Embracing a Multicultural Rhetoric

Lisle, Bonnie, and Sandra Mano. "Embracing a Multicultural Rhetoric." Writings in Multicultural Settings. Ed. Severino, Carol, Juan C. Guerra, and Johnnella E. Butler. NY: MLA, 1997. Print.

While I take issue with some of the assumptions inherent in this article's rationale for a multicultural rhetoric, I do agree with the insistence on the transformation of ideas and curriculum in the classroom to embrace and pursue multiple cultural perspectives.  According to the authors, a multicultural rhetoric helps “students recognize patterns of exclusion and power within dominant discourses and resist or challenge those patterns when they are disabling” (21).  With assignments and activities that are considered by some as unconventional and employ multiple intelligences it fosters innovation to help “students not only appreciate the strengths and limitations of academic thinking but also to challenge its boundaries” (24).  And a multicultural rhetoric works with the cultural conflicts students encounter in the academy to help them make conscious choices.
Now for the issues; I’ll stop at 3 to spare you.
1) In making their claim that some texts “make unwarranted assumptions” about students’ backgrounds, the authors quote from the introduction of a text by Elbow and Belanoff:
Like all writers, you’re already a sophisticated user of your native language.  When you speak, you don’t consciously think about words…Unless you are scared, subject and verbs usually agree, sentence structures work, vocabulary is appropriate…
Lisle and Mano then explain that the text assumes the reader possesses “a native’s fluency and knowledge of social customs” and s/he is “middle-class and fully assimilated into the dominant culture.”  I can concede to the recognition of the role of dominant culture for subject-verb agreement since sentence structure in some languages does not require such a construct but then my view departs.  The quote seems to me like words meant to reassure the novice writer (as intended).  Since when does “your native language” equate to “dominant culture?”  I surmise some leap has taken place.  If “your native language” does mean more than your native language then it could more likely equate to your family/community dialect, in which case, Elbow and Belanoff’s statement retains its intended effect without necessarily alienating students.
2) In the section entitled “Cultural Constructs of Identity,” Lisle and Mano note that some students find personal writing difficult because “individual constructs of self are foreign” and because “such writing is fraught” (15) with risk; notably this risk concerns revealing painful memories.  The authors ignore the writer who prefers not to write about personal experience because s/he has decided it’s “none of your business.”  Only in the closing of the section is this scenario (just barely) acknowledged.
3) The discussion of plagiarism in the section “Redefining the Writer’s Role” notes that scholars had discovered that MLK “had ‘plagiarized’ extensively in his sermons and writings.”  The authors name Keith Miller who counters the plagiarism argument as “voice merging,” and they quote his notion that “ministers ‘borrow partly because their culture fails to define the word as a commodity.’”  My knowledge of sermon preparation and my experience of sermons presented in various religions/cultures confirms that many religious leaders do not cite their sermon guides and planners when presenting their sermons in either oral or written form much in the way that teachers do not cite their guides when delivering a lesson to students.  Perhaps the scholars mentioned lacked this cultural knowledge.  I can see the merit in using the MLK example to extend a discussion of cultural misunderstandings but to explain it as the culture’s failure is a gross misrepresentation.  That the authors provided no qualification or explanation of the quote in their own words is noteworthy.  As the saying goes, silence gives consent.
Moreover, when E.D. Hirsch Jr. writes in “Literacy and Cultural Literacy” that his father sometimes wrote in a business letter “There is a tide” (9) borrowing words from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, it was (is) not plagiarism, it was (is) a deft use of language based on cultural knowledge.  Could not a person excluded from the dominant culture have done (do) the same?  Is that not Hirsch’s desire and Lisle and Mano’s partial aim (for students would not appreciate the strengths of academic thinking only with acquisition thereof)?

Lisle and Mano’s envisioned multicultural rhetoric is sensible and worth careful consideration.  I wondered, however, while reading about it whether they had fully embraced the values they so diligently insist upon.


  1. Crystal, you chose the essay with the most meaty ideas to respond to. These authors published a textbook a year later. It's worth reading: Framework: Culture, Storytelling and Academic Writing. It is one of the textbooks that I provided for students to analyze in Introduction to Teaching Writing and Literature.
    The fact is that , for me, this essay can serve as a metaphor for the L&L MA. The authors are basically arguing that teachers need to inform themselves about different cultural traditions and about bilingual and multilingual students if they are teaching writing. That is what the L&L MA aims to do: prepare grad students in various ways for students who will be both first language English speakers and bilingual and multilingual. I enjoyed reading your analytical remarks. --Barbara

  2. Hey Crystal,
    First let me say that your intensity and your deep reading of the course material is a real asset to my classroom experience. I agree with your point about the MLK plagiarism idea.I also think that it shows what a secular society we have become, the idea of footnotes and a works cited page to a sermon is to completely misunderstand the concept of a church service which is, in my mind at least, an experience firmly based in orality.
    I read an interview with Barak Obama before he was president where he makes a comment about the "mote in your brother's eye" and the journalist (I wish I could remember his name) thought it was a joke. He absolutely missed the biblical reference and went on to interpret it in a wildly improbable way. I was horrified. There was later editorial on NPR using the article as a platform for bemoaning the lack of Cultural Literacy.
    Hard to agree either way.

  3. Charlene, in light of our classroom conversation, the "mote in your brother's eye" moment is an awesome support of E.D. Hirsch's notion that obtaining cultural literacy requires knowledge of a shared literary canon.
    When you encounter these instances, you cannot help but to agree that we need to have some shared knowledge. But the question/argument/conundrum remains -what knowledge will we share?