NOTES ON Yagelski, “Religion and Conformity in the Writing Classroom” (1988)

NOTES ON… Yagelski, Robert P. “Religion and Conformity in the Writing Classroom.” Radical Teacher 35 (Summer 1988): 26-29.

Y tells story of his interaction with David, a “born again” student, to make two points: one, that honesty between teacher and student is key; and two, that tolerance and tolerating (i.e., resisting making others conform) includes radical religion as well as radical anything else.

Y helped David think of his audience (his fellow students mainly). David resisted, “maintaining that nobody who did not share such an experience could understand it fully” (27). [again, difference in epistemology].

In truth, I was tacitly trying to convince [David] that he was wrong, that the color of the world was my gray, not his black and white. (27)

I was a “good” teacher. I was doing to David what my teachers had done so well to me, what Richard Ohmann describes as shaping students into conformists who learn the bounds of dissent that are tolerate in our society (1976). Moreover, I was using the class workshop group to accomplish this: the class group was the vehicle whereby the consensus view of David’s beliefs as “radical,” or outside these bounds of dissent, was set forth.

Here I am using the term, consensus, as Greg Myers has used it (1986). Myers points out that the classroom community is an extention of the larger society and the ideology on which that society is based. In my little classroom community, the workshop group drove home to David in no uncertain terms that his strident fundamentalism, despite his inalienable right to believe in it, was not accepted by the majority, that in fact the majority was offended by it. The group also indicated that David’s bombastic methods were just as unacceptable. Do those views of David’s beliefs and methods reflect the larger society? I think yes. WHat is perceived as religious fanatacism — or any fanatacism — is rarely encouraged in our country. A figure like Jerry Falwell may be offensive in his role as self-proclaim statesman for American fundamentalism, but even he usually stays within the bounds of polite argument that we associate with political and social debate in this country. Keep in mind the uproar Falwell touched off in 1986 when he called Bishop Tuto a phony. (27)

Y also discusses example of Ted Koppel on Nightline moderating debates and “keeping the anger suppressed” (27).

“Teaching conformity is easy, true tolerance is not” (28).

How to work against the structure of conformity? Easy way would be “use what students know and believe to get their attention and keep their attention… and leave it at that” (28).  Another example of this conformity-ideology: group called Accuracy in Academia creating list of “too radical” teachers, and influences on both sides of political spectrum at UNH – don’t be too liberal, don’t be too conservative. Message = keep your ideology out of the classroom if it does not conform.  Same thing applies to religious thought.

David learned “not because I am a good teacher of writing, but because I tried to remain honest with him throughout” (28).  “He recognized that, despite my godless views, I wanted him to improve as a writer” (29). David gave Y a listen, somtimes considering his suggestions (though he never changed his mind in any substantive way).  Task = to challenge him.

Y ends by implying that there are probably better ways to get a student like David to re-assess his views but that in the end teachers “can only be honest” (29).

LDM — Yes, the honesty creates an authentic encounter, and anytime, people encounter each other honestly, and with each other’s best interests in mind, something intellectual or emotionally or spiritually good is going to happen.  Was also thinking about how in the end there’s always a dominant ideology. And in Yagelski’s classroom, it is an ideology of critical consciousness (for lack of a more accurate description of what I mean). Wonder what would be different if David had encountered Yagelski in a non-dominant position, if Y had been just a friend or friend’s friend. He probably wouldn’t have listened at all — unless the two of them established some other kind of relationship that formed ground for interest in each other’s views. Which thought brings me back again to Y’s emphasis on honesty. Honesty as creat0r-of-relationship, at least SOME form of relationship, and that relationship as being what facilitates some breakthroughs: David giving Y a listen, David learning perhaps a bit about how to write to an audience that disagrees with him, and David’s resistance sparking in Y a reflection on his own teaching and on conformity and tolerance.


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