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.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Definition Matters: Teaching the Materiality of the Trope Race, Using Barack Obama's, "A More Perfect Union" Speech

Introductory Bio

Professor and Department Chair of English at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Krista Ratcliffe contributes to the CCCC Conversations on Diversity her well-established and award-winning research on the cultural presence and/or absence of women’s voices and on the intersections of gender, race, and whiteness. In Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness, which won the 2007 CCCC Outstanding Book Award, Ratcliffe troubles identifications of gender and whiteness to examine how whiteness functions as an “invisible” racial category. She examines the displacement and neglect of a literacy of listening and identifies the potential of rhetorical listening—a stance of openness—for inviting a more complicated notion of identification. In addition to her contributions through research and teaching, Ratcliffe serves as past president of the Coalition of Women Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition, as a current member of MLA’s Division on Teaching Writing, and of CCCC’s Task Force on Databases.

Blog Entry

I. Race as a Trope
In philosophical and rhetorical studies, Plato tells us that definition matters. Definition is, after all, a crucial step in his dialectic. In critical race studies, Cornel West tells us that race matters. Race Matters is, after all, the title of one of his books. Two key phrases from the previous sentences—definition matters and race matters—each signify in different ways. The slippage (between matters signifying as a noun and verb, between definition and race signifying as adjectives and subjects) demonstrates the communicative facility of language (in all senses of the word facility). Whatever the author’s intent, the possibilities for audience receptions are always multiple. This possibility and dilemma is at the heart of rhetorical studies. Given this multiplicity, it is fair to say that all words function as tropes, i.e., signifying differently to different people in different times and in different places even as cultural logics do offer possibilities for common interpretations.

By that logic, race is a trope.
But that claim sets some people’s teeth on edge.

There is a fear that, if race is discussed as a trope, then the discussion of race will focus only on language and discourse; by extension, there is a fear that bodies and cultures will be erased, both metaphorically and literally.

Is that fear legitimate?
Yes … sometimes.
But not always.

Does discussing race as the trope race always succeed? Of course not. No rhetorical tactic always succeeds, and success is always measured in terms of degree. Yet given this caveat, I want to relay how I used the tactic of discussing race as race in an undergraduate rhetorical theory course this past spring when we studied Senator Barack Obama’s “A More Perfect Union.”

My purpose here is to invite a discussion of the pro’s and con’s of discussing how the study of tropes, particularly the study of race as race, may be used as an antiracist pedagogical project.

II. The Class and In-Class Activity
First, a bit of context. Last semester in my undergraduate rhetorical theory course, composed mostly of juniors and seniors, the students and I began our study of rhetoric by reading excerpts from Aristotle’s Rhetoric and Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, the purpose being to identify definitions and tactics of rhetoric. Then we studied five different units: political rhetorics, cultural rhetorics, literary rhetorics, visual rhetorics, and pedagogical rhetorics.[1] On the last day of class, I asked students to practice listening rhetorically to an excerpt from Senator Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech, which we first watched on the web and then read from a printed handout.

The in-class assignment was for students to get into pairs to discuss the first of the following questions:

(1) What are the assumed definitions of race in this speech?
(2) What importance is ascribed to race in this speech (for people/cultures)?
(3) How does whiteness function in this speech?
(4) How useful is this speech for spurring a conversation about race?

My plan was that we could then pull back together as a class to discuss the pairs’ findings on question one and then discuss the other three questions.

The excerpt from Senator Obama’s speech, which we watched and read, is as follows:

This was one of the tasks we set forth at the beginning of this campaign--to
continue the long march of those who came before us, a march for a more just,
more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous America. I chose to
run for the presidency at this moment in history because I believe deeply that
we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together –unless
we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we
hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from
the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction—towards a better
future for of children and our grandchildren. This belief comes from my
unyielding faith in the decency and generosity of the American people. But
it also comes from my own American story.

I am the son of a black
man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. I was raised with the help of a
white grandfather who survived a Depression to serve in Patton's Army during
World War II and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line at
Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas. I've gone to some of the best schools in
America and lived in one of the world's poorest nations. I am married to a black
American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slaveowners—an
inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters. I have brothers,
sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue,
scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never
forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even

It's a story that hasn't made me the most conventional
candidate. But it is a story that has seared into my genetic makeup the idea
that this nation is more than the sum of its parts-- that out of many, we are
truly one.

Throughout the first year of this campaign, against all
predictions to the contrary, we saw how hungry the American people were for this
message of unity. Despite the temptation to view my candidacy through a
purely racial lens, we won commanding victories in states with some of the
whitest populations in the country. In South Carolina, where the
Confederate Flag still flies, we built a powerful coalition of African Americans
and white Americans.

This is not to say that race has not been an
issue in the campaign. At various stages in the campaign, some commentators have
deemed me either “too black” or “not black enough.” We saw racial tensions
bubble to the surface during the week before the South Carolina primary. The
press has scoured every exit poll for the latest evidence of racial
polarization, not just in terms of white and black, but black and brown as

And yet, it has only been in the last couple of weeks that
the discussion of race in this campaign has taken a particularly divisive

As sometimes happens in my teaching, my plan was scrapped because the students and I spent most of the time allotted to this activity discussing just one question: “What are the assumed definitions of race in this speech?” That fact got me to thinking again about the importance of definition.

III. The Class Discussion
Once the pairs had finished their work, I asked students, first, to share passages they had identified where definitions of race were stated or implied and, second, to share what they thought were the assumed definitions of those passages. Students were asked to avoid jumping to conclusions about whether or not they agreed with the definitions; they were simply to define and classify. Here are some of their—and my—responses.

In Senator Obama’s speech, definitions of race are either stated or implied in terms of:

(1) color (“black man,”“white woman” … family “of every race and hue”)
(2) geographic location (“Kenya,” “Kansas” … “three continents”)
(3) historical location (WWII … today)
(4) economic location (Depression, factory … fundraising presidential race)
(5) ancestry (African Americans descended from “slaves and slaveowners,” whites with
no acknowledged African ancestry …Americans of African and white ancestry)
(6) biology (“genetic makeup”)
(7) a story (“in no other country on Earth is my story even possible”)
(8) the only facet of identity (“too black” or “not black enough”)
(9) only one facet of identity (“Despite the temptation to view my candidacy through a
purely racial lens”)
(10) inflections in national symbols (Confederate Flag)
(11) cultural tension (“the press has scoured every exit poll for the latest evidence of racial
polarization” … “it has only been in the last couple of weeks the discussion of race in this
campaign has taken a particularly divisive turn”)
(12) more than a black/white binary opposition (“not just in terms of white and black,
but black and brown as well”)
(13) subordinate to idea-based coalitions (“we built a powerful coalition of African Americans
and white Americans”)
(14) hope (“I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve
them together”)

Once the students and I identified some of the above definitions, we discussed some implications. We concluded that if six paragraphs can generate so many different definitions of race, then that partly explained why it is so hard to talk about race in the U.S. For example, if Cornel West says “race matters,” assuming #13, and then reader person says, “yes,” assuming #11, then they have just honestly and unknowingly “agreed” on two different things. Disagreements can, likewise, cross definitions.

IV. Pedagogical Implications

This multiplicity of definitions evidences a U.S. racial discourse that (conveniently for the power structure of the status quo) obfuscates communication about race—about how it is inflected by history, economics, ancestry, biology, gender, etc.; about how it is a constructed category (a trope) originally perpetuated in the U.S. via myopic religion and false science to bolster a mostly non-white labor force as well as a mostly white ownership class; and about how it has subsequently had material consequences—both positive and negative—for the bodies and souls of real people, whether marked as “black,”“brown,”“yellow,”“red,”“white” or some combinations thereof. Throughout U.S. history, material bodies have been racially troped and, consequently, racial tropes have been embodied. In this way, tropes work not only so that they have material consequences for real people’s bodies but also so that, in the process of embodiment, they are made material (in common and different ways). And over time and place, this chicken-and-egg cycle continues.

So with this claim, I arrive back where I began. A discussion of race via the trope race begs a discussion not simply of language but of bodies and cultures as well as how all three are implicated in one another in particular ways in particular times and places. And extending this discussion of race to a discussion of whiteness-as-a-racial-category, then the trope of whiteness also begs a discussion not simply of language but of bodies and cultures as well as how all three are implicated in one another in particular ways in particular times and places. Whiteness is not the same thing as a body coded as white. Whiteness is a trope that signifies actions, attitudes, and (yes) certain bodies (that are coded as white). But bodies coded as white may or may not perpetuate actions and attitudes coded as white; likewise, bodies coded as non-white may or may not perpetuate actions and attitudes coded as white. Whiteness is a trope that may be performed by language, bodies, and cultures, either ignorantly or knowingly; and depending on the definitions associated with whiteness at a particular time or place, a performance of whiteness may be racist or anti-racist. The same is true of many other tropes.

Such discussions, I believe, serve pedagogical antiracist projects because they distance students from immediately jumping to personal claims/accusations of blame, guilt, denial, and/or defensiveness that often shut down discussions of race in the U.S. because we too often tend either to be silent or to argue past (not with) one another. Such distance, I believe, slows students down and asks them to listen to how race and whiteness signify structurally within the U.S. Once these structural significations are established as existing (the first level of stasis), then students can move to discussions of naming, valuing, and taking action (the second through fourth levels of stasis), only then coming (without the possibility of denial) to a reflection on race and whiteness in terms of how the structural affects the personal … and how the personal affects the structural.

[1] For a copy of my syllabus, cf.

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