it is intolerable to glimpse it within ourselves as well as in Nazi Germany, Hutu Power Rwanda, or Pol Pot's Cambodia), students can lose their ability to care or be concerned about the topic. Borrowing a term from Robert Jay Lifton (1986), we might say the material then "numbs" students to suffering—the opposite of what the course intends.

Similarly, a course focused on class structures can also be highly sensitive and troubling, especially when students report a range of socioeconomic backgrounds or when the course itself takes place in an institution marketed to students as diverse but nonetheless associated with a particular class. Working-class students might feel less able to communicate about their experiences of class struggle when faced in the classroom with middle-, upper-middle-, and upper-class peers who own new cars and have no cash-flow problems. Students may want to communicate honestly about class experiences in face-to-face encounters with peers, but it is more difficult if they know that moments later they may meet these same students over the salad bar in the cafeteria.

Our experiences in these two courses led us to collaborate on the following related questions: How can students maintain intellectual curiosity, remain engaged, and sustain and deepen concern throughout a semester centering on mass murder, torture, and rape? How can students grapple with class and write about it with critical honesty in the context of a campus that, while describing itself as having a high diversity ratio, is clearly a mostly white, middle-class construction? How can writing in general be used to help students negotiate the relationship between the way course material affects them internally and how they respond to it externally?1

Though we arrive at our concerns from different disciplinary perspectives, our thinking parallels some of the assumptions represented by the tradition of critical pedagogy, particularly in its concern for developing students' critical capacities as a way of counteracting unequal power relationships in contemporary society. Through the public reading and writing assignments of our courses, whether related to American class structures or genocide, we attempt to critique social injustices and thus...


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