Thoughts on Alcoff’s “The Problem of Speaking for Others”

Dr. Lai’s comments about her experiences teaching at UBC resonated with something I would like to talk about. (Fun fact: this is my third draft.)

I believe that as an educator in Canada I have a responsibility to assist in the process of reconciliation with indigenous peoples. At the very least, I should not make things worse. Dr. Lai’s comment that she makes every student read Alcoff’s “The Problem of Speaking for Others” led me to read this essay.

In it, Alcoff suggests that “that anyone who speaks for others should only do so out of a concrete analysis of the particular power relations and discursive effects involved” (24) in speaking for an Other, elaborating further that “we must also interrogate the bearing of our location and context on what it is we are saying, and this should be an explicit part of every serious discursive practice we engage in” (25).

In other words, as white male instructor in a post-secondary institution, in order to use indigenous literatures I need to analyze the power relations and discursive effects involved in incorporating this material, and that further I must also interrogate the bearing of my presence on Treaty 6 and/or 7 territories, and consider the effects of colonialism while I do so. But, this speaks to content knowledge.

A wider perspective on SoTL might help. What strategic knowledge is necessary to perform the necessary work that Alcoff argues for? And, how can I impart that strategic knowledge in the classroom?

I’m going meta. In the selections I’ve chosen, there are a few critical steps which are named:

  1. Concrete analysis of particular power relations
  2. Concrete analysis of discursive effects involved
  3. Interrogate the bearing of our location and context on what it is we are saying
  4. This process should be an explicit part of every serious discursive practice we engage in

Step 1: Power Relations

Immediately, I’m thinking of feminism because of the exploration of the relationship between the patriarchy and everyone else. Something like Butler’s suggestions that we perform our identities might be helpful here.  To bring this kind of theory in to the mix, I would need to likely introduce a key idea in a short lecture, and connect it to at least one or two other texts.

Marxist theory also springs to mind, because it describes relationships across class. Again, I’d need a specific concept and to link it to a text.

In either case, I’d want students to explicitly know that we are using these concepts to help explain the difference in power between people on various axes of difference (gender/race/degree of conformity to established norms/etc).

So, scaffolding would be important here, and a think-out-loud would also help to show how to use the theory to examine the text. What about applying it to something the (currently hypothetical) class has already worked on? They’d be more familiar, and it’d be more specific, and then they could apply it with some scaffolding to something new before getting to the Other-content.

Step 1 requires, then, students to look at a familiar text in a new way, and then to transfer that new perspective to another text. That feels pretty strategic.

Step 2: Concrete analysis of discursive effects involved

Discursive effects probably means that there are some effects on a discourse when I adopt it? Is it kind of adaptation for me to speak for an Other? It’s a good question though – what is the effect of having me reading something by someone like Jamaica Kincaid out loud? But how would that work in a class? I’m not sure how to make this work yet. But I think it’s interesting, and am struck by the idea that voice somehow connotes authority.

In terms of strategic knowledge, though, step 1 outlines it: look at a text in a new way and practice transferring that perspective to other texts.

Step 3: Interrogate location and context

The treaty acknowledgements are a gesture toward this, but I think it’s important to talk about colonialism and some of the general concepts from post-colonial theory. I’ve noticed that students are very comfortable talking about the racism inherent in Nazi Germany, but much less so addressing the racism inherent in Central Alberta. One useful resource is the TRC report, and its definition of cultural genocide. The knowledge of the history of colonialism generally and its specific implementation in Canada should also help to evaluate familiar text and then transfer perspective (as step 1).

Step 4 is basically, then, do step 1 to everything. In designing a course, then, if this is a thing I want students to be able to do, I need to select texts that have utility on some other level, but are also good for rewarding shifts in perspective. It also means that I can somehow incorporate indigenous texts into my classes in a responsible way.


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2 Responses to Thoughts on Alcoff’s “The Problem of Speaking for Others”

  1. fhalpern says:

    I love how you’re trying to bring to bear what we’ve been discussing on the Alcoff (transfer in progress!).


  2. timmcneil says:

    Thanks – one of the things I really appreciated about the article is that it provides a bit of an answer to me for how to approach incorporating Indigenous literature into my classroom in a way which is less settler-colonial-appropriative.

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