DISCOURSE as quilting

Welcome to the intersection of P. L. Thomas writing about his writing and other writers' writing to explore discourse as quilting.

Archive for the ‘Emily Dickinson’ Category

remnant 1: “a hybrid work of sorts”

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When Emily Dickinson asked, “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” Or Ralph Ellison’s unnamed narrator explains, “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” Those of us who write or read or find ourselves inevitably drawn to the many and varied worlds created with or through words likely invision the stereotypical Kafkaesque nightmare of reason captured in “Give It Up!”:

It was very early in the morning, the streets clean and deserted, I was on my way to the railroad station. As I compared the tower clock with my watch I realized it was already much later than I had thought, I had to hurry, the shock of this discovery made me feel uncertain of the way, I was not very well acquainted with the town yet, fortunately there was a policeman nearby, I ran to him and breathlessly asked him the way. He smiled and said: ‘from me you want to learn the way?’ ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘since I cannot find it myself.’ ‘Give it up, give it up,’ said he, and turned away with a great sweep, like someone who wants to be alone with his laughter.

Regardless of genre, medium, or mode a writer chooses or sews together, writers often find themselves out of joint—out of joint with themselves, with others, and with time:

Let us go in together,
And still your fingers on your lips, I pray.
The time is out of joint—O cursèd spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!
Nay, come, let’s go together. (1.5.186-190)

This blog is a place for me to examine and share that paradoxical tension between the drive to express coupled with or pushing against the inevitable sense of alienation from Self, Others, and Time.

The guiding metaphor of all my writing has become quilting, in the sense that no ideas or words are purely original, but that discourse is always the sewing together of the remnants we gather in hopes of offering something new and valuable and even beautiful in our endless quest.

My writing life is now primarily scholarship, public intellectual work (such as Op-Eds, commentaries, and blogs), and poetry. All of those works, however, share the same urge to quilt—as I attempted to confront in a final note for my 2012 book on poverty and education:

Note: Drafting a Book on Poverty in the Twenty-first Century

This book is a hybrid work of sorts—the combination of commentaries and Op-Eds weaved into a larger scholarly work confronting how many different stakeholders in universal public education—politicians, corporate leaders, political appointees, the general public, administrators, teachers, and students—view poverty, people living in poverty, students learning in poverty, and teaching and learning. The commentaries and Op-Eds I published in traditional publications and through online media such as blogs add to the larger scholarly work both discourse aimed at a wide readership and interactive discussions impacted by online writing prompting and allowing readers to post comments and engage me as a scholar in a living and evolving conversation.

While this book is primarily a work about U.S. poverty and education in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, my work as a scholar is tied inextricably with my work as a writer; thus, the work itself, like all of my work, is a commentary on discourse and writing. Just as assumptions about poverty and education impact and tint how we address both, assumptions, conventions, and norms about discourse control not only what is expressed but also how discourse is presented. One hybrid aspect of this book is the blending of discourse aimed at the general public and a scholarly audience. Too often, I believe, public discourse lacks the evidence-based elements necessary in scholarly work (citations and references that allow the readers to examine the validity of the claims made in the piece) while scholarly work tends to be expressed in language and media that create an insular discourse, scholars speaking to scholars.

Another element of the book that often creates tension when I submit work for publication is what I frame as quilting; I view scholarly discourse as a fabric weaved out of a community of voices. The use of citations and quoting sources to illuminate and reinforce claims are essential elements of presenting scholarly authority (in the Freirian sense of authoritative, not authoritarian), but many conventions of scholarly writing encourage burying the voice of the cited scholars within paraphrasing. I, instead, tend to highlight in quotes not only the claims of my citations, but also the voice itself—how the claim is framed by the source. This stylistic choice celebrates the collaborative and communal nature of making scholarly claims, although it comes with risk within the academic community that is often deeply conservative about discourse conventions while being more embracing of radical ideas and claims.

Making scholarly and public claims creates a tension for democratic ideals: What voice matters, and should all voices matter equally? Democratic ideals suggest that all voices must be honored, but rarely do we confront in our democracy the weight of each voice—does giving credibility to expert voices over inexpert voices betray democracy? To argue for social equity, human agency, and equitable schools, making a parallel argument that some voices are more valid than others appears hypocritical, but therein lies the paradox of critical scholarship genuinely committed to democracy and human agency.

My arguments and evidence, then, have been an organic act, informed by my scholarship and by interacting with readers within the new media world of online publications and discussing topics with readers. While this book becomes a fixed statement, it too is part of a living and breathing tapestry, a quilt offered as a place to begin and maintain a discussion that leads toward a more equitable education system that feeds a more equitable society. This is a confrontation of many types of poverty—the poverty of economics that imprisons people in a society driven by privilege, the poverty of access, the poverty of voice, the poverty of information ironically persisting in a world bombarded by media.

And I feel compelled to end with these words from Kurt Vonnegut (1991):

I listen to the ethical pronouncements of the leaders of the so-called religious revival going on in this country, including those of our President, and am able to distill only two firm commandments from them.  The first commandment is this: “Stop thinking.”  The second commandment is this: “Obey.”  Only a person who has given up on the power of reason to improve life here on Earth, or a soldier in basic training, could accept either commandment gladly: “Stop thinking” and “Obey.” (p. 158)

Inequity is the life-blood of privilege, and the privileged depend on the majority of the public to stop thinking and obey. Let’s not.

Written by plthomasedd

March 23, 2013 at 5:56 pm