Making Room for Real-World Embodied Work: Hearing from and Talking to Speakers from Multiple Sessions
Reviewed by Christina V. Cedillo, University of Houston–Clear Lake, Houston, TX (firstname.lastname@example.org; cvcedillo at gmail.com)
Santos Ramos, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI, “Theory of Change: Risking Transformation in the College Writing Classroom” (Session G.39)
Virginia Engholm, Our Lady of the Lake College,Baton Rouge, LA, “#braveenoughtoteachinpublic: One Story of an Engaged Scholar and Teacher” (Session H.03)
Alma Villanueva, Texas A&M University,College Station, TX, “Mama Grad Student: Maneuvering between and beyond Eurowestern Feminism and Neoliberal Postfeminism” (Session M.27)
I find that one of the things I love about attending CCCC is having the opportunity to interact with my fellow scholars on a one-to-one basis. I enjoy talking to people and making connections, but sometimes I get nervous asking questions in a crowded room. Later, I regret not engaging with others and their interesting ideas and find myself wishing there were more opportunities for talking to presenters under more informal conditions. I figured that there might be those of you out there who feel similarly, so, given that the theme for CCCC 2015 was Risk and Reward, I thought I’d take a different tack in composing this review.
Rather than review a single session or even several sessions in full, I decided to talk to several presenters whose dissimilar investigations spoke to my personal interest in rhetorics of embodiment and embodied rhetorics (as I define them, the cultural codes that seek to circumscribe expressions of being and the ways we theorize and challenge those codes from our lived experiences, respectively). My interest is informed by attention to Chicana theories of the flesh that explain how “identities can operate as theories” and seek to “demonstrate the intimate connections between our work and our identities” (Calafell, 2010, pp. 105–106).
Accordingly, I asked three presenters questions intended to underscore these kinds of connections in their own work as a way to make more room for real-world concerns in rhetoric and composition studies. I got to learn more about how their presentations represented and fit within their broader research interests and goals, while offering them a bit of a signal boost. Plus, this approach reflects how I deliberately used my own embodied spatial praxes to rewrite the conference experience in a way that proved more constructive for me this time around, allowing me to privilege interpersonal connections with colleagues over purely professional, a-bit-too-monologic-for-me forms of communication, though these too serve their purpose.
G.39: Santos Ramos, Michigan State University, East Lansing, “Theory of Change: Risking Transformation in the College Writing”
The first presenter I spoke to was Santos Ramos, a graduate student at Michigan State University. Ramos presented a paper that brought together four different case studies to explore the cultural politics of space. In his presentation, Ramos looked at the ways that Southerners on New Ground (SONG)—a southern-based, people of color, LGBTQ organization—uses theory to create community and incite change. By looking at how SONG works to make life safer for queer people of color in their everyday lives, he argued that we can learn how to make academia more inclusive of those whose lives we talk about in our research, to ensure that we do not simply talk over those whose bodies are actually on the line. In this way, those of us who study cultural rhetorics can locate new models for creating spaces that are receptive to cultural practices and protests—and help create those spaces.
SONG relies primarily on action-oriented forms of theory; that is, as a group they learn as much by doing and finding what works for them as they do through the reading of theory and critique. Ramos first became involved with them during his M.A. studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, as a teaching assistant in a queer cinema course helping to build a political education program. He stated that he was especially drawn to their holistic approach to organizing, which included attention to matters of spirituality and self-care in a manner reminiscent of Audre Lorde’s (1988) famous pronouncement that self-care was “self-preservation” and “an act of political warfare” (p.131). SONG not only looks at works by political theorists and academic intellectuals, they also turn to models set forth by queer churches whose legacies of radical activism continue to provide guidance and assurance. These models also counter the assumed dominance of those very same scientific and academic discourses that have traditionally oppressed people of color, indigenous peoples, and LGBTQ people. By likewise thinking about who we draw from and why we draw from their work and examples, we may begin to be more selective in our own choices concerning sources of knowledge, and we may begin to make room for voices often excluded from or by the academy.
Ramos stressed making room for such voices in his own presentation. As he spoke, he allowed a slideshow to present images of actions and artwork by members of SONG. I thought this helped establish group presence, permitting the SONG members to be in attendance rather than just people spoken about. Ramos stated that this mode of presenting was a very deliberate choice, that he was conscious of allowing his words and the images to do very different things rather than simply rendering the images in service to the words. He asserted that we shouldn’t ever talk about social movements if we’re not part of an organization, we have to be careful how we allow the story to be told. When speaking about others’ actions, we must see ourselves as part of a collective voice rather than reading or talking over them. Among the questions we should ask ourselves are: “Who is being listened to here?” and “Whose knowledge are we using to build our frameworks?” Here we can see how an organization uses action to theorize, and how an activist scholar uses action-based knowledge to guide his inquiry. By looking at the particular constellation of organization, models, and researcher, perhaps we can better understand how people in the world can put theory in service to people rather than the other way around, how we can found analyses in lived experiences, and how we can recognize people themselves as experts on their own lives and communities.
H.03: Virginia (Ginny) Engholm, Our Lady of the Lake College, “#braveenoughtoteachinpublic: One Story of an Engaged Scholar and Teacher”
The second presenter I met with was Virginia (Ginny) Engholm, an instructor at Our Lady of the Lake College in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Engholm chaired Session H.03, “#braveenoughtoteachinpublic: Social Media Risks and Civic Engagement Rewards,” as well as presented a paper titled “#braveenoughtoteachinpublic: One Story of an Engaged Scholar and Teacher.” The panel participants presented ways of using social media in service-learning projects and as tools for reflection in first-year writing (FYW). We had previously connected over Twitter, and as someone who stresses the importance of social media in FYW, I was disappointed that I had to miss her panel because it coincided with my own. The panel focused on the use of social media to facilitate cross-course communication as well as enable conversations and collaboration beyond the classroom. By using social media, students are encouraged to share information and informed critique among larger audiences and communities of literacy. We met up after our sessions, and she allowed me to ask how she connects her pedagogy to her research interests in feminist rhetorics.
In addition to her roles as teacher and researcher, Engholm uses social media to write for larger audiences as an author for the open-access, peer-reviewed blog Nursing Clio. Reflecting the focus of the blog, Engholm researches and writes about women’s reproductive rights and how women’s bodies are framed in political and cultural debates. Her work focuses primarily on pregnancy, loss, disability rights, and motherhood, issues that she draws from everyday life experiences as a woman and mother to examine. She analyzes how these themes are deployed in popular, political, and medical rhetorics, and writes to bring these issues to the forefront in larger conversations at the social level. She is also especially interested in the intersection of discourses of religion and pro-choice advocacy and considers how they may be viewed as coincident rather than incompatible ideologies. As we discussed how her different roles converged, she stated that she found that the competing tensions between her scholarship and teaching often helped illuminate her own views on women’s reproductive health as a researcher and as an individual. She is part of a professional development group that explores how feminism and gender studies can find a home in a religious environment (such as her institution), and as a result of such considerations, she notes that one must leave room for more questioning and for interdisciplinary approaches, circumstances that prove beneficial if we, as teachers and students of composition and rhetoric, welcome them.
As a contributor to Nursing Clio, Engholm uses this real-world blogging experience to teach her students how to engage the powerful rhetorical potential of social media in her service-learning courses. As the service-learning courses are health-based, students learn how to research and address health disparities in their local communities. She instructs students on how to use social media as a way to connect with others outside the academy, as a tool for discussing health issues, and as a means to ensure that community members have access to resources. She also emphasized an awareness that community members should be participants in conversations about issues that affect them. Engholm highlighted the tension between her roles as a social media activist and a teacher and argued that when we teach our students to use social media and model our work, we “invite them into our worlds.” This presents a risk, she noted, but there are also considerable and tangible rewards for attempting such work.
M.27: Alma Villanueva, Texas A&M University, “Mama Grad Student: Maneuvering between and beyond Eurowestern Feminism and Neoliberal Postfeminism”
The third presenter I connected with was Alma Villanueva, a PhD candidate at Texas A&M University. Villanueva was part of a roundtable, “The Risks and Rewards of Motherhood in the Academy: Making Various Perspectives Visible,” which featured scholars who spoke to their experiences as mothers in academia. As a group, they spoke about hegemonic (and not-so-subtle) ways that academic women are circumscribed by gendered assumptions and imposed aspirations, from having to choose between having children and having a career, to running themselves ragged in order to have it all. They also discussed new models for thinking about motherhood—informed by Black feminist thought—and pushing back against classism and heteronormativity. Villanueva spoke about her experiences as a mixed-race pregnant PhD student, then mom, separated from her family and living in diaspora to several degrees; from this positionality she had to navigate the ostensible, entrenched private–professional divide in a decidedly oppressive environment. Focusing on self-care as an embodied praxis, Villanueva aimed to survive the process. Her embodied knowledge has now allowed her to find ways to interrogate both Eurowestern feminism and neoliberal postfeminism, and contest how they conspire to create a no-win situation for women mother–scholars. As a feminist rhetorician, I was especially interested in having her elaborate on how she defines these two dominant ideologies and rhetorics, and I believe her insightful responses can help to significantly nuance how we define feminist rhetorics and how we might think about embodied identity as a lens for constructing new knowledge paradigms.
As Villanueva’s work shows, Eurowestern feminism posits a dichotomous division between women’s roles as mothers and as academics, while neoliberal postfeminism encourages women to focus on their roles as mothers at the expense of their academic lives. Yet this perspective is also based in classism, on the implicit assumption that women do not have to work; Villanueva explains that her own mother postponed her college career until after Villanueva and her siblings left home, given that costs in terms of time and money were prohibitive. At the same time, this thinking leads to denigration of motherhood roles within the academy by framing maternal labor as outside of academia and by reinforcing patriarchal impressions of intellectual work. Villanueva specifically cited traditional notions of “disembodied, objective scholarship” (which a number of us know only too well) and sexist promotion evaluation criteria. Furthermore, she pointed to a very problematic silence in the scholarship about postfeminism (as theorized by Diane Negra) and its effects on women of color, and how this silence simultaneously devalues the maternal labor of women of color, and people of color of other genders who may not be mothers, as well as precludes critique of harmful stereotypes.
Inspired by the voices featured in Sekile Nzinga-Johnson’s (2013) edited collection, Laboring Positions: Black Women, Mothering and the Academy, Villanueva suggested a focus on maternal labor as an inclusive framework; she turns also to Latina critics such as Cherríe Moraga, Norma Alarcón, and Aurora Levins Morales. Villanueva joins these sources to advocate for greater attention to intersectionality in mother studies, as well greater attention to what mother studies can bring to feminism. A focus on maternal labor would allow us to consider the very different ways that members of diverse minority communities are racialized, their labors thereby denigrated and feminized, while still making room for discussing the embodied experiences of caregivers, pregnant women, and mothers—people whose experiences are also excluded from prevalent theories of affect and embodiment. Maternal labor, she explained, includes interpersonal interactions based in care between faculty, staff, and students without which the academic journey may prove impossible for most, if not all; these include mentorship, service, and emotional support. There is much more to be said here; nonetheless, we can begin to see how this framework calls on us to account for people’s—and each other’s—real-world experiences, just as it asks us to recognize the vast extent of our academic labor, even and especially that which often goes uncredited and unacknowledged.
To conclude, I would like to thank these presenters for generously giving their time to share their very incisive work. In speaking to them, I am (once again) prompted to argue for a more inclusive, polyvocal, and personalized approach to rhetoric and composition. We must acknowledge the many different ways that our embodied experiences shape our trajectories as individuals, researchers, and teachers. At the same time, by recognizing how these experiences render us experts over our own lives, we may find original means to theorize knowledge and credit them as such. Models and paradigms abound in real-world contexts, and by foregrounding these, perhaps we can begin to meet the challenge issued by Adam Banks in his CCCC Chair’s Address: that we diversify our sources of theoretical and practical inspiration so that not only “the demographics of our conferences and our faculties look like the demographics of our society, but … our citation practices and Works Cited lists do too” (National Council of Teachers of English, 2015).
Calafell, Bernadette M. (2010). Rhetorics of possibility: Challenging the textual bias of rhetoric through the theory of the flesh. In Eileen E. Schell & K.J. Rawson (Eds.), Rhetorica in motion: Feminist rhetorical methods and methodologies (pp. 104–117). Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.
Lorde, Audre. (1988). Epilogue. In A burst of light: Essays by Audre Lorde (pp. 131–134). Ithaca, NY: Firebrand.
National Council of Teachers of English (2015, March 24). Funk, Flight, and Freedom—2015 CCCC Chair Adam Bank’s Address Video File. YouTube. Retrieved October 22, 2015, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EYt3swrnvwU
Nzinga-Johnson, Sekile (Ed.). (2013). Laboring positions: Black women, mothering and the academy. Brandford, ON: Demeter Press.