Talking of Rhet-Com in Bangladesh

I recently spoke with some colleagues in Bangladesh about rhetoric and composition. They had asked me to introduce the field so that we may have a productive discussion about how Bangladeshi post secondary education can make use of it. The conversations we had brought home to me the universality of topics such as “literacy crises” and how we can better teach and serve our students in the current context.

The Rhetorics of the World in Terms of Politics and Pedagogy

Whenever I think about rhetoric in a global context, I cannot help but become deeply ambivalent. I actually felt embarrassed to talk about the rhetorical tradition – to set-up its connection to composition or writing studies – to my Bangladeshi audience because of how manifestly Eurocentric such a framework is to societies of the Global South, such as Bangladesh.

Speaking about Aristotle might be excusable because of the overwhelming impact he has had on so many academic fields. But it is hard to rationalize speaking about Cicero or St. Augustine to anyone who is not a European snob or dusty academic. If talking about such ancient figures is bad enough – they are part of the written record as opposed to contemporaries in other parts of the world – talking about 20th century figures of rhetorical education such as Kenneth Burke is simply inexcusable because their underlying Western, liberal, democratic assumptions are not organic for societies of Global South. Furthermore, there are many extant rhetorical figures and examples readily available for 20th century postcolonial contexts.

An attendee wanted to know about the politics of teaching the Western canon of rhetoric – how it can be taught in Bangladesh using local rhetorical figures and traditions. In our discussions he pointed out that representing knowledge by teaching Western figures signals a view that only the West has knowledge and local contexts must import ideas from there. It’s been 40 years since Orientalism came out and yet I found myself starting with a Western tradition when I was talking about a discipline. It was not that I was ignorant of what I was doing, it was simply easier to create a through-line of the discipline because those were the citations I found easiest to find.

Moulana Bhashani (1880-1976) is an important popular political figure in Bangladeshi history and culture. Known as the Red Moulana, for his commitment to a religious, class-based politics, he advocated for selflessness and solidarity of the powerful with the oppressed in the name of justice. His rhetoric bridges the Islamic revivalist movements of the 19th century, such as the Tariqah-i-Muhammadiya and Fariazi movements, with the anticolonial liberation movements of the 20th century. He is also notable because he clearly invested a lot on communication, started several newspapers in the country, such as the Weekly Ittefaq (the precursor to the Daily Ittefaq, the most widely read newspaper in the country for decades) and Haq Katha. The closest analogy to the type of resistance a figure such as Bhashani represented at the time would be the Liberation Theology movements in Latin America in the late 20th century. Though it is important to remember that Islamic revivalist movements might be read as politically progressive, but culturally reactive by today’s standards (not sure if that is the same issue for LT). His philosophy of Rububuiyat made Islamic politics about economic justice applicable for all communities, and advocated for political, class-based revolution based on religion.

Our discussions ended up touching on the idea that picking local figures is more effective pedagogy because students might find it interesting and relevant to their own personhood. Not only is privileging Western figures over locally appropriate ones complicity in my part, it was also just bad pedagogy and communication. To explain the significance of those figures to an audience with no real connection to Roman civilization or Catholic dogma would require a semester’s worth of reading and learning. Without doing so, it is meaningless.

Someone in Dhaka would be more likely to find a figure like Moulana Bhashani over someone such as John F. Kennedy (or more analogously MLK) because the Red Moulana provides an example of social movements that speak to the historical background of the world they grew up in.

There are also numerous blogs on local contexts that provide excellent models of rhetorical principles and ideas for our students free of charge – and without asking them to photocopy pages from a given collection (as was the habit at Dhaka University).

I have been reading a Bangladeshi blogger (এলোমেলো ভাবনা) and news blogs (আলাল অ দুলালা) in the recent weeks, and I think they provide interesting readings and models of rhetoric.

Literacy Crises of the World Unite

While there might be key differences in terms of rhetoric, I also find that the composition side always seems the same no matter what part of the world we are talking about. Questions of students are always about deep frustration about the “lack of students’ writing abilities.” In other words, even as we were talking about differences in rhetorical traditions, the assumptions of literacy crises had creeped in (Trimber, 1991).

Photo from Mr. Anderson Reads & Writes

One participant, a writing center consultant, asked questions about how we can assess progress. Another faculty spoke about how we can provide effective feedback. Both addressed the pedagogical challenges of teaching writing in the academic classroom qua “academic classroom” when we are always teaching in academic classrooms in given contexts.

I commented on the need to think about assessment in terms of research. That is, create activities that try to interpret and inform the question teachers are trying to answer about a definite aspect of “progress.” My recommendation in this area stemmed from the best practices of “Backward Design.” A unit or a course,” Miggens and McTighe (2012) advise, “might be thought of in terms of collected assessment evidence needed to validate that the desired learning has been achieved, [not] simply as content to be covered or as a series of learning activities.

Regarding feedback, I talked about my own practice of providing feedback using screen-casts. I said that I have started doing talk-aloud as I’m reading texts and I gave them the resources I use to do that. This is an interest of mine, and I think much of what Anson et. al. (2016) has to say on this topic makes sense. “Students found screen-cast technologies to be helpful,” the researchers found, “to their learning and their interpretation of positive affect from their teachers by facilitating personal connections, creating transparency about the teacher’s evaluative process and identity, revealing the teacher’s feelings, providing visual affirmation, and establishing a conversational tone.”

The Promise of Translingualism

One last thing that struck me about the conversation I had with faculty in Bangladesh was their interest in translingual approach to writing (Horner et al., 2011). The social and linguistic context in Bangladesh often means there are multiple languages operating in the classroom — Bangla, English, sometimes Arabic (reading), Hindi (listening), or Adivasi languages. This paradigm is transdiciplinary – with advocates in applied linguistics and education – and it makes sense that the term has currency outside the US. Yet it was interesting to think of it coming up even in a talk about rhetoric and composition because it generally is not associated with it as much outside the US.

Faculty’s point about translingualism had to do with its promise of student access in Bangladesh. Various members of the faculty present talked about how the “powers that be” believe in a Standard English Only approach in the classroom because it is assumed codemixing is error. But the faculty pointed out that this simply does not work in the classrooms they teach because students will use whatever codes they are comfortable with whenever they talk, or they will disengage and shut down. Asking students to make use of the semiotic resources they had at hand, a commentator pointed out, is “about epistemic access.”

They also pointed to their current research that showed actual teachers preferred asking students to brainstorm in Bangla and come up with their drafts and only slowly being asked to articulate those points in English in the more advanced stages of the writing process (Canagarajah, 2006) . I think that it is a pretty good way of instructing students because it frees up working memory to focus on the task of invention rather than grasp for the appropriate word in English in the moment of communication. The brain is limited and we need to use our finite resources efficiently. Wasting resources to keep codes separate in the mind and then translate across them is expensive.

Conclusion

People are way ahead of the policy all over the world. The faculty I spoke to in Bangladesh showed me that there is indeed a lot of great people working on a lot of interesting things, and the students have really motivated and highly invested teachers. I think change is happening in a really wide-way in the ways we are teaching across the world, and academic conversations on pedagogy is making a difference.

References:

Anson, C. M., Dannels, D. P., Laboy, J. I., & Carneiro, L. (2016). Students’ perceptions of oral screencast responses to their writing: Exploring digitally mediated identities. Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 30(3), 378-411.

Canagarajah, A. S. (2006). The Place of World Englishes in Composition: Pluralization Continued. College Composition and Communication, 57(4), 586–619.

Horner, B., Lu, M. Z., Royster, J. J., & Trimbur, J. (2011). Language difference in writing: Toward a translingual approach. College English, 73(3), 303-321.

McTighe, J., & Wiggins, G. (2012). Understanding by design framework. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Trimbur, J. (1991). Literacy and the Discourse of Crisis. The politics of writing instruction: Postsecondary, 277-95.

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