112th Annual Conference - Riverside Convention Center, California
Friday, October 31 - Sunday, November 2, 2014

This page is about the 2014 conference. For 2015 conference info, go to PAMLA 2015.

Emerging Conceptions of Agency in Post-Modern Composition Pedagogy

Pamela Portenstein, California State University, San Bernardino

This paper discusses the conflict between modern and post-modern conceptions of agency in the composition classroom. In order to move beyond this subject-context binary, new knowledge is needed. Bohm argues that imagination and insight can break  down presuppositions so new knowledge can emerge. I apply Bohm's concept  to the composition classroom to show how human agency is an emergent feature of particular situations.



In current composition pedagogy the modern notion of the individual, autonomous “voice” has been somewhat discredited by postmodern realizations of social context. “...[W]e seem to have lost sight of the individual writer and in place of that writer we see categories: mainstream, marginalized, African-American, White, female, male, working class and so on” (Yagelski, 62). Postmodernism has begun to deconstruct many of the dominant societal discourses, but in some ways it has yet to answer what is to be in their place. This paper will address the emergent nature of human agency and how it functions in the postmodern composition classroom.

As a learning community, the composition classroom must negotiate its own cohesiveness, often acknowledging varied and conflicting voices. The difficulty lies in finding a basis of understanding for this multiplicity of perspectives. Giroux states that in a postmodern pedagogy, ethics must be seen as a central concern as we consider often varied and conflicting discourses. “Ethics becomes a practice that broadly connotes one’s personal and social sense of responsibility to the Other” (74).  This is a shift in perspective not only away from the  modern idea of  the self-contained individual, but also away from the postmodern idea of the individual as a collection of discourses negotiating a place of power for its “group.” By acknowledging responsibility for the Other, Giroux moves us toward a collective identity, beyond group, that is the beginning of a deeper understanding of human agency.

Bohm takes this a step further. By shifting value from the self and its priorities going beyond even our various “group” affiliations, to the common good, we can come to a place where the “agreement of intention” is caused by the group structure. Problems arise when different groups’ values or priorities are in conflict. According to Bohm “both knowledge and values must be free from absolute necessity” (26). This is not the same as group agency which involves compromise, but a perspective wherein the values held, even though they might be basically fixed, are determined by each particular situation. Agency is not seen to rest with the individual or even with the collective but is “emergent” meaning that it is more than the sum of the individuals involved in an exchange or situation. Bohm highlights the importance of imagination in the emergence of new knowledge. He defines imagination as “mental images based on memory” and and states, “By allowing our minds to manipulate images in new ways, flashes of insight are generated that break down previous presuppositions and lead to new knowledge” (24).

I argue that the “subject vs. context” perspective of human agency is no longer effective. We are entering a new era of possibilities. As explained by Bohm, insight and imagination allow us to rearrange images in such ways that new possibilities of reality can manifest, helping to establish our sense of interconnectivity, dissolving perceived conflicts. The conception of human agency, an emergent property of each situated encounter, is a necessary component of today’s composition classroom.