Memory and Identity: Reflections on Villanueva’s Memoria

Victor Villanueva’s Memoria serves as a reminder that identity should be respected and preserved in the strategies employed to teach diverse students the academically preferred Standard American English privileged in the college classroom. Primary among his arguments, Villanueva makes a case for the role of cultural memory as a method for grounding self, ensuring preservation of primary dialects, and reinserting pathos into an academic discourse sterilized by logos and tempered by ethos (571). This particular point of argument seems to respond to the concern raised by Johns that acquiring the academic identity often alienates learners from their “primary Discourse,” as Gee would describe it (Gee 8), and makes communicating with family and friends (the community of origin) difficult (Johns 512). This exchange of one identity for another, Villanueva seems to suggest, is not only unnecessary but also a violation of the self as it relates “to others,” that it becomes a mechanism of excising the one from the many, not only socially and intellectually but also culturally and historically (577). This process also exacerbated reciprocally, as “the personal [is] made public and the public personalized,” which Villanueva describes as the “political explored through the experiential” (568-569).   Learners assimilating the language of power, he argues, should not have to abandon tradition and memory as homage to hegemonic institutions. They should, instead, be encouraged to embrace their cultural “context,” praise “collective” identity (575), and “reclaim memory” (570).

I am enamored with Villanueva’s essay not only because I appreciate the application of Gramscian theory and Villanueva’s intriguing amalgamation of creative and academic genres, but because I believe in the power of narrative as a tool for collecting and forwarding meaningful human experiences (our memories in our individual voices) and as an effective strategy for teaching writing. I’m sure a few orality literacy theorists like Ong might agree that narrative is at the heart of memory.   In his book Orality and Literacy, Ong seconds Robert Wood’s assertion that “the power of memory… enabled [Homer] to produce his poetry” (19). Poetry, in other words, was the vehicle for memory delivery. Even an argument, the logos Villanueva states “is insufficient,” is a story of the reasons why someone believes something or supports something or disagrees with something (571). The facts that bolster such positions also constitute a series of events or insights (and even metrics) that rely on the memory of a narrative to which an audience can relate to succeed in persuasion. This might be part of the reason Peter Elbow insists on students drafting first in their “mother tongue” (643).

Of course, language conventions and the people who enforce them have a tendency to keep marginalized people in disadvantaged positions. I am reminded of Wangari Maathai’s book The Challenge for Africa, which relates the story of a postcolonial Africa still struggling to free itself physically, economically, and psychologically from the oppression of the European and American imperial masters, who still control much of the continent surreptitiously by means of generating dependency through high interest rate loans and ill-conceived philanthropy. So embedded are the hierarchical and racial systems, Wangari contends, that the story of many Africans (and this certainly is the case for marginalized people in America as well) is one of a “cracked mirror,” one shaped by colonialism and distorted according to the oppressors’ indoctrination of the self (34). No wonder “African Americans in particular continue to be angry even after having crossed over to the other side” (Villanueva 574). They assume an identity of a system responsible for erasing their memory.

These things considered, I am curious about the following questions:

Question 1: In terms of applying Villanueva’s theory, what does “inviting” Memoria “into our classrooms” look like (578)?

Question 2: Given the layers of racism and social stratification forming much of the foundation of educational institutions in this country, is there legitimate space adequate enough for Villanueva’s Memoria in the classroom?

References

Elbow, Peter. “Inviting the Mother Tongue: Beyond ‘Mistake,’ ‘Bad English,’ and ‘Wrong Language.’” Cross-Talk in Comp Theory, 3rd Ed. Eds. Victor Villanueva and Kristin L. Arola. Urbana, Illinois: National Council of Teachers of English. 2011. 641-672. Print.

Gee, James Paul. “Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics: Introduction.” Journal of Education 171.1 (1989): Boston University. 5-17. Print.

Johns, Ann M. “Discourse Communities and Communities of Practice: Membership, Conflict, and Diversity.” Text, Role, and Context: Developing Academic Literacies. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge UP, 1997. 51-70. Print.

Maathai, Wangari. The Challenge for Africa. New York: Anchor Books, 2009. Print.

Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy. New York: Routledge, 1982. Print.

Villanueva, Victor. “Memoria is a Friend of Ours: On the Discourse of Color.” Cross-Talk in Comp Theory, 3rd Ed. Eds. Victor Villanueva and Kristin L. Arola. Urbana, Illinois: National Council of Teachers of English. 2011. 555-566. Print.

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2 thoughts on “Memory and Identity: Reflections on Villanueva’s Memoria

  1. Massimo, With regard to your second question, I have no real answer, but just wanted to throw out there that it’s the same one I struggle with when talking not only about students of “non-standard” dialects, but also with “basic writers” and ELL students. As I made clear in class last time, I’m super concerned with the privileging/othering that happens when we “standardize” anything (especially language).

    If I’m being honest, I’d have to say, no, I don’t think there’s adequate space for what either Elbow or Villanueva discuss as of yet (and it’s a shame) simply because of the prejudices that still linger in institutions of higher education. That said, I think work like Villanueva/Elbow’s chips away at that prejudice and hopefully, someday, we can actually get to a space wherein the practices these scholars espouse are supported not only by the wide-eyed and idealistic, but by those in positions of power as well. Time will tell, right?

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