By Cheri Lemieux Spiegel
“I never wanted to disturb the peace
But it feels like no one’s listening
Are we talking to ourselves?
Are we just talking to ourselves?”
-Rise Against (“Talking to Ourselves”)
I stood before my mirror last week in a t-shirt many in our field have donned in solidarity. Across my chest read: Feminist Fight Club, Rhet/Comp Chapter. A raised fist symbol rests between the words “fight” and “club.”
The closed hand is a symbol I have written about before, even once on this very blog. My dissertation – a working theory of guerrilla rhetoric –considered Geoffrey Sirc’s suggestion that we add a “rhetoric of the middle finger” to Corbett’s paradigm of open hand and closed fist (a term I now read as redundant, thanks Dreyer’s English) rhetoric.
As Asao Inoue called to boycott the Council of Writing Program Administrators he too evoked the rhetoric of the raised fist by way of his inclusion of the now-iconic image of Tommie Smith and John Carlos from the 1968 Summer Olympics. However, Inoue also evoked a different image of the hand that I would like to meditate upon further today. Allow me to quote his passage at some length:
So I say this next thing with my hand on my heart and my head down and with great love and compassion in my words not just for them but for those we all say we want to help in our writing classes and writing programs: I know from these kinds of experiences that unfortunately our words of support, especially from White allies, are pretty cheap. Words of support really do not protect people of color doing antiracist work unless they make commitments and are backed by actions, such as boycotting the CWPA until they change. I don’t mind the words of support, but I’d rather see actions in support. Speak with your feet and body, not just your mouth.
Inoue opens his hand, not to extend it to those in our community, but to place it upon his own heart. This gesture is one that has become commonplace in my life since COVID-19 moved a majority of daily connections into video conferencing platforms.
As the co-founder of This Most Unbelievable Life, LLC, I’ve spent the last year with my collaborator Paul Fitzgerald facilitating meditation groups and book studies within the Zoom platform. The work in those groups often gives space for individuals to tap into deep joy as well as heartfelt sorrow. Even across the Zoom platform, those in our community often feel deeply alongside one another. In a space where the offer of a reassuring hug or a gentle hand upon another’s shoulder is not possible, we offer instead, an open hand, placed in solidarity upon our chest.
For me, as I echo the gesture back to those who express it to me, I feel a resonance in my chest. I am made aware of my human heart. I notice what’s going on within me and I am reminded that across time and space, another human heart beats and is attempting to find resonance with me.
With this in mind, I must ask: have you read Inoue’s words with an open hand? With a closed fist? Would you consider doing so – right now – with an open hand placed, to connect with his across time and space, upon your own beating heart?
What might our field become if we were to take up a call for open-hearted rhetoric?
I know many in our community felt deeply when they read Inoue’s blog. Good. Let us all get in touch with those feelings. Place your own hand, open, upon your beating heart. Do you feel anger? Okay. That’s anger. Who among us doesn’t know anger? Do you feel deep sorrow? Okay. Many of us know sorrow. Do you feel defensiveness? Okay. Name that. We know defensiveness. Do you feel anxiety? Ah, anxiety. We in writing programs seem to know that one well, don’t we?
Get in touch with your own feelings. Own those feelings. You, dear listener, are the only one responsible for your feelings. Feelings are reflections of needs met or unmet. Identify the needs in you that contribute to those feelings. Identify the strategies you currently use to meet those needs.
And then, come back to Inoue’s request. Not with your closed fist. Not with the glad-handing, rhetorics of “polite” that help both white supremacy and misogyny to thrive. Instead, with an open heart.
Why am I asking for you to join me in reading Inoue’s work with your hand upon your chest? Why today?
Well, let’s go back last week: to me standing in front of my mirror seeing a woman in a Feminist Fight Club t-shirt.
I was preparing to go meet Mariah Salazar, a student of mine. Mariah is an English major at Northern Virginia Community College where I have taught since 2006. Although she has taken two classes with me, it was the first time we met in person because of the pandemic. And what she didn’t know at the time is that she walked alongside me as I began navigating my teaching life from an entirely new perspective. What she didn’t know is that I taught this year not from the place of the most recent hot topics in writing studies, but from my heart and from the texts and topics that originally brought me to this field.
What I rediscovered was the social justice mission that drew me to the field and which got watered down as I grew into the prescriptive “best practices” of writing program administration. While I had once come to this field awakened by the ways that prescriptive grammar and languaging norms had corrupted my own sense of self and constricted members of my home community, I now found myself within a community that gave lip-service to our rights to our own language, while prescribing now – not how written language “ought” to be, but instead how writing programs “ought” to be. We just shifted our desire to control, oppress, and shame to a new context. No longer the guardians of good grammar; we are now the gatekeepers of good programs.
The very document that sparked the boycott of CWPA was The WPA Outcomes Statement. While I have not seen the Taskforce’s revision of the document, I know the current version well. Version 3.0 does not prescribe methods for achieving the outcomes. The tool was written in an attempt to be descriptive. The authors frame it this way – allow us to hear their intentions too with open hands upon our hearts:
This Statement identifies outcomes for first-year composition programs in U.S. postsecondary education. It describes the writing knowledge, practices, and attitudes that undergraduate students develop in first-year composition, which at most schools is a required general education course or sequence of courses. This Statement, therefore, attempts to both represent and regularize writing programs’ priorities for first-year composition, which often takes the form of one or more required general education courses. To this end, it is not merely a compilation or summary of what currently takes place. Rather, this Statement articulates what composition teachers nationwide have learned from practice, research, and theory. It intentionally defines only “outcomes,” or types of results, and not “standards,” or precise levels of achievement. The setting of standards to measure students’ achievement of these Outcomes has deliberately been left to local writing programs and their institutions.
As empathetic readers, I would like us to hear the authors positioning this statement as a descriptive document, not a prescriptive one. I also hear an emphasis on regularizing over standardization. I hear an emphasis on the need for local conditions to frame how achievement is determined. In many ways, we can hear the lessons of prescriptive/descriptive grammar echoed in the careful word choices in this document.
However, my lived experiences suggest that this document is not always used in this manner. Many of us have accepted, if not been taught, that these things reflect what “good” writing programs do. The fact is that the outcomes are prescribed even if the strategies for meeting them are not. These outcomes were not recognized or accepted readily by all members of the field. Many of us had to advocate for the adoption of these outcomes and to persuade others in our departments that these were in keeping with the best practices of the field.
I have met many WPAs over the years who speak with shame at how the lived reality of their program does not reflect the outcomes statement. Class sizes are too big. Literature places too centrally in the program. Faculty and/or administrators do not have credentials in writing studies. Grammar plays too much of a role. Their faculty labor conditions are exploitive. They believe or have learned things about writing instruction they could never say aloud in a department meeting at home.
As I speak with WPAs I am struck by how many must be excellent code-switchers. They must speak the language of writing studies while in our shared spaces and then go home and speak the language of their home community – one that might be driven by the ethos of neo-liberal logics or agnostic to the current trends in writing studies. I’m reminded of how, as a first-generation college student, I had to learn the language of my upper-middle-class peers and professors to speak while I was at the university and then remember not to speak like I was “too big for my britches” when I returned home.
I experienced this same tension when I served as a departmental administrator at my community college. I was both recognized as a WPA at national conferences and told by administrators at my college that my institution could never have a WPA. I have proposed a formal writing program four times during my time at my college and I have been unsuccessful each time. I have never submitted my program for the CCCC Certificate of Excellence because the criteria are constructed to award not innovation but adherence to the conventional wisdom of what counts for excellence in writing program administration. What counts as excellence, it seems to me, is reflective of programmatic realities at R1 institutions or other highly selective or exclusive programs.
When I got quiet, hand on chest, and asked: what is happening here? Why am I not being successful? I learned something powerful: I had, for the better part of a decade, asked my community college writing program to conform to the prescribed values of the elite, rather than coming with curiosity and compassion about the labor of my community.
When I came to my program with curiosity, I learned it was time to step down from my place as an administrator, to pause in my attempts to build a writing program and to humbly admit the violence of my own certainty.
I began my teaching in Fall 2020 from that place. I went into the classroom uncertain of the WPA Outcomes statement. I decided instead to place the eight habits of mind from “The Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing” at the center of my teaching. And I started having deep conversations about what it means to teach and learn at my community college, not with my writing studies community or my English colleagues, but with art professors, librarians, and my aforementioned collaborator, Paul Fitzgerald, who is a biology professor and a certified meditation teacher.
What does all this have to do with me preparing to meet Mariah? Well, as I looked at my Feminist Fight Club t-shirt, I thought about what kind of field I want to welcome her into. She came to college as an English major and someone who wanted to step away from an emphasis on grades and focus on authentic learning. I admire that. She is also an excellent writer and researcher. Seth Kahn, who she interviewed for her final project this spring, noted she was also an excellent interviewer. She will thrive in whatever branch of English Studies she decides to call home. Like many students who come to college as English majors, her primary exposure to English Studies from high school and before was through the lens of Literature and Creative Writing. I suspect I might have been the first person she met from writing studies. Through the course of her first-semester class, she was introduced to the writing of Paul Heilker, Jacob Babb, and Elizabeth Wardle. I did not teach a “Writing about Writing” course, but I did pull in texts from the field as I deemed them appropriate to how our conversations unfolded.
Mariah’s final research paper for our first semester together looked at her attempt to find herself, a Latina woman, reflected in her field. She began this inquiry by looking at the literary landscape and discussing how literature written and enjoyed by young women (particularly the Twilight series) is disparaged. She explored how English is perceived as a “women’s major” despite the fact that the literary canon continues to predominately feature male writers alongside just a select number of women, a majority of whom are white. She opens this essay with these words, which I hope you’ll pause and read with hand on heart:
“To enter into the academic field of English as a woman, no less a woman of color, is to accept that you will receive contradicting criticism. In my short time experiencing this career choice I have both been told that I chose English because it is an easy woman’s major and that a career in the English field would be a waste of my intelligence and potential. But I have also been made to feel that my gender and upbringing make me less qualified than my counterparts.”
She gave this essay the following title, which has stayed with me: “Where is her voice in her field?”
Paul Heilker. Jacob Babb. Elizabeth Wardle.
(White) Male writers alongside a select woman, who we might note is also white.
In this same class, I featured a panel of writing studies scholars. I decided to put this panel together at the last minute, so it featured dear friends of mine – the kind of people who will show up for me with few questions asked, even though I often am a last-minute planner.
So my panel, which discussed students’ rights to their own language and linguistic justice featured…
Mark Blaauw-Hara, Darin Jensen, and Kaitlin Clinnin.
(White) Male writers alongside a select woman, who we might note is also white.
Where is Mariah’s voice in her field?
Since I was first introduced to the term “anti-racist” I have struggled with how to realize an anti-racist agenda within my pedagogy. One white colleague at my institution is recognized amongst us for teaching minority voices; he does so primarily by teaching male hip-hop artists. I believe the issue begins with but does not end with, who we assign. Over the last few years, I have led a few book groups on anti-racism. I’ve been struck by the fact that I seem to only teach within majority-white communities when I am teaching about anti-racism. My classrooms are minority-majority while my English department is majority white, credentialed at majority-white institutions, I suspect by majority-white professors. I have three degrees in English and I have only twice been taught by a person of color in a university setting. I have never had a Latine teacher or professor in any subject. What I would learn upon meeting up with Mariah last week is that she has never met a Latine teacher of English. She noted that the only teachers of Hispanic or Latine descent that she’s known have all been teachers of Spanish, a subject she stopped taking in the United States school system because of the way Latin-American versions of Spanish are portrayed within standardized curricula.
Where is her voice in her field?
As I looked at my Feminist Fight Club shirt, I thought about experiences of sexism, mansplaining, sexual harassment that I’ve experienced in the field and navigated with dear ones in our discipline. I recalled the exchange on the WPA-L that led to the creation of that very shirt and which Michelle LaFrance has discussed in “Failure to Wake? What #WPAlistservefeministrevolution Tells Us about a ‘Feminist’ Writing Studies.”
But why stop there? I could also recall the narratives from Kristi Cole and Holly Hassel’s Surviving Sexism in Academia: Strategies for Feminist Leadership and those in Cristyn L. Elder and Bethany Davila’s Defining, Locating and Addressing Bullying in the WPA Workplace. More recently, I could turn to Amy E. Robillard’s “From Isolated Stories to a Collective: Speaking Out About Misogyny in English Departments” which was published just days before Inoue posted his call to boycott CWPA.
As I saw that shirt reflected back at me in the mirror, I couldn’t help but ask myself: Is this a field I want to bring Mariah into? Is this a field that I can stand tall and proud to represent? Is this a field where I know humans are treated with the care they deserve as fellow beings on this earth?
All I know is this: I didn’t wear the shirt. And we have work to do.
When I left Asao Inoue’s plenary talk at CWPA in 2016, I did so with a strong sense that who recruited to our field, from within our first-year writing programs, would be the strongest determiner of the future inclusivity of writing studies. I went away with the charge to examine who I mentored and how I encouraged students to imagine how their voice might add to the field I loved.
Can I, in good faith, recommend this field to the students entrusted to me?
We are trained in a rhetorical tradition that was built by patriarchy and white supremacy. Our institutions, our writing programs, and our language are all infected by the tools of these creations. It is with love and great respect for all who built our field that I say: it is time to let the old ways die. The organizations, publications, and disciplines we have built and served will never love us back. Fields do not deserve our love, but humans do.
Lakoff and Johnson pointed out some time ago that our language is deeply steeped in metaphors of war. Indeed, my own dissertation research explored the ways that guerrilla warfare principles might be removed from the battlefield and used as a foundation for theorizing about how disenfranchised groups might use guerrilla communication tactics to address the needs of their communities. The field of writing studies has long approached communication from a place of assumed antagonism – where there are causes to fight for and wars to wage. What if, dear friends, everything isn’t an argument?
The prevalence of war and conflict-oriented lenses reminds me of Mary Rose O’Reilley’s inquiry from 1993: “is it possible to teach English so that people stop killing each other?” Lest we forget, O’Reilley first heard that question when it was posed to her in a teaching workshop in 1967. War and violence are pervasive and persistent in human history. Although we might claim to believe they are the last resort – strategies to be taken when civil communication falls short – inside our classrooms and disciplinary discourse, these metaphors drive discussion and often our ways of relating to ourselves, to one another, and to our craft itself.
Although not specific to writing studies, in Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert speaks to the violence that I suspect many of us have grown accustomed to accepting as normal in the writing life, for example: “[our] relationship with [our] work is often emotionally violent. You want to make something? You are told to open up a vein and bleed. Time to edit your work? You are instructed to kill your darlings. Ask a writer how [their] book is going, and [they] might say, ‘I finally broke its spine last week.’ And that’s if [they] had a good week.” Can we language without violence? Can we language about languaging without violence?
We in writing studies have not only failed to fully answer O’Reilley’s call for the peaceable classroom, but we have also failed to build a peaceable discipline. We also contribute to the problem through our behavior with one another. What would a field (re)built on the priority of community good, equity, and inclusion really look like?
I’ll admit, I do not know exactly. However, to return to my moment of reflection from before the mirror, for me it begins with quitting fight club. I feel called to step away from metaphors of violence. I feel this calling not because I am no longer angry. I’m mad as hell. I feel anger coursing through me on most days. I do not anticipate it will leave me soon. And I am okay with that. My anger is instructive.
However, I often regret allowing my anger to drive me toward mere reaction, rather than responsive action. When I notice anger and allow myself to pause and enter a period of reflection, I often see both myself and my context anew. Anger points to needs unmet, but it takes time to learn and strategize about how one might have their needs met without infringing upon the needs of others. I believe this is the greatest need within our field today: we need processes that allow us to understand and articulate personal and professional needs. We need those processes to not prescribe rigid strategies that attend only to the needs of the most privileged in our midst. We might do well also to carefully and honestly examine our tendencies to lead with judgment and evaluation. How often do we comment on the strategies those in our midst use to articulate their needs, rather than openly doing our part to hear the very human needs that drive the strategies we observe?
Reaction, defensiveness, judgment, and evaluation have been my ways of navigating the world for quite some time. In some contexts, they were nothing less than survival skills. Now, I am beginning to discover and explore an alternative way of being in the world through language. I have recently begun, as the recipient of the Loser-Savkar Fellowship, a formal study of the teachings of Nonviolent Communication (NVC), the principles of O’Reilley, and peacebuilding theory more generally.
One thing that has struck me as I have begun this pursuit is that teachers of NVC are clear that there are times when individuals must abandon the principles of NVC: when circumstances truly are matter of life and death. If someone’s safety is truly called into question, survival must be the focus. Please hear me, friends: people are dying. Human life is being lost in service of patriarchy, white supremacy, heteronormativity, and insular constructions of gender.
With hand-to-heart, take a look around you. In this moment, are you safe? Is your life, in this moment, in jeopardy? If you are not safe, please, make that your priority. Your safety and survival are of utmost importance. However, if you, in this moment, are safe – however you personally define that – then you have been given the privilege to listen and learn from your fellow humans on this earth. Those who speak out in ways you might diagnosis as aggressive, rude, dismissive, unseemly or otherwise other, are articulating needs. What are those human needs? Can you hear the unmet need in the voices you dismiss or diagnose as problematic? Can you hear the unmet need in you that calls you to dismiss and diagnose those you encounter?
What will it cost us to listen to our needs first and then to authentically seek connection with one another? I am willing to own my privilege and imperfection and allow the latter rather than the former to be my teacher. I am prepared to examine my syllabi, course materials, and participation within and beyond the field with an openness to better understanding how violence manifests within me and the way I navigate language. I hope to use Nonviolent Communication principles to re-see my teaching, my way of being within my institution, and my place in writing studies writ large.
With hand to heart, I ask: will you join me?
I would like to thank Mariah Salazar for her willingness to read and offer comment on this piece as it emerged. I would also like to thank Kaitlin Clinnin, Mark Blaauw-Hara, and Darin Jensen for helping me, time after time, find my own voice in my field.
Cheri Lemieux Spiegel is Professor of English at Northern Virginia Community College’s Annandale Campus and the 2021-2022 recipient of the Loser-Savkar Fellowship. During her time at the college, she has held multiple leadership roles including Technology Application Center Faculty Mentor, Campus-Lead for Achieving the Dream, and Assistant Dean of Composition. However, her first love, as someone who may forever identify first as a teacher, will always be the classroom. Her doctoral research proposed and revised a theory of guerrilla rhetoric that was based upon the premise that guerrilla practice might be removed from the battlefield and used in the operations of nonviolent groups who struggle against the limitations of their conditions. Her degrees and her position at the college continue to enrich her life-long fascination with language, the power of words, and the way communication informs how we come to this shared existence we call life. She is a former member of the Council of Writing Program Administrators Executive Board, the advisory board for the Coalition of Feminist Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition, and the advisory board for WPA: Writing Program Administration. She was guest co-editor of a special issue of the journal (Summer 2020) focused on two-year college writing programs. Her work has appeared in Teaching English in the Two-Year College, Computers and Composition Online, and Basic Writing eJournal. In addition to her academic life, Spiegel is co-founder of This Most Unbelievable Life, LLC and co-host of the This Most Unbelievable Life Podcast.