I recently facilitated a graduate course discussion of a collection of texts. It’s a fairly typical assignment in a graduate seminar to ask the grad students to take one week and lead at least part of the week’s discussion. I’ve led these kinds of discussions before, but I don’t particularly enjoy them.
As I was preparing for this, I kept asking what is it that we expect of/as grad students when we assemble?
Flat-discussion seems to be the prevailing mode of graduate education in rhetoric and composition. We might ask of graduate students that they read generously or critically, that they engage in more activity-based work surrounding their writing projects, or that they read/discuss in particular ways or with particular facilitations in mind (such as a read-pair-share model, or other kinds of writing-as-preparation-for-discussion models).
This may be a limitation of my own memory or experiences, but I’m unclear as to why. Is it simply comfortable? Traditional? The lingering hauntings of literature programs?
It seems strange to me for a field that has such a vested and historical interest in the class room seems so… unimaginative in the education of its future educators. Our connections to pedagogy and education are vast and run deep, our scholarship on the teaching of undergraduate students is equally vast and deep. And while, I hear rumblings of a growing interest in understanding how graduate students are educated in our field, there seems, to me, a curious lack of practice/praxis there.
I’ve used the term flat-discussion to refer to the mode of graduate education that I’ve come to be most familiar with: go read one book or five-to-six article, come sit in a circle, and let’s talk. I use the term flat here both to evoke a particular sense of dryness and lack of dynamism, but also to suggest that it assumes a particularly flat ontology of the discussion, of equal participation, that seems to fail to account for the unevenness within classroom dynamics. Perhaps this underpinned by the idea that we are all, at ‘this level’ beyond or critical of such power-dynamics in graduate classrooms, which seems to me to be a particularly white-utopian view of a classroom or of graduate education.
Put slightly differently, flat-discussion fails to account for the unevenness of emotional labor it takes for participants to engage with that discussion, particularly when we are often asking graduate students to explore questions that involve certain subjectivities, questions of justice and violence, and implications of our being and knowing that each impact us unevenly.
Our classrooms are not apolitical, which seems like an empty commonplace when we talk about the undergraduate classroom, but when we turn our tassels at commencement, we do not somehow transcend politics when we enter new classroom spaces. I have no prescriptions for this for the ‘perfect pedagogy,’ but I can at least ask what that we consider our graduate pedagogy with the same rigor that we attend to undergraduate education.
With this particular class session, we read a number of texts that dealt with intersections of technology, identity, and embodiment. I asked my peers to think of, or bring, a text (defined broadly) that they felt like mediated an identity or group of experiences they had (I used Love, Simon as an example to talk about gay-coming-of-age/coming-out experiences, the experience of being outed, but also how this was rooted in a white-gay-‘universal’-“It Gets Better Project”-model of gay narratives). When they came to the room, I’d set out a series of writing technologies:
- Pen and paper
- Chalk (for the chalk board)
- A note that asked them to compose on their laptops (and to consider sound, video, picture, etc.)
- A note that asked them to compose on their phones (and to consider sound, video, picture, etc.)
- Construction paper, scissors, and clue
- Watercolors and watercolor panting paper
- Printer paper and paints
- Markers and construction paper
- Banner paper and markers
I briefly introduced the authors and texts and raised the same question I am attempting to raise here before outlining that this session would be run in a series of workshops. The first is modeled after a workshop I first did with Brianne Radke for WIDE-EMU 2016 and I’ve since adopted for a first-year writing activity. I asked them to just compose for a minute with the technology in front of them and then to use that same technology to compose something that responded to memories, affective responses, limitations or affordances that arose from their composing.
Afterwards, we talked about that experience, reflected on some of our compositions and what motivated them, and connected the exercise to some of the readings. This was the first workshop.
After, I asked them to recall the text that I asked them to think about before class and to either draw a network or write a short reflection that put the text they thought of in conversation with other texts or histories that are either tacitly or actively evoked in their original text and what futures that text makes possible for them to imagine. We did a similar follow up of talking about the experience, reflecting on our compositions, and connecting to the readings. For the last piece, I asked them to do the same activity as they did for their text for themselves as composers and instructors with a final similar wrap up. The idea was to think through our histories and how our identities are mediated in texts and through the discipline, and, in turn, to think through what futures are possible to imagine out of them.
The intent was to change to locus of discussion/emotional/subjectivity work from the center of the circle we all sit in for flat discussion to the space between the composer and their composition, in the hopes that we can connect out of that shared experience instead of discussing/critiquing texts. I don’t know that I was wholly successful in doing that, but I think it was a useful exercise to think through what graduate education is supposed to be and how we can acknowledge the unevenness involved in participation.
I was really impressed with the work that my classmates were doing. Even though while they were playing with Legos they, like my first year writing students when they say the activity “feels like Kindergarten with a purpose,” said that it just felt fun, they made really awesome connections between their lived experiences and what the technologies made them imagine and compose.
It was also a lot to try and put into one class session, and perhaps a series of activities trying to do too many things at once. I can also see how some of my colleagues might have felt that I didn’t respect the attention they’d given to each of the readings, if that was how any of them felt, since I did not linger on any one argument or textual argument—but even then, part of that was a conscious effort to encourage different relationships to the texts we read for the week and to create spaces for those relationships.
But I’m glad for the work that my colleagues did, and I think the activities did at least some of what I wanted them to. And I am glad for the chance to have thought with my colleagues around this question of what we expect of and as grad students when we are gathered. We should all be thinking about the conditions of participation, the ways in which we are precariously situating certain bodies.
I have been told that I need Cs. I’ve been told that, as a graduate student in rhetoric and composition/writing studies, that the 4Cs is the threshold of access to a job after graduate school. I’ve been told that Cs is the only way to network successfully, demonstrate or continue one’s professionalization, and that Cs is where the most engaging conversations about research are happening in the field.
I am sure that those voices that told me this did so out of concern. Sitting across from me as I told them how I was planning on not attending, different faculty from different universities—friends and mentors alike—all said nearly the same thing: you need Cs. They say this all nearly in the same breath as they would say how graduate students are the discipline, shape the discipline, and determine the discipline’s future.
Here are the things that I need: I need an organization that is willing to own and act on their own problems, I need the people within an organization to hold themselves responsible for the actions of that organization and the bodies that the organization represents, I need an organization that concerns itself more with the well-being of those that it serves than the organization itself.
I don’t need Cs.
Here are more things that I need: I need a field that recognizes more ways of accessing and participating in its enterprise, I need a discipline that encourages and values multiple venues as much as it purports valuing multiple ways of knowing, I need a field that is willing to engage in inter/transdisciplinary work and is willing to find and create venues to do that.
I don’t need Cs.
Here are other things that I need: I need faculty that are mindful of how they are positioning graduate students, faculty that are willing to engage in collective action with their students and with each other, faculty that are willing to call out complicity more than they are willing to believe that problems cannot change or are too large for them.
I don’t need Cs.
When engaging a situation or an organization is toxic and violent, it comes time to leave.
I’m a graduate student who has only attended twice. My leaving will not be noticed, it will not create some grad avalanche, and it is not something that I wish to valorize. But as someone who bought into the only narrative I had access to (that I ‘needed’ Cs), I want to create another option and another story. And, as there are tactics in place to dismantle collective action, I want to call attention to the violences that have led to this decision.
To better address even fragments of the complexity surrounding recent events at the 4Cs, I’m including copies of the emails sent out to their members. Even if you are already familiar with these documents, I would encourage you to reread them with me. Further, what I’m assembling here is just a fragment of the institutional work happening at Cs. If this feels like it under-represents the work of the organization, perhaps we, as rhetoricians can engage the questions and problems of how this was communicated to the organization’s membership.
The Costs of Staying
If an organization wishes to demean legislation of being dehumanizing, it ought to look at the choices it is making as possibly guilty of the same. What we have presented in the first email is a simple equation: We might lose a chunk of the discretionary fund, have to cut back for a conference cycle, and lose possible revenue versus the risk of violence against members and possible member boycotts. But, as presented here, there are no costs of staying, only risks. The costs of staying, the trauma, the precarity, the violence against brown and black bodies is not a cost here—it is framed as a personal risk that members might choose to undertake (which also doesn’t necessarily account for the institutional pressures surrounding attending CCCC, the narrative of “needing CCCC.”).
We are asking members to pay for the conference both with their finances and with their lives.
Now, it might be easy to say “brown and black bodies are precariously located across the country—this is not a Missouri-isolated condition.”
Sure, but what if it’s not even about that? What if it’s about acknowledging the collective action made by persons whose bodies and lives this effects? What if this is about valuing the voices of people of color who have created a travel advisory?
Staying isn’t just “conferencing as usual” but it is white supremacy as usual. When we as an organized body with a mostly white EC and officer community—and a largely white field—decide that the financial costs, that would not situate our organization in a way that the threat of dissolving would be considered is greater than the cost of violence against its members, then let us make no mistake that this is white privilege and our collective benefiting from white supremacy.
Oh, and while we’re here, let’s talk about this representative from the NAACP. Which, before I begin, if you haven’t read Sara Ahmed’s On Being Included or Living a Feminist Life, you should. Mr. Pruitt has been very vocal in the state of Missouri and his work there instrumental to the national conversation surrounding the NAACP travel advisory. And his comments that are included addressed to the EC are valuable comments. But that is not what is being done here. It is an all too familiar tactic of hearing and including the voices that assent, to include the voices of people of color insofar as they do not disrupt the institution from which they are being ‘included.’
So, inasmuch as the NAACP is invoked here to look like color to appease a membership that may not have access to the complexities of the events or what dissenting voices are saying, this exercise is only another violence.
The Value of Color and Other Institutional Tactics
As part of this year’s ‘transforming’ of the conference, the conference has expanded the Scholars for the Dream, which was designed to provide money for first time presenters of color to pay for travel and the cost of attendance. This is the first year that the scholarship has been expanded: doubling the number of recipients, raising the amount received to $1,000 per awardee, and allowing returning presenters to apply for the award.
This misguided, attempted band-aid, like the single narrative of “you need Cs,” is part of the way that institutions can destabilize ability to engage in collective action. And even the scarcest scrutiny, when weighed against the cost of leaving Cs shows how much the institution values its members of color.
Now of course, this minor expansion is not guaranteed to happen in future years and its money can come out of the discretionary fund.
To be clear, I am not against expanding the scholarship. Please do. But in the wake of attempts of scholars of color to organize boycotts, this tactic undermines collective action for those that may not have access to the information surrounding the organization’s activities.
Please tell me how this purchases security for brown and black bodies. Please tell me how this confronts the institutional racism that creates these conditions. Please tell me how this does not say that your color is worth $1,000 to us. Please tell me how you would spend $10,000 to not confront your own racism.
This is “conferencing as usual,” but with the airs of progress: a triumph of the white institution’s ‘turning to action’ in the face of racist legislation at the expense of its members of color. This conference will continue to be invested in its own interests and benefiting from white privilege. This conference will continue to project a field that is largely white and not challenge structurally the ways in which whiteness and race are embedded in our meetings or our practice.
What’s more is that the Executive Committee is now under nondisclosure agreements, after a measure made by Joyce Locke Carter, limiting the already scarce access that certain members have to the conversations that determine futures for our bodies and our discipline. As graduate students, newcomers to the field, or even long-time members of the field that are not privy to members of the EC, NDAs further disallow access to other narratives that allow us to challenge institutional practices.
Now, as someone less privy to these conversations, the best I can figure is that these nondisclosure agreements were instituted after the EC’s battle over a position statement on sexual conduct that started in its 2016 Houston conference, but before the current conversation surrounding its decision to stay in Kansas City, MO for its 2018 conference.
Nondisclosure agreements only attempt to define a barrier between the organization’s actions and the statements and discourse used by those whom it protects. After people said sexist, violent things in the EC committee over the sexual conduct statement, which could easily be traced back and affiliated with them, I can only imagine why there might be an impulse to institute nondisclosure agreements.
But let there be no mistake, I am not disgusted with the fiction of an organization, I am disgusted with the members who have done this. We cannot hide behind the invisible wall of an organization: you. did. this.
The theme of the 2016 4Cs was activism, but as the EC and officer’s, like Joyce Locke Carter and Linda Adler-Kassner, demonstrated, that activism was only meant to be the convenient, low-stakes, low-cost, white liberalism variety whose investment in the incremental change of their own institution is threatened by disruption of those institutions from which they benefit. As we continue to hear that this conference will make activism its priority as an after-the-fact addition to the conference, I can only think it is the same ineffectual and self-congratulatory nod the organization’s members have been getting for years.
I cannot attend Cs. And I will not attend Cs for the foreseeable future. And I will continue to withdraw any affiliations with CCCC, NCTE, and its affiliate organizations from myself. The talk I was slated to give, “Safe Spaces, Queer Places, and the Labor of Sustained Attention,” was on the ways in which our students’ bodies and our own bodies are situated precariously and subject to institutional violence. I had hoped to encourage, through my talk, instructors to consider mobilizing our collective vulnerabilities to levy change. I will continue to make that claim—and I will do so in other venues, through my absence, and by attempting here to create another story than “You need Cs.”
I hope to meet and work with many of you in the future, and I hope we can strive together to create spaces of activism for this field and for productive change.
It snows a lot in Syracuse. Billowing clouds of gray turn to mountainous drifts of white on the ground and build on the sides of streets until they become large brown boulders on the corners. The city is quieter, and the university on the high hill on the other side of the freeway from my apartment is on its last day of winter break.
The first semester was a mad sprint of feverish and frenetic energy, a series of harsh spasms and leaning against the walls of the basement of HB Crouse with sweating furrowed brows, yanking on locks of unwashed hair, and wishing for an ounce of anything left to give to the work I chose. There wasn’t.
There was compromise. There was giving up on showering and brushing teeth to get those last three pages for 632, there was two all-nighters in a row to keep from staring at a blank screen yet again for 635, there was three days without food to wrap up that argument the way I’d hoped for 751. But compromise is on both ends, so those last three pages were a fragment of an idea, and that opening thesis ignored what it was you’d set out to do, and that final argument was born out of a desperate need to be done. To rest.
I haven’t showered in a week. I haven’t brushed my teeth in three days. I haven’t left my apartment since I got back from a visit home. There is an email for a project I care about that I haven’t replied to in a month. In the office a pipe has burst over my desk. It leaks. There is the drip, drip, drip of the melting ice as it splashes into a large plastic case.
If I’m honest I don’t care. I stared at my phone for an hour and a half with the counselling services number in my phone unable to press the call button. I’d just finished crying when I saw they don’t schedule appointments online and I can’t press a button.
I haven’t done laundry in a month. I needed to, but I sat on the floor, surrounded by piles of wrinkled clothes and stared at the carpet. I wasn’t thinking sad thoughts, I was empty.
My mother tells a story. My brother and I were kids and she took us to school every day and made our lunches. She knew we needed to leave and was finishing up making two peanut butter sandwiches. When she finished packing them, she looked at the jar of peanut butter open on the counter, next to the sink with the dishes from last night still in them. She burst into tears because she couldn’t will herself to put the lid on the jar and put it in the cabinet in front of her.
No matter how well I do in my graduate education, my training has never prepared me for the breaking.
Break is supposed to be a time to recharge, to work on things that need to be done that you haven’t had time for during the semester. Or at least, that is our narrative. We have our ‘break lists,’ or projects we put off until this moment. Or maybe it’s a time of self-care.
But self-care and self-soothing are often two different forces.
And I don’t care.
I was breaking. And then I break. And now I am broken.
And the city is so quiet in the snow. Even the sirens of ambulances turning off the freeway behind me seem so far in the distance.
Break depression is something I have dealt with as long as I’ve been in higher education. I don’t spiral down. I don’t spiral back. Who I am breaks. I lose the semblances of self I put together during the year. I lose the trajectories and paths that I found myself on.
And I do not recover. I do not ‘right myself,’ whatever that expression means.
I rebuild from the shards, a little bit less.
When a new academic cycle begins, all I have are fragments and nothing to give, and I enter a different cycle of building. And then the semester shatters this delicate thing, and I rebuild, a little bit less. And then the semester shatters this fragile thing. And I rebuild, a little bit less.
And I am tired.
The stillness isn’t healing. I am still with the time. And I’m haunted by these patterns from which I’ve yet to cope. This is the work. This is the structure I’ve entered into. Is this the faculty person I’d become? Is admitting this a hindrance? Because of course, in the context of my graduate training, that is what I think about: am I allowed to be human, to be this human?
Lathan, Rhea E. (2015). Freedom writing: African American civil rights literacy activism 1955-1967. Urbana-Champagne, IL: Conference on College Composition and Communication.
Logan considers the pedagogical and literacy acquisition strategies of African Americans of the Civil Rights Movement, locating histories in interviews both personally conducted and archive-located.
Keywords: social histories, literacy, rhetoric
“Finding redemption, for my purposes, is a means of explaining how deep cultural resources that develop in the church and spiritual life transfer to a secular context as intellectual and spiritual strategies that enhance literacy activism” (p. 24).
“Finding redemption is the overarching theme of gospel literacy. It’s a theoretical interpretive concept centered on recovery, a means of dispelling the myth of grassroots literacy acquisition and use as basic, simple, or mechanical” (p. 106).
One of the things that I’m struck by in this book is the “Memory itself can be considered composition” (p. 109). For Lathan (2015), memory can give “special attention to illogical, supernatural, spiritual, or otherwise unexplainable events” and “puts the unexpected, unpredictable incidents and directions of our lives into perspective” (p. 109). This allows for “making intuitive connections to articulate truth that cannot be directly spoken” (p. 109).
This made me think of Castiglia and Reed’s (2012) If Memory Serves about gay culture and the AIDS Crisis in which they discuss cultural imperatives to forget the ‘crisis’ and to cast the past in the light of sexual irresponsibility. Instead, they argue, a queer counter-memory would allow for the radical sexual potentialities without painting the past as utopian: rather, queer counter-memories allow for productive disruptions and imaginations within dominant cultures. This makes me think, too, of “the refusal to submit to the burdens of history” (Lathan, 2015 p. 25).
These two texts seem to tend to the ways in which memory can be a productive way to conceive of histories in that they encounter the rhetorical constraints and material conditions that surround ideas of remembering and forgetting—which is making me think of Enoch’s (2013) idea of feminist memory studies approaches as attending to scholarly inattentions and also the rhetorical act of forgetting.
We’ve read a lot this semester about encountering forgetting or recovery projects, but I’m not sure that we’ve talked so much about negotiating forgetting with power, which is something that I see this text trying to do by both highlighting how the subjects themselves were writing those negotiations within their daily lives but also how larger culture forgets these figures due to elements of power.
Skinner, Carolyn. (2014). Women physicians & professional ethos in nineteenth century America. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.
Skinner discusses the complications of women physicians in nineteenth century America creating professional ethos.
“[E]thos often is not crafted in response to a coherent and identifiable set of audience values but instead is composed in a dynamic context that includes multiple competing ideas about the “best” virtues; consequently, ethos formation frequently involves value negotiations as well as reciprocity between rhetor and audience identity constructs” (p. 175).
This is becoming a bit of a recurring question, but I’m wondering about moments in which these cordial appeals for acknowledgement are not possible or only perpetuate problems. I’m not trying to say this is a gap in Skinner’s text as it was not a part of her project—her work contributes a great deal to reconsidering ethos and particularly a feminist ethos in complicated and nuanced ways. What I’m wondering is how, within that framework of a feminist ethos that she offers us, is there space for rhetoric’s insufficiency or failure, or a rhetoric of refusal.
We learn a lot of how the conditions of women physicians and how they negotiate ethos and/through professionalism. This negotiation happens in locations that are hostile to these women. But still, what we see is a mutual engagement that is inherent in the word negotiation (p. 175).
If we must attend to the conditions that allow for persons to engage in rhetorical negotiation, what conditions need to be present for refusal? For, what the only rhetorical term I have at my disposal for this, kakoethos?
I’m still working on this project looking at ACT UP activists and what’s striking is their refusal to participate in negotiation. What they perform instead is an ardent insistence that they be seen and heard on their own terms, silencing the dominant discourse that systemically silenced them. What conditions need to be met for this mode of rhetorical action that refutes traditional conceptions of how ethos participates.
Garlough, Christine L. (2013). Desi Divas: Political Activism in South Asian American Cultural Performances. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi.
Garlough discusses, through case studies of cultural performances, South Asian American grassroots activism, highlighting the ways in which calls for acknowledgement operate in their diasporic rhetorical practices.
Keywords: diasporic rhetorics, social histories
“In performing a desire for acknowledgment and by making claims of vulnerability, a petition for future relations and a stake in one’s own being is made. These diasporic performances by South Asian American women—what I will call diasporic performances—keep trauma visible and testify to the suffering of others” (p. 15).
“Of course, not everyone wants to hear this story or feel her pain. She is performing as a parrhesiastes—speaking at great risk, in front of an audience where power relations are unbalanced, freely confessing the truth of her experience, although the threat of retribution is quite real” (p. 128).
One of the things I’m thinking quite a bit about, probably because I’m steeping in this project is the ways that her conception of “passionate acknowledgement” (p. 174) and her discussion of recognition/acknowledgement throughout the text is activism in the ‘AIDS Crisis’ and particularly the activism of ACT UP.
When she discusses Roopa’s performance and the rhetorical moves being made that center around call and response and that ask for and give welcome, I’m thinking of the relationship that this establishes between a ‘rhetor’ and an ‘audience.’ For one, the construction of recognition and acknowledgment itself troubles such a boundary: here we have two possible rhetorical actions the audience can make—which is to say that the audience is agentive here. This troubles boundaries of rhetorical subjects and questions or performs in many ways who has agency within a rhetorical situation—by constructing the audience as having agency that influences the trajectory of the performance, not only is the audience moved (perhaps in both senses of the word moved) into the subject role that experiences the suffering of the performer, but the audience is also questioned as to who actually has agency in this situation. The performer’s agency is acknowledged here as conferred to her by her audience. We can see this running through each of her case studies.
What we don’t necessarily have an answer to is what the boundaries or effects of acknowledgement are. Acknowledgement and recognition both are modes of response that position the audience as having different power, privileged locations, but to what extent does this have to be confronted in order to constitute one response or the other?
This is what brings me to late 80’s AIDS activism. When ACT UP occupied streets in New York to call attention to the crisis, they were giving a call for acknowledgement. They needed governments, institutions, and people to acknowledge the crisis, to acknowledge AIDS, to acknowledge gay people as people, to acknowledge that people were dying. However, their zaps, or their protests—though a performance—was not made to make others experience suffering. The appeals were not made to have the general public feel them but to hear them: their work was an active refusal of systems designed to silence queer people and AIDS. In this way, agency was something held hostage in the same way that the queer community was held hostage. This is not to say that pathos didn’t operate at all—the act of disruption is a felt experience—but that something in the power, reciprocity, and purpose behind how Garlough discusses acknowledgment seems different than these performances.