creating a world of complexities and continuums

Spring break week, so I’m off work (though no pay :-() and I get some juicy reading and writing time. I should be doing some laundry or picking up this cluttered office, but it’s almost noon and I’m still sitting, reading blogs and articles and “playing with” my own blog.

I just came across Michael Faris giving his response to Nancy Sommer’s “Between the Drafts” (“Response to Sommers” Oct 30, 2005). It reminded me of the two articles (by Elbow and by Bartholomae — see citations below) that I read yesterday. This is the part of Michael’s response-to-Sommers that caught me:

…I propose that students write themselves into papers by using their authority over the ambiguity of issues and the uncertainty they feel. Researchers struggle through issues, and I think that perhaps when that researcher’s struggle shows through, that the paper is best. Who wants to read hard-lined black and white arguments? If we’re seriously trying to get students to think critically and create a world of complexities and continuums instead of binary relationships, then perhaps it’s best to dip ourselves in uncertainty, to find our authority in this messy goo.

Two things. One is that the part about a researcher’s struggle showing through reminded me of Bartholomae’s article. At the end of his essay, Bartholomae says something like, “I should have a conclusion but I’m not sure what it is yet.” He finishes his ending by re-clarifying his questions and setting forth his main point, but — I don’t know — he does it in a way that makes me feel as if, yes, he’s convinced of it, he feels strongly about it, but he’s still asking questions, and he’s still very open to Elbow’s (and others’) views. I thought, “Hmmmm! I like this!” I liked the open-ness, the recognition of the complexity. (Maybe that’s because neither article brought me at all close to a conclusion, either.)

I used to like “hard-lined black and white arguments,” to be honest (maybe I still do in certain contexts, on certain subjects). I’ll have to think about how much of that comes from my background in writing theology papers. I don’t think they were particularly more “black and white” than, say, philosophy papers. But they were the traditional argument where sounding confident was expected.

The other thing was that I liked Michael’s further comment about trying to create “a world of complexities and continuums instead of binary relationships” too. Reminded me of homophobic theology and biblical interpretation. (I recently lead a Bible study on “The Bible and Homosexuality” and so these issues are on my mind a lot lately.) Homophobia strikes me as such a good example of binary thinking, or, more particularly of “us and them” thinking — the binary of “us and them,” “gay and straight,” “righteousness and sin,” “pure and impure,” etc. We just LIKE to think binarily. It’s easier. We want to protect ourselves and our resources from those “others.” And the best, simplest, easiest way to do that is just to name them as “others,” as “them,” etc. I don’t think anti-gay thinkers think their thinking is necessarily binary. It probably appears quite complex and well-grounded to them. But I still think what appears to be complexity and sound thinking is really symptoms of binary fear, for lack of a better phrase. Again — “us and them.”

Reminds me of what could be called binary Bible interpretation, especially of biblical notions of “sin” and “impurity.” The Greeks had two words (at least): “evil” and “unclean” (both translated “evil” in most English New Testaments (though I haven’t done a systematic check)). The Hebrews also had two concepts: the sinful and the unclean/impure. These are complexities within the 21st century use of the word “sin” but they almost always get simplified into the one concept of “sin.” So, yeah – another example of binary thinking gone amuck, binary thinking damaging our relationships with each other.

I was going to say I don’t have Sommer’s article, but I just found it amongst the CCC journals I picked up a couple weeks ago (yay!). So maybe I’ll get it read today.

Sommers, Nancy. “Between the Drafts.” College Composition and Communication 43 (1992): 23-31.

Yesterday’s articles:

Bartholomae, David. “Writing With Teachers: A Conversation With Peter Elbow.” College Composition and Communication 46 (1995): 62-71.

Elbow, Peter. “Being a Writer vs. Being an Academic: A Conflict in Goals.” College Composition and Communication 46 (1995): 72-83.