A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

A Review Toward a New Rhetoric of Difference by Stephanie Kerschbaum

Stephanie Kerschbaum, Toward a New Rhetoric of Difference by Stephanie Kerschbaum (National Council of Teachers of English, 2014)

Stephanie R. Larson, University of Wisconsin-Madison

(Published, October 11, 2017)

The rhetorical environment surrounding the 2016 presidential election was unprecedented. Assumptions of “fake news” generated public debate concerning the validity of evidence and what counts as a “fact.” Increased international diaspora occurred alongside thickening national borders. Mainstream U.S. audiences confronted a dark reality of racism and the failure to understand difference at the nexus of geography, class, gender, religion, and race. These crises of representation, belonging, and identification overwhelmed public dialogues and continue today. While American publics struggle to move forward in the face of division, writing studies scholars have been left to grapple with the impact of our current political atmosphere on students and writing classrooms. How composition pedagogy proceeds amid this aftermath feels like an open question, yet Stephanie L. Kerschbaum’s Toward a New Rhetoric of Difference provides a useful place to start.

Toward a New Rhetoric of Difference contributes to recent scholarly investigations into institutional racism and questions of diversity in higher education by considering how students define themselves and their identities within institutional settings. Kerschbaum resists static categories of diversity that, as she says, “fix” one’s identity and instead examines how difference emerges within a rhetorically situated context—in this case, the composition classroom. Her study takes place at a large, Midwestern research university, which she calls Midwestern University (MU), and is uniquely situated at a time when the institution itself was wrestling with issues of difference and diversity on its own campus. Her robust dataset includes institutional documents regarding MU’s diversity agenda in addition to materials gathered from first-year composition classrooms such as recorded class sessions, peer review workshops, student demographics, interviews with the teacher, and interviews with four focal students. Guided by the tenets of grounded theory and critical discourse analysis, Kerschbaum theorizes difference as an analytic, a lens that seeks to understand the emerging and interactional processes of coming-to-know the self in a rhetorically situated context—a method that moves beyond the more traditional tools of identity politics or intersectional analysis. Through this new approach to understanding difference, Kerschbaum conceptualizes the term “markers of difference” and asks composition scholars and teachers to “cultivate awareness of new details, interpret and reinterpret those details, and contextualize them within specific moments of writing, teaching, and learning” (15). Findings demonstrate how students frequently mark themselves and others within specific, contextual interactions which are influenced by ideological, institutional forces that seek to claim diversity as a goal or value. In the age of rising austerity politics, this book—also the winner of the 2015 CCCC Advancement of Knowledge Award—has much to offer instructors today who may be wrestling with difference in renewed ways while universities continue marketing diversity as a product of their education. 

The book moves from a macro exploration of the institutional forces at work in MU’s institutional documents on diversity to the micro interactions between students in the classroom. Chapter 1 explores the marketization of diversity from MU’s perspective and acutely identifies who those discourses typically benefit. Kerschbaum argues that such discourses “reify and commodify race-ethnic differences” where some identities are seen as more “desirable property” to institutions (32). These discourses, Kerschbaum maintains, operate through neoliberal logics that produce “classification systems [which] perpetuate ways of organizing people,” as opposed to combating inequality (41). Identifying how the university maintains its own interests while masquerading under the guise of “diversity” demonstrates a contradiction to the democratic values central to liberal arts education and civic participation. This groundwork forms a necessary foundation for Kerschbaum’s overall argument; however, if you have read Sara Ahmed’s work On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life, which she draws considerably upon, this chapter will feel quite familiar. 

While these discourses permeate higher education settings through institutional messaging and marketing, teachers are often left wondering what the “lived experience of difference” is for students, which is where Kerschbaum turns in chapter 2 (26). Drawing from Bakhtin, Kerschbaum disrupts notions of diversity as property by redefining it through the qualities of dynamism, emergence, and relationality. She conceptualizes her term “markers of difference” within this chapter as “contextually embedded rhetorical cues that signal the presence of difference between one or more interlocutors,” locating how such markings “can bridge the conceptual gap between knowledge about difference and interactional involvement with difference” (67). Her ethical attention to the changing dynamics of the self witnessed and experienced by students in writing classrooms—especially those in first year contexts—impressively captures the following core tenet often shared by scholars in this field: “when people write and read, they wrestle with not just texts but also with selves” (67). 

After outlining her rhetorical approach to difference, the latter two chapters analyze close interactions among students to demonstrate how markers of difference play out in the classroom. Chapter 3 nuances Mary Louise Pratt’s concept of the “contact zone” to include rhetorical agency when examining the role of negotiation in communicative interactions. Kerschbaum attunes analysis to the way students disagree and tell stories about themselves by looking to an interaction during a writing workshop among two Southeast Asian women and one White woman. Through close conversation analysis, Kerschbaum cleverly shows how conversations about comma placement and conclusions illuminate questions of personal identity and rhetorical agency that invoke students’ writing backgrounds. The goal of chapter 3 importantly illustrates how difference emerges and reemerges in classroom interactions with others as opposed to pre-determined categories that assume knowledge of a student. Understanding how and why students mark themselves, Kerschbaum submits, “can enhance the way we understand the effects of contact with others” (81). Teachers will find most useful her ability to capture how concerns for power and difference undergird rhetorical agency as demonstrated in close student conversations about writing. Kerschbaum guides writing teachers to defy simplistic, categorical notions of diversity and recognize how difference arises in our classrooms beyond topical conversations about diversity. 

If chapter 3 locates the performative capacities of markers of difference and the possibilities they offer in writing classrooms, chapter 4 examines the darker realities that can be uncovered when students attempt to mark identity differences before others. Kerschbaum turns to classroom moments during another peer review conversation between a White woman and a White man who fail to understand the differences between their identity markers during a conversation about an “if-then” clause concerning gay-bashing and sports. While the male student’s self-identification as gay could have informed Kerschbaum’s reading of the conversation, she convincingly describes how these students ignore the complexity of identity at work as they seek to mark themselves. Kerschbaum then returns to the same group examined in chapter three to show how they, too, dismiss others’ markers of identity through a question about thesis statements posed by one Southeast Asian woman in the group. Even though Kerschbaum’s theory of markers of difference provides important contributions to writing pedagogy, this chapter particularly demonstrates how “markers of difference can also be painful” and acknowledges “some of the many forms that oppression and resistance can take in everyday interaction” (118, 148). In response, Kerschbaum calls for instructors to make room for what she terms “answerable engagement,” an approach that fosters rhetorical listening strategies demonstrated by Krista Ratcliffe and Katherine Schultz (135). This ethic of listening to those markers can help both instructors and students open the self to other as opposed to foreclosing conversation, especially when charged.

Published through the CCCC Studies in Writing and Rhetoric, Toward a New Rhetoric of Difference follows the series’ style of unfolding an argument across a collection of chapters unique yet intricately linked to one another. It is important for readers to consider Kerschbaum’s chapters together given that each deeply inform one another, building a sustained theoretical discussion of difference across the whole text. While universities frequently position diversity as quantifiable and something that provides value to students through their mere encounters with others different than themselves, Kerschbaum unveils how students experience difference rhetorically within interpersonal negotiation. Calling for flexibility in both listening and speaking, Kerschbaum offers a stark reminder of how institutional voices who proffer diversity creep into our own classrooms—a point developed through her attention to both the macro and micro levels at play. 

The series also affords Kerschbaum opportunities for self-reflexivity as a teacher and researcher, which I found to be some of the strongest moments in this text. While her later work has taken a more explicit focus on disability, the relational model of disability foundational to disability studies provides an important groundwork for how she theorizes difference within this text. In chapter 2 specifically, Kerschbaum examines Ann Jurecic’s work on writing students with autism while also disclosing her own experiences as a deaf woman. She aptly draws a parallel connection between how the specter of medicalization often pathologizes students, inviting instructors to diagnose students, to how instructors might project previous understandings of categorical identities onto students. Like disability scholars who resist and deny biological determinism, Kerschbaum understands how disability—and further all difference—emerges within specific rhetorical contexts and calls upon instructors to share responsibility for accessible communication. I found these moments in the text where Kerschbaum acknowledges her own perspective and the shifts in her own disclosure as some of the most powerful. While Kerschbaum offers an ethical orientation to the teaching of writing that most certainly informs those concerned with teaching inclusively, I would have liked to see more explicit direction for instructors seeking to implement her approach and specific interactions between teachers and students as they took shape in her data. 

Researched roughly a decade ago and published in 2014, Toward a New Rhetoric of Difference eerily resonates with our cultural moment today. We face a new era concerning the politics of representation and the failure to understand perspectives outside of our own. Kerschbaum’s data is arguably born out of an era bolstered by colorblind rhetoric where universities saw the answer to difference as one of marketing integration instead of uprooting inequity. Contemporary conversations seem no longer completely blind to race and ethnicity, and yet, this shift signals less of one of advancement and resembles more a politics of looking rooted in fear and othering. If we take away only one thing from Kerschbaum’s book, it is that composition instructors must resist the impulse to think we know something about our students. Instead, we must come to learn the identities and backgrounds of our students together through open engagement and patient listening to understand, and we must also encourage that same ethic with our students when they move through our classrooms as well as out of them.

Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara. On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Durham: Duke UP, 2012.