Countering Racial Enthymemes: What We Can Learn About Race from Donald J. Trump

Danny Rodriguez, Texas Christian University

November, 2020

 

“As a result of decontextualized and simplistic conversations about race, great schisms in communicative and interpretive practices occur and dialogue shuts down. The schisms, I argue, necessitate the continuation of taboo-laden race discussions” 

—Iris D. Ruiz, Decolonizing Rhetoric and Composition Studies (4)

As a Mexican-American in a historically white field, I have observed discussions and even scholarly presentations relating to race that represent convoluted concepts such as racism, and even whiteness, as stagnant definitions ostensibly as a result of public knowledge. Race appears without qualifiers in the titles of conference presentations, journal articles, and books, implying that as a concept race is inherently unambiguous. Despite the scholarship that focuses on race and the racial blind spots in that research, a major problem in our approach to race—particularly grounded in cultural contexts—is the enduring assumption that we all interpret race in the same way at all times. In terms of my own positionality, I did not always prioritize a definition of race. Potentially similar to others, I expected academics and even students to either share or be familiar with my interpretation of race. To me, race is a social construct, but it is also a metaphor that has real effects and a fluid base. As I.A. Richards contends, all language is metaphorical (92-99). While my DNA may be similar to other Mexican-Americans, our experiences and spaces of theorizing vary. Because of these differences, our definitions evolve and may clash at times. However, I am content with this realization because I can only then hope that we complicate every definition to ensure that our conversations about race never become static. As I will discuss in this essay, we are not always cognizant of competing definitions of race as we attempt to differentiate between and discern overt and subtle racialization. To convey the significance of explicit and implicit definitions concerning race, I turn to the severity of racial enthymemes.

As some scholars have argued, we can make hidden claims about race visible by rhetorically analyzing enthymemes. In her contribution to Race, Rhetoric, and Composition two decades ago, Meta G. Carstarphen called attention to the implications of a racial enthymeme by analyzing this statement of a journalist, Carl Rowan: “Bigotry, ethnic and racial hatreds, the dark side of man’s nature, can never be expunged from human life. It can only be controlled” (26; emphasis in original). According to Carstarphen, Rowan’s statement becomes the following enthymeme: the major premise is “Bigotry and ethnic and racial hatreds (A) are the dark side of human nature (B),” the minor premise is “Every man (C) has a dark side to his nature because he is human (B),” and the conclusion is inevitably “Every man (C) has bigotry and ethnic and racial hatred in him (A)” (28). Carstarphen criticizes this enthymeme because Rowan represents implicit arguments as truths: Rowan asserts that hatred has a relation to darkness, and he subtly claims that hatred is dark, and the opposite of hate, love, is lighter (i.e., love is white); furthermore, universal definitions of terms such as “racial hatreds” exist, and racism is inexorable (28). Carstarphen reveals that without even using the term race, authors can make racialized claims about particular identities. If an audience fails to detect an enthymeme or elects not to parse the implications of the enthymeme, an author’s assertions about race will remain invisible and naturalized. Although the field has not adequately developed Carstarphen’s research, I draw our attention to contemporary racial enthymemes within political, pedagogical, and academic contexts to highlight the need for solutions in our present moment. 

Matthew Jackson postulates that an understanding of how enthymemes operate within racial discourse provides white people with the rhetorical ability and space to confront their own racism. By examining racial enthymemes in relation to whiteness, he argues, “Racist enthymemes can function to support arguments for white supremacy inconspicuously and indirectly” (606). According to Jackson, these racial enthymemes construct “an enthymematic relationship” between “the hegemonic premises and claims of white supremacy” and white people (607-08). Jackson does partially recognize his own accountability by reiterating that the silence of whites means that they are complicit in upholding white supremacy (626). However, to truly “learn how to identify whiteness . . . and to work against it,” we, as a field, have to propose practical resolutions because, as Krista Ratcliffe suggests, simply identifying racially coded enthymemes to recognize whiteness or racism does not solve the issue (629). While Ratcliffe calls attention to Jackson’s white guilt and blame (287), she also discusses how “the pedagogical challenge remains to make whiteness visible and to help others . . . articulate how we are all personally implicated . . . in systemic whiteness” (288). To answer Ratcliffe’s call to make whiteness evident, I develop Jackson’s research concerning the racial enthymeme from my standpoint of a person of color and offer a potential solution during these particular times. 

I argue that expressing a working definition of race in our own research will mitigate or minimize (un)intentional racial enthymemes. I also argue that we have to remain rhetorically sensitive to our working definitions even when we examine the racial enthymemes of others. To emphasize its intricacies, I first provide an overview of the enthymeme. Second, to illustrate the overwhelming prevalence of contemporary enthymemes and the importance of definitions, I analyze racialized comments of Donald Trump as ready examples of how whiteness unapologetically operates in officially sanctioned, public spaces. Third, I discuss the consequences of absent definitions of race and the unintentional enthymeme by examining the arguments of two scholars, Jennifer Clary-Lemon and Amy Goodburn, who contribute to our conversations about race but do not offer their own definitions of it. As exemplary models of research that focus on race, these scholarly works allow me to illustrate how we can take substantial contributions even further by stimulating racial awareness at the levels of definition and positionality. Finally, I call for an academic obligation among scholars to define race particularly when we utilize the concept in our scholarship. Consequently, we may become more aware of racial enthymemes and our own positionality.  

Figure 1: "Donald Trump head as a doll"
Figure 1: “Donald Trump head as a doll”
Racial Enthymeming and Donald J. Trump

Since Aristotle stated that “the enthymeme is a kind of syllogism” and “for [in rhetoric] the conclusion should not be drawn from far back, nor is it necessary to include everything” (168-69), scholars have expounded the meaning and functions of an enthymeme (e.g., Burnyeat, Dyck, Raymond, and Walton). In his attempt to characterize the enthymeme, Lloyd Bitzer claims that audience determines the effectiveness of an enthymeme as he argues, “The enthymeme succeeds as an instrument of rational persuasion because its premises are always drawn from the audience” (408). As Jackson[1]
has noted, Bitzer’s view of an audience is problematic in regard to enthymemes because we cannot ignore the position and responsibility of an audience. Since—as Grimaldi expresses—probabilities and signs[2] are “the sources for argument by” rhetorical enthymemes (115), unstated premises should warrant critical observation since they do not have to be “universally true” to persuade (Corbett 64). If we accept the syllogistic nature of an enthymeme, an audience ought to object to any controversial implied premises, but such a call-to-action becomes complicated as we reflect on the basic structure of an enthymeme. 

As recent as 2018, James Fredal problematizes our interpretations of the enthymeme by arguing for a more accurate reading of Aristotle: “To create an enthymeme, you don’t write a syllogism and elide a premise; you tell a story and highlight a significant fact” (37). According to Fredal, an enthymeme “asserts and invites the audience to attend to . . . a stated and accepted fact,” “places the fact in a narrative context,” “helps frame and answer the legal question at issue,” and “inverts the opponent’s argument” (34).[3] An audience comprehends an enthymeme of a rhetor because it likely already accepts a position as factual. The rhetorical choices of a rhetor, such as providing a narrative context, then, remind an audience of a shared truth. Fredal’s definition advances our understanding of the enthymeme while uncovering a significant and yet troubling detail. On one hand, a traditional perception of the enthymeme undervalues its rhetorical potential by limiting it to a syllogistic structure; consequently, we, as rhetorical critics, should not restrict an enthymeme to a rigid configuration. On the other hand, Fredal’s reinterpretation of the enthymeme in practice would appear as fact-based; in other words, an audience understands an enthymeme because the enthymeme is or appears truthful. Although Fredal qualifies his definition and states that an enthymeme is irrefutable because an “opponent cannot easily refute” it or an audience would likely recognize the conclusion of an enthymeme as “unavoidable” (39-40). While what an enthymeme is remains imperative for this discussion, what an enthymeme offers can have racial implications. Rhetorical awareness of how an enthymeme operates in other areas, such as the teaching of writing (see Green; Gage; Emmel), intertextuality (see Scenters-Zapico), embodied rhetorics (see Prenosil), and visual rhetoric (see Finnegan), encourages us to assess how it influences everyday lives.

Before I discuss the importance of them in defining race, I consider how enthymemes can be racially coded by analyzing only a few of the many illustrative enthymemes that Donald J. Trump has constructed in his interviews, speeches, and Tweets. As Jennifer R. Mercieca states in her contribution to Faking the News: What Rhetoric Can Teach Us About Donald J. Trump, “Donald Trump’s 2016 election to the presidency of the United States was a political rupture—it represented a break with traditional presidential campaign rhetoric as well as a break with a traditional presidency” (174). While I apply a racial lens to this rupture, we cannot completely decipher Trump’s rhetorical practices and the effects of his practices without considering his presidency in relation to women, immigrants, the LGBTQIA+ community, Muslims, and every other group of people that Trump has further marginalized. As Patricia Roberts-Miller states, “If we are intent on preventing another Hitler, as scholars of rhetoric should be, we should not just focus strictly on Hitler or his rhetorical strategies. Rather, we should ask what made his demagoguery powerful at some times and not powerful other times—why did the same rhetoric sometimes gain compliance and sometimes not?” (234-35). As upcoming sections will reveal, the lack of a foundational definition for race has made Trump’s demagoguery powerful and unchecked. 

In “Donald Trump’s Racism: The Definitive List,” David Leonhardt and Ian Prasad Philbrick—journalists for The New York Times—compile a plethora of examples of Trump’s racist rhetoric. Without offering definitions of race and racism while labeling Trump’s rhetoric as racist (which it is from my position), they have to operate with ambiguous and unsaid, but present, working definitions for race, racism, and racialization to even reach this conclusion. Frankie Condon and Vershawn Ashanti Young, by contrast, present a clear working definition of racism as “racial prejudice coextensive with the unequal distribution of power within communities, instructions, and/or systems. In other words, or framed as an equation: race prejudice + power = racism” (14). In order to define racism, though, we would need more: we would also have to establish a definition for racial prejudice[4]
, and this construction would be based on our definition of race.[5] The racial enthymemes from Trump that I consider here do more than suggest that he is racist; they emphasize the need for us to vocalize, with clarity and detail, our working definitions for race and related concepts.

Figure 2: "Protest Signs"
Figure 2: ARABIC 2 “Protest Signs”

To investigate the everyday effects of widely broadcasted and circulated enthymemes, I turn to some examples relating to Trump. While these enthymemes, unfortunately, are not necessarily unique, they represent what many of us can overlook if we do not uphold and apply a constant rhetorical lens to his rhetoric. Decades before Trump became U.S. President, his racial unawareness should have been obvious: “In 1989, on NBC, Trump said: ‘I think sometimes a black may think they don’t have an advantage or this and that. I’ve said on one occasion, even about myself, if I were starting off today, I would love to be a well-educated black because I really believe they do have an actual advantage” (qtd. in Leonhardt). Trump’s troubling message that “they do have an actual advantage” points to an unsaid and ambiguous reference: it “functions as an enthymeme because the audience can think of possible ways to complete it by supplying the missing premises and conclusions based on shared assumptions and values” (Jackson 617). According to Trump’s message, a missing premise could be that blacks who are not well educated do not have an advantage. The obvious conclusion would, then, be that blacks need to be well educated. Unfortunately, this conclusion is dangerous since Trump seems to only want to trade his whiteness for blackness if he were “a well-educated black,” thereby arguing that whiteness is always advantageous regardless of what it means to be well educated. By using racial enthymemes, a person can reinforce systemic racism by openly admitting one’s white privilege while attempting to appear as racially aware when making racist remarks. 

During Trump’s presidential campaign, his early remarks about undocumented Mexicans induced many of his audience members to identify[6]with him as a result of his employment of enthymemes. Trump expressed, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems . . . They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people” (qtd. in Leonhardt). His oratory contains not one but two enthymemes about the dichotomy of so-called Americans and Mexicans. These enthymemes can have the following forms:

First Enthymeme:

Undocumented Mexicans are not ideal citizens
Undocumented Mexicans are not like “Americans” (i.e., Trump’s audience members)

The missing premise is “Americans are ideal citizens.” 

Second Enthymeme:

Many undocumented Mexicans are criminals; therefore, they do not belong in the U.S.
The missing premise is “Americans are not criminals.”

As recent as 2019, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 60.4% of the U.S. population, which lives on Indigenous land, is classified as “white alone” (i.e., “not Hispanic or Latino”), and a nationality is always already racialized due to its racial and ethnic demographics (“QuickFacts”). Critics of the two enthymemes in the examples above have likely ascertained the racial coding of his message. The utilization of nationalities, as Victor Villanueva argues in “Blind,” prompt the erasure of race. Therefore, those who accept the enthymeming of Trump would likely support nominalism[7]
 but it is difficult to even presume Trump’s definition of race in this particular context. However, together, these enthymemes are effective if Trump’s target audience agrees with the linkages that they create. According to Jeffery Walker, beyond a “quasi-syllogistic structure of claim-because-premise,” an enthymeme draws “from what Perelman has called a ‘web’ or a network of oppositions and . . . liaisons” to engage the audience and to “foreground stance and motivate identification with that stance” (56). Enthymemes, then, “set up” the liaisons and oppositions (56) that contribute to our cultural networks of people and associations. As someone who is not part of this cultural network of Trump supporters, my scholarly and personal commitment to anti-racism motivate me to identify potential implications of his enthymemes. His enthymemes do not reinforce my cultural network; however, reinforcing my cultural network, or embracing anti-racism, does not appear to be his goal. In other words, an enthymeme is not simply a rhetorical syllogism but also a cultural practice that reaffirms or challenges the networks and associations that cultures develop.

Trump has even defended himself against the label of racist as he explained, “I’m not a racist. I am the least racist person you have ever interviewed, that I can tell you” (qtd. in Shear). Regardless of intent, he constructs an enthymeme that reveals a grave contradiction:

Another racial enthymeme:

I am not a racist because I am the least racist person you have conversed with in your life.

The troubling implied premise would then be, “The least racist person is not really racist.” 

Racism existing in a spectrum does not mitigate racial tensions or the effects of racism but rather exacerbates these tensions and effects. The troubling implication of this enthymeme is that a U.S. president has a particular definition of racism that allows him to justify the intent and consequences of his rhetoric. Furthermore, Trump is able to communicate this implied premise to an audience that can, in turn, weaponize it. In “Trump, the KKK, and the Versatility of White Supremacy Rhetoric,” James Chase Sanchez posits that Trump “uses language in ambiguous ways that might imply a specific meaning to one group and something else to a different group” (49). Trump denying that he is racist constructs an implied premise that (un)intentionally authorizes a white supremacist attitude: as long as a person is not the most racist person, a moderately or even severely racist person can overlook his or her own racial unawareness. This white supremacist attitude remains since definitions of concepts like racism remain unexpressed and, therefore, ambiguous. 

In response to the riots that occurred due to the murder of George Floyd, Trump threatened to use the U.S. military to silence angry and hurt voices expressing themselves in various forms of protesting. Despite the graphic footage of the death of George Floyd, Trump explains: 

A police precinct has been overrun here in the nation’s Capitol, the Lincoln Memorial and the World War II Memorial have been vandalized. One of our most historic churches was set ablaze. A federal officer in California, an African American enforcement hero was shot and killed. These are not acts of peaceful protests, these are acts of domestic terror. The destruction of innocent life and the spilling of innocent blood is an offense to humanity and a crime against God. (Gregorian “Trump says he will deploy military”)

Racial Enthymemes Regarding George Floyd: 
Overrunning a police precinct, vandalizing a memorial, burning a church, and killing law enforcement are acts of domestic terror, offenses to humanity, and crimes against God.

A dangerous implied premise is, “The death of George Floyd is not an act of domestic terror, offense to humanity, or a crime against God.” 

Trump clearly equates land, property, and the police to innocent life and innocent blood. Additionally, he equates protestors to vandals and domestic terrorists. Despite all the troubling enthymemes within this section of his speech, a crucial missing premise involves Trump’s perception of George Floyd. Since Trump does not explicitly mention George Floyd, Trump suggests that the murder of George Floyd was not “an offense to humanity and a crime against God.” These enthymemes are racial since they have racial implications. For an audience that is more concerned about various forms of protesting, this audience will likely continue to disregard George Floyd, or the racism which caused these protests. In regard to an audience that seeks racial justice, we will recognize Trump’s inability to confront systemic racism. In the following section, I will continue to focus on the truncated syllogism to demonstrate the consequences of unapparent definitions.

Unstated Definitions and Unintentional Racial Enthymemes

In addition to the presence of enthymemes in our media and classrooms, enthymemes exist in our own scholarly research. As rhetoricians, we possess the positionality and necessary tools to minimize such enthymemes. To understand the function of racial enthymemes in our own field, we have to reconsider the importance of definitions by reviewing our own scholarly standards. Since definitional differences obstruct dialogue, rhetorical critics, to discover the cause of such differences, should begin with focusing on foundational concerns not expressed in usage. In Defining Reality: Definitions and the Politics of Meaning, Edward Schiappa postulates, “Definitions typically are treated as reporting one of two kinds of fact . . . a fact of essence” or “a fact of usage” (6-7). As fact of essence considers what “X really or truly is” while a fact of usage acknowledges how people employ terms in their daily conversations (6-7). In other words, people can dispute whether or not a definition is accurate or if a person correctly utilizes a term based on the standards of its definition. Differences can result from either “a definitional gap” or “a definitional rupture” (8). According to Schiappa, a definitional gap occurs when a person does not understand a word and resorts to finding a definition (8), whereas a definitional rupture transpires when a person encounters discourse that employs words which contradict recognized definitions of such words (e.g., “‘That song is really bad’” offers conflicting connotations and denotations with how many define and elect to use and perceive “bad”) (8-9). To state pointedly, if a person is unfamiliar with a term and seeks an immediate or working definition, the situation creates a definitional gap. If a person questions the usage of a word because he or she does not believe the word applies to the context, this situation establishes a definitional rupture. When we acknowledge the concept of race, a definitional gap or rupture (or both) is possible because race does not have a single definition. Identifying those gaps and ruptures in our scholarly works may be especially important for productive discussions of race. 

Choosing to use a certain word or phrase in a specific way is rhetorical, of course, and ignoring the possible ruptures of such usage discloses an absence of awareness. Schiappa argues that “definitions are always political. . . . definitions always serve interests and advance values, and they always require the exercise of power to be efficacious” (177). When it comes to scholarly argument, in particular, definitions directly affect the power and benefits granted to a scholar, and too often, not specifying definitions can be convenient or even advantageous. For example, a scholar who does not state his or her conception of race can succeed in advancing a conversation without accepting the responsibility, and avoid the risk of working through the process of constructing or realizing a definition. Neglecting this responsibility forestalls a process that could otherwise force a scholar to revise the definition or possibly acknowledge any complicating issues with his or her positionality. Additionally, without a clear definition from the outset, the author neglects the responsibility for rectifying definitional gaps and ruptures—or to raise awareness of them, especially when they concern language that has real consequences. 

Figure 3: "It's A Privilege To Educate Yourself About Racism"
Figure 3: “It’s A Privilege To Educate Yourself About Racism”

We need to consider some fundamental issues concerning what we mean by race and what race may mean to each particular individual.  In “The Language of Narratives,” Sheila L. Carter-Tod states that a racial identity contains seven components[8]
(136), and with so many factors in a racial identity, our approaches to race should be nuanced and unique. In addition to nominalism, Linda Martín Alcoff defines two other central positions on race. She labels the second view as “essentialism” since this position views race as “an elemental category of identity,” suggesting that “racial groups share a set of characteristics, a set of political interests, and a historical destiny” (182). This position also becomes problematic if we consider the potential dangers of assuming that people of any color have innate qualities and predictable behavior; yet again, we have to acknowledge that this essentialist view endures. Lastly, she claims that “contextualism” endorses race as a social construction. This construction is, then, “historically malleable, culturally contextual, and reproduced through learned perceptual practices” (182). In this well-established framework, even though we may define race as a social construction, our approaches to it can also embrace nominalism or even essentialism—or prioritize specific identity components, highlighting the significance of explicit definitions. In the discussion that follows, I analyze one example that represents the absence of a definition of race and another example that contains a racial enthymeme due to an unarticulated definition, both of which show that whatever frameworks are in play, definitional clarity is a must.

In her examination of how scholars discussed race over a sixteen-year time period, Jennifer Clary-Lemon offers several significant insights about the ambiguity of race in College Composition and Communication (“The Racialization of Composition Studies”). As her data conveys, scholars defined race as a “social construction” or explained race through language that related to the concepts of “diversity” and marginalization (6). She asks academics to acknowledge “that we encode race” and that this encoding has effects (14). I would add, importantly, that we also implicitly or explicitly encode race through how we choose to define, or not define, race. Despite Clary-Lemon’s conclusions about encoding concepts, she does not supply her own definition of the concept. She cites Henry Louis Gates, who suggests race is simply a social construction, mentions how “social constructionists” perceive “race” as an “arbitrary and ideological categorization,” and discusses how Keith Gilyard implies that “race” is “multidimensional” (3-4). She works with others’ definitions of race, however, without providing her own. 

I am not critiquing Clary-Lemon’s overall argument. In fact, I agree with her stance. However, her own failure to define race leaves readers with no other choice than to accept that they should share the same definitional framework of race, to ignore the various ways we all can explain race, or to speculate about what race is to Clary-Lemon. For example, she problematizes “terms like ‘difference’” and even states, “Thus both publicly and professionally, race and the use of language have been intertwined, evident from the early 1970s until the end of 1990s” (10-11). Even with the best intentions, theorizing about race without constructing a statement that discloses a definition of race indicates the scholar as occupying a place of privilege: producing research about race without the uneasy task of creating or finding a definition of race and then analyzing all the implications of choosing that tentative definition. While this type of privilege does not necessarily efface an author’s positionality, such absences dilute authorial positionality because it signals an absence of awareness—or at least an assumption that the audience shares the same racialized worldview. I am not arguing that any scholars are fully aware of all their privileges, but the assumption that a personal authorial definition of race is unnecessary contaminates positionality with privilege and can unknowingly produce racial enthymemes. 

Succinct reflection and thorough analysis may not expedite or simplify the process of concocting a definition for race. In “Racing (Erasing) White Privilege in Teacher/Research Writing About Race,” for example, Amy Goodburn exposes her own privilege and racialized experiences. Based on an ethnographic study of “a class of eighteen students,” “ten men (eight white, one African American, and one African American/Native American); eight women (six white and two African American); and a white teacher,” Goodburn “as a participant-observer” presents her field notes about a student discussion (73-75).  She also analyzes her field notes, such as the complications of selecting “social descriptors” for students who did not self-identify themselves racially (75-79), and how the job market prompted certain epiphanies, such as why Goodburn unknowingly paired student stories together based on race, through a racial lens (80-83). In essence, she displays racial awareness of being a white academic, which requires a level of metacognition. Goodburn concludes, “Understanding racist relations of dominance and my privileges of whiteness as a white woman professor within these relations is much messier, an ongoing project in which I must always work to uncover and struggle against the invisible norms of power that my culture affords me” (83). Goodburn performs a task, filled with tension and discomfort, that does not make whiteness fully visible because her own interpretations of whiteness and race are indiscernible. 

She expresses, like scholars of color have also argued, that her understanding of white privilege and race is an ongoing process that requires both revision and reflection. Consequently, conversations and thinking about race and white privilege will never end. Additionally, her experiences enlighten her theories about race, thereby disseminating her positionality—she is reflecting on and processing both her successes and failures. Despite her insights, however, she does not provide a definition of race. Based on her conclusion, she subtly equates “my culture” with “whiteness.” Therefore, “culture” and “whiteness” likely function as a metaphor for race because they become substitutions for a term that she is implicitly referencing. In effect, her employment of metaphors for race conceal the complexities of whiteness, or specifically how she defines whiteness, and a self-serving form of white privilege: discussing race without defining it.

In her reflection about her classroom discussions, she makes the following statements: 1) “It’s also important to question why I focused on issues of race only in the classroom populated with students of color” and 2) “And because the white students generally did not view themselves as even having a race, there was definitely a lesser degree of tension in discussing racial issues” (77-78). This enthymeme for race could be described as: “I focused on race differently with my students of color than I did with my white students; therefore, student demographics affected my teaching.” Unfortunately, the unexpressed premise is that student demographics then define race, which ultimately means that race is simply an optic test. Again, this is not the author’s central definition for race. Rather, I am highlighting the consequences of expecting an audience to complete an author’s unclear conception of race and why we should continue to take a critical look at scholarship about race.  

An Academic Solution to the Racial Enthymeme 

When spaces of theorizing and experiencing intersect, transparency with clarity is a rhetorical imperative. Moving forward, a commitment to transparency in our research warrants attentiveness and the explicit communication of our own working definitions, which may relate to theory, experience, or both. While theory is essential to literature studies, in “Working Definitions: Race, Ethnic Studies, and Early American Literature,” Joanna Brooks discusses how our experiences inform our motivations for our research and teaching. Brooks does not begin her analysis of early American texts, specifically those of African-American and Native American voices, until she expresses her own working definition of race: “First, a few working definitions: race, as I understand it, is an effect of racism. The idea of race came into being as a means of organizing social relations in order to establish and maintain political and economic domination” (313). As a person of color, I do not pause to deconstruct or praise Brooks’s perspective on race. Instead, her argument, and more importantly, her positionality become evident. She not only offers her interpretation of race, but she also elects to open her argument with a working definition. In addition to Brooks’s candor, her research also evinces two different spaces that inform racial scholarship: people of color experience race in one space and “European and Euro-American intellectuals” typically theorize about race in another (316). Brooks theorizes about race, and she is transparent about working from a space of theory, not experience. Her positionality is then lucid because Brooks does not burden her readers with the responsibility of deducing her definitional space. Though theorizing and experiencing about race may seem like a dichotomy, these intersecting spaces can function as a bridge for productive discussions of race in academia. 

More recently, in Counterstory: The Rhetoric and Writing of Critical Race Theory, in addition to offering both a “methodology and method” that relates to the importance of racial theory to our field (21), Aja Y. Martinez provides one of her syllabi.  Because her course focuses on “Race Critical Theories,” Martinez’s course description includes her definition of race: “‘Race’ in the United States is defined by societal structure, human representation, and cultural representation to form a ‘common sense’ regarding racial order, meanings, and identity” (147). From an educator’s point of view, expressing our own understanding of race conveys the complexities, and, therefore, significance of race, to our students. As Martinez’s course description suggests, defining race gives us the opportunity to explain (1) what we mean by race and (2) how race also operates. In other words, without explicitly expressing our working definitions, it is unlikely that we can have productive and clear conversations about how to address racism. 

Whether we are fond of academic conventions or not, genre conventions do exist. As teachers, we may encourage our students to perform some of these conventions, and as researchers, we may even prove we are aware of these conventions, thus reaffirming their importance. Of course, one long standing academic convention is to define concepts before deploying them. For example, if I am using Burke’s concept of “recalcitrance” (Permanence and Change), I will likely provide a definition for potential readers. Since race will not disappear and our conversations about race will only continue and “the processes of defining race and racism must themselves be ongoing and incomplete” (Gutiérrez-Jones 27), I propose a new academic convention as an obligation. If writing about race, academics have to provide some type of authorial definition, whether rooted in theory and/or in experience. I call for more scholarship that documents the results and processes for defining race and other related terms (e.g., racial, racialization, and racism). 

Works Cited

Alcoff, Linda Martín. Visible Identities: Race, Gender, and the Self. Oxford University Press, 2006.

Aristotle, On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse, Translated by George A. Kennedy, 2nd ed., Oxford University Press, 2007. 

Banks, Clay. “Protest signs posted on the gate surrounding the White House.” Unsplash.com, n.d., https://unsplash.com/photos/uV9GPQA2fpg. Accessed 9 Oct. 2020. 

Bitzer, Lloyd F. “Aristotle’s Enthymeme Revisited.” Quarterly Journal of Speech, vol. 45, no. 4, 1959, pp. 399-408.

Brooks, Joanna. “Working Definitions: Race, Ethnic Studies, and Early American Literature.” Early American Literature, vol. 41, no. 2, 2006, pp. 313-20.

Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. University of California Press, 1969.

—. Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose, 3rd ed., University of California Press, 1984.

Burnyeat, M.F. “Enthymeme: Aristotle on the Logic of Persuasion.” Aristotle’s Rhetoric: Philosophical Essays, edited by David J. Furley and Alexander Nehamas, Princeton University Press, 1994, pp. 3-55. 

Carstarphen, Meta G. “News-Surfing the Race Question: Of Bell Curves, Words, and Rhetorical Metaphors.” Race, Rhetoric, and Composition, edited by Keith Gilyard, Boynton/Cook Publishers, 1999, pp. 17-30.

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Notes

[1] Jackson argues, “Bitzer’s definition of the enthymeme has been criticized because it places the completion of the enthymeme in the complicit moment of agreement or understanding” (612). Agreement and understanding suggest that an audience may not want to openly disagree or demand for clarifications from a rhetor (615-16).

[2] “Aristotle distinguished two kinds of signs that figure in an enthymeme—infallible and fallible. An infallible sign is that which invariably accompanies something else. . . . If a sign does not invariably and exclusively accompany something else, it is fallible—that is, any conclusion drawn from a sign of this kind will always be open to refutation” (Corbett 63). 

[3] Fredal explains, “Not every enthymeme achieves all four goals, but the closer it comes, the more enthymematic it is” (34). 

[4] Condon and Young define racial prejudice as “dislike, distrust, or fear of others based on perceived racial differences. Individual racial prejudice is learned and, at the early stages or antiracist awareness, is often unconscious” (13). 

[5]  According to Condon and Young, race is “a social construct. A historical concept rather than a set of ‘natural’ categories that orients around the classification and ordering of human beings in service of domination. While race is an imaginary, the idea of race continues to have material consequences and to condition the lived experiences of both whites and people of color” (13). 

[6]  I use identification as Burke explains it: “You persuade a man only insofar as you can talk his language by speech, gesture, tonality, order, image, attitude, idea, identifying your ways with his” (A Rhetoric of Motives 55).

[7] As Linda Martín Alcoff argues in Visible Identities, three distinct views about race dominate our conversations about the subject.  She claims that “nominalism” is a view which posits “race is not real . . . because recent science has invalidated race as a salient or even meaningful biological category” (182). If an individual endorses such a definition, this individual may also perceive racialization and racism as invalid. However, nominalism does represent one definition of race.

[8] These components include “cultural attachment,” “early experience and socialization,” “political awareness and orientation,” “spirituality,” “social and historical contexts,” “physical appearance,” “racial ancestry,” and the “other social identities” category (136). 

About the Author

Danny Rodriguez is a doctoral candidate at Texas Christian University. He specializes in cultural rhetorics, specifically critical race theory and the rhetorics of Hip-Hop culture. His most recent research, “Racial and Reconnective Literacies: Malcolm X and a Literacy Event,” appears in Critical Insights: Malcolm X. His upcoming article, “Reclaiming Malcolm X: Epideictic Discourse and African-American Rhetoric,” will appear in Rhetoric Review.

About the Mentor

Megan Schoen is an associate professor in the Department of Writing and Rhetoric at Oakland University, where she serves as the director of first-year writing. Her articles have appeared in Rhetoric Review, WPA: Writing Program Administration, and The WAC Journal. She is a co-founder and co-managing editor of Present Tense: A Journal of Rhetoric in Society.

Production Credits:

Copyeditor: Mitch Carr

Editorial Assistant(s): Catheryn Jennings

Reviewers: Cruz Medina, Raul Sanchez, Megan Schoen

Never Forget: Ground Zero, Park51, and Constitutive Rhetorics

Tamara Issak, St. John’s University

November 2020

Introduction          

It was the summer of 2010 when the story of Park51 exploded in the news. Day after day, media coverage focused on the proposal to create a center for Muslim and interfaith worship and recreational activities in Lower Manhattan. The space envisioned for Park51 was a vacant department store which was damaged on September 11, 2001. Eventually, it was sold to Sharif El-Gamal, a Manhattan realtor and developer, in July of 2009. El-Gamal intended to use this space to build a community center open to the general public, which would feature a performing arts center, swimming pool, fitness center, basketball court, an auditorium, a childcare center, and many other amenities along with a Muslim prayer space/mosque. Despite the approval for construction by a Manhattan community board, the site became a battleground and the project was hotly debated. It has been about ten years since the uproar over Park51, and it is important to revisit the event as it has continued significance and impact today.

A white man wearing a white T-shirt holds a sign on the left that states in all capital letters, “No mosque in the Ground Zero Area! Preserve the dignity of our loved ones killed here on 9/11!” Nearby, another white woman wearing a necklace with an image of a white man hanging on her chest holds a sign written in all capital letters that states, “What would make terrorist #1 Osama bin Laden more happy, than a mosque dominating over the ashes of his victims—our fallen Americans?” Surrounding these two individuals holding signs is a large crowd of white people protesting in the middle of a New York City street.
Fig. 1: Image of Park51 protestors holding signs (Shankbone)

The main argument against the construction of the community center and mosque was its proximity to Ground Zero. Opponents to Park51 argued that the construction of a mosque so close to Ground Zero was offensive and insensitive because the 9/11 attackers were associated with Islam (see fig. 1). One of the most vocal opponents to Park51 featured in the national news media was Pamela Geller who is listed as an extremist and the “anti-Muslim movement’s most visible and flamboyant figurehead,” by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Geller and allies in the Islamophobia industry galvanized racists across the country to protest against Park51 and block mosque construction projects everywhere (Ali et al). The Park51 uproar had a ripple effect on Muslim communities throughout America with reports of arson, vandalism, and violence at mosques. The shutdown of Park51 was another reminder that the constitutional right to practice religion freely and build houses of worship does not apply to Muslims.

Supporters of Park51 argued that mosques and Muslim prayer spaces have existed near or at the World Trade Center for many years, and they objected to the notion that Muslims as an entire community bear responsibility for 9/11. Instead, they affirmed that Park51 would bring a much-needed community center to Lower Manhattan, and it would bring together people from diverse backgrounds to challenge misconceptions about Muslims and Islam. Supporters argued that Park51 was not located at Ground Zero as protesters claimed and that it was several blocks away in an area near coffee shops, office buildings, bars, and restaurants. As the map in Figure 2 illustrates, Park51 is a few blocks north of the former Twin Towers and the World Trade Center.

A color map of the blocks surrounding Ground Zero (a large green square) and the Park51 site as marked by a a red pin.
Fig. 2: A map of sites in relation to Ground Zero. Park51 is the red pin in the image. As shown, the large section colored in green a few blocks south of Park51 is the site of Ground Zero. (Blurpeace)

In the debates about Park51, two different stories of America—Ground Zero and Park51—came into conflict. Ground Zero and Park51 create constellated and overlapping stories—one speaks over another because of the way power and identity are infused. To date, this aspect of the debate has yet to be analyzed. While scholarship has attended to the Park51 debate and Ground Zero (Donofrio, Earle, Ivanova, Pierce), my work uses constitutive rhetorical theory to uncover how American identity is constructed at Ground Zero and to illustrate the tensions between the spaces of Ground Zero and Park51.

In this article, I argue that constellating the constitutive rhetoric of Ground Zero with the constitutive invitation of Park51 allows us to understand the exclusion of Muslims in the nation’s imagined community. Constellations are a “visual metaphor” for the relationality between “places, spaces, events, people, and communities” (Powell et al). Constellating the constitutive story of Ground Zero with the constitutive invitation of Park51 illustrates how these spaces exist alongside one another, in relation to one another, on the same ground and it also allows us to see how one constitutive story silences the Other, does violence to the Other, and attempts to erase the Other. Since constitutive rhetoric is about community building, and the exclusion of Muslims (approximately 3.45 million people) from the nation does the opposite, this exclusion does not bode well for Muslims specifically, but also for marginalized communities everywhere. In the following sections, I discuss Ground Zero as a rhetorical landscape that constructs American identity as white, Christian, nationalistic, patriotic, and native[1] and which also is defined in relation to what it is not—Muslim, Arab, foreign, Other.

Ground Zero as a Rhetorical Landscape              

Constitutive rhetorical theory provides insights into how national identity is constructed.  Constitutive rhetoric provides a way to understand how individuals become “the people” (McGee 236). In turn, “the people” can form a nation which is “an imagined political community—and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign” (Anderson 6). The large work of forming a nation begins when individuals identify with one another and are persuaded by various rhetorical means to see themselves as a distinct group. This transformation of individuals into subjects is called “interpellation,” and it “occurs at the very moment one enters into a rhetorical situation, that is, as soon as an individual recognizes and acknowledges being addressed” (Charland 138). More concisely, constitutive rhetoric is rhetoric that “calls its audience into being” (134). Charland argues that constitutive rhetoric can change the material world: “What is significant in constitutive rhetoric is that it positions the reader towards political, social, and economic action in the material world and it is in this positioning that its ideological character becomes significant” (141). Constitutive rhetoric explains how rhetoric creates identification and identity and, in turn, exclusive communities, whether or not they are nations. More simply, constitutive rhetoric is about community building through various rhetorical means.

Constitutive rhetorical theory is often used to examine language and discourse, but it can also be used to study spaces and places, including those relevant to national identity. In Rhetorical Landscapes in America: Variations on a Theme from Kenneth Burke, Gregory Clark examines the constitutive function of spaces and places. Clark applies Burke’s rhetoric of identification to “trace the rhetorical work” of “American tourist experiences from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries” (4). He argues that national identity is constructed through tourism at public places such as the Grand Canyon, Shaker villages, New York City, Yellowstone National Park, and the Lincoln Highway. He elaborates that, “the rhetorical power of a national culture is wielded not only by public discourse, but also by public experiences” (4). Clark argues that Americans tour these places which he calls rhetorical landscapes to feel a sense of “communion and community,” in Burke’s terms.

Rhetorical landscapes impact visitors in subtle ways, and they inspire within visitors a sense of connection to a shared history. L. J. Nicoletti explains that paying attention to the symbolism, setting, audience, scale, permanence, and inscriptions in museums, memorials, and monuments of national sites is important for understanding the meanings of rhetorical landscapes which Nicoletti calls memoryscapes (55-6). Nicoletti explains the significance of monuments found at such national sites this way: “Monuments mediate our memory of history and direct our experience through their design and the rhetoric surrounding them” (54).[2] Memoryscapes and rhetorical landscapes teach us how to understand history and teach us about who we are as a people. Much can be gleaned from constellating the overlapping stories in rhetorical landscapes and memoryscapes about who belongs and who is unwelcome.

Both Ground Zero and the yet-to-be-Park51 became rhetorical landscapes. In this article, I focus on the collectivization of Americans at Ground Zero with a focus on the national, racial, ethnic, religious, and political dimensions. I illustrate how the constitutive stories at Ground Zero and Park51 are constellated and overlapping in the same city at the same time. I offer examples of constitutive rhetoric in my analysis.[3]

Creating Community at Ground Zero: Identification and Exclusion

Ground Zero is a national memorial site, or a rhetorical landscape, that creates a sense of shared American identity among visitors in several ways. Upon visiting Ground Zero, tourists “experience privately a powerful sense of public identity” (Clark 25). The rhetorical landscape triggers powerful emotions of grief, sadness and empathy as visitors remember the estimated 3,000 victims who died on September 11. Such feelings of empathy and loss evoke a sense of kinship to the families of those lost and a deep connection to Ground Zero. When grief is experienced in community at Ground Zero, a sense of nationalism also emerges while a particular American national identity is shaped. Judith Butler explains, “Many people think that grief is privatizing, that it returns us to a solitary situation and is, in that sense depoliticizing. But … it furnishes a sense of political community of a complex order” (12). At Ground Zero, collective grieving is an especially powerful way to recreate and reinforce a political community centered on notions of American identity.

Rhetorical landscapes such as Ground Zero are also created by the lived experiences of those excluded from this imagined community. The rhetorical landscape is made by active exclusion of those who are imagined as Other. While Ground Zero helps unify and build a sense of community and American identity, it, like many rhetorical landscapes, simultaneously separates people (Clark 4). Constellating the stories of those excluded with those who are included teaches us a deeper sense of the rhetorical reality on the ground (Powell et al).  The constitutive exclusion of Muslims at Ground Zero is very apparent upon close examination. I will detail two stories of Muslims at Ground Zero who challenge the official narrative of the rhetorical landscape.

New York Police Department Muslim Chaplain, Khalid Latif, describes his visit to Ground Zero on the tenth anniversary of 9/11:

This past September, I stood with the families of individuals who had passed away on 9/11 some ten years ago now. I have been doing this in my role as a NYC police department chaplain since I started working with the NYPD…And so this past September when I’m standing with these families, I was approached by three individuals who were wearing suits who asked me to show them my police credentials to just ensure that I actually worked for the NYPD. They said that Secret Service spotted you from the top of a building and they asked us to come and ask you just in case. Just in case. And I said to him, ‘Just in case, what?’ And the one guy said, ‘I’m really sorry that we’re doing this to you.’ And I said to him, ‘Then why are you doing it?’ (Latif)

In Latif’s story, he visits Ground Zero to mourn the loss of those who died on September 11, but his presence is questioned. His appearance as a Muslim—brown, bearded, and wearing a kufi—at Ground Zero is seen as a security threat, even though he is wearing a police officer’s uniform with a badge (see fig. 3). His identity is questioned, and he is viewed as an intruder. Latif’s example shows how the rhetorical landscape of Ground Zero—a place where American national identity can be defined—is also a place where American national identity is policed. Constitutive rhetorics draw the very real boundaries many American Muslims feel and experience. His belonging is questioned at the rhetorical landscape of Ground Zero.

If his identity is questioned, then his grief, by extension, is also questioned. At Ground Zero, collective grieving unites a community, and from this outpouring of emotion, we can recognize which people are grievable (Butler). From Latif’s example, we learn who is allowed to grieve. Latif and his emotions are rendered illegible because of his racial, religious, and ethnic identities. Again, rhetorical landscapes both create community and mark those outside that community. Many people, just like Latif, are deemed to be outsiders at Ground Zero and this affirms the exclusivity of the rhetorical landscape.

Black and white photo of NYPD Chaplain Khalid Latif. Multiple people are walking around behind him while he stands still in uniform speaking on a cell phone.
Fig. 3: NYPD Muslim Chaplain Khalid Latif in uniform wearing a kufi to cover his head. (Derballa)

There is much to learn from another story of a Muslim at Ground Zero, Mohammad Salman Hamdani, an American Muslim of Pakistani descent (see fig. 4). The constitutive exclusion of Muslims in the rhetoric of Ground Zero is evidenced in the placement of Hamdani’s name in the 9/11 Memorial. Hamdani was one of the first responders from New York City who rushed to Ground Zero to rescue the injured on September 11. We learn about his story from his parents, Talat Hamdani and Mohammad Saleem Hamdani. An aspiring doctor, Hamdani worked at Rockefeller University in Manhattan, and he also was an emergency medical technician and police cadet. On September 11, EMTs from across the area were called to assist in the rescue efforts. After several days passed, Hamdani’s parents registered him as missing. His mother explains, “We put down his name as Sal Hamdani. My brother did not put down his name, the first name, Mohammad, for certain reasons” (Goodman and Kamat). Hamdani’s family knew that he might be singled out because of his religion so they used a common Italian American nickname to prevent any potential issues.

About a month later, a New York Post headline entitled, “Missing or Hiding? Mystery of the NYPD Cadet from Pakistan,” appeared and soon reporters were at the Hamdani home questioning the family about their son’s involvement in the attacks. The New York Post article states:

The NYPD is hunting for one of its former cadets, initially reported missing in the Twin   Towers attack, issuing an urgent “hold and detain” order for the Pakistani native…Hamdani was last seen, Koran in hand, leaving his Bayside, Queens home for his job as a research assistant at Rockefeller University, but he never made it to work…[I]nvestigators for the FBI and NYPD have since questioned the family about  which Internet chat rooms he visited and if he was political…Police sources said he  hadn’t been to work at the NYPD since April, but he still carried official identification. One source told : ‘That tells me they’re not looking for this guy at the bottom of the rubble. The thing that bothers me is, if he is up to some tricks, he can walk past anybody [using the ID card].’… [S]ources close to the investigation say the hunt is still on – cops at the Midtown Tunnel reported spotting someone who looked like Hamdani yesterday morning. (Gorta)

In this report, Hamdani is framed as suspect from the outset. The word, “hunt,” was used even though the authorities did not know if he was missing through no fault of his own. Talat Hamdani explains that at this same time that the New York Post article appeared, she received a call from Congressman Ackerman’s office:

[W]e were interrogated by Congressman Ackerman about his [Salman’s] faith and about us and everything. And he led us to believe that maybe he was detained by INS, by the ICE. And I said, ‘He’s an American citizen.’ But he said, ‘Well, he wasn’t born here.’ (Goodman and Kamat)

It did not matter to Ackerman that Hamdani was an American citizen. His birthplace, Pakistan, made his American citizenship irrelevant.

Six months after September 11, Mohammad Salman Hamdani’s body was found at Ground Zero. For six whole months, Hamdani’s death was not deemed “grievable” (Butler). For six whole months, as the Hamdani family was grieving the loss of their beloved son and the horrors of 9/11, they were not given the space or time to heal as other families of victims of 9/11 were. Instead, they were bombarded with unfounded accusations, false news reports, and interrogations.

Image of Mohammad Salman Hamdani wearing a blue dress shirt and tie, smiling at the camera.
Fig. 4 Mohammad Salman Hamdani (Otterman)

When Hamdani’s body was found and his name was cleared, his funeral was held at a mosque on East 96th Street in Manhattan. Mayor Bloomberg, Congressman Ackerman, and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly even spoke at his funeral. In recent years, however, when the September 11 Memorial opened, Mohammad Salman Hamdani’s name was “positioned in a separate section of the memorial, among those considered loosely connected to the World Trade Center” instead of among the police cadets and “first responders who lost their lives trying to help others” (Candiotti). Talat Hamdani believes that her son was not included in the list of first responders and instead “grouped among the miscellaneous victims” because of discrimination based on his Muslim faith (Hamdani). The way in which even Hamdani’s name was physically placed away from the group highlights how rhetorical landscapes maintain a powerful message about who belongs and who does not belong based on the imagined ethnicity and race and also the imagined faith of those who can belong.

The story of Mohammad Salman Hamdani is one of presumed guilt. His background as a Pakistani Muslim caused him to be a suspect irrespective of his professional experience as an NYPD cadet and as an EMT. Furthermore, in Hamdani’s story, we see how even his designation in the memorial is incorrect, and he is excluded from the list of people who sacrificed their own lives to save others. Hamdani’s story demonstrates that rhetorical landscapes such as Ground Zero and the memorial of September 11 are often structured in ways that exclude certain identities because those spaces’ imagined communities are definitively not Muslim.

As stated earlier, rhetorical landscapes both create community and mark those outside that community. Constellating the stories of those excluded with those who are included teaches us a deeper sense of the rhetorical reality on the ground. Latif and Hamdani’s stories push back against official narratives about 9/11. They do not fit stereotypes about Muslims. Most significantly, their stories illustrate the insidious power of these rhetorical landscapes to erase the Other and overwrite the Other’s legal and political rights.

Creating Community at Ground Zero: Religious Symbols and the Religious Subject

Ground Zero, as a rhetorical landscape, also creates a sense of shared community through the deployment of religious symbols and encouragement of ritual practice. Ground Zero can be seen as a pilgrimage site or as “a religious journey to a sacred site” which “implies personal transformation” (Sturken 11). There, one can witness or participate in rituals such as lighting candles, reading holy texts, singing religious songs, and praying. These rituals not only help to further “define the sacred meaning of the site” (Kilde 301) but also build a shared sense of community.

There are many who believe that Ground Zero is a site of martyrdom and the discovery of Christian crosses in the wreckage was interpreted as a miracle and a sign of God. This discovery is the subject of the popular documentary, The Cross and The Towers. In particular, one prominent cross that was discovered in the wreckage was used as a gathering place for prayer at Ground Zero and is now a main feature in the 9/11 Memorial and Museum (Jenkins). These crosses at Ground Zero help to construct a sense of American identity and community among visitors. The cross is the most powerful symbol of Christianity, and its prominence at Ground Zero calls a Christian audience into being. Furthermore, the cross is the foundational symbol to the nation and therefore affirms the rhetorical landscape of Ground Zero.

The presence of Christian symbols at Ground Zero highlights the absence of other religious symbols. Park51, often called a “Victory Mosque” by opponents, would have been a place where Muslims and people of other faiths prayed. Park51 and Muslim prayer in geographic proximity to Ground Zero was deemed offensive and as a defilement of the sanctity of Ground Zero. In a statement made by former Republican Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, he argues that the placement of the mosque/Park51 is offensive in its proximity to the sacred space of Ground Zero. Pawlenty states:

I’m strongly opposed to the idea of putting a mosque anywhere near Ground Zero—I think it’s inappropriate…I believe that 3,000 of our fellow innocent citizens were killed in that area, and some ways from a patriotic standpoint, it’s hallowed ground, it’s sacred ground, and we should respect that. We shouldn’t have images or activities that degrade [or] disrespect that in any way. (Conroy)

Here, in referring to the tragic death of 3,000 citizens, the governor’s narrative erases the presence of Muslims who died on 9/11. He uses the pronoun “we” to argue that anyone who is American and anyone who is patriotic would never degrade or disrespect the sacredness of the site. This “we” excludes Muslims in its assumption that the two identities—Muslim and American—could never co-exist. George Cheney’s rearticulation of Kenneth Burke’s rhetoric of identification is useful in naming the various rhetorical strategies at work in Pawlenty’s comments. One rhetorical strategy Pawlenty uses is the transcendent “we” in which the “pronoun ‘we’ (along with surrogate forms) often goes unnoticed as an appeal to identification between parties who may have little in common” (Cheney 148-9). Such an appeal often sets up a we vs. they framing in which identification and disidentification are simultaneously at work. As a Republican from Minnesota, audiences of various political persuasions may not identify with Pawlenty, but when he uses the transcendent “we,” he collectivizes patriotic Americans against a common “they” (148). In the rhetorical landscape of Ground Zero, “they” are foreign and suspect. Furthermore, he uses the phrase “our fellow innocent citizens” to describe the victims of the September 11 attacks. Such use of a collective “our” not only excludes Muslims as victims but also as part of the broader American community grieving after the tragedy of September 11.

Contrasting this view of Park51 with the wide acceptance of crosses and Christian prayer at the site helps to further illustrate the constitutive rhetoric of Ground Zero. In In Place/Out of Place: Geography, Ideology, and Transgression, Tim Cresswell explains that we can learn about a society or culture’s values and ideologies by analyzing moments of geographical transgression. He explains that challenging the norms of a place can reveal much about what those norms are. The Park51 proposal and backlash illustrates what does and does not belong at Ground Zero and highlights how American identity is constituted in that space.

Creating Community at Ground Zero: Political Speeches and the Political Subject

The constitutive rhetoric in politicians’ speeches about Ground Zero and Park51 also illustrates an imagined community separate from Muslims. In one statement, former Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin tweeted: “Peaceful New Yorkers, pls refute the Ground Zero mosque plan if you believe catastrophic pain caused @ Twin Towers site is too raw, too real.” Here, Palin addresses New Yorkers and reminds them of the September 11 tragedy in order to organize them against Park51. She uses the pronoun, “you,” to summon a collective body of “peaceful” New Yorkers who felt and experienced the catastrophe. She attempts to identify with the audience through antithesis in which one group unites “against a common ‘enemy,’” (Cheney 148). In this case, Palin calls upon peaceful New Yorkers to unite against the organizers of Park51 based on their shared pain, and she groups herself with New Yorkers even though she is from Alaska. Anderson’s theorization of imagined communities explains Palin’s notion that she is in communion with New Yorkers. Anderson writes, “[T]he members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion” (6). This sense that all Americans are one community who feel pain collectively is a rhetorical construction. Palin’s “you” excludes Muslims from the collective group of New Yorkers who also experienced pain and loss on September 11.

Constitutive rhetoric that distinguishes Muslims from Americans is even evident in the speeches of Park51’s supporters. These examples are, in fact, more egregious than the overt statements of Pawlenty and Palin. For example, consider the speeches of former Mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg and President Barack Obama, who offered powerful speeches in support of Park51. On August 3, 2010 in New York City, Mayor Bloomberg gave a tearful speech:

The World Trade Center Site will forever hold a special place in our City, in our hearts. But we would be untrue to the best part of ourselves—and who we are as New Yorkers and Americans—if we said ‘no’ to a mosque in Lower Manhattan…Of course, it is fair to ask the organizers of the mosque to show some special sensitivity to the situation—and in fact, their plan envisions reaching beyond their walls and building an interfaith  community. (Bloomberg; emphasis added)

Even though Bloomberg strongly supported the Park51 project, his speech was contradictory in its support. In Bloomberg’s speech, the organizers of the mosque/Muslims are still positioned in opposition to New Yorkers and Americans, more generally. He does say, for instance, that “we” should support religious liberty and not say “no” to Park51, but he also says that “we” can “ask” the Muslims “to show some sensitivity.” His message, although supportive, tells the audience that “they” are different than “us” in two ways. First, if one acknowledges that not all Muslims are responsible for September 11 and if one is not scapegoating an entire population, this discussion of the relationship between the place of Park51 and the place of Ground Zero would not even be a consideration. Second, what should the organizers of the mosque show sensitivity about? If we accept Muslims as Americans, and we understand that Muslims were as aggrieved as any other community on September 11, then we would not single them out and ask them to be sensitive about how they live and where they worship in America. Despite Bloomberg’s use of “us,” his overall message is that Muslims are Other.

Such contradictions are also evident in the rhetoric of President Obama, who gave a powerful speech in support of Park51 on August 14, 2010 at a White House hosted Ramadan celebration:

Recently, attention has been focused on the construction of mosques in certain communities—particularly New York. Now, we must all recognize and respect the sensitivities surrounding the development of Lower Manhattan. The 9/11 attacks were a deeply traumatic event for our country. And the pain and the experience of suffering by those who lost loved ones is just unimaginable. So I understand the emotions that this issue engenders. And Ground Zero is, indeed, hallowed ground. As a citizen, and as President, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country. And that includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances. This is America. And our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable. (Obama)

After this initial statement of support was given, President Obama followed up a day later stating, “I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there” (Tumulty and Shear; emphasis added). In President Obama’s speech, he notes “the pain and the experience of suffering by those who lost loved ones is just unimaginable.” In such a claim, there is a subtle message that the “those” in “those who lost loved ones” does not include Muslims who lost loved ones. Why would Muslims who lost loved ones on September 11 find Park51/a Muslim prayer space hurtful or offensive to the memory of the victims? This speech, like Bloomberg’s, demonstrates a strong stand for Park51, but it also sends mixed messages. President Obama reminds the American people of the religious freedom granted by the Constitution, yet in doing so, he separates out the Muslim community as somehow needing to be sensitive or wise about their decisions. This statement implies that Muslims bear responsibility for September 11 and suggests that Muslims ought to be sensitive about practicing their religion so as not to offend people. In addition, President Obama’s speech, like Bloomberg’s, constructs Muslims as one homogenous entity and Islam as a monolithic structure, which neglects the reality that the 1.4 billion Muslims in the world are as varied as any other religious group in their identities, beliefs, and practices.

As these speeches demonstrate, political discourse about Park51 is strongly influenced by the constitutive rhetoric of Ground Zero. By focusing the debate on the proximity of Park51 to Ground Zero, whether or not one supports the construction of Park51, Muslims are scapegoated. In this way, public discourse communicates a powerful message to Muslims: you do not belong, and to everyone else, they do not belong. Such rhetoric leaves little opportunity for Muslims to intervene because they are already excluded from the outset. As I demonstrate in the next section, Park51 in its original conception, was meant to be an inclusive space for all people, but it was a failed project before it even started. This is because Ground Zero’s rhetorical landscape has constellating narratives—political, religious, nationalist, racial—which are premised on creating a community by exclusion. Ground Zero’s imagined white, patriotic, nationalistic, Christian, native community is defined in opposition to its enemy—Islam, Muslim, Arab, Other. The former relies on the latter’s erasure.

Creating Community at Ground Zero: Exclusion and Excommunication

Sharif El-Gamal, the main organizer of Park51, made extra efforts to make the space inclusive and to appeal to all Americans. Although, Park51 was meant to be a center open to all for worship, entertainment, recreation, and art, and although the Muslim leading its development identified as a liberal and a Sufi, the center and its Muslim congregants were grouped as a monolithic “Other,” and El-Gamal was scrutinized and demonized endlessly in media reports. The proximity of Park51 to Ground Zero made it impossible to recognize the diversity of Muslim identity from common stereotypes about Muslims. El-Gamal, in various attempts, worked within and against such rhetorics, and he employed numerous rhetorical strategies to appeal to the public for support.

Rather than market Park51 as a mosque, he called it a community center and reiterated that Park51 was meant to be an “institution for all of us” (Hernandez). In this use of the common ground technique, El-Gamal sought to create a link between him and “others in an overt manner” (Cheney 148). This institution would be for “all of us,” and we would enjoy its facilities together, El-Gamal explained. To amplify this appeal, El-Gamal incorporated features in the Park51 proposal such as a performing arts center, swimming pool, fitness center, auditorium, and a childcare center. These all serve as attractive features for supporting the project and the addition of this space to the neighborhood.

El-Gamal not only referred to Park51 as a community center but also a Prayer Space instead of a mosque. In doing so, El-Gamal made special efforts to distinguish between the kind of Islam he practices and the kind of Islam other Muslims practice. El-Gamal emphasized, for instance, that he is a “moderate Muslim” and that just because there is a prayer space and a Muslim character to some of the spaces, it is in no way related to the kind of Islam that Americans envision (Hernandez). Mahmoud Mamdani, in Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, provides a useful explanation of such need to distinguish oneself from “bad” Muslims. In response to President Bush’s speeches after September 11, and his repeated distinction between good and bad Muslims, Mamdani writes:

‘Bad Muslims’ were clearly responsible for terrorism. At the same time, the president seemed to assure Americans that ‘good Muslims’ were anxious to clear their names and consciences of this horrible crime and would undoubtedly support ‘us’ in a war against  ‘them.’ But this could not hide the central message of such discourse: unless proved to be ‘good,’ every Muslim was presumed to be ‘bad.’ All Muslims were now under obligation  to prove their credentials by joining in a war against ‘bad Muslims.’ (15)

In order to align himself with the “good Muslim,” El-Gamal also repeatedly proclaimed his allegiance to America in his defense of Park51. In addition, he repeatedly exclaims, “I am American!” and argues that Muslims are actually good for America in that Muslims enrich American culture and contribute to society. Nevertheless, the distinctions El-Gamal makes between himself and bad Muslims earn him no credit. Despite the fact that he claims to be American, he will never be American. Good and bad Muslims are Muslims either way and therefore not American; they are pitted against each other, but they are outside the circle of legibility. El-Gamal does not fit in and the project that he is sponsoring does not fit the rhetorical landscape.

In adopting such rhetorical strategies in his defense of Park51, El-Gamal demonstrates the role that rhetorical landscapes play in the process of solidifying narrow and exclusionary views and the difficulties of challenging them. El-Gamal practically bent over backwards in order to appease critics, but it was to no avail. Park51, as originally envisioned, never came to fruition. Unfortunately, the constitutive rhetoric of Ground Zero and the grouping of Muslims as one monolith overwhelmed and erased the diverse representation of Muslims presented by Park51. There was much potential for Park51 to be a space that added dimension through identity, community, and memory being constructed differently. Instead, the space of Park51 was defined by Islamophobia—a “victory” of Other against “nation.” It is no wonder, then, that this project was impossible from the outset. The relationship between the rhetorical landscape of Ground Zero and Park51 has to be a relationship of hostility because the premise is Islamophobia. The relationship shows us who belongs and who is legible and those who do not belong and are questioned.

Conclusion

Working in Manhattan during the frightful protests against Park51 in 2010, I was startled by the vehemence of the protestors and the wave of anti-Muslim violence reported across the country. In 2010, I had flashbacks to the days immediately following September 11, 2001. In the years since, I have struggled to understand what the Park51 uproar was really about. Various analyses and commentary did not seem to explain the fury and rage I witnessed in response to Park51.

It was not until I began to study the constitutive rhetoric of Ground Zero, the ways in which this space calls people to its conception of American identity that I was able to understand the debate better. Constitutive rhetorical theory illustrates how we are guided and shaped by our experiences in spaces. Recognizing Ground Zero as a rhetorical landscape, a space where visitors experience communion and community, and, in turn, develop a deeper sense of American identity is crucial for understanding the Park51 debate. The rhetoric of Ground Zero is created by a particular cultural community and is aimed at a particular imagined community. Through the discursive evidence in varied texts discussed in this article, it is clear that the constitutive rhetoric of Ground Zero is directed at a white, Christian, patriotic, nationalistic community—an imagined community that defines itself in direct contrast to what it is not—Muslim, Arab, foreign. Identity is enmeshed on imagined relations and layered with religious, political, racial, and cultural associations. Cultural rhetorics scholarship calls us to question the cultural constructions and official narratives of spaces that so often silence, exclude, and erase Others. Constellating stories allows us to see clearly how power is imbalanced and allows us to hear voices we could not hear otherwise.

Works Cited

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Bloomberg, Michael. “Mayor Bloomberg Discusses the Landmarks Preservation Commission Vote on 45-47 Park Place.” The Official Website of the City of New York. 3 August 2010. https://www1.nyc.gov/office-of-the-mayor/news/337-10/mayor-bloomberg-the-landmarks-preservation-commission-vote-45-47-park-place – /7

Boscia, Ted. “An Imam, On the Beat.” NYU Alumni Magazine. Spring 2008. https://www.nyu.edu/alumni.magazine/issue10/10_classnotes_latif.html

Butler, Judith. “Violence, Mourning, Politics.” Studies in Gender and Sexuality 4.1 (2003): 9-37.

Candiotti, Susan. “Mom Wants Muslim Son’s Name Moved to be Among First Responders at 9/11 Memorial.” CNN. 11 September 2012. http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2012/09/11/mom-wants-muslim-sons-name-moved-to-be-among-first-responders-at-911-memorial/

Charland, Maurice. “Constitutive Rhetoric: The Case of the Peuple Québécois.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 73.2 (1987): 133-50.

Cheney, George. “The Rhetoric of Identification and the Study of Organizational

Communication.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 69.2 (1983): 143.

Clark, Gregory. Rhetorical Landscapes in America: Variations on a Theme from Kenneth Burke. U of South Carolina P, 2004.

Conroy, Scott. “Mulling 2012, Pawlenty Takes Restrained Plunge.” Real Clear Politics. 6 August 2010. https://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2010/08/06/mulling_2012_pawlenty_takes_restrained_plunge_106637.html

Cresswell, Tim. In Place/Out of Place: Geography, Ideology, and Transgression. U of  Minnesota, 1996.

Derballa, Bryan. “Khalid Latif.” 30 November 2010. http://thephotobrigade.com/2010/11/khalid-latif-by-bryan-derballa/

Donofrio, Theresa Ann. “Ground Zero and Place-Making Authority: The Conservative Metaphors in 9/11 Families’ “Take Back the Memorial” Rhetoric.” Western Journal of  Communication, Vol. 74, No. 2 (2010): 150-169.

Earle, Chris. “Good Muslims, Bad Muslims, and the Nation: The ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ and the Problem With Tolerance.” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 12.2 (2015): 121–138.

Goodman, Amy and Anjali Kamat. “As GOP and Some Top Dems Unite in Opposing NYIslamic Community Center, a Roundtable Discussion with Mother of 9/11 Victim, Rabbi, Muslim Lawmaker and Islamic Scholar.” Democracy Now!. 18 August 2010. http://www.democracynow.org/2010/8/18/as_gop_and_some_top_dems

Gorta, William. “Missing—Or Hiding?—Mystery of NYPD Cadet from Pakistan.” New YorkPost. 12 October 2001. https://nypost.com/2001/10/12/missing-or-hiding-mystery-of-nypd-cadet-from-pakistan/?utm_source=url_sitebuttons&utm_medium=site%20buttons&utm_campaign=site%20buttons

Hamdani, Talat. “My Son Died as a First Responder on 9/11.” CNN. 11 September 2013. https://www.cnn.com/2013/09/11/opinion/hamdani-9-11-memory/index.html

Hernandez, Javier. “Planned Sign of Tolerance Bringing Division Instead.” New York Times. 13 July 2010. https://nyti.ms/2H4FwoP

Ivanova, Mina. “A Stab in the Eye of America or A Center for Multi-Faith Dialogue? Ideology and Contested Rhetorics Surrounding the Proposed Muslim Community Center near New York City’s Ground Zero.” Venomous Speech: Problems with American Political           Discourse on the Right and Left. Ed. Clarke Rountree. Praeger, 2013. 359-78.

Jenkins, Sally. “9/11 Memorials: The Story of the Cross at Ground Zero.” The Washington Post. 8 September 2011. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/911-memorials-the-story-of-the-cross-at-ground-zero/2011/09/07/gIQA2mMXDK_story.html?utm_term=.f296d5f9471c

Kilde, Jeanne Halgren. “The Park 51/Ground Zero Controversy and Sacred Sites as Contested Space.” Religions 2.3 (2011): 297–311.  

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McGee, Michael Calvin. “In Search of ‘the People:’ A Rhetorical Alternative.” QJS 61.3 (1975): 235-249.

Nicoletti, L. J. “Mediated Memory: The Language of Memorial Spaces.” Writing the Visual: A    Practical Guide for Teachers of Composition and Communication. Parlor Press, 2008. 51-69.

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Otterman, Sharon. “Obscuring a Muslim Name and an American’s Sacrifice.” The New York Times. 1 January 2012. https://nyti.ms/2tAsAON

Palin, Sarah (@SarahPalinUSA). “Peaceful New Yorkers, pls refute the Ground Zero mosque plan if you believe catastrophic pain caused @ Twin Towers site is too raw, too real.” 18 July 2010, 1:58 p.m. Tweet.

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Pierce, Lee. “A Rhetoric of Traumatic Nationalism in the Ground Zero Mosque Controversy.”  Quarterly Journal of Speech 100.1 (2014): 53–80.

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Schaffner, Brian F. “Support at Any Distance? The Role of Location and Prejudice in Public Opposition to the ‘Ground Zero Mosque.’” Political Science & Politics 46.4 (2013): 753-759.

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Sturken, Marita. Tourists of History: Memory, Kitsch, and Consumerism from Oklahoma  City to Ground Zero. Duke UP, 2007.

Tumulty, Karen and Michael D. Shear. “Obama: Backing Muslims’ Right to Build NYC Mosque is Not an Endorsement.” The Washington Post. 15 August 2010.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/08/14/AR2010081401796.html

Notes

[1] The construct of American identity at Ground Zero as native is, of course, a myth. Native Americans are the only people native to these lands. However, the myth is one that animates the anger and violence against anyone who is deemed Other, immigrant, foreign.

[2] Nicoletti uses monuments and memorials interchangeably because monuments are always memorials but memorials can be any range of things.

[3] A comprehensive analysis of all of the constitutive rhetoric at Ground Zero and Park51 is beyond the scope of this article.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Rasha Diab and Tim Dougherty who provided critical feedback and support at different stages of development. Thank you to Lois Agnew, Patrick Berry, Steve Parks, Rose Ernst, and Sophie Bell who all read drafts and spent time talking with me about these ideas. Thank you to the anonymous reviewers and constellations editors who encouraged me to keep writing. Many thanks to my mother and husband for their constant support.

About the Author

Tamara Issak is Assistant Professor in the Institute for Core Studies at St. John’s University in New York City. She is a graduate of Syracuse University’s Composition and Cultural Rhetoric Ph.D. program. Her current research focuses on religious rhetorics, Islamophobic rhetoric, and Arab and Muslim identity construction in America.

About the Mentor

Tim Dougherty is an associate professor of English at West Chester University of Pennsylvania. He has published on decolonial rhetorical historiography (Enculturation), the constitutive rhetoric of Irish nationalism (Rhetoric Society Quarterly), and antiracist and contemplative writing pedagogies. He is currently working with a community group in his SE Pennsylvania town to reenvision a Civil War Centennial memorial that is steeped in Lost Cause imagery. He and his collaborators are interested in the intergenerational healing potential of decolonial and antiracist public memory.

Production Credits:

Copyeditor(s): Jennifer Bell

Editorial Assistant(s): Lauren Brentnell, Catheryn Jennings, Tina Puntasecca

Reviewers: M. Melissa Elston, Anonymous

Recognizing New Styles: How Graduate Students Are Coping With COVID

D’Arcee Charington, Ohio State University 

Dylan Colvin, New Mexico State University 

B López, Syracuse University 

 

Moderator: Alexandra Hidalgo

 

October 29, 2020

 

Introduction

By Alexandra Hidalgo

I began my PhD in rhetoric and composition at Purdue University in 2008. Coming from a background not in rhet-comp but in philosophy and creative writing, I was in for months of inexorable confusion. By nature a composed and confident person, I found myself sitting across from my future dissertation chair, Patricia Sullivan, and weeping uncontrollably after class ended and my fellow graduate students shuffled off to read two impenetrable theory books by our next class meeting. I can’t even remember what I was crying about since there was a vague yet persistent cloud of dread looming over me that first semester. What I do remember is that Pat’s eyes watered as she watched me fall apart. 

She placed her hand over mine with a warmth that radiated empathy, and we cried together for a while. We, no doubt, spoke about whatever was bothering me, but what has been indelibly recorded in my memory is that moment of shared pain, that simple gesture of crying alongside the student you’ve only begun to get to know but can still relate to. I walked out of that classroom with a renewed sense of belonging, and soon the field and the intricately brutal dance required of graduate students began to make sense. At that moment, I found my rhythm. 

As I write this account 12 years later, it’s hard to imagine being able to do the same for the new cohort of PhD students in my department, whose welcome-to-graduate-school course I’m currently teaching. Not only were we in a physical classroom together, but Pat connected with me in the most basic way humans know how, by gently placing her hand over mine, much like my mom and grandmother did when I was sad as a child. It brought me back to the generations of strong women I descend from and reminded me I would prevail in the end, no matter how confusing it all seemed at the time. 

And prevail I did, and I believe the new batch of PhD students in my course, whose faces greet me over Zoom every Tuesday afternoon, will prevail as well. And yet, the challenges they face are infinitely steeper than the already turbulent demands of a PhD student in what we might as well call “normal” times. Of course no time is normal, but being a graduate student in 2020 makes 2008 seem like some long-gone utopia. 

As Megan Zahneis and Audrey Williams June write, almost a quarter of graduate students surveyed by a National Science Foundation study reported experiencing food and housing insecurity. Not surprisingly, 31% expressed experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms. As Zahneis and June argue, it isn’t only the pandemic but also this year’s relentless instances of police brutality against Black citizens and the Trump Administration’s policy to force international students to enroll in face-to-face classes if they wanted to keep their visas. Although that policy was eventually rescinded, it caused an inordinate amount of stress on international students and to the institutions that would have to figure out how to ensure they continued their education under those circumstances.

Add to all that what feels like the defining election of our times, the fact that many institutions across the country have stopped hiring new faculty for the foreseeable future, as well as graduate students being asked to figure out how to teach students online with little training from their faculty—who are often at a loss for online teaching themselves—and you wonder how many metaphorical hands and empathetic tears it will take to support graduate students right now. I do not have an answer to that question, and no one else does. It will take decades to understand the repercussions of this year on academia and on our global society at large. 

As we process our present time, however, and try to find ways to support the future of our respective fields, we need to listen to the stories of those experiencing this unspeakable turmoil and finding ways to endure. I couldn’t be more proud to share with you this conversation between: 

  • D’Arcee Charington, a doctoral student in English and Disability Studies at The Ohio State University.
  • Dylan Colvin, a doctoral student in Rhetoric and Professional Communication at New Mexico State University.
  • B López, a doctoral student in Composition and Cultural Rhetoric at Syracuse University. 

Their courage, honesty, and resilience will open many doors for them and for us who get to learn from them as we find our way forward together. 

At a global level, we are all seeing our lives transformed in small and monumental ways by COVID19. How has it affected your lives as graduate students? 
Dylan in front of school bus home. Photo by Zach Borts.

D’Arcee Neal: As a person who is both black and disabled, looking at ways the academy is treating students and faculty within the industry has been quite a blow. I came into the department a year ago from Washington D.C. giving up a job as a Federal employee, working directly for the Secretary of the Interior. Part of my coming here was with the understanding that the university would work to make sure that I had what I needed, and COVID has basically seen those assurances practically stripped away as you see what the real priorities are; and I say this as a wheelchair user who doesn’t drive in a city where public transit is severely limited. I thought the university would consider how such things work against me, and the response has suggested otherwise. Looking forward, all I can think is how this will work in an industry where I am all but invisible, and COVID seems to make the situation 10x’s worse.

Dylan Colvin: I feel you on watching how students and faculty are treated and just feeling, I don’t know, I always go with disheartened (but I know it is more than that). It has been rough to see how I’ll fit into this long term, while also sitting with the realization that when I worked in nonprofits I wasn’t any better off. It is hard to know where to go and I absolutely love teaching and reading/writing alongside others. I don’t know. I guess it is easy to feel invisible, like you said, or pushed into ‘doing’ academia in a certain way that just perpetuates all the awfulness.

D’Arcee Neal: Dylan, I’ve recently gotten a lot more active on Twitter, and watching Academic Twitter talk about what you’re mentioning has been really interesting. Specifically, I follow a lot of professors of color whose work I follow and they often talk about having to do a lot of the heavy lifting in their various departments here in the age of COVID to try and connect with students of color, as though the universities themselves are still trying to figure out the best way to handle it. I think the University of Chicago’s English department is a great example. I applaud their decision to shift their focus to black identity and topics of research for the next PhD cycle, but of course, right after I was super happy reading it, I immediately realized that those future students might end up falling into the pit that I currently find myself in: not having anywhere near enough faculty of color to address the topics that they were brought in to research. So it goes back and forth between me wondering about the performative nature of the response, and how much good it really does.

B López: D’Arcee, I feel this deeply. One would think the university would take into consideration the various identities we (queer and/or trans BIPOC) have when recruiting, but they have no idea how to support us— and they don’t care to.

Dylan Colvin: A little over a year ago I moved to New Mexico from Ohio, in a school bus my husband and I converted to start a PhD program. We were looking to create room in our budget for student loans and to be able to save. We felt like we had just horrible work/life balance. It seemed like a great idea to move into 200 square feet with two dogs, and it has been a great idea (not having a mortgage or rent during this pandemic is huge). But now we’re both working from home and it is difficult. It just feels like space and time have no boundaries anymore. It was already difficult for me to navigate academic culture before, and now it sometimes feels impossible. My parents didn’t go to college and the year I started college I was diagnosed with multiple chronic medical conditions. I left the R1 institute I was at because I saw no way to complete undergrad (much less go to grad school) under the conditions there. When I started at smaller state schools I often found supportive faculty but truly terrible administration and institutions. It created this weird dynamic of never knowing how fully I was supported and being constantly afraid of what was to come.

Image of signs for my mentor’s moving away Honk-a-thon. Photo taken by B López.

B López: Dylan, I hear you about the no boundaries as I definitely feel that with my own work schedule. It has become more difficult to focus on my work while also taking care of my cats, and feeding myself, and doing the things I should be doing on the daily, but being at home also makes me want to stay in bed all day because my depression embraces staying at home. That’s such a great point about support and being afraid of what’s to come— I think that’s such an accurate way of describing academia.

It’s impacted my life in major ways especially as a queer and trans Latinx graduate student living in upstate New York. There aren’t many people of color out here, so visiting my loved ones in California is one of the things I look forward to the most. COVID-19 has impacted my ability to travel safely so it has kept me here in Syracuse. I don’t know a lot of people here, and there aren’t many people in the academy who I can rely on. I didn’t realize how important it is to have community while being in a PhD program because there are so many people who want to see you fail and they’ll make it much more difficult than it needs to be. Being in a place where I have experienced anti-transness and racism makes it that much more difficult to stay focused on my own research. It will be a year since the last time I was able to visit home.

D’Arcee Neal: I definitely understand that part, B. I’m very thankful that the last thing I was doing before the COVID crisis was connecting with several Latinx members of the department at a conference in New Orleans. We’d never really spoken before, and considering the limited portion of black people within my department, it was really nice to get to know them. Now, they’ve become literally indispensable, because they’re practically the main people I interact with now. I feel like COVID cut down the time we had to get to meet other people and develop connections outside of professional relationships, and so anyone you knew beforehand becomes a kind of ‘instant family’ out of the precariousness of the situation.

Now that it has been over six months since COVID19 began to have a more visible effect in the US, what strategies have you developed to cope with the pandemic and its repercussions? 
B López Facetiming with their grandmother while she makes face masks. Screenshot taken by B López.

D’Arcee Neal: Honestly, creating a COVID bubble of POC students who live in the same building has proven to be the most wonderful thing. We often see each other over the week, and sometimes it’s to meet to do homework or reading, other times to watch Lovecraft Country and theorize about how it works within our research as we’re equally fascinated/horrified. Aside from that, trying to develop a sense of timing, making sure that I’ve taken enough time that day to rest as I work, has been really helpful. So I will typically do work for several hours, then go and rest for a while, then rinse and repeat and that’s a typical day. I don’t know if that’s any different outside of pandemic times, but I know that if COVID wasn’t here, I’d be finding other places to do the same work, with probably a bigger network, but we have to make do with what we’ve got.

Dylan Colvin: Woof, I mean…I wish I could say I’ve developed something to help me cope. I guess I mostly try to take it day by day, and not beat myself up too much for not getting to all my goals the day before (but I was also raised Catholic by a pretty strict Irish grandmother so guilt is my default emotion). I try, in general, to live by the 8/8/8 system labor unions fought for. 8 hours for work, 8 hours for rest, 8 hours for things that fulfill me/my community. I’ve gotten into letter writing since I’m far from my family. I’m also taking the time to learn from the Housing First program in Las Cruces and working to have sustained involvement there. Unfortunately, I also took a lot on this year thinking that it would somehow keep me motivated or connected. I think it has kept me involved but not necessarily connected to people.

D’Arcee Neal: Dylan I think the 8/8/8 rule is GOSPEL. I used to feel really guilty about splitting my days up like that, but honestly I feel like the fact that we’re literally trying to get a DOCTORATE in a PANDEMIC is already beyond most people’s scope of possibility. The amount of work we have to do doesn’t actually go down, we have students that depend on us, and research that has to be completed and turned in on deadline. The situation would be maddening otherwise, and so I think whatever we can do to make it more liveable and understanding is permitted. I no longer feel bad about playing Jhene Aiko or Madonna on my zoom meetings when students stop through. I was already doing other things, and they have to understand that I am a person too, and that Spotify is my daily meditation spread throughout the day.

Dylan Colvin: Ugh, I need to learn how to spread some kind of daily meditation throughout the day. I feel like I always think I should just power through the ‘work’ part to get to the ‘relax’ part. I know it is just a recipe for burnout.

B López: D’Arcee and Dylan, y’all both said things that I am definitely trying to do more. D’Arcee, I am so happy for you that you have a COVID bubble of POC students who you can work with and spend time with because dang these are lonely times! Dylan, I got letters from my grandparents yesterday and I was bawling my eyes out. I want to write back to them and in general hope to write letters to them as often as I can as a way to document my experiences with them. I mean just seeing their handwriting and seeing their personalities come out on paper made me so emotional. They’ve been on my mind the most during COVID so hearing from them always makes me cry.

That’s a great question and I’m still thinking about how I cope with the pandemic and its repercussions. I don’t think I have a detailed list of strategies but when I think about it—really think about it— I’ve always had strategies I’ve gone to to help me survive pre-pandemic. An important one is to prevent digital overload burnout and prioritize virtual hangouts with my loved ones. I try not to overload my schedule with meetings so that I can make time to talk over the phone or FaceTime with my friends, but oftentimes we end up talking about how unfair it is to exist in the academy. I also try to let myself grieve for the things I can’t do, and being at home has allowed me to be that much more vulnerable with myself.

D’Arcee Neal: I totally realize I do this without meaning to. My friends generally meet every Friday on Zoom to watch movies or to hangout. We just fell into the habit, and it’s something I look forward to, which I think during this time is what is lacking. People seem to have lost motivation for good things to anticipate, and so developing a reason to create something is one way to deal with this.

Dylan Colvin: I really like the suggestion of prioritizing virtual hangouts. I think that was something I was good at before this and I didn’t realize how much Zoom would take out of me. I worked hard to have accommodations like working from home before COVID to make room for medical treatments. In so many ways WFH has been unrolled in ways that just mimic all the problems already in the institution. I find myself having a harder time prioritizing myself/my loved ones/my community and establishing boundaries in this space.

How have your institutions responded to COVID19, and which approaches have you found particularly helpful? 
B López posing with their close friends and family over Zoom to celebrate them receiving the CCCC’s Gloria Anzaldúa Rhetorician Award 2020. The conference was cancelled due to COVID-19. Photo taken by Monica Lopez-Lara.

Dylan Colvin: I can’t speak much to the ways NMSU as an institution has responded. It has been disappointing and used as an excuse to drastically cut budgets with the university president saying something along the lines of, we can get off the bus if we aren’t happy (I’ll find and post the direct quote). That was scary considering I just came from a university with a long and contentious strike. However, I’m grateful for the help of individuals in my department that have worked so hard to ensure our teaching and learning environments are safe. The campus is open and the English department fought hard to make sure we would teach and learn remotely. They even worked to ensure we had working laptops, headphones, and internet. I didn’t have a working laptop and honestly didn’t even think to ask, which is ridiculous…obviously we should have the material needed to do our jobs. One of my instructors really helped me navigate getting the department to provide me with what I needed and just generally chatted with me about working to get over being seen as the ‘poor’ or ‘needy’ student (something I carry with me from always being the poor kid in private schools).

D’Arcee Neal: And that, Dylan is something I think about often whenever I consider the fact that so much of the world has shifted online when the question of access and the pre-supposed “digital divide” is waved off. People being forced to find ways to maintain their livelihoods without networks of support seems completely inappropriate and often disingenuous from the academic side. Finding ways to convince students to consider the work of analysis and rhetorical composition within their real concrete lives and outside of the internet has proven to be really helpful for this fact, because we can’t just assume everyone can do everything with the aid of a computer when support is spread so thin.

B López: Dylan, wow that’s pretty great that they worked hard to make sure that folks had working laptops, headphones, and Internet because that’s definitely not something that’s going on here. That’s definitely something I think about in terms of my classes, and making sure I emphasize transparent communication between my students and I. We’re all going through so much and I’m definitely not going to add to their already existing stress.  They do have the CARE funding that students can apply to and for COVID related expenses but I believe that they are going to stop doing that once they have spent all the funds that they dedicated for that. And I don’t think a lot of students even know about this funding.

D’Arcee Neal: So OSU has been particularly aggressive, which I appreciate given the circumstances with 60k undergrads under normal days. They require we get weekly COVID tests (as I live in graduate housing), and have cordoned off apartments off campus for 2 week quarantine zones if anyone develops symptoms, to make sure they remain safe and healthy. I also accidentally clicked that I was symptomatic when filling out a form for trace contact (I was not) but I got to see firsthand what happens when you do so— it notified every teacher I had, all my employers, and the health services automatically. So I think they are trying really hard to consider ways to maintain a sense of normalcy in exponentially disruptive times.

When I came back to campus in August, having traveled back from my family’s house in Florida, they required me to quarantine for 2 weeks but brought food 3x a week which was really surprising and appreciative. The classrooms themselves are spaced out which I think is a weak move for safety personally, but I’m glad they give me the flexibility as the professor to modify the class the way I want for my personal peace of mind, and so I have split my classes in half in person/on zoom for that reason, and I got no push back for it. That’s the good side. Of course, every single English GA was cut which was a drastic and nasty surprise for all the returning students, even as they pushed other GA’s back into teaching to try and support them financially in ways they weren’t necessarily prepared to do. But we’ve tried to find ways around that, and as an example, I took a job grading lab reports for the engineering department which was an open and available resource I never even knew existed. It has forced everyone to become thrifty and more caring as we all literally just try and look out for each other in the best ways we can.

Dylan Colvin: My sister goes to OSU and has been really happy (after almost taking a year off because she was so worried). I am so sorry that all the English GAs were cut. That is such a scary thing to go through and it is helpful to hear how you navigated that.

B López: Dang they are really doing extra things to make sure y’all are safe, which is huge. I mean I’m still tripping out about the fact that they gave you food three times a day, what?! And you didn’t get pushback about how you wanted to structure your classes whether it’s remote and half in person, what?!

Surprisingly they’ve been updating everyone at least on the daily (if not weekly basis) about measures they’re taking, such as making everyone take COVID tests and making students quarantine until they’re cleared. But to be completely honest, they can be a lot better with how they update everyone on testing results. If there are over 100 cases in the span of 14 days then they said that they would turn to full remote learning. But the issue is they do not report hourly so in the last report there were 80 something cases, and they said they wouldn’t close because that was the total for those 14 days. However they stopped reporting at the end of their business day around 5:00PM and I’m sure if they reported hourly they would have reached 100 cases. That’s about all I know in terms of how they’re responding because I generally avoid reading emails from SU.

Dylan Colvin: I’ve also avoided the emails from the university. I found they were so wrapped in this sort of student and business working hand-in-hand that it was impossible to read without feeling completely deflated.

In the US, COVID19 has brought to light the inequalities many of us were already painfully aware of by disproportionately affecting people of color, people with disabilities, the working class, and the poor. Many in academia see this as a chance to rethink our educational system and our society so they become more egalitarian. Do you also see this as an opportunity, and if so, what role do you think graduate students can play in creating that change? 
Image of desk built into a skoolie with books, laptop, and pictures. Photo by Dylan Colvin.

Dylan Colvin: I think that unionizing and organizing as graduate students is key, while being sure to include the rights of students (language, grading, accessibility). I think creating mutual aid projects among our graduate communities is key to working under these conditions. Much of the work has already been done for us. Disability activism and research has been telling us the moves we should make. Specifically, we can think about things like workload, due dates, absence policies, and work to redefine what ‘rigour’ looks like in the classroom and in our fields.”
B López: “Yes to organizing and unionizing 1000%! I completely agree about the mutual aid projects and in general think about how our student rights can be incorporated into policy. The moves that universities have made to navigate COVID shows that they can easily change the language in their policies.

D’Arcee Neal: I mean as I said earlier, being a wheelchair user already makes this super weird. People don’t ever consider the optics of how I could go on the market to campus interviews, or having to hear discussions of “cost of ADA barriers” when you’re just trying to promote your best self in an area that you know is already hostile to folks outside of the usual white, cis-het, ablebodied, male crowd. I think making sure that graduate students purposefully ensure their departments both know and recognize all of their true selves as they make their ways through their various departments will be a key aspect to this.

B López: Oooooh say that again! “Recognize all of their true selves!” You definitely touch on how abled bodies are prioritized in universities and now more than ever universities need to center and prioritize disability justice frameworks. My good friend and I always talk about how our program’s timeframe centers the experiences of cishet able-bodied folks. We often rewrite the timeframe to better fit our bodies.

D’Arcee Neal: I completely agree, B. I think that we have in fact reached a turning point in how we consider the work of “intellectual labor” to quote Mauricio Lazzarto, and the fact that people often find it difficult to equate the work of virtual work to physically demanding, value driven, results. We are in a moment when we can rethink the way we do even basic staples of academia like rhetoric and composition, for example. I work in a field that combines multimodality and digital media with rhetorical theory and black disability; and trying to convince seasoned, established scholars you aren’t full of fluff when you present the idea that we can change the view of “writing,” and “reading” to encompass more of the world at large in ways that aren’t immediately recognizable, is another way to push this envelope and suggest that since we’re beyond the pale in teaching digitally, keep going. Recognize new styles of scholarship, teaching, and work to give people more ways to access the academy and expand our notion of knowledge even further than we did before COVID.

Dylan Colvin: Yes! I love the idea of changing our views of reading and writing in ways that ensure we keep going. That has been such a frustration of mine. It seems like there are faculty that use, for example, the language of anti-racist pedagogy without taking the steps to recognize the ways their classrooms are complicit in the structure of the university. I know that in my MA I was taught to see students as adversaries who needed to be taught how to read/write properly in the institution, and I was taught this by people who held tightly to the idea that their work was anti-racist, as if we were doing a public service by integrating students into this system. I realized as much as I fought back as a student in the classroom I often perpetuated it as an instructor in the classroom.

B López: It definitely makes me think about how the University makes certain things more complicated than they have to be. More than anything it makes me think about the ways I can continue to advocate for emergency funding and funding in general for BIPOC students. In the past, I’ve received pushback about receiving funding for BIPOC students in my program. COVID-19 demonstrates the kind of support—both monetary and emotional support—that is needed to succeed. I feel like there is more exigence now while we are still in this pandemic. I think that graduate students can support one another by advocating for BIPOC students and other folks in the margins who need more from the university. In general, I feel like graduate students already have too many rules and now is the time for admin and faculty to actively demonstrate their support to us.

D’Arcee Neal: I wholeheartedly support the notion that BIPOC students need more funding and support. Considering the academy built itself off and away from any of our intellectual (and oftentimes physical) labors, then if we’re trying to truly have a discussion about equity and making sure more BIPOC people appear and thrive in the academy, then you have to be in a position to physically do something to change the playing field. You can’t simply sit around and wish that more funding would appear to help you get those “dream candidates” as you stare at your various diversity working groups. That requires investment, cultivation, mentoring, and support to raise the entire community of academics to a standard it claims to represent.

How has COVID19 changed your approach to your graduate school experience and to your thoughts and plans for the future? 
Selfie of D’Arcee Neal.

D’Arcee Neal: I think if anything this situation has forced me to be more vocal about questioning the decisions my department makes in regards to my educational future and my research. In the past, you could simply just go to a professor’s office to see who was around and ask questions, and I know now that in the world of Zoom office-hour requests and rest, making more time for students has become a game where you balance your own world with the requests of the students that work with you. Whereas before I would’ve simply waited, these days, I freely move between the administration and the faculty to get answers to my questions because of the situation. We all know this is stressful, and to prevent adding more stress to my schedule I need help, even if it’s not always from the same people. It has also made me super thankful for the therapy and mental health services the university offers, and I take advantage of it every chance I get.

Being black in a primarily white institution is already difficult, but with the pandemic, such things can threaten to swallow you whole if you let it. I think when I do go on the market, I most definitely plan to ask any future employers what their response to COVID was, and very specifically how they supported their faculty during the crisis. It will be telling to hear directly what plans and direct actions they took to ensure the health and wellbeing of their employees, and it’s something that will empower me both as a job seeker and future faculty member in a world where everything has changed. 

B López: Yes!! I completely feel that about being forced to be even more vocal about questioning the decisions that departments make. I love that you’re going to ask your future employers what their response to covid was because that’s so important and speaks to how they’re going to react to future crises, and how they will support you. I would even add that you might wanna ask their current graduate and undergrad students how their Department really reacted because we know departments can perform support but not actually be about it.

Dylan Colvin: I’m pretty extroverted and really thrive off conversations that happen in the in-between— hallways, offices, parking lots. It has been a rough transition that feels very isolated. I hadn’t really gotten the chance to build community here and I was the only PhD to come in last year. It has been good in some ways. I feel a lot closer to the reading and writing I do. Going through a strike as I finished my PhD application really shifted my thoughts and plans for the future. It frames every question I ask of the faculty I work with, every interaction. I wouldn’t say I necessarily feel confident about where I’ll end up, but I feel more confident in making sure I know how to work with my peers to get what we need and to uplift each other.

D’Arcee Neal’s cat Shuri assisting with work.

B López: I feel like my answer is going to be sad but it’s the truth. It’s definitely going to help me in terms of advocating for funding, but it also reminds me it will continue to be hard to do so because of the lack of support my department has for BIPOC folks. A BIPOC student had to ask them if they were going to give a statement in support of BLM protestors?? That’s sad but that is the truth. COVID is going to allow me to give the most honest perspective about remote learning/teaching specifically in terms of not needing to be in a physical space with other graduate students and faculty who oftentimes do not see me, care for me, and/or advocate for me/with me. I’ve actually really enjoyed not being in the same space with people in my department because it’s been such a toxic space for so long. Being able to work from home has helped my mental health in terms of helping me preserve my energy and emotional labor.

D’Arcee Neal: That’s real talk, B. It’s a lot easier to do your work in a place where your energy flow is usually calm and happy, than having to dodge and weave around microaggressions or ignorance on the daily. I’ll say that I’m seeing much more of my apartment that I ever wanted these days, but I can’t deny that at least I know I have the opportunity to get good work done because the vibes are good, the music is good, the food is tasty, and my cat will never ask me about my hair. I feel this!

Dylan Colvin: I really appreciate this. I think it is so telling that the first question in every department ‘listening session’ is something about ‘seeing’ the issues in the field, or how we can ‘see’ students more fully. It just makes me think about the damaging ways ‘seeing’ can be used.

Cultural rhetorics values storytelling as one of its key methodologies. How do you think graduate students can use their personal stories of living through COVID19 as a way to bring about change for themselves and for others?  
D’Arcee Neal working on Twitter.

D’Arcee Neal: So much of our work in English revolves around the conceptions of power and agency, and working during COVID is the realization of that work in realtime on the ground. I would encourage students to think about the ways their own bodies have come to work in their world, and to use that to inform their thinking and theories. We have to consider in the age of the Black Plague and other massive times of death and uncertainty that the work of imagination, of looking at inequality and societal change,  didn’t stop. There were academics who did the same kind of work that we are doing now, and their words remind us now that such things are not permanent, even as their results may be. I think putting yourself in the space of your type of research, and thinking about how you might be affected by the work you do (even if it’s not directly related to your experiences), thinking about how you might read the work you produce in the world now, will help to construct a deeper connection to the research in ways you never imagined. I’m not saying everyone should look at the pandemic and draw inspiration from such things (and in many ways, I’m very much averse to such things as I look at the ways black disabled life continues to exist and flourish through Afrofuturism) but I think considering the ways massive change works to both affect and effect the world is something that cannot be ignored; on the contrary. It can help you produce real and substantive work that is both relevant and poignant to people you may never meet.

B López: Ooooh yes to putting yourself in the space of your type of research and thinking about the ways you will be affected by it. That’s so important! Thinking about how the work impacts me emotionally sometimes gets me stuck in a sad place. My good friend told me that BIPOC folks have been doing work, but we just need someone to tell us we can submit the work we have been doing. Oftentimes, I will think too much about imposter syndrome and forget about my capabilities and potential. I think graduate students can use their personal stories of living through COVID 19 as a way to bring change for themselves and others by being honest about the struggles they encountered. When potential graduate students reach out to me about my program and Department, I will definitely let them know what it was like living here during a pandemic and the lack of support I received. I mean just reading about some of the support that Dylan and D’Arcee have from their universities is kind of triggering-— I’m happy for them and also think we all deserve more support than we are given. Support isn’t the right word there, it’s another way to describe this, but the pandemic has taught me that folks who are most marginalized are going to continue to be marginalized (and ignored) so we need to receive something more than support.

Our existence needs to be seen and valued. I need faculty and admin to do better. There needs to be more BIPOC faculty hires and efforts to keep them here. Also this makes me want to expand the BIPOC support community I’ve helped create here because we need more than a handful of folks. We all have our bad days (for some of us it’s more than days), and we need more people in our community ready to support each other. I’m not talking about just calls or FaceTime calls but food deliveries, community refrigerators, and honest hourly check-ins.

Darcee Neal books during COVID.

D’Arcee: That part. For the life of me, if I’m being honest I cannot understand how universities with ridiculously large endowments cannot figure out how to pay their GAs in the time of a crisis, while continuing to charge tuition and randomly explained fees. I think that if they were openly demonstrating the ability to support students in the ways you suggest, people would be much more likely to approve and assist in the various kinds of circumstances that arise with a diverse student population. It’s just staggeringly bag optics when adjunct and GA positions are cut while administrations continue to draw huge salaries, with nary a mention of how they are lending their support beyond sending out truth-bent emails that change on the hour. That said, I’m trying to stay in the space of the belief everyone really is just doing the best they can in the face of an unfathomable level of uncertainty. But just because things are difficult, doesn’t give the academy an excuse to lower its own standards of excellence, it just requires new ways of reaching the goals, which BIPOC people have been doing for generations. Maybe they could learn a thing or two from us.

Dylan Colvin: I think it is so important to redefine what support means. I mean, I was so excited that they provided a laptop for me to work. And yet, I would never expect my partner (an engineer) to feel grateful for being provided the tools needed to do his job. Sure, that was support—but it clearly supported them too. I totally understand how hearing of that support would be triggering. I know I was shocked to hear of friends who were supported in their moves when they got into PhD programs. I would have never thought to ask for that. I know I often relied on the food people would bring into the office and I don’t see that sort of support provided or discussed.

B López: D’Arcee, I stay skeptical about admin’s roles because they have been acting the same pre-pandemic and during the pandemic. I get what you mean though about thinking that everyone is doing the best they can yet they don’t seem to extend this same thinking when it comes to GA’s and students. I feel like the pandemic has given some folks more of a power trip because they can hide behind their screens-— I can’t always see the ways their microaggressions and racism comes out through email. I’ve heard horror stories about the expectations some instructors have for their students over Zoom, and I can’t believe how ableist and classist they can be! They can definitely learn a few things from us, but they have to pay us first for sharing our knowledge.

Dylan Colvin: I spent a lot of my life trying to hide my life outside of school. School was the place I had control. I didn’t want teachers or classmates to know I didn’t have the resources to complete certain assignments or that I didn’t always have reliable access to internet, meals, clean uniforms. I found so many ways to hide my family and my neighborhood. I’ll also say that, obviously, this was a privilege. I’m a white woman who is able to easily blend into these institutions. And for a long time all I wanted was to blend. I would go without meals, I put myself in risky situations to complete school, and I’m sure I unknowingly made life harder for others by refusing to call out school administration for their policies. It was also really lonely because I pushed people away so they wouldn’t know the financial struggles I was going through. I guess, what I’m getting at is I wish I had felt like I had a space to be honest throughout my education. I’m realizing now that it was a safe place because it was created to be safe for people like me, and how harmful it was for many of my friends who aren’t white. I want to work harder to support each other through that sort of honesty.

B López: I hear you about hiding and control— I-feel that deeply. If people can be this honest and also hold space for BIPOC folks to do the same, then damn that’s the kind of support that would make a huge difference.

Works Cited

Zahneis , Megan, and Audrey Williams June. “How Has the Pandemic Affected Graduate 

Students? This Study Has Answers.” Chronicle.com, 3 Sept. 2020, 

www.chronicle.com/article/how-has-the-pandemic-affected-graduate-students-this-

study-has-answers?bc_nonce=ea2eprqn3der1znpj4qpwi. 

About the Authors

D’Arcee Charington is a 2nd year PhD student in English and Disability Studies at The Ohio State University in Rhetoric, Composition and Language. His work focuses at the intersections of digital media, narrative and rhetoric, as he considers the problem of ableism produced throughout Afrofuturism, or Afrophantasm.  Noting the absence of digital black disabled work, he is currently producing an immersive audio narrative alongside his dissertation research; as well as an essay in College, Composition, and Communication on Hidden Disabled Black Technoculture, and a chapter in Futures of Cartoons Past: The Cultural Politics of X-Men: The Animated Series discussing Storm’s oft-missed role as a black disabled woman, both currently in progress. 

Dylan Colvin is a 2nd year PhD student in Rhetoric and Professional Communication at New Mexico State University in the English Department. At NMSU she teaches composition and technical communications and works as a writing center consultant. As a writing program coordinator she pursues her interest in curriculum design, critical pedagogy, and Writing Across the Curriculum. She does research in posthuman pedagogy; embodiment, place/space, and complexity in composition; and labor issues in higher education. She enjoys spending time with friends outside academia talking about and doing writing, art, and theory projects beyond/through campus spaces. One such project can be found in the recent collection, Teaching Gloria E. Anzaldúa Pedagogy and Practice for Our Classrooms and Communities in a co-author chapter entitled “‘May We Do Work that Matters. Vale la Pena.’: Gloria Anzaldúa from Classroom to Community.” Currently, she is doing some communal thinking through of extensions to that project that focus on graffiti, composition, and conociemento. 

B Lopez is a Composition and Cultural Rhetoric doctoral student at Syracuse University and a Writing Instructor in the Department of Writing Studies, Rhetoric, and Composition. They are also the Assistant Director for the Rhetoric Society of America’s Summer Institute at SU and Assistant Director for SU’s Writing Across the Curriculum. They do research in Trans Rhetorics and Writing Studies. They are the co-producer for This Rhetorical Life, a podcast created by graduate students in Syracuse University’s Composition and Cultural Rhetoric program. They most recently contributed to a co-authored policy report for the Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics, “Combating White Supremacy in a Pandemic: Antiracist, Anticapitalist, and Socially Just Policy Recommendations in Response to COVID-19.” B has taught WRT 105: Practices of Academic Writing, WRT 205: Critical Research and Writing, WRT 114: Creative Nonfiction, and WRT 105: Design Learning Community.

About the Moderator

Alexandra Hidalgo is an award-winning Venezuelan filmmaker, theorist, and editor, whose documentaries have been official selections for film festivals in 15 countries and been screened at universities around the United States, and whose videos and writing have been featured on The Hollywood Reporter, IndieWire, NPR, and Women and Hollywood. She is assistant professor of Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures and co-director of the Doc Lab at Michigan State University. Her video book Cámara Retórica: A Feminist Filmmaking Methodology for Rhetoric and Composition received the 2017 Computers and Composition Distinguished Book Award. Her academic video essays have been published in Enculturation, Kairos, Present Tense, and Peitho, among others. She is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the digital publication agnès films: supporting women and feminist filmmakers and of the peer-reviewed journal constellations: a cultural rhetorics publishing space.

Production Credits:

Copy Editors: Alexandra Hidalgo and Naomi Johnson

Editorial Assistant: Tina Puntasecca

Posted by: Naomi Johnson

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Re)Composing Our Consent: Critical Digital Literacies as Remixed Terms of Service

Lucy Anne Johnson, The University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

October 5, 2020

 

Our bodies are vulnerable. In 2020 we have had to protect our physical bodies in ways that have asked us to contend with digital spaces as essential channels for communication (if perhaps they weren’t already). While we protected our physical bodies by sheltering in place, our digital footprints grew larger—utilizing digital networks to form a sense of community in times of isolation, and also to adapt new ways of working, learning, and doing.

This is about keeping our digital bodies safe. More specifically, this is a piece about developing critical digital literacies in the first-year writing classroom as a way to protect digital bodies alongside the physical—before, during, and after a pandemic.

In 2012, Anne Wysocki argued that we enact two bodies when we communicate: the perceiving and perceived (“Introduction,” Composing (Media)= Composing (Embodiment). As it pertains to communication online, users have come to enact the identity of a perceived body. Under this identity, the perceived body has become the product, where our embodied data is sold to third-parties, filtered by algorithms, and masked as an invisible identity to which we have little-to-no knowledge of or control over (Beck, “The Invisible Digital Identity”). In an age of constant surveillance and continuous online violations of privacy, the penetrating gaze of big data has left our on-and-offline bodies vulnerable to exploitation of our personal information.

As writing teachers continue to bridge the gap between classroom and public-facing composing, Erin Brock Carlson argued that social media spaces “have been utilized…because of their presence in our daily lives, as well as the opportunities they provide to discuss identity in digital spaces” (“Navigating Shifting Social Media Networks”). While digital spaces like social media platforms allow users to create anonymous or altered versions of their physical bodies, they also can “promote the illusion that digital spaces are invisible, a misleading transparency that allows these interfaces, as well as the bodies bringing them into play, to be used and yet go unseen” (Bridgman et al., 87). As educators, if we’re inviting digital spaces that collect, sell, and use our data, then we have a responsibility to teach critical digital literacies to students on the ways in which these practices unfold. During a time when more classrooms are meeting online versus off, due to COVID-19, I argue that what Beck referred to as “the invisible digital identity” becomes essential.

In what follows, I offer a brief discussion of an assignment in my first-year writing course where students develop critical digital literacies through harnessing their perceiving bodies. Rather than passively consuming information about their rights on social media, students enact the rhetorical positionally of sousveillance through:

• The analysis and remix of social media.
• Terms of Service (ToS) documents.
• Producing multimodal texts that (re)claim and (re)invent knowledge concerning user rights and privacy by selecting a target audience.
• Researching how they may be vulnerable based on their identities and use.
• Remixing ToS content so that it is more accessible and readable in order to protect, educate, and empower these users.

A cultural rhetoric approach to critical digital literacies considers the larger social and hegemonic structures affecting online communication. A small part of a cultural rhetorics approach to critical digital literacies is asking students to remix for target audiences that are vulnerable to the exploitation of their data based on their use. By constellating the ways in which users compose and navigate social media, the ToS remix project recomposes the doctrine of consent, allowing users to reclaim how that information is understood, communicated, and delivered. Figure 1 showcases the first element of the ToS remix assignment, where students first consider their target audience, weaving an identification of audience together with questions concerning the rhetorical situation and multimodal authoring—that is, how they identify genre, context, and other necessary elements for producing effective communication within a given setting. From there, Figure 2 illustrates the second step, where students are then tasked with researching how their chosen community uses social media through an annotated audience bibliography.

Image of assignment instructions.
Figure 1: Identifying Audience and Rhetorical Situation in the Terms of Service Remix Assignment
Instructions to assignment.
Figure 2: Annotated Bibliography Requirements for Terms of Service Remix Assignment

Beginning with inquiry that researches how communities (i.e. nursing homes, women’s shelters, and/or groups on campus) use social media allows students to then select a specific social media platform, followed by them examining the relationship of form and content in a focused proposal. Asking students to create a proposal not only details a plan for which sections of the ToS best apply to their target audience, but also asks them to think through the design elements necessary to reach their audience effectively (see Figure 3). Such an approach critically prepares for the practice of remix as a way to productively, safely navigate, and understand Web 2.0 (Arola, “The Rise of the Template, The Fall of Design”).

Instructions of an assignment.
Figure 3: Proposal Requirements for the Terms of Service Remix Assignment

The scaffolded approach to the ToS remix stresses metacognitive check-ins which ask students to explain their choices on a variety of levels (see Figure 4). Not only are students asked to consider which portions of the ToS best align with their chosen community’s use, but also how the form of their remix is the best genre and approach for successfully delivering that content. Taken together, the final product of the remix itself as an execution of the proposal can serve as an act of sousveillance, which is an act of watching the watchers. Enacting sousveillance can position students as perceiving bodies, where they respond to the data exploitation and privacy issues of specific communities. Students conclude the project by repeating a metacognitive check-in through a reflection essay, where they explain the choices they made from proposal to remix, detailing how some choices shifted during the drafting and mock up processes in order to produce the most effective text for their chosen community (see Figure 4).

Instructions of an assignment.
Figure 4: Remix and Reflection Requirements for Terms of Service Remix Assignment

With an eye toward the communities themselves as recipients through remix, subverting larger hegemonic surveillance structures becomes imperative in cultivating critical digital literacies as an act of sousveillance online. Public-facing remix cultivates a cultural rhetorics approach that considers sousveillance an act of reclaiming consent, protecting our bodies and the bodies of others, and navigating the impotence of digital networks as we continue to embed digital networks as part of our teaching. Whether you’ve been infusing digital networks beyond a course LMS prior to COVID-19, or perhaps are entertaining the idea, a proactive attention to the ways in which the potential harm and exploitation of these spaces may impact students is essential. The ToS remix is one way to approach bridging a gap between what students are already familiar with (social media) to the unknown (digital footprints and privacy issues).

Whether we are online or off, our bodies are sacred. We should treat our digital bodies with the same care as we instill in our physical world.

Works Cited

Arola, Kristin L. “The Design of Web 2.0: The Rise of the Template, The Fall of Design.” Computers and Composition 27.1 (2010): 4-14.
Beck, Estee. “The Invisible Digital Identity: Assemblages in Digital Networks.” Computers and Composition 35.1 (2015): 125-140.
Bridgman, Katherine, Fleckenstein, Kristie, and Scott Gage. “Reanimating the Answerable Body: Rhetorical Looking and the Digital Interface.” Computers and Composition 53.1 (2019) 86-95.
Brock Carlson, Erin. “Navigating Shifting Social Media Networks: An Ecological Approach to Anonymous Mobile Applications.” Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technoloy, and Pedagogy 22.2. 2018.
Wysocki, Anne. “Introduction: Into Between—On Composition in Mediation.” Composing Media Composing Embodiment. Eds. Kristin L. Arola and Anne F. Wysocki. Logan: Utah State University Press, 2012. 1-22.

About the Author

Dr. Lucy A Johnson is an assistant professor of Digital Literacies at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Her research focuses intersections of digital and cultural rhetorics to understand, question, and teach digital literacy. Lucy earned her MA in English Pedagogy at Northern Michigan University and her PhD in Rhetoric and Composition from Washington State University. During her time as a graduate student, Lucy also co-founded the graduate student listserv, NextGEN. Lucy’s work has appeared in Enculturation, Peitho, and the international journal, Res Rhetorica. Currently, she serves as the co-editor for the Reviews section of Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy.

PRODUCTION CREDITS:

Copyeditor: Naomi Johnson

Pedagogy Blog Editor: Andrea Riley-Mukavetz

Editorial Assistant: Tina Puntasecca

Considering the Possibilities of a Cultural Rhetorics Assessment Framework

Gavin P. Johnson, Christian Brothers University

August 2020

 

When universities shifted instruction online amid the spread of COVID-19 last spring, the question of assessment emerged almost immediately. Calls for a Pass/Fail option circulated through social media (#PassFailNation), news articles, university listservs, and, eventually, administrative exchanges. Allison Stanger, writing for The Chronicle of Higher Education in March, argued, “Faculty members could focus on engaging students for learning in demanding circumstances. Students would get a respite from direct competition with their peers to focus on both individual growth and doing their part in a common endeavor (a skill we are very much going to need in the months ahead).” To her critics, Stranger explained, “In normal times it makes sense to have individual faculty members determine fair assessment. But these are not normal times.”

And, certainly, these still are not normal times and, thus, normal modes of assessment are inadequate. However, we, as cultural rhetoricians and teachers, should ask, “If ‘normal assessment’ is inflexible, causes anxiety, distracts faculty, and forces students into competition, what is the use of ever going back to ‘normal assessment’?” Asao Inoue, Mya Poe, Matt Gomes, and Ellen Cushman, among others, remind us that classroom assessment traditionally harbors and reifies white cis-hetero-abled supremacist and colonial ideologies further entangling those dangerous logics with the ideals of higher education. Even as we make important moves toward cultural rhetorics pedagogies (Hutchinson Campos, episode 32), assessment, not pedagogy, is where we have to put up or shut up on our values and ethics as teachers[1].

In the remainder of this post, I engage the four defining pillars of cultural rhetorics, as defined by Phil Bratta and Malea Powell and recently discussed by Maria Novotny, to consider the possibilities of a cultural rhetorics assessment framework.

Story as Theory: Sharing Our Assessment Experiences

This is my story. Failing a 1st grade spelling test is one of my earliest school memories. After receiving my test, bloodied by the teacher’s red pen, I began to cry. Mrs. Judy, my teacher, consoled me by saying: “You’ll do better next time, if you try harder.” Mrs. Judy’s policy required every misspelled word written five times each as homework, and my mom had her own policy requiring me to write each misspelled word five additional times. I wrote the assigned words again and again…until my hand cramped. Alongside the manual punishment, there was an element of shame because the “top students” would receive praise with their names being posted on the board for everyone to see. I’m quite sure my name never made it on the board. This cycle of shame, anxiety, failure, and punishment continued throughout elementary school. I’m still a horrible speller.

When sharing this story with students I first ask them to consider their own histories of assessment and how they have affectively entangled learning and assessment. Do they feel like they understand the point of assessment? How do they respond when reviewing a teacher’s feedback? Has their relationship to assessment changed over time and across different curricula? Second, we talk frankly about the affordances and constraints of grades. And while grades should not be synonymous with assessment, they are powerful symbols that dominate many of our experiences. Sharing our stories, be it in person or through discussion boards, demystifies the normative disguise of colonial logics embedded in assessment and grading practices.

Engagement with Decoloniality: Delinking Grades and Assessment

Elsewhere, I write about grades as a technology of surveillance linked to colonial ideas about language, correctness, and social rank. Grades as a colonial system linked to the practice of assessment re-inscribes a pedagogy of policing where students are conditioned to be less concerned about building knowledges and more concerned about not meeting the stated normal. Current critical conversations like Inoue’s labor-based assessment and Jesse Stommel’s #ungrading offer ways for delinking grades from assessment and learning.

Decoloniality also helps us understand the importance of localizing and situating assessment practices as responses to the specific cultural knowledges being built in a classroom. In orienting my assessment practices, I have embraced both the labor model and the ungrading model in different courses, and both offer unique affordances and constraints. I believe what is important here is taking time in class to discuss these systems with students. Culturally reflective and sustaining assessment involves students in its creation as well as its implementation.

Constellating with Communities: Building Assessments Responsive to Coalitional Goals

The practice of constellating, Malea Powell explains, holds in tension the “impermanence, ambiguity, and subjectivity” that goes into making stories/knowledges that actively delink from western logics. Such a task cannot be done alone, and Queer and Feminist People of Color have made clear that our movements are only strong if our coalitions are diverse. In terms of assessment, we must take the many perspectives students bring into classrooms and hold them together. Students will have stories that echo each other as well as stories that are uniquely colored by local practices. Some stories may be devasting while others empowering. Constellating the various stories help us to acknowledge and respect each other’s lived experiences, which are so often blurred by our acceptance of assessment practices as objective and fair.

Teachers, for example, might practice constellating by building certain rhetorical moves into their formal and informal assessments. Building, with students, rubrics that outlines student goals alongside course goals and, simultaneously, removing numerical or judgmental categories in favor of discursive feedback documents the work of constellating the competing but equally important considerations we balance when responding to student work.

Acknowledging All of Our Relations: The Ongoing Work of Assessment

Assessments, under colonial logics, may aim for the same goals – disciplining students and reinforcing dominate structures – but they certainly take many approaches. Sharing your own story, as I do above, and making space for student reflections on their previous experiences acknowledges our different experiences with assessment and demonstrates the complex mechanisms that must be disrupted. In acknowledging our interconnectivity through frameworks that not only upend dangerously limiting practices but also offer all of our relations space to exist and thrive, we, students and teachers, learn how to develop coalition assessment frameworks that support our decolonial practices.

But this acknowledgment is not a one-time performance. Within a specific class, teachers should invite stories and reflections throughout the semester so that the assessment frameworks do not shift back toward the very logics we seek to upend. Furthermore, this work cannot exist in the vacuum of a single course. Since the product of classroom assessments are meant to circulate beyond the classroom, so too must our cultural rhetorics framework. Using my privileges[2] and making transparent the work I do in the classroom with students has encouraged other teachers to do the same. This blog, I hope, will encourage you to begin designing your own framework for assessing student work.

***

When I dismissed class on March 5, 2020, wishing students a fun and safe spring break, I didn’t realize it was my last time in an Ohio State classroom. Within a few weeks, the majority of universities across the United States closed campuses and shifted courses from face-to-face to online delivery in the wake of the global pandemic, COVID-19. Resource rich websites quickly went up so students could “keep learning” and instructors could “keep teaching” – note the mandate to keep doing. The spring semester gave way to a summer term that has rapidly moved into a new fall semester, and many of our institutions demand we keep doing the work of higher education, which includes classroom assessments. But what if we don’t keep doing that work and instead seize this coalitional moment?[3]

As I prep my courses – at a new university in a new city – I look to all my relations as I develop assessment strategies and work with students to honor the knowledges they are building under “unprecedented” circumstances. For example, Henry Giroux recently wrote, “The magnitude of the [coronavirus] crisis offers new possibilities in which people can begin to rethink what kind of society, world and future they want to inhabit.” And, pre-COVID, Sara Ahmed suggested, “Queer use might describe this potential for an explosion, how small deviations, a loosening of a requirement, the creation of an exit point, opening a door to allow something to escape, can lead to more and more coming out” (p. 215). In this particular moment, finding something queerly useful within assessment structures will be painful and frustrating as our institutions push us to keep doing what we have always done. But finding something, anything, in the pain we are feeling, the frustration we are carrying, the work we can/will no longer do illustrates what might be possible in the here and now. We should not and cannot keep following assessment practices animated by western logics, colonial exploitation, and white cis-hetero-abled supremacy. Instead, I urge us, as cultural rhetoricians and teachers, to consider the possibilities of a cultural rhetorics assessment framework.

Works Cited

Ahmed, S. (2019). What’s the use: On the uses of use. Duke University Press.

Bratta, P. and Powell, M. (2016). Introduction to the special issue: Entering the cultural rhetorics conversations. enculturation: a journal of rhetoric, writing, and culture 21. Retrieved from http://enculturation.net/entering-the-cultural-rhetorics-conversations

Burke, L. (2020, March 19). #PassFailNation. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2020/03/19/colleges-go-passfail-address-coronavirus

Chávez, K. R. (2013). Queer migration politics: Activist rhetoric and coalitional possibilities. University of Illinois Press.

Cushman, E. (2016). Decolonizing validity. The Journal of Writing Assessment, 9(1). Retrieved from http://journalofwritingassessment.org/article.php?article=92

Inoue, A. B. (2015). Antiracist writing assessment ecologies: Teaching and assessing writing for a socially just future. WAC Clearinghouse.

—. (2020, April 11). How do you do labor-based grading in pre-existing curricula? Asao B. Inoue’s Infrequent Words. Retrieved from http://asaobinoue.blogspot.com/2020/04/how-do-you-do-labor-based-grading-in.html

Giroux, H. A. (2020, April 7). The COVID-19 pandemic is exposing the plague of neoliberalism. Truthout. Retrieved from https://truthout.org/articles/the-covid-19-pandemic-is-exposing-the-plague-of-neoliberalism/

Gomes, M. (2018). “Writing Assessment and Responsibility for Colonialism’.” In M. Poe, A. B. Inoue, and N. Elliot. Writing Assessment, Social Justice, and Advancement of Opportunity (pp. 203-227). Fort Collins, CO: The WAC Clearinghouse and University Press of Colorado.

Johnson, G.P. (2020). Grades as a technology of surveillance: Normalization, control, and big data in the teaching of writing. In E. Beck and L. Hutchinson (Eds.) Privacy matters: Surveillance in the classroom and beyond. Utah State University Press.

Keep Learning. (2020). Retrieved from https://keeplearning.osu.edu/

Keep Teaching. (2020). Retrieved from https://keepteaching.osu.edu/

Novotny, M. (2020, July 22). Cultural rhetorics in precarious times. Retrieved from https://www.writingandrhetoricmke.com/blog/cultural-rhetorics-in-precarious-times

Poe, M. (2013). Making digital writing assessment fair for diverse writers. In D. DeVoss and H. McKee (Eds.), Digital writing assessment and evaluation. Utah State UP Retrieved from: http://ccdigitalpress.org/dwae/01_poe.html

Powell, M. (2018). Interview – Malea Powell on story, survivance, & constellating as praxis. In L. Lane and D. Unger (Eds.) 4C4EQUALITY: Writing Networks for Social Justice. Retrieved from http://constell8cr.com/4c4e/interview_malea_powell

Stanger, A. (2020, March 19). Make all courses pass/fail now. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from https://www.chronicle.com/article/Make-All-Courses-Pass-Fail-Now/248281

Stommel, J. (2018, March 18). How to ungrade. Retrieved from https://www.jessestommel.com/how-to-ungrade/

Wood, S. (Host). (2020). Les Hutchinson Campos [Audio podcast episode 32]. In Pedagogue. https://www.pedagoguepodcast.com/episodes.html

Notes

[1] Inoue (2015) makes this point much more graciously when he writes: “I assume that all writing pedagogy is driven by the writing assessment ecology of the classroom, no matter what a teacher has done or how she thinks about her pedagogy, no matter what readings are discussed. Classroom writing assessment is more important than pedagogy because it always trumps what you say or what you attempt to do with your students. And students know this. They feel it.” (p. 9)

[2] I am a white cis-man in a tenure-track faculty position, and I am a queer, first-generation graduate from a southern working-poor family. The risks I take when disrupting crystalized systems are not the same risks others will bear. These material realities highlight, for me, the importance of diverse (in every sense of the word) and intersectional coalitions.

[3] Karma Chávez (2013) explains that “a coalitional moment occurs when political issues coincide or merge in the public sphere in ways that create space to reenvision and potentially reconstruct rhetorical imaginaries” (p. 8)

About the Author

Dr. Gavin P. Johnson (he/him/his), Assistant Professor in the Department of Literature and Languages at Christian Brothers University, is a teacher-scholar specializing in multimodal composition, cultural and queer rhetorics, community-engaged writing, and digital activism. His scholarship is published or forthcoming in Composition Studies, College Literacy and Learning, Peitho: The Journal of the Coalition of Feminist Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition, Pre/Text: A Journal of Rhetorical Theory, Computers and CompositionTeacher-Scholar-Activist, and various edited collections. He is a proud queer, first-generation college graduate from southeast Louisiana.

PRODUCTION CREDITS:

Copyeditor: Sophie Schmidt

Pedagogy Blog Editor: Andrea Riley-Mukavetz

Editorial Assistant: Tina Puntasecca

Academic #BlackLivesMatter: Black Faculty and Graduate Students Tell Their Stories

Sharieka Botex, Michigan State University

Michelle Grue, University of California, Santa Barbara

Alicia Hatcher, East Carolina University

Eric House, New Mexico State University

Sherita Roundtree, Townson University

 

Moderator: Alexandra Hidalgo

 

June 2020

 

Introduction

By Alexandra Hidalgo

Ever since George Floyd was murdered on May 25th by police officers, whose role should be to protect him, we at constellations have been wondering what the appropriate response to that crime is. As the murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Rayshard Brooks followed, it seemed at once urgent to respond but even more urgent to do so in a way that was richer and more nuanced than making an official statement asserting our belief that #BlackLivesMatter in a way that attended to Black scholars and the crucial work they do in our field and communities.  

Through this, the inaugural piece in our “Conversations in Cultural Rhetorics,” series, we seek to reassert our commitment to amplifying the voices of Black scholars and teachers and to continue to use our privilege as editors of a peer-reviewed publication to counter the systemic racism that results in the murders and marginalization of Black people in the United States and around the world. The problem with statements of this kind, of course, is that while they sound good, they are not always (or dare I say usually?) followed up with actions that result in countering the situation they denounce.  

At constellations we have always valued diverse voices, as founding editor-in-chief Malea Powell and I have mentioned in the introductions we’ve written to past issues. However, the conversation we need to have right now is not about diversity writ large but about our inclusion of Black voices and scholars. We have included and welcomed Black perspectives by having Black scholars as our managing editors, editorial board members, and reviewers. We also send our calls for proposals to the Black Caucus and consistently engage with Black scholars and issues they care about on social media. We have published Black authors discussing their experiences and non-Black authors writing about Black issues. And yet, we need to do more. We need to have more Black managing editors and more Black reviewers and to be more assiduous in our pursuit of publishing Black scholars. If you’re a Black scholar interested in becoming a managing editor or a reviewer and have questions about what that would entail, please don’t hesitate to contact us and if you have work that you think might fit our journal, please send it along.

We will, of course, do more than making that call here. Our whole team is committed to inviting Black voices and perspectives to play a larger role in our publication, both by participating in our editorial processes and by having their scholarship featured on our journal. We are additionally committed to deepening rhetorical practices that reflect the suggestions our Black colleagues provide in this conversation. 

As the editor-in-chief of constellations, I have the privilege of being able to make such a statement and to follow through with it. However, being a Latina with white coloring and features, I am not in any way qualified to talk about the Black experience in the United States, even if I have spent much of my adult life reading the work of Black scholars and writers and watching films by Black filmmakers. The idea of our “Conversations in Cultural Rhetorics” series is to invite those who have the knowledge, experience, and willingness to discuss a vital topic to our society and to do so through written interactions that we then edit and publish.

For our first conversation we have invited these five Black scholars:  

  • Sharieka Botex, a doctoral student at Michigan State University. 
  • Michelle Grue, a faculty member at University of California, Santa Barbara.
  • Alicia Hatcher, a doctoral student at East Carolina University.
  • Eric House, assistant professor at New Mexico State University. 
  • Sherita Roundtree, assistant professor at Towson University.

We invited them because we find that their thinking, perspectives, and activist practices provide exactly the kind of insight we need as a journal, as a field, and a country as we figure out how to counter the systemic and consistent devaluing of Black lives in all aspects of American society.

As the conversation’s moderator, I wrote most of the questions (managing editor Ana Milena Ribero and assistant editor Tina Puntasecca wrote one question each), and I observed our authors as they answered the questions and interacted with each other on a Google doc where we’d all agreed to meet for an hour on Monday, June 22. The conversation spilled over past two hours and some of our authors generously continued their thought processes for a day after that.

When I returned to the piece, I condensed some of the statements so that the ideas were preserved but the amount of time scholars spent on each topic was somewhat balanced. I also linked the names and organizations our authors mention so readers can trace a lineage to the ideas, individuals, and institutions that have shaped our authors’ thinking and growth. In order to avoid crowding the document with links, I only linked a person or organization the first time they were mentioned and I tried to link them to the most stable link I could find. If they didn’t have professional websites, I linked Wikipedia pages, and lastly university pages, while acknowledging that the latter are most likely to change. Although all my linking will no doubt result in some links eventually being broken, I wanted to create paths for readers to find those who have shaped our extraordinary authors in their intellectual and professional trajectories. 

And now, we welcome you to this rich and complex conversation by Black members of our academic community discussing some of the most challenging issues we face today in and outside university settings.

What was your journey for getting into academia, and how does your racial identity shape your teaching, scholarship, and your sense of belonging in Rhetoric and Composition?  
Protesters at a #BlackLivesMatter march in Lansing, Michigan on June 10, 2020. Photo by Alexandra Hidalgo.

Alicia Hatcher: My journey has definitely had ebbs and flows and was never a straight line. Once I earned my BA in English, I quickly saw it as more of a foundational degree than a functional one. I was working at Laboratory Corporation of America at the time, but my degree didn’t really impact me economicallynot like I had hoped/thought it would. It also didn’t allow me to grow with the company, which was another hope. I was able to make several lateral moves, but upward mobility evaded me. 

I also was thinking about the back end of my lifehow that would look, how I WANTED it to lookand how I could have a positive impact on other people while doing something that I might enjoy. That also included things like economic security (I had a daughter in high school) and flexibility (because I was no longer excited about a 9-5 desk job and, again, I had a daughter in high school). I thought back over my academic trajectory, and English was the one subject that I not only enjoyed but that I did well in. And I thought about my professors. They seemed to have it easyat least from my perspective! And even if it wasn’t easy, there was definite flexibility and autonomy. With that in mind, I looked into MA in English programs in my area. I applied to North Carolina Central University and earned my MA in 2010, confident that I would get a full-time teaching position. I didn’t. 

What I did get, however, was an opportunity to participate in Guilford Technical Community College’s Faculty-in-Training (FIT) program (Jamestown, NC). The program was designed for people who have a degree but who lack the teaching experience. They provided me with a faculty mentor, and I taught classes and worked in their writing center.  As a result of the experience I gained in GTCC’s FIT program, I was hired as a full-time instructor at Fayetteville Technical Community College in Fayetteville, NC. A few years later, I also began teaching as an adjunct at North Carolina Central University. I figured that if I ever went back to pursue a PhD, it would be in English Literature. But at the time, it was more of a tangential notion. I was happy to NOT be in school, and I also had no desire to add to my student loans! 

But while I was teaching at NCCU, Dr. Temptatous McCoy brought East Carolina University’s PhD in Rhetoric, Writing, and Professional Communication program to the attention of Dr. Wendy Rountree, the (then) chair of NCCU’s Department of Languages and Literature. Dr. Rountree, who had served on my MA thesis committee, said, “If you’re still interested in getting your PhD, this might be the time.” At the time, I knew nothing about the disciplines of rhetoric or technical communication other than the fact that the degree was housed in ECU’s English department. However, after talking with Dr. McCoy (who was an ECU grad student at the time), I began to get a clearer understanding of not only what the program was about, but also of the ways in which the faculty worked to support and elevate the work of students from traditionally marginalized populations. I applied and began in the Fall of 2017, and now I’m beginning my final year of the program!

My racial identity definitely shapes my teaching, scholarship, and my sense of belonging in Rhetoric and Composition. My research agenda aligns with how I self-identify and has been influenced by my teaching and research experience. As a Black woman and someone who has taught primarily at a local community college with a majority Black population, as a sister of three Black men, and as an aunt of a young Black boy, I am acutely aware of the struggles that Black men have had to endure both historically and in our contemporary world, in and outside of the classroom. The research I’ve done as a graduate student, both in my MA program and this PhD program, reflects this awareness and is connected by a common thread—an emphasis on Black men in America and their efforts to navigate and survive in spaces and places that were not originally designed with them in mind. This does not, in any way, disregard the experiences of Black women in our society; however, my MA coursework on Ellison’s Invisible Man has served as the foundation for my current research agenda, which focuses on 1) performance and performativity, 2) space and place, and 3) how they are used together to engage in acts of resistance. 

Sherita Roundtree: I came to academia through my work as an undergraduate tutor. Many of the tutors at my institution expressed how much they enjoyed working as writing tutors; however, tutoring for them was not much more than a high paying campus job. In my case, Writing Center Studies theories that I read impassioned me to begin putting those theories into practice and think critically about how I interacted with writers who used our writing center. The director at the time offered encouragement and support to start attending and presenting at academic conferences. Despite my involvement in the academic conversations about writing center theories and practices, I felt disconnected with the scholarships and centers.

Prior to working at my undergraduate institution’s writing center, at a glance, I infrequently saw Black writers walking in to discuss their current projects or the concerns they may have had about their writing. More importantly, I did not see Black tutors working in the writing center because there were not any Black tutors on staff at the time. The lack of belongingness that I experienced led me to believe that I was not qualified to apply for a tutoring position and deterred me from utilizing the center’s services. It was a personal recommendation from the director of the Multicultural Center that helped to initiate trust between the writing center director and myself, which continued to grow over time. Through much of her persistence and belief in my desire to learn, she created an opportunity for me to attend my first Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) during the spring of my junior year. In the spring of my junior year, I attended the 2011 CCCC. It was unlike the two writing center conferences at which I presented within that academic year. Apart from my director, I did not know anyone at the conference and I did not see anyone who looked like me. Although the somewhat racial monolith of writing center conferences helped me grow accustomed to being the only Black person in any given space, I found myself standing in the middle of the CCCC hotel floor questioning how the space accounted for me. Perhaps, more immediately, I recognized a mistrust that developed in me toward the conference, the field, and the folks in it. 

After wandering around for a while and attempting to make sense of the massive conference program, I noticed a Black woman with her edges slicked back into a large afro puff, walking with a small group of other Black men and women into one of the conference rooms. At the time, there was only one Black woman professor at my undergraduate university and I was unaware that there were Black women professors in the field of Composition and Rhetoric because the writing center scholarship that I read up until attending the CCCC did not make this information evident. While I did not know this at the time, the Black woman with the afro puff was Dr. Elaine Richardson (Dr. E). I quickly followed in the room after her and listened to a panel presentation that addressed issues of race and language politics in the composition classroom. At some point, someone announced that it was important for those in the audience to attend the NCTE/CCCC Black Caucus meeting later on and continue to engage with the topics that the panel presenters addressed. I attended the Black Caucus meeting later and the rest is history. Although I do not do a lot of writing center work anymore due to the lack of belonging I felt, I actively work to develop opportunities and showcase representation across this work. I often introduce myself to my students each semester as a Black woman professor despite many of them almost immediately seeing that for themselves. But there is a significant difference between seeing and acknowledging. And moving from acknowledging to considering the implications of that knowledge is work I help students do for themselves but also in relationship to my pedagogy. 

For me, finding composition should not be a journey of happenstance. To some degree, academic happenstance was how I entered into the field. However, through my scholarship and teaching (and even in my early stages of mentorship), I honor practices of naming areas in our work that make the journey that much more complicated for Black folks. I work to make these gaps in support and representation especially clear as I support graduate students and early career teachers of writing so that we do not continue to replicate academic erasure of Black experiences in classrooms. 

Michelle Grue: Sherita, I, too, started my journey to academia through my work as a writing center tutor. I came into academia through a circuitous path that also started with my work as a writing center tutor, because it was that work that both helped me to see that I really could help people with their writing and gave me my initial frameworks for writing instruction and scholarship. Due to that experience, I had the opportunity to become an academic advisor and tutor to athletes at a Division I university, which helped me both see the ways I, as a Black woman, had internalized racism throughout my life and at my predominantly white undergraduate institution, but also that my race and culture actually could make a material impact on my pedagogy, my scholarship, and my service to students. This led me into K-12 teaching, but I knew after two years of actually teaching that I really was meant to return to higher education and work with college students. So then pregnant me decided to listen to the call my fellow Black educator friend was sending out to join her in applying to graduate schools. 

In terms of how my racial identity shapes my teaching, scholarship, and sense of belonging in Rhetoric and Composition, that’s a more complicated question. I would say my racial identity shapes my teaching in a few key ways. I am always rhetorically aware of how my race impacts different folks’ perception of me, especially as a plus-sized woman who is also a mom. I have to be intentional in the process of cultivating a pedagogy of care, which has been especially important in forming my pandemic pedagogy, that I do not allow folks to see me too much as a mammy figure. But, I also have to be careful in how I correct students or critique teaching colleagues, because I do not want to be read as angry and thus dismissed. So I do a fair amount of intentional framing, make choices about dress and hair, etc., to both protect myself and yet stay true to who I am as a Black woman who believes in the power of her representative presence on campus. While I certainly have felt isolation on my campus due to being one of the only, as we so often are, I have found my racial identity has helped me find belonging in the field as a whole. In particular, being selected as one of the Scholars for the Dream recipients connected me to others in the field, as did Digital Black Lit and Composition and nextGen.  

Alicia Hatcher: Michelle, I really felt what you’re saying about having to consciously tow various lines and your efforts as “intentional framing.” We have to maintain an awareness of how we look, what we wear, how we critique, how we engagebecause we are aware that we are going to be read as something in addition to instructor/professor. I know this tends to be true of women, period, but I believe it’s especially true of Black women who have already been caricatured and stereotyped as a societal norm. I remember when one of my white students said that I had “an agenda” because the course was designedand taughtwith social justice and equity in mind. Mind you, this was a course that was designed before I arrived on ECU’s campus, and I was (still am) a graduate teaching assistant teaching it. I’m left with the question, “Would this student have 1) thought this or 2) said this if I was a white man teaching this course?” I’m sure he would have thought it, but would he have actually said it? Or does my Black womaness automatically allow my authority to be trumpedat least in his mindby his 20-year-old white-maleness? 

Eric House: I come from a family of educators, so I’ve always had an affinity for the class space, and I had very close and tangible examples of what Black educators and administrators could be. My writing in undergrad seemed to always center on explorations of identity and culture, and as a result I was encouraged by professors that I worked the closest with to imagine what that sort of work might become in graduate school. I think I was able to really see what my interests and ideas could become in my first year of grad school as I was blessed to have a dope cohort and an inspiring group of mentors who were able to talk through and theorize in ways that I could only aspire to at the time. But even with the closeness of that cohort and other mentors in the program, the isolation of being the only Black student in the program (and the department at that time, if I’m not mistaken) definitely took a toll in ways that I don’t think I initially noticed. 

Two instances stood out that I think helped me recognize and name the damaging effects of that isolation. One was my first CCCC experience, where I was introduced to Black excellence in our field when I was sitting in a larger conference room as Dr. Elaine Richardson grabbed the mic and sang down the gospel song “Never Would’ve Made It” in her talk that almost made me break down. That moment and my first Black Caucus meeting at that same CCCC made it clear that there is a community that I might not always see in my own department, but can absolutely connect with even if only to inspire and motivate through our existence. The second occurred a couple of years later when our program hired its only Black faculty member, who would eventually be my dissertation chair, Dr. Stephanie Troutman Robbins. She came to our program at a time when I was in a sort of intellectual ambivalence and helped me out by taking legitimate care and investment in my well-being both personally and academically. I always say my grad school story would’ve ended in a different way if she hadn’t been there, and I’ll forever be grateful for what she did.   

My research interests come from reflections on my own education experiences as one of the few Black students in class spaces where our identities are rarely imagined, if at all. I first think it important to analyze and call out the systems and ideologies that prevented students like me from existing in course content, and then I try to imagine the sort of curriculum and opportunities that would have spoken to me and made me feel like my words and thoughts were smart and legitimate, and that I didn’t have to feel as if I was always the imposter in the room who struggled to sound as if I belonged. My work rests on the assumption that Black students like my younger self already bring in intellectual ways of being, knowing, speaking, and composing that are worth our serious attention, especially if we want to see our educational institutions transformed.

Sherita Roundtree: I believe the hypervisibility (and also invisibility) of being Black and woman that Michelle and Alicia describe in their responses makes it ever more important to take a close look at the entry points within the field. What are the gatekeeping mechanisms that become an inherent part of procedures and protocols, but make it increasingly more difficult for folks like myself to access and continue doing meaningful work? 

Sharieka Botex: Prior to returning to academia, I worked as a reporter. While I had the opportunity to tell powerful, and at times positive, stories I also was tired of the repetitive and redundant bad news and stories and knew that positive stories existed and that I could potentially play a role in helping to share positive stories, and also work towards changing conditions and circumstances so that more positive stories would exist. I wanted to be more embedded in helping to shed light on uplifting experiences and stories, learn and find different ways to share my perspectives, and change some of the negative narratives. I wanted to work with people on writing to help them share their own stories, do work that they wanted to do and call attention to issues and perspectives that as a reporter I often did not share my personal opinion about because my job was to report the news. I knew my work was important and that these stories were important, but I wanted to do writing that I loved and not chase breaking news that broke people’s hearts and constantly reminded me of the broken system.

Returning to academia to pursue my master’s degree was something that I was very blessed and fortunate to do. Dr. Kerri Flinchbaugh (East Carolina University) connected with me while I was writing at a local business and started a conversation with me.  Although we were not in an academic space and environment, she noticed that I was writing and we started to talk. We connected about writing, and I think during that initial encounter she mentioned being a PhD student and the work she did in academia.

During the Fall 2017 semester, I became a full-time graduate student at East Carolina University, and started to pursue my Master of Arts in English. I graduated from ECU with a concentration in rhetoric and composition in Spring 2019. In my work, I engage with Black scholars who were introduced to me by white scholars, who are mentors. I would also love to take a course with Dr. Elaine Richardson, Dr. Gwendolyn Pough or Dr. Tamika Carey and to have a graduate course experience with a Black professor. 

That doesn’t prevent me from valuing a course with Dr. Wendy Sharer focused on rhetoric and rhetorical practices in social movements, where me and other Black scholars focused on work we valued. She later recommended Dr. Pough’s and Dr. Carey’s work because of my interests when she became the chair of my thesis committee. Recommending reading lists of scholars doing work on Black communities and culture should be required reading long before the interest is expressed by students. 

I’m grateful for these experiences. Another reality is the silence and failure to recognize that Black life matters, like when some do not speak unless they have been called to do so, or in moments where I’ve been the only Black graduate student in a class, and I am told by a classmate that they are watching other people’s body language as I speak as if I am a threat, but they do not see societal injustices that I am speaking about in terms of people in my community facing threats. 

In these moments, and even now, my question remains, how do you decide whose body language you pay attention to and who you speak for? Once you have identified me as threatening, then my way forward with you is contingent upon your acknowledgement that when I speak, you do not pay attention to what is coming out of my mouth and listen to what I share and contribute, but you pay attention to unjustifiable uncomfortableness to remarks coming out of a Black scholar.  

I experienced this while at Michigan State University in a semester where I was reminded of the importance of dialogue, self-evaluating, and remembering that negative experiences do not determine that future encounters can’t be positive, and balanced it with knowing that my experiences were not isolated. Carmen Kynard has educated people about her experiences and Dr. Trixie Smith facilitated a workshop where Dr. Staci Perryman Clark and Paulette Grandberry Russell talked about their experiences as Black women in academia. 

I am grateful that Dr. Dànielle DeVoss provided facilitated discussions between us and phenomenal scholars who talked about their research and community work. Dr. Natasha Jones came to visit via Zoom and that meant that I wasn’t the only Black person in the room. I was reminded that there are Black women doing the work and that there are examples of people who have progressed beyond the point I am at. A consistent sense of belonging comes from knowing that you should not be the only one in your professional community who represents your racial and cultural communities. 

Policing knowledge is criminal in ways that differ from policing people, and while one may result in the death of a Black human being, the other may result in the death of a voice in academia. Still, I acknowledge the powerful experiences both at MSU and ECU people have valued me and my work. They have have opened my eyes to concepts like ableism and whose perspectives on institutional matters, such as graduate student labor and community work, let me know I am a part of a field doing important work. That gives me a pride and a sense of belonging.

As an African-American scholar, teacher, and writer, my identity factors into my work in the same ways it factors into my existence. I am proud that I am building on work that my ancestors have done, all while working with students and faculty I love working with. I appreciate how Dr. House in his first sentence acknowledged his family. Family is important for me to also acknowledge when thinking about my identity or how values like my parents instilling the three Dsdiscipline, dedication, and determinationimpact my work ethic and the expectations I have for myself and my students. As an African-American woman, who grew up at home with the volumes of Ebony Pictorial History of Black America, my parents always stressed the importance of education, reading, and engaging in dialogue to share my perspectives and listen to other people’s perspectives. 

My paternal grandma was a reverend and other family members of mine preached. I grew up seeing what she did in the pulpit and proudly learning about how that was a form of knowledge, education, and information. I grew up watching her study scriptures and prepare for sermons and learning in church, whether it was in Sunday school or service on Sunday. My parents stressed the importance of education, and they stressed the importance of taking pride in work and to exhibit an interest and passion for learning. They encouraged us to keep learning when the school day was done and exposed us to things like Roots and discussions about what was going on in politics. They reminded us that we could not be equal to white students but that we always needed to work as hard as possible and had to do more. We needed to push ourselves. 

I was excited to be in a classroom to teach and after learning about scholars like hooks, Freire, and Ira Shor. I was excited about how I can create classroom experiences where both me and students could build on our identities and focus on societal matters that were relevant to our lives. I wasn’t prepared for the rigidity of university policies and procedures, but a sense of belonging comes in reading Shirely Wilson Logan’s work about her experiences in the classroom and watching Ledger’s video essay about her work with students. It comes from being educated by Vershawn Ashanti Young’s discussions on language or venturing outside of rhet comp and learning about legendary figures like Dr. Darlene Clark Hine. Attending the Cultural Rhetorics Conference and being able to meet scholars like Pough, whose work I was excited to engage with, helped me develop a sense of community. We need to keep doing the things that receive receptions that exhibit that people feel like they are in a community, and to stop doing the things that isolate people, or result in them being the only one from their community.

How does cultural rhetorics interface with your identity as a Black Academic?
Protesters at a #BlackLivesMatter march in Lansing, Michigan on June 10, 2020. Photo by Alexandra Hidalgo.

Eric House: I would say cultural rhetorics is central in my research and teaching identity through an understanding that rhetorical practices are not neutral, with the cultural designation suggesting that we always should recognize the ways in which our cultural locations impact rhetorical production and reception. From that definition, I suppose that there could be an argument that all rhetorics are cultural rhetorics, but I think of the centering of cultural rhetorics within my academic identity as a disruption within the histories and legacies of whiteness. Identifying as a Black academic, for me, is to then suggest that my research, my teaching, my very existence within these sorts of scholarly spaces and conversations is a disruption that should call out and disrupt while simultaneously imagining and envisioning possibilities. 

Michelle Grue: Eric, this articulation is so key. As Gwendolyn Pough would say, we need to both check and wreck the aspects of our field that need substantive change for our mutual Black Academics and the undergraduates and graduate students we serve. 

Eric House: Michelle, yup, that’s it. That’s exactly where a lot of these thoughts and ideas were inspired. Dr. Pough’s book impacted my ideas on the role of wreck and disruption and changed the ways I imagine approaching scholarship.

Alicia Hatcher: Y’all are making me think about Young’s work on code-meshing, Richardson’s work on AAVE, and Geneva Smitherman’s work on AAL. You’re also making me think about A. D. Carson’s Owning My Masters diss, which is certainly an example of scholarship that is both cultural and rhetorical and that does the work of checking and wrecking our field’s traditional notions of what gets to count as real scholarship. And it aligns with Eric’s comments above about disruption within the histories and legacies of whiteness!

As for how cultural rhetorics interfaces with my identity as a Black Academic: If cultural rhetorics is not the epicenter of my identification as a Black Academic, it is certainly an integral part of my Black Academic DNA. I’ve taught at PWIs, an HBCU, and community colleges with populations at both ends of the racial and ethnic spectrum, and I’ve found that my Black students are often 1) surprised to see my Black face as the instructor (as are my white students), and 2) afraid to be their true selves. What I mean when I say their “true selves” is that they’ve been taught that the way that they engage is not appropriate within the established academic boundaries. They’ve been taught that their language and ways of languaging and languaging strategies are not legitimate and are only appropriate within their own racial, ethnic, and cultural enclaves. 

So I make it a point to let them know that what they have been taught is wrong. That the way they communicate is indeed legitimatethat their language and languaging strategies are legitimate. That their language and languaging skills are shaped by their culture, and that it is neither sub-, less than, or abnormal. As a Black Academic, I find myself spending a lot of time trying to help my students get around, get through, and get past all of the mental manipulations that were the result of social and hegemonic machinations. 

Sherita Roundtree: As I reflect on the ways cultural rhetorics collides with my blackness, I first think of the ways that cultural rhetorics seems to move within and apart from naming issues/experiences explicitly and directly. Recently, I have described cultural rhetorics as a critical understanding of how knowledge is embodied, produced, and shared within racially, ethnically, and culturally marginalized communities. However, I find myself grappling with this description as I have followed Black Twitter conversations about folks critiquing the use of the acronym BIPOC, especially during the protests following the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many other Black people. I have not fully worked through my thoughts about the overlap in themes I have noticed in these Twitter threads and how they lead me to be both appreciative and critical of the ways cultural rhetorics has been discussed in the field. If I continue to sit with my description of cultural rhetorics, I cannot help but think about how cultural rhetorics fully accounts for my embodiment beyond my production and contributions. As I said, these are issues I’m still attempting to unpack. 

Michelle Grue: I found cultural rhetorics, the actual subdiscipline, late in my time as a graduate student. I had been doing that work, of course, but because I couldn’t go to the conferences and was not sure where to begin in the journals, it was not until my last two years as a graduate student that I became genuinely aware of the scholarship in cultural rhetorics. One of my main goals as a Black Academic, now that I’ve joined the faculty side of things, is to arrange more open source and easily shareable resources for incoming graduate students, so they don’t have to try to reinvent the wheel of cultural rhetorics, floundering about as I did, trying to cobble together Black Studies, Writing Studies, and the actual Education doctoral classes required by my program. 

I could have been a much more effective and informed scholar those first three years if my advisor would have known to do more than cite a couple of key Black rhet/comp scholars and say to check out the journal. So, as a Black Academic, not only do I find cultural rhetorics key to my scholarship (both my thesis and dissertation are deeply founded in cultural rhetorics), but I have found that having the framework to discuss rhetoric through a cultural lens has given me the language I’ve long needed to speak the truths I have long known and to ask the questions I’ve often wondered. Cultural rhetorics allows me to realize that the crooked room (Harris-Perry, 2011) of academia really is crooked, and provides me a network of scholars dedicated to making it straight (and help us maintain our sense of who we are in the meantime). 

Sherita Roundtree: Michelle, like you, I did not really know that much about cultural rhetorics until much later into my graduate program. I think that many people are doing work that might be categorized by them (or alongside others), but they name it as something else. I also think that naming it as something else, such as Black Studies, can often be very intentional. 

Sharieka Botex: When I think about the concept of cultural rhetorics, I think about hearing the term in academia, and being exposed to scholars and work that are thought of as cultural rhetorics. I think about the ways the term cultural rhetorics applies and exists outside of academia. I think about Dr. Cox’s course on cultural rhetorics at East Carolina University, where we read work like Dr. Elaine Richarsdon, Dr. Hass, Dr. Andrea Riley Mukavetz, and Dr. Eric Darnell Pritchard, and where I was coming out of a class about rhetoric and social movements that definitely gave me an amazing opportunity to engage in writing and discussions that were relevant to me. In focusing on Hip Hop, the Black community and conversations where I can/could think about my role and presence in academia as a Black woman. I think about my presence in institutional spaces where I am blessed to be inplaces my ancestors fought for me to be in. I remember that as an African-American woman, my passions and the things I love doing show what progress, joys, and excellence is occurring in my community. Despite such excellence and progress and acknowledging it in my work, racism causes atrocities and problematic ills of society endured by my community that I must be invested in discussing. 

There is no doubt that historically Audre Lorde, Nikki Giovanni, Angela Davis, Ida B. Wells, Hortense Spillers, Ann duCille, bell hooks, Tamika Carey, Gwendolyn  Pough, Vershawn Ashanti, Young, Shirley Logan, and so many other Black scholars have shown and proven what academia can center community to make positive and productive change and inspire others in the process. In thinking about cultural rhetorics, I think about the work of the scholars I’ve named because that work involves community, story, culture, liberation, experiences, and discussions of these things both in and outside academia.

I just stay and remain grateful to learn, write, read, think and share and teach and do work that I love, but think about and remember that my pursuits of passions are ones that should consider my ancestors’ work. I acknowledge that my role in academia means that, as Ronald Jackson II encourages us to do in the Octalog, I make present those who have been historically absent and who are currently absent, and I ensure that my presence doesn’t present ignorance about the realities that we are faced with within academia and outside of it. 

Knowing that in cultural rhetorics people like Dr. Powell were talking about stories, and Thomas King was saying that the truth about stories is that’s all we are, I think about things like deconiality, recognition of culture, storytelling, and drawing on our individual experiences in ways that communicate who we are, where we are, where we are trying to be, and what we see as essential to that being. In the work I do as a Black scholar, as a scholar and prioritizing a commitment to learning, I work to engage with perspectives that help me expose the Black community to concepts, and ideas that mean that we are aware of the language used by and within institutions to shape our communities and culture. This has involved me engaging with perspectives of thinkers like Stokely Carmichael, hip hop artists, jazz musicians, and creators of content that I view as essential, even if they are making contributions outside academia. I bring in those who are not present, like Jean C. Williams and Jacquline Jones Royster argue we should do in “History in the Spaces Left: African American Presence and Narratives of Composition.”

In this conversation, we are engaging in what I believe can be classified as cultural rhetorics, because we are exhibiting a presentation of individuals coming together to collectively share based on our identity, experiences, stories, community, conditions, and circumstances, as well as our awareness of how these things impact our own lives and community. 

Universities and individual scholars have had a wide range of responses to the recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Rayshard Brooks. Which approaches did you find to be most effective in demonstrating a real commitment to change? 
Protesters at a #BlackLivesMatter march in Lansing, Michigan on June 10, 2020. Photo by Alexandra Hidalgo.

Eric House: I definitely struggle with this question, because I feel like most of us who care about the prospect of institutional change understand that this is generational type work. That doesn’t mean we should stop or give up or anything like that. It’s to say that I don’t know if real institutional change can be measured right now. That so many are acknowledging the moment is important, but I am curious to see if so many can keep that same energy when recognizing that challenging white supremacy (both externally and internally) is a continuous process, especially when it has been the foundation of the same society that so many have gained from, and especially if it means that challenging that same system should result in losing some of the advantages promised through oppressive means.    

Sharieka Botex: I definitely agree with that. What does it mean for an institution to come and be present for and with an individual who is not bulletproof? What type of safety and security does that provide? 

Sherita Roundtree: It is also hard for me to not sound cynical when I think about the responses that I have seen and heard about from friends at colleges across the country. In some ways, I think that it is important that universities make a statement in response to the murders and political injustices against Black people. However, in many of the statements that I have read, the rhetoric has focused on being pro-diversity, creating safe campus environments for students, acknowledging that the university is listening to concerns, etc. This often feels performative. How has the university reflected on and named their own issues with systemic racism and oppression? How have they taken a closer look at how much money has been allocated toward campus police in comparison to developing programs and initiatives that actively challenge white supremacy within the campus climate? 

Turning the mirror back on themselves and explicitly acknowledging what actions they are willing to take would be the approach I would want to see. I know that some universities, including my own, are renaming buildings on campus. But during a recent conversation with colleagues across the field, they acknowledge that much of this work has been generated by students. 

Alicia Hatcher: Ok. This is one of the questions I struggled with. And I’ll have to be completely honest here—I deleted many of the emails I received from my university in the weeks following these murders.

I read the first few, but deaths kept happening and emails kept coming. They were coming from the administration. They were coming from the SGA. They were coming from my department—it was too much. And I was also left feeling the way I think many Black people—in and outside the academy—are feeling:  Everything feels so reactive. And I get that protest is inherently reactionary. And I get that change is reactionary. But the intensity of everything that was—and still is—going on in our society was not quelled—for me—by these responses. Because now six people have been found hanged. Because now a race car driver can’t do his job without finding a noose in his car. Because now…

I found myself reaching out to a dear colleague and friend, Dr. Cecilia Shelton, in search of some guidance for this question. Her response was that she found the question problematic because Black people have already done the work of providing tools, tips, advice, etc. in their scholarship. 

When I received her response, I realized exactly why I struggled with the question. In order for me to answer the question, I would have to do the work of having to think about the efforts and then think about which I find substantive or which I find lacking. And then provide the solutions. 

Michelle Grue: Alicia, this encapsulates so much of what I feel, as does Eric’s response above. We have been doing this work for so long. Where was all of this passion for supporting Black academics and the changes needed for us and our students to thrive when we have been asking for it all these years? I just want to see them actually listen to what we’ve been saying and do both the short and long term work necessary to make these institutions the kinds of places where Black folks want to learn, work, and stay, which would take care of so many of the recruit and retain questions administrators seem to want answered. 

Alicia Hatcher: Absolutely, Michelle. I recently saw a FB post telling J.Cole that he should have read a few books before writing the song “Snow on tha Bluff.” I felt like saying the same thing—try reading a few books. The info’s out there, readily available, and relatively easy to access.

Eric House: That’s so real. There’s definitely more work to do, but there’s so much already out there. 

Sharieka Botex: This conversation is ongoing. There have been a number of perspectives expressed about statements, whether it’s tweets from Dr. Temptaous McCoy or tweets from other scholars asking about what has/hasn’t been done by departments and universities. Ben and Jerry’s put out a statement that recognized historical atrocities. The statement honed in on the issue of state violence being something that has problematic and deeply embedded roots that started before slavery and continued throughout. They identify the same systematic injustices and violence that has killed too many members of the Black community as the same system that killed Martin Luther King, a Black leader trying to lead the country out of systematic struggles. If the statements are sentiments of support that educate people, elevate the cause, and do not have economic motivators that express that what is financially at stake is more valuable than human beings, then they are effective statements.

While, I have read some statements, including the statement that Michigan State University put out, I haven’t been as deeply invested in the statements of companies and universities, as I have tried to be in the statements of the Black community, my family, and in hearing the voices of those who are not thought of as typical presenters of statements because of status and societal positionswhether it be class, race, gender, power or privilege.

I think that while in the statements I have seen there has been some degree of recognizing the issue at handthe redundant police killings and repeated violence against Black peopleand the names of Black people who are being killed as a I type, there have also been times when I felt a silence that can endorse the extinction of and elimination of Black people. I think that a commitment to change is something that recognizes and understands that Black people being murdered and killed is an issue that manifests beyond the moments that elicited some of the responses we are seeing. 

During Monica Lewis-Patrick’s powerful speech at a rally/vigil organized by Frontline Detroit, she delivered an effective statement. She talked about the systemic injustices faced by the Black community, including limited and no access to water in Detroit and companies and corporations employing non-residents to come to work in the city, where they do not live and do not endure the injustices and inequalities that residents endure. She equated those systemic injustices to the knee that was in George Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. That was an effective statement.  

I suppose that for me, some of the statements that need to be made are actions for inhumane beings to start behaving humanely. This isn’t a new hope. This isn’t my first time expressing it, and I know that everyone from Carmichael and Davis to Morrison and Lorde and many more have something greater than me to offer on combating racial inequality. My dead ancestors have said something about these killings before they occurred. Many of my peers said something about them before they occurred, and it’s not because they are clairvoyant, it is because they are and we are Black and the conditions are things that have been spoken about over and over. 

An effective statement, unfortunately, the most effective statements are ones that are made by the causers of chaos. The role of the university at this time is to stay committed to producing statements and action for improving the societal conditions that Black people are living through, have been living through, and should not have to live through. For Black people driving to work or stepping outside of our homes shouldn’t cause the kind of stress, fear, and pain we feel and that no words can reconcile.

Tamika Mallory’s speech was powerful. The statements of many protesters have been effective. My mom, dad, and wife have made effective statements. Everyone in this document is making an effective statement. Typically the protesters are not endorsed by institutions, so I think the role of the university and institution is one that has to be interrogated and examined in terms of who should be supported and what that support looks like. Each of the killers has an institution’s endorsement. What universities will join Kimberlé Crenshaw’s conversations and not just send individuals as representatives, but join those individuals in their representations. 

The statements that are effective are ones that are not always written, but that sometimes are ones that were like the one that Dr. Angela Davis and her colleagues gave where they engaged in dialogue and discussions and the department endorsed and supported that dialogue and discussion. In all of this, I want to acknowledge and thank all of those who have said something, shared a statement because that in itself is powerful. The long-awaited and necessary recognition that #BlackLivesMatter although it should be obvious and shouldn’t have taken this long. 

They say patience is a virtue. I believe that but I also believe, understand, and echo James Baldwin when he said, “What is it that you want me to reconcile myself to. I was born here almost 60 years ago. I’m not going to live another 60 years. You always told me it takes time. It’s taken my father’s time, my mother’s time, my uncle’s time, my brothers and my sisters time, my nieces and nephews times, how much time do you want for your progress?” 

What suggestions do you have for non-Black academics standing in solidarity with Black academics who want to get across the message that #BlackLivesMatter to their institutions, to the students they teach, and to those they interact with in their own homes and communities? 
Protesters at a #BlackLivesMatter march in Lansing, Michigan on June 10, 2020. Photo by Alexandra Hidalgo.

Michelle Grue: I have received these types of questions from friends outside of academia, the “how are you, how can I help?” inquiry that has come now, but not the myriad other times Black death and injustice has been paraded across social media and disrupted our lives while we’ve had to keep on keepin’ on. I find answering the academic version of this question just as wearying as answering the friend version of this question. Essentially, I want folks to join us in doing the work. I want my non-Black academic colleagues to speak up when folks say racist things instead of standing around awkwardly. I want them to speak up in meetings to support our suggestions for change and defend us against coded and not-so-coded opposition, not message us afterward. I want them to actually read, cite, and assign work by Black scholars. I want them to do their own internal work in terms of racial bias and guard against their biases in their teaching, their reviewing of scholarship for journals, their work in hiring committees, etc. 

Sharieka Botex: Yes, and ensure that Black scholars are present to teach and learn Black scholarship.

Alicia Hatcher: I’m with you on this, Michelle. I think it’s cute to paint BLACK LIVES MATTER on the street, and please don’t get me twistedI like what it symbolizes. However, I’m really here for sincere, thoughtful, real allyshipthe kind of allyship that knows when to do the work in the background in an effort to (re)move some of the existing barriers (that mayor may NOTbe invisible to us) but that also knows when to be vocal in the foreground. We definitely need both, but sometimes the timing just feels a bit offya know? 

I’m so thankful that as a grad student at ECU, the professors with whom I’ve worked most closely have tried to offer this type of ally-ship for me. They listen to me, and they try to hear me. I believe they really try to get where I’m coming from so they can offer substantive feedback and guidance. And they’re doing things! For example, I was provided an opportunity to go to a writing retreat at the beach during spring break so I could focus on my work. And the department covered the cost of this summer’s 12-week WriteNow program offered by the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity to help me maintain my writing focus during the summer. Even though this type of ally-ship isn’t loud, I find it to be some of the most valuable because it’s aimed at supporting me and my scholarship.

Eric House: Michelle and Alicia said it. Be vocal and present in all the ways and spaces. Advocate for the hiring of Black faculty and for the recruiting of Black students. And don’t abandon or isolate us when we show up as if the job’s done. Help make the resources visible and accessible so retention and success is a reality. 

Alicia Hatcher: Exactly, Eric! #ways&spaces.

Sherita Roundtree: I agree with everyone on this one. I can’t help to think about the question that I often get after a conference presentation or a workshop where whiteness takes up space by asking me to provide a series of bullet points or a list of my citations on what to do next. The whole “what can I do as an ally to address these issues?” First, you can stop calling yourself an ally and focus on doing the work. The title is not necessary and it feels like a way of signaling action whether or not action is actually being taken. This happened during my panel at the CCCC in Oregon. A white woman directed this question toward me and another Black woman after we just presented in different ways how our labor as Black women gets exploited. As our moderator, Frankie Condon grabbed the mic and emphasized the necessity of reading the works of Black scholars who have already written about the work and continue to write about the work. By reading, doing the work, and joining in support of Black folks challenging these systems, Frankie explained that it would allow folks to develop more critical questions than “what can I do?” As Michelle and Alicia mentioned for the previous question, reading and taking the necessary steps to independently educate oneself is the first step. 

Michelle Grue: Sherita, yes! How many times have I had to explain that women of different racial backgrounds experience gender discrimintation differently? Too many times. I have just defined and detailed intersectionality and yet still, they need these explanations. 

Eric House: Sherita just dropped a bar on y’all that I just want to highlight again. She said, “stop calling yourself an ally and focus on doing the work.” That’s a word right there.

Sharieka Botex: I’ve thought about this and heard other people reflect on it and before I do, I want to acknowledge that that everything that each of you said on this matter is valid, relatable, and important for people to understand and not forget, and to pass down from one generation to the next.  

I have connected with and been willing to engage with those willing to rightfully invest time and energy not in the moment, but in the movement that there are not sign-up sheets for, but that our Blackness signed us up for. I am focused on voicing and expressing my perspective and amplifying the voices and stories of those who don’t have an institutional endorsement. I think that people can invest in understanding that they shouldn’t want the Black community to endure anything that they do not want to endure. There are some non-Black people, including white people doing this. In voicing my perspective, I move beyond the idea that it’s time for others to stand up and speak for me and recognize that I don’t want this moment to be a historical presentation of all that everybody else did to make my ancestors’ vision possible, but instead all that we are all doing to make it possible. 

I think people should check out Dr. Bettina Love’s perspective about being a co-conspirator instead of an ally. That’s one thing that they can do, be so aware and so attentive to voices that need to be heard that you are prepared to listen and make sure that others hear. Then be committed to act being guided and inspired by what those voices have told you is necessary. Along with talking about conspirators, Love also shared a point from James Baldwin about being willing to go for broke. I encourage people to ask whether Black and Brown peopleas well as people of any race dealing with poverty, being killed by the police, and trying to develop solutions for systematic injustice and health disparities we didn’t causeshould be the ones who are always prepared to go for broke. In these moments institutions have to acknowledge their wealth and privilege and understand that if anyone is losing income it should be them, not those of us coming into institutions to make societal change. 

I will also say that in the professional and academic spaces I am in, like the Department of Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures at MSU and the Writing Center, there are some non-Black people doing important work and they are good role models. Still, after living through this experience and wondering whether anything would’ve been said within communities I work and learn in, if I had not voiced my perspectives and realities, is a wonder I should not have to live with. I wonder, though. That wonder, which can kill expectations of others, can exist alongside the welcome and receptive practice of engaging with those who exhibit a willingness to not repeat endorsements of atrocities and instead endorse those of us who are impacted by them, and actively engage in anti-racist work. 

Failing to acknowledge that racism should not be anyone’s reality is problematic. People must stop using scholarship to rename racism and invent new ways to minimize it or suggest that is anything other than what it is. Tune in and listen to Kimberlé Crenshaw and support #SayHerName. Find out what is going on locally and how your neighbors, students, colleagues are negatively impacted and see when you are a part of that or the cause of that. 

Believe that #BlackLivesMatter. Preach the message. Make the message more than a message and exhibit that #BlackLivesMatter. I think any struggle or strain to comprehend the message is a demonstration of being inhumane and failing to comprehend something that should be naturally comprehended. At this moment, failing to comprehend this suggests that you are not qualified to do work. People who fail to understand this is why these discussions remain necessary and why Breonna Taylor’s killers continue to not face charges or real consequences for their actions. #BlackLivesMatter should require no convincing, and maybe the starting point is recognizing the failure to acknowledge this is as criminal as the circumstances that it creates. 

What would you like to see journals like constellations do to forward anti-racist publishing practices?
Protesters at a #BlackLivesMatter march in Lansing, Michigan on June 10, 2020. Photo by Alexandra Hidalgo.

Michelle Grue: I think perhaps we first need to list what publishing practices we consider to be anti-racist. Then figure out a way to disseminate such a list, not just to journals like constellations, but to known allies in other journals, who would do the work in their spaces. So, what would I consider to be anti-racist publishing pracitces? 

  • Train/make clear to reviewers that use of Black English Vernacular (BEV) and other vernacular Englishes do not diminish or detract from the scholarship.
  • Work on a relational, developmental review process. For instance, The Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics and Peitho have a great reputation for this, which helps graduate students and junior scholars to build an understanding of what is expected in a publishable draft without shutting them out of the publication pipeline until they somehow intuit it.
  • Regularly support work that responds to, critiques, or extends traditional rhetorical research, which helps us Black scholars and other scholars of color to be seen more clearly as key parts of the discipline, not just on the periphery. 
  • Consider it an expectation that reviewers check that scholars of color are substantially cited within folks’ submissions and if reviewers otherwise like a piece that is lacking in this area, they work with authors to extend themselves in this area, especially but not only if the work is about Black folks or other people of color. 

What else should we consider to be “anti-racist publishing practicies?” 

Alicia Hatcher: Absolutely, Michelle.Your first bullet point reminded me of CCCC 2019 CFP in which Vershawn Young states, “We gon show up, show out, practice, and theorize performance-rhetoric and performance-composition. Ahm talkin bout buttressing the public good and engaging communication pedagogies that open possibilities, many of them yet unknown—in reading, writing, speaking, listening, visuality, and digital communication.” My understanding is that this specific literacy/language/languaging did not “set well” with some of the field’s purists, but to me, it was an effort at creating an opportunity for and space where different people’s voices could be elevated, amplified, and empowered. 

Sherita Roundtree: I agree with Michelle. The criteria for review that the journal uses to determine if a piece will be included should be explicit and easily accessible. In my experience and through my conversations with friends, journals enact systems of oppression and inequity via a lack of transparency about their editorial criteria. I am grateful that many journals (including constellations) centralize mentorship as a part of the publishing process. But my concern is that how does an early career scholar determine that their work fits the journal if they do not already have access to publishing knowledge, a cultural rhetorics background (named as such), or someone tell them by happenstance?

Eric House: I think Michelle broke it down. In considering what are anti-racist publishing practices, I’ll add that works that utilize Black methodologies and methods need to have a greater presence. And everyone is hitting the point that more accessible review criteria as well as strategies such as implementing developmental review processes are imperative if Black scholarship is to have a greater presence in publications. 

Alicia Hatcher: Great addition, Eric. 

Michelle Grue: These additions are all excellent. If folks in publishing want to make a change, the “I don’t know where to start” excuse is null and void, now.

Sharieka Botex: The guidelines and recommendations that Dr. Grue has shared should be requirements that are referred to by journals in our field. Every journal in our field should subscribe to these practices she listed. Her point about the use of BEV and other vernacular Englishes is something that must be done. 

In these processes it is important that opportunities are created for Black scholars to participate in editorial and publishing experiences and that they have platforms to produce content. Dr. Darlene Clark Hine shares some insights about the importance of Black publishing companies in Speak Truth to Power: Black Professional Class in the United States. I think that’s it valuable when Black people participate in the organizing and facilitation of the presentation of content and can be a part of the decision-making process for what happens with content and the evaluation process, as well as for there to be room for the audiences and communities who are impacted by our work to be involved in that evaluation process. Racist readers will never stop or prevent racist writing from being presented, or push forward and publish writers who do that, but those who have been impacted by racism read differently from those who have not. 

I had the opportunity to do a journal review on Reflections: A Journal of Community Engaged Scholarship and Writing. One of the things I really appreciated about the journal was how the scholarship came from both people in academic communities and outside of academic communities. I think that’s important and something else that can continue to be done, and something that those not currently doing it can consider. 

Racism, as we have seen time and again, is pervasive in the US and it affects not only the police but our legal and political systems, our media, and our educational institutions all the way from Pre-K to graduate school. What strategies have you found useful in countering systemic racism in your work and your personal lives? 
Protesters at a #BlackLivesMatter march in Lansing, Michigan on June 10, 2020. Photo by Alexandra Hidalgo.

Alicia Hatcher: Our traditional notions of rhetoric and composition and literacy—what they are, who can engage in/with them, what it means to be a rhetorician and/or literate—are bound up in and by the perspectives of and the ideas perpetuated by the dominant group. As a scholar, I make a conscious effort to center scholarship that both pushes against and moves us forward from dominant understandings of what rhetoric/composition is and what it means to be literate. I focus on ideas like performance and performativity as well as spaces and places, emphasizing how they are used by those from marginalized populations in their efforts to voice their perspectives. 

In addition, on a more pragmatic level, I introduce my students to academic conferences and symposiums. I do this so they can begin to see themselves as more than just students and so they will begin to see their work as more than just coursework. My hope is that this will help them recognize that their experiential knowledgea knowledge that is inherently culturalis valuable, and that their ways of seeing, discussing, and describing the world—with all of the authenticity and flavor—are both essential and legitimate.

Eric House: The history of Black cultural and rhetorical production offers so many lessons and examples of both countering systemic racism and living (by living I mean in all the ways whether they be thriving, exceeding, or barely surviving) through systemic racism. One practice that I find extremely powerful is the act of building community through sharing testimonies. I mentioned earlier in my journey to academia that the feelings of isolation in the Black academic experience can lead to ambivalence or doubt, resulting in false feelings of inferiority. But the sharing of testimonies reminds me that our beauty and humanity exists despite the lies attached to us and the barriers placed before us, and that there is a value to our culture and lived experiences. It reminds me that there are inevitable tests, but I stand with a community throughout these trials. Dr. Rhea Lathan breaks down this idea as she references and extends the work of Geneva Smitheman and explores the term “gospel literacy” in her work Freedom Writing: African American Civil Rights Literacy Activism that I would suggest engaging with for a deeper investigation of testimony. But that’s just one example. I also utilize hip-hop as a methodology in my teaching and research, which is another way of countering and living through systemic racism in educational institutions by arguing that hip-hop as a part of Black cultural and rhetorical history is intellectual and worth exploration. 

And the last thing I’ll say is that I take it to heart when bell hooks said that racism and patriarchy are interlocking forms of oppression. As a Black man I cannot claim to be countering systemic racism in my work and in my life if I’m not committed to doing the lifelong labor of unlearning the same lies that have afforded me privileges often at the expense of Black women and the Black LGBTQ community. Otherwise, I’m only advocating for the flipping of a hierarchy versus the dismantling of it, and that’s trash.       

Sharieka Botex: The points Dr. House made about testimonials and the stories that we connect with that make us realize that others have enjoyed, endured, and existed how we have existed is important. Knowing that others have done something makes it feel more possible to do it ourselves. This conversation provides me with a chance to hear Dr. House talk about his work on hip hop and read his work, raising my awareness of scholars focused on matters that I also focus on. I am grateful for the knowledge that people have shared about their academic experiences and journeys. It’s important to be uplifted and reminded that you have something to offer, when you may not always be met with reception that suggests that’s the case. We definitely don’t want to just flip heircharcies in the way Dr. House rightfully referred to as trash.

We do not need to make it to 50 years out and have more Black professors and graduate students, and more people of color in departments, only to realize that Black trans women are not receiving education and opportunities that are considered essential for all of our lives, and are still being murdered for existing. 

In a world where we are fighting for an end to Black and Brown people being overwhelmingly incarcerated, we must also recognize that it is wrong for Hispanic people and others migrating to this country to be put in detention centers for doing so. Any imagery, thought, and action that can be linked to the inhumane system of slavery is one that holds us in a postion to perpetuate the practices that oppress people. 

Reminding myself to be grateful for positive experiences and not letting that erase the negative ones is a strategy for me. Staying connected to my roots, which means discussing what I learn with my family and wife, and recommending texts I’ve read in coursework with friends and family, and sharing my experience. Education should be free, and I have been afforded the privilege to pursue something that everyone should be able to pursue. Recognizing those who uplift me, provide encouraging and honest feedback, and do not constrain my contributions is a strategy. It’s important that I acknowledge my culture, communities, histories and the experiences and realities connected to these things, while working to inspire, motivate and contribute to making positive change while encouraging other people to do the same. 

About the Authors

Sharieka S. Botex is a 2nd year Phd Student in the Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures Program at Michigan State University. Sharieka works as a graduate consultant and coordinator in the Writing Center @MSU. She graduated from East Carolina University with an MA in English and a concentration in rhetoric and composition in 2019. Her thesis is “It’s Not Me, It’s You: Considering the Worthy Sacrifice Hip Hop Artists May Need to Make to Reclaim The Heart of Hip Hop, it’s People.” She is a staff writer for agnès films and former award-winning journalist. Some of her interests include doing work that equips people with skills, resources and knowledge to use their writing and communication skills to help shape, guide and advance their communities, institutions, careers, and lives. Some of her other interests include literacy practices, influence, Black experiences, histories and legacies, writing centers, FYW, pedagogical approaches, social movements, social justice, Hip Hop, stories, cultures and communities. She is married to Stacy Botex and is the eldest of Gary and Cynthia McCray’s three children, which include her, and her two brothers Gary and Garrick. For more information about her and to explore her work, please check out her portfolio  

Michelle Grue joins the faculty in the Fall of 2020 as an Assistant Teaching Professor, also at UCSB. Her interdisciplinary research in Education and Writing draws on Black feminism and cultural rhetorics to investigate diversity issues in academia and in digital writing. Her current project focuses on the official structures that do/not exist in Writing and Rhetoric doctoral programs to teach graduate students how to research race and gender in Writing Studies. She has publications in both the Journal of Multimodal Rhetoric and the Journal of College Reading and Learning, among others. She is a recipient of the Scholars for the Dream award. She has also been nominated multiple times for the quality of her teaching, which is as vital a part of her career as her scholarship. Michelle earned her Bachelors of Arts in Creative Writing at Pepperdine University and earned her MA at the Gevirtz Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She will soon defend her PhD from the same program. 

Alicia Hatcher is a doctoral candidate at East Carolina University in the Rhetoric, Writing, and Professional Communication program. Her research interests include embodied, spatial, and cultural rhetorics, specifically the ways bodies and spaces are used as rhetorical and symbolic tools in the fight against systemic oppression. Her current scholarship centers on the concept of performative symbolic resistance (PSR), which she defines as the use of specific verbal and nonverbal motions, acts, or series of actions as a languaging strategy to symbolize protest of a socially constructed system of oppression, and which she describes as an analytical tool that scholars of rhetoric can use in their continued efforts to illustrate how performance, performativity, and symbolism are and can be used to engage in acts of resistance. In addition to being a past recipient of the Council of Programs in Technical and Scientific Communication (CPTSC) Bedford/St. Martin’s Diversity Scholarship (2018), she is also a 2020 recipient of the Association of Teachers of Technical Writing (ATTW) Amplification Award for her presentation “Representations of Black Protest: A Google Search” in which she explores how the protest efforts of Black men are represented in Google searches and the digital literacy that ensues. 

Eric A. House is an Assistant Professor of Critical Composition and Writing Studies at New Mexico State University. He studies the ways in which hip-hop and Black culture remixes perceptions of writing and intervenes in politics of representation. His current work theorizes the practices of the hip-hop DJ in order to analyze and remix the identity and practices of both the writing instructor and the writing administrator. His work argues that such remixes are important in order to realize writing instruction and administration that might occur from culturally-sensitive and racially-responsive locations. 

Sherita V. Roundtree is an Assistant Professor of English at Towson University. She studies ways to develop diverse representation and equitable access for students, teachers, and scholars who write in, instruct in, and theorize about writing classrooms. Her current work centralizes the teaching efficacy, pedagogical approaches, and “noise” of Black women graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) who teach or have taught first- and/or second-level composition courses. Considering Black women GTAs’ feelings of preparedness and approaches to teaching composition, Roundtree explores the networks of support they utilize and how they do or do not use resources to navigate pedagogical challenges.

About the Moderator

Alexandra Hidalgo is an award-winning Venezuelan filmmaker, theorist, and editor, whose documentaries have been official selections for film festivals in 15 countries and been screened at universities around the United States, and whose videos and writing have been featured on The Hollywood Reporter, IndieWire, NPR, and Women and Hollywood. She is assistant professor of Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures and co-director of the Doc Lab at Michigan State University. Her video book Cámara Retórica: A Feminist Filmmaking Methodology for Rhetoric and Composition received the 2017 Computers and Composition Distinguished Book Award. Her academic video essays have been published in Enculturation, Kairos, Present Tense, and Peitho, among others. She is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the digital publication agnès films: supporting women and feminist filmmakers and of the peer-reviewed journal constellations: a cultural rhetorics publishing space.

Production Credits:

Copy Editors: Alexandra Hidalgo and Sophie Schmidt

Editorial Assistant: Tina Puntasecca

Posted by: Sophie Schmidt