MAXWELL:  Language experts will be listening

3/28/1999 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Postmoderns say that language organizes our world by creating our reality.

_ Jean Reynolds, in the journal Teaching English In The Two-Year College

From the outset, Florida’s new governor, Jeb Bush, has shown that, like all good politicians, he is a master at using language to organize the world for voters and to create reality for them. As part of his campaign to revamp public education in the state, Bush convinced many voters that his tuition “vouchers” proposal _ using tax dollars to pay for students to attend private schools _ was benign, and he persuaded lawmakers to pass legislation to that effect.

To prevail, the governor rarely used the term “vouchers” in his campaign discourse. He knew that “vouchers,” weighed down with images of Darwinian elitism and hints of racism, may have cost him too many votes and too much legislative capital. He used, and continues to use, the euphemism “opportunity scholarships,” language that makes the world seem like a brighter place for everyone. After all, what rational adult opposes “opportunity,” especially when it helps children escape public schools that fail to educate them?

Such language and its power to distort meaning to prop up political or ideological agendas concern more people than elected officials. Scholars in the graduate program in rhetoric and composition at the University of South Florida are concerned, too. They study language, especially the ways that words and sentence structure map our thinking, values, emotions and actions at given times on specific subjects.

Lynn Worsham, one of the USF professors whose academic duties revolve around language and literacy, researches and writes about the power of expressions such as “vouchers” and “opportunity scholarships” and their denotations and connotations.

In the past, English departments, including that of USF, focused on having students read, say, an E.B. White essay and write a 500-word essay in response to it. Or students had to write the venerable paper about their summer vacation. Although these practices continue, Worsham and her colleagues, who train future public school teachers and college professors, believe that preparing them to teach merely the “process” of writing is not enough.

“One of the questions that we’re interested in is who sets standards of literacy?” Worsham said. “Whose literacy are we talking about? Is it a kind of white middle-class literacy, a literacy of professional white men, or are there multiple literacies that we need to have access to and be fluent in so that we can move around in the world with success and without too much discrimination?”

Considered one of the nation’s leading feminist theorists, Worsham, 45, wants students to become critical thinkers. “I try to introduce students to the idea that language shapes the world and that what we say matters,” she said. “It’s not just the ideas that get reproduced but the emotional connotation of the ideas.

“So, language has a way of placing us in the world and opening up or circumscribing possibilities. Those possibilities are not only how we think and what we think is possible, but how we feel and how we are placed affectively in the world with others and in relation to ourselves.”

Worsham studies how language transforms events, and she is particularly interested in the relationship between language and violence and emotion. In fact, she believes that violence is the most important public health issue in the world. She wants her students to ask questions about where violence comes from, what perpetuates it and what role language plays in inculcating a way of thinking and feeling that are preconditions for violence.

“Author Toni Morrison, in her Nobel lecture, says that representations of violence are not just representations. They are violence,” says Worsham. “Language has a way of doing violence.

“I mean language in a very broad sense, the language of everyday life, the language that is the foundation of our institutions, the language of pedagogy. How is it that the very ways that we teach do some cultural violence? I’m interested in particular emotions, and I’m interested in shaming rituals and the effects of the constant barrage of shame on the individual at the social level to produce outbursts of a righteous, humiliated rage. Righteousness here doesn’t mean that violence is justified. But you can understand how someone who’s been systematically denigrated over time can just lose it entirely.”

Worhsam’s challenge, along with that of her colleagues in the rhetoric and composition program, is guiding students into the various academic disciplines _ science, ethics, sociology, philosophy, literature, medicine, art, law _ and helping them look at their world and think about it critically, “read” it and write about it. Above all, she wants students to understand that their research is intimately linked to the “real world.”

As such, even though the department’s focus is on theory, the field of rhetoric and composition is increasingly conducting “service learning” programs. Students go into the community to find writing projects, which ensures that their writing will have meaning to them. “Through service, we really are attempting to build bridges between the academy, the workplace, the community, the neighborhood, the church,” Worsham said. “We want students to see that what they do in the academy is relevant to what they do out there in the world full of work.”

USF’s rhetoric and composition program is one of Florida’s best-kept secrets. Scholars everywhere place it among the top five in the nation. It has one of the country’s best records for placing graduates in professorships. And now, with the addition of Worsham, who joined the faculty last year, the program is attracting some of the best graduate students.

“Our program is known as a “theory’ instead of a research program,” said Gary Olson, director of the program. “Our program studies and writes about some of the most important intellectual trends that are going on now across disciplines and their applications for relevance to the questions of written discourse. As one of the foremost theorists in the field, Lynn brings cutting edge theory to the program. She adds significantly to our strengths.”

Indeed, Worsham, a postmodernist with many publications, and her students will be listening to Bush. Worsham and company will be equally attuned to the rhetoric of Ward Connerly as he brings his anti-affirmative action initiative to the state. They will observe his use of language. As he did in California and Washington state, will Connerly use terms such as “quotas” and “preferential treatment” to shape voters’ perceptions? Will he and his supporters continue to appropriate the inspired language of slain civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a tool in a campaign to kill a three-decade-old program that attempts to redress institutionalized inequity?

In their theory classes, Worsham and her students will be asking these questions and writing papers that encourage honest discourse.