Gallagher (2004): Radical Departures

Gallagher, Chris W. Radical Departures: Composition and Progressive Pedagogy. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2002.

In Radical Departures, Gallagher writes against our commonplace notion of progressive, a term “often used unreflectively as a term of approbation” (xiii). Compositions studies, he notes, views itself as progressive in two ways: 1) as left-leaning; and 2) as progressing from a less enlightened past into a more enlightened present (xii). His goal is to “show how various visions and versions of ‘progressivism’ continue to inform the development of Composition and Rhetoric” (xiii) in order to refocus Composition and Rhetoric so that we put the “practice of pedagogy at the center of our work” (xvi). Gallagher defines “pedagogy as the reflexive inquiry that teachers and learners undertake together” (xvi, emphasis original).

In Chapters 1 and 2, Gallagher focuses on the history of progressivism in Composition and Rhetoric, discussing two major movements: pedagogical progressivism, which draws from progressive politics, especially John Dewey, and administrative progressivism, which saw schools as like businesses that needed to be more efficient. Administrative progressivism results in the de-professionalization of teachers, the development of outside experts, the incorporation of standardized tests, education in service of the marketplace, and the distrust of local Rhetoric and Composition scholars and administrators.

Of particular interest to us in an emancipatory composition course is Gallagher’s discussion of critical pedagogy in Chapter 3. Gallagher argues that the discourse of “critical pedagogy has, ironically, drawn us away from pedagogical progressivism” in various ways (70, emphasis original):

  1. Critical pedagogy has created a gendered structure of authority, with male theorists, who have a critical tradition supporting their authority, and female clients, whose own theorizing in the classroom is not ignored or is not valued (72). Teachers are turned into “clients” or consumers, relying on the authority of knowledge-makers (77).
  2. Critical pedagogy portrays critical literacy as a skill or artifact to be “given” to students, which doesn’t make critical pedagogy much different from other transmission pedagogies, which Freire discussed as relying on “the banking concept” (74). It also portrays students as completely naïve and fully determined by hegemony, as “culturally blind.” Teachers and students are then cast in oppositional ways: teachers as fully enlightened and students as fully duped by ideology (75).
  3. Critical pedagogy often focuses on larger cultural or societal transformative change, calling for teachers to be engaged in various ways outside the classroom to bring about this change. This ignores the material conditions of teachers, many of whom are teaching hundreds of students and putting in 70 hours a week. The effect of this call is that teachers are portrayed as bad practitioners because they do not live out the prescriptions of critical pedagogy (77). Because of critical pedagogy’s call for large transformative change, smaller acts of resistance are dismissed as merely “reformist” or “cosmetic” (87).
  4. It often portrays all institutions as the same: monolithic institutions that solely reproduce oppressive conditions, are not constantly changing, and need to be changed by the transformative intellectual (79).

Ultimately, “critical pedagogy has become another academic regime of truth” that “positions students and teachers in disempowering ways” and moves us away from the reflexive pedagogy that Gallagher desires to see at the center of Composition and Rhetoric (85, 73, emphasis original).

Gallagher ends the first half of his book with a call for institutional literacy: the ability “to read institutional discourses (and their resultant arrangements and structures) so as to speak and write back to them, thereby participating in their revision” (79). Drawing on Ellen Cushman’s work, Gallagher argues that counterhegemonic work is always being done, and once we reposition ourselves to our own classrooms and institutions, we can tap into this work (87-88).

Gallagher’s work reminds us that much of critical pedagogy shouldn’t be read as a “how to” guide for what to do in our particular classrooms. Instead, his call seems to me to be a call for a refocusing on particularities: who are your particular students, where are you located, what are your institutional constraints, what do you and your students know about your community and institution, and what tensions do you and your students feel in their own lived experiences? Pedagogy should be the work of reflexively learning together, as Freire and Dewey conceptualize it.

I see a few important implications from reading Gallagher’s work:

  • It is important to be aware of his critiques and thus the ways in which discourses of critical pedagogy actually form our and our students’ subjectivities — that is, are we being created as clients? are our students being portrayed as dupes to hegemony?
  • We need to remember that we and our students are knowledge-makers, and that we make knowledge through reflexive exploration together. This seems most true to Freire’s ontological message, that we are in the process of becoming through world-making together.
  • It seems important that we share what we practice in our classroom, not as a prescriptive “this is what works and will work in your classroom as well,” but instead as theory-making itself. Gallagher’s intraludes seem most useful in this aspect, because they help to build praxis theory: reflecting on and discussing classroom practices. This also helps us to understand that the theory/practice dichotomy is a false binary; praxis is theory/theoretical/theory-making as well.
  • We should focus on the particulars of the situation, including institutional missions; our own material and bodily limitations; what knowledge and experiences our students bring to the classroom and what they care about; and who our students are and who we are.
  • We must be in the moment yet also be hopeful for (faithful in) a better future. Change happens gradually, and we might ourselves never see the effects of what happens in the classroom. When we pay attention to the moment, I think, we listen to our students, ask questions, and don’t get caught up in grandiose visions of classroom results and become dismayed when those results don’t happen.

Overall, I find Gallagher’s account very persuasive. However, these are the questions I am struggling with:

  • What does Gallagher’s concept of institutional literacy mean for our composition classrooms here at Penn State?
  • What are the dangers of focusing on resistance to hegemonic forces? Arguably, resistance often doesn’t result in any change at all (the cliché of Vader that “resistance is futile”).
  • What does this mean for our own research/theorizing on pedagogy? Do the conclusions Gallagher draws result in a demand for a “pedagogical turn” in our own essays?
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