A Year of Activism: Perspectives on the 2020 U.S. Elections, Part 8

This month’s post, the eighth in Teacher-Scholar-Activist and Spark’s 12-part series “A Year of Activism: Perspectives on the 2020 U.S. Elections,” comes from Gavin P. Johnson (Christian Brothers University). In the post, Dr. Johnson discusses his experiences starting a new faculty position in the present moment and how storying one’s positionality help create spaces where he can reflect, plan, and take action.

In the remaining months leading up to the U.S. elections, this series will feature critical perspectives on those elections, issues related to them, and thoughts about how scholar-activists (teachers and students) can intervene. We encourage readers to share these posts and to discuss the ideas with people in your communities, classrooms, and workplaces.

Liz Lane & Don Unger, Managing Editors—Spark

Darin Jensen, Editor—Teacher, Scholar, Activist

New Faculty Orientations:
Queerly Useful Stories Among COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, and the 2020 Election

By Gavin P. Johnson

I’m one of the privileged few hired into a faculty position this year. This is not a #humblebrag but rather an acknowledgment…a positioning…an orienting. Among austerity cuts that are still raging over a decade after the 2008 recession, the global COVID-19 pandemic, increasingly visible racist violence on and off university campuses, and a looming election that pits neoliberal democracy against neo-fascism, those of us who are lucky enough to be new faculty need to reflect on our current positionality and what led us here. In their recent College Composition and Communication article, “Relating Our Experiences: The Practice of Positionality Stories in Student-Centered Pedagogy,” Christina V. Cedillo and Phil Bratta (2019) argue that storying our lived experiences helps students in our courses “to consider academic counternarratives that contest educational conditions and assumptions” (p. 215). Here, I want to extend Cedillo and Bratta’s point and insist that storying my positionality as a newly minted PhD and incoming faculty constellates “a network of potential resources from which [we] may draw as [we] see fit” (p. 216). Below, I share stories illustrating my current positionality so that we—you and I—might think through the different issues that influence much of my current thinking and preparation for this brave new semester.

Storying our experiences, in many ways, illustrates the paths that led us to our current positions. “In following leads,” Sara Ahmed (2019) explains, “we can value how we arrive somewhere” (p. 7). Furthermore, by acknowledging our embodied experiences, we can make useful those experiences without reifying the usual. Making useful our experiences through storying, as Cedillo and Bratta suggest and as I do below, queers the narratives of utilitarian efficiency we accept in our lives as teachers and scholars: “To queer use can be to linger on the material qualities of that which you are supposed to pass over; it is to recover a potential from materials that have been left behind” (Ahmed 2019, p. 208). Using stories when orienting our classes, research, and service can be something queerly useful in these “unprecedented times.”

As your accomplice in calling for a more socially just world, I share these stories and this space so that we might generate tactical strategies [1] for surviving as new faculty but also as people trying our damnedest to thrive in a world that often pushes us to the edge. However, as a white cis-man with a terminal humanities degree and a tenure-track faculty position, I hold very visible, material privileges. Those privileges are also shaped by my queerness and status as a first-generation college graduate from a working-poor southern family. The stories I carry are mine, and, because of my privileges, the tactical strategies I suggest may not be appropriate for you. Nonetheless, I hope you find these stories queerly useful.

***

April 20, 2020. Dissertation defense. The Zoom call was scheduled for 2:00 pm EST. By 4:00 pm EST, one way or another, the outcome of my graduate school experience—7 years in the making—would be decided. A few weeks before, when I was forced to concede that my defense would be virtual, my chair and I planned for us to meet either in his office or his home to co-host the Zoomed defense. But within those weeks, the plan had become impossible: COVID-19 cases rose higher, social distance mandates were issued, and a pseudo-quarantine was put in place. For our health and peace of mind, we decided that he’d Zoom from his house, and I’d Zoom from my apartment. My chair has a grounding energy that I had benefited from throughout my entire PhD process—recruitment, annual benchmark meetings, comprehensive exams, a prospectus defense, but now I’d be alone in my apartment separated from my committee by screens and the miles in between. I woke up the morning of the defense with the worst brain fog I’d had in months, and it did not clear by 2:00 pm. I stumbled through my defense, misunderstood questions, and had trouble articulating the project I had spent two years composing. When I temporarily left the call for my committee to deliberate, I broke into tears.

As we continue to adjust to our increasing virtual world—the one we thought we wanted until it was thrust upon us by COVID-19 and the incompetence of our political leaders—we will continue to feel the lack of face-to-face socialization, the grounding energy of mentors and friends, and the moments of joy that come from sitting around a table simply being with others. But, as Lorde (Yelich-O’Connor and Little, 2013) sings, it’s not enough to feel the lack. How, then, can we find something queerly useful here to create new ways to hold space together?

***

June 19, 2020. Juneteenth. I was at the pharmacy closest to my apartment. It’s a large chain pharmacy in mid-town Memphis, which is a primarily white neighborhood in a primarily Black, historic southern city. Even in this primarily white neighborhood, I see more Black and brown faces in this place than I did in most places in Columbus, Ohio, where I completed my PhD. As I sit in the waiting area of the pharmacy, an elderly Black man—he announces he is 87 years old—sits next to me. I say hello, and he returns the greeting. I assume we both smile, but our faces are covered by masks. As we sat there, he leaned over and whispered to me, the only white person in the sitting area, “You know they tell me ‘Black Lives Matter,’ but I tell ‘em ‘All Lives Matter.’” My stomach turned, and I didn’t know how to respond. Why did he feel like he needed to tell me this? What was my white body communicating to this man? The pharmacy technician called my name, and I quickly got up, told the man to have a nice day, and walked up to the counter. He responded, “Oh, you too, mister.”

This experience, ephemeral as it was, sticks to me. I’ve spent the weeks since thinking deeply about this old man, the life he may or may not live, the city that we both call home, and the students who will log in to my classes and see my white body. How might this story impact my relationships with the Black and brown students? How might I use this story when crafting lessons for discussing race and the complex ways it is felt on our different bodies?

***

July 19, 2020. A New Career in a New Town. I moved to Memphis, Tennessee, just over a month ago to join the faculty at Christian Brothers University (CBU). Coming from Ohio State University, one of the largest research universities in the country, to CBU, a small liberal arts Lasallian university, I anticipate many changes in the coming semester. First off, I’m no longer a graduate student. I’m now tenure-track faculty member teaching a full 4-4 course load. In the fall, I will be teaching two first-year writing courses, a course in professional communications, and a special topics course in cultural rhetorics. I have experience teaching writing courses and cultural rhetorics. My mentors and new colleagues note that having experience in three out of four courses will make my prep much easier. But it’s now less than a month out from the semester, and I have yet to put any words to paper for these syllabi. Part of this is my trademarked procrastination. Part of this is me quietly taking a stand and refusing to work until my contract begins in mid-August. Part of this is my unease planning courses at a new institution where I’ve had very limited engagement with the student population. Part of this is that we still don’t know exactly how this semester will be delivered considering the still-rising cases of COVID-19 across the US.

In what ways are we, even under these “unprecedented” circumstances, still expected to perform efficiently? Many teachers, new and returning, must not only balance their job duties with empathy but also reevaluate how to do so under circumstances that seem to change with every new email. How might we find this chaos useful when re-imagining our pedagogies?

***

August 14, 2020. New Faculty Orientation. I’m not a morning person, and an 8:30 am virtual new faculty orientation sounded like the worst of all possibilities. CBU is a small school, and I realized just how small when our new faculty orientation was a Zoom call between the Vice President of Academics and Student Life and the 15 new hires (university-wide). As far as orientations go, this was relatively painless and even had a few light-hearted moments. But, the shadow of difficulties could not be denied. We were coming into a university trying to keep pace with its better-funded neighbors to respond to a pandemic in a volatile election year. Memphis, Tennessee, is historically important in the racial histories of the United States. Home to the National Civil Rights Museum, which is situated within the Lorraine Motel where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was fatally shot and a few blocks away from the “I Am A Man” protest memorial, Memphis is a rarity in terms of major cities. The population is “majority minority” with over 60% of residents identifying as Black and/or African American. CBU, on its website, boasts a student body that is “40% minority, 7% international” and that “97% of full-time undergraduate students receive some financial aid.” In contrast, Ohio State enrolls “22.4% minorities.” I cannot find CBU’s faculty breakdown, but I know that I am a white body joining a department of primarily white bodies in a racially diverse institution.

Entering a new institution as junior faculty is intimidating. Certainly, my most used phrase lately is “Can I ________?” I find myself asking for permission, often, but might it be useful to find moments of resistance where we don’t ask for permission? Recognizing that the ground I stand on, here in Memphis, is the ground where many have been denied permission to live (this is the stolen land of the Indigenous Chickasaw people), work, and love makes me think that perhaps asking for permission is not the action we need here and now.

***

August 15, 2020. Three Emails.

Good afternoon,

This email serves to inform you that [Student X], a student in one of your courses, will be under mandated quarantine until August [X]. This is in alignment with CBU’s international travel policy and COVID-19 safety precautions. 

During this quarantine period, [Student X] will be unable to attend in-person instructional sessions. We ask that you please work collaboratively to outline a plan for immediate next steps, including establishing clear expectations for class participation and any other areas pertaining to student responsibilities for completion of coursework. This required absence(s) should not be counted against the student. (Note that this email is being shared with all faculty members on the student’s schedule, so we recognize that your course may already be fully online.) 

Please contact [Administrator A], the Director of Academic Support or [Administrator B], Dean of Academic Services, with questions or concerns relating to the student’s quarantine-based absence. We appreciate your understanding and flexibility in supporting the needs of our CBU student community.

I received this email two days before the start of classes. I received this email about three separate students two days before that start of classes. With only 55 students enrolled across my courses, I received this email about three separate students in different courses two days before that start of classes. With only 55 students enrolled across my courses, I received this email about three separate students in different courses two days before that start of classes while students were actively moving into dorms and preparing for classes—some of which, as of this writing, are still being taught face-to-face.

I, thankfully, am not meeting with students face-to-face this semester. The support of my Department Chair allows me the privilege to teach 100% online, but this also comes with challenges. This is my first semester teaching a full four course load. Attempting to make connections with students—some of whom are attending my class virtually while in quarantine and/or via precarious internet connections—is a daily struggle. New university centers with a growing team of instructional designs ease some of these struggles (shout out to instructional designer who provided a step-by-step guide to creating breakout sessions!) while introducing others: Learning Management System surveillance, technology access, and student/teacher/administrator accountability. In the silences that fill my virtual classrooms and the comparative chaos of my faculty email inbox, I can’t help but consider how useful this entire endeavor is…if it’s even useful at all.

***

I share these stories because, as Thomas King (2003) tells us, stories are all that we are (p. 2). And while my stories may or may not echo your stories, Malea Powell (2018) reminds us that holding in tension the “impermanence, ambiguity, and subjectivity” of our different but interconnected stories makes useful our struggle for knowledge and action. Positioning myself, through these stories, demonstrates one example of a new faculty member trying to find solid ground amid shifting sands. Carrying and sharing these happenings, I am forced to acknowledge and think through my position as it relates to ongoing mental and physical health concerns related to COVID-19, the social disruption of our suddenly primarily-virtual interactions, the ongoing cultural trauma of racist violence within the American police state, and the foreboding threats of the November election. Amid all of this, how do we orient toward action and act not only as allies but also accomplices to the revolutionary work that must be done here and now? As our semesters begin—whether as faculty, adjuncts, graduate students, students, staff, or administrators—we must continuously re/orient ourselves to the current circumstances and recognize both the historic queerness of this moment and the deep-rooted practices that have led us to these positions. Such a queerly useful moment is a shattering of the container of our previous worlds (Ahmed 2019, p. 209) and a possibility, an opening, an invitation to a different worldbuilding project. We must make use of it before the circling terrors of this currently dying world makes use of us.

Endnote

[1] María Lugones (2003) and Karma R. Chávez (2013) use “tactical strategies” as opposed to “tactics” and “strategies” set up by Michel de Certeau (1984) because that binary always already positions marginalized people as “the weak” without a space of their own. return

References

About CBU. (2020, April 21). Retrieved August 25, 2020, from https://www.cbu.edu/about/

Ahmed, S. (2019). What’s the use? On the uses of use. Duke University Press.

Cedillo, C.V. and Bratta, P. (2019). Relating our experiences: The practice of positionality stories in student-centered pedagogy. College Composition and Communication, 71(2), 215-240.

Chávez, K.R. (2013). Queer migration politics: Activist rhetoric and coalitional possibilities. University of Illinois Press.

De Certeau, M. (1984). The practice of everyday life (S. F. Rendall, Trans.). University of California Press.

King, T. (2003). The truth about stories: A Native narrative. House of Anansi Press.

Lugones, M. (2003). Pilgrimages/peregrinajes: Theorizing coalition against multiple oppressions. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

OSU Statistical Summary. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.osu.edu/osutoday/stuinfo.php.

Powell, M. (2018). Interview – Malea Powell on story, survivance, & constellating as praxis. In L. Lane and D. Unger (Eds.) 4C4EQUALITY: Writing Networks for Social Justice. Retrieved from http://constell8cr.com/4c4e/interview_malea_powell.

Yelich-O’Connor, E. and Little, J. (2013). Ribs [Recorded by Lorde]. On Pure Heroine. Auckland, Australia: UMG.

About the Author

Dr. Gavin P. Johnson (he/him/his), Assistant Professor in the Department of Literature and Languages at Christian Brothers University, is a teacher-scholar specializing in multimodal composition, cultural and queer rhetorics, community-engaged writing, and digital activism. His scholarship is published or forthcoming in Composition Studies, College Literacy and Learning, Peitho: The Journal of the Coalition of Feminist Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition, Pre/Text: A Journal of Rhetorical Theory, Computers and CompositionConstellations: A Cultural Rhetorics Publishing Space, and various edited collections. He is a proud queer, first-generation college graduate from southeast Louisiana. 

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