By Maria Novotny
During the spring 2020 semester, I taught a Cultural Rhetorics graduate seminar at UWM and I must admit that this course feels as if it took place a lifetime ago. So much in the world has since happened: the continued spread of COVID-19, the announcement made by many universities that students should expect to return to campus in the fall, as well as the death of George Floyd and the resurgence of protests supporting Black Lives Matter. With all that has since happened, I want to reflect on what my Cultural Rhetorics course may offer us now – in these increasingly precarious times.
In their Introduction to the Special Issue: Entering the Cultural Rhetorics Conversation, Phil Bratta and Malea Powell offer four defining pillars of cultural rhetorics: (1) the idea of story as theory, (2) engagement with decoloniality and decolonial practices, (3) constellative practices as a way to build community and understanding, and (4) the practice of relationality or honoring our relatives in practice. As a class, we discussed these pillars frequently and many students often questioned how these pillars help guide cultural rhetorics as a methodological practice. Here, I’d like to suggest how these pillars can support stakeholders in higher education so they may engage in accountable community allyship to dismantle the bricolage of injustices we face.
Story as Theory
Orients us to critically engage with whose stories are told, who is trusted to hear some stories, and why who listens matters.
Stories wield power and can influence how quickly we may adopt change. Yet, we know from the murders of Black and brown people in this country, that not all stories are told nor are they heard equally, even when they are shared. Take black maternal health for example. The Black Mammas Matter Alliance report that mistrust and racist bias in medical and hospital settings are leading factors contributing to the spiking black infant and black maternal mortality rate. Black women, their lived experiences, and the stories that they may or may not share (depending upon how safe they feel) are too often disregarded.
Cultural rhetorics reminds us that these stories matter. While Black women’s stories often do not align with dominant narratives of maternal health, cultural rhetorics offers theoretical tools to question why Black women’s stories are often muted or distrusted. The pillars of cultural rhetorics help retrain and reorient how we listen to stories, whose stories we are listening to, and how we may mistrust what we are trained to assume are “dominant” or “normative” narratives.
Want to learn more? I suggest reading: Lee Maracle’s book Oratory: Coming to Theory.
Engagement with Decoloniality
Helps us identify colonial systems of power that have become so ingrained into the “everyday” whereby inequity is easily disguised.
Recent calls to ‘defund the police’ have been met with polarizing viewpoints. While a recent poll finds that 61% of Wisconsinites support Black Lives Matter, a Marquette University Law poll finds that 70% oppose defunding the police. Such polls indicate clear misunderstandings about the rationale to defund the police as a supportive action of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Cultural rhetorics serves as a theoretical lens to better understand how systematic structures, like the police, operate as a colonial construct reinforcing racism. For instance, by adopting a Cultural Rhetorics lens to arguments supportive of defunding the police, more clarity emerges as to why defunding is essential in order to “delink” (a term coined by Walter Mignolo) from what Toni Morrison has called ‘the white gaze’. This gaze is a practice adopted through many police practices whereby black and brown bodies must navigate how their bodies are read and thus become constructed as non-white targets which allows for public suspicion, police surveillance and/or unjustified acts of violence. Take the recent video of Amy Cooper as an example whereby a white woman uses her whiteness to reinforce her superiority over a Black man by calling the police with no warranted reason. Engaging with the pillars of cultural rhetorics – particularly decolonial theory – helps us dismantle misconstrued threats against our safety, such as the installation of fear in white bodies if we remove all policing.
Want to learn more? I suggest reading: Alex Vitale’s book The End of Policing.
Constellate with Communities
Reminds us that community work happens through intersectional coalitions, bringing together a variety of perspectives.
The ripple effect of events occurring over these last four months – from March to June – have without doubt emerged at a time that has caused many to reflect on threats in their own lives. For instance, NPR ran a recent story noting because of asymptotic spread and political mishandling of the pandemic, many white people suddenly could relate to feeling as if their own bodies were at risk. This yielded increased support and allyship for Black Lives Matter. Yet, to truly constellate with communities we must think about all bodies in relationship with our own positionality.
Cultural rhetorics demands that our work be reflective as we work in constellation with others, not self-serving to reduce privileged feelings of guilt or shame. It must be in the trenches of injustice and as such it may be uncomfortable for more privileged bodies. As Natasha Jones and Miriam Williams in “A Just Use of Imagination: A Call to Action” write, “In this historic moment, when yet again the collective Black community is called forth to proclaim that our lives matter, that Black Lives Matter, we extend this idea of critical imagination to calls for justice and equality.” They conclude with this powerful statement: “Dismantling white supremacy requires your work. How might you make a difference? Just use your imagination.” Constellating with communities invites a critical reimagination of other stakeholders – beyond the Black community – that must engage in work supportive of equity and change.
Want to read more? I suggest reading Academic #BlackLivesMatter: Black Faculty and Graduate Students Tell Their Stories.
Acknowledge All of Our Relations
Demands our embodied experiences are reflected upon and accounted for in the community work we engage.
What does true allyship look like in practice? How do we make transparent the reasons for our actions, given the positionalities we embody? Ellen Cushman in “The Rhetorician as an Agent of Social Change” articulates the difference between what she calls ‘missionary activism’ and ‘scholarly activism’. For Cushman, the latter option may engage in activism by either empowering communities through the achievement of goals by providing necessary resources, facilitating action through language or literacy, or situating our own ethos as a tactic to move forward a community’s need. We may do well to reflect on how our commitment to activism appears to those communities we seek to work alongside, as an accountability tool forcing us to be transparent about the objectives of our allyship.
Cultural rhetorics draws on Indigenous theory to tend to the ever-evolving process of not just developing but learning from our relationships. Such a process asks us to engage in reciprocal practices with our communities and favors methods that allow our actions to be taken as what Andrea Riley Mukavatez calls “speak[ing] with and alongside” (122) our community partners. Relationality asks us to make our own body transparent alongside the other bodies that we work in coalition building with – often this is messy and takes time. We would do well to remind ourselves of this as the protests dwindle and calls for action become less vocal. We must remain accountable to the communities we work alongside.
Want to read more? I suggest reading “Decolonial Directions: Rivers, Relationships, and Realities of Engagement on Indigenous Lands” by Rachel Jackson and Phil Bratta.
I want to close by acknowledging that these reflections are a work in-progress and still very much in formation. I come to cultural rhetorics as a white cis woman and all the privileges such identities afford me. As such, I still have much to learn and many to listen to as I try to teach cultural rhetoric practices to support community engaged activism here in Milwaukee.
Maria Novotny is an Assistant Professor with the Public Rhetorics and Community Engagement program at UW-Milwaukee. Her research uses cultural rhetorics as a lens to understand and support the community advocacy practices of those diagnosed with infertility.
By Rachel Bloom-Pojar
This is the second part of two posts about our new faculty members with the Public Rhetorics and Community Engagement program at UWM: Dr. Derek Handley and Dr. Maria Novotny. You can read Part 1 here.
What experience do you have with community-engaged teaching?
Maria: I have taught many professional writing and technical classes, which naturally lend themselves to community-engaged projects. For example, in my "Digital Rhetoric in Health and Medicine" course at UWO, students worked with the Women’s Center and Student Center on campus to create a series of multimedia, advocacy toolkits to support educating their college peers on the importance of data privacy. We reflected on the learning that occurred through these projects and shared our community-engaged projects on the Sweetland Digital Rhetoric Collaborative’s blog. Also, in my "Grant Writing Foundations" course, my students worked with five Oshkosh community non-profits organizations. While students gained experience researching and writing grant documents, this collaborative partnership also revealed the importance of reciprocity. As the course concluded, students remarked on the interpersonal and rhetorical negotiations they had to make in order to successfully partner with the organization.
Derek: My first year writing courses are focused on place and community. What I mean by that, is that the course focuses on issues directly affecting the local place where the students live. I have students conduct research not only in academic spaces such as the library, but also out in the community. They have to talk with people, organizations, and businesses to get a greater understanding of the various stakeholders' perspectives. For instance, when I taught in Western Pennsylvania, I developed a course around the environmental issue of Marcellus Shale fracking. Many of my students were directly connected to that industry through friends and family.
What do you envision for the future of our Public Rhetorics and Community Engagement program?
Derek: I think it is important for us to develop a program that has a viable option for careers outside of academia. The academic job market is tight and there are other careers in which students should consider. To facilitate this idea, I think we should seek relationships with outside organizations and businesses and educate them on how students in our program can contribute to the goals of that organization. Perhaps we could set up summer internships for our students. The Mellon/ACLS Public Fellows program serves as a perfect example of what some of our students should consider applying for after they complete their degree. The program places recent PhDs in government organizations and non-profit sectors for up two years.
Maria: I am very excited to work on the Public Rhetorics and Community Engagement program. My dissertation drew from my community-engaged work with the ART of Infertility. Engaged in that work, I recall moments of feeling overwhelmed not just by the doing of a dissertation but by the natural messiness of navigating and learning what it means to do community work. I hope to draw on these experiences, as well as the experiences of current graduate students, to think about how the program can be structurally organized and designed to offer mentorship and institutional support. I see my book project with John Gagnon as one scholarly trajectory that assists with this, but I’m also eager to think through the types of experiences and training we offer to our students via our curriculum. It’s an exciting program, and I think will resonate with folks across the field!
What is a graduate course you look forward to teaching?
Maria: I’m really looking forward to teaching Cultural Rhetorics in the spring. I’ve taught this for undergraduate students, but I’m eager to teach approaches to a cultural rhetorics methodology to graduate students. I am hopeful that students will also take interest, as I see cultural rhetorics offering methods useful for individuals who want to do ethical and reciprocal community work. Plus, I’m hoping that I can invite a couple of scholars who do cultural rhetorics work to join our class for some Q&A sessions.
Derek: I look forward to developing and teaching a topics course entitled African American Rhetoric and the Black Freedom Movement. The course is intended as an informed introduction to African American rhetoric, which is defined as the “communicative practices, and persuasive strategies rooted in freedom struggles by people of African ancestry in America” (Jackson and Richardson). The readings and discussions will familiarize students with various contemporary theorists whose ideas broaden contemporary conceptualization of African American Rhetoric. By the end of the course, students will have a richer understanding of how rhetoric is a tool of social change encompassing a variety of written, visual and verbal communication strategies. Readings in particular will include major thinkers like Cornel West, Keith Gilyard, Molefi Asante, and Geneva Smitherman.
What's something you like to do in your free time?
Derek: Exploring Wisconsin. My family and I are still new to the Midwest so we’re looking forward to taking some day-trips to go hiking, kayaking, and canoeing, especially when the leaves start to change colors. Also, we just adopted a 5 year-old Labrador Retriever named Obi, so we want to get him out of the city and get some strenuous exercise.
Maria: I’m a Wisconsin girl at heart. Raised here, in the summer I am an avid musky fisherwoman. I caught a 41 inch one this summer with my dad. In the spring, I help a family friend on their maple syrup farm. Taking walks in the woods, listening to storms roll through, and establishing a connection to the land has helped me stay grounded when the stress of academia can seem intense.
Thanks to Derek and Maria for their time and interest in contributing to Writing & Rhetoric MKE. I’m looking forward to building community with you in our program and around Milwaukee! -RBP
By Rachel Bloom-Pojar
Fall 2019 marks the official launch of our program in Public Rhetorics and Community Engagement at UWM. My colleagues and I are also excited to welcome two new faculty members to our program: Dr. Derek Handley and Dr. Maria Novotny. To help everyone get to know them better, I asked Derek and Maria a series of questions about their experience and vision for the new program. In this post, we’ll learn a bit about Derek and Maria’s background with research and part 2 will focus on their teaching and goals for the future of the program.
What is your experience with community-engaged research?
Maria: I draw on my work with the ART of Infertility to inform my community-engaged scholarship. As a resource organization, I host multimodal art workshops for reproductive loss patients to depict their experiences with grief and the reproductive healthcare industry. Once patient pieces are created, I invite patient-participants to narrate their infertility experiences through their artwork. Today, the organization has over 200 pieces of narrative art, of which, I incorporate into art exhibitions around the U.S. I understand these exhibits as evidence of how art rhetorically translates technical, scientific, and medical experiences into accessible experiences for non-experts to grasp and ignite community-engaged action. My purpose is to act as an ally to remove the embedded cultural stigma of receiving an infertility diagnosis and create resources that educate healthcare providers, and the public at-large, on the sociocultural challenges faced by the reproductive loss community.
Derek: My research focuses on African American community rhetorical histories which means I have to do research in the archives and in the local neighborhoods. I conduct interviews with community members, walk the locations where historical events took place, and attend community events. I also like to take students on walking tours of these historic neighborhoods.
What are you currently working on?
Derek: I am currently working on my book project, “The Places We Knew So Well Are No More:” A Rhetorical History of Urban Renewal and the Black Freedom Movement. In particular, I’m focusing on the Milwaukee section of the book where rhetorical education played a significant role in helping residents understand the complexities of urban renewal. In addition, I’m working on a conference paper (National Communications Association) about St. Paul, Minnesota, which will also be featured in my book. My paper explores how race is implicated in the contested spaces and places of urban renewal policies. But more importantly, it will examine the rhetorical actions taken by residents in St. Paul in an effort to save their community from the wrecking balls of eminent domain during the 1950s and 60s.
Maria: I’m currently co-editing special issues for The Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics on “Curation: A Multimodal Practice for Socially-Engaged Action”, Computers and Composition on “Rhetorics of Data: Collection, Consent, & Critical Digital Literacies”, and Reflections on “Rhetorics of Reproductive Justice in Public and Civic Contexts”. While on the surface those themes may appear distinct, the calls emphasize scholarly contributions that consider how curation may act as a response for social action.
Related, I’m working on a co-authored book project with Dr. John Gagnon (University of Hawaii-Manoa). We published “Research as Care: A Shared Ownership Approach to Rhetorical Research in Trauma Communities,” which offers a cultural rhetorical framework for collaborating with trauma participants for rhetorical research. Our book project tentatively titled, Care as a Practice: Reorienting Research in Rhetoric and Writing Studies, offers a cultural rhetorics infused methodological framework to inform the design and ethical enactment of community-engaged research projects. Our manuscript expands on and explains the idea of care as a research practice, demonstrates the efficacy of a care-centered research paradigm, and delivers concrete models for how to enact care methodologically.