NOTES ON Dively, “Censoring Religious Rhetoric in the Composition Classroom…” (1997)

NOTES ON Dively, Ronda Leathers. “Censoring Religious Rhetoric in The Composition Classroom: What We and Our Students May Be Missing.” Composition Studies 25.1 (Spring 1997): 55-66.

Describes her experiences with students from an Advanced Composition and a few honors first-year composition classes to show that it is inaccurate, is stereotyping, when writing instructors assume that “religious inquiry will necessarily or even probably elicit simplistic, unsophisticated discourse” (57).

She does a quick survey of scholars who assume this dualism, who at least assume that first-year comp students will exhibit this simplistic thinking when they write about religious topics. 1) Chris Anson “depicts the quinessential “dualistic” writer as a student writing from a religious perspective” (56); 2) David Bleich “connects religious belief with simplistic thinking when he argues that ‘religious views collaborate with the ideology of individualism and with sexism to censor the full capability of what people can say and write’” (168); 3) Gilbert Fell “asserts that the tendency to comprehend the world in oppositions and polarities is widely prevalent in the realm of religious faith where believers construct a reality of ‘saints and sinners, the saved and the damned, the wise and the foolish, the good and the evil, the angels and the demons, the creator and the creatures…’” (57); and “even” Chris Anderson “who ultimately defends students’ rights to religious inquiry, maintains that student-written religious discourse typically fails to demonstrate the ‘complexity, proof, detachment and irony’ expected of academic writing. (12)” (57).

From her advanced comp class, Dively gives the example of a “future seminary student” who wrote an “analysis of the differing rituals of baptism practiced by various Christian denominations and the Bible passages in which those perspectives are grounded.” [LDM – yes yes yes! That’s exactly what I was thinking mainly when I read Goodburn – that one pedagogical method would be to show the complexity WITHIN even a student’s own tradition. Perhaps one of the (many) reasons some students DO write about religion simplistically is that they are usually asked to write about it as a monolithic thing, or they are given no help at all to see religion as anything but a monolithic thing, and that then, when they write about religion, say, compared to something else, they end up oversimplifying – in the same way someone writing about postmodernism might oversimplify it when contrasting it with another worldview, or when summarizing it for an unfamiliar audience.]

Dively summarizes and uses the data from her two-year study (the one she did for her dissertation) to provide examples / evidence of students writing about religion quite non-dualistically, not simplistically. She even admits that she had assumed, hypothesized that “a considerable majority” of the drafts WOULD exhibit simplistic thinking.  But she was surprised to find that “approximately half of the fifty” drafts she collected “clearly disproved my hypothesis” (59)

Dively notes what we may be missing by disallowing religious topics: interesting essays, students’ chance to engage in “personally illuminating” as well as “intellectually and rhetorically challenging” topics, and, at the end of the article, adds that when we ban religious topics we miss “an opportunity to discuss a brand of discourse that is noticeably prevalent in American culture…” (65). [YES! I think that is the strongest reason to include religious topics: it will HELP democracy.]

She also reports on students’ attitudes toward religious inquiry as shown in a questionnaire.  A “few” of the 50 students felt the topic was too personal. The “remaining” enjoyed the chance.  The “greatest appeal” was the chance to clarify one’s own beliefs. (64).

Another appeal was the “rhetorical challenge of addressing highly sensitive subject matter in a text targeted for a heterogeneous audience. Students citing this appeal felt that the emotionally charged nature of religious conviction laid ground for a valuable exercise in avoiding non-biased expression and generalization [non-biased?]” (65). [LDM – YES YES YES. Cf Carter.]

After thoughts. Just occurred to me is that one reason instructors make this assumption, buy into this stereotype, is that fundamentalism is so publicized, so controversial – since the 1920s, when it started, but also especially since the whole moral majority thing, the fall of the television evangelists (1980s), the culture wars (1990s to present), the rise in influence of the religious right, etc.

REASONS instructors ban religious topics:
1)    sense of defending barrier between church and state
2)    “save themselves much consternation and hard work” (Dively 57)
3)    dislike of religion and/or religionists themselves (Reed!)
4)    simple lack of interest


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