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In the past decade, the discourses of critical pedagogy (Giroux, Kincheloe, McLaren, Simon) have shaped the arena of composition studies (Berlin & Vivion, Bizzell, Fox, Hurlbert & Blitz, Knoblauch & Brannon, Shor). As compositionists turn to writing pedagogics that explore how issues of difference shape people’s lives, many have begun to examine how social constructs of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and so on account for the ways that students read and write about texts. While these constructs are clearly important for students to examine in terms of their personal and social identities, there is another difference that usually remains invisible: the role of religious identity. Given the important role that religion plays within U.S. culture (with the majority of U.S. citizens describing themselves as religious in someway), it’s surprising that so few critical educators have dealt with the implications for how students’ religious identities often conflict with the assumptions upon which critical pedagogy is premised. Although critical educators call for pedagogics that privilege and problematize student experience, the emphasis on issues of race, class and gender oftentimes does not name or account for religion, a construct which intersects and envelops these categories in many students’ lives. As scholars such as Ann Berthoff, Beth Daniels, and James Moffett have noted, this lack of discussion about religious identity is certainly ironic given the importance of faith and spirituality in early critical educators’ work (such as Paulo Freire). Even worse, when students’ religious identities are discussed within the literature of critical pedagogy, it is usually described negatively, oftentimes as an impediment to be overcome (Kincheloe).
I believe this absence of discussion about the role of religious identity with respect to critical writing pedagogics has left teachers who espouse critical principles unprepared to address student resistance rooted in religious belief. One of my most painful experiences as a critical teacher occurred when I found myself constantly in conflict with a student named Luke in an intermediate-level college writing course focused on issues of difference in U.S. culture. In this essay I examine one type of religious identity—that of Christian Fundamentalism—and profile Luke’s oral and written responses as a means of illustrating how his reliance on fundamentalist discourse played a key role in producing his resistance to assigned texts, to the course’s stated goals, and to my authority as the teacher. It was only through examining Luke’s responses in terms of fundamentalist discourse that I began to understand and appreciate his position in my classroom and, further, was challenged to question some of the assumptions undergirding the discourses of critical pedagogy in which I had placed so much faith. Based on my experiences, I suggest that Luke’s responses foreground two problems with the absence of discussion regarding the role of fundamentalist discourse with respect to critical writing pedagogics. First, it has left teachers relatively unprepared for students who resist reading and writing about issues of difference due to fundamentalist beliefs. Teachers who are unaware of the possible influences of fundamentalist beliefs on student writing and reading can often misread their students’ responses. Secondly, it has allowed critical educators to overlook a common thread between the discourses of critical pedagogy and fundamentalism: the language of social critique. By ignoring the similar roles of social critique in the discourses of both fundamentalists and critical educators, critical educators often miss opportunities to find areas of common ground with fundamentalist students and leave their own assumptions about the methods and goals of critical pedagogy uninterrogated—in decidedly uncritical ways.