Writing Democracy and the Struggles Ahead

By Shannon Carter, Deborah Mutnick, Stephen Parks, and Jessica Pauszek

The publication of our coedited volume Writing Democracy: The Political Turn in and Writing Democracy Book CoverBeyond the Trump Era (Routledge 2019) coincided roughly with the third biannual Conference on Community Writing in October 2019. Interestingly, the issue of Donald Trump’s presidency, which resonated powerfully across panels and dinner tables at the last CCW in 2017 was barely mentioned this year, except in relation to impeachment—at least not in what we heard. This sea change can be interpreted as a sign of hope that the 2020 presidential elections are around the corner and the Trump era is soon to end; inurement to and exhaustion from the incessant barrage of Trump’s criminal, immoral policies and outrageous tweets, including his most recent betrayal of the Kurds in Syria; and/or proof of entry into a new, even more troubling stage of neoliberal capitalism that Trump may have hastened but will outlast him and pose even greater threats to the country and the planet.

Writing Democracy is our attempt to intervene in this conversation and argue for a “political turn” in and beyond the field of composition and rhetoric that can help address disciplinary, theoretical, pedagogical, and activist questions about the current conjuncture and to join with a coalition of forces in and outside higher education to “make our own history” in what Laurence Cox and Alf Gunvald Nilsen call “the twilight of neoliberalism.” Contributors to the collection address the history of radical projects within composition and rhetoric, the ethics of the political turn, the pedagogy of the political turn, union organizing strategies, the political turn and two-year colleges, student movements, Islamophobia, dismantling the Trumpian “wall” in light of Naomi Klein’s theory of the “shock doctrine,” historical lessons from the civil rights movement, and border politics and education. Interviews with Angela Davis and Dana Cloud mark continuations and new insights into the work of expanding this conversation beyond the borders of our own field (see complete Table of Contents here).

The intent of the collection is to join existing and inspire new conversations about the field, its pedagogical, research, and theoretical priorities, as well as how writing functions as a tool for liberation across diverse communities. This collection is also rooted in the sense of crisis that we so vividly remember in the period leading up to and following the 2016 election of Donald Trump as we bore witness to the rise of fascism and the acceleration of global accumulation, dispossession, and ecological destruction. At the 2019 CCW, for example, it is precisely the sort of question raised by Carmen Kynard in her keynote address, asking us to examine what we read, write, and teach in light of how it does the “work” of revolutionary transformation, particularly anti-racist and anti-capitalist work, that we agree is critical to advancing what we call the “political turn.” Rather than see the Trump era as anomalous, we see it as a sudden, sharp deepening of the multiple crises that preceded and will follow the Trump era even in the most hopeful view of a future recovered by radical mass mobilization for democratic social change: gross inequality, rising racism, nationalism, xenophobia, and fascism, mass incarceration, a mounting war and climate refugee crisis, and present and looming ecological disasters.

Rather than a unified position, the collection reflects how a diverse group of rhetoric and composition scholars are working to illuminate the present through analysis aimed at reclaiming our collective futures, especially those most vulnerable to current assaults on human rights, dignity, and material needs—people of color, white working-class/poor, women, LGBTQ communities, immigrants, displaced refugees, victims of war, incarcerated people, and so on—and of the world’s children, whose fate is more uncertain than any other generation in human history. And yet, even the four of us have fairly significant political disagreements, not about the dehumanizing, catastrophic effects of neoliberal capitalism but about historicizing, theorizing, and transforming it. The contributors likewise focus on a variety of concerns from diverse perspectives that, while rooted in the ethical and political values of social and economic justice scholarship, teaching, and activism. To quote from our introduction, we aim to show how progressive academics in composition and rhetoric and across disciplines can contribute to creating conditions for genuine democratic dialogue and critical, historically, and scientifically grounded pursuit of just solutions to local and global problems. We argue that historical exigencies call on us to enact a “political turn” that embraces yet goes beyond more celebrated cultural, public, and social turns to ask critical questions about our political economy and our field’s potential response(s) to them: How are social class and race interpolated in American—and global—history? What is the future of education in this era of austerity, privatization, and corporatization? What sort of future is in store for the world’s children and their children? What are the underlying structures of U.S. and global capitalism? Whose interests does capitalism serve? Who benefits? Who suffers? What can be done about it? These are key questions we take with us in and beyond the Trump era. (20)

Again, we hope the book will spark discussion and debate, inviting not only a political turn in our classrooms, campuses, communities, conferences, and journals, but also commitment to the doubly hard work of activist engagement in local, global, and national struggles, and deep study of history, theory, and practice or strategy as we catapult into the third decade of the 21st century. Two other observations in closing: First, teachers and faculty across the country in our own and other disciplines were already taking a “political turn” as this book was in production, with wildcat strikes, critical interrogation of language, literacy, race, and identity, resistance to sexual harassment and male domination, and involvement in transgender and other sexual politics, prison abolition work, immigrant rights, the rapidly growing climate change movement, and so on. We hope this provides additional examples and naming of such moments and enacting of a political turn. Second, that mercurial, frustrating aspect of radical history, never static, and thus impossible to capture in any time-driven publication, is also what gives us hope that we can unify our forces to fight for a just world. As John Trimbur writes in the book:

…political consciousness moves in ebbs and flows, not in a straight line; it is subject to fits and starts, intense struggles alternating with hiatuses, defeats, distraction, quietude and periods of repression and reaction. What this means, to put a positive spin on it, is that even at the bleakest moments…reactionary forces cannot permanently cancel the prospects of the left. (36)

It is this “struggle for revolutionary consciousness” (Trimbur 27-50) that we are hoping the book will precipitate, deepen, and broaden in us all as we enter what will, we think without question, be a tumultuous, transformative period—one in which the movements from below, the global 99 percent, must organize to win.

Writing Democracy includes contributions by John Trimbur, LaToya Lydia Sawyer and Ben Kuebrich interviewing Angela Davis, Nancy Welch, Deborah Mutnick, Stephen Parks interviewing Dana L. Cloud, Seth Kahn, Vani Kannan, Paul Feigenbaum, Geoffrey Clegg, Darin L. Jensen, Tamara Issak, Steven Alvarez, Shannon Carter, and Tamera Marko.

Works Cited

Carter, Shannon, Deborah Mutnick, Stephen Parks, and Jessica Pauszek. Writing Democracy: The Political Turn in and Beyond the Trump Era. Routledge, 2019.

Cox, Laurence, and Alf Gunvald Nilsen. We Make Our Own History: Marxism and Social Movements in the Twilight of Neoliberalism. Pluto Press, 2014.

Klein, Naomi. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Random House of Canada, 2007.

Kynard, Carmen, “‘All I Need is One Mic’: A Black Feminist Community Meditation on the Work, the Job, and the Hustle (and Why So Many of Yall Confuse This Stuff).” Keynote Address, Conference on Community Writing, 2019. bit.ly/kynard-ccw.

Trimbur, John, “Composition’s Left and the Struggle for Revolutionary Consciousness.”

Writing Democracy: The Political Turn in and Beyond the Trump Era, edited by Shannon Carter, Deborah Mutnick, Stephen Parks, and Jessica Pauszek, Routledge, 2019, pp. 27-51.

Shannon Carter is Professor of English at Texas A&M-Commerce, where she teaches courses in community writing and digital storytelling. Her publications include articles in College English, CCC, and Community Literacy Journal, and The Way Literacy Lives: Rhetorical Dexterity and the “Basic” Writer (SUNY Press, 2008). With Deborah Mutnick in 2012, she edited a special issue of Community Literacy Journal emerging from the first Writing Democracy conference in 2011, which won the 2012 Best Public Intellectual Special Issue from the Council of Editors of Learned Journals. Her current book project project traces the history of community writing alternatively designed to reify and resist racial injustice in her conservative, relatively isolated university town, which is also the subject of a digital humanities project funded, in part, by NEH.

Deborah Mutnick is Professor of English at Long Island University Brooklyn and author of Writing in an Alien World: Basic Writing and the Struggle for Equality in Higher Education. Other publications appear in a range of journals and edited collections. She is currently researching Richard Wright’s relevance and political, intellectual, and literacy development.

Steve Parks is author of Class Politics: The Movement for a Students Right go Their Own Language and Gravyland: Writing Beyond the Curriculum in the City of Brotherly Love, as well as a textbook, Writing Communities. He is founder of New City Community Press; Co-Founder/Board Chair of Syrians for Truth and Justice; and Editor of Studies in Writing and Rhetoric as well as Working and Writing for Change, Parlor Press

​Jessica Pauszek is Assistant Professor of English and Director of Writing at Texas A&M University-Commerce. Her work has appeared in CCC, Community Literacy Journal, Literacy in Composition Studies, and Reflections. She is the co-editor of Best of the Journals in Rhetoric and Composition and Writing and Working for Change seriesHer current book project explores working-class community literacy practices of the Federation of Worker Writers and Community Publishers as well as examines an archival curation project alongside community members in the context of precarity.


Author: darinljensen

I am a writer and a teacher who is interested in issues of class and social justice.

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