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WAW for Occupied Campuses

posted: 11.30.11 by Elizabeth Wardle and Douglas Downs

Downs pic for BitsDoug

I don’t know exactly the place the UC Davis gassing might have in a writing-about-writing course, but I think it has one, and so I’m thinking about that moment as I write this post, four days after the event.

I’m thinking about it in the framework of Cory Doctorow’s young-adult novel Little Brother, which I’m also musing about finding a place for in my WAW courses. Its scene is a post-911 dystopia created by Department of Homeland Security uber-surveillance in the name of public safety. There are a number of chilling scenes, including a youth gathering being gassed for failing to disperse on command. (You can see why it came to mind.) Little Brother opens with the Bay Bridge being blown up by terrorists. The teenage protagonist is arrested because he was skipping school and was swept up by police in the chaos. Taken to a secret DHS detention facility, he refuses to divulge the password for his smart phone, which provokes a harsh reaction. His friends, also arrested, say, “’They really hated you… really had it in for you. Why?’”  They conclude, “It had been sheer vindictiveness….A mere punishment for denying their authority….They did it to get back at me for mouthing off.’”

Watch Officer Pike and comrade elect to gas these students, who said, simply, “No.” They gassed the students purely and simply for their quiet, simple refusal to obey. They gassed the students not to disperse them, which did not require pepper spray at two feet, but because the students could not be allowed to win. Don’t mistake me as arguing that Pike did anything “wrong.” By definition, by the rules of police procedure approved by the appointees of elected officials, this is an authorized response to noncompliance in a crowd-control situation. It’s the very definition of “by the book.” The students’ point, of course, is that “the book” sucks—and that only by watching the living definition of the book will the rest of us come to know this. They make us ask, by what right, again, do the policy makers of our worlds (almost always different from elected legislators) get to abridge the First Amendment right to peaceable assembly for redress of grievances?

So, I am thinking about what a WAW course does in a world where, in the words of Davis faculty member Nathan Brown, police “forcefully disperse student protesters peacefully protesting police brutality.”

I’m thinking about whether, and how, WAW teaches students to speak truth to power. Whether, and how, it teaches rhetoric—not grade-school logos-ethos-pathos rhetoric, but, as I wrote on one of my course Web sites, “passion, defiance, judgment, reasoning, guilt, frustration, thought, and language . . . people trapped by their principles and the interplay of those principles, those deep values.” Whether, and how, it teaches students to read and to write those moments where moral authority shifts, where audience-rhetors become speaker-rhetors, where bodies become rhetoric. I’m thinking about all those cameras, and where recording stops and writing begins when “everyone is the media.”

I’m thinking that it’s time to imagine something along the lines of “WAW for Occupiers.” What would that course teach? What would be its readings? What would students research and write? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

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Categories: Campus Issues, Writing about Writing
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One Response to “WAW for Occupied Campuses”

  1. Genevieve Critel Says:

    Doug, The final assignment I did in my WAW course this quarter was based off the Students’ Rights prompt in the textbook and I have to say this seems like an access point for historicizing social movements and the ways in which our professional organizations engage and respond to those movements. It’s been a really interesting assignment and I wish I had a few more weeks to ask them how they think CCC should be responding to this current politically charged moment.