On the evening of October 25th, Roxane Gay came to UWM to give a talk focusing on her primary interests, her experiences in academia and the entertainment industry, and her writings. She addressed such matters as her social media presence, trauma, politics, feminism, and body shaming. The talk was well attended by both UWM affiliates and the Milwaukee community.
One of the first matters Gay addressed is her advocation for the self-identifier “victim” because it acknowledges the effects of ongoing trauma better than, say, “survivor,” which led her, humorously, to momentarily reflect on her love for the long-running TV show of that name.
Gay then went on to discuss the notion of holding onto rage, a practice which she advocates, because “it’s healthy,” and that she does not “believe in forgiveness.” This statement led me to think about the rhetorical concepts of identification, dis-identification, and non-identification as Kenneth Burke and Krista Ratcliffe write about them. These notions pertain to how we situate others in relation to our notions of self and, as such, have implications for our openness, or lack thereof, to others’ ideas, arguments, and positions. If taken as a rhetorical maxim for responding to mistreatment, Gay’s contention that she does not “believe in forgiveness” would fall most squarely in the dis-identification camp: i.e. if one has wronged me, then I can no longer identify with that person.
While my reading of Gay’s stance on forgiveness might at first seem dismissive, I actually mean to express appreciation for the way in which her positionality on trauma complicates the rhetorical identification terms mentioned. While Ratcliffe does acknowledge the hurdle presented by our unconscious moves toward identification and dis-identification with others, she has less to say on how the notion of “being wronged” might further complicate attempts at non-identification. How does one foster a stance of non-identification on matters pertaining to sources of their own trauma? Furthermore, how does one work toward non-identification when the speaker is the perpetuator of that trauma?
Additionally useful and thought-provoking was Gay’s acknowledgement of the difficulty and personal choice involved in sharing one’s trauma and expressed some ambivalence about the #MeToo movement as it led to a sort of expectation of women to speak about their personal traumas. As much of what we have discussed in English 812 this semester has involved pedagogies that ask or invite students to speak of their own experiences, I wondered if Gay’s point may have implications for these practices, for what we ask students to share in the name of education, inclusivity, and diversity. For instance, should we as educators feel compelled to even ask students to share their personal stories if that is going to set up the expectation to do so, no matter how much we insist that the sharing is ultimately their choice?
Of surprisingly particular interest for our course, Gay mentioned her dissertation, which she wrote while completing her doctorate in Rhetoric and Technical Communication at Michigan Technical University. The dissertation focuses on how student writers are labeled as “bad writers,” the effects this practice has, why this is not a useful practice, and ways to work against this practice. She emphasized that one of the crucial points she makes to her own students at Purdue University (where she has been on the faculty for the last four and a half years and will continue to work until the end of the current school year) is that the ways they choose to write are “valid,” and that she attempts to meet them where they are in terms of knowledge and skills. While Gay emphasized this point with a verbal bold face, I was stunned by its precise overlap with so many of the writers we have encountered in English 812 and with my own deeply held convictions about how to talk about and how to treat student writers.
In regards to another part of her academic work post-graduate school, Gay expressed irritation at the persistent expectation of her to serve as the “black queer woman” on faculty committees in order to fulfill diversity needs. Though I suspect that someone with Roxane Gay’s prestige may be asked to be a part of campus organizations and committees for reasons other than diversity, her point is well taken as I had witnessed similar practices among the faculty and administration at the California community colleges at which I’ve previously worked – certain individuals are asked to contribute their time and energy again and again to various committees and on-campus causes, often causing them irritation and exhaustion.
Roxane Gay’s talk and her work serve as perfect examples of the potential for academic crossovers, that is people and topics that are traditionally housed in the academy shifting their gaze to the culture at large and having profound impacts on a larger, more diverse, popular audience.