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.
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 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?
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.
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.
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.
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
 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)
 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.
 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 Composition, Teacher-Scholar-Activist, and various edited collections. He is a proud queer, first-generation college graduate from southeast Louisiana.
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
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 tocontact 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?
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 economically—not 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 life—how that would look, how I WANTED it to look—and 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 easy—at 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 engage—because 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 designed—and taught—with 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 trumped—at least in his mind—by 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 Ds—discipline, dedication, and determination—impact 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?
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 legitimate—that 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 in—places 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?
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 positions—whether 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 hand—the redundant police killings and repeated violence against Black people—and 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?
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 twisted—I like what it symbolizes. However, I’m really here for sincere, thoughtful, real allyship—the 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 may—or may NOT—be 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 off—ya 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 people—as 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 cause—should 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?
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?
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 knowledge—a knowledge that is inherently cultural—is 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. Botexis 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 Hatcheris 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 Compositionreceived 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.
Copy Editors: Alexandra Hidalgo and Sophie Schmidt