A Revised Pedagogy of Empowerment
Anne E. Thorpe,   graduate student at University of Southern California
hen I first started teaching writing, my pedagogy was strongly
and rather uncritically influenced by liberatory educational theorists
like Paulo Freire. I had read Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed as an
undergraduate and viewed it as a call to action. Freire argues that the
underclass can be empowered through literacy. He points out that
education can be used to create a docile and obedient citizenry, but that
it also has the potential to empower students by instilling in them a
"critical consciousness." I was drawn to teach the much-maligned freshman
composition course because I saw revolutionary possibilities in teaching
students how to communicate effectively. I believed that if my students
could express their ideas clearly and with some conviction at the end of
the semester, then I had met my main goal as a teacher.
I soon realized that I had been naive to think I can empower
students simply by helping them learn to express themselves in prose.
Self-expression does not constitute political action and I would certainly
be doing my students a disservice if I led them to believe that their
"expressions of self" would be valued in any discourse community beyond my
classroom. I now feel compelled to introduce them to the conventions of
academic discourse and to help them determine how to adapt to the
conventions of other discourse communities. I use the following excerpt
from Kenneth Burke's The Philosophy of Literary Form to begin a
discussion of the academic discourse community:
Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When
you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are
engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated
for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about.
In fact, the discussion had already begun long before
any of them had got there, so that no one present is
qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone
before. You listen for a while, until you decide that
you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put
in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another
comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you
to either the embarrassment or the gratification of your
opponent, dependent on the quality of your ally's
assistance. However, the discussion is interminable.
The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart,
with the discussion still vigorously in progress.
In Burke's terms, I show my students to the "parlor" where they can hear
the discussion already in progress. We read and discuss essays on
contemporary social issues and by analyzing the various arguments in the
debate, they catch "the tenor of the argument." My writing assignments
then provide them with the opportunity "to put in their oar[s]."
But, as David J. Klooster and Patricia L. Bloom have pointed out,
entering the conversation of any discourse community is not as simple as
walking into a parlor. Newcomers' contributions to the conversation are
often ignored or even ridiculed. They offer this revision of what happens
in Burke's parlor:
Or perhaps, a more realistic version of the story:
When you make your first comment to the group,
everyone stops, looks at you with surprise, and then
turns back to the conversation, not-so-politely
dismissing what you just said. It's not until you
have gone through the initiation of reading their
books and learning their jargon that they will listen
to your contribution to the conversation. (37)
Speaking and being heard in a particular discourse community often
requires demonstrating that one can speak its language, by "reading [its]
books and learning [its] jargon." It is my responsibility, therefore, to
warn my students of this difficulty and to help them gain access to the
"community" of academic discourse by assigning some of its most
influential works and by teaching its jargon and forms of address. I must
inform them why certain writing strategies fail-that it is not because
they are inherently ineffective, but because they are not part of that
community's conventions and therefore not favorably received by its
members. Empowering students then means teaching them not merely to
express themselves, but to communicate their ideas in the form and style
that are valued and respected by their intended audience.
I have also realized that basing a pedagogy on the notion of
empowering students becomes problematic at a university like USC.
Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed may translate well to institutions
serving underprivileged or non-traditional students, but many USC students
will almost immediately assume positions of power upon graduation and in
many ways the university works to ensure that they do. It worries me to
think that I may be contributing to the perpetuation of current power
structures, and that I am merely greasing the machine that keeps certain
groups in power and other groups out. I don't want to teach them how to
gain access to a particular discourse community without also teaching them
how to analyze and evaluate the rhetoric of that community. I want them
to think about the implications of the fact that in academic discourse
only linear, logical reasoning is valued and that non-Western rhetorics
(and some say "feminine" rhetorics) are consequently devalued. I want
them to question why statistics and "expert" opinion are often thought to
be more trustworthy than other forms of evidence. Or why arguments based
on logos rather than pathos are so often assumed to be more effective when
both appeals can be used in misleading ways. Before my students become
doctors or scientists, they should think about the unquestioned faith we
have in scientific "truth." And before they enter the business world,
producing reports and memos intended to provide readers with the "bottom
line," I want them to consider what it might mean to make recommendations
based solely (or at least mainly) on considering the financial welfare of
a corporation. So while I do hope to empower my students, I also hope
that the power they gain (or inherit) will be used responsibly.
My teaching philosophy thus might be best described as a revised
pedagogy of empowerment. On the one hand, I attempt to empower the
disempowered by teaching them how to communicate effectively in a variety
of discourse communities. But on the other, I try to instill a sense of
responsibility in the powerful by teaching them how to recognize dynamics
of power and the ways in which these power inequalities can be perpetuated
if we fail to examine our discursive practices critically.
Burke, Kenneth. The Philosophy of Literary Form. 1941. Rev. ed.,
abridged by the author. New York: Random House, 1957.
Freire, Paolo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. 1970. Trans. Myra Bergman
Ramos. New York: Continuum, 1992.
Klooster, David J. and Patricia L. Bloom. The Writer's Community. New
York: St. Martin's, 1995.