Review of Women’s Professional Lives in Rhetoric and Composition: Choice, Chance, and Serendipity

Review of Women’s Professional Lives in Rhetoric and Composition: Choice, Chance, and Serendipity

Peitho Volume 23 Issue 2 Winter/Spring 2021

Author(s): Rebecca Temple

Rebecca Temple is a first-year, part-time English PhD student currently studying at Texas A&M-Commerce and teaching at Madison Central High School in Mississippi. After spending twenty-five enjoyable years as a secondary English teacher, she is returning to earn her PhD with the focus in Rhetoric and Composition. Her interests include pedagogies, feminine language, feminine resistance, cultural rhetorics and writing in digital media. In addition to being a teacher, a scholar, and a writer, she is also the proud mother of three children.

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Flynn, Elizabeth A. and Tiffany Bourelle, eds. Women’s Professional Lives in Rhetoric and Composition: Choice, Chance, and Serendipity. The Ohio State University Press, 2018. 286 pp.

The three words that subtitle the collection of essays in Women’s Professional Lives in Rhetoric and Composition: Choice, Chance, and Serendipity (Flynn and Bourelle, eds.) actually describe the origin of this very book review. As a forty-eight-year-old first year Ph.D. grad student, my professors advised me to write a few book reviews to beef up my CV that lists the lone literary analysis I wrote twenty-three years ago.1 Choosing this book as my very first book review turned out to be a serendipitous one since I am beginning a new journey and I am looking for connection, inspiration, and place (space) in my professional career. In this collection of fifteen thematically linked narratives grounded by an illuminating preface and informative introduction, I travelled the journeys these professional women took/are taking as rhetors, teachers, activists, creators, and renegades and fortunately found myself in these stories. Flynn and Bourelle’s collection of essays could be a kind of an introductory primer for new scholars of rhetoric and composition who, like me, can relate to the personal and surprising beginnings and transcendental movements in the various paths of life. While reading these narratives, I recognized and related to the fears, the risks, the choices, the mentors, and the euphoric moments when everything just clicks: the explosive kairotic stillnesses in time that motivate us to keep going. Like all of these women, I have made choices that have given me great fulfillment, yet I still want more: more writing, more collaboration, more experience, more research, more learning, more change, more chances to make choices, and more moments of serendipity.

“Feminist Rhetorical Resilience”

Editors Elizabeth A. Flynn and Tiffany Bourelle are two forces of nature who have created, collaborated, resisted and changed the field of rhetoric and composition. Notably, Flynn co-authored with Patricia Sotirin and Ann Brady Feminist Rhetorical Resilience, the text that inspired this new essay collection, and Bourelle has “designed and currently runs eComp, a fully-online program that utilizes a multimodal pedagogy, helping distance education students acquire twenty first century literacies” (245).

As chance would have it, I am in the middle of a transcendental unit with my accelerated English III and AP Lang students that includes the reading of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes were Watching God. The chances, choices, and serendipitous moments in Janie Starks’ journey of self-discovery align with those narratives in Women’s Professional Lives. Hurston writes, “Now, Women forget all the things they don’t want to remember and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly. So the beginning of this was a woman” (1). Each woman in this collection of narratives recalls the expectations and challenges as times in which their core selves battled for individuality and as their dreams changed into their truths. And given choices, chances and serendipity, these women “act[ed] accordingly.”

In their introduction to the text, editors Flynn and Bourelle remind the reader of the center argument from Feminist Rhetorical Resilience: “feminist conception of resilience is best seen not as fundamentally psychological but as rhetorical, relational, and contextual” (Introduction). Incorporating the “metaphors feminist rhetoricians have used recently to describe the present-day and historical situation of marginalized groups,” Flynn, Sotirin, and Brady claim “like borderlands, streams, silence, listening, geographies, advocacy, motion, and walking and talking, resilience resonates with concerns about feminist agency and rhetorical action in the face of pernicious social and material forces” (“Introduction”). Women’s Professional Lives in Rhetoric and Composition develops this concept as the authors explore metis and fifteen journeywomen act in the “intersection of agency and accidental sagacity” (5). These travelers have been “unusually resilient,” have “exhibited considerable agency, especially in taking risks and have made decisions in serendipitous ways and at kairotic moments” (15). Like Janie Starks in Their Eyes Were Watching God, the women in these essays chronicle transcendental movements of the individual rhetor/scholar/teacher and her intimate relationships to place and others as she journeys to within and for herself. 

“Metaphors [and] Feminist Rhetoricians”

A central image of a pear tree for the metaphor of creation weaves through Hurston’s novel as the protagonist Janie searches for her own voice. Hurston writes, “Janie saw her life like a great tree in leaf with the things suffered, things enjoyed, things done and undone. Dawn and doom was in the branches” (8). Words and images are kin that center themselves in the study and practice of rhetoric and composition. Writers Malea Powell, Shirley Rose, Libby Falk Jones, and Suellyn Duffey contribute moving essays to Women’s Professional Lives in Composition and Rhetoric that also incorporate powerful metaphors of creation to frame their stories. In “Word by Word, Bead by Bead: Making a Scholarly Life” Malea Powell begins with “this story is a making, a tracing of relations, a beadwork of choices, of words, stitched around and through an accumulation of stories, anchored with poetry, shot through with chance” (124). As she instructs us in the making of her art, she “construct[s] a beadwork story-sculpture for how [she] became the scholar” she is (128). In her assertive tone she advises the reader to not be “afraid of what happens between asking and listening. Don’t be afraid to take a chance, to listen, to practice, to tell (136). Similarly creative, Shirley Rose‘s “What I Learned about Teaching, Administration, and Scholarship from Singing with the Scottsdale Chorus” reflects upon lessons both learned and remembered through becoming a member of the competitive Chorus. Through her creation of song and the development of her voice as it enhances the voices of others, Rose transcends the boundaries between student and teacher, follower and leader, seeker and finder. Poet Libby Falk Jones presents her essay woven with stanzas of poetry, “words and image” (74) that offer a “continuous and a discontinuous” narrative “speak[ing] to the new identity” she creates (84). She provides two poems in her essay that lay bare the emotions and snapshots of intersectionality in her life and she “defines [her]self as poet and photographer. In yet another artistic expression, Suellynn Duffey embraces “kinesthetic elegance” and claims that “we, as women in rhetoric and composition, move with a different choreography through dances that show diverse ways in which one can ‘make it’” (105). As a student of dance, “physical realms…. A sort of bodily experience in the mind” is both a “metaphorical abstraction” and “an embodied reality” of her life (89). Narrative is a form of art and metaphors, analogies, and connections are strong ways to speak to audience. Art both shapes and reflects life providing both aspiration and validation. These feminist rhetoricians and Hurston’s Janie, and writers Powell, Rose, Jones, and Duffey see incorporate these artistic expressions that begin as seeds but develop into branches, expand, and flourish. 

“Exhibiting Considerable Agency”

In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie’s life was managed first by Nanny, then by her husbands Logan Killicks and Joe Starks and the town of Eatonville, and finally, by the racial inequality of pre-civil rights era America. Similarly, each essayist in Flynn and Bourelle’s collection describes expectations from families, from societies, and from circumstances that curse? bless? her to follow paths that required choices and action. The women exhibited considerable agency in battling the barriers they faced personally and professionally. Lisa Ede’s “desire” to collaborate with Andrea Lunsford was “challenged” by university departments as “shocking—even dangerous” (22). Lynn Z. Bloom’s marriage “defied [her] parent’s expectations” and her choice to have children were “defiant rebuttals to the stand advice for 60’s women, which equated maternity with professional suicide” (61). Jacqueline Rhodes was a “transient student, physically speaking, living in [her] own poverty in order to escape her families.” Rhodes continues: “those multiple paths, too, served as queer ways…queer time…was ‘unscripted’…by any conventions of straight temporality. It was disorderly and strange, the ‘constantly diminishing future’ indeed hovering like a storm cloud” (145). Irene Papoulis exposes her anxiety and struggles with shame in her career in the academic world as her essay “explore[s] how the social realities of the field of composition fueled her status anxiety” (204). Natasha N. Jones was “aware of and, almost immediately confronted with the stereotypes about black, single mothers and the challenges that [she] would face because of the gendered and racialized perceptions that are entrenched in our society” (222). Iklim Goksel’s emigration from Turkey and her study of ethnography to “give voice to women’s non-Western forms of linguistic and cultural rhetorical choices” employ the term “kismet” that “does not represent a ready-made world but rather entails a remaking that suggests inquiry, capability, resilience, choice, chance and serendipity” (192). Linda Adler-Kassner‘s “threshold concepts of writing studies” and her incorporation of Timmermans’s definition of “troublesome knowledge” are “central for growth and contribute to a sort of resilience through which growth can occur” (110). These women exercise resilience in the face of their obstacles in that they do not resign, but again, “act accordingly.” In Hurston’s novel, Janie’s resilience to have the faith to act on her dream is called upon when she meets Tea Cake after years of living a silent life. Tea Cake acts as mentor to hear Janie speak, telling her “Have de nerve tuh say whut you mean” (Hurston 109). Like Janie, Flynn and Bourelle also acknowledge the mentors who influenced them to take agency of their voices. Other mentors and influence came for Papoulis with Peter Elbow, and Susan Miller guided Duffey, Rhodes, and Ede. Every essayist regards influential texts that mentored her in her career, such as Jack Halberstam’s In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives for Rhodes, and “Technologies of Serendipity” by Paul Fyfe for Bourelle. Families, high school teachers, spouses, and groups of other women act as mentors supporting these women as they acknowledge the journey to discover self does not have to be a lonely one. After starts and stops and other branches in the road, these women, like Janie, ultimately find the power of their individual voice.

“…Like Borderlands, Streams, Silence, Listening, Geographies…”

Malea Powell writes “as human beings, we are all intimately connected to the land… you live in a geography, a particular space writing on a place, a body of land. …our lives happen on the land, in places practiced into spaces of discovery, of rhetoricity…” (136). The collection of essays does not name a higher power or mention religion, but the reverence for serendipity is clear, and often, inspiration is taken from nature and place. Bloom calls her life a “garden of serendipities” (59) and Bourelle looks to the “aspen trees that line the Rio Grande beginning to turn yellow and orange” (173) before beginning her recollections. Flynn cultivates gardens on her home farm and both Anne Ruggles Gere and Duffey describe hiking in the mountains. Bloom “listens to the lingua franca flutes, guitars, and the throbbing drums carried high on the western wind” (70). Many of the writers feel a connection to their universities and students and augment the culture of these places. In their retellings, the writers urge the reader to recognize those moments in order to be open to taking the chances provided. Serendipity can happen in times of great joy or despair. In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie and the others “seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were questioning God” (160). After the devastation from the hurricane and events after that irreparably change Janie’s life, Janie returns home with a ‘package of garden seed that Tea Cake had bought to plant” (191). The writers in this collection also began with the stuff of possibility, often faced events that irreparably changed their lives, but still they drew upon their resilience and embarked on journeys to nourish their “packet of seeds.” In their personal lives they created families, in their professional lives they also created “democratic classrooms,” and writing groups, such as Gere’s Puget Sound Writing, and Beth L. Hewett’s OWI and GSOLE. Like Hurston’s pear tree that gives and receives, these women create and re-create themselves often in and around a constellation of others. These women teach, encourage, direct, research, engage, and challenge their audiences with their application of individual voice and purpose.

“Rhetorical, Relational, and Contextual”

The intention of the book is to provide guidance both professionally and personally since, as many of the essays describe, the two areas of life are inextricably entwined. I referred to it as an introductory primer for rhetoric and composition, but it is also transcendental primer for someone like me. Like Janie, I have a dream that has become my truth and prompted me to “act accordingly.” Like Lisa Ede’s and Iklim Goksel’s transition between academic disciplines, I am an English teacher transitioning from American Literature into a new space of rhetoric and composition. The narratives in this collection remind me of my resilience and validate my choices. My story is not without metaphor, agency, and space. I have navigated the waters of public high school education in Mississippi with the serendipitous fortune of teaching at a school where I have a voice. Encouraged by the narratives of these women, I can bravely blend my literary past with the new horizon presented in the discipline of rhetoric and composition. From these women, I am equipped with a reading list to expand my knowledge and bolster my teaching style such as “Border Crossings: Intersection of Rhetoric and Feminism” (Ede, Glenn, Lunsford), or A Writer Teaches Writing (Murray). As a reader/student, I learned new terms of this field such as “ethnography,” “queer theory,” andanti-modernist feminism.” I can hear myself in the singing in the constellation of these women’s voices here, in my own space, in my own classroom. Like Janie and these feminist rhetoricians, I search for more chances and hope to change rhetorically, relationally, and contextually. Women’s Professional Lives paints the journeys and the ultimate, profound kairiotic moments where “old thoughts [come] in handy now, but new words would have to be made and said to fit them” (Hurston 32). I choose to live and love this journey since, like them and Janie, I am not “finished thinking and feeling” but will “pull in [my] horizon like a great fish net” (Hurston 192). Illustrating the “feminist perspective of resilience” that is “rhetorical, relational, and contextual,” Women’s Professional Lives in Rhetoric and Composition breathes with the lives of choices and chance. It offers the reader—regardless of the path she is now onthe power to recognize her own resilience and the faith in the agency of serendipity.


  1. Keane-Temple, Rebecca. “The Sounds of Sanctuary: Horace Benbow’s Consciousness.” The Mississippi Quarterly, vol. 50, no. 3, Special Issue: William Faulkner, 1997, pp. 445-450.

Works Cited

  1. Flynn, Elizabeth, Patricia Sotirin, and Ann Brady, Eds. “Introduction.” Feminist Rhetorical Resilience. Utah State University Press, 2012. 
  2. Halberstam, J. Jack. In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New York UP, 2005.
  3. Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. Harper Perennial, 2006.