B.12: Risk and Resilience in Women’s Professional Lives in Composition and Rhetoric

Reviewed by Angela Clark-Oates, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ (aclarkoa@asu.edu)

Chair: Tiffany Bourelle, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM

Speakers: Irene Papoulis, Trinity College, Hartford, CT, “They Always Say You Can Learn from Failure, and Sometimes You Actually Can”
Ann Brady, Michigan Technological University, Houghton, MI, “Living and Learning Resilience”
Linda Peterson, Yale University, New Haven, CT, “Mentoring for Risk, the Risk of Mentoring”
Tiffany Bourelle, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM, “Career Suicide? Leaving a Tenure-Track Job for a Contingent Position
Elizabeth Flynn, Michigan Technological University,Houghton, MI, “From Feminist Literary Criticism to Reading and Composition: Risks and Rewards of an Interdisciplinary Professional Life"
Libby Falk Jones, Berea College,Berea, KY, “From Margin to Center to Margin: The Art of Reinventing

Respondent: Shirley Rose, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ 

The session featured six women in the field of rhetoric and composition in different teaching and administrative positions at various institutions, sharing the risks of their storied lives. In Shirley Rose’s eloquent response to the panelists, she stressed that while these women risked much in their professional lives, they also risked much by telling their stories. In their papers, these panelists explored “people’s lives and how they are composed and lived out” (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000, p. xxii).

As chair of the session, Tiffany Bourelle opened the panel by explaining to the audience that although the narratives were representative of each of the women’s experiences—as mothers and professionals, tenure-track faculty and contingent faculty, writers and scholars, single and married—two threads emerged across the stories and bound them together: risk and serendipity.

Irene Papoulis was the first speaker to share her story. Papoulis began, “I’ve spent way too much time feeling like a failure, even though by many measures, I’m not one at all.” By saying this, she was hinting at a larger professional narrative that framed her own interpretation of the meaning of her experiences. Although Papoulis had participated in many professional milestones, such as being mentored by Peter Elbow, teaching with Sheridan Blau, participating in National Writing Project, and teaching at the post-secondary level—taking many risks and enacting resilience—Papoulis shared her shame of being stifled and stuck by what she perceived as a failure to publish or land a tenure-track position. In the end, her resilience allowed her to assess the risk differently, finding some peace with what she didn’t have. She wrote, “I am lucky to have a job in the first place, and I refuse to be stifled…Instead, I write in solidarity with all the people who also struggle with feeling, for whatever reason, not good enough.” In telling her stories, like all the other women on the panel, Papoulis lived her stories again; she, “reaffirmed them, modified them, and created new ones” (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000, p. xxvi).

Ann Brady opened her narrative by challenging the audience to listen differently, to reject the construction of a seamless, individualistic narrative. This challenge hints at what Rosemary Hennessy (1992) claimed is the importance of using personal experience as “a critical tool for examining the values and ideologies used to construct women’s experiences” (Ritchie & Boardman, 1999, p. 10). Brady also stressed the reciprocal relationship between risk and resilience. She wrote, “I’d like to focus on my risky moments in order to sketch out this reciprocity: how risk opened up opportunities for resilience and how resilience, in turn, made it possible for me to reshape who I was.” For Brady, the risk was returning to graduate school much later than most and driving across country with her family to do so. This experience—and I would argue, the re-telling of this experience —reminded her “of the satisfaction that the risks of recreating, reforming, reshaping, and engaging identity and agency can afford.”

Linda Peterson followed Brady by sharing a narrative about the complexities of mentorship. To do so, she shared her own story of being mentored as she struggled to make a decision about whether she should pursue an opportunity in higher administration or remain a scholar and a teacher in her department. With the advice of Win Horner, she chose scholarship and teaching, flourishing “in the past 15 pre-retirement years doing research, teaching undergraduates, and advising graduate students.” After sharing this snapshot, Peterson used her own experience as a critical tool for exploring mentorship, examining differences across lived experiences, and disrupting, much like Brady, the need for a single story to be representative of women in the field of rhetoric and composition.

Like the others, Tiffany Bourelle shared the risks of her professional journey, a story that quickly moved away from a spotlight on her individual experiences and toward an examination of risk and resilience in two lives, dual-career academics. Both Bourelle and her husband graduated from the same doctoral program; both were on the job market at the same time; and both were offered and turned down tenure lines because they were committed to honoring their relationship. At the beginning of her story, Bourelle acknowledged that she felt all the same fears of being on the tenure market for the first time as other newly minted PhDs, and she stressed that she and her partner faced an even tougher challenge trying “to find jobs together.” For Bourelle and her husband, risk was defined as both turning down and walking away from tenure lines as well as accepting and embracing more contingent positions. By refusing to accept a larger grand narrative about how to live an academic life, the Bourelles chose to follow their own path and, ultimately, landed in two tenure-track positions at the same university in the same department. By taking risks and finding resilience, the Bourelles have landed, “in the right place at the right time.”

While sharing her story, Elizabeth Flynn ended by pondering, “I do wonder what would have happened if I had …remained narrowly disciplinary rather than interdisciplinary.” This thought is deeply rooted in the risk of Flynn’s story: a risk of disrupting the apolitical narrative of composition studies, a risk of challenging a narrow construction of doing feminist work, and, finally, a risk of being a woman doing feminist work in a job designed to “support the Writing across the Curriculum Program.” Flynn’s narrative echoes Katherine Anne Porter’s assertion about the work of an artist. In a Paris Review interview with Barbara Thompson Davis (1963/1998), Porter said, “the work of the artist…is to take …things that seem to be irreconcilable, and put them together in a frame to give them some kind of shape and meaning” (p. 47). Of course, without Flynn’s artistry as a scholar and teacher, without her willingness to risk her first tenure-line position to do this meaningful work, our understanding of the reconciliation between feminist studies and composition studies would be stunted. In addition, without the retelling of her personal experiences, we would also lack a critical tool for shaping our own understanding of the feminist work that still needs to be done.

The last panelist to present was Libby Falk Jones. She opened her story with a promise of, “three stories, all true,” but before she began she shared a theoretical frame, a method for moving beyond the experiential. For Jones, the third story was, “the most risky to tell but also the most powerful: a radically discontinuous story of challenge, failure, and loss.” Jones did share her story of “way closing”: a secondary theoretical framework; a story about writing creatively that allowed her to be an agent, “recognizing and seizing opportunities; metis, or shape-shifting—confronting power with flexible, active responsiveness; and relationally—where inward adaptation move outward, creating networks of support.” And although Jones was theorizing her own multiple stories, pushing the audience to find meaning beyond the experience, she was also closing the panel by constructing a framework for understanding all the women’s stories as a collective, where risk and resilience can be interpreted as a metonymy for identity and agency. Jones closed the panel with poetry—her own. A poem inspired by a photograph of Jones when she was just eight months old. Why close a panel about risk and resilience in the field of composition and rhetoric with a poem about her own childhood? Because imagination undergirds risk and resilience, identity and agency. Maxine Greene (2000) wrote,

On the original landscape where an individual is grounded, where her or his life began, there is always a sense of consciousness being opened to the common. When we are in the midst of things, we experience objects and other people’s actions corporeally and concretely. And despite the distancing and symbolizing that come later, the narrative we shape of the materials of our lived lives must somehow take account of our original landscapes if we are to be truly present to ourselves. (p. 75)


In sharing this poem, Jones also shows how her resilience is grounded in the recognition that the margins of a new life, although usually felt as pain and frustration, can be chosen as the place we want to live, the place we are already living.

Shirley Rose was the respondent, and she spoke to each of the women on the panel, turning toward them and away from the audience, to share the lessons she learned from each of them. In doing so, she created an intimate space to validate the stories, to honor the risk of sharing publically interpretations of their lives. Rose expressed the following lessons learned:

  • Define success and failure for yourself
  • Be thankful for mentors who have good will and share their wisdom
  • Take responsibility for your own decisions
  • Know what you want and what you don’t
  • Go after what you love
  • Don’t always pay attention to advice you are given
  • Compose your poetic life

Rose also encouraged the audience, “to understand these stories as strategies for asserting agency."

During the question and answers portion of the session, some women in the audience pushed back on the panelists’ narratives, expressing concerns that all the shared stories seemed to end up as success stories. Following the tenor of the first question, another audience member challenged the panel to problematize the construction of contingent faculty that seemed to be perpetuated across the narratives, calling for a more layered understanding of contingency. Like the panelists, the audience was eager to unravel traditional, professional arcs, where a tenure line is the only definition of success in the field. In this way, the session became as much about valuing the panelists’ personal experiences as it did about critically examining the collective narrative of the field. Joy S. Ritchie and Kathleen Boardman (1999) reminded us, in citing Joan W. Scott and Rosemary Hennessy, that, “narratives of experience should be encountered not as uncontested truth but as catalysts for further analysis of the conditions that shape experience” (p. 10).


Clandinin, D. Jean, & Connelly, F. Michael. (2000). Narrative inquiry: Experience and story in qualitative research. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Davis, Barbara Thompson. (1998). Interviews: Katherine Anne Porter, The Art of Fiction No. 29. In George Plimpton (Ed.), The Paris review interview: Women writers at work. New York, NY: The Modern Library. (Reprinted from Paris Review, 29, 1963.)

Greene, Maxine. (2000). Releasing the imagination: Essays on education, the arts, and social change. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Hennessey, Rosemary. (1992). Materialist feminism and the politics of discourse. New York, NY: Routledge.

Ritchie, Joy S., & Boardman, Kathleen. (1999). Feminism in composition: Inclusion, metonym, and disruption. College Composition and Communication, 50, 585–606. In Gina E. Kirsch, Faye Spencer Maor, Lance Massey, Lee Nickoson-Massey, & Mary P. Sheridan-Rabideau (Eds.), Feminism and composition: A critical sourcebook (pp. 7–26). Boston, MA: Bedford St. Martin’s.

Created by HollyMcIntyre. Last Modification: Thursday December 31, 2015 20:32:53 GMT-0000 by ccccreviews.