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.”, n.d., 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.

Carter-Tod, Sheila L. “The Language of Narratives: Racial Identity Development and the Implications for Writing Classrooms.” Narrative Acts: Rhetoric, Race and Identity, Knowledge, edited by Debra Journet, Beth A. Boehm, and Cynthia E. Britt, Hampton Press, Inc., pp. 129-44.

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Corbett, Edward P.J. Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student. 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 1990.

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[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

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



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.”, 3 Sept. 2020,


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