Ci/ypher Circle for Science and Technical Literacy

This week, I’m adding to a post I put up in class last week as I was finally able to fully read Edwards and Del Hierro and reconsider my possibly errant spelling of “cypher.” Del Hierro uses “cipher,” and that’s preferred, but “cypher” is not wrong. According to some, cypher is reminiscent of the “y” in “cyber,” which might make sense for me and our project, given that we’ve been circulating ciphers through a Massive Open Online Collaborative, as described below. What I’m wondering, though, given Del Hierro’s discussion, does the move from “i” to “y” ignore a pre-digital history of cipher circles or re-write this traditional African American rhetorical practice in the same way that Hass notes that digital rhetorics subsume predigital, indigenous practices of hypertext in beadwork that are pre-colonial ways of communicating technical information? Is i/y or i(y)holding onto a syncretic tension or just being too Vic Vitanza?

What I found particularly useful in Edwards was the breakdown of the five key tenants of Critical Race Theory: ordinariness, interest convergence, social constructionism, differential radicalization, and legal storytelling (383-384). Ordinariness is, I think, linked to the everyday experiences of people of color as they encounter microaggressions in language, representation, relationships, and the built environment. As Edwards notes, what keeps this system of oppression going is that whites benefit from the oppression, a phenomenon that I know too well growing up as a rural, poor, white southerner who remembers hearing, “At least we ain’t Black!” We know that race is a social construction, having no basis in biological science, but we invent it to serve our interests, to deny privilege, to mark difference, to mark boundaries and to create segregated and unequal societies.

But what happens once we know? Is knowing enough? The last tenant of CRT moves use from an interpretive frame to a productive frame as people of color are called to speak about their experiences and interrupt the single and stock stories of living in a non-white body. As a white ally, I wonder, then, what role I can play in this schema? Is there one?  Is teaching storytelling for social justice (Bell, 2006) part of this work? Is providing tools and technologies for digital storytelling in my classroom a way to make room for emerging and transformative stories? What can I do to amplify people of color’s voices in technical communication, or in other civic contexts?

This brings me to Del Hierro’s chapter and the discussion we had last week about cultural appropriation versus culturally-sensitive pedagogies. I don’t think these are binaries, in fact, I think they are parts of the same spectrum. Anytime we teach, we are appropriating culturally-specific ways of sharing and building knowledge. The traditional academic lecture is rooted in Medieval  University culture, a culture in which wealthy, white, male Europeans were invited into the inner sanctum of academe. When we teach with those methods, taking a page from Dr. Frost’s chapter, we should make our cultural appropriation just as apparent as when we teach with Hip Hop Pedagogies, making visible the history, the people, the bodies, and the labors built particular rhetorics of learning. Then we have to get critical– whose interests do these knowledge making protocols serve? How? A critical pedagogy would not ignore the ways that black women artists such as Lil’ Kim have always been second class in the hip hop nation, a condition that  Elaine Richardson writes about in Hip Hop Literacies. Don’t get me wrong, I love Del Hierro’s chapter, but his examplars–Afrika Bambattaa, Jay Z, Notorious B.I.G–are all male, and a critical approach would consider how all hip hop artists — Salt N’ Pepper or Lil’ Kim or Missy Elliott or Ms. Lauryn Hill–communicate technical information, including information about sex, sexual violence, and the everyday oppression of women.

Finally, I’ll end with the videos I shared last week. You’ll in the videos below that our spoken word poets from our Year One programming are all male, and I was adamant that we remix demographics in Year Two, brining two female poets into the mix. Katherine and Jha’ have brought so much to our work, and I’m reminded of Edwards’ call to reject color-blindness as we work hard to achieve what Mellody Hobson calls Color Boldness, working purposefully to surround ourselves with a diversity of bodies with radically different experiences. As Del Hierro calls on Anzuldua and hooks to move beyond racial diversity to gender, sexuality, socio-economic status, (dis) ability, etc., we should work to surround ourselves with a diversity of expression of the human (cyborg?) form, always paying attention to the power dynamics that limit some people’s expressions and ability to live a full and autonomous life.

From last week…

Here’s one of the videos we (Tar River Writing Project Teachers, The Poetry Project and Sacrificial Poets, and NC Museum of Nat Sci Scientists) made last year when we first started this NSF-funded project to use culturally-responsive practices to build science literacy. We went on a “bio blitz” of the area, documenting life forms using the iNaturalist citizen science app, getting help identifying species. Then we came together to share what we observed and learned, webbing our knowledge together through the cypher circle. This process got remixed over the course of a few weeks as teachers and students took up this rhetorical form to share what they were learning about their own environments, building an approach to hyperlocal environmental justice.

So check it out, and if anybody wants to propose to an ATTW panel about African/ AA rhetorical practices for communicating scientific and technical communication, HMU!

Also, this massive open online science collaboration is ongoing through the end of April, so lurk in or join and make some noise. The splash page for the collaboration is here.

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