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Teaching Double Negatives

Disadvantage and Dissent at Community College

Series:

Robert Cowan

Teaching Double Negatives: Disadvantage and Dissent at Community College asks whether exploring narratives that subvert dominant Western paradigms of progress in classrooms enables students to re-narrate and represent their lives. In seven years of teaching literature and philosophy at Brooklyn’s only community college, Robert Cowan worked with many kinds of disadvantaged students—those on welfare or homeless, single moms and the formerly incarcerated, traumatized war veterans, and immigrants from over 140 countries. These students had many reasons for wanting to dissent from the social norms that sought to define and marginalize them. One might imagine that disadvantaged students would identify with texts that are subversive, challenge dominant race/class/gender paradigms, and try to interrogate the globalized systems in which we live. But do they? Do the philosophies of Debord and Heidegger, the novels of Christa Wolf and Jean Genet, contemporary slave narratives and Dead Kennedys lyrics, poetry by Aimé Césiare and Taliban fighters, actually speak to them? Can you teach dissent to the disadvantaged and produce a positive result?

Teaching Double Negatives explores the responses of students to texts from a variety of traditions and time-periods within the context of overarching theoretical debates about counter-enlightenment, globalization, multiculturalism, identification, recognition, and critical pedagogy. Teaching Double Negatives is an insightful collection that problematizes the assumptions of instructors and powerfully engages the intersectionality of students, appealing to readers across the educational spectrum.

“In Teaching Double Negatives: Disadvantage and Dissent at Community College, Robert Cowan and his student participants show us the negative function of criticism in community college composition courses. Appropriating Enlightenment philosophy, Adorno’s negative dialectics, and critical engagements of popular culture, Cowan’s negation of the negation, as Marx once put it, affirms symptomatic reading and writing as the practice of educational freedom. Cowan’s narrative is a convincing portrayal of teaching and learning not only as acts waged by the critical mind but the search for an ethical life.” —Zeus Leonardo, Professor, Graduate School of Education, University of California, Berkeley, and author of Race, Whiteness, and Education

“This ambitious collection of essays was a very powerful read for me as both a teacher and a scholar—brimming with depth, insight, and empathy. Robert Cowan’s engagement with his students and with provocative literary and philosophical texts is a call to action for critical educators, and a testament to the complexity of the diverse student populations served by many urban community colleges. After reading, I continue to ponder over the layered probing of humanism and posthumanism, literary analyses embodied in service learning and social action, and the challenge to ‘use the past to rein in the present in the service of the future.’” —Limarys Caraballo, Associate Professor of English Education, Queens College & The Graduate Center, CUNY