Deep Doldrums: On Loving (and Learning from) Lisa Ede
Author(s): Jessica Restaino
Jessica Restaino is Professor of Writing Studies and Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at Montclair State University. She is the author of Surrender: Feminist Rhetoric and Ethics in Love and Illness (SIU Press 2019), recipient of the CCCC 2020 Outstanding Book Award; First Semester: Graduate Students, Teaching Writing, and the Challenge of Middle Ground (SWR/NCTE 2012); and co-editor (with Laura Cella) of Unsustainable: Re-Imagining Community Literacy, Public Writing, Service-Learning, and the University (Lexington 2012). Her essays and book chapters have appeared in various venues, including Peitho. She continues to serve on a number of journal editorial and advisory boards; she also served three consecutive terms (2012-2021) as a board trustee for Planned Parenthood of Metro NJ, and as board chair for the last two years of her third term.Tags: feminist scholarship, in memoriam, memorial
Can scholars find ways to resist the tendency for taxonomies to totalize and to sever the connection between scholarly texts and materially embodied experiences? What if it were a common scholarly practice to read against the grain of—as well as with—taxonomies? (104)
– Ede, Situating Composition (2004)
If I walked out my front door right now, I would be 2,851 miles away from Lisa’s front door. Google Maps says it would take me 934 hours of walking to get there. I feel my big loss. I first reached out to Lisa as a young, untenured scholar seeking feedback on an essay that drew on her work. That turned into years of mentorship, which turned into a deep intergenerational friendship, which turned Lisa into one of the most present, steady voices in my adult life. Once we opened our initial conversation in writing, it just kept going. Indeed, I had just heard from her—I was just going to write her back—when she left this world suddenly on September 29. I thus want to write an enormously selfish piece that is all about how much I miss her. I owe her an email and this is just not fair. I also want to count, to label, to weigh. I searched my email and found over a thousand threads between us. Each thread contains multiple messages. Who knows how many, total? So many. There are probably even threads I’m missing that got lost along the way. That must count for something. That must get me closer, subtract from the miles I must walk to get to her door. Grief and loss teach us that there is no mercy in this game, no kid gloves with which to handle the absence of someone we love. I can walk but will never arrive. That’s the truth. What I hope to do in this space instead is to address something I think Lisa actually got wrong, to right it as best as I can, and, in so doing, to cast her deep intellect and her endless heart forward in ways I believe we collectively need right now.
Here is a time Lisa was wrong: It was the 2015 Feminisms and Rhetorics conference, which was held at Arizona State that year. My beloved friend Jenn Fishman had been dragging around, from session to session, a bottle of gin she picked up from a local distillery on her drive to Tempe. Who would toast the conference with her? For a while she had almost no takers—the work of lugging this bottle was getting lonely—until Lisa leaned forward after dinner and said, mischievously, “Let’s try that gin.” We had done a panel together—Lisa and I; Jenn and Andrea Lunsford—about intergenerational conversations and longitudinal research. Lisa had recently retired from Oregon State and, as we sat around Jenn’s hotel room sipping the gin, gathered her most reflexive, humble self and said, “Grad students really shouldn’t still be reading my work.” We protested. We insisted yes, they should. Lisa shrugged. This was the natural course of things, she suggested. Deal with it, kids. The ways in which Lisa was wrong in this case are multiple, because Lisa too was multiple: she was steadfast in how settled she could be in herself, rooted to feeling and to place and to her many commitments; and yet she was just as steadfast in rethinking as a practice, a way of being, swimming against the current that first pushed her. She would tell a story to explain how she got to where she was. She had not ruled out changing her mind. Lisa seldom ended an email without a “P.S.” because an afterthought was always available to her. It is here at this juncture that Lisa–-the scholar, the teacher, and the person—is as necessary to our field as she ever was. I am calling her out.
Lisa’s impulse to cross her own work off the canon of grad student reading lists, rash as Jenn and I found it, was rooted in her deep resistance to any sense that she or anyone had conceived of anything that might be somehow totalizing or immutable. She takes this up seriously in Situating Composition: Composition Studies and the Politics of Location (2004), a critical retrospective of the process movement’s theoretical permutations from “process,” to “social process,” to “post-process” and the ensuing scholarly battlegrounds that she finds largely useless “for those who teach the majority of our composition classes” (153). Of these terms she writes, “I want to emphasize that I see them as both overdetermined and incapable of a fixed definition” (85). This was, in Lisa, a practice of refusal that stretched from her intellect to her spirituality, and that delivered to those lucky to know her a complex person who would meet us squarely, consider us seriously with the full force of her attention. Andrea says it, I think, best in Writing Together: Collaboration in Theory and Practice (2012), a collection that catalogues their extensive intellectual partnership and deep friendship:
What first impression did I have of you? What I remember is thinking how interesting you looked, how much—how should I say this—how much yourself. I wonder if you remember our first meeting—and if so, how you remember it. How I wish this moment were documented in some way, for looking back now I see that it marked a turning point in my intellectual and emotional life: here, I see so clearly now, was a friend (not to mention a coauthor) for life. (52)
Andrea’s observation that Lisa was a good friend because she was first and foremost herself also illustrates how seriously Lisa took her role as audience. She was all at once paying attention to what you had to say, to how she responded to what you had to say, and also questioning her very response on the grounds that, well, you were you and she couldn’t possibly know all the permutations therein. From Lisa I learned to write in the margins of my students’ papers, “As a reader, I…” because Lisa responded this way to drafts of my writing and, with this one stroke, embodied the very claim in “Audience Addressed/Audience Invoked,” coauthored with Andrea: “[because of] the complex reality to which the term audience refers and…its fluid, shifting role in the composing process, any discussion of audience which isolates it from the rest of the rhetorical situation or which radically overemphasizes or underemphasizes its function in relation to other rhetorical constraints is likely to oversimplify” (222). Enough with the sweeping gestures: it is poor scholarship, useless to good teaching, and far away from the diverse lives of real people. And as extraordinary as she was, Lisa was a real person.
We need take only a short walk, then, to understand just how broken-hearted Lisa was over the violent failures of audience in our current sociopolitical moment. The yes-it-is/no-it-isn’t of our contemporary conversations have kept us ill (literally) and disconnected. Lisa described this once to me as the “deep doldrums” which, in her typical fashion, she quickly rethought: “I don’t even know where that word came from or if it is a word” (correspondence, 12/20/19). So, I looked it up. Lisa looked everything up (in fact when I moved to a new town I received an article from her about the history of my new town, complete with a block quotation featuring what she found most interesting in the piece). The first definition of “doldrums” was what I thought it was upon initially seeing the word. But the second definition, I wrote her, I liked best. From the National Ocean Service, the doldrums are made up by “a belt around the Earth extending approximately five degrees north and south of the equator. Here, the prevailing trade winds of the northern hemisphere blow to the southwest and collide with the southern hemisphere’s driving northeast trade winds” (NOS). What ensues is a kind of hot air pressure cooker that only “persistent bands of showers and storms” can eventually break. An unusual sort of air circulation emerges because of the intensity of the competing gusts, one that pushes air “in an upward direction” and thus generates “little surface wind.” For this reason, sailors “well know that the area can becalm sailing ships for weeks” (NOS). In other words, the forcefulness of the winds going in opposing directions results in little movement at all, stuck-ness, the doldrums.
I am back to Lisa’s scholarship, this time 1995’s “Border Crossings: Intersections of Rhetoric and Feminism,” coauthored with Andrea and Cheryl Glenn. The violence and the impotence of subjective, argumentative force is what I feel—circulating in the air—as the core claim of this piece. They write:
In the same way, we have much to gain by reexamining the traditional rhetorical drive toward closure, with its reliance on those structures that lead readers inevitably to an ending, that follow Aristotle’s advice that discourse must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. In this regard, we also have much to gain by crisscrossing the borders of rhetoric and feminism, particularly in terms of long-standing feminist attempts to disrupt the linear orderliness of prose, to contain contradictions and anomalies, to resist closure. (289)
Any notion that we have been clean in our linearity, that we might “lead readers inevitably” to much of anything (except the doldrums) is the stuff of fanciful, unilateral power trips, not actual movement. Nevertheless we often act recklessly while suspended in the doldrums, impatient and ineffective as we have become. I am not waxing theoretical here. My own public university, emboldened by a narrow economic claim (inspired by capitalism) that our administrators tied inexorably to the pandemic (which has proven wrong or at least far more complex as we have just welcomed our largest first-year undergraduate class to date) took the opportunity to gut five contracts for full-time, non-tenure-track faculty in first-year writing and to refuse to replace the lines of retirees. In our department of Writing Studies, which offers the largest general education program and thus touches more undergraduates than mostly any other at our public university, one where the majority of our undergraduates hail from historically marginalized groups, we now have just three tenured folks (of which I am one) and a shrinking crop of talented full-time faculty who wait and wonder if this is the year their contracts will not be renewed. We are teaching writing while perched on a sand bar of sorts, with over sixty percent of our classes taught by folks who are part-time and with most all—but for three of us—teaching with the sort of contractual insecurity and instability that could make articulating what I just have a danger to their very jobs. Such force—closure, the inevitability of the obvious ending, the singular solution—delivers us only a system that devours itself.
I am trying to keep the faith about my university, a place I love deeply that is located where I am actually from (I grew up just a town over, how unusual for an academic). We started this academic year with a new university president and I hear he likes to ask questions, that he listens a lot, that he has refused to make fast presidential decisions. Lisa had a habit of titling the subject line of an email thread as a kind of “hook” or half-sentence that she’d finish only when her reader opened the message: “Just a quick email to say that…” or “Can’t believe that I forgot to mention…” She was counting on you to show up, to be an audience, and always in the reflexive spirit she embodied. She once advised me on one of my own personal heartaches: “[T]ime will tell, and quite possibly in surprising or complicated or difficult ways. Something may happen that causes you to reconsider your current decision…but it also may not” (correspondence, 5/1/19). Lisa would not tell me what to do or how to know, however much I might have welcomed such a directive in my darkest moments, because I had to be the one to lug my own sets of experiences, needs, histories to the doorway of any (even temporary) position. Who will toast this antidote to the doldrums with me?
Again, I keep the faith: such work is happening in our field right now, work that opens doors we might each differently walk through. Aja Martinez frames her recent “On Cucuys in Bird’s Feathers: A Counterstory as a Parable,” as such: “[T]his counterstory reviews the central topics of this story-as-parable while maintaining pressure on the audience to (based on their own lived actions and experiences) read/see themselves in the fictional characters within” (44). We can be generous in noticing when others are walking towards us; we can respond to Martinez’s invitation to “read/see” ourselves; we can acknowledge the mileage traveled and yet still to go; we can refuse the “drive toward closure,” shaped as it has always been by forces of domination. With such an array of potentialities we might just move together, wind in our collective sails not suddenly but after some time, the way real relationships happen and as Lisa would do it: “[M]y inclination, my desire, with any important scholarly project is always to write slowly, stopping often to monitor and reassess what I have written” (“Collaboration and Compromise: The Fine Art of Writing with a Friend” 36). We need not be stuck anywhere forever, fated to self-destruction, if we resist fundamentally going it alone, forcing a unidirectional argument, and failing to think against our own grains. And so, with that I’ll end with an image of Lisa and me on that night when she was wrong, back in 2015, knowing she would toast to the idea of reassessing herself and in hopes she might—slowly, cautiously—acknowledge her deep and necessary place in our field’s ever-evolving relationship with words.
Ede, Lisa. Situating Composition: Composition Studies and the Politics of Location. Southern Illinois University Press, 2004.
Ede. Lisa and Andrea Lunsford. “Dear Lisa/Dear Andrea: On Friendship and Collaboration.” Writing Together: Collaboration in Theory and Practice, A Critical Sourcebook, edited by Lisa Ede and Andrea Lunsford, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2012, pp. 51-66.
Ede, Lisa and Andrea Lunsford. “Audience Addressed/Audience Invoked.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 35, no. 2, 1984, pp. 155-71.
Ede, Lisa and Andrea Lunsford. “Collaboration and Compromise: The Fine Art of Writing with a Friend.” Writers on Writing, vol. 2, edited by Tom Waldrep, Random House, 1988, pp. 121-27.
Ede, Lisa, Cheryl Glenn, and Andrea Lunsford. “Border Crossings: Intersections of Rhetoric and Feminism.” Rhetorica, vol. 8, no. 4, 1995, pp. 401-41.
Ede, Lisa. “Re: I’m sorry I have been out of touch.” Received by Jessica Restaino, 19 Dec. 2021.
—. “Re: 4/29 was the deadline for the Provost’s promotion decision…” Received by Jessica Restaino, 5 May 2021.
Martinez, Aja Y. “On Cucuys in Bird’s Feathers: A Counterstory as Parable.” Writers: Craft and Context, vol. 1, 2020, pp. 44-46.
NOAA’S National Ocean Service. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce, 2021, https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/. Accessed 24 October, 2021.