Is Sharing Caring? Staging Transparency across Classroom and Campus Spaces

Dan Richards | Opening Remarks

Thank you for attending our roundtable, titled “Is Sharing Caring? Staging Transparency across Classroom and Campus Spaces,” where we will be investigating the degrees to which teachers enact, resist, or perform transparency, and why, against a backdrop of surveillance and resistance in higher education. We intend to leave ample time after our talks to open up the room for generative discussion.

Before we begin, we would like to recognize and acknowledge the caretaking work of the indigenous people of this land: the Lenni Lenape (leh-NAH-pay), Shawnee, and Hodinöhšönih (hoe-den-ah-show-nee) —with presence of the six Nations: the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga (ON-on-DAH-gah), Seneca, Cayuga (kai-YOU-ga) and Tuscarora. We are gathered today, comfortably, on this land between rivers by virtue of conquest alone.

There are seven roundtable slots—some are shared. You can see our roundtable speakers and their affiliated institutions here [point to slide]. We will be speaking in this order; do note that, unfortunately for you, I and not Laura Aull will be reading her paper—outlining a project shared between her and Valerie Ross—as she is unable to make it today. She will be here tomorrow. [Change slide] Note also that the roundtable participants here are all a part of a special issue on the same topic for the journal Pedagogy. There are others in the issue not present here. The issue is coming out in early 2020, and much of what we are sharing here today will be published in longer form soon. Be on the lookout, if you’re interested. [change slide]

To frame this roundtable, I’d like to contend that while our field might have relative consensus in the belief that there simply is no teaching without ideology—indeed that ideology is inherently inescapable—there is ample room for conversation about the degrees to which we make our commitments and political affiliations transparent and what role these diverse approaches play in the larger conversation of public perception of higher education and the changing forms of student resistance and teacher disclosure. Despite the fixation of public stakeholders on the seemingly elusive goal of teacher neutrality, we posit that the question is not, “Should teaching be neutral?”—since neutrality itself is a performative stance (Kopelson 2003) and an epistemic impossibility that masks the teacher-student power relationships (Roberts-Miller 2006)—but more directly about disclosure: “How much of our own ideological allegiances do we make evident to our students, and what are the reasons we give?”—to our students, to our communities, to ourselves. To address these questions is to articulate the valences of pedagogical transparency in the shifting landscapes of higher education and politics, which increasingly call for investigation into just such revelations. This roundtable, then, presents six distinct performative pedagogical practices or possibilities—hence, “staging”—based on specific classroom or campus cases. Our goal is to further define the contours, nuances, and ramifications of ideological transparency in the contexts, scenes, and moments where our field’s previous discussions of disclosure, resistance, and performativity might not provide enough flexibility.


Kristopher Lotier

I might mention that my family has lived continuously in the same valley in Southeast Pennsylvania for fourteen generations. I might tell you that I spent a summer cleaning school buses and eight months on a meat-packing assembly line. I might casually let it drop that I was a first-generation, full-time college student but a third-generation meat-packer. I could tell you that I’m from a historically isolated community near the shores of the Indian Creek, that I went to Indian Valley Middle School and Indian Crest Junior High, played youth sports for the Renegades, the Braves, the Indians. I could tell you that there’s a still a lot of prejudice in the valley where my ancestors rest, but I won’t because I know what you’d do with that information. Because, you see, the prejudice that exists there is—but isn’t only—what you’d imagine.

I was in my teens the first time I really realized that facts don’t have transparent meanings. When I first met my friend Sarah, she told me she was a direct descendant of both John and John Quincy Adams. And so, I imagined her as noble, genteel, almost regal. But, you see, people in my valley have a very particular prejudice toward certain people who aren’t from the valley. A ridgeline forms our northern horizon, and we say that anyone who lives beyond it lives “above the ridge.” That’s our dog whistle for calling them those people or country bumpkins or hicks. It’s the urban-rural divide, writ small, in a town of 9,000 people. The first time I went to Sarah’s house, her mom turned toward the ridge, then drove past it, then kept going. And I had to realize, then, that the way I was making sense of the facts was contradictory. Some canceled-out others.

Now, I’m hardly the first to point out that Westernized notions of truth rely on ocular or visual metaphors: clarity, transparency, perspicuity. If the truth were indeed clear and transparent, layering facts on top of one another wouldn’t produce any sort of distortion. Still, as every good rhetorician knows, every way of seeing is a way of not seeing, every reflection both a selection and a deflection. Truths don’t just illumine; they also distract—a point that our metaphors of clarity and transparency and perspicuity tend to make us forget. And, more to the point, there’s a ridgeline separating a fact from its meaning, a statement from its interpretation. You can see one from the other, but there’s more than one road connecting them.

When we ask what a thing means, we’re always asking for something below the surface. We want another layer, another dimension, what we can sense but not see, whatever lingers just beyond our line of sight. When my friend Sarah told me about her Presidential ancestors, she offered a transparently true statement. But, when I saw her house above the ridge, I also learned something transparently true. Even so, independently transparent facts became opaque in combination. I couldn’t see through them. I wasn’t even sure what I was looking for, anymore.

The word fact, it’s worth remembering, comes from the Latin: facturus, a past particle, meaning having been made. Facts aren’t just true; they’re inherently constructed. We make them in the moment we interpret quote/unquote realities, and so our facts are never so clear as we might wish they were. We think that they’re truths, but Nietzsche might call them “illusions about which we have forgotten that they are illusions.”

As this presentation pertains to this panel, let me say: I think we should be honest with our students. But, I don’t think that transparency is attainable or worth striving toward—precisely because different people will interpret—that is, produce—different facts in different ways. If you saw Sarah’s parents’ house, you’d see a perfectly nice, middle-class home overlooking a valley. You might even say it looks down on the valley—a spatial metaphor for social prestige: topographical elevation as indicator of class-standing. The first time I saw it, I saw something else instead, because I saw their real estate through my own prejudices, which I’ll cop to.

And so, here’s the moral: in these polarized times, in which certain facts can feel explosive, I think that we can make strategic use of overlapping, honest statements. Students who might react negatively, even viscerally to some aspects of who we are might feel a change of heart, maybe even a change of mind, to other aspects. There’s no formula for this, of course. One can only ever guess at others’ interpretive strategies. But here we might remember another etymology. Pouring two things together so that they become one is what the verb to confuse once meant. In grammatical terms, you used to confuse direct objects. These days, the dictionary definitions of confuse include “to make something more complex or less easy to understand,” which retains that older sense, and “to cause someone to become bewildered or perplexed,” which replaces the direct object with the indirect. If confusing elements of ourselves leads to confusing some of our students about who we are, I can see all sorts of reasons why that might be a productive result. You can be honest without being transparent. Sometimes honesty is the most confusing thing.

I’ve told you how I like to see myself, how I’ve always seen myself: salt of the earth, a man of the people. Six months ago, reasonably well into my thirties, I learned that one of my ancestors was the first representative from Montgomery County to the Pennsylvania congress. What’s more, he voted to ratify the Constitution. I still don’t know what to make of those truths, how to make them facts about myself. If we aren’t transparent to ourselves, and I don’t think any of us fully is, it seems needless to worry about being transparent to each other. As if we even could be.


Karen Kopelson | Teaching Argument in the Age of Trump

It seems clear from today’s vantage point that the academic left has played no small role in the arrival our “post-truth” moment, where eerily familiar sounding postmodernist notions such “alternative facts” flow into the mainstream, with force and with power, from the mouths of right wing zealots in order to deny undeniable visual and numerical evidence. I am hardly the first or most renowned academic to comment on the disturbing link between postmodern truisms about the impossibility, variability, or constructedness of fact and “truth” and the right wing inanities we are subjected to today. As early as 1999, Stanley Fish warned of the right’s canny ability both to “segment[] reality” and “[hijack] the magic words,” coopting the vocabulary of the left in service of oppositional agendas (309, 312). Five years later, in his oft-cited “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam: From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” Bruno Latour fretted over his culpability in promoting the general postmodern academic sentiment “that there is no unmediated, unbiased access to truth,” and questioned especially the premier role he played propagating ideas about the uncertainty and constructedness of scientific fact. “[D]angerous extremists,” he worried then, were now using the same language and arguments to deny “hard- won evidence,” such as that on climate change, “that could save our lives” (qtd. in McIntyre 142). Such linkages have led many—philosophers, journalists, and others—to conclude that “postmodernism [is thus] the godfather of post-truth” (McIntyre 50), a politico-cultural moment, philosopher Lee McIntyre summarizes, wherein truth is not only challenged, but “challenged as a mechanism for asserting political dominance,” and wherein there is widespread challenge not merely to “the idea of knowing reality [in some unmediated form] but to the existence of reality itself” (McIntyre xix; 10).

If compositionists have played a role in propagating postmodern and now post-truth truisms, and I know I have, it has likely been in the antifoundational ways we have gone about teaching argument. Perhaps we have taught argument, as I have, as inquiry into the values and assumptions that undergird or produce differently held “truths,” for example. Perhaps we have gone to great lengths to demonstrate the manipulability and malleability of evidence, and even “data,” all along the way to teaching that “there is no field of knowledge in which ‘facts’ emerge unencumbered by values,” but rather, like and as part of our “points of view [,] come from somewhere,” reflecting the “lenses [we] choose to hold up to reality” (Brent 1996: 83)

These last few statements I’ve read—about teaching students that facts emerge from values and as reflections of our lenses on reality—could apply to any number of ways of teaching argument, but are quotations from a 1996 essay on Rogerian Rhetoric by Doug Brent, subtitled, “Ethical Growth Through Alternative Forms of Argumentation.” Certainly, the time may seem right in today’s toxic and divisive politico-discursive climate to renew our commitments to teaching alternative, kinder, gentler forms of argumentation, such as Rogerian Rhetoric, which, as Brent points out, asks and teaches students to imagine themselves into the “entire worldview” that allows another to hold views different from their own, thus getting students closer to understanding the roots of difference (78; 87). Yet I maintain that if we want to renew our commitment to promoting ethical growth through the teaching of argumentation, the time is righter still to renew our commitment to the real—to the notion that there is a shared, objective, accessible reality out there—and I maintain that we can do this by reinvigorating the discourses of “unbiased truth” and fact, even if –and this is important—we (still) don’t quite believe in such concepts or entities.

Bruce McComiskey, in his slim volume, Post-Truth Rhetoric and Composition, makes a similar claim, writing that our teaching “can accomplish the reassertion of truth and reality into the epistemological continuum, even if our own . . . commitments are with reasoned opinions and sound arguments, not truth” (41). McComiskey suggests that we pursue this reassertion directly—transparently—by “teach[ing] post-truth rhetoric [itself] as unethical language” (43), focusing on the “rhetorical qualities of the fake news genre,” for example, and “how these qualities effect persuasion without any connection to truth or reality” (41). Yet, as I always have, I worry that such a direct, transparent pedagogical approach will only cause at least some students—perhaps those we most want to reach—to dig in their heels and resist what is a too transparently political (leftist) agenda, and that we must again and instead find more indirect, cunning ways to reassert truth and reality into our classrooms, our assignments, and hopefully in some small way back into the epistemological and political continuum.

One teeny tiny way I’ve tried to do this is through a conventional “classical argument” assignment in English 101. My goal in the classical argument assignment is to encourage students in their abilities to articulate their own claims and reasoning—research, or joining a conversation, is not required. Except, this past semester I required that students do research if and when their arguments, on an issue of their choosing, led them organically to need to substantiate claims of fact. So, for example, if a student were making an argument on lowering the drinking age to 18, she would need to produce data in support of any causal claim that auto-fatalities would or would not increase as a result of such a measure, or for any statements whatsoever about the effects of alcohol consumption on adolescent brain development. Conversely, she could rely on her own reasoning to argue the claim of value and policy that anyone who is able to vote and die for their country should also be able to drink legally. Though this is hardly a foolproof assignment and students might gather various “alternative facts” about the drinking age and auto fatalities, for example, I believe the assignment nonetheless forces students to distinguish among claims they can make in the absence of factual evidence, and claims they cannot, and works to rehabilitate respect for the authority and necessity of evidence. The assignment, moreover, is purposely apolitical; it feigns innocence, as it feigns the simple, common-sense belief—which needs to be restored as such—that facts and reality exist, not as we construct them, but as we find them, and that it’s our responsibility to search them out.


Dan Richards | Response: The Consequences of Our Decisions

Now, if you wanted me to come in as respondent and answer the question, “OK, cool, so what the hell do you guys exactly mean by transparency,” you will be disappointed. (And as a good Canadian, I apologize.) I had in actuality originally planned to move you even further away from an answer to this question and spend this response time doing a little more deconstructive work on the very term transparency and all of its powers and pitfalls. For I, like Kris, read transparency and all of its ocular-ness as an imperfect metaphor (but then again, what is?) that at its best masks the messy confusing that takes place within our knowledge-building and at its worse tries to encourage the belief that relentlessly applying Windex until one’s skin cracks will change the nature of a translucent plane of glass. Transparency, as an epistemic metaphor, is limited.

But in practice, as you have just heard, transparency, in these six cogent essays and in our field’s history, connects to very real decisions we make relating to our “selves,” our students, and our curricula. Collectively our roundtable has posed many distinct but related questions: How much do we engage in personal disclosure of our multiple selves? How do we respond to student disclosure? How explicit are we in the intentions of our learning objectives and project designs? In our intentions as cultural workers? How forthright and honest are we to our students in our relationship to controversial campus events? To our colleagues about our missteps and culpability in the current state of affairs? To ourselves about the pedagogical consequences of our decisions as they relate to learning, classroom trust, and the perceptions of our profession? These questions are distinct because some have to do with our decisions to divulge our politics while others about unmasking the hidden curricula. These questions are related in that they all connect to an umbrella concept—what we’re referring to as transparency—that strikes at the heart of our conversations about honesty and performativity in the teaching profession.

After listening to these intelligent essays and in reading the work done on disclosure (and all its seductiveness [Michelle Bailiff]), disability (and all its revealing-ness [Stephanie Kerschbaum]), neutrality (and all of its impossible-ness [Kopelson]), student resistance (and all of its tragic-ness [Trimbur]), performativity (and all of its safeness), and power (and all of its unfairness), I find myself yearning for something more, a practical way forward, a shift towards thinking about the consequences of choosing to or not to self-disclose, of choosing to be transparent or not. Like James and Karen, I am not interested in drawing any more demarcations between my own decisions about disclosure and those of my colleagues. I am interested in the ramifications of our decisions for our students and their learning, particularly, as Dana and Anne have argued, as it relates to their psychosocial development. Transparency might not ever be fully understood, but that doesn’t mean its effects shouldn’t be.

I often think of other jobs and their relationship to transparency. I think of journalists, of judges, of our expectations that they suspend transparency and avoid disclosure for the sake of their work, that they are beholden to larger code or ethic that exists outside of them but that directs their actions on a daily basis. I myself am appalled when I read stories about judges clearly using their own politics to decide cases, all the while knowing full well that nothing or no one can be apolitical. I am disappointed when journalists fail to fairly cover a critical story, letting their own prejudices get in the way, even though I realize that no event can be interpreted in such a neutral fashion. So, while epistemically I know that judges and journalists can never be neutral arbiters of justice or juice, respectively, I still expect them to keep their disclosures tight to their vests, to not clearly advocate for one politician over another. So, I often think: what is our profession’s relationship to these? Our work too serves a critical social function and is publicly subsidized (for now) so we have an obligation to think about what others need, socially speaking. I think: Is my disappointment in judges and journalists who betray their post the same disappointment students have when I do mine? And then also the necessary follow-up question: What is our post and what does it mean to betray it? The Society for Professional Journalists has a Code of Ethics, encouraging taking responsibility for accuracy and truth. The American Bar Association has a Model Code of Judicial Conduct stressing impartiality. Accuracy and truth and impartiality are all epistemically impossible, we might argue, but there are real expectations that in practice the professionals in these fields strive towards these ideals.

And what do we have? What is our Code of Ethics in higher education? (I say higher education because K-12 districts have their own policies about political neutrality.) Honestly, part of me loves what we do because we don’t really have one. If we’re in the privileged pockets of academia, there are soft guidelines and rough approximations of what all commonly see as our mission, but much less so than other professions, and perhaps most importantly, much less understood than other professions. The controversy of campus speakers. The dilemmas of disclosure. The ideology of argument. The epistemological motives of our teaching. The unintended consequences of our dissociation with certain definitions of truth. These are all connected by and connected to one main oft-cited but not often understood code of practice: academic freedom. Our code is our lack of one.

But do our students know this? Coming from K-12 settings where there are actively enforced policies against teacher political transparency, are they aware that we are free to write about and teach about what we please (again, assuming privilege)? Do their orientations include a section on academic freedom and our rights to engage in it? Do first-year instructors provide a preamble to the history of the AAUP? Is addressing this lack part of attending to the development of our students, as Anne and Dana argue? Is it part of Karen’s call for a recommitment to truth? How might the consequences of our decisions to disclose be different if students had a more robust understanding of academic freedom? And what that means for teaching and political involvement?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. I really don’t. I am curious though how this might align with Gwen Gorzelsky’s work (CCC 61:1, 2009) on how giving students more agency tempered the amount of their resistance—to the course and the professor. In addition to openly discussing academic freedom and all of its history and tenuousness, can we also make it transparent that students themselves are participants in the ecology of academic freedom? And that they themselves have a very real stake in whether or not it is sustained? How much of our issues are experienced because of this disconnect? I don’t want to position this pedagogical move simply as a way to assuage student resistance. I want to position this this move as a way to demystify and perhaps deflate the bloated conflict. Do students know that a professor’s decision to be forthright with their partisanship and another’s not to does not create a binary of neutrality or non-neutrality in which one is right but indicates instead the complex relationship each teacher in higher education has to the idea of academic freedom and the epistemologies of their discipline, and even sub-discipline? And if they don’t might we bring them along on this wild ride?

My lone argument here is thus: that we definitely continue to work at the sites and scenes of the cases discussed before me but that, perhaps, rendering the larger concept of academic freedom transparent will mitigate some issues we experience when rendering ourselves transparent.