CCCC 2001 in Review: Working Hopefully: Historicizing Feminist Teaching, Writing, Administration, and Activism
Reviewed by Ilene Crawford
Despite proclamations that we now live in a post-feminist world, feminism is alive and well in the field of rhetoric and composition studies. Feminists in the field continue their turn to history in order to negotiate agency during a decidedly anti-feminist and anti-civil rights era. This was evident at the March CCCC in Denver.
In her talk for the Coalition of Women Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition SIG, Jacqueline Jones Royster urged the audience to see agency as the "strategic use of available resources to create ethical space." When we understand ourselves to be historical beings and constructs, and we understand language to be a social-cognitive process, Royster argued that we can then use history to "invent a speaking self, to create an ethos that speaks with eloquence and with consequence." Throughout the conference I saw people taking up this work in different ways and from different locations in the academy. The sessions I saw on feminist theory and practice explored this question: In moments of feminist and civil-rights backlash, what options do historical and material contexts create for feminists teachers, writers, administrators, and activists to invent speaking selves, and to speak with consequence?
Several speakers reflected on their roles as administrators and their efforts to see their work in a more historical context. Writing program co-director Vicky Tischio (M.27) urged us to look again at how we tend to talk about the "feminization" of composition studies. Tischio argued that gender and sex are problematically conflated in many discussions of the feminization of composition. Feminization, she argued, is more about how an occupation is understood and talked about, not just who does it. In other words, gendering is a rhetorical process, and historically "good" writing pedagogy has been talked about in terms of "mothering," specifically in terms of "cleaning up" language.
Tischio argued that multigendering an occupation can locally disrupt this history of feminization. As an administrator she sees her role as a teaching one. She has targeted the rhetoric of basic skills as a dead end, thus shifting away from talking about student writing as something that needed to be "cleaned up." She's tried to teach instead that writing is a complex social ability, and brought faculty together to work on the task of designing courses that implement this approach to writing. Her approach has helped her to begin violating familiar "fault lines" in her department.
Other feminist administrators saw themselves more as readers and writers. From her location as interim chair of IU's English Department, Chris Farris has realized that to be chair is to be an ethnographer of sorts, whose task it is to "represent the department to itself." Farris has learned to see department events as cultural practices and a department's history containing "marks of the repressed," which it is the chair's job to read. This work can be exhausting--"I see dead people," she intoned to great laughter at the Coalition of Women Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition SIG, invoking Haley Joel Osmett's line from the film The Sixth Sense. But Farris encouraged us to think about how the historical circumstances that can too often make people into the walking dead can instead create possibilities for change in our departments.
Others spoke of how women outside of the academy have worked within their historical contexts to invent speaking selves with consequence. These examples can serve as models for women inside and outside of the academy. Eileen Schell, for example, talked about women and service (D.4). Schell sketched the nineteenth century origins of women's service in order to complicate the narratives that reinscribe John Dewey as the origin of service in the field. While nineteenth century service work typically reinforced problematic constructions of both white and black womanhood, Schell argued that service work also paved the way for women to leave the home and eventually enter professions such as teaching. Creating service-learning courses that historicize service, Schell argued, will provide a richer context for students to negotiate their own agency.
In the same session, Heather Bruce offered a more contemporary attempt to invent speaking selves. Bruce offered a reading of current anti-affirmative action rhetoric and called on us to recognize how language historically crafted to advocate for racialized Others, such as civil rights rhetoric, is now being used to dismantle small gains won. Bruce's recognition of this shifting rhetorical terrain has prompted her to become a member of an activist community where she is able to participate in struggles for agency in new ways.
But despite these instances of women successfully creating agency for themselves, several speakers rightly argued that we still have considerable work to do. In session I.15, Joyce Middleton reminded us of the continued popular support for "color-blindness" as an acceptable way to approach issues of race and called on us to find new ways to see and talk about race. Hyoejin Yoen's and Drema Lipscomb's stories reminded us that institutionalized racism dramatically shapes the lives of women of color in the academy. Malea Powell argued that the field of rhetoric and composition studies has suffered a "failure of imagination" regarding the topics of race and ethnicity. Powell called us to move beyond an "inclusion model" that posits the rhetorical contributions of racialized Others as branches on rhetoric's main trunk.
In her response to this session, Royster focused on an anecdote Middleton had shared about Toni Morrison. When Morrison delivered her three 1990 Willem E. Massey Sr. Lectures in the History of American Civilization (the lectures that later became Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination), Morrison refused to take questions until the third day. As Morrison did in this instance, Royster argued, people of color must also use strategies that let them set the terms of discourse.
Other speakers addressed the problems these speakers raised from their position as teachers, sharing their ideas for using students' histories to create new space for people of color and discussions of race in the academy. In her talk on the same panel, Kris Ratcliffe described how she worked with students to learn the distinction between whiteness as body and whiteness as trope (I.15). Her work focuses on historicizing the trope of whiteness, understanding how the performance of whiteness is historically specific in the U.S., granting specific legal and political currency. Ratcliffe wants students to question that license by having students question their advocacy of the rhetoric of colorblindness and by teaching them to listen for their own privilege in the ways that they are accustomed to talking about race.
Beverly Moss talked about how we might focus on creating space for marginalized students and teachers (B.28). Moss argued that continuing to blur the lines between teacher and student, between the inside and the outside of the classroom is a way for marginalized students and teachers to feel they can create a space for themselves in the university. Qualitative research such as ethnography challenges these institutional boundaries, thus functioning as a pedagogy of hope. Moss' pedagogy of hope places students in powerful hopeful roles because it counters an historical imperative of the university that students reject their home communities.
The classroom remains an important place to address histories of racism and other issues of social justice, and these speakers showed that they spend a great deal of time thinking about how to teach students. But we typically do not do enough to theorize our working lives as teachers. Laura Micciche argued that we need to make the time look at the professional, economic, intellectual, and emotional intersections of our work (B.28). This last facet of our work is often not seen as an important part of our working lives. In the rush to professionalize ourselves, many of us have not made adequate time for reflecting on the emotional dimension of the work of teaching. As an example, Micciche shared recent conversations she has had with teachers about their fear of failure. What space do we grant ourselves to reflect on our fear? To remain effective, Micciche argued, teaching needs to be a hopeful act. And to remain hopeful, teachers need space to reflect on the fear of failure that often informs their work. Micciche reminded us that even Aristotle wrote about fear, arguing that to have a fear of being received poorly by an audience meant that one also had hope--the hope of being well received, and the hope of having an impact.
And hope, Dale Jacobs argued, allows us to move forward as teachers, writers, administrators, and activists. In session B.28, Jacobs argued that hope is both shaped by material conditions and social in nature. Jacobs called for us to find ways to cultivate "critical hope" in our working lives. Distinct from ambition, critical hope allows people to see patterns in their historical and material lives, to make decisions, to move on--in short, to have agency, and to speak with consequence. By his definition, this small sample of current feminist work in the field of rhetoric and composition studies is hopeful in nature.
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