The CEA Forum
Summer/Fall 2008: 37.2
Welch, Nancy. Living Room: Teaching Public Writing in a Privatized World. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 2008.
by Brittany Cottrill, Bowling Green State University
Nearly thirty years ago, compositionists across the country began to take up what scholars such as John Trimbur, Susan Wells, and others consider a “social turn” in the teaching of writing. Instructors began to ask their students to no longer focus on the front of the classroom but instead turn their eyes to what was happening outside the classroom door. Scholars called for teaching students to write to “real audiences” with the intention of reaching those audiences; writing was transformed into a social act often intended to provoke change. While scholars such as Bruce Herzberg have questioned the possibility of “going public,” Nancy Welch takes up this issue again and reexamines the necessity of taking a “social turn” in the context of a different space and time.
In her 2008 book, Living Room: Teaching Public Writing in a Privatized World, Welch brings together a reflective account of history and anecdotal evidence to explore how the ideas of public and private spaces impact our lives, our writing, and our teaching. The book is driven by two goals: first to draw attention to teaching public writing once again, and second to further the movement of “locating rhetorical history not only in canonized figures and elite institutions but also among itinerant teachers, lecture-circuit reforms, African American abolitionists and civil rights leaders, and working-class college curricula” (5). Using an understanding of both delivery and memory, Welch looks at the privatization of public issues, “living room” (often familial) issues, and campus issues, returning time and again to a continual undercurrent of who can say what and where they can say it.
Welch situates her book by calling attention to the thin line that is being redrawn between public and private spheres. Through the use of new technologies such as YouTube and other social networking websites and blogs, to the implementation of governmental surveillance, Welch argues that discourse that was once considered private is now being released in public spaces, and that the level of “public” is something that writers, scholars, and teachers must comprehend.
At the heart of her argument for teaching public writing, and writing the book, is Welch's activism. In acknowledging her liberal beliefs and reaction and responses to a post-9/11 world of fear, privatization, and surveillance, Welch creates a timely argument for engaging students in real-world issues that they care about but are often afraid to approach. Several times throughout her book Welch touches on an assignment where she asks students to list issues they are concerned about. In that list of concerns are common, global issues (war, economics, health care); rather than pushing for students to look away from such huge topics, Welch calls for a reexamination of these issues on a level where student writers can access as well as share the information. Finding a real audience for projects in the classroom is key to her battle cry for teaching public writing to students. Her use of classroom experiences gives substance and possibility to her call. While the emphasis of the book is clearly not to provide activities or lessons to facilitate the incorporation of public writing in the classroom, her sprinkling of activities married with her extensive use of examples demonstrates the real-world applicability of her call to action.
Though using some highly charged political issues to further her discussion, Welch relies heavily on the use of personal examples to show the contrast between who can speak and what can be said in various spaces. From examples of a personal letter-writing campaign to her insurance company to cover her husband's medical treatment by specialists, to her discussion (or lack thereof) of her birth control choices with her mother, to her time as an eager graduate student, Welch's personal examples highlight the tensions surrounding spaces for specific speech. Her use of examples from her role as daughter, wife, secretary, student, teacher, scholar, citizen and more influence not only the delivery of the intended message, but also evoke Aristotelian memory as a means to truly understand the argument at hand.
Much time is spent on finding a balance between privacy and privatization. Welch says that “[b]ound up with privacy are stories of benefit and protection . . . of exclusion and denial” (43) and that economic privatization complicates and inundates our understanding of privacy which can be seen in all places: the classroom, the living room, gated communities. While never coming across as Orwellian, Welch does draw attention to the spaces deemed appropriate for certain types of speech and challenges those spaces with a nod towards resistance to privatization.
The title of the book comes from June Jordan's 1985 volume of poetry by the same name, as well as the notion that what is said in the living room is private. According to Welch, there are socially accepted spaces where certain topics can be discussed and certain topics cannot be discussed. Returning to the literal living room of her childhood, Welch uses the time her father was laid off as an example; once he came home and said he'd been “canned” the family never spoke of it again. However, Welch challenges the appropriateness of topics from the living room by introducing them into the classroom, and into her book.
At times it's uncomfortable to read the personal examples used to demonstrate the contrast between public and private that Welch is attempting to show, but at the same time that is the point. Educators have expectations of what is supposed to be public and what is supposed to be private, but Welch asks her reader to experience the discomfort in order to see the payoff in the end. She says, “I want that tension between privacy as the boon and privacy as the bane in my classroom and in my scholarship” (43), and she succeeds. In reading through her personal examples, the reader is able to see that what is often considered “private” is in fact intricately intertwined with the public, and that in order to function in a public, privatized world, we must recognize the closeness of public and private spaces.
Though at times it is possible to almost forget that Welch is writing about teaching public writing, she incorporates examples from her teaching to remind the reader of the goal at hand. Including dialogue from and between students, activities used in classes she taught, and projects composed by her students, Welch not only addresses how the public can become a part of the classroom, but also draws attention to the unexpected complications that may arise in such a situation.
Broken down into a combination of five chapters, four interludes, and an epilogue, Welch's compact book looks at the different levels of public and private spaces and the discourses used in each. This creates a basis for understanding the public sphere, allows for the discussion of what social mores deem appropriate and inappropriate speech in these spaces, and examines activism, classroom reflection, and questions of authority. Acting as a unifying thread are examples of post-9/11 rhetoric portrayed by mass media, by politicians, and citizens. Though this recurrent thread works as a means to unify the book, the interludes sandwiched between chapters one through four work to transition into the play off of personal, and at times “private,” examples from the author's life.
As a politically savvy and active feminist, Welch brings to the table an interesting blend of examples to create a call for teaching public writing. While based largely in personal experience and personal political stances, Welch's book provides interesting insight into how we communicate. The title indicates that the book is geared towards teaching writing, but the usefulness of the book reaches well beyond members of the English department. While useful for traditional teachers of writing, the book is also clearly geared towards other disciplines throughout humanities departments where teachers ask students to write and think critically about issues important to them and their world. At the same time, the book seems to focus more on communication itself rather than just the teaching of writing. Scholars interested in public-sphere issues, political activism, and the use of the personal in scholarship will benefit from the book as well. While her clear political stance may at times be overwhelming, the attention she calls to who can speak in certain spaces and what they can say is important.
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