Power Despite Precarity: Strategies for the Contingent Faculty Movement in Higher Education.

by Helena Worthen and Joe Berry

It’s January 20, and Joe Berry and I are forty days away from our March 1, 2021 book deadline. Nevertheless, we turned on the TV to watch Joe Biden make his speech from the Capitol steps where only two weeks ago there were white supremacist rioters shoving each other around and posing for selfies. Enough said. Then it’s back to work.


The work at hand is as follows: bibliography, footnotes, acronyms, list of essential terms, make sure the last chapter says what it needs to say. Then re-write the introduction to accommodate the fact that since we sent our proposal in to Pluto, hoping to get into the Wildcat series, nearly a year has passed. During that year the coronavirus has gone world-wide jamming up schedules and turning education into an internet wonderland. Remember when people were talking about the end of “brick and mortar” colleges and universities as if that was the distant future? How our institutions of higher education will re-constitute themselves when things return to normal (whatever that means) will depend, as always, on who has the power at the moment. It’s time to ask the Freirean questions: For whom, by whom, and for what purpose? What is higher education for, really? And what do we, people who work in it, need in order to do our jobs right?


Back to the work. I haven’t mentioned the title, because that will probably come last. Right now we are vacillating between at least two. One simply tells what the book is about: The Contingent Faculty Movement Today: History, Strategy, and Troublesome Questions. That’s a pretty good one, actually. The words “troublesome questions” refer to questions that always come up in the process of organizing, whether it’s a new union just forming or one long established. We have questions like “Is this legal?” and “Who are our friends and who are our enemies? And “What about union politics?”  We respond to these at length, avoiding giving answers but laying out the range of ways these concerns can “trouble” a group of activists.


The second option, which was the original title, is A Fifth Transition: A Strategy for the Contingent Faculty Movement Today.  This reflects the fact that we’re doing not just best organizing practices but also the history of the contingent faculty movement going back to the 1970s. We then step back to a bigger time scale and place the last 40-50 years in the context of how the whole higher education industry has gone through transitions as it adapts to the needs of the dominant powers of society.  Examples are the period of standardization in the early 1900s, the explosion of enrollments under the GI bill after World War II, the creation of the multicultural curriculum and fields of ethnic studies after the student “disturbances” of the 1960s and 1970s, and then the transition that leads us into the present, the neo-liberal contraction of budget cuts, layoffs, the rise of the for-profit institutions and above all, casualization of the faculty – in other words, us.


This big-scale history section, although it’s the one that seems to be the flashiest concept to talk about,  is only one of the five parts of the book. We take a much closer look at our history – that is, the history of contingent faculty employment in higher education – by devoting four chapters to the story of organizing among Lecturers in the California State University system. In fact, that’s how the idea for the book got started. Joe has been appearing at contingent faculty conferences and other higher ed events for at least 20 years now, especially since the publication of his book Reclaiming the Ivory Tower:  Organizing Adjuncts to Change Higher Education (Monthly Review, 2005), and at one of these events someone always asks, “What is the best contract for contingents in the US?”  He answers by telling them about what’s in the California Faculty Association contract with the CSUs, which is a giant system of 23 campuses and about 27,000 faculty, of whom over 70% are contingents (called Lecturers).  So the next question always is, “How did they get it?”  That’s what those four chapters are about, and without trying to tell the whole story here I can say that it started back in the 1970s and has taken place on legislative, bargaining, electoral, and internal organizing terrains. The breakthrough came when the lead activists realized – really got it – that they had to view themselves as workers just like any other workers, not as white-collar-privileged “professionals,” and adopt direct action tactics, publicly advocate for and identify with their overwhelmingly working-class students, and prepare themselves for a real strike.


There are other stories I can tell about what it’s been like to write this book, but I’ll limit myself to this: its first stirrings came about when Joe Berry was sitting out in the back garden with his long-time friend, John Hess, who was an organizer among Lecturers in the CSU system and had recently retired, only to get a diagnosis of Parkinson’s. Their conversations revolved around shared experiences organizing and leading contingent faculty and in the labor movement generally. Of course, one of them said, “We should write a book.”

That was ten years ago. John has since died; I took over his role as co-author. My relationship to getting things written – articles, books, whatever – is different from Joe’s. Joe is a historian; he can dwell in the archives for weeks, slowly accruing a grasp of what actually happened and building the big picture. I’m the one who says, “I’ll meet you at ten am at the kitchen table and we’ll finish the footnotes.”  We have some funny stories about this part of our relationship; our book about unemployment benefits for contingents, published by the Chicago COCAL and co-authored with Beverly Stewart, came about when I realized that he was on the phone with the State of Illinois person who administered the law, to whom he was explaining the intent behind the language “reasonable assurance of re-employment.”  We wrote that little book in order to be able to hand over something for a person to read, instead of Joe being on the phone all the time trying to explain it.

That’s part of the motivation behind this book, whatever it’s called: putting it all in one place, with bibliography and explanatory footnotes. Our hope is that if we get it in by March 1, Pluto will get it out while the re-constitution of higher ed is still fluid enough to be shaped by the power from below, from the people who really do the work and know what is needed in order to do it right.


Editor’s Note: Since writing this post, Helena and Joe have chosen a new title for their book: Power Despite Precarity:  Strategies for the Contingent Faculty Movement in Higher Education.


Helena Worthen is a novelist, teacher, editor, and contingent faculty activist. She is the author of the prize-winning 2014 book, What Did You Learn at Work Today? from Hardball Press, Brooklyn. She retired from the University of Illinois Labor Education Program in 2010, where she was Director of the Polk Women’s Labor Conferences.


Joe Berry worked as contingent faculty and labor educator for thirty years and was active in all three major faculty unions. He is the author of Reclaiming the Ivory Tower, from Monthly Review (2005).  He edits COCAL Updates for the Coalition of Academic Labor, where he serves on the International Advisory Committee and also on the Board of New Faculty Majority.

This is Our Moment: Let’s Seize It

20 Jan. 2021

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. . . .” (Charles Dickens. “A Tale of Two Cities”)

We will rise from the gold-limbed hills of the West. We will rise from the wind-swept Northeast where our forefathers first realized revolution. We will rise from the Lake Rim cities of the Midwestern states. We will rise from the sun-baked South. We will rebuild, reconcile and recover in every known nook of our nation, in every corner called our country our people diverse and beautiful will emerge battered and beautiful. (Amanda Gorman. “The Hill We Climb”)

How many times have I read Dickens’ wry and finely crafted opening to “A Tale of Two Cities” and yet not once had the eloquence packed an emotional punch for me?  Well, that time has passed.  I feel the power of those words as never before.  Dickens’ oft-quoted lines have taken on a special urgency for these times and for this country.  As I write this post, one year has passed since COVID-19 reached our shores and changed life as we knew it.  And as an educator at an open-access, public community college (where I have taught full-time for more than three decades), I can bear witness to the “season of darkness” that has blighted the path for many of my students.  Yet, on this, the 20th  day of January 2021, I feel a sense of hope and renewal.  Whether these times will prove to be the best (to return to Dickens) depends on our ability to rise up, as the inaugural poet Amanda Gorman exhorts us, “battered and beautiful.”

Just this morning, I listened to a podcast (The Key, Ep. 36) that recounted the impact of the pandemic on the especially vulnerable among our students:  transfer, returning and adult students and students from lower-income households. This past fall has been devastating in its impact on all sectors of public education, but particularly community colleges.   Among the findings released by the National Clearinghouse Research Center (relayed in the podcast):

  • This past fall half a million fewer students didn’t show up in our public schools
  • All of higher ed saw 13 % fewer first-year students enroll
  • Community colleges saw a decline of over 20% in first-year students
  • Amid that decline, the hardest hit have been students of color.

We all have anecdotal evidence of the virus’ impact on our students.  I recall a student who stopped attending for a time my online first-year writing course because her laptop had been damaged by her young child, a child who would normally have been in day-care but given the fact that the student had just lost her job due to COVID she would try so hard to take up that responsibility while doing her best to persist in school.  She would eventually repair the laptop but lost valuable time and perhaps some of her desire, too.

Even as this year of the plague continues to reverberate in the new year, I note some hopefulness in these early weeks of 2021.  Of course, we hope that vaccinations will begin to be administered smoothly and that social distancing and masking will take hold as acceptable, indeed, necessary, behavior. And we earnestly hope that as the virus’s fury declines, jobs will return and whatever counts as the new normal will take hold.

And then there is this:  I write this post on the day that Joseph R. Biden, Jr. and Kamala Harris were sworn-in as President and Vice-President, respectively.  While the change of regime brings a new day to our country, I am most heartened that Dr. Jill Biden will receive even more prominence than ever.  She is one of us.

The headlines are like a balm for the soul:

Jill Biden Reiterates Support for Free Community Colleges

Jill Biden Will Reportedly Back Debt-Free Community College as First Lady

Jill Biden Promotes Community Colleges’ Role in Workforce Development

We have a voice in the Halls of Power.  For that, I am most grateful.  I know that Dr. Biden will do us educators proud, especially those of us who work in public education.

As powerful as it will be, her voice is but one, however.  It is incumbent upon us to seize the moment that is available to us. To that end, I urge all community college faculty, staff and administration—and the leaders of our various professional organizations (like the Modern Language Association, the National Council of Teachers of English, the Conference on College Composition and Communication, and the Two-Year College English Association)—to sign this petition of support for Dr. Biden’s advocacy of our students’ success. Consider this effort a pledge:  not only to promote Dr. Biden’s efforts but also to do what each of us can to foster the values of equity and inclusion in the wake of this devastating pandemic.  All of our students matter. All of our students deserve a fair shot at success.

From the editors: If you would like to add your name to this petition to support Dr. Biden’s advocacy of our students’ success, please e-mail Patrick Sullivan at psullivan@manchestercc.edu or Darin Jensen at

We will add your name to our list of signatories. Please include your department, college name, and location.

List of Signatories

  • Howard Tinberg, English Department, Bristol Community College, Fall River, MA
  • Patrick Sullivan, English Department, Manchester Community College, Manchester, Connecticut
  • Dr. Brett M. Griffiths, Macomb Community College, Warren, MI
  • Dr. Darin Jensen, Des Moines Area Community College, Carroll, IA
  • Sarah Z. Johnson, Two-Year College English Association National Chair, English Department Chair, Madison College, Madison, WI
  • Dr. Cheryl Hogue Smith, Two-Year College English Association Past Chair, English Department, Kingsborough Community College, CUNY
  • Dr. Leigh Jonaitis, Professor, English and Theatre, Bergen Community College, Secretary, Two-Year College English Association (TYCA)
  • Renee Rule, Chair,  TYCA Midwest, English Department, Associate Professor, Ivy Tech Community College
  • Dr. Stacey Donohue, Professor of English, Central Oregon Community College
  • Dr. Cheri Lemieux Spiegel, English Department, Northern Virginia Community College
  • Dr. Annie Del Principe, English Department, Kingsborough Community College, CUNY, Brooklyn, NY
  • Dr. Bethany Sweeney, English and History, Des Moines Area Community College, Carroll, IA
  • Robert Lazaroff, Ph.D., English, Nassau Community College, Garden City, NY
  • Dr. Christie Toth, Department of Writing & Rhetoric Studies, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT
  • Dr. Deborah Mutnick, Professor of English, LIU Brooklyn, New York, NY
  • Dr. Jason Evans, English Department, Prairie State College, Chicago Heights, Illinois
  • Sravani Banerjee, English Department, Evergreen Valley College, San Jose, CA
  • Stacy Wilson, English Department, Mesa Community College, Mesa, Arizona
  • Christie Bogle, Department of English, Linguistics & Writing Studies, Salt Lake Community College, Salt Lake City, Utah
  • Jerri A. Harwell, Department of English, Linguistics, and Writing Studies, Salt Lake Community College, Salt Lake City, Utah
  • Dr. Stacey Van Dahm, Department of English, Linguistics, & Writing Studies, Salt Lake Community College, Salt Lake City, Utah
  • Ron K. Christiansen, English, Linguistics, & Writing Studies Department, Salt Lake Community College, Salt Lake City, Utah
  • Dr. Lynn Kilpatrick, Salt Lake Community College, Salt Lake Community College, Salt Lake City, Utah
  • Dr. Charissa Che, English Department, Queensborough Community College, Bayside, NY
  • Bruce Martin, Department of English. Lone Star College-North Harris, Houston, TX
  • Emily Suh, Graduate Programs in Developmental Education, Texas State University, San Marcos, TX
  • Jeffrey Klausman, Professor of English, Whatcom Community College, Bellingham, Washington
  • Holly Hassel, Professor of English, North Dakota State University, Fargo, North Dakota, past editor, Teaching English in the Two-Year College
  • Elizabeth H. Keefe, Professor of English, Gateway Community College, New Haven, Connecticut
  • Stephanie Dowdle Maenhardt, Department of English, Linguistics & Writing Studies, Salt Lake Community College
  • Rose-Mary Rodrigues, First-Year Studies English, Gateway Community College, New Haven, CT
  • Dr. Sarah Snyder, Professor of English and Writing Program Administrator, Communications Division, Arizona Western College, Yuma, Arizona
  • Margot A. Edlin, Ed.D., Professor of English, CUNY-Queensborough Community College and Treasurer, Two-Year College English Association – Northeast (TYCA-NE)
  • Barrie McGee, Curriculum and Instruction Dept., Texas State University, San Marcos, Texas
  • Alan Hutchison, English Department, Des Moines Area Community College, Ankeny, Iowa
  • Dr. Anne Canavan, Department of English, Linguistics, and Writing Studies, Salt Lake Community College, Salt Lake City, UT
  • Stacy Wilson, English Department, Mesa Community College, Mesa, Arizona
  • Clint Gardner, Program Manager of Collge Writing & Reading Centers, Salt Lake Community College, Past-President, Rocky Mountain Writing Centers Association.
  • Tiffany Rousculp, Director, Writing Across the College, Salt Lake City Community College

  • Brian Anderson, Humanities Department, College of the Mainland, Texas City, Texas
  • Cara Diaconoff, English Department, Bellevue College, Bellevue, Washington
  • Kate Sullivan, Instructor, Writing, Cinema History, Division of Arts and Humanities, Lane Community College, Eugene, OR
  • Dr. Sharon Mitchler, English Department, Centralia College, Centralia, WA
  • Ronald Weisbergerr, History Department, Bristol Community College
  • Dr. Karen S. Uehling, Professor Emeritus, English, Boise State University, Boise, Idaho
  • Dr. Rhonda C. Grego, Dean/School of English and Humanities, Midlands Technical College, Columbia, SC
  • Ron K. Christiansen, English, Linguistics, & Writing Studies Department, Salt Lake Community College, Salt Lake City, Utah
  • Dr. Lynn Kilpatrick, Salt Lake Community College, Salt Lake Community College, Salt Lake City, Utah
  • Krystal Cox, English, Des Moines Area Community College
  • Dr. Jean-Paul Nadeau, English Department, Bristol Community College, Fall River, Massachusetts
  • Dr. Bill Kelly, Professor of English (retired), Bristol Community College, Fall River, MA
  • Martha Ucci, Ph.D, English Department, Bristol Community College, Fall River, MA
  • Michael Geary, Associate Professor of English, Writing Center Coordinator, Vice President of the Faculty and Professional Staff Senate, Bristol Community College, Fall River, MA
  • Robyn Rohde, English Department, College of Southern Nevada, Henderson, NV



Reconnoitering: Looking Back over the ‘ A Year in Activism’ Blog Series and What Lies Ahead

We are over eight months into the global pandemic, and nothing is any more certain. The phrase “uncertain times” has become tired and cliche; yet, there are few words that capture the fear, doubt, anxiety, and restlessness of this time. All across America, teachers of all levels juggle remote, hybrid, “hy-flex”, or risky in-person teaching while also providing emotional support to their students, colleagues, families, and communities. In the wake of unanticipated expenses and budget shortfalls that have been largely ignored by federal and state governments and under the banners of austerity and retrenchment, university boards and upper administrators are laying off and furloughing campus workers in unprecedented numbers–from facilities workers, to staff, to faculty members of all ranks, to student workers. Meanwhile, politicians and groups like Campus Reform have weaponized universities’ COVID-19 responses and organized attacks on faculty members for their activism, research, and pedagogies (see for example the attacks on Scholar Strike participants at Texas A&M and the University of Mississippi). As these groups try to control university administrations and launch personal attacks against individual faculty on Facebook and Twitter, COVID-19 cases continue to spike on college campuses where football games, bars, and social events drive numbers up. States and counties with varying mask mandates (or none at all) continue to see numbers rise as we enter the fall. Recent data points not only to another surge in the virus but to record breaking death and hospitalization rates. Against this backdrop, what many are calling “the most decisive election in a generation” looms on November 3.


When we created the blog series “A Year of Activism: Perspectives on the 2020 U.S. Elections,” we had intended to use the series as a space where writing, rhetoric, and literacy studies scholars of all ranks and from various institutional types could address issues related to the elections and their teaching, research, and service. On one hand, we saw the series as an extension of both Spark and Teacher-Scholar-Activist. The series maintains our foci on activism but also initiates immediate and ongoing conversations related to one topic: the elections. On the other hand, we saw the series as an activist intervention. We had hoped that the blogs in the series would contribute, if even in some small way, to shaping the outcome of the elections. In terms of reader response, the series has been a success. Thousands of folks have read blog posts from the series and shared them on social media and in classrooms. In terms of recruiting contributors and maintaining regular contributions, the series increasingly became challenging and fraught with complexities amid the pandemic: How could we ask people to take on more work under these ever-shifting conditions? We feel the uncertainty and strain. We feel the pull to organize in defense of colleagues, against retrenchment and austerity measures, and to get out the vote on our campuses and in our communities in order to steer the U.S. toward greater democracy. We also feel the need to keep our loved ones close and to devote time and attention to our own economic, health, psychological, and emotional needs.

At the same time, we feel our attention shifting from making arguments about the Trump administration and ensuring that America’s democratic process, such as it is, actually delivers despite decades of concerted effort to disenfranchise millions of Americans through various means and in light of renewed efforts across the country to suppress votes. Most recently, well-reported efforts to suppress the vote include how, in mid-October, the California Republican Party placed more than 50 fake ballot boxes around the state in order to steal and destroy early-voting ballots; an October 19th letter from the owner of a mobile home park in Fort Morgan, CO, who threatened to raise tenants rents if Biden won the election; a ballot box in California was set aflame in an attempt of suspected arson; and the October 30 attack by Trump supporters on a Biden/Harris campaign tour bus heading from San Antonio to an event in Pflugerville, TX. But, social media is full of videos, photos, and written accounts of people making their way to polls being harassed by Trump supporters who stand near or circle around polling stations and shout threatening messages. These extra-legal and illegal efforts to suppress voters supplement Trump and the Republican Party’s attempts to steal the election through various means: from gutting the U.S. Postal Service in order to ensure that many mail-in ballots miss the deadline, to trying to throw out thousands upon thousands of votes, to spreading lies that votes counted after election night will not count in election totals. Trump and the Republican Party have myriad tactics at their disposal, and they are using all of them. However, all these tactics may pale in comparison to their success in filling the Supreme Court with underqualified figures–hacks who could play a decisive role in the election itself.


This post serves as a coda to the series as a reconnoitering; it reflects that shift from figuring out who to support in opposition to Trump and what issues we need to focus our attention and efforts on to focusing on not letting Trump and his white supremacist coterie steal the election. Whatever the outcome after November 3 ( once all ballots cast get counted), there is still much work to be done to move struggles for social justice forward. Spark’s mission, whether in this series or in the journal, has always been about calling attention to this work. In reconnoitering, we take this moment to draw attention to the thoughtful posts that contributors wrote for this series:


We also point toward the future and urge you to check out Spark’s Volume III call for papers. Edited by Jaquetta Shade Johnson and Phil Bratta, the call deals with the role that coalitions play in advancing activism. We also encourage you to contact Teacher-Scholar-Activist’s editors and contribute to the ongoing blog. Overall, we must continue the difficult work of organizing in our communities. A day, a week, a month from now, our world will look different, and as teacher-scholar-activists, we need to be ready.

In solidarity and action,

Don Unger and Liz Lane

Co-managing editors, Spark: a 4C4Equality Journal


An Open Letter to Judge Amy Coney Barrett From Your Notre Dame Colleagues

October 10, 2020

Dear Judge Barrett,

We write to you as fellow faculty members at the University of Notre Dame.

We congratulate you on your nomination to the United States Supreme Court. An appointment to the Court is the crowning achievement of a legal career and speaks to the commitments you have made throughout your life. And while we are not pundits, from what we read your confirmation is all but assured.

That is why it is vital that you issue a public statement calling for a halt to your nomination process until after the November presidential election.

We ask that you take this unprecedented step for three reasons.

First, voting for the next president is already underway. According to the United States Election Project (https://electproject.github.io/Early-Vote-2020G/index.html), more than seven million people have already cast their ballots, and millions more are likely to vote before election day. The rushed nature of your nomination process, which you certainly recognize as an exercise in raw power politics, may effectively deprive the American people of a voice in selecting the next Supreme Court justice. You are not, of course, responsible for the anti-democratic machinations driving your nomination. Nor are you complicit in the Republican hypocrisy of fast-tracking your nomination weeks before a presidential election when many of the same senators refused to grant Merrick Garland so much as a hearing a full year before the last election. However, you can refuse to be party to such maneuvers. We ask that you honor the democratic process and insist the hearings be put on hold until after the voters have made their choice. Following the election, your nomination would proceed, or not, in accordance with the wishes of the winning candidate. 

Next, the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dying wish was that her seat on the court remain open until a new president was installed. At your nomination ceremony at the White House, you praised Justice Ginsburg as “a woman of enormous talent and consequence, whose life of public service serves as an example to us all.” Your nomination just days after Ginsburg’s death was unseemly and a repudiation of her legacy. Given your admiration for Justice Ginsburg, we ask that you repair the injury to her memory by calling for a pause in the nomination until the next president is seated.

Finally, your nomination comes at a treacherous moment in the United States. Our politics are consumed by polarization, mistrust, and fevered conspiracy theories. Our country is shaken by pandemic and economic suffering. There is violence in the streets of American cities. The politics of your nomination, as you surely understand, will further inflame our civic wounds, undermine confidence in the court, and deepen the divide among ordinary citizens, especially if you are seated by a Republican Senate weeks before the election of a Democratic president and congress. You have the opportunity to offer an alternative to all that by demanding that your nomination be suspended until after the election. We implore you to take that step.

We’re asking a lot, we know. Should Vice-President Biden be elected, your seat on the court will almost certainly be lost. That would be painful, surely. Yet there is much to be gained in risking your seat. You would earn the respect of fair-minded people everywhere. You would provide a model of civic selflessness. And you might well inspire Americans of different beliefs toward a renewed commitment to the common good.

We wish you well and trust you will make the right decision for our nation.

Yours in Notre Dame,

John Duffy, English  

Douglass Cassel, Emeritus, Law School

Barbara J, Fick, Emerita, Law School

Fernand N. Dutile, Professor of Law Emeritus

Joseph Bauer, Emeritus, Law School

Jimmy Gurulé, Professor of Law.  

Thomas Kselman, Emeritus, History

Catherine E. Bolten, Anthropology and Peace Studies

Karen Graubart, History and Gender Studies

Margaret Dobrowolska, Physics

Aedín Clements, Hesburgh Libraries

Cheri Smith, Hesburgh Libraries

Antonio Delgado, Physics

Atalia Omer, Peace Studies

Eileen Hunt Botting, Political Science

Jason A. Springs, Peace Studies

David Hachen, Sociology

Manoel Couder, Physics

Jacek Furdyna, Physics

Carmen Helena Tellez, Music

Kristin Shrader-Frechette, Biological Sciences, Philosophy

John T. Fitzgerald, Theology

Debra Javeline, Political Science 

Philippe Collon, Physics

Cara Ocobock, Anthropology

Amy Mulligan, Irish, Medieval Studies and Gender Studies

Stephen M. Fallon, Program of Liberal Studies and Dept of English

Jessica Shumake, University Writing Program and Gender Studies

Mandy L. Havert, Hesburgh Libraries

Dana Villa, Political Science

Stephen M. Hayes, Emeritus, Hesburgh Libraries

Catherine Perry, Emerita, Romance Languages & Literatures

Olivier Morel, Film, Television, and Theatre.

Darlene Catello, Music

Encarnación Juárez-Almendros, Emerita, Romance Languages & Literatures

James Sterba, Philosophy

Laura Bayard, Emerita, Hesburgh Libraries

Susan Sheridan, Anthropology

Mary E. Frandsen, Music

Mark Golitko, Anthropology

Christopher Ball, Anthropology

Gail Bederman, History

G. Margaret Porter, Emerita, Hesburgh Libraries

Cecilia Lucero, Center for University Advising

Peri E. Arnold, Emeritus, Political Science

Amitava Krishna Dutt, Political Science

Julia Marvin, Program of Liberal Studies

Julia Adeney Thomas, History

Michael C. Brownstein, East Asian Languages & Cultures

Christopher Liebtag Miller, Medieval Institute

Maxwell Johnson, Theology

John Sitter, Emeritus, English

Robert Norton, German

Hye-jin Juhn, Hesburgh Libraries

Denise M. Della Rossa, German

Sotirios A. Barber, Political Science

Pamela Robertson Wojcik, Film, TV and Theatre

Jeff Diller, Mathematics

Ann Mische, Sociology and Peace Studies

Zygmunt Baranski, Romance Languages & Literatures

Robert R. Coleman, Emeritus, Art History

William Collins Donahue, German, FTT, & Keough

Sarah McKibben, Irish Language and Literature

George A. Lopez, emeritus, Kroc Institute

Mark Roche, German

Nelson Mark, Economics

Vittorio Hosle, German, Philosophy and Political Science

Tobias Boes, German 

A. Nilesh Fernando, Economics

Fred Dallmayr, Emeritus, Philosophy and Political Science

Greg Kucich, English

Kate Marshall, English

Mark A. Sanders, English

Christopher Hamlin, History

Meredith S. Chesson, Anthropology

Ricardo Ramirez, Political Science

Stephen Fredman, Emeritus, English

Dan Graff, History and the Higgins Labor Program

Henry Weinfield, Program of Liberal Studies (Emeritus)

Mary R. D’Angelo, Theology (Emerita)

Asher Kaufman, Kroc Institute, History

Stephen J. Miller, Music

Janet A. Kourany, Philosophy and Gender Studies

Michelle Karnes, English

Jill Godmilow, Emerita, Film, Television & Theatre

Mary Beckman, Emerita, Center for Social Concerns

Clark Power, Program of Liberal Studies

Richard Williams, Sociology

Benedict Giamo, Emeritus, American Studies

Ernesto Verdeja, Political Science and Peace Studies 

Catherine Schlegel, Classics

Margaret A. Doody, English, Professor Emerita 

Marie Collins Donahue, Eck Institute of Global Health

 David C. Leege, Emeritus, Political Science

Xavier Creary, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry (Emeritus)
Romana Huk, PhD, English
Joseph M. Parent, Professor of Political Science
Mary Celeste Kearney, Film, Television, and Theatre, and Gender Studies
Richard Sheehan, Ph.D., Department of Finance, Mendoza College of Business
Marty Wolfson, Emeritus, Economics
Michael Kackman, PhD, Department of Film, Television, and Theatre
Ann Marie Power, PhD, Sociology

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. 

“When the Looting Starts, the Shooting Starts”: Anti-Black Higher Ed Pedagogical Ideologies and Practices

By Jamila Kareem

The Precedents.

“America has looted Black people. America looted the Native Americans when they first came here. So looting is what you do; we learned it from you. We learned violence from you.” –Tamika Mallory, Activist

“Break precedent!” –Victor Villanueva in “On the Rhetoric and Precedents of Racism”

In the 14th century, Mansa of Mali, Abubakari II dared explore the reaches of the Atlantic Ocean. He never returned.

Over 100 years later, Christopher Columbus found a world that already existed and called it new.

Most of our schools teach only one of these legends. Like the bodies that hold its histories, one of them is seen as simply unworthy of systematic knowledge.

When we tell you to “Say their names” …

Screen Shot 2020-07-21 at 1.31.50 PM

… we are combating long-held habit of cultural forgetting. We are resisting the institutionalized erasure of our people.

The Testaments.

The deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Aiyana Jones, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Michael Brown, Jerame Reed, Oscar Grant, Sean Bell, Tanisha Anderson, Emmett Till, and too many others occurred alongside the propagation of education ideals that demote Black existence in the U.S. and across the world. Like Trump, the police departments, commissions, and supporting legal system that interacted with these lives were inculcated in a hierarchy of schooling that devalues the same lives. I concur with Jones and Williams that “white America tends to focus on the ‘progress’ of this nation through racialized lenses, [but] Black America has had to grapple with the terrors and tragedies that have come out of the white imagination.” So when universities, colleges, textbook publishers, education councils, and K-12 school districts say some version of “we stand with Black Lives Matter,” I am skeptical. I am wary. How can I not be after being both a victim and a beneficiary of the racialized social system that influences these entities?

I think the first time someone said to me “You talk like a white girl” outside the home happened in third grade. At that age, the accusation affected me minimally. My school teachers were White, some of my friends were White, and the people who lived in the nice well-kept clean houses on TV were White. In fact, I, along with the other kids from the hood, was bussed 35 minutes one way to an all-White neighborhood to attend school throughout the week. Talking White didn’t feel like an insult but an observation. Although most of my real friends were other Black kids from the hood and the cadence of my speech came unintentionally, in truth, I probably thought to talk like a White girl was a preferable way to be in the world. My teachers rewarded it because the speech had been a byproduct of something greater–the adoption of a whiteness-centric lens on the world. A world where invoking the mannerisms and ideologies associated with venerated whiteness is the controlling perspective.

You’ll notice that I won’t mention POTUS much in this post. Comedian Dave Chappelle might have summated my thoughts best: “He’s not making a wave; he’s surfing it.” Mr. Trump is the product of a system that has told him that his life as a rich, White, heterosexual American Judeo-Christian male is worth more than other lives, as are the lives of people like him. Our higher education systems have been structured to imply to students and teachers that they must represent that existence as much as possible for their lives to have worth.

You literally strip our histories, voices, experiences—our proofs of existence—from your knowledge bases, therefore not only racializing the curriculum but also racializing what we consider common knowledge. Natasha N. Jones and Miriam F. Williams remind us that even as, “America perceives itself to be a nation of imaginative thinkers, often the imagining of Black folks is not productively acknowledged, properly amplified, or respectfully appreciated.”  So how can we not expect so many of our students and their families to feel, at best, excluded or, at worst, persecuted by the very system meant to acclimate them into an American society that will only induce these attitudes?

The Deeds.

In the last three years, The Chronicle of Higher Education published 794 articles and special reports related to issues of race in higher education. To say that racism has permeated the education of our college students long before they enter college classrooms for the first time is a comment on more than the curriculum. The coursework that students complete reflects but one relic of anti-blackness rather than represent the ideology on its own.

One of several controversial, racially-biased tweets by University of Central Florida psychology professor, Charles Negy. Following the racial awakening from the protests around George Floyd’s and Breonna Taylor’s murders by police, a vast number of students, staff, and faculty of the university called for Dr. Negy’s termination. As of the writing of the post, Negy still works for the university.


While many of our conservative-leaning counterparts in academia, like the author of the tweet above, sing tales of the leftist social justice snowflake warrior university systems blanketed in the liberal values of multiculturalism, most racial justice efforts of the academy come only as far as they reproduce the established order. Most instruction about African peoples in the U.S. begins with ancestors as chattel in shackles at the whim of White citizens. These lessons tell us that the most honored culture of whiteness enslaved us and freed us. As if to insinuate, behave—model our behaviors—or you will remain in shackles. If not physically, then socially and psychologically. And while what has become known as White guilt may manifest some remorse or simply regret in the consciousness of dominant White American racial group, having this point of initiation for the Black American community also defines a racial contract (Mills) in the consciousness. This is a contract that tells a teacher—White, Black, or otherwise—that it’s acceptable, even commendable, to punish Black students for exhibiting common child and adolescent behaviors. Anyone who has been paying attention knows that Black American students are suspended at a significantly higher rate than any other racial group in pre-college schools.

It’s the same racial contract that correlates the educated voice to “talking White” and writing White. These imprints on our collective racial consciousness cause teachers, administrators, and education policymakers to accept Black American language patterns in lower scale academic sociolinguistic situations but not in higher scale contexts (Blommaert). This way of perceiving allows White adolescents to streak their hair in blue or green or pink and gets braided up Black young women sent home or suspended. Such a perception gives education institutions—both the system itself and individual sites—license to loot the artifacts of Black cultures that they see fit and to demolish the remaining pieces to cultural rubble. It tells society that the best way—perhaps, the only way—to survive truly is to revere, assimilate into, and practice Whiteness-validated ways of knowing. This innate sense of racial socialization reduces the beginnings of a millennia-long history of an entire rich, abounding culture to only 500 years of presence—to a foundational point of enslavement, subjugation, tragedy, and defeat. Even among the snowflake social justice warrior liberals.

The fact of the matter is that the U.S. culturally and ideologically loots and shoots Black people, as it has for so long, with little to no sustainable alteration in the collective racial consciousness. In popular culture, we can witness this through things like the appropriation of box braids, micro braids, cornrows, afros, and other Black-created hairstyles. The validity of these styles as well as Black-invented dance styles, and even Black American language vernacular only hold cultural capital when they are proliferated through mainstream White American social structures. this approach is true of the higher education system overall as well. There, black American cultural customs and histories are used as a tool to feign ideals of diversity, inclusion, equality, even anti-racism–within the confines of the Euro-Western Judeo-Christian middle-class straight cisgender male power structure. The emblem of the White savior social justice Warrior. But would any of these proponents of inclusion take the time to design a curriculum that teaches the lifestyles of medieval West Africa with the same appreciation of medieval Europe? Are they willing to research and understand Afrocentric or Black-American-centric worldviews the way that Black children and families have to assimilate into whiteness-centric worldviews? How significantly are they willing to even contemplate, let alone address, the ways their ideologies in and out of classrooms and conference rooms might harm Black students, faculty, and staff? As discussed above, mainstream education practices (figuratively) shoot Black Americans by attempting to force the blackness–our original sin–out of us by any means necessary.

If U.S. higher education truly wants its antiracist, inclusive talk to be trusted, and to have meaning in Black American communities, it must systemically address the ways it has and continues to contribute to the ideological loading and shooting of black communities. We are not there yet.

Jamila M. Kareem, Ph.D., is a teacher-scholar researching critical race theory in Jamila_Kareem_Bio_Pic(small)composition studies. Her research examines the connections between race, discourse, writing, and pedagogy. She is a CCCC Scholar for the Dream, whose work has been published by Teaching English in the Two-Year CollegeJournal of College Literacy and LearningJAC: A Journal of Rhetoric, Culture, and Politics, and in the collections Diverse Approaches to Teaching, Learning, and Writing Across the Curriculum: IWAC at 25 and The Good Life and the Greater Good in a Global Context. She has scholarship forthcoming in Literacy in Composition Studies and in the collection Mobility Work in Composition. She teaches as an assistant professor in the Department of Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Central Florida.


Abe, D. (2016). Eric Garner [Photograph]. Black Past. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/garner-eric-1970-2014/

Anderson, J. (2020). Breonna Taylor was an EMT working at two hospitals when she was shot and killed in March [Photograph]. P. Ashley, Wave3 News. https://www.wave3.com/2020/05/12/breonna-taylor-was-killed-botched-police-raid-attorney-says/

Associated Press. (2020). George Floyd, 46 [Photograph]. ABC7 Eyewitness News. https://abc7chicago.com/george-floyd-transcript-video-second-autopsy-stephen-jackson-and-thomas-lane/6318505/

BBC News. (2014). Michael Brown in headphones from Facebook [Photograph]. BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-30207808

Blommaert, J. (2007). Sociolinguistic scales. Intercultural Pragmatics, 4(1), 1–19. DOI 10.1515/IP.2007.001

Dean, M. (2015). Tanisha Anderson [Photograph]. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/jun/05/black-women-police-killing-tanisha-anderson

Gray, F. (2015). Freddie Gray photo from Instagram [Photograph]. C. Rentz, The Baltimore Sun. https://www.baltimoresun.com/news/crime/bal-freddie-gray-remembered-as-jokester-who-struggled-to-leave-drug-trade-20151120-story.html

Hartsfield-Reid, L. (2016). Jerame Reid, 36, of Upper Deerfield Township [Photograph]. M. Miller, The Press of the Atlantic. https://pressofatlanticcity.com/news/crime/family-of-police-shooting-victim-in-bridgeton-ashamed-of-justice-system/article_ecbc9fca-6981-11e6-86ef-3f46881e7302.html

HBO. (2018). Profile of Sandra Bland, a former Naperville resident who died in police custody in a Texas jail in 2015 [Photograph]. The Chicago Tribune. https://www.chicagotribune.com/suburbs/naperville-sun/ct-nvs-sandra-bland-hbo-st-0727-story.html

Jones, N. N. & Williams, M. F. (2020, June 11). The just use of imagination: A call to action. Teacher Scholar Activist. https://teacher-scholar-activist.org/2020/06/11/a-year-of-activism-perspectives-on-the-2020-u-s-elections-part-5/

Law Offices of John Burris. (2018). Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old transit rider who was shot and killed by BART police on New Year’s Day, 2009 [Photograph]. E. Baldassari & D. Debolt, Mercury News. https://www.mercurynews.com/2018/12/31/10-years-after-oscar-grant-reforms-a-movement-a-family-still-grieves/

Leiderman, S., Potapchuk, M., & Butler, S. (n.d.). The anatomy of white guilt. Racial Equity Tools. Retrieved July 12, 2020 from https://www.racialequitytools.org/resourcefiles/anatomy_white_guilt.pdf

Library of Congress. (2015). Emmett Till [Photograph]. Biography.com. https://www.biography.com/crime-figure/emmett-till

Loopmaniac. (2020, June 10). Tamika Mallory – The Most Powerful Speech of a Generation (No Music) [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kUvGeEQidT0

Mills, C. W. (1997). The racial contract. Cornell UP.

Mother of Aiyana Jones (2013). Aiyana Jones photo from mother Facebook page [Photograph]. D. Bukowski, Voice of Detroit. https://voiceofdetroit.net/2013/06/01/detroit-killer-cop-trial-begins-in-death-of-aiyana-jones-7/aiyana-jones-photo-from-mother-facebook-page/

Negy, Charles [@CharlesNegy]. (2020, June 2). I’ve often said something similar: People who think “whites are the problem” would find if whites suddenly disappeared from earth [Tweet]. Twitter. https://twitter.com/CharlesNegy/status/1267809743885787142.

Nunley, C. (2019, May 3). Hair politics: How discrimination against Black hair in schools impacts Black lives. The Politic. https://thepolitic.org/hair-politics-how-discrimination-against-black-hair-in-schools-impacts-black-lives/.

Olson, R. (2017). Philando Castile [Photograph]. Star Tribune. https://www.startribune.com/5-000-make-that-64-000-raised-for-philando-castile-lunch-fund/444458013/

The CWPA Executive Board and Officers. (2020, June 23). CWPA Statement on Racial Injustice. Council of Writing Program Administrators. http://wpacouncil.org/aws/CWPA/pt/sd/news_article/308259/_PARENT/layout_details/false

U.S. Department of Commerce. (2019, February). Status and Trends in the Education of Racial and Ethnic Groups. National Center for Education Statistics. https://nces.ed.gov/programs/raceindicators/indicator_RDA.asp#info

Villanueva, V. (1999). On the rhetoric and precedents of racism. College Composition and Communication, 50(4), 645-661. doi:10.2307/358485.


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 5

This month’s post, the fifth in Teacher-Scholar-Activist and Spark’s 12-part series “A Year of Activism: Perspectives on the 2020 U.S. Elections,” comes from Natasha N. Jones (Michigan State University) and Miriam F. Williams (Texas State University). In their post, Drs. Jones and Williams describe how Black people have used their imaginations in order to fight injustice and survive in America. The authors call readers to action, challenging us to take inspiration from this tradition and imagine ways that we can dismantle white supremacy. This post also appears on the Association of Teacher of Technical Writing website.

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

The Just Use of Imagination: A Call to Action

by Natasha N. Jones and Miriam F. Williams

“We must reimagine justice.” — Michelle Alexander (June 8, 2020)

Black folk are nothing if not imaginative. We have always employed the use of our imagination as a means of joy, creativity, innovation—and as a way to survive. Despite centuries of oppressions, we have always imagined a better America. From enslavement when we imagined routes to freedom through coded songs and quilts to Juneteenth where we imagined the realization of emancipation; from Black Wall Street where we imagined new ways to do business, build wealth, and support our communities to HBCUs where we nurtured the minds of future generations of imagineers. We’ve imagined it all. We’ve imagined for generations—in gospel, blues, and jazz, and in the poetry and art of the Harlem Renaissance; to civil rights movements where change-makers like Fred Hampton, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Malcolm X shared their visions of a reimagined America forged in the kiln of countless protests and uprisings that were prayerful, peaceful, liberating, violent, terrifying and everything in between. We’ve imagined leaders—from the Black Panthers who developed ways to protect our people, feed our people, and educate our people to Hip Hop and R&B artists that screamed “Fuck the Police” and called for us to get in “Formation.” We’ve imagined and implemented, produced and designed, fought and fled—from Stonewall to Pose, from Ava Duvernay to Assata Shakur. We’ve learned to imagine because we’ve been taught by the brilliance of Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde, and Nikki Giovanni and championed by the formidable intellects of Angela Davis, Patricia Hill Collins, and Michelle Obama, who once said, “For the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback” and also affirmed, “I’ve always loved my country.” From the designers, innovators, from the intellectuals to the quilters and cooks, to the farmers and the Fire Next Time that James Baldwin promised. And, as a child, George Floyd imagined being a Supreme Court Justice, while Breonna Taylor imagined becoming a nurse and buying her first home.

Black people have envisioned it all. We have willed worlds into existence with our words, our songs, and our images. We have always seen a better America. Imagine that.

Despite this imagining, while America perceives itself to be a nation of imaginative thinkers, often the imagining of Black folks is not productively acknowledged, properly amplified, or respectfully appreciated. And while white America tends to focus on the “progress” of this nation through racialized lenses, Black America has had to grapple with the terrors and tragedies that have come out of the white imagination. White Americans have used their imaginations to create illusions that frame genocide, slavery, and Jim Crow as acceptable in service of the myths of the Land of the Free, American exceptionalism, and a great modern democracy. White supremacy and racism is what Toni Morrison calls “a profound neurosis that nobody examines for what it is.” She said, “White people have a very, very serious problem and they should start thinking about what they can do about it. Take me out of it.”

That “it” is an imaginative American illusion that has led us to this moment. In this moment of a 50-state protest against police brutality, a world-wide pandemic, surging unemployment and food insecurity, attacks on our elections from inside and out, and industry’s unwillingness to produce basic supplies for health and safety, it is time for us, for you, to dismantle the illusion, to employ a just use of imagination. 

Jacqueline Jones Royster and Gesa E. Kirsch, feminist scholars and rhetoricians, defined the term “critical imagination” as “an inquiring tool, a mechanism for seeing the noticed and the unnoticed, rethinking what is there and not there, and speculating about what could be there instead” (p. 20). In fact, engaging critical imagination as feminist rhetorical practice, Royster and Kirsch (2012) assert that “such inquiry strategies allow us to engender an ethos of humility, respect, and care (p. 21). In this historic moment, when yet again the collective Black community is called forth to proclaim that our lives matter, that Black Lives Matter, we extend this idea of critical imagination to calls for justice and equality. As such, we call for the just use of imagination. 

The just use of imagination does not solely rebuild and reform. Instead, the just use of imagination simultaneously supports the deconstruction and abolishment of oppressive practices, systems, and institutions. A just use of imagination allows for a rejection of legal, economic, social, political structures that are founded on exploitation, colonization, disenfranchisement, and marginalization. A just use of imagination recognizes that redress and remedy must follow behind a refusal to adhere to the confines and constraints of the status quo and this requires an acknowledgement that oppressive systems and institutions are indeed not broken or faulty, rather that they are working purposefully as designed—in support of white supremacist and racist ideas and ideals. In this way, a just use of imagination is not destructive, even as it seeks to dismantle, because using imagination in this way also calls for the replacement of oppressive practices with systems that are founded on equality, access, and opportunity. What can you imagine? And, how does this use of imagination not only shift perspective, but work to ensure the realization of justice and equality?

The just use of imagination is not just conceptual. It must be enacted. Without this enactment, a re-envisioning is relegated to the realm of fiction and future. The just use of imagination is applicable (in that it must be applied) and employed in our current realities in service of justice and equality RIGHT NOW, not later. John Lennon’s “Imagine” is fine, but a just use of imagination is steeped in reality and action. It is not navel gazing and hand wringing. Remember, Dr. King had a dream, policy initiatives, and plans. It is not decision-making trees and moral reasoning and pretending we don’t know right from wrong. In this way, the just use of imagination is a tool, rather than an ideological stance because it requires active engagement. The just use of imagination is praxis, where theory meets practices in service of re-shaping the lived experiences of marginalized and oppressed peoples. The just use of imagination cannot take up static residence in the heads and hearts of allies and accomplices. The just use of imagination must be transformative. 

To be clear, Black folks have been imagining justice for centuries: imagining our streets without police and police violence; imagining preventative healthcare that is available and affordable to all of us; imagining that gardens replace food deserts; imagining that sustainable consumption replaces consumerism; imagining that the goal of education is inspiration rather than institutionalization; imagining that art and creativity informs our philosophy of life, and imagining that our lived, collective experiences of oppression will be understood as profoundly human, and as such, deserving of liberation, protection, and dignity.  

We are tired. 

Dismantling white supremacy requires your work. How might you make a difference? Just use your imagination.  

Alexander, M. (2020, June 8). America, this is your chance. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/08/opinion/george-floyd-protests-race.html

Royster, J. J. & Kirsch, G. E. (2012). Feminist rhetorical practices: New horizons for rhetoric, composition, and literacy studies. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University.

About the Authors

woman smiling brightlyNatasha N. Jones is a technical communication scholar and a co-author of the book Technical Communication after the Social Justice Turn: Building Coalitions for Action (2019). Her research interests include social justice, narrative, and technical communication pedagogy. Her work has been published in a number of journals including, Technical Communication Quarterly, the Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, the Journal of Business and Technical Communication, and Rhetoric, Professional Communication, and Globalization. She has received national recognition for her work and has been awarded the CCCC Best Article in Technical and Scientific Communication (2014, 2018, and 2020) and the Nell Ann Pickett Award for best article (2017). She currently serves as the Vice President for the Association of Teachers of Technical Writing (ATTW) and is an Associate Professor at Michigan State University in the Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures department.

Mariam Williams headshotMiriam F. Williams is Professor of English and Associate Chair of Texas State University’s Department of English. Her books and articles focus on race, ethnicity, and technical communication; public policy writing, and critical analysis of historical discourse. Her publications include articles in Technical Communication, the Journal of Business and Technical Communication, Technical Communication Quarterly, IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, Programmatic Perspectives, and the Journal of Technical Writing and Communication. Her co-edited book with Dr. Octavio Pimentel, Communicating Race, Ethnicity, and Identity in Technical Communication, received CCCC’s 2016 Best Original Collection of Essays in Scientific and Technical Communication award and her co-authored article with Dr. Natasha Jones won the CCCC’s 2020 Best Article Reporting Historical Research or Textual Studies in Technical award. She is a Fellow of the Association of Teachers of Technical Writing.

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.