Review of Elizabeth A. Flynn and Tiffany Bourelle (Eds.), Women’s Professional Lives in Rhetoric & Composition: Choice, Chance, & Serendipity

Review of Elizabeth A. Flynn and Tiffany Bourelle (Eds.), Women’s Professional Lives in Rhetoric & Composition: Choice, Chance, & Serendipity

Peitho Volume 22 Issue 1 Fall/Winter 2019

Author(s): Kristin Marie Bivens and Kirsti Cole

Kristin Marie Bivens is an Associate Professor of English at Harold Washington College (one of the City Colleges of Chicago) where she teaches writing and is a Newberry Library Scholar in Residence. Her recent work appears in Communication Design Quarterly, the Journal of Communication Inquiry (along with Cole), Technical Communication Quarterly (along with Cole), Health Communication, the Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, Rhetoric of Health & Medicine, and the Journal of Business and Technical Communication. She is currently working on a book project that examines how the sounds of healthcare technologies shape care in critical care hospital contexts.

Kirsti Cole is a Professor of Rhetoric, Composition, and Literature at Minnesota State University. She is the faculty chair of the Teaching Writing Graduate Certificate and Master’s of Communication and Composition programs. She has published articles in Women’s Studies in Communication, TCQ, Feminist Media Studies, College English, Harlot, and thirdspace, as well as a number of chapters in edited collections. Her collection Feminist Challenges or Feminist Rhetorics was published in 2014. Her collection with Holly Hassel, Surviving Sexism in the Academy: Feminist Strategies for Leadership, was published by Routledge in 2017.

Flynn, Elizabeth A. and Tiffany Bourelle, editors. Women’s Professional Lives in Rhetoric & Composition: Choice, Chance, & Serendipity. Ohio State UP, 2018. 286 pages.

Book cover of Flynn and Bourelle's edited collection. The title text is written on college-ruled notebook paper, and there is a colorful floral-like design made from the outlines of women's bodies in the center of the cover.
Image from The Ohio State University Press website.

When we decided to review Women’s Professional Lives in Rhetoric & Composition, it was not without a certain bitter taste leftover from our previous realization that certain voices are amplified (and others are not, like those who are multiply marginalized) within the working lives of women in rhetoric and composition. We learned this when we wrote “Sisyphus Rolls On: Reframing Women’s Ways of ‘Making It’ in Rhetoric and Composition” (Bivens, et al.). However, in Women’s Professional Lives in Rhetoric & Composition, there is a shift from a focus on an ideal tenure track career to the realities that pervade most of our working lives. The chapters in this collection do not focus on or establish a “normal” career path. Instead, the contributors emphasize how they navigated a career path or multiple career paths that include twists, turns, challenges, and, as editors Elizabeth A. Flynn and Tiffany Bourelle write in the introduction, “serendipity.” Although we have no criticism to offer the impressive selection of women and what they share about their remarkable lives in the volume, we were reminded that a print book limits inclusivity for projects like these. As we discuss later, if rhetoric and composition scholars want to represent career paths in the field and what the profession resembles then and now, we suggest that they turn to other venues that do not include word count limits, chapter limits, and design limits in quite the same ways that print texts do. The ability to inclusively showcase what women’s professional lives might look like at multiple levels, in multiple venues, and in ways that consider the current political, economic, and arguably anti-intellectual, anti-woman, anti-LGBTQ climate is of tantamount importance for those individuals up and coming in academic culture.

Before offering our review of the chapters, first a note on the editing. A skilled scholar with experience editing volumes can do wonders for readers in terms of maintaining an argument thread throughout a collection. Flynn and Bourelle do this skilled editorial work in framing Women’s Professional Lives in Rhetoric & Composition by focusing the collection on serendipity. In fact, Flynn and Bourelle point out, “Our collection differs…in that it places emphasis on the convergences of choice, chance, and serendipity in the professional lives of women with diverse backgrounds and situated in diverse locations within the field of rhetoric and composition” (3). Given that this thread, as well as references to each other’s narratives, is apparent throughout the collection, it is clear that the editors encouraged authors to explore serendipitous moments in their professional lives and to engage with each others’ experiences as appropriate. From start to finish, each narrative coherently and effortlessly exists within the frame Flynn and Bourelle introduce and maintain throughout the collection, resulting in an expertly edited volume that contributes to the discourses (and details) of women’s working lives.

Details allow readers to personalize these stories of serendipity and, as many of these women point out, the resiliency Flynn, Patricia Sotirin, and Ann Brady collected and theorized in Feminist Rhetorical Resilience. If we accept Kenneth Burke’s idea that identification precedes persuasion, then to be persuaded or moved, readers need these narratives’ details so readers can identify with these exemplary women. And the details, in almost all cases, are ample and persuasive. For instance, the details shared by Lisa Ede about her collaborations with Andrea Lunsford resonated with us because we, too, have collaborated on multiple texts. Flynn’s narrative helped us to trace and understand her feminism, its lineage, and its legacy at Michigan Technological University. Anne Ruggles Gere’s chapter highlights the necessary legacy of interdisciplinarity that grounds our field and the ways in which navigating various forms of writing, literacy, and rhetoric can open kairotic space along a career path that does not seem, at first, traditional. Her chapter also reflects the necessary though largely ignored role that care work and personal relationships have in our working lives. The vast majority of us will care for a young person or an ailing parent at some point in our lives, and Gere (as well as other contributors) seamlessly blends the discussion of her life with her career. It is a necessary example of the ways in which our personal lives powerfully factor into our professions and should be acknowledged as such.

Lynn Z. Bloom’s narrative reminds us to be flexible with our knowledge and consider deploying it to help others in telling their stories. Libby Falk Jones’s chapter is simply melodic in its organization and representation of her story through various lenses, while her discussion of mêtis and the ways closings and openings complement that melody and the pacing of her story’s presentation. Suellyn Duffy also draws upon the mêtis thread to frame her chapter. In it, she voices what many do not or cannot—that if she followed the scripts and the advice about how to make it as an academic she would judge herself as less than, or she would have to maintain an oppositional stance, neither of which are useful as we strive forward in our careers. Instead, she invites readers into an embodied feminist resilience that powerfully reminds us that there are times in which less than ideal circumstances allow for freedom—of movement, of choice, of direction. Malea Powell’s chapter is a story, and like Duffy, she reflects on her career through art. She gives us a narrative framed by beadwork. Her writing is tactical, physical, personal, instructional. Powell uses the weaving of beadwork to reflect on the network of relationships, the accumulations (385), that led to her professional choices. Powell’s work is a reflection on a career that necessarily indicates the continuing focus on settler colonialism on authenticity—a demand of our indigenous colleagues for a “real” identity that is unnecessary and, frankly, racist. Powell reminds us that as scholars in a diverse field we must do our part to consciously make the academy livable for those it was built to exclude and marginalize.

Linda Adler-Kassner’s chapter on scrappiness is the perfect corollary to the chapters that draw on mêtis, that write through art and expression. She uses the threshold concept of troublesome knowledge to frame herself as a “scrapper”—someone who looks for opportunity or “cracks” and moves to enter (350). As she deconstructs her reflection on her career path, she recognizes the ways in which the troublesome, the disappointing, and the seemingly insurmountable became serendipitous and led to a knowledge of self and scrappiness that propelled her forward in her career. This combination of determination and resilience is something that Holly Hassel and Kirsti Cole highlight in their 2017 collection, Surviving Sexism in Academia. Many of the contributors in that volume also found agency in spaces that ignored or dismissed them, and they leveraged those spaces to forge connections with people around them who were interested in building something new, in moving past outmoded and outdated notions of who belongs in our academic spaces. Resilience, then, is as deeply practical as it is creative. Resilience is how these women get things done.

Jacqueline Rhodes begins her narrative reflecting on depression and queer time through resilience. She writes, “Our strength comes through these fractured moments of influence and narrative, fleeting intensities, years of immediacy. And strength too comes from a balancing of choice and chance, of wave and field” (451). Class, identity, and intimacy intersect in Rhodes’s chapter as she writes about the vulnerabilities of coming from a working-class family, living the academic life with depression, and finding her identity as a queer scholar. Beth L. Hewett, who, like Bivens, taught for the City Colleges of Chicago for a period of time, shares her experiences with grief, loss, and challenges that ultimately led her research to focus on collaboration. Though she writes about serendipity, hers is certainly a career that exemplifies resilience, ultimately revealing that “…when a person has more than one deep interest and a compelling sense of obligation and motivation in different areas, one may never feel complete on any one path” (170). One of those areas includes bereavement training and grief coaching, or acting as a mentor for those experiencing loss. Rhodes and Hewett both draw attention to the intersections of affect and personal-professional lives, while challenging our notions of what it means to live an academic life.

The chapters in this collection are interconnected, and Bourelle illustrates the predominant ways in which they are interconnected. Her chapter acknowledges her influences and notes how her mentors “had guided [her] to find [her] own voice and to make [her] own decisions,” (179) which is a welcome nod toward personal agency—a rhetorical concept that serendipity seemingly excludes, especially for the inexperienced and uninitiated. Iklim Goksel relies on kismet (or destiny) for the choice, chance, and serendipity her story reveals; it is a breath of fresh air in the collection with its references to non-western traditions (e.g., Rumi, Yunus Emre) and a beautifully-written chapter whose narrative roams the globe from Sweden to Turkey to the United States. Bourelle’s serendipity and Goksel’s kismet use the frame Flynn and Bourelle craft in the introduction skillfully.

It is important to acknowledge, however, the ways in which serendipity could potentially limit agency. Sharon Crowley noted this in her profile in Women’s Ways of Making It in Rhetoric and Composition (Ballif, Davis, and Mountford). She says, “We did what we were told, and it did seem like serendipity if things happened for us. Or we were taught to rationalize it as serendipity. If we made it happen, we told ourselves it was luck” (218). However, Flynn and Bourelle note that their use of serendipity as a frame is not just “luck but the willingness to act on hunches or trust one’s own intuition—to learn from one’s experience” (Flynn and Bourelle 5). When trade presses focus on issues such as imposter syndrome and an unstable job market, trusting one’s intuition may seem, well, Sisyphean. But the collected chapters in this text demonstrate clearly that even seemingly impossible tasks are doable, and that voices that are not often heard can find a venue if individuals are willing to prepare themselves in their field, take on challenges, and navigate opportunities that seem, at first, like luck or chance. Or, as Bloom writes, “Making good choices positions you to take advantage of serendipity” (103). The process of making choices demonstrated throughout this collection is one motivated by the personal—something the contributors reference in each chapter. These are works of powerful vulnerability and making the most of it.

This kind of professional vulnerability is demonstrated in Irene Papoulis’s chapter. Those off the tenure track or not teaching at their ideal institutions—or those with feelings of “status anxiety” (202)—will find a similar, newfangled representation, like Goksel’s chapter, of the working lives of those who rely on contingent teaching assignments, while also living life as a single mother dealing with “considerable psychological stress” (13). Papoulis organizes her chapter around the elements of her life that have contributed to her “shame-inducing anxieties” (210), including being a lecturer, composition studies itself, and her scholarly dedication to expressivism. As readers and writing teachers, we found much to identify with in her chapter, especially in the chapter’s final paragraph, when Papoulis writes, “The antidotes to academic shame begin with acknowledging what the feeling is and how our institutions foster it” (216).

The remaining chapters in the collection, written by Natasha Jones and Shirley Rose, tackle the ways that institutional forces shape us and how we must work to shape them. As a single mother, Jones experienced a transformative commitment to social justice when her daughter was born. Jones cites inspiration from a keynote by Dr. Angela Davis at the Conference on College Communication and Composition in 2014—an inspiration that Jones responds to through her social justice scholarship in technical and professional communication. She writes, “simply that [her] personal and academic career goals are one in the same—to embrace change and to empower others and [herself] to be resilient and strong” (232). In the final chapter of the collection, Rose directs readers to our professional focus: teaching students to write. Rose starts with the acknowledgment that she is in the “last verse of her professional work” (244). She reminds readers of the vulnerability of learning and what we ask our students to do in unfamiliar educational territory. Rose frames her narrative with her experiences being a member of the Scottsdale Chorus. She reminds us of effective teaching practices, like being patient with students’ questions that we think we’ve answered already (239) and even “singing out” or taking the chance of making a mistake or doing something wrong (241). The latter reminds readers of agency and the power we find in making choices regarding our professional lives.

In this collection, Flynn and Bourelle include voices that remind us that our professional lives, at whatever stage, are necessarily grounded in our personal experiences, past histories, pains, and joys. One of the more powerful aspects of this volume is that the contributors tell their personal stories as they discuss their careers. Another unique aspect is that there are women in this volume that are no longer in academia, as well as women who served, at some point, in non-tenure track jobs at many Carnegie classification types of schools. For us, this collection serves as an important reminder to think strategically about the role of composition in the university and the role of those who teach it. Compositionists know the business of the university, perhaps better than people in any other discipline. However, knowing the business of the university requires a certain kind of permanence and stability. Without it, without the agency provided by tenure and tenure-track jobs, transience and insecurity interfere with our ability to focus on the spaces in which we work because we are forced to simply focus on whether or not we will work. The strength of a text such as this is that it opens space within precarious employment circumstances for individuals to leverage longitudinal knowledge and understand the systems in which we labor. In this way, resilience through mêtis is a key theme of Women’s Professional Lives. This book reflects a reality that many find themselves in—and asks readers to identify and take up the various pathways showcased as possibilities for moving through an academic career well. The problem is that the landscape that maps academic, career, and good navigation thereof are all shifting at an accelerated rate.

Regarding editorial savvy and the structure of the collection, we found great (and quite frankly, surprising) joy reading the endnotes of several chapters. For example, Ede, Flynn, Bloom, Duffey, Adler-Kassner, and Powell provide details that add depth to their professional lives’ narratives in these endnotes. In fact, Powell’s 29 endnotes read like a worthy history lesson for the uninitiated. Relatedly, Bloom adds depth and details to her work as a biographer with historical tidbits like “the international dateline determines whether December 7 or 8 is the date ‘which will live in infamy’” (72). It is because of these footnotes, as well as the limitations endemic to print books, that we recommend that works like these be moved to digital spaces. In our estimation, the metadiscourse found in these footnotes would benefit from a series of hyperlinked pages.1 By moving to digital spaces, not only can more narratives be included, but more details about those narratives can be included, too. Ultimately, although we find the book format limiting for works that describe women’s working lives in rhetoric and composition, the showcase of scholars, teachers, and workers here is extensive and inclusive. This collection is an exemplar in a small but significant group of texts that place under the microscope the demonstrably different and shockingly similar ways people come to and live in academia. However, if projects like this are to be more inclusive and welcoming for the diversity of those who teach rhetoric and composition, we suggest that these works transition to open access and be housed in digital spaces. The project of storytelling and reflecting on the serendipitous choices and chances of an academic career is, perhaps, more important than ever as the seemingly traditional career paths are disappearing, but in order to engage in this project and provide a blueprint or a way forward for up-and-coming people in the field, we must carefully consider how we access the stories that might provide insight and guidance along our own circuitous, contingent, caregiving, serendipitous professional paths.


  1. In fact, our work on the (now defunct) CCC Committee on the Status of Women in the Profession (CSWP) tried to do similar work, Story Corps-style, nearly ten years ago by working with Cindy Selfe’s Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives (DALN). In this project, a handful of women were interviewed for the Women’s Lives in the Profession Project under Eileen Schell’s chairing of the CSWP. Two interviews remain online: a video interview with Gwendolyn Pugh and a text self-interview of Bivens.

Works Cited

Ballif, Michelle, Diane Davis, and Roxanne Mountford, editors. Women’s Ways of Making It in Rhetoric and Composition. Routledge Press, 2008.

Bivens, Kristin, et al. “Sisyphus Rolls on: Reframing Women’s Ways of ‘Making It’ in Rhetoric and Composition.” Harlot: A Revealing Look at the Arts of Persuasion, vol. 1, no. 10, 2013.

Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. University of California Press, 1969.

Flynn, Elizabeth A., Patricia Sotirin, and Ann Brady, editors. Feminist Rhetorical Resilience. University Press of Colorado, 2012.

Hassel, Holly and Kirsti Cole, editors. Surviving Sexism in Academia. Routledge Press, 2017.

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