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 Claire Edwards & Madison Williams
What is rhetoric?
It’s a question anyone in our field has been faced with, be it by students, parents, or friends. It is the subject we have advanced degrees in, the term we spend hours discussing, the concept some of us spend our lives studying; so why is this question so hard to answer? Many of us have our go-to definitions prepared to answer this question, usually short and sweet, that seem to sum up the concept well enough. Rhetoric is “the study of effective argument, persuasion, and messaging” or “the art of successfully conveying a message for a specific audience within a specific context”. Duh. While this sort of answer might suffice in the moment, we know rhetoric is more than just a persuasive argument. But, how can we possibly encompass all that rhetoric means to us in a few short words?
The root of the difficulty defining rhetoric is complicated, much like the word itself. Rhetoric has often been associated with Aristotle, politicians, and a history of institutionalized oppression but has transformed and expanded, particularly in recent years, to embrace various new perspectives. The field has moved beyond traditional views of rhetoric in academia, to appear differently depending on context, resulting in this lack of a field-wide consensus as to its definition. The uncertainty surrounding how to define rhetoric has been continuously perplexing and, especially considering the word is featured in the title of this blog, it is a vexation we’ve frequently encountered. Thus, as dutiful rhetoricians and members of this editorial board, we thought we’d give it the old college try and attempt to adequately define rhetoric (at least for the purpose of this blog).
The definition of rhetoric has evolved over time, from its earliest explanation as “the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion” by Aristotle, to its interpretation as "the use of language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols" by Burke, to the description as “the art, practice, and study of human communication” by Lunsford, and everything in between. In Becoming Rhetorical, Jodie Nicotra writes that “Rhetoric… refers to the wide array of communicative devices humans have at their disposal to create effects on each other” and “While it was originally developed to help people make persuasive speeches, rhetoric is still studied for its supreme practicality and adaptability” (“Introduction” 2018).
Some of these definitions might initially seem straightforward and simple enough. However, defining rhetoric becomes more complicated when one considers that intentional or not, anything with a decision made about it is rhetorical; the decision itself makes it rhetorical, and if there is thought behind it, it’s in the realm of rhetoric (Watson). For example, a protest poster decrying the negative effects of a zoning bill is certainly rhetorical. But, the following things are also rhetorical: the placement of a homeless shelter adjacent to luxury condos, the design of that shelter, the community outreach efforts to gain funds for the shelter, and the ongoing discourse surrounding the shelter and its efficacy.
These examples illustrate just how difficult rhetoric can be to define and that it means potentially very different things in different contexts. It has evolved over time in not only its definition but also its scope and application. While some might define rhetoric as the study of effective argument, persuasion, and messaging, our program and the current larger study of rhetoric asks us to return to the drawing board as the field has broadened to include matters not easily classified as argumentative or persuasive (or even intentional). What is clear though, is that rhetoric is bigger than just something we study in our program; it surrounds us in our daily lives.
So, what is rhetoric to us?
For our purposes in this blog, we see rhetoric as a way to examine and communicate about the various power dynamics inherent to our city. We will use rhetoric to better understand communication across contexts, as something that exists in and, perhaps more significantly, outside of the academy. Rhetoric has power; it helps us to understand power dynamics, our roles in the world, and how we might interact with and respond to the environment around us. In these attempts, we hope to support the practice and study of rhetoric as vital activities that offer insights into the languages and communities of our city.
During our last few classes, we focused heavily on designing portions of our research study for future IRB approval. However, after returning from a refreshing spring vacation, we put our project on hold to take a much-needed trip back in time, courtesy of an enlightening presentation by Dr. Shevaun Watson, Associate Professor of English at UWM.
Shevaun’s talk, supplemented by our other weekly readings, taught us how qualitative researchers can utilize historical archives, memories, and other artifacts to enrich their current understandings of past subjects or places. During America’s formational stages, Shevaun explained that many scholars in the 18th century were viewing rhetoric from an “enlightenment” perspective, prioritizing the elocution, taste, and correctness of language over historic archives and sources. Because of this focus on style, these scholars silenced many underrepresented groups from the time period by largely failing to examine their historical artifacts and accounts.
In her essay “Good Will Come of this Evil,” (published in the College Composition and Communication academic journal) Shevaun illuminates the plights of two African-American slaves turned schoolmasters in 18th century America, examining how a church organization used literacy as a tool to spread Christian ideologies to marginalized communities. Shevaun’s piece is powerful today because it challenges both the “heroic ideal” of literacy and American exceptionalism, digging up previously-silenced voices from the historical archive.
With Pen and Voice by Shirley Wilson Logan and Traces of a Stream by Jacqueline Jones Royster (both pictured above) were just some of the books that Shevaun mentioned during her talk with us. These works are valuable because they challenge traditional research values by giving needed representation to silenced voices from the past.
In the discussion following her talk, Shevaun focused on two main concepts: silences in the historical record and critical imagination. During her research for “Good Will Come,” Shevaun highlighted how difficult it was to find pre-19th century records of African-American literacy, as most historical artifacts of the time period were biased towards American colonialism and made little mention of other marginalized populations. Shevaun asserted that these factors helped form “historical silences”—a lack of personal accounts—from these obscured populations.
In order to give representation to those silenced within the historical record, Shevaun stated that she had to use critical imagination—a researcher’s interpretation of past events—in an attempt to “fill in” these historical gaps of silence. To ensure accuracy, Shevaun carefully grounded her assumptions in fact by recording details from the time period’s letters and diaries, historical archives previously unexamined by more traditional researchers. She even informed us of her plans to visit South Carolina this coming summer, seeking to closely examine modern retellings of colonial history while also immersing herself in the researched environment.
The takeaways from Shevaun’s presentation align with our modern-day qualitative research readings. For instance, the “silences” that Shevaun mentioned still exist in different forms, as evidenced by Susan Wells and Nathan Stormer’s piece in Methodologies for the Rhetoric of Health and Medicine. In their article, the authors assert that both HIPAA and institutional hesitance regarding PHI access create artificial barriers for researchers attempting to study past medical records. In Writing Studies: Research in Practice, Liz Rohan discusses the importance of inclusive historical rhetoric and critical imagination, stating that “connections between lived lives and the lives of deceased subjects can…produce useful knowledge about the past, the present and culture generally, even in not written in the conventional voice of academic discourse” (30). Echoing Shevaun and a previous reading on the value of emplaced research by Jennifer Edwell, Rohan also states that physically going to historic locations can help a researcher connect on a deeper level with their past subjects. In Field Rhetoric, Heather Brook Adams notes how studying memories from her research participants caused her to change her data collection methods (switching from individual interviews to focus groups) and made her pay closer attention to her participants’ emotions during questioning.
Following Shevaun’s visit, we devoted the rest of class time to the organization of responsibilities for our study, which was recently IRB-approved with exempt status! With the overall structure of our study now in place, the class split into two preliminary groups--interview and recruitment—for further planning and collaboration. As we prepared to move into the “data collection” phase of our study, Shevaun reminded us to keep an open mind towards our research results, because what we find may be surprising. Thanks to our new historical knowledge, we will value non-traditional artifacts, further accommodate the needs of our interview subjects, and—above all—remain adaptable as our research process continues. There’s no doubt that these lessons from the past will positively influence our own practices moving forward.
In last week’s class, I questioned whether it is possible for Western rhetoricians to fully understand and interpret the rhetorics of a culture from another tradition, especially one no longer existing, as in the case of the Moche peoples discussed by Laurie Gries, (and to her credit she made several careful allusions to this problem in her chapter). My question comes from the intimacy of language, and thus rhetoric, with worldview, the latter being formed by the creation of the language and the teaching/learning process of passing it to new generations, who in turn continue to invent it in kind (or is this just how we see things in western tradition?). This week’s readings have added fuel to my contention that such an accurate interpretation of a non-western rhetoric, absent of the discourses to which it was attached, may be unlikely, and if possible, such success cannot be certain. In short, we may know what such artifacts as Gries describes tell us, but we cannot know that we know.
Sanchez tells us nothing new when he says “…writing actively participates in the world, and the details of that participation are not easy to decipher” (78), even more so when the writing is non-alphabetic or even wholly metaphorical, as in the placement of objects. So as Lao observes, we have to start with what we know, for what else have we to start with (49)? But as Lao observes, in so doing we risk imposing that on others, a risk that JC acknowledges in the previous post with the concern about whether or not such interpretive acts serve to re-colonize those we seek to decolonize and reaffirm their subaltern status in our journals, centuries after the fact.
If we accept that, as Cortez says, that subalternity cannot be separated from the notion of publics, and that “subaltern speech is assumed to be public and registerable” (56), then therein lies our problem, for that particular public cannot be joined posthumously. Colonization, as we have discussed it, replaces language, destroys art, and inhibits expression, replacing such rhetorical forms with its own. The demise of a society, such as with the Moche, erases their discourse altogether. Gries was clear about the care needed in interpreting the funereal artifacts, as those artifacts were separated from the languages and discourses that surrounded them. This is exactly why the example, cited in class, of a gay academic studying the rhetoric of a heterosexual, or a rhetorician of one race studying the rhetorics of racial others, fails in my view. In those cases, the discourse is still there, the language heard and (Derrida notwithstanding) understandable. These rhetorics, while unfamiliar, still stem largely from the same western traditions, and these rhetoricians and their subjects - or other rhetoricians – can talk their way around to an understanding. Of course, this is not without its difficulties; disagreements abound in the most equal of situations, within discourses among people in the same disciplines, using the same language and with the same rhetorical knowledge. Interpretations differ within our own western modes of thought. But that reaffirms the problem of the Moche; if we can have such differences of interpretation within our own rhetorics and our own disciplines, how can we be certain of something from beyond that, something that speaks to us in its own unfamiliar language with a voice unheard for centuries? If literacy is, as Gee says, a way of being, an “identity kit,” how can we ever truly understand an identity absent of any idea about that literacy, when our interpretation itself stems from a literacy that forms our way of being?
Of course, this does not mean we never try. There is great value, much to be learned, in the very act of trying; it seems to me that if nothing else, we may learn something about ourselves and our own ways of thinking in such attempts, and of course it’s not impossible to learn about the subjects, as well. It does mean, however, that we often have to settle for possibilities. To remain honest to both ourselves and that which/those whom we study, we must remain distant from overly strong claims of knowing. In cases such as the Moche, and even those peoples yet extant who were colonized, their language killed, their art destroyed, and their religion replaced, we can only go so far in decolonizing, regardless of the method used.
In this post, I will focus on the points of discussion from our class where we emphasized the complexities of accounting for colonialism in our research practices and methods, especially as it relates to ancient Indigenous communities of the Americas. I hope to complicate, without necessarily offering answers to, a variety of issues surrounding representation, experience, and expertise as they overlap in research methodologies. As such, I will focus on the collection Rhetorics of the Americas: 3114 BCE to 2012 CE edited by Damián Baca and Victor Villanueva, with a particular focus on the chapter “Practicing Methods in Ancient Cultural Rhetorics: Uncovering Rhetorical Action in Moche Burial Rituals” by Laurie Gries.
In her article Gries asks, “How then do we accurately recover nonverbal ancient rhetorical practices on their own terms if we do not have a society’s own “terms” to begin with?” (91). Different forms of this question became central to the conversation in our class as we discussed the collection Rhetorics of the Americas. While we did not necessarily focus on nonverbal rhetorical practices solely, we did spend a fair amount of time thinking about the effect of history on our ability to understand any form of rhetorical practice outside the Western world.
The reality of colonization, whether Spanish or British, complicated the process of thinking about non-Western rhetorical practices through the consistent devaluing of Indigenous ideologies and epistemologies—ways of knowing. The devaluation of Indigeneity that lies at the core of settler colonialism has continued into modern academe through what Damián Baca calls the “largely unquestioned dichotomy in higher education: that of ‘high’ and ‘low’ theory” (12). He notes that “high” theories, in Rhetoric and Composition specifically, are tied with the reading of rhetorical tradition mapped from the Classical Rhetoric of Athens to the Modern Rhetorical Theory of the United States. Such a reading embeds the West as “high” theory and everything beyond Western ways of knowing and thinking as “low” theory. It is this same dichotomy, born out of colonial enterprise, that complicates our ability to encounter ancient rhetorical practices, whether verbal or nonverbal, “on their own terms.”
Of course, access to ancient rhetorical practices of the Americas is complex in a variety of ways, not leastwise because of the plurality of different Indigenous groups and thus the plurality of rhetorical practices themselves. Furthermore, as we discussed in class, Indigenous communities have dealt with vast amounts of oppression at the hands of unethical anthropological and ethnographic research (this would certainly include Indigenous communities here in Milwaukee and around Wisconsin). This history requires an extremely cognizant approach, especially by researchers outside the communities in question. Finally, access becomes problematic when members of the tribal communities are no longer available to work alongside. Such is the problem faced by Gries in her exploration of ancient Moche burial procedures.
In order to work against this complication, Gries champions what we might call a materialist or new materialist approach to the nonverbal cultural artifacts of Moche burial chambers. She writes, “I argue that nonverbal artifacts have this same potential; if we listen close enough, these cultural artifacts speak to us and render the terms with which we can begin to uncover their rhetorical actions” (91). This approach, which focuses on the agency of nonhuman and nonanimal objects, has been critiqued in other iterations (i.e. the work of Ian Bogost and Levi Bryant) for overwriting the peoples who have consistently borne the brunt of the violent de-humanizing tactics of colonialism. This complication with new materialist thought came out in our class discussion as we tried to puzzle through whether or not Gries’s new materialist approach overwrites the Moche people who enacted rhetorical practices through nonverbal artifacts. While a new materialist approach seems intriguing and necessary in a lot of ways, I can’t help but struggle with the implications for consistently marginalized groups at the hands of Westernization. Does giving these cultural artifacts such agency, as Gries does, actually undercut the agency of the Moche people? That is, do the artifacts themselves carry the connotations that actually inform us about the social, political, economic, and/or rhetorical complexities of the Moche people, or are we actually projecting a Western research methodology onto them even in our attempts to keep from doing so? Furthermore, precisely because Moche culture is no longer extant as such, is it possible to allow the artifacts to “speak to us” divorced from our Western expectations and understandings of rhetoric and rhetorical practices? Is it possible that this is a continued form of colonization via research practices?