Billy Henderson’s Other Project

By Helena Worthen

H by Matt Wong_TSAI am about to return to Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Nam, where my husband Joe Berry and I will be teaching in a Faculty of Labor Relations and Trade Unions at Ton Duc Thang University, a university sponsored by the national labor union, the Vietnam General Confederation of Labor (VGCL). We will be teaching classes in leadership, collective bargaining, contract enforcement and globalization. This sounds a lot like what we taught in the Labor Education Program at the University of Illinois. However, the context is different in Viet Nam.

In the U.S. there is a system of institutions, agencies, courts, and unions that work together, for better or worse, to regulate and moderate the fundamental conflicts between labor and management under capitalism. The foundations of this system have been in place since the 1930s.  In Viet Nam, the system is still evolving. There are courts of law; a lengthy, prescriptive Labor Code; People’s Committees; provincial offices of something comparable to our Department of Labor, but there is only one union, the VGCL, which represents the whole working class. There is very little of what we would call collective bargaining, which settles a whole range of problems for a definite period, and very few actual collective bargaining agreements. Instead, there is the process of “dispute resolution” that takes up problems on a case by case basis. There are no “independent” unions.

Furthermore, Viet Nam is not fully “under capitalism.” It is a Socialist country with a Communist government, although since the 1980s there has been a move (called “doi moi”) toward opening the economy first to foreign investment and then to other forms of capital accumulation, entrepreneurial activity, and investment. An example of “open” is that Viet Nam was interested in joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). If it had gone through, Viet Nam would have become a more significant trading partner with the U.S. As a condition of joining the TPP, Viet Nam would have had to sign the International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions on freedom of association (allowing independent unions), the right to organize, and collective bargaining. The people who negotiated the TPP saw these as necessary because the new economic relationships of TPP would require a much tougher, strategically flexible labor union response than was exercised under the one-union socialist system. Indirectly, this would have been good for American workers.  When workers overseas can bargain higher wages, workers in the US have less competition because the labor costs overseas go up, making manufacturers think twice about shipping jobs out of the US. Even without TPP, many in Viet Nam today think that stronger unions that include real shop floor worker representation are necessary.

Internal and external pressures are pushing labor in Viet Nam to give conflict the respect that it is due and build grassroots local unions that can advocate effectively to protect workers from the race-to-the-bottom that is part of global trade. The weight of history and the accomplishments of socialism, which brought Viet Nam up from destruction after the American War, press against reform, but the reality is that the kind of union envisioned under socialism, in which workers and employers were theoretically all cooperating for the good of society, has no rational basis under capitalism. The hundreds of wildcat strikes that take place every year are evidence of this.

Billy Henderson’s constitutions and by-laws project

Joe and I are being given the opportunity to teach labor relations at a point in the history of another country when their institutions are still being developed. When I ask myself whether what we are doing has any value, I remember something I learned back in the 1980s when, as an adjunct teaching in a California community college, I got swept up in a period of activism in the California Federation of Teachers (CFT/AFT) and was handed a small job at my local union, organizing other adjuncts. It is a story about doing something that may not pay off until far in the future. It also reveals something about me – namely, my age; I’m in my mid-seventies. At a time when many of my friends are dead, others are suffering illnesses that will kill them, Joe and I both still intact and have lucked into what appears to be the start a whole new professional life.

In the late 1980s, the recently retired past president of my union (CFT/AFT Local 1603, Peralta) was a sweet fellow named Billy Henderson, who was unusually patient and willing to teach me things. Adjunct organizing was a threat to some of the other old-time leaders of the union, but I got help from Billy setting up meetings, creating and distributing a newsletter for adjuncts, speaking at events and other activities that are a normal part of organizing. His other project seemed like an exercise in boredom: he was studying the constitutions and by-laws of different locals and drawing up comparisons. I was puzzled by anyone’s willingness to work on something as dull and procedural as constitutions and by-laws. What motivated him to do that?

An unexpected gift

The explanation was that he was dying. A few months into my job, I got a phone call from the current president saying that Billy needed someone to drive him home from the hospital. Hospital? I was not even aware that he was ill. It was about 8 pm on a weeknight; I told my teenage kids I would be back soon, got in my car and went to pick him up.

He was just getting dressed when I walked into his room. I gave him a hand, during which he told me he had AIDS. This was early enough in the AIDS crisis that people treated it as a death sentence. The conversation in the car going back became quite personal and intense. When we got to his house he invited me in for a cup of tea. While in the back of my mind I worried if the kids had turned off their lights and gone to bed, I felt that this was a conversation I could not afford to skip.

He said, when we sat down in his redwood paneled living room with a view of the Bay, “I am going to tell you something maybe you can use. It is this: You can make anyone do anything using positive reinforcement.”

Anyone do anything? I doubted it. My experience as the rep for my fellow adjuncts did not fit with that. Positive reinforcement when dealing with an obtuse, narcissistic administrator whose idea of an adjunct instructor was a unit of flexible labor? Who could lay off a woman in her 50s who had been teaching for twenty years at one of our colleges – twenty years without a “permanent’ assignment – and explain it saying, “We need fresh blood”? A human resources manager who refused to negotiate access to healthcare for adjuncts even when it would have cost the District nothing – at a time when one of our leading activists (someone else – that was a period when people were dying all the time) had just died on the floor of his apartment of untreated hepatitis?

Did he really mean that situations like these could be managed with positive reinforcement?

Building the foundation and the framework

Over the years, his claim stuck in my mind. Maybe that was his purpose: to make me keep thinking about him. The puzzle was like glue and it had the by-product of making me think about his other project. Most of the time, constitutions and by-laws are shadow structures. Out in the sunlight, day to day, one can organize a sit-in, a pressure campaign, or run a reform slate for the executive board, but back in the office someone should be going over the small print in the dusty pamphlet that says who can join, who can speak at meetings or raise concerns from the floor, who can run for office, or how often elections should be held. These constitute the structure of the organization into which people can invest energy, trusting that they are not being taken on a fool’s errand.

The good thing about the structure is that when it is right it is hard – hard in the sense of tough. If the structure works – if people are free to organize and take action, if judges are fair, if enforcement is strong – then the structure can be used to push back against the hungriest exploiters.

Billy was combing the small print on behalf of all the California local unions that were part of the CFT. He chose to do this at a time when he already knew he was dying. He was taking care of the big stuff in a way that he would never live to see implemented.

Acts of Adulthood

I am now older than Billy was when he died. Since that time, I have read about Eric Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development and understood, in fact, experienced, the way with age one shifts one’s attention from immediate challenges to the structures that lie behind them. Erikson calls this maturity, adulthood, and wisdom. Designing Social Security back in the 1930s or the Voting Rights Act of 1965, for example – those are acts of adulthood. Yes, passing them required the hot energies of many younger people, but getting the language right took desk work, research, and extensive discussion, institutional memory, and experience.

So now, in my seventies, although I do a certain share of the activities typical of people like me, writing letters and signing petitions to express opposition to our appalling governing clique, most of my thinking and writing energy is spent figuring out how to stimulate college students in Viet Nam to imagine a system of industrial relations that would harness the capacity of capitalism to create wealth in such a way that saves Viet Nam from the crisis of inequality that we face here in the US..

Sometimes I wonder whether what we are doing in Viet Nam can make any difference. Do our students really understand the urgency of needing strong unions? Do they recognize that employers who come to Viet Nam because of the low wages are not joking around and that organizing to improve wages and working conditions is not a simple matter of justice, but a fight? Do they understand that fighting requires organizing, and organizing requires planning and structure?  There is such a contrast between the safety and modern design of the Ton Duc Thang campus and the monster factories in the Export Processing Zones; do they really understand that what they are learning in comfort is to be applied in situations where workers faint from exhaustion in the heat? That learning the full range and calendar of practices that go into building a strong fighting union is not something you do overnight? You may be able to call a wildcat strike and put thousands of workers in the street, as a way of dealing with a crisis, but that only produces quick fix to a specific problem. Building a fighting union that can raise labor standards over the long term takes years and deep organizing.

Standing in front of a class of young students in Viet Nam, students who are going to become union staffers or HR managers, I say a silent thank you to Billy Henderson, for demonstrating by dedicating his last months to a boring project, the value of what does not appear to be exciting.

Photo credit: Matt Wong

Thanksgiving 2012 and the Sunlight of Memory

By Susan Naomi Bernstein

Rockaway_Beach.png

Photo description: Birds circle under a gray sky at Rockaway Beach, Queens, NY. 12-24-2012

Pushing through the market square

So many mothers sighing

News had just come over

We had five years left to cry in

News guy wept and told us

Earth was really dying

Cried so much his face was wet

Then I knew he was not lying

David Bowie – Five Years

Today, a friend gave me a copy of Rebecca Solnit’s recent essay “Preaching to the Choir.” Far into the essay, Solnit shares a story about two New Yorkers of very different backgrounds in a time long gone by. These two New Yorkers find a moment of connection one day on the ferry, sharing their experiences of the raw winter weather.

I read the essay in class while my students worked on their writing. And suddenly, without warning, I began to cry. The story of the ferry reached through the recesses of my defenses and hit the nerve of Thanksgiving 2012, five years ago, a year after Occupy Wall Street and a month after Hurricane Sandy.

I have written before about Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Sandy. But I have written very little about Thanksgiving 2012 — a holiday fraught with colonialist implications and frustrations.

Yet that Thanksgiving five years ago holds powerful memories.

We were only a month beyond the superstorm and signs of its impact were everywhere, from the plastic grocery bags catching the wind in leafless trees, to circling hungry birds, to the piles of rubble along the coastline. The late autumn damp chilled the bones more than usual, and I had the sinking feeling that my partner and I would be leaving New York soon.

I tried not to give the feeling any attention, but economics demanded it. I had gone three years without full-time work and my partner had just applied for disability. We had no money. I had seen an ad for a job out west that looked like it might be a “good fit,” except for the fact that it was 2500 miles away from the place we called home. I knew that people would do anything to stay in New York City, including living in their cars on adjunct teaching wages. We did not have a car, and my partner was recovering from a serious illness. As much as we hoped to stay in NYC, we could not compromise my partner’s health, and we had already discussed many times the possibility of leaving.

The melancholy of that autumn is difficult to describe. Wrapped up in Autumn 2012 is that peculiar feeling of learning to treasure every moment because tomorrow was not promised, a cliche, of course, but our time in NYC was beginning to feel fragile and finite.

And then my partner and I learned about Thanksgiving at St. Mark’s on the Bowery. In the spirit of Occupy, everyone was invited to bring something so that everyone would have enough to eat, especially those who had survived the worst of the storm’s devastation.

Many of us who attended that Thanksgiving were homeless or living from paycheck to paycheck, or were still unemployed or underemployed in one of the most expensive cities in the US. We were four years into the fallout of the 2008 mortgage collapse, and the impact of the recession that followed can still be felt in all too many communities across the country. In New York City after the storm after the collapse, the suffering was palpable.

At St. Mark’s, we were able to offer food and also clothes and blankets. At the doorway to the church, we would let visitors know what we had available, and work with them to fill out a list of what they needed. Then one of us would run back to the room where the clothing was kept to retrieve the items for which visitors had asked. Our work together reminded me of the DIY spirit of Occupy Wall Street the year before. In order to create the promise of a better future, we would work in coalition in the present to alleviate suffering exacerbated by the recession. These circumstances helped us stay mindful as ever of the intersectional nature of suffering.

Afterward, as we walked to the subway in late afternoon, my partner said, “So many of us who volunteered couldn’t have afforded such a good meal on our own. But together we all had a feast.” This moment remains among the strongest of my memories of New York City. The air felt cold and heavy clouds covered the sun. The wind gusts were sharp against our faces. When that sense memory surfaces, as it did today, the weeping is immediate. I am back in that moment, in the deepest sense of community I have ever known.

As the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Sandy approaches, I find myself living in the desert, where my partner and I have made our home since the summer of 2013. My partner is recovering from heatstroke and cannot go outside in the extreme heat. Even in late October the afternoons remain warm, and in the last full week of the month, the temperature hits a record high of 99 degrees.

The university where I teach is located in this parched and starkly beautiful landscape. Our students come from all over the country and all over the world. Some have been impacted by recent hurricanes, earthquakes, and fires. Gnawing in my gut is the memory of the hurricane five years before, and the climate disasters since. I am thinking of food insecurity before and after climate disasters, and I am thinking of the heat which feels as if it will never end. I am also thinking about Halloween.

Last spring in our Stretch course (for students in need of extra preparation, Stretch offers English 101 stretched over two semesters for six full credits that count toward graduation and transfer), students had a culminating project that invited them to write a proposal for a project that would make the world a better place. More than a few students asked for help for students with hunger and loneliness, two ongoing frustrations of the college transition. The students were ahead of the curve. Hunger and first-year loneliness are two issues that have since received the national spotlight.

One does not usually think of my current institutional home as a place of hunger, or even of loneliness, perhaps. As the institution has grown in numbers in the last half decade, it has also grown more selective. That selectivity of students with higher test scores and grade-point averages does not fit the stereotype of hunger, nor does the notion of the high school success of “better” students conjure up images of loneliness.

Yet students may find themselves unexpectedly lonely, whether they commute from home or live hundreds or thousands of miles away from their families. Transitioning from communities of origin to the very large community of our university can be daunting, if not intimidating or even downright depressing. For this reason, the stereotype is unfortunate. The struggles of hunger and loneliness often remain invisible to faculty and staff, no matter how well-intentioned we are.

Building on students’ suggestions from their projects to make the world a better place, we created a team of undergraduate and graduate students and adjunct faculty with the purpose of creating a community writing group for new students. Our graduate students participating in the Stretch teaching practicum came up with the idea of a large write-in on Halloween morning, a day when several of us taught at the same time. We found a room, obtained money for food, and invited other teachers in our program and their students to attend.

October 29, 2017, marked five years since the hurricane, five years since the last Halloween I spent in NYC. It was an uncanny Halloween. Because our neighborhood was on high ground, we had no flooding, though the damage from high winds added to the number of lost trees our neighborhood had sustained from a tornado the year before. Even as children along the Atlantic Coast faced Halloween with food shortages and without electricity children from our neighborhood dressed in costume and did trick-or-treating at local businesses, as they had every year before.

But the annual Village Halloween Parade in Manhattan was cancelled, and along the water, there were greater troubles. People were trapped on the upper floors of public housing high rises because the electricity was off, the stairwells were dark, and the elevators were down. A wealthy neighborhood where our congressional representative lived burned to the ground. The subways and most other public transportation had stopped running. As a result, during that first week after the storm, we had an inadvertent break from school.

Palimpsest, I remembered thinking then, the traces of a more distressing material reality breaking through a bright shiny surface. That is how this sixth Halloween celebrated after Sandy feels as well.

But Halloween is a trickster holiday. Our event planning team plans to dress up for the festivities. We will offer breakfast food, and I will continue thinking through the lessons of Halloween in 2017 and that long ago autumn of 2012. When survival is the most significant goal, we all have the potential to learn to help each other, and to help ourselves find the road back to our hearts. When the hierarchies are gone, coalition becomes possible.

Nothing in this struggle is easy, especially since universities do not work this way, and life itself does not work this way.

Yet the palimpsest and its traces remain. And it is still our job to pay attention to and to work in coalition. Coalition, in this sense, means working collectively and horizontally, through the challenges of consensus decision making. Neither top down nor hierarchical, coalitions allow us to make sense of working in the midst of differences, without either celebrating or ignoring those differences. This is harder work, but work that offers, perhaps, deeper and more lasting growth and transformation. In coalition and through consensus, more of us can contribute to strengthening our own communities.

In other words, my greatest hope is that we can offer mutual support in the midst of challenging times. Sara Ahmed suggests that “To share what deviates from happiness is to open up possibility, to be alive to possibility.” Addressing such challenges does not preclude “joy, wonder, hope, and love,” which “are ways of living with rather than living without unhappiness” (196).

Even more, in working for mutual aid, I am more interested in alleviating suffering than in reinvesting in hierarchies. Hierarchies, I have come to believe, try to keep a sense of normalcy, even as the traces burst through the page. Those traces cry out for attention in a world that would prefer to ignore them, as often happens when institutions perceive that applicants are in need of “remediation,” and therefore viewed as a liability. Despite the rhetoric of diversity and inclusion, the institution can classify the need for “remediation” as a reason for exclusion.

Raising admissions standards to leave out students with lower test scores, for instance, marks such students as forever trapped by an empirical measurement of a single performance. This exclusion has become common practice and negates the need to foster potential among people whose life circumstances stand to improve with equal access to educational resources. Until we make this hierarchy of educational access visible and open to interrogation and transformation, we, as educators, will continue to exacerbate the problems of unequal access to institutional resources, and cannot claim ourselves as true agents of change.

When we do pay attention, we can uncover hidden glimpses of our own humanity. We can affirm our “contingent collaborations” (Tuck and Wang) with students, against all hope and against all immediately visible evidence of the possibility of collaboration. With such affirmation, we may also find traces of a more compassionate future that we can all take responsibility for creating. Contrary as it seems, I have never felt such comfort in the cold as on that first Thanksgiving Day after Sandy in 2012. Walking to the subway, I sensed the moment of a future not yet visible, if only I could find the courage to discover the unimagined light.

Halloween_WriteIN_TEAM

Photo description: The Stretch Halloween Write-In Planning Team: Bill Martin as a hippie, Meghan Kelsey as a dog, Susan Naomi Bernstein as a glam rocker, Ian James as Perfume Genius.

Susan Naomi Bernstein has a longstanding commitment to Basic Writing pedagogy as a means of enacting educational equity.   Her book is Teaching Developmental Writing (MacMillan), a professional development resource now in its fourth edition, and she blogs on Basic Writing pedagogy for MacMillan’s Bedford Bits. Her recent work includes “Occupy Basic Writing: Pedagogy in the Wake of Austerity,” published in Welch and Scott’s collection Composition in the Age of Austerity. Her work also has appeared in Journal of Basic Writing, Chronicle of Higher Education, Pedagogy, and elsewhere. She has taught in rural and urban settings from Northern Appalachia and a Native American Community in the Southwest to Philadelphia and the Bronx. Currently, she lives and works in Arizona where she co-coordinates the Stretch First-Year Writing Program at Arizona State University’s Tempe campus.

Writing Networks for Social Justice: A Brief History of 4C4Equality

By Don Unger and Liz Lane

We first began the work of what would become the 4C4Equality initiative in fall 2013. As rhetoric and composition graduate students at Purdue University in West Lafayette, IN, we watched as the debate surrounding the location of the 2014 Conference on College Composition and Communication (4Cs) unfolded on the WPA LISTSERV (WPA-L).  4Cs was set to take place in Indianapolis, just 70 miles down 1-65 from us. Indiana politicians and their legislation had been growing increasingly, openly hostile toward LGBTQ people, and 4Cs members were talking about what kind of response the conference organizers would take to House Joint Resolution 3 (HJR-3).

Living and working in Indiana, we watched how the battle around HJR-3 took shape and felt the fear it created in our personal and professional lives. The proposed legislation sought to write discrimination against same-sex marriage into the state constitution. In response, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) worked through their statewide front group Freedom Indiana to oppose the proposed legislation. The HRC sent organizers from around the country to different Indiana cities in order to set up phone-banking and letter-writing campaigns. They also organized a coalition of national and regional corporations, and local businesses to oppose HJR-3. These companies signed a letter of opposition. Others boycotted the state. We were simultaneously appalled that such a law had been proposed and eager to do something to oppose it. Yet, as graduate students, we felt there wasn’t much space for us to do that. The HRC’s well-oiled machine limited what action local people could take as local LGBTQ organizations in Lafayette and West Lafayette simply deferred to the HRC. Still, the debate about 4Cs continued on the WPA-L.

Folks involved in the WPA-L discussion made a lot of suggestions about what to do, but it seemed like no one was going to put them into action. We began to talk about what it would mean to take an activist approach and turn the 4Cs conference into an organizing space against HJR-3. We were eager to explore how our own activist experiences, pedagogical training, and scholarly expertise might inform such organizing. So, we decided to strike out on our own and use a grassroots approach to support action in Indianapolis. In a theoretical sense, it meant establishing or tapping into connections among a number of stakeholders with myriad concerns and political leanings, including conference organizers and attendees; representatives of social benefit and social justice organizations; and local LGBTQ people and allies who weren’t affiliated with any of these institutions. We began to ask how to approach the issue as a network useful for all these stakeholders, and we began the work it would take to start to create such a network. In a practical sense, it meant putting into action those skills we taught students in professional writing courses.

Emergence of 4C4Equality

We dubbed this work 4C4Equality (4C4E) as a nod to the professional organization that we sought to work within and a nod to the fight for equality that we had taken up. We gathered a group of graduate students and created a plan of action, taking a few ideas from the online conversations mentioned previously and developing some of our own. We spent countless hours emailing and calling people, holding meetings, and attending other groups’ meetings, as well as designing a website and materials to give out at the conference. Eventually, we reached out to faculty to support our plan to engage 4Cs attendees and draw them into actions that supported LGBTQ Hoosiers and allies. For example, we offered materials to allow attendees to take part in a Freedom Indiana letter-writing campaign opposing HJR-3 and provided small cards for conference attendees to share with local business owners while they are or shopped in Indianapolis, asking them to oppose HJR-3. When it came time to implement the plan, we reached out folks on the WPA-L again. Writing instructors from all over the country volunteered to sit at our conference table and speak with other attendees about the fight against HJR-3. New and veteran conference goers donated funds to reimburse us for the cost of the materials and to allow us to make more. We were encouraged by the support that folks showed for our grassroots, graduate-student led, and donation-funded initiative.

You can read more about our history and approaches to local activism and organizing at our website, 4C4Equality.wordpress.com. Additionally, we detail our ongoing work with the initiative in “Considering Global Communication and Usability as Networked Engagement: Lessons from 4C4Equality,” set to appear in Thinking Globally, Composing Locally Rethinking Online Writing in the Age of the Global Internet in the January 2018 from Utah State University Press.

From a Grassroots Action to a Writing Network

Since our earliest days, we have worked to develop 4C4E as a network that connects writing, rhetoric, and literacy scholars to local activists in the cities that host 4Cs. Through yearly interventions centered around the annual conference, we have employed different tactics to expand this network and to make it sustainable, from serving as local organizers at 4C14 in Indianapolis, to supporting the work of local teachers and activists at 4C15 Tampa, to designing and circulating an online map that locates activist-scholars around North America at 4C16 in Houston. As the next step in developing this network, we decided to create a zine through which teacher-scholars could address their activist work for themselves. In the context of our ongoing work, providing a platform for others and putting these folks into conversation with one another reflects our approach toward local organizing. In our interventions at 4Cs, we have always asked how our work affords greater participation rather than asking how these interventions refine an infallible political critique. Through the zine, we set out to present a vibrant and multifaceted understanding of activism that supports many approaches. Given the current political climate in the US, our emphasis on participation rather than perfection feels more important than ever.

The 2017 Zine

Following the 2016 US presidential election, American politicians—led by Donald Trump—and their sympathizers have stepped up legal and extralegal attacks on poor and working-class people–particularly immigrants, Muslims, and all people of color, transgender people and queers, women, people with disabilities, and even children. To oppose these attacks, activist groups have organized national, regional, and local resistance. Teacher-scholar-activists have played a role in such resistance, from participating in high profile national actions–such as the 2017 Women’s March on Washington and A Day Without Immigrants–to carrying out day-to-day organizing in their communities, fields, and classrooms.

To shed light on such work, our zine bridges conventions in academic and underground publishing to build a network. Through our call, we hoped to highlight activist work in a more immediate and accessible manner than is found in most traditional academic publications. This DIY-approach has been integral to 4C4E from its beginning. Broadly speaking, each piece included in the zine addresses one overarching question:

In the current political climate where students and faculty are becoming increasingly involved in direct action and local organizing, where do writing, rhetoric, and literacy studies and adjacent areas of inquiry fit in this work?

To focus this question, we asked contributors to describe the activist and organizing work with which they are involved; how they feel writing, research, teaching, and service play into this work; how they discuss activist work among academic and organizing audiences; and how they collaborate with others through activism or local organizing.

The point is not to erase differences among these methods so that we might gather under one banner, but to write a(nother) network for social justice within, across, or through writing, rhetoric, and literacy studies. This zine provides a platform for activist-scholars to consider various methods for resisting and organizing resistance, and to consider how others relate to and employ these methods. It is a step toward building a network where we learn from, support, and respectfully/productively challenge one another to organize or further develop our local work.

In the zine, you’ll find a mixture of interviews, scene reports, and columns that reflect the spirit of underground publishing culture while allowing contributors creative license to articulate their activist work in unique ways. The zine is organized loosely around a number of themes: from perspectives on how grassroots organizing and activism fit into writing, rhetoric, and literacy studies; to pedagogical approaches to activism; to discussions of cultural rhetorics and how race informs praxis; and personal accounts of bringing activism into the classroom and community.

A majority of the interviews were conducted by the editors, as we invited scholars from writing, rhetoric, and literacy studies who influence our work with 4C4E to share their perspectives about the current state of the field and activism through it. The scene reports and columns offer first-hand perspectives on contributors’ extant, local work. It is our hope that the work described in the zine inspires others to engage, organize, fight back, and to listen to one another.

If you are interested in getting a print copy of the zine, check out the information on our website about ordering one. We will also be redesigning the zine to publish it as a webtext in constellations: a cultural rhetorics publishing space in time for 4C18. Additionally, we are always open to chatting about ongoing activist work and hearing about the ongoing activist and social justice work underway in the field of writing studies.

Don UngerDon Unger is an Assistant Professor of Writing and Rhetoric at St. Edward’s University. He also serves as the Faculty Fellow for Community-Engaged Teaching & Learning with St. Edward’s Center for Teaching Excellence. His research explores the impact that network technologies have on how we conceive of public rhetoric and what role service plays in shaping networks. You can contact Don at dunger1@stedwards.edu and follow him on Twitter @donunger.

Liz_LaneLiz Lane is an Assistant Professor of Professional Writing at the University of Memphis. Her research focuses on feminist activism in digital spaces, new media, and technical communication, and designing for community engagement. You can contact Liz at etlane@memphis.edu and follow her on Twitter @fancyscholar.

Why “just leave” doesn’t solve the problem

Here comes trouble

In this morning’s Inside Higher Ed, Claire Potter returns to an argument I thought was kind of over–that if adjunct faculty find their treatment so bad and their conditions so untenable, why not leave?

There was a wave of this line of argument in 2012/2013 when Margaret Mary Vojtko died, and the contingent faculty equity movement started to gain what I think is real (yes, very slow-moving) power. My gut reaction to it then, and now, is to be irritated in the same way I was at people who told New Orleans residents post-Katrina that they should “just leave.”

After a second cup of coffee, I think it’s more productive to cast that response differently. There are a few points that need to be on the table in order to get at what I want to say–in short: Sure, as long as ______.

1. It’s already happening. That’s why

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Three More Horsemen of the Ongoing Apocalypse: The University of Wisconsin Under Siege

The end game of neoliberal logics and austerity…

atlasofadifficult

Here are the new policies that were adopted this month, or will be adopted next month by the Wisconsin Board of Regents:

These policies are part of a dangerous trend, in which traditional stakeholders in the university, such as communities, citizens, students, staff, and faculty, have less power than the Board of Regents and unelected UW system administration.  Despite assurances that long-hallowed principles…

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Stank 2.0 and the Counter-Poetics of Black Language in College Classrooms

By Carmen Kynard

Is it possible to align with the illegible oppressed/contemporary subaltern, the falling apart abject nonsubject, inside a university English class? ~Alexis Pauline Gumbs

Kynard photoDisplacing Suede Patches and Stayin Fly…

In 2013, I moved to a new university with 20 years of teaching fully in tow.  I added these words to my syllabus in that fateful fall:

In this class, you will always be expected to connect outside sources to the topics of your writing (these sources could be books, articles, videos, film, music, archives, surveys, lectures, interviews, websites, etc). Writing critically with and from multiple, informed sources is perhaps the single, most common trademark for the kind of writing and thinking that is expected of you in the academy.  However, this does NOT mean: that you write about things you don’t care about, that you write as if you sound like an encyclopedia/wikipedia, that you omit your own voice and perspective, that you cannot be creative and energetic, that you must sound like the type of person who might wear wool/plaid jackets with suede patches on the elbows in order to be taken seriously, that you cannot be everything that makes up your multiple selves, that you cannot be Hip Hop/ Soul/ Bomba y Plena/ Soca/ Bachata/ Metal/ Reggae/ EDM/ or Rock-N-Roll, that you cannot have some FUN with it.  As Hip Hop teaches us, when in doubt, always stay flyyyy! You do not give up who you are to be an academic writer; on the contrary, you take who you are even MORE seriously.

You woulda thought that I had slapped somebody’s momma with these words given the way that my department chair responded.  Less than two months into the school year, I was called into my chair’s office and warned against including this statement on my syllabus.  Of particular concern was my crack on the suede-patch-elbow professor because it was “just mean and unprofessional.”  What if the professor coming into the room after you actually wears suede patches?  How would he feel?  I’m not sure what was more ludicrous: asking a black woman this kind of question out loud; expecting black faculty, in dire shortage at this college, to care and keep in the forefront of their minds how the predominantly white professoriate feels; or ignoring the predominantly black and Latinx students at the college to whom the words on the syllabus were directed.  She went on to explain how uncomfortable she would feel in my class as a white person, further marking black and brown bodies as an illogical racial location of college students today.

Daily moments like this remind you of the white-policing function of language in the academy.  It should come as no surprise that a white administration would respond so swiftly to my attempt at interrupting the reproduction of white language, affect, and power. The bodies of racialized students and faculty in these settings must be managed away from their proclivity to express themselves in alternative means and from alternative cultural and political legacies. Within such colonizing norms, I am expected to teach students to compose themselves by containing and restraining what Janine Young Kim calls racial emotions, namely grief, anger, fear, hatred, and disgust. In the particular instance that I am describing about my syllabus’s racial transgression, I was quite literally asked to ensure that some unnamed suede-patched-elbow white man who enters any classroom after me will not find an emotive student body of color who questions his sanctity and power.

White expectation, however, does not control black expression.  So what did I do?  I clapped back.  My seemingly offensive words are now on every syllabus that I create in even bigger, bolder, brightly-colored lettersEvery course website that I design now also bears the stamp of those words accompanied by a short word-video dropped onto a 50cent backbeat.  This way, if folk aren’t sure that I mean what I am saying, there should be no confusion now. It’s yo birthday/ We gon’ party like it’s yo birthday… And you know we don’t give a damn it’s not yo birthday! Borrowing from Alexis Pauline Gumbs in her remix of Glissant’s scholarship, pedagogy can work as a counter-poetics where everyday, routine practices in the spaces designed for the purposes of colonization are resisted and challenged.

The Counter-Poetics of Black Stank

Counter-poetics must also speak directly to the local schooling’s specificity of the colonization of brown and black people.  For me, this didn’t become clear until 2015, two years after I decided to retain my diss of suede patches on my syllabi, when I asked my first year college students a pointed question at the end of the semester: what was the best piece of writing that you did this school year (in any class) and why do you call that your best?  The students’ answers astounded me, particularly the way in which those students most interested in social justice (and I mean social justice as a process and life commitment, not a graded school assignment) answered so fundamentally differently.

Those students who I would call activist and conscious, mostly queer and/or students of color, talked about what they learned about the world and themselves; how they had committed to social justice issues more than ever before; why they saw themselves as people who had creative and/or political agency to change the world, help their families, and/or write in a way that reached and impacted people. Some of them even answered my question as a letter to their mothers explaining their gratitude and respect or as a letter to a younger version of themselves explaining all that they would soon become if they could just survive that current, ugly moment.

But then there were those other students in the “special,” mostly white “advanced” cohort.  I was, at best, bored… but mostly disgusted.  A large number of them talked about assignments where the teacher changed every word, gave them a new research topic when the teacher did not like the topic they had selected, told them what arguments to make, corrected every single mistake, drew arrows all over their papers showing them where each new paragraph and idea should go.  For these students, successful writing was when you got your drafts back from the teacher and there were no more markings on it.  No one talked about ideas, content, or dispositions they had learned or developed.  No one even talked about writing as a process other than collecting teachers’ corrections and finally receiving an A after correcting (always called “correcting,” NOT revising).

One student in particular, a young Mexican man, floored me.  We had talked on numerous occasions about his desire to assimilate into the white space of his cohort— all that he might gain and all that he stood to lose. In this assignment, he admitted that he was once flattered when his previous white male professor congratulated him when, at the end of the semester, the student was finally able to produce “clean and crisp sentences.”  Because he was ashamed that he once felt good about himself for this compliment, we talked at length about the racial undertones of a white man telling him that he was a good, “clean” and “crisp” Mexican.  I assured the young man that all was not lost, that the first step in warding off internalized colonialism is to recognize it.

I would be hard-pressed in some corners to convince some folk that wanting students of color to produce “clean and crisp” writing is a racist artifact of historical neuroses around racism and white purity.  Hard-pressed, yes, but Ima do it anyway.  The explicit discourses of nineteenth-century ideals of white purity produced a white identity, status system, aesthetic disposition, and social dominance and though these discourses are out of fashion today, this history has produced a living heritage.  Early U.S. discursive practices around cleanliness were associated solely with civility and whiteness and anything outside of that was considered polluted, impure, and immoral.  Whiteness, purity, and cleanliness have an undeniable linguistic genealogy in the United States (as well as a material reality given the money that the producers of Ivory soap made) undergirding what Dana Berthold calls “the formation of a dominant subjectivity which…is coded white” (p. 13). If my analyses of a white male professor’s inclination to insist upon “clean sentences” in his writing classes seems a bit far-fetched, I remind you that ideas around whiteness, bodies of color, and cleanliness have always been illogical. One need only remember the psychoses of Jim Crow rules where separate silverware, bathrooms, and door entries were quite violently maintained for black domestics in white homes as a way to maintain white purity.  This circulation of notions of white purity in racist systems veered long, long ago beyond the realm of the far and the fetched.

My students’ experiences with “clean and crisp” college writing politics compelled me to think more deeply about the ways in which blackness and black language can offer a counter-poetics that does not attempt to subdue, remove, and alienate physical embodiment, especially for brown and black bodies.  In fact, one of the greatest compliments that you can receive in African American culture— especially for artists likes cooks and musicians— is to be someone who can put some stank on it!  If we really listen and hear what this expression means, then we can arrive at some alternatives to the aesthetics of whiteness and racial purity that schools teach and promote.

When I tell students to put some stank on their writing, I am explicitly using a racialized code to counter teaching practices related to writing that are all about following the rules, delivering a nice, tidy, clean product to a teacher, and composing a white self that has rid itself of racial emotion.  I have in mind here a very specific argument that Hortense Spillers makes about black culture. In Saidiya Hartman, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Shelly Eversley, & Jennifer L. Morgan’s interview with Spillers in 2007, “‘Whatcha Gonna Do?’: Revisiting “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Spillers argues that in black culture a narrative of antagonism is inscribed in its memory.   The epistemological antagonism of Black language in the utterance of “puttin some stank on it” offers a kind of risk-taking and ground-breaking where an audience can engage the fullness of a black/brown energy, body, and emotion in motion.

I do not just verbally repeat this mantra in my classes though.  It is also now policy, loaded onto every course website.   The instrumental of Erykah Badu’s “Bag Lady” plays in the background; for those students who recognize the song, they will get that I am asking them to lay aside the baggage of what school has taught them.

This is not to say that everyone will like or respect my students’ writings or my own writing pedagogy.  That is not the goal, especially if liking and respecting what we do means the kind of performance for white comfort that my chair was asking of my syllabus. I tell my students that when they write, they need not accept the request that they act like Aunt Jemima or Uncle Ben typa domestic servants who tidy up and cater to everyone’s comfort and house rules.  The politics of why, what and how we write— and who we write for— are never racially neutralized of the history of white dominance.

Blackness As Pedagogical Transformation

In his essay describing Afro-pessimism as a critical frame for examining the structural condition of slavery and racism and their personal, subjective, and embodied realities, Jared Sexton argues that “in a global semantic field structured by anti-black solidarity, it stands to reason that the potential energy of a black, or blackened position holds out a singularly transformative possibility[…].” If we take Sexton’s arguments here seriously about a blackened position as a transformative possibility, then we can understand that black language also bears socially altering possibilities.  In fact, I would argue that expressions such as “put some stank on it” and the ways in which it circulates across black communicative spheres offer just one concrete example of how black language transforms experience: in this case, one simple utterance ruptures an entire genealogy of white purity and aesthetics and articulates an entirely different effect and affect.  If we situate black language as something beyond the general grist of research articles (for mostly white academic audiences) that explain divergences from (whitestream) dominant linguistic norms, then we see black language in terms of its own epistemological system.  This is not merely an invitation for students to speak and write in their own languages in our classrooms, but a renewed and radicalized social possibility for why.

***

Below is a video that one of Professor Kynard’s classes articulating their polices of composing using the same method:

For more information about this video designed by Latinx undergraduate students during a class session, please click here.

 

Carmen Kynard is associate professor of English at John Jay College and the CUNY Graduate Center. She has led numerous professional projects on race, language, and literacy and has published in Harvard Educational Review, Changing English, College Composition and Communication, College English, Computers and Composition, Reading Research Quarterly, Literacy and Composition Studies and more. Her first book, Vernacular Insurrections: Race, Black Protest, and the New Century in Composition-Literacy Studies won the 2015 James Britton Award and makes Black Freedom a 21st century literacy movement. Carmen traces her research and teaching at her website, “Education, Liberation, and Black Radical Traditions” Her personal website can be found at: http://carmenkynard.org).

Works Cited

Berthold, Dana. “Tidy Whiteness: A Genealogy of Race, Purity, and Hygiene.” Ethics and the Environment, vol. 15, no. 1, 2010,  pp. 1-26.

Gumbs, Pauline Alexis. “Nobody Mean More: Black Feminist Pedagogy and Solidarity.”  The Imperial University: Academic Repression and Scholarly Dissent, edited by Piya Chatterjee and Sunaina Maira, University of Minnesota  Press, 2014, pp. 237-259.

Kim, Janine Young. “Racial Emotions and the Feeling of Equality.” University of Colorado Law Review, vol 87, 2016, pp. 437-500.

Sexton, Jared. “Afro-Pessimism: The Unclear Word.” Rhizomes: Cultural Studies in Emerging Knowledge. http://www.rhizomes.net/issue29/sexton.html  [https://oi.org/10.20415/rhiz/029.e02]

Spillers, Hortense, Saidiya Hartman, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Shelly Eversley and Jennifer L. Morgan. “‘Whatcha Gonna Do?’: Revisiting “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book: A Conversation with Hortense Spillers, Saidiya Hartman, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Shelly Eversley, & Jennifer L. Morgan.” Women’s Studies Quarterly, vol. 35, no. 1/2, 2007, pp. 299-309.

Activist Labor: Thoughts on Getting Organized

Hubrig-TSAPHOTO20SEPT2017By Adam Hubrig

*Sigh* DACA. Climate Change. Education Policy. Institutional Racism. Community Literacy. Labor Rights. Disability Advocacy. “School Choice.” The Vanishing Tallgrass Prairie and Dwindling Number of Pollinators. And *sigh* . . . And *sigh*. . . And *sigh*. . .

As much as I want to, I can’t tackle it all.  None of us can tackle it all.

We only have so much labor we can contribute to the causes we believe in, and we have to be thoughtful and strategic about how we leverage those limited resources of physical and intellectual labor we can contribute as activists for our students and the causes we feel so strongly compelled to address.

To unpack this issue of labor as a limited resource, consider the article “What Kind of Citizen” by Joel Westheimer and Joseph Kahne. It is cited and circulated widely among practitioners of many disciplines, but I was introduced to it through my work in Community Literacy and Civic Engagement.  In the article, Westheimer and Kahne provide a useful framework for thinking about the implications of citizenship.  They define three visions of engaged citizenship, which are less distinct categories but rather broad philosophies that often blend together.  These categories are:

  • Personally-Responsible Citizenship
  • Participatory Citizenship
  • Justice-Oriented Citizenship

These categories speak to the question “What kind of citizen do we need to support an effective democratic society?” and Westheimer and Kahne use them to explore how these visions of citizenship might impact educators’ approaches to the noble goal of teaching for an engaged citizenry.

Expanding this framework to think about activism has been helpful for me as I reflect on my own activism and community involvement and how it often takes different shapes. I hope it might be useful for you, too, in thinking about the question what kind of activism best leverages our labor to affect change in our communities?

Personally-Responsible Activism

Westheimer and Kahne’s framework begins with the personally-responsible citizen, who personifies all of the basic etiquettes of engaged citizenship you were likely taught in grade school; follow the rules/laws, don’t litter, do recycle, and volunteer when the mood strikes you.  Westheimer and Kahne’s primary example, threaded throughout their writing, is that of dealing with hunger: the personally-responsible citizen is the one who might donate some cans of soup and potted meat to the food drive.

The personally-responsible citizen is primarily concerned with tending to the most immediate perceivable threats and worries.  This kind of citizenship is certainly important.  I think, here, about the outpouring of support in these last weeks for Hurricane victims and how that immediate, tangible response is necessary for relief now.  But it also has its limitations; the personally-responsive citizen is primarily reactionary and does not address the systems in place that cause or contribute to the problem(s).

In the category of Personally-Responsible Activist, we see activist work that deals with immediate needs.  I think, here, about work I do alone or as a volunteer for community organizations; working with People’s City Mission in Lincoln to address homelessness, participating in marches and rallies, providing habitats in my backyard for solitary bees, and writing letters to my elected representatives all seem like work I do as an activist that fit in this category.  I see my work advocating for my students, here, as one-on-one meetings where I address student concerns or vote for representatives-both within and outside of the institution where I teach-who will most justly and fairly represent my students.

Community literacy scholars try to encourage their students to work as thoughtful citizens, often engaging them in work as activists, too.  There are certainly community literacy projects that fit this framework of engaging students on a level of personally-responsible activism.  These projects are foremost concerned with students’ individual actions; projects designed, for instance, to get students to complete a certain amount of volunteer hours or attend a specific event and write a reflection essay.  These are all geared toward personally-responsible activism.

I don’t mean to belittle anyone engaging in the work of personally-responsible activism, here. It’s important to address these immediate needs, and personally-responsible activist work such as participating in public demonstrations or providing literacy workshops are useful to our communities.  But there are also other approaches available to those of us who aspire to be teacher-scholar-activists, and thinking strategically about these kinds of activism can help us better leverage the limited physical and intellectual labor we wish to contribute to these causes we’re investing our resources in.

Participatory Activism

Returning for a moment to the “citizenship” framework provided by Westheimer and Kahne, we’re presented with the “Participatory Citizen”.  The participatory citizen engages in work closely tied to collective, community-based efforts.  This view of citizenship recognizes the power of collectives; if, in Westheimer and Kahne’s example, the personally-responsible citizen is the one giving soup to the food bank, the participatory citizen is the one organizing the food bank and going door to door for donations.

This work, in terms of my own activism, is some of the work that I find most personally rewarding and satisfying; I serve as Co-Director for an organization called The Writing Lincoln Initiative, for example, where I help organize volunteers to work with different community partners to provide literacy workshops in Lincoln, Nebraska.  I also work with groups of K-College writing teachers through my role as Co-Director of the Nebraska Writing Project to help teachers organize to respond to various concerns education faces (of which there are certainly many).  This organizing with other teachers and with students to various ends is deeply rewarding work, and I’ve seen it have largely positive impacts on communities.

But it, too, is primarily reactionary in that it addresses, in a more systematic and less-short term way than personally-responsible activism, symptoms caused by larger problems.  Again, this brand of participatory activism is important, necessary labor, but there are also other strategies that can be used to affect change across our communities; how else can our labor be leveraged?

Justice-Oriented Activism

The third vision of citizenship Westheimer and Kahne explore is the “justice-oriented” citizen, who “use rhetoric and analysis that calls explicit attention to matters of injustice and to the importance of pursuing social justice” (242).  In their example of addressing hunger, the Justice-Oriented Citizen uses their rhetorical, analytical savvy to address what flaws in our current system are the causes of there being humans who need the food bank in the first place.

Westheimer and Kahne’s framework for the justice-oriented citizen is laden with abstractions, and extending this framework to activism creates a potential trap of inaction; it’s not enough, shifting this framework to reflect on activism, to identify the sources and causes of those concerns (though it is an important and necessary step), we must move to action, action which frequently involves the other two visions of activism.

This kind of activism strategically leverages our labor to address the root causes of systemic issues.  Most of the labor I do is not this kind of work.  I am trying to use my labor towards this kind of activism in my own classroom through a partnership with Nebraskans for Civic Reform, a group I’m collaborating with to help other teachers in the Nebraska Writing Project network make issues of civic engagement real and tangible in their classrooms, a proactive approach to strengthening democratic involvement.

Though my personal contributions to Nebraskans for Civic Reform are self-contained, the work the organization takes on is, by its nature, Justice-Oriented Activism. It’s labor focused on addressing and changing specific causes of inequality in our democratic system.  This work aims to not only relieve symptoms of this inequality but to address root causes, mobilizing labor to change a system rather than deal with its end products.

The strategy of governance as activism, outlined in a previous post here by Holly Hassel, is a great example of leveraging our labor towards Justice-Oriented Activism.  Hassel guides us as teacher-scholar-activists to work collaboratively in the governing bodies of our departments or schools to affect policy to the benefit of our students, writing that “A well-run, competent, and active senate can be a unified and collaborative voice for constituents who can best reflect the ‘on the ground’ experience of those who are served by and who serve the institution.”  Hassel points us to Justice-Oriented Activism through our labor, pinpointing a political arena where we as educators can best affect meaningful change for our students.

I wonder how I can reimagine more of my activist work in proactive, justice-oriented terms, how I can better leverage my labor inside and outside the classroom.  While this framework has been helpful in prompting reflection on activist labor, it leaves me with so many questions; how can we do more as activists with students in our classrooms to facilitate the kinds of discussions necessary for change(s) to occur?  How can we work with our peers and colleagues as activists to affect change in ways that are strategic and productive?  How can we use our own research and scholarship, as activists, to best serve ourselves, our students, and our communities?  How can we best leverage the labor we’re already engaged in to have the greatest impact both to relieve the symptoms and the causes of the difficulties our communities face?

I’m not sure, yet, but I’m excited to work with you to keep inventing, inquiring, and interrupting.

BIO

Adam Hubrig began teaching in the writing center and as an adjunct at Southeast Community College in Lincoln, Nebraska.  His love for writing, education, and community engagement led him to be deeply involved with the Nebraska Writing Project and the Writing Lincoln Initiative, serving as Co-Director of both organizations. He is currently a Ph.D. student in Composition and Rhetoric at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he teaches courses on and is fascinated by Community Literacy, Civic Engagement, and alternative forms of argumentation. He and his partner, Tiffany, enjoy volunteering in their community and tending to a meager garden, four snuggly cats, and solitary bees in Seward, Nebraska.  Reach him at Adamhubrig88@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @AdamHubrig.

REFERENCES

Westheimer, Joel and Joseph Kahne.  “What Kind of Citizen?  Political Choices and Educational Goals.” Encounters on Education, 2003.