Reviewed by Eric James Stephens, Clemson University (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Co-Chairs: Risa P. Gorelick, Research Network Forum, and Gina Merys, Saint Louis University
Speakers: Cynthia Selfe, The Ohio State University, “Pushing Back, Against Ourselves: Discipline at the Cellular Level”
Todd Taylor, University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, “Mentors, Editors, Midwives, Producers, Exemplars, and Taxi Drivers: It Takes a Village to Manage Your Research”
Howard Tinberg, Bristol Community College, “The Research Imperative at the Community College: Why Doing the Research Matters”
Going into the Research Network Forum (RNF), I had mixed feelings. A colleague and I had been working on a paper for a little over a year with little success in publications, so I was excited to get some feedback on how we could improve the article. At the same time, the thought of meeting strangers to critique our work was not particularly appealing. The plenary speakers helped set the tone and put things at ease, for me at least, but I had other friends and colleagues who did not have as good of an experience at RNF.
Cynthia Selfe’s presentation resonated with what I try to accomplish as a young scholar and writing instructor. Using the theme and motif borrowed from the Breaking Bad television series, Selfe (and the other plenary speakers) encouraged each of us young scholars to push our research and break down some boundaries—at least a little bit. While the outline of the RNF description had the plenary speakers teaching us how to manage research, I gained newfound enthusiasm for my own research to push some boundaries.
Selfe called for young researchers to push boundaries, and although I felt like pumping my fist in the air afterward, there remained a looming problem: tenure and editors. The idea was close to being addressed during the Q&A portion of the session, but I feel we were the wrong audience for such a rallying call to break bad. Young researchers in graduate programs, adjunct positions, and lecturer positions do not have the room to break bad, even a little bit in some cases. I’ve had more than one conversation with more seasoned researchers that have said, “Good idea, but maybe wait to do that after you get tenure.”
The true audience for such a call to action should have been tenured faculty and journal editors. It doesn’t take much analysis using Foucault to see the power relationships in academe, and we graduate students, adjunct faculty, and lecturers are at the bottom of the barrel. In a Free Speech and Open Forum at Clemson University, Todd May (2016) discussed “the increasing corporatization of the university of structure (where the university is actively restructuring itself) to create more vulnerability among its faculty and staff.” Pushing boundaries sounds like a great idea, but in the face of passing a thesis defense or going up for tenure, there isn’t much room for boundary pushing. What would happen, though, if tenured faculty and journal editors pushed boundaries? What would happen if they decided to break bad? Selfe can stand up in a room full of young researchers and scholars and call for us all to break bad. She has tenure. I don’t.
With the keynote session complete and this rallying cry mulling in my mind, I walked over to Table 4 to begin the Works-in-Progress portion of RNF. I sat down to introduce myself to the other presenters, Stephanie Harper from University of Louisiana and Caleb Pendygraft from Miami University of Ohio, as well as our discussion leader, Paul Walker from Murray State. Each of us shared our projects and offered feedback on the projects and ideas we brought to present. Walker was particularly good with his feedback, quickly seeing the arguments we presented and some of the flaws or areas for improvement. As new scholars and researchers, Stephanie, Caleb, and I fell victim to bibliography spouting in response to each other’s papersthough, I think I was the most guilty of that.
Despite the occasional “here’s more stuff to read in your ‘free time’” comments, we were able to help each other refine what we wanted to say and where we wanted to go in our various projects. As a relatively new reader of Heidegger, my table helped me develop the idea of “being” and its relevance to my paper about muted group theory and the Mormon feminist movement, Ordain Women. I hope that I was able to help Stephanie and Caleb in the same manner they helped me, which would be a good reason to follow up and network past RNF. That is, after all, one of the purposes and the second word of the forum, to network.
I learned later that our table was fortunate to have gone so well. Without referencing names, tables, or institutional affiliations, I had one colleague whose experience did not pan out as well as my own, which brings me back to this idea of the correlation between power and the ability to break bad. Due to what I hope was a mistake, my colleague sat at their table as the only Works-in-Progress presenter with not one discussion leader, but three. Although their presentation did not deal explicitly with writing and composition, it certainly dealt with rhetoric, which is a common thread of CCCC and RNF. After presenting the work, the three discussion leaders went onto explain how this presentation did not belong at CCCC or RNF. As you may be able to imagine, one young scholar being told by three “experienced” discussion leaders that this research did not belong explicitly exemplifies my concern with young scholars breaking bad.
Perhaps those three discussion leaders did not attend the plenary address, or maybe weren’t listening, or maybe didn’t understand the message? I’m not sure. The welcome portion of the RNF program said, “The RNF has served as a mentoring branch of the CCCC community—welcoming both novice and seasoned members—in an effort to foster growth in the scholarship of the field.” Fostering growth. Hearing my friend and colleague’s experience was disheartening. I understand that discussion leaders at RNF are volunteers, and the time they provide is precious. I wonder, though, if a quick how-to guide could be provided to discussion leaders that will encourage them to foster growth in young scholars rather than ostracizing them. Other friends who attended shared their experiences with me, all of them falling on this spectrum between fostering and ostracizing. It surprised me how many fell closer to the exclusionary side.
So with these experiences, I echo the plenary speakers’ call for breaking bad to those who donate their time as discussion leaders—put aside your egos. Foster growth instead. I’m only in my first year as a PhD student, and this was my first experience with RNF, so maybe I’m not the one who should be asking for this. Maybe someone with tenure? Maybe the real question is, does it matter who asks? How you answer may show how willing you are to break bad—even a little bit.
May, Todd. (2016). The administration of vulnerability–Open forum letter. Retrieved from http://blogs.clemson.edu/facultysenate/2016/01/09/the-administration-of-vulnerability-open-forum-letter-2/