Thursday, June 26, 2008

Rhetorics of Survivance: "Recovery" Work for American Indian Writing

Introductory Bio
Malea Powell is a mixed-blood of Indiana Miami, Eastern Shawnee, and Euroamerican ancestry. She is an Associate Professor of Writing, Rhetoric and American Culture at Michigan State University where she directs the Rhetoric & Writing program and serves as a faculty member in the American Indian Studies program. Her research on examining the rhetorics of survivance used by 19th century American Indian intellectuals has been published widely. Her current scholarly project focuses on American Indian material rhetorics and the degree to which such everyday arts tie tradition and innovation in the cultural practices of contemporary Native women. She is at work on a book manuscript, Rhetorical Powwows, that ties her historical and material scholarship together. Powell was, for seven years, editor of SAIL: Studies in American Indian Literatures (a quarterly journal devoted to the study of American Indian writing), for which she twice won the Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers “Writer of the Year” award for scholarly editing, and she was just appointed the Associate National Director of the Wordcraft Circle. She is also the lead editor for a textbook, Of Color: Teaching Literatures of Color Rhetorically (Prentice Hall/Pearson). In her spare time, she serves on the Advisory Board of the National Center for Great Lakes Native American Cultures, Inc. in Portland, Indiana and writes romance novels.

Blog Entry
How do you address the topic of "diversity" in your scholarship, teaching, and service?

For me, diversity isn’t a “topic” at all. The behaviors that our discipline frequently categorizes as “attention to diversity” are part of every classroom already, are part of every scholarly audience already, are part of every university and every community we enter already. So the way I know to respond to questions like this is to say that my main goal as a scholar, teacher, mentor, and colleague is to change the way that knowledge by, about, and for American Indians is produced, distributed, taught, and received. In order to do that, I know that I have to make Universities safe and productive spaces for all folks who have not traditionally been advantaged by American academies – folks of color, women, queer folks, otherly-abled folks – because our scholarly fortunes are deeply connected.

While most of my scholarly work has been firmly centered in Rhetoric Studies, my commitment to American Indian intellectual production requires that I also substantially in the American Indian Studies community, both local and national. As editor of Studies in American Indian Literatures for 7 years (SAIL is the only journal in the United States that focuses specifically on writings produced by Native peoples, and as a well-known scholar in the discipline of Rhetoric & Composition), and now as the Associate National Director of the Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers, I have both the responsibility and the opportunity to mentor dozens of Native scholars (and non-Native scholars of Native writing) across a wide array of disciplinary and institutional arrangements. Both of these are positions that might be conventionally seen as “service” but that, done well, also require substantial intellectual investment and innovation. Deciding to take these positions wasn’t about elevating my own scholarly profile – it was about elevating the profile of entire fields of study and practice. It’s important to me that my work in academia always point to something larger than myself – to wider communities and practices who need to be noticed.

In terms of my own scholarship (and that phrase always seems awkward and more than a little selfish to me), much of my published work is rooted in a large, wide-ranging archival project called Rhetorical Powwows: American Indians Writing/Making Survivance. The project is focused on two things: first, a critical understanding of the way in which mainstream scholars have theorized “the Indian” for the past 150 years, and on the rhetorically sophisticated ways in which Native writers, intellectuals, activists and artists have responded to those constructions. This is the archival, textual piece of the project where I read the writings of the Native intellectuals rhetorically, listening for their use of popular nineteenth century notions about “the Indian,” and listening for the ways in which they reimagine what it means to be Native after centuries of colonization, genocide, and assimilation. It is that reimagining that I mark as “survivance,” and the tactics through which they enact that reimagining as “rhetorics of survivance.” This piece of the project is the most conventional in that it fits well with the current way that scholars in Rhetoric Studies have traditionally conceived of what it means to “do” rhetorical history. The second piece of the project radically challenges those traditional notions by investigating parallel rhetorical practices engaged in my Native “makers” – basketmakers, beadworkers, quillworkers, etc. – and understanding those practices as part of the same rhetorical and intellectual traditions begin enacted in print.

There are two significant things about this scholarly project in relation to the prompt for this blog:

First, it provides important “recovery” work for American Indian writing in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century and important critical intellectual work to situate that writing. It also provides important new ways to think about American Indian material production as a rhetorical act. So it complies with scholarly traditions in the discipline then challenges those traditions and provides innovative interventions into conventional practices.

Second, while I have worked consistently on this critical project over the past decade, my decision to postpone the seemingly logical outcome of such research – a single-authored critical book – was purposeful, the result of a series of decisions I made to be a different kind of scholar, one who studied and participated in the project of American Indian survivance by creating a space where American Indian Studies and Rhetoric Studies can both grow.

I believe the accumulated result of my intellectual and “service” contributions to date has been, ultimately, larger than the contribution I might have made had I published even an important single-authored monograph in one of my chosen disciplines – Rhetoric Studies or American Indian Studies. In fact, I’d say that the kind of book I’m writing now wouldn’t have been possible without the past 10 years of working otherwise.

Additionally, I believe that a serious commitment to engaged and innovative teaching is an integral component of my responsibilities as a scholar of color. I’ve taught a wide range of courses – from first year writing to graduate courses in Rhetoric, American Studies & American Indian Studies. I take each course assignment seriously as a rhetorical and scholarly challenge. One of the ways in which I structure all of the courses that I teach is to focus on critical engagement with texts through historically informed and culturally situated rhetorical reading strategies. I think it’s deeply important that students in all of my classrooms understand that history and culture matter so I use a variety of strategies to gently insist that students attend to the connections between past and present, and that they extend their rhetorical investigations significantly beyond the edges of the text – to go beyond “what happened in this text and what does it mean?” to considerations of how the text makes meaning and what consequences that meaning has in the lives of people who live a multitude of realities. It’s true, I tend to have a lot of students of color enrolled in my classes, but I have a lot of “white” students as well. One thing I know from a long career of teaching is that the kinds of supports, strategies, and interventions that work especially well for students of color almost always work especially well for all students.

An extension of my commitment to classroom teaching is the amount of time I spend recruiting, supporting and mentoring graduate student. Because I already cast my role in the graduate classroom as that of a rhetorically experienced colleague, and because those classrooms are informed by my understanding that learning is a process of constant negotiation and resituating, my mentoring work necessarily extends that understanding to foster graduate student engagement with their discipline/field and their institution as cultural texts that can be situated, negotiated, revised and analyzed. And because I have high expectations for the level at which graduate students engage with these varied texts, I also take a good deal of time to simply know, support, and socialize with the students I work with. The academy can be a difficult place for many graduate students, especially for women and students of color. I ended up in the academy because of the support and encouragement of my family, my teachers, and my elders; I see it as my responsibility to them to extend the same level of support and encouragement to others.

In fact, if there’s one constant in that way I approach my scholarship, teaching and service, it’s the understanding that none of us gets “here” (no matter how that “here” is defined) by ourselves. Meritocracy is a myth – we all stand on the shoulders of others. The key is realizing where we’ve been helped, where we may have unfairly taken advantage, and how to be responsible for those who made our lives “here” possible. For me that means extending support (sometimes more support than I actually received) to the folks around me – both students and colleagues – in a generous way. It may sound corny, but I try to live as a scholar/teacher by treating folks in the way I’d like to be treated. I don’t always live up to that ideal but I do try, and I do judge my actions by it. And I do try to arrange my life as an intellectual in a way that both honors my elders and enables a better future for Native peoples.

So I guess my answer to the prompt is that there’s no “trick” for “adding” diversity to any part of our lives as scholars & teachers – honoring diversity is a way of life.


Ms. Kimberly Thomas said...

Those of us in composition and rhetoric understand the importance of diversity in teaching, scholarship, and research. The viewpoints of women and scholars of color are welcomed and appreciated in our field and there is no problem with a scholar's need to identify him/herself in terms of cultural/ethnic identity. In terms of situatedness, that is a part of our 'voice' which allows us to give back to the professoriate, mentor others, and receive support. As much as diversity is welcomed and appreciated in our field, I see a 'strange' turn to the elimination or flattening of diversity in favor of "unity." I was online at the website this evening and I came across a nonfiction forum with a thread that asked the question, "Should all Americans 'drop the dash' and remove ethnic prefixes to our nationality?' To me it seems natural to identify oneself as Native American. However, I wonder about this movement to 'drop the dash/hyphen', and other movements that challenge diversity. Will we one day have to face students who--already resisting 'race'--will also vote in favor of "unity" over "diversity" and deny, abandon or resist cultural identity markers? How would this affect our teaching, scholarship, and research, and how diversity is played out in our classrooms?

Asao B. Inoue said...


If we take Malea at face value, which I think we can on this, then I think she'd say we probably must resist this turn to unity, as you say. It sounds like dropping the dash before we've actually achieved any kind of unification culturally, politically, ideologically, means we are really trying to ignore history and the materiality of people in favor of a vision (like the "vision" that Edward Said talks about in _Orientialism_) that projects hopes of equality and union without much chance at actually building those things first. To me, this is rhetoric of diversity itself what those who can afford to call us all the same do so since it does not harm them, but makes them feel better about their positions on the racial landscape and ignore inequality.

Asao B. Inoue
CSU, Fresno

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