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Sue Wells

Page history last edited by Jared 9 years, 5 months ago

"Rogue Cops and Health Care: What Do We Want from Public Writing?"  Susan Wells 



On February 24, 1991, Arthur Colbert, a Temple University criminal justice major, was stopped by two Philadelphia police officers as he looked for his date's address. They accused Colbert of running a crack house under the name "Hakim," and took him to a deserted building. He was beaten; a gun was pointed at his head. Colbert spent the rest of the night at the 39th District Headquarters on Hunting Park Avenue, being questioned, slapped around, and threatened. They let him go in the morning, warning him to stay out of the area.


The next day, Colbert returned to the headquarters and filled out a "Citizen's Complaint" form. He wrote the story of his night, filling three sheets of paper, printing in capitals, and concluding, "The above events happened violently and brutally.... I am a Temple student and will be around that area quite frequently it seems as though the people who are supposed to be protecting my civil rights are the ones who are violating them. I can't say this for every police officer, but this is the case with these two cops" (Bowden and Fazlollah). The officer in charge was impressed: unlike other complaints against these policemen, Colbert's was "coherent and concise, loaded with details." The subsequent investigation uncovered (eventually) a pattern of frameups, bribes, and abuses of power by the Philadelphia police; it led to charges, suspensions, transfers, and other reforms.


I was fascinated by this story in the September 10, 1995 Philadelphia Inquirer. As a citizen, I was angry; as a teacher, I was upset that a student had been brutalized. But as a writing teacher, I was triumphant. Colbert had probably learned to write strong narrative in our program; his complaint sounded like a successful basic writing assignment:  good sequential order, lots of detail and elaboration, a clear, supportable conclusion.  Someone had done good work with this student. And his text had been efficacious: it had turned around the whole police department, delivered innocent grand- mothers from unjust imprisonment, and set aside scores of false convictions.


My triumph settled down with my next cup of coffee-Colbert's complaint had been the twenty-third filed against these cops, and the Rodney King incident probably prompted the department's investigation. But my moment of exhilarated delusion speaks about the desire for efficacious public writing, particularly as it is invested in students. It speaks of that desire's urgency; the response to Colbert's writing seemed to rectify his terrifying experience. It speaks of that desire's poverty: I once had stronger hopes than helping my students write good complaints if they were beaten up by the cops.


I want to investigate this desire, in its urgent poverty, more fully. If we want more for our students than the ability to defend themselves in bureaucratic settings, we are imagining them in a public role, imagining a public space they could enter. I argue that we need to build, or take part in building, such a public sphere; that the public sphere is always constructed; and that it cannot, in our society, be unitary. These exigencies are not limited to academic settings: any speaker must work to build a public. ...


Rhetoricians and compositionists have turned toward the public, for the best of reasons. But we have some problems locating the public-knowing exactly where should we turn. In the Charles Kneupper Memorial Address to the Rhetoric Society of America, Edward Schiappa argued that "the place for cultural critique by teachers and scholars of rhetorical studies is not only the classroom or academic books and journals, but also 'in the streets' and other nonacademic public and private forums" (21).  Schiappa rounds up the usual suspects: letters to the student newspaper, or even the hometown newspaper, speaking before city council or the state assembly. For Schiappa, and for most of us, when we think about "public discourse," the public appears as a pre-existing forum where citizens make decisions face to face. That space is so intensely imagined that we think it must be real just a little inaccessible, like live theater or downtown department stores.


But our encounters with even a local civic space--the place where we decide a strike vote, hire a new minister, form a block watch-are discontinuous and associated with crises. These scraps of discursive space are not just pale descendants of the agora (an open "place of assembly" in ancient Greek city-states) or the Enlightenment coffee house; they are something else entirely. Public speech is a performance in time, located at specific historical junctures, temporary and unstable, even though it is imagined as a location in space, always available, with secure and discernible borders. We feel guilty for our absence from the public; we suspect that it has been usurped by political functionaries and spin doctors. As compositionists, we apply a deficit model to public discourse: it is one more thing students don't know, one more thing we have trouble teaching (Smith; Farrell, Symposium). But public space is not available, at least not in the form we have imagined it.


It might be helpful to see the public and public speech as questions, rather than answers, and to consider how they are understood in contemporary cultural theory.  The central theorist of the public is Jurgen Habermas, specifically in his The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. (...).  Habermas defines the public sphere as a discursive domain where private individuals, without the authority of state office, debate the general conduct of social and political business, holding official bodies accountable at the bar of reasonThe public sphere promises equality of access and discussion governed by rationality, with no holds barred, no topics off limits. But it is not without its contradictions. ...


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