Disability Studies · Pedagogy

Valuing Voice in Writing Classrooms

How are speech and voice valued within the [writing] classroom? How do we design [writing] pedagogies and classroom environments that value students with both typical and atypical speech?

These are a couple of the questions we discussed in my Universal Design class this week after watching the video below: “Roger Ebert: Remaking My Voice.”

I really appreciated this video. It’s interesting to hear Ebert “talk” with Alex (and to hear Roger 2.0) and to hear Ebert’s story told through the voices of his wife and friends. Then, there’s the story itself: his jaw surgery, the multiple ruptures of his carotid artery, the switch from a famed movie critic to someone with whom “people don’t want to make eye contact.” Ebert says, “It is human nature to look away from illness. We don’t enjoy a reminder of our own fragile mortality.” These are simple statements, yet they indicate how we construct physical disability as Other, how we make assumptions about people based on their physical appearances and their speech.

Ebert asks, “What value do we place on the sound of our own voice? How does that affect who you are as a person?” These questions have interesting applications for the classroom. We ask our students to find their voices through their writing, but what does this mean? Do we privilege particular students’ voices over others? Culturally, we privilege the norm: Standard American English (just like the way we privilege “normal” bodies).

Ebert, Disability Studies folks, and many Rhet/Compers would likely ask us to reconsider the ideal written standard.

Voice is personal, embodied. We want to take the time to find a voice that “fits” our particular writing styles. Because voice is so subjective, though, it can be difficult to teach. I often find that my students are overwhelmed when we talk about voice because they assume that I want them to write in a particular voice, but they don’t know what that voice sounds like or how it relates to their own embodied voices.

I think Ebert’s video offers a few starting points that could be useful for getting students to feel comfortable sharing their voices, to respect other people’s voices, and to think critically about how voices are manifested differently.

First, none of this is possible without a welcoming, respectful classroom environment. Ebert’s presentation is powerful in part because of the respect he has from his wife and friends. Learning to respect others’ voices—whether typical or atypical, standard or colloquial—is important for creating a “community of learners” where students feel comfortable experimenting with and developing their voices.

Second, Ebert’s presentation is also successful because of its strong content. He tells a story that is deeply personal, meaningful, both serious and funny. Yet it’s not standard. Ebert’s voice—his physical delivery—isn’t standard, yet it would be difficult to argue that his presentation isn’t good. Ebert has a strong voice, regardless of whether or not it matches our standardized ideals. I think it could be empowering for students to know that they can have atypical voices—whether spoken or written—and still be powerful, effective rhetors.

Third, there are different modes (and opportunities) of delivery. Ebert uses multiple voices and bodies to deliver his argument, and he could have used any number of modes—talking through Alex for the entire presentation, supplementing the talk with visuals, creating a video with captions. If we think of a multimodal writing pedagogy as one that encourages students to learn and compose using different modes and media, voice adds an interesting layer to the process of multimodal writing and how students represent their voices through different modes.

Opening up discussions of voice could be really valuable for shaping a writing environment that is more respectful and inclusive to the diverse range of voices (and bodies) that deviate from the standard.

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