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.


[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


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. 

A Year of Activism: Perspectives on the 2020 U.S. Elections, Part 7

This month’s post, the seventh in Teacher-Scholar-Activist and Spark’s 12-part series “A Year of Activism: Perspectives on the 2020 U.S. Elections,” comes from Kimberly C. Harper (North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University). In the post, Dr. Harper raises questions about the recent commitments that many white academics are making to antiracist practices and how these commitments will transform white academics’ behavior.

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

Do White People Hate Us?

By Kimberly C. Harper

When COVID-19 hit, my children worried if they would see their friends again. It was easy to tell them they would be back together—very soon. Then George Floyd was murdered, and racism and police brutality became a conversation I could not water down for my children. On the way to the dentist, my 8-year-old daughter asked me with such innocence and concern, “Mommy, do white people hate us?” In that moment I caught my breath. Not because of the question per se, but because her dentist is white, and it hit me like a ton of bricks that my child was considering if her dentist hated her because she was Black. I wondered if she thought her dentist might harm her because, even at the age of 8, she equates hate with harm. The question was so heavy that I wanted to redirect the conversation, much like the adults in this country who refuse to acknowledge that racism is an infectious disease in our society. I found myself looking at the dentist and her staff wondering how do we right the wrongs of this society and create a safe space for Black and Brown children. And I do mean to exclude white children from my question because white children are excluded from the dangerous assumptions that can potentially end their lives for the simplest of things. I knew I couldn’t give her a fluffy feel-good answer. I knew that I had to honor her concern and find a path forward for us—and this is something that Americans must do NOW. Right now!

I ask myself what clearing a path forward looks like for educators. We work with students—future leaders. It’s nice to write articles, Tweet, throw around the word antiracist, and post call to actions, but how do we work together and live in a society where the wounds of police brutality and racism have been reopened in such a way that we can’t afford another Band-Aid? (Truthfully, the wounds never close for Black and Brown folk.) Moving forward looks different for Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) and white people. For BIPOC I ask myself, “How do we go back to work and deal with coworkers who were blatantly anti-Black, just three months ago?” You don’t pack racism away and say I’m done with it. Racism has to be dug out—much like a cavity and replaced with a filling to prevent further decay. How do we deal with people of color who are also anti-Black? Are we to forget the racial macroaggressions and forgive the mental anguish and stress that made some of our jobs unbearable?  Are we willing to help our colleagues—despite having told them on various occasions in and in various ways that racism exists? Don’t believe me—just look at the responses to the Twitter hashtag #BlackInTheIvory. Do we really expect BIPOC students, faculty, and staff who’ve been bullied and silenced to walk through the door and say Kumbaya now that the academy is working toward a new iteration of diversity and inclusion?

So much has been written about the Black community and its various pathologies. We’ve been researched to death—literallybut what of the inherent violence that lies dormant in white culture and rears its ugly head when a threat to the systems that oppress Black and Brown people are questioned. As we begin to reimagine a different America—one where color doesn’t equate with police brutality among other things, I ask, “How will white people decenter themselves, and are they willing to do so? Will they work to eradicate the silent culture of hate, privilege, and violence that is part of their American experience?” We can’t move forward if that is not acknowledged. We can’t be allies and work together if they are afraid to confront their privilege and the surveillance culture that is part of the American experience.

I know you might be thinking well where is the scholarship, framework, references, how-to guide, and call to action. I have none. This post is about the emotional work that we must carry out and our shared humanity. It is about the traumas we carry with us from living in a deeply racist, Islamophobic, homophobic, sexist, classist, and all things in-between society. It is about the work we have to do as individuals that can’t be described by a theory. Besides the scholarship is already out there, and I have no fucks left for the academy and our calls to action. Can it be simple enough that we decide to show up for each other on a consistent and meaningful basis? It’s about our humanity and not forgetting that when the country really reopens and we are no longer working from home or going to school from home, we will have to face each other. These words will have to be transformed into action.

It’s easy to be antiracist behind a computer screen, but it’s totally different to stand in the face of racism in real life. That requires courage. Do we have the courage to forge a new path? Do we have the courage to be uncomfortable? Do we have the courage to be silent and let others walk into spaces that have been traditionally reserved for white men? Do we? Can we do this in real life—at our faculty meetings, in our classrooms, at our dinner tables, and in the car on the way to the dentist with 8 year olds?

A Drawing By Dr. Harper's Daughter
A drawing by Dr. Harper’s daughter

A photo of Dr. Kimberly C. HarperDr. Kimberly C. Harper is an Assistant Professor of English at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. She has taught at the postsecondary level for 16 years. Her research examines social justice, race, and ethos within technical and professional communication. She also researches and writes about the rhetoric of maternal health and hip-hop discourse. Dr. Harper has a forthcoming monograph that discusses the ethos of Black motherhood and its influence on the Black Maternal Health Crisis in American society. She is the host of The Space of Grace, a monthly podcast focusing on reproductive justice and Black Maternal Health. Follow her on Twitter @ronbett75 or @spaceof_grace, or visit her online at www.drkimberlycharper.com.

A Year of Activism: Perspectives on the 2020 U.S. Elections, Part 6

This month’s post, the sixth in Teacher-Scholar-Activist and Spark’s 12-part series “A Year of Activism: Perspectives on the 2020 U.S. Elections,” comes from Don Unger (University of Mississippi) and Liz. Lane (University of Memphis), members of the Spark Editorial Collective. Drs. Unger and Lane use their post to amplify voices from various organizations in writing, rhetoric, and literacy studies in an attempt to move toward building an anti-racist coalition across these fields. Finally, they offer links to resources that list specific actions that such a coalition could take to fight white supremacy in academic workplaces and in our local communities.

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

Standing Against Anti-Black Racism Within and Beyond the Academy: Amplifying Strategies for Action

By Don Unger & Liz Lane

As members of the Spark Editorial Collective, we stand in solidarity with the ongoing protests for Black Lives across the U.S. and the world. While these protests reflect direct action taken against George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis cops, Breonna Taylor’s murder by Louisville cops, Tony McDade’s murder by Tallahassee cops, and Rayshard Brooks’ murder by Atlanta cops, they also connect to the centuries-long struggle against America’s racist history and white supremacist system that perpetuates and normalizes violence against Black people. Protestors make these connections clear in innumerable ways, including through calls to defund the police calls to remove racist monuments, and calls to recognize Juneteenth as a national holiday.

Connecting these protests to this ongoing struggle to dismantle white supremacy, we believe that there is no meaningful activism that stands apart from the struggle to assert that Black Lives Matter because this slogan and the movement organized around it distills all that intersectional and coalitional approaches to activism mean. Black Lives Matter grapples with the complex of race, nationality and ethnicity, class, gender identity and expression, and sexuality because it means addressing the lived realities of Black people.

Contextualizing this rallying cry and struggle to academia means addressing the lived realities of Black people who work in and for academic institutions, who attend these institutions, and who are impacted by the economic, social, and intellectual policies and practices that these institutions propagate. Yet, it is not enough to simply write about our opposition to racism and solidarity with BLM; we must also act in ways that contribute to changes in the policies, laws, and structures that perpetuate white supremacy.

At its core, Spark seeks to amplify our contributors’ day-to-day work involving “intersectional and collaborative efforts at political change.” In that spirit, we use this statement in order to draw attention to the work that others in writing, rhetoric, and literacy studies have started and demonstrated some commitment to. In this post we do so by linking to and reprinting a number of statements from organizations in these academic disciplines, noting in particular those statements that propose concrete strategies for anti-racist action in the academy, such as the statements from the Association of Teachers of Technical Writing President, the Council of Programs in Technical and Scientific Communication Diversity Committee, the NextGen LISTSERV, and the College Composition and Communication Labor Caucus, among others. Then, we provide a list of resources that support anti-racist work within institutions, departments, and classrooms as well as resources that address anti-racist work outside the academy.

We ask you to read these statements and to use the resources. We call on you to stand behind your organization’s solidarity statements as well as the statements you have made to your personal social media accounts by taking action in ways that move the struggle forward in your institutions, departments, committees, and classrooms. Furthermore, these resources reflect and intersect with the movement to assert that Black Lives Matter in our communities, in the U.S., and in the world. We call on you to move beyond your academic institutions and to engage in anti-racist work in your communities.

Black Lives Matter.

Statements and Calls to Action By Writing, Rhetoric & Literacy Studies Organizations

In the days following George Floyd’s murder and the Black Lives Matter-led protests around the U.S. and the world, a number writing, rhetoric, and literacy studies organizations issued statements. These statements range from brief declarations of solidarity to more in-depth arguments about specific actions that their constituents should take to support the protests and to address racism within their academic institutions, departments, and classrooms. Below we link to and reprint some of these many statements as an attempt, on the one hand, to amplify others’ voices in this struggle, and on the other hand, as an attempt to demonstrate how a popular front is building across these fields. In that sense, we link to these statements so that members from various organizations will read what one another has said, learn from them, and turn the strategies described in them into plans for action.

American Society for the History of Rhetoric Statement

Association of Teachers of Technical Writing President’s Statement

Council of Programs in Technical and Scientific Communication Diversity Committee’s Action Items to Redress Anti-Black Racism in Technical and Scientific Communication

Council of Writing Program Administrators President’s Statement

Digital Black Lit (Literatures & Literacies) and Composition’s (DBLAC) Call

NextGEN Call for Action and Accountability

National Council of Teachers of English Takes A Stance Against Racism

Rhetoric Society of America Board of Directors’ Statement Condemning Anti-Black Violence

National Council of Teachers of English/Conference on College Composition & Communication Caucus & Standing Group Statements

Here we reprint some of the many statements issued by NCTE/CCCC groups. We link back to the websites and social media accounts where we found these statements when possible.

Black Caucus

Black Caucus Statement

American Indian Caucus

Image shows a photo of a raised fist holding a feather. text reads, "The Americcan Indian Caucus of NCTE/CCCC stands in solidarity with the Black Caucus and with our Black indigenous kin. We condemn the ongoing acts of settler-colonial violence and are working on redressing anti-Blackness in our own communities and tribal nations. We will continue to do the decolonial work it takes to undo systemic injustices for us all. We affirm that Black lives Matter. Join us in donating to the efforts against state-sanctioned violence: blacklivesmatter.com"

Asian/Asian American Caucus

Statement reads: "The Asian and Asian American Caucus (AAAC) stands in solidarity with the Black Caucus members and with our Black neighbors, friends, and colleagues. As scholars, teachers, and students, we have learned much from Black resistance and scholarship, and are indebted to the Black scholars and activists whose work has created space for us. We confrim our commitment to supporting the Black community, to amplify Black voices and bodies, and to validate Black expereinces in the fight against anti-Black racism. We acknowledge and will work against the legacy of the model minority narrative and anit-Black racism in our own communities that have kep some of us silent in this struggle."

Disability Studies Standing Group

Statement reads, "The members of the NCTE/CCCC Disability Studies Standing Group roll, tic, stim, and stand with the Black community, especially our Black disabled members, our Black comrades who will become disabled while protesting, and all of the Black people who face racialized ableism. We affirm that any liberation worth pursuing is a collective one: nothing about us without us."

Feminist Caucus

Statement reads, "Black lives matter. We recognize that Black people face racist violence, on a regular basis, and Black men, women, trans people, and nonbinary people are killed by racism everyday in the United States. We condemn this systemic, racist violence. Black lives matter. For too long, mainstream feminism has meant white feminism. But as the CCCC Feminist Caucus, we articulate our profound debt to the Black feminist scholars and other scholars of color who have built and continue to build our field. We commit to anti-racist work in our teaching, scholarship, and service. Black lives matter."

Jewish Caucus

Statement reads, "As members of the NCTE/CCCC Jewish Caucus, we stand in solidarity with our Black colleagues, friends, students, and family members in the ongoing fight against anti-Black racism. We support the efforts of the protestors and we recognize the unique labor of the Black Jewish members of our community. We commit to fighting the deeply ingrained and insidious white supremacy and anti-Black racism that perpetuate and attempt to legitimize police brutality and racist violence. Our words should not be the end of our efforts bu the beginning. We must commit to antiracist action, in our classrooms, our schools, our professional organizations, our discipline, and our communities."

Labor Caucus

Please note that this statement is substantially longer than most. What we reprint in this graphic is a small excerpt.

This excerpt from the longer statement reads, "we recognize that the work of undoing systems of white supremacy and racist oppression cannot be undertaken without explicitly addressing their beneficiaries. Too many white members of the field have colonized the labor of our BIPOC colleagues, including graduate students and contingent faculty, a practice we commit to opposing. Further, we commit to working in our own institutions and across our professional organizations to make sure white supremacist faculty are subject to justice, rather than being allowed to continue exploiting and abusing BIPOC colleagues.  We further commit to enacting in our institutional spaces each of the action items articulated in the statement issued by our NextGen colleagues, which we align with and which we would also extend specifically to include BIPOC contingent faculty.   No matter what types of reforms have been undertaken or advocated, we recognize that the pathway to equity and the recognition of the labors of our Black peers and students are evermore vital and need to be honored just the same. To our Black peers and students, we pledge that we will not stop fighting for equal justice in labor and deeds. We recognize that without it--and most importantly, because of it--we have been able to prosper in higher education while Black scholars are left in the margins. We pledge to stand with and amplify the voices of BIPOC scholars seeking to make higher education live up to its promises.   Black Lives Matter and Black Labor Matters."

Latinx Caucus

Statement reads, "As members of the Latinx Caucus, we stand beside our Black relatives whose voices have too long gone unheard. Silence equals complicity and so we asser that Black Lives Matter, now and always."

Queer Caucus

Statement reads, "The members of the CCCC Queer Caucus mourn the Black people murdered by police. We stand with Black communities and their allies in protesting the material technologies, political systems, and social conditions that perpetuate white supremacy. We join the fight for justice across this country and the world. We call attention to the important leadership of Black queer and trans communities in this fight. We see you, we believe you, we are with you. The Compton’s Cafeteria riot in 1966 and the Stonewall Rebellion of 1969 remind us that modern LGBTQIA2+ activism entered the mainstream with bold and direct action against state violence. We remember this history and find in it strength to follow those who lead the way. We say their names. We remember Black and brown trans and queer leadership at Stonewall: Marsha P. Johnson, Stormé DeLarverie, Miss Major, and Sylvia Rivera. We grieve for Nina Pop, Tony McDade, and all the Black trans people murdered because of white supremacy, transphobia, and other discriminatory ideologies. We assert that Black Lives Matter. We affirm that intersectional, coalitional politics and alliances are necessary to end systemic oppression. We encourage white allies to listen to and amplify the voices of Black people fighting for justice. We embrace the many ways different bodies enact the activism needed to win this fight for justice, and we encourage everyone to use their power in supporting radical change, from joining rallies, to supporting organizations that provide aid to Black communities, to amplifying organizations and voices that speak truth to power, to carrying out the daily organizational work that dismantles white supremacy."

Resources About Anti-Black Racism & Taking Anti-Racist Action

Alongside solidarity statements, people have been circulating resources on social media platforms about anti-Black racism and anti-racist action. Here, we link to a few curated lists with robust resources that pose strategies for Black lives within and outside the academy:

Created by Joy Melody Woods (University of Texas at Austin) and Shardé M. Davis (University of Connecticut), the hashtag exists so that Black academics can publicly address some of their experiences in the academy, and it serves as a call for higher education to confront systemic racism.

This curated list includes links to petitions and funds, resources for protestors, a map of protests in the U.S. and around the world, and a “more resources” section that links to affiliated organizations and educational resources.

This New York magazine article lists 142 different funds that people can donate to, including direct support to the families of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, David McAtee, and James Scurlock as well as bail and legal aid funds in various cities and regions. Also included are links to nonprofits that have sponsored and participated in protests, and links to other organizations that support Black people and fight for police reform and prison reform and/or abolition.

Created by Victoria Alexander (Salem State University), this guide provides a variety of resources pertaining to education (for various audiences and including many forms of media) and activism.

Created by the University of Southern California (USC) Libraries and the university’s Anti-Racist Pedagogy Organizing Committee, this guide includes classroom resources, readings for faculty/teachers about anti-racist methods, readings on whiteness and pedagogy, and supplemental resources, such as the “#BlackLivesMatter Syllabus” and a “Curriculum for White Americans to Educate Themselves on Race and Racism–from Ferguson to Charleston,” among other things.

By and large, this Google Doc is organized around “stage[s] of white identity development and their corresponding beliefs/thoughts/actions” as they pertain to race and anti-racism.

A Year of Activism: Perspectives on the 2020 U.S. Elections, Part 4

This month’s post, the forth in Teacher-Scholar-Activist and Spark’s 12-part series “A Year of Activism: Perspectives on the 2020 US Elections,” comes from Anthony Warnke and Kirsten Higgins (Green River College). In their post, they discuss how the COVID-19 outbreak ups the stakes in the 2020 US presidential election, and they call for other teacher-scholar-activists to “reject the comfort of being sad” in favor of taking action around and through this election.

In the coming months, this series will feature critical perspectives on the 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

Rejecting the “Comfort in Being Sad”: Relocating Agency within the Stakes of 2020

By Anthony Warnke and Kirsten Higgins

Strengthening Our Resolve

The Trump administration’s COVID-19 response has laid bare the stakes of the 2020 election in striking new ways. Our students—already at risk of deportation, gun violence, police brutality, predatory lending practices, racist attacks, financial abuse, and a thousand other assaults and indignities—are increasingly at risk of losing their lives as well as their paths to a reasonable livelihood. Grounded in the need for solidarity with our students, we call for clear, unequivocal action on the part of teacher-activist-scholars, especially two-year college writing instructors and basic writing instructors. We call for a resounding commitment to putting aside our divisions and rejecting the comfortable and/or critique-oriented postures of the privileged. Whatever our wish for the candidate of our dreams to take on Trump, we now face the stark choice: vote for Joe Biden, even if that feels like a personal compromise, or allow our students’ living nightmare under Trump to continue.

As tenured English faculty members, it’s easy for us privileged folks to retrospectively idealize the pre-COVID-19 Trump era. We have, over the last few years, fallen prey to a kind of sleepy crisis fatigue as our city has paid an increasingly steep price for its successes in the context of neoliberalism: a skyrocketing cost of living, an increasingly cut-throat housing market, and a lack of compassion for those who experience housing insecurity. As the city has evolved, some would say it has been nearly destroyed. Kurt Cobain’s lyrics have seemed prescient in their vision of rage at bureaucratic oppression that, embodied as a risen Frances Farmer, could “come back as fire/to burn all the liars/leave a blanket of ash on the ground.” But what we have experienced in our city with the civic and environmental destruction concomitant with its neoliberal successes is not that righteous revenge of a woman wronged by oppressive, patriarchal psychiatric and medical structures but the wages of years of neglectful, entitled affluence. The blanket of ash we see is in the air, not on the ground, in the form of the choking particulates from the climate crisis-induced, summer-long wildfire seasons that grip the West Coast and its interior forests. The burning is the dwindling of the resident Orca pods and the losses to the ecological web that go with them. The burning is the stark inequities of our economic reality, in which tiny-house villages and forested hillsides choked with trash are the most obvious symbols of the lackluster policy response to the housing crisis. The burning is the sapping of strength of our students, who take $15 per hour jobs at Amazon’s fulfillment centers until their youthful energy is sucked dry. In truth, these fires have been burning for a long time, and we have become somewhat inured to them. To acknowledge the truth of it, we have grown too used to the “comfort in being sad” (to quote Nirvana) and fallen into patterns of critique. In this posture of critique, we have left our region’s dispossessed, including our students and their families, without our aid in fighting the fire.

We now wake to an inferno. COVID-19 has thrown into stark relief the systemic inequalities which we have critiqued without experiencing firsthand. As full-time college instructors, we still have our housing, jobs, and places in society; many of us still have our health, too. In the past several years, right-wing authoritarian policy has further entrenched precarity for underserved groups that COVID-19 only further exacerbates; disproportionate death tolls among people of color are perhaps the starkest data points to illustrate this (Thebault et al.). While that precarity is a product of political forces that Trump and right-wing authoritarianism lead in the present, we know that oppression and dispossession long preceded his election. Only now, as media theorist Thomas de Zengotita argues in an interview, COVID-19 is bringing unmediated reality to everyone. Unlike disasters and crises that rarely go beyond our screens, “no one can opt out of this pandemic” (Wilkinson). As a result, a return to normal is, at best, a return to tragedy happening to someone else, somewhere else, tragedy that many of us can sympathize with but never feel ourselves. This post is an attempt to attest to the injustices of business as-usual, to enact the refusal of postures of critique that take comfort in being sad, as we strengthen our resolve to band together to resist the existential danger to some of the most vulnerable in our society.

A Pragmatic Advocacy Among Real Tensions

As our students face erasure, we must do more than comfortably critique and condemn. Steve Lamos, among other scholars, details the way fragile progress, especially concerning racial equity and higher education, is possible even when circumscribed by problematic limitations. Although we question the privilege of “returning to normal,” we also want to protect hard-fought, if piecemeal, gains and achievements. Absolutism, at its worst, says, “if we can’t have it all, America deserves what it gets.” We share the values that “all” represents—such as affordable healthcare for all and a real living wage for all—and recognize the implications of dreams deferred. However, absolutism, and the resignation that follows, also sometimes comes from positions of privilege where one’s material existence is not under immediate threat. The absolutists ignore the reality we can’t opt out of: there’s a generation-defining election in about six months. The two viable candidates are a neoliberal centrist who has been nudged to the left after the Democratic primary; who authored the Violence Against Women Act yet permitted the ugly interrogation of Anita Hill; who led the 2009 Recovery Act as well as draconian bankruptcy reform; who advocated for minimizing troop presence in Iraq after voting to authorize the war. The other is a neo-fascist incumbent whose mad king persona is willing to sacrifice hundreds of thousands of lives for short-term economic gains—in just the latest iteration of his disregard for human life and protecting the most vulnerable among us. The unrelenting callous cruelty and incomparable corruption of the Trump administration are beyond question.

Pre-COVID-19, Trump administration’s searing attacks on underserved populations reverberated through our classrooms. Yet we were smart, so we found ways to resist, to push back, to reconfigure or “hack” the system, to build opportunity structures and improve access. We must not take comfort in the great ingenuity we have shown. Too many brilliant, responsive innovations rested, at least in part, on vestigial structures and practices that have been shaken or nearly destroyed under Trump. As many discerning commentators have noted, we are experiencing in the COVID-19 crises a dress rehearsal for the worsening climate crisis and its likely wave of climate refugees. How long, and under those conditions, will these vestigial structures and processes, hold?

In the midst of COVID-19, the Trump administration’s cynical indifference to our students’ and their families’ lived realities may, in a sense, feel normal, even comfortable, because we have been developing our capacities for resistance and innovation. Yet those of us insulated and privileged enough to be sheltering in our homes with paid work owe something to our society: our discomfort. Both in terms of basic human decency in times of crisis and in terms of the need to make visible the irrationality of the market’s hand in sparing us this time around, we need to stand in greater solidarity with our students, their families, workers who have lost their jobs, the dispossessed. We need to lobby our state leaders to increase investment in higher education, especially in open-access institutions, and to provide material support for students’ most pressing needs, especially in terms of housing and food insecurity. On the institutional level, we need to develop infrastructure for advising and other supports to ensure that our open-access institutions are not open access in name only.

What’s actually at stake for our students? If we can open our eyes to them, real material conditions show us. As The Hope Center’s #RealCollege Survey indicates, “In 2019, approximately 13,550 students from 28 Washington State community and technical colleges responded to the #RealCollege survey. The results indicate: 41% of respondents were food insecure in the prior 30 days, 51% of respondents were housing insecure in the previous year, 19% of respondents were homeless in the previous year” (Goldrick-Rab, et al.). A disappointingly center-left neoliberal like Joe Biden, even one with a track record in racial justice, isn’t our first choice. But he’s someone to whose better angels we can appeal. (We have yet to spy an angel of any description resting on Trump’s shoulders).

In this political moment, we must explore these tensions: how do we resist nostalgia for a “comfortable” moment that never existed? How can we organize around the reality that the march of time does not guarantee progress? In other words, how do we work towards a more just future while also safeguarding what exists, believing it can always get better and witnessing how it can always get worse?

Agency within the Teacher-Scholar-Activist Tradition

As teacher-scholar-activists whose work is dedicated to promoting access at the two-year college, we are perhaps stepping out on a limb by acting as political pundits. However, these are the stakes of our own work in the current moment: as critics of the neoliberal influences on the two-year college, we see now, more than ever, how market logic is affecting the two-year college as well as how the Hobbesian-Trumpian individualism that comes with it is materially threatening and dispossessing our students.

Our work on access in the two-year college has often centered on Basic Writing in terms of our efforts to reform developmental education on the ground. Basic Writing, too, is our scholarly touchstone for progressively committed work. We were inspired to read the spring 2020 issue of the Basic Writing e-Journal, which historicizes, challenges, and offers strategies for resisting the pernicious influence of neoliberalism on the two-year college. When the “free” market is under threat, social institutions, such as the two-year college, are further instrumentalized to serve the interest of capital. This timely and trenchant issue of the journal documents how these neoliberal influences threaten to cut off access to the most marginal students, further commodify the value of higher education, and stymie activist possibilities for engaged faculty. From innovative activist frameworks to instructive histories to on-the-ground work with students, the issue reminds faculty of what’s at stake when effectively responding to socio-economic conditions that threaten our professions, our students, and our communities.

In order to respond to and negotiate the neoliberal assault on higher education, the editors of this issue articulate a vision of “located agency,” and this orientation towards meaningful action runs throughout the issue. As they state, located agency is “action or intervention within a particular place or context meant to produce a particular effect” (Jensen and Suh 10). Rather than seeking an ultimately futile and enervating total negation of the neoliberal assault, located agency asks how we can assess our own material circumstances in a way that facilitates effective change action in our diverse institutions.

Many of these articles locate agency in the context of the 2008 Great Recession and its aftermath. We re-read our own article in the issue in early spring in Seattle as COVID-19 began burning its path through our city. It felt like an iconic moment, like a bastardized version of Kurt Cobain’s vision of Frances Farmer “[coming] back as fire” to have her revenge on Seattle. But for the wronged, bold Frances Farmer, substitute the corrupt, cartoonishly cruel Trump and his cronies whose refusal to properly prepare caused the near-term deaths of hundreds in our county. As the COVID-19 crisis encircled us, the “blanket of ash on the ground” Cobain and co. fantasized about had, in a sense, materialized here. We began to shelter-in-place, nostalgic Nirvana ringing in our ears, with a city’s worth of boarded-up theater and art spaces all around us. As we pondered our just-published article, we felt the curious anachronism of drawing conclusions based on the Great Recession and its aftermath.

It’s not 2008 anymore. New public-health and economic realities are rapidly reshaping the present and destabilizing the future. The tenure of Donald Trump and his response to this crisis, in particular, continue to marry neoliberalism with right-wing authoritarianism—birthing a horrific market-centric neo-fascism where one should get comfortable with the idea of dying for the economy. Antecedents of this, of course, run throughout history. However, the dominance of right-wing authoritarian neoliberalism, especially in this time, requires relocating our agency and facing the uncomfortable truth.

The viable options this November do not offer true alternatives to neoliberal capitalism such as the tightly regulated, New-Deal capitalism of Elizabeth Warren or the Scandinavian-style hybrid system of Bernie Sanders. What we are advocating might only be a stopgap. It certainly chafes to let years of the neoliberal, “Washington consensus” of both parties go unchecked because of how bad things are now. We largely agree with Henry Giroux when he argues that

“[r]avaged for decades by neoliberal policies, U.S. society is plagued by a series of crises whose deeper roots have intensified the stark class and racial divides… Neoliberal capitalism is the underlying pandemic feeding the current global shortage of hospitals, medical supplies, beds and robust social welfare provisions, and increasingly an indifference to human life.”

First Steps for Responding to the Moment

Yet as we reflect on the precarity of our institutions, students, communities, and fellow faculty members, we believe it’s reckless to say that, no matter what happens in November, neoliberalism wins. Such a reductive move might be academically satisfying, but it is divorced from the real consequences at stake in this generation-defining presidential election. On the left, we need to grasp the distinctions between the permutations of neoliberalism, permutations that can literally mean life or death for our students and their access to education. For example, in our work, we often focus on racial disparities in two-colleges, especially in the context of disparate impact, writ large (enrollment and completion rates) or small (classroom-level disparities perpetuated through unexamined writing assessment practices). Mainstream racial discourses in the two-year college posit colorblind opportunity structures where equality is prized over equity, where the impact of racism is diminished to just one of a list of possible -isms, where students are reduced to data points and completion metrics (see Coleman et al. for further discussion). These discourses must be deliberately, unwaveringly opposed. But we are also witnessing the right-wing authoritarian prerogative of division through race-baiting—racial othering for economic scapegoating, the demonization and elimination of immigrants, the existential threat towards public programs and institutions that serve marginalized groups. If a more centrist neoliberalism proposes reductive categories and insufficient, and harmful, metrics, right-wing authoritarian neoliberalism promotes decimation and stokes racial conflict.

Holding onto an idealized progressive position—refusing to ally with the squishy middle—can feel comfortable, as though it is ideologically and ethically consistent. Yet we wonder whether our own privileged conditions have lulled us into a sense that things can’t get worse. Things are getting worse. At this moment, we must honor coalition building, even though it is uncomfortable at times, in order to address the greatest needs of and threats to the population. In a macro sense, of course, coalition building means massive organizing and turnout in the 2020 election. In the context of the two-year college, we must see to the needs of students, then staff and adjunct faculty, and then full-time faculty. In part, coalition building requires centering adjunct faculty in departmental conversations and the institution’s ad hoc policymaking. It requires assessing and attuning ourselves to the needs of students, even when online teaching lends a cloak of invisibility, where we can mistake their not reaching out for the absence of their needs. It requires a belief that we can move forward together while holding space for grief towards what, and who, we’ve lost. For we agree with Marcy Isabella and Heather McGovern when they caution that “[t]here is no going back. Despite how often or how rhetorically we respond to the neoliberalist agenda in/at/of our institutions, universities will not ‘return’ to anything (there is no there there)” (2). We will keep humming Nirvana. But we’ll reject the nostalgia for the last safe harbor while also realizing that we are at a vital moment of struggle, a moment when “responding rhetorically matters” (ibid.)  This post is our first, messy step at responding to this destabilized moment by beginning to relocate our agency.

Anthony Warnke and Kirsten Higgins teach writing at Green River College in Auburn, Washington. As co-Writing Program Administrators, they helped design an equity-focused Accelerated Learning Program to revamp their department’s developmental English sequence. Their scholarship has appeared in or is forthcoming from The Basic Writing e-Journal, Teaching English in the Two-Year College, as well as edited collections on autoethnography in co-requisite courses and emotional labor in writing program administration. Their article “A Critical Time for Reform: Interventions in a Precarious Landscape” was selected for the Parlor Press anthology Best of the Rhetoric and Composition Journals 2019.

Works Cited

Coleman, Taiyon J., et al. “The Risky Business of Engaging Racial Equity in Writing Instruction: A Tragedy in Five Acts.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College, vol. 43, no. 4, 2016, pp. 347–70.

Giroux, Henry A. “The COVID-19 Pandemic Is Exposing the Plague of Neoliberalism.” SP: The Bullet, 18 April 2020, socialistproject.ca/2020/04/covid19-pandemic-exposing-plague-of-neoliberalism/. Accessed 20 April 2020.

Goldrick-Rab, Sara, et al. The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice. February 2020. hope4college.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/2019_WashingtonState_Report.pdf. Accessed 23 April 2020.

Jensen, Darin, and Emily Suh. “Introducing Lived Interventions: Located Agency and Teacher-Scholar-Activism as Responses to Neoliberalism” Basic Writing e-Journal, vol. 16, no. 1, 2020, pp. 1–11.

Isabella, Marcy, and Heather McGovern. “Reviving Administrative Amnesia: Basic Writing Faculty Looking and Responding Rhetorically in the Neoliberal University.” Basic Writing e-Journal, vol. 16, no. 1, 2020, pp. 1–27.

Lamos, Steve. Interests and Opportunities: Race, Racism, and University Writing Instruction in the Post-Civil Rights Era. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011.

Nirvana. “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle.” In Utero, DGC Records, 1993.

Thebault, Reis, et al. “The Coronavirus Is Infecting and Killing Black Americans at an Alarmingly High Rate.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 7 Apr. 2020, www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/04/07/coronavirus-is-infecting-killing-black-americans-an-alarmingly-high-rate-post-analysis-shows/?arc404=true. Accessed 28 Apr 2020.

Wilkinson, Alissa. “No One Can Opt out of This Pandemic. And That Will Change Us Forever.” Vox, Vox Media, 13 April 2020, www.vox.com/culture/2020/4/13/21213820/coronavirus-reality-tom-de-zengotita-mediated-theory-philosophy-interview. Accessed 21 April 2020.


A Year of Activism: Perspectives on the 2020 U.S. Elections, Part 3

This month’s post, the third in Teacher-Scholar-Activist and Spark’s 12-part series “A Year of Activism: Perspectives on the 2020 U.S. Elections,” comes from Michael Trice  (MIT). In his post, Michael implores us to move away from online targeting as a form of activism related to the elections, and he discusses the relationships among identity, online presence, social media activism, and local activism. In doing so, Michael argues for activism to focus on outcomes.

In the coming months, this series will feature critical perspectives on the 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

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Online Targeting for Activism

Michael Trice

By Michael Trice

Social media is always also personal media.

We make an account. Assign it an identity or pseudo-identity. Generate content. Yet, the content is never far from the identity. When my content is retweeted, I’m retweeted. When I receive a like on Facebook, my picture is right by the post. Personal identity (real or anonymous) exists in the structural foundation of social media. This personal foundation is what makes online targeting so effective. Retweeting a bad take is tied to the person expressing that take. That person’s account becomes the focus of the replies and attention, not the content of the post. Moreover, nothing spreads a message on social media like engaging a popular account—or being called out by a popular account. The importance of celebrity in spreading messages online is why so many accounts rush to be the first critical or supportive reply to every tweet from President Trump. Successfully targeting the President is rich with reward for both successful praise and successful attacks.

But the President isn’t just a target on social media; he excels in political targeting himself. In fact, the ability of the politically powerful to effectively use social media targeting as means of oppression has replaced a lot of optimism around social media activism (Tufekci, 2017).

Online targeting by politicians and their supporters has become a central theme in the 2020 U.S. presidential election. The President’s regular targeting of political foes has already ratcheted up to include not only members of Congress and Democratic primary candidates, but even going so far as to openly accuse the foreperson in a trial against of one his oldest political allies of bias. And while the Democratic candidates have not descended to the President’s level, we have seen the supporters of multiple Democratic contenders rely on online targeting. By way of example, supporters of both Yang and Sanders managed to trend #FireChuckTodd over completely different episodes of Meet the Press in the past three months. While neither activity was openly sanctioned by either candidate, existing networks of supporters on Twitter and in subreddits spread and championed both hashtags, including support for media personalities sympathetic to the candidates. And these are far from the only examples of online targeting that supporters of various candidates have used online. Surrogates and supporters of candidates have learned that what DeVoss and Ridolfo (2009) call rhetorical velocity (or the fastest way the re appropriate content to new a space) means targeting individuals and identities in order to spread support online.

Part of what separates the GOP and Democratic candidates for president is that no Democratic campaign has made the President’s direct-style targeting and aggression a hallmark of their official campaigns—a wall continues to exist between the campaigns and the online supporters and friendly pundits (such as Chapo Trap House) who engage in online targeting. That said, supporters of the Democratic candidates have engaged in significant targeting online to serve indirectly the needs of the campaign. For example, the online targeting of Chuck Todd by Yang supporters served as a means to raise donations and protest exclusion from news coverage. Sanders supporters targeted Todd for an on-air quote of pundit Jonathan V. Last, who had referred to a segment of Sanders supporters as Brown Shirts in an article for The Bulwark. What is notable here is that online targeting of a person, Chuck Todd, stood in for either fundraising or protesting the quote of another, far less well-known, author. In the realm of social media, #FireChuckTodd is a complicated signifier for outcomes that rely on the attention drawn by a specific celebrity target.

Yet, the use of targeting for simple in-group versus out-group dynamics with no other strategic outcome is social media activism at its most dangerous—and it’s a method that easily fits the technical design of social media. The application of targeting in social media is inseparable from its form and function at a technical and social level. You like an account’s post or retweet an account—never just a piece of content. You reply to an account. Social media networks center around celebrity and microcelebrity. Thus, out-grouping Chuck Todd easily becomes a fundraiser for Yang supporters or serves as a way to protest the Brown Shirt label of a far less famous conservative writer for Sanders supporters.

The question then becomes not whether we target, but how we target, when we target, and why we target. Civility isn’t what matters so much as accountability. Activism calls for incivility at times, but incivility with purpose, ideally higher purpose. Yet social media, personal media, requires targeting but asks little of us in understanding how or why we target.

Further, it rarely asks us to be held accountable as we can act anonymously, as part of a much larger network, and as we opt not to make the vital move to public, physical protest. In many ways, we remain as uncritical about our targeting as the first social media mob in 2008.

At the South by Southwest (SXSW) tech conference in 2008, journalist Sarah Lacy interviewed Mark Zuckerberg. The interview had all the characteristics one might expect from a SXSW keynote interview: casual, non-threatening, bordering on interesting but well short of insightful. What was insightful was a rare opportunity to see the infamously private Zuckerberg handled live questions in public. It also provided our first good look at what social media activism would become due to a fledgling app barely in its second year of availability: Twitter.

Personal from the Start

Back in 2007, Twitter made its name at SXSW. By 2008, it was already a backchannel darling of the conference. Attendees could discuss panels live without disrupting the presenters. It would be a user experience Twitter would build upon to make it a go-to app for conferences, live events on television, and key cultural moments. But even in year one of Twitter, something far less benign lurked within the backchannel. And, it proved from the start that what happens on Twitter manifests offline as well.

Something during the interview between Lacy and Zuckerberg went wrong for the crowd. Emboldened by a chorus of tweets about how Lacy was talking too much, flirting too much, and asking the wrong questions, the crowd grew restless—and noisy. People heckled and tried to interrupt the session. The heckling drew cheers and applause from a crowd that had formed a firmed consensus on Twitter that Lacy was the problem, much to the confusion and frustration of those on stage who had never experienced anything like this type of audience revolt before.

It went personal. A crowd had formed a strong anti-establishment view and targeted the female journalist as the source of their consternation. This personal targeting, and the targeting of the media and women in particular, would come to define Twitter. In that first major moment for the app—before hashtags, RTs, faves, and moments were even functions—Twitter had defined its purpose and key genre: not the conversational backchannel, but personal targeting as means of organized dissent and activism.

Again, this post isn’t about civility. Civility as a rhetorical device has a time and place, as does incivility. No, the point I wish to make is that the social application of networked activism goes hand in hand with technical constraints and functionality. Constraints and functionality that activism must more critically engage with and understand. We need more precision in how we enact civility and incivility online, and we need to question to what extent social media is enacting us. Are we simply that SXSW crowd experiencing something new while lashing out uncritically at the more vulnerable target in front of us? Or, do we look at the technology and social systems in front of us before we choose a target and a course of action?

To this day, Twitter runs on personal celebrity. When Zeynup Tufekci (2013) initially articulated the power of Twitter as a form of activism in The Arab Spring, she noted the role of microcelebrity. For Tufekci, social media activism required attention that was reliant upon interconnected pathways to share organizational and operational knowledge. However, those pathways needed semi-centralized shared hubs to maximize organizational knowledge flow. Tufekci called the larger intersections that would emerge microcelebrities. Like bullhorns in a crowded protest, these microcelebrities could help communicate the key points and keep the protest network focused, energized, and directed. Since Tufekci, others have noted how microcelebrity and targeting works across social media, including YouTube (Lewis, 2020) and GitHub (Trice, 2015). But back in 2013, microcelebrity would shape the application of martyrdom and accountability with the birth of Black Lives Matter.

The Black Lives Matter movement serves perhaps as the most notable American incarnation of the social media driven protest movements that began with Occupy Wall Street and included various versions of The Arab Spring. Formed after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin that would precede the controversial killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, Black Lives Matter became a global movement that is perhaps remembered more for its power to occupy the real, physical public squares of major cities where direct political action was needed rather than its ability to trend on Twitter. In fact, the formation of chapters across the United States and Canada as well as a clear articulation of values and mission makes BLM less resemble a modern social media collective and more a traditional 20th century model of an organization of local communities that utilizes social media as one of many communication channels. Its social media beginnings notwithstanding, BLM’s public demonstrations, municipal organization, and clearly stated values are a clear lesson for what responsible and accountable social media activism can be. It serves as a strong counterpoint to some of the movements that would follow in 2014 and beyond.

2014 and the Ascendance of Organized Targeting

While I often start discussions of organized online targeting with GamerGate in 2014, that year also offers an intriguing counterexample of targeting: The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. As a quick reminder, in July 2014 the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge became a viral sensation that would raise more than $115,000,000 for Lou Gehrig’s disease research/awareness between July and August of that year. Started by Pete Frates, the challenge rose to popularity on the Today Show, but its impact would arise from 17 million people who participated online. Those participants would drive 2.5 million donations in the United States. The scale of impact and its mechanism matter. The Ice Bucket Challenge had clear rules: a person videos themselves being dunked over the head with a bucket of icy water. After the dunking, the person calls out additional people to perform the challenge next.

The challenge was social media gold for a variety of reasons. First, it employed a dual targeting mechanism. The person dunked on became central target, offering a bit of comedy and suffering in the video for viewers. Secondly, the callouts offered another round of targeting. Who would rise to the challenge or face (good-natured) public shame? The celebrity angle also played a huge role—and taught a vital lesson about online virality. While Tufecki had noted that activist networks created microcelebrities as a means to circulate information across larger networks, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge proved that traditional celebrity presence on social media could exponentially amplify messaging and activism beyond that of microcelebrities. The $115m in donations speaks for itself in many ways, and had the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge been the social media story of 2014, our view of targeting and activism would be quite different than it has become.

Yet, in August 2014 as the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge was winding down, GamerGate was ramping up, emerging quickly and using the same core mechanics of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge in drastically different ways and to far more perverse ends. The story of GamerGate has been told many times. For quick reference, a group of 4chan users propagated salacious rumors about an independent game developer across Reddit, YouTube, and Twitter as a means to attack feminism, the media, and cultural criticism. They did so by targeting very specific women with tactics that promoted anonymous harassment from online networks formed into mobs. The importance of celebrity and targeting to the success of GamerGate cannot be understated. GamerGate was simply another minor online tussle until actor Adam Baldwin tweeted about a YouTube video he had watched, dubbing the “controversy” discussed as GamerGate. Breitbart and other fringe media would soon pick up the story, launching investigations into the targets of GamerGate. Extremists like Milo Yiannopoulos and Mike Cernovich would make names for themselves via the investigations of GamerGate’s victims, generating sufficient infamy and following to become key online players during the 2016 election due to their effective use of targeting to build online networks. Yiannopoulos rose to fame in GamerGate by investigating and calling out victims of abuse. His early articles challenging whether police and FBI reports even existed for those who had been threatened. They did, of course. But, Yiannopoulos would quickly build a career of creating controversy by intimidating the vulnerable and attacking the marginalized, primarily by social media until he was banned.

2016 can be seen as an evolution of the GamerGate playbook. In fact, many of the microcelebrities of GamerGate, like Yianoppolis and Cernovich, were central to the troll and meme campaigns of the 2016 election. But, most importantly, 2016 saw the social media effectiveness of future president, Donald J. Trump. Then-candidate Trump’s online presence fit the era perfectly. Prone to personal attacks and with an array of celebrity alliances and feuds, the persona and temperament that Trump had cultivated since the 1980s fit perfectly into the mechanisms of online activism in 2016. What Trump added to this mix were his rallies, which incorporated the cruel online targeting of digital aggression but played out live to a community and often covered by cable news. These rallies offered a public, physical manifestation of the digitally aggressive targeting that previous forms of online activism had lacked. Even more importantly, it made online targeting TV-ready, generating a much, much larger audience.

Finding Accountability

My goal in reviewing the history of targeting on social media is three-fold. First, we must recognize that the social and technical systems behind targeting are not so new, and the case studies for evaluating these issues now date back decades with many commonalities. Second, it’s important to understand that targeting comes with real harm. Whitney Phillips (2015) offered a masterful deconstruction of for the lulz culture in “This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” by connecting it directly to not only irony but to classical rhetorical practices that enact power while also serving to persuade. Understanding what power is enacted and what the unspoken goals of persuasion might be in online targeting is key. Finally, I want to demonstrate that while targeting is as old as social media, we are seeing an escalation in its application and its role in politics. Millions of dollars can be raised via online targeting whether those millions are raised for ALS research, political campaigns, or the career podcasters.

The number one question I always get after a talk is, “this is useful analysis and depressing, but what can we do?” I want to end on where we can start.

First, we need more self-targeting. As I said earlier, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge offered us a different path forward. We could have built activism around targeting ourselves, exposing our humanity and humility first and foremost. Certainly, some of this activism still exists, but we need more. Again, Black Lives Matter offers the ideal example of being accountable through stated values, physical protest, and geographic community-based chapters. They’ve built local chapters that organize the community directly and address specific local problems created by global challenges. All activism needs more of this structure that allows local-global justice to emerge. And this idea isn’t new nor mine. Haas and Eble (2018) presented us with this challenge in all areas of technical communication justice when they stated—buildings off of Rude’s reminder that the work of technical communication can also serve the oppressor—that  “As public intellectuals, knowledge workers, and advocates for users, technical communicators have a responsibility to advocate for equity in local and global networks of scientific, technical, and professional communication”.

We need to apply the same concern for balancing local and global justice to making social media activism into local activism. In enacting just activism and politics, we must actively, vocally, and wholeheartedly resist becoming the oppressor.

Second, we need more of a focus on content. Perhaps it is time for fewer retweets of other accounts and more quoting of comments. Powerful ideas need to be shared and challenged. Conspiracy and hate need to be ostracized. But, fame and infamy too often become the primary consequence of online communication. Social media incentivizes the ridiculous because the ridiculous is novel, and few things make identity more valuable online than novelty, especially novel cruelty.

Third, we need responsible celebrities. Yeah, I’m being exceptionally pie-in-the-sky here. Yet, celebrity accounts need to understand the role they play in both spreading rumor and targeting individuals. They must understand that the bullhorns they use drive activism, harassment, and outcomes.

Finally, activism matters in its outcomes. Fundraising and occupying the public square remain the primary points of impact, especially for online activism. Without the accountability and power of occupying the public square, online activism is too easily dismissed (often rightly so) as harassment or slacktivism. Without a physical presence and visible identity, it’s too easy for online targeting to exist solely as trolling—or something worse.

Michael Trice is a lecturer in Writing, Rhetoric, and Professional Communication at MIT. His research has covered a variety of community media, including LocalWiki, Bristol’s Knowle West Media Centre, and various forms of online activism. His volunteer work has included working with survivors of domestic abuse, counseling of parolees, and Photo Voice projects for foster kids.


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