A Letter to Lisa Ede: Thank You for a Life of Listening
Author(s): Asao B. Inoue
Asao B. Inoue is Professor of Rhetoric and Composition in the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts at Arizona State University. He is the 2019 Chair of the Conference on College Composition and Communication. Among his many articles and chapters on writing assessment, race, and racism, his article, “Theorizing Failure in U.S. Writing Assessments” in Research in the Teaching of English, won the 2014 CWPA Outstanding Scholarship Award. His co-edited collection, Race and Writing Assessment (2012), won the 2014 NCTE/CCCC Outstanding Book Award for an edited collection. His book, Antiracist Writing Assessment Ecologies: Teaching and Assessing for a Socially Just Future (2015) won the 2017 NCTE/CCCC Outstanding Book Award for a monograph and the 2015 CWPA Outstanding Book Award. He also has published a co-edited collection, Writing Assessment, Social Justice, and The Advancement of Opportunity (2018), and a book, Labor-Based Grading Contracts: Building Equity and Inclusion in the Compassionate Writing Classroom (2019). His latest book, Above the Well: An Antiracist Argument from A Boy of Color (2021) is available through WAC Clearinghouse and Utah State University Press. Additionally, he and his wife initiated the Asao and Kelly Inoue Antiracist Teaching Endowment at their alma mater, Oregon State University, which supports antiracist teaching and research by funding a conference and various scholarships for secondary and post-secondary teachers.Tags: in memoriam, listening, memorial, mentorship
I know it may seem odd or a belated gesture to write a letter to you after you’ve died, but it’s the only way I know how to express my feelings. You are my real audience, or the one I wish not simply to “invoke” or even “address” but to conjure back into real existence, to bring back for all our sakes. I know, that’s impossible. So I suppose this is also a way for me to say goodbye.
As you know, you were my first Rhetoric and Composition teacher in grad school. That’s back in the early 1990s. During my first quarter as a new M.A. student at Oregon State University, I took your advanced composition course that had a pretty heavy dose of composition theory in it, as I recall. I don’t remember a lot about the course, except for a group project about language and discourse communities. But that’s not what I want to talk about exactly.
I want to thank you for the kind of teacher you were in that course and the kind of woman you still are for me in memory. I look back today and realize that there was a teacher-lesson for me to learn in your class, but I wouldn’t really learn that lesson until maybe a decade or so later. I don’t remember any lectures, nor do I recall you saying a lot in class, although I’m sure you did. What I recall is that we had lots of activities that filled that room in Moreland Hall. I remember my colleagues, our writing things together in class. I remember reading each other’s drafts, and the project on discourse communities. I remember the feeling of doing work together as you watched on. I also remember coming to your office to complain about my group members, and you sitting listening to me at your wooden desk that seemed too small for such an important professor—who has a wooden desk anymore anyway? Today, about thirty years later, I’m still learning the lesson. The teacher-lesson is pretty simple: step back and let your students labor through their learning. Listen more than you talk.
Today if I were in front of a group of TAs, I might say something like this: The more you talk in front of your students in class, the less they are learning. But as a teacher, not talking ain’t always listening. And of course, there has to be a balance. We teachers have things to say, as you did to us, to me, Lisa. But the balance is easy to get wrong. It’s easy to be pedagogically “cattywampus,” to use a word my mom would say, another woman who taught me a lot about words spoken and swallowed.
A scene a few years after finishing my M.A. I’m still in Oregon. I’ve not yet begun my doctoral work at Washington State. Kelly (my wife) and I are in the feed store on the south end of Corvallis. The store isn’t there anymore. We are trying to buy dog food for our Labrador, Boomer. I hadn’t seen you in a few years, but you walked right up to us, gave both of us a hug. You’d probably only met Kelly two or three times, maybe it was a department party or get-together. You said, “How are you doing?” Then you turned to Kelly and asked, “and how are you doing?”
Then you listened to us. I know this part because mostly what I remember about that 10-minute visit in the feed store is that you stood in the aisle with us as we talked about our new dog Boomer, our life in Monmouth, my job as a technical writer. And you seemed genuinely interested, interested in us, in our excitement about the new dog, in my job that I’d leave a year later to teach at a community college in Salem.
This is what I remember about you. You were always interested and listening. And this obvious teacher-lesson seems so clear now, yet difficult to follow when there’s stuff to cover in a course or things to get done before the end of the hour. What I know you understood, Lisa, is that listening takes time, time we are usually short of in writing classes, humble patience, a habit we often forget about because we think we know what’s best for our students, and compassion, a practice that always gives both ways but doesn’t always feel like it on the front end. It seems when we aren’t thinking about it, which is often for me as a teacher, there doesn’t seem time to just listen in the deeply humble, patient, and compassionate way I remember you inhabiting.
Another scene. We are at CCCC, again Kelly and I. It’s years later. I don’t remember which year but I’m not a grad student. I’m a professor somewhere, maybe it is during my time at Fresno State. I’m trying to make my way down the hall to an engagement. Kelly is gently nudging me, her sign that I’ll be late if I don’t move along. She is our clock-watcher, and I’m grateful for it. But there are several folks around me, asking me questions, talking to me. Clearly they are interested in my research and my ideas. I’m enjoying the attention, and as usual I get lost in the conversation, perhaps a little drunk off of the attention from others, their questions and admiration.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see you standing there patiently, waiting, smiling. I’m pretty sure you want to talk to me, just say hi. You are maybe five or six feet behind the semi-circle of people around me. You are smiling and listening. And in that moment, I feel really joyful, or maybe I just feel seen-ly appreciated, noticed in a deep historical way, a way only someone who knew me as a first-year grad student complaining at the edge of her small wooden desk could see me and appreciate. Or maybe it’s my sense of full-circle-ness that I still can’t quite describe. I know I’m rehearsing in my head a narrative that likely isn’t fully true. The student goes out into the profession while the teacher watches with a smile just five or six feet away. A narrative of validation, yes, but also a narrative of a listener who validates.
Another moment with you. Several years after that CCCC, I invite you to my writing program to give a workshop. After the workshop, we have dinner together at a really nice restaurant. You bring Greg, your husband, whom I know. I bring Kelly. We all know each other, have for years, of course. It’s a really nice evening. It’s a few years before COVID and it is the last time I see you in person, have dinner with you, talk about mundane things like what you’re planting in your yard or our pets or what painting Greg has just completed. We don’t talk about composition or business at dinner. We just talk about nothing that now feels like everything.
I’m glad that was the last dinner I had with you, Lisa, and I’m disappointed that I don’t get to have another one with you.
My experiences of you, Lisa, is that you were so human, so kind, so thoughtful, and always you listened. In my memories, which are not copious but not so few that I have a difficult time conjuring any, you are always listening. Maybe even now, you listen. Maybe if we’re lucky enough, we all can listen a small bit of you into our teaching lives.
I imagine that in your life, both professional and personal, you had to cultivate a disposition toward listening, even as you should have been listened to more often. I imagine that it must have been frustrating to have to listen in rooms that should have listened to you, at OSU, at CCCC, at home, in feed stores, and in restaurants. Sure, you have been lauded and celebrated, as you should be, but I wonder how many have really listened to you in the ways you taught me?
When I look at the wonderful pictures of you taken at different periods in your life that Greg and others have posted on social media in your honor, remembering you, I cannot help but see a woman patiently waiting and listening, smiling as she compassionately holds her tongue and opens her ears. I don’t know how you did it for all those years, but I am grateful for it, for you, for your willingness to listen to me, to listen near me.
In one sense— and I really do mean this, Lisa— you listened me into the professor and scholar I am now. You were not the only one, but you were the first one, and you continued to do that over the almost thirty years I knew you. Thank you, Lisa, for listening to me, to all of us.
Peace to you my friend,
Asao B. Inoue