“Opening A Door”: Resisting Institutional Closeting in the Writing Classroom 


At the beginning of 2023, Oklahoma’s state legislature introduced Senate Bill 129, which would strip access to trans-related care for people under the age of 26. This is just the latest in a wave of bills that strip away access to bodily autonomy for transgender people. Already, Oklahoma bans trans student athletes from sports that correspond with their gender identity in state schools and bans trans people from using the bathroom that aligns with their gender. In the classroom, book bans overwhelmingly target texts which deal frankly with gender and sexuality, presenting a threat to education: when LGBTQ+ perspectives are not present in the curriculum, LGBTQ+ students can be further isolated or othered, made to feel as though they do not belong as writers or as students (Harris, Wilson-Daily, & Fuller; Munro, Travers, & Woodford; Kosciw et al; Snapp et al.). In every sense, legislators paint a target on the backs of LGBTQ+ students, presenting unequal treatment as law. 

Oklahoma is also my home.  

While I was presenting my work on LGBTQ+ inclusion at a major writing center conference, a member of the audience raised their hand and described the climate towards LGBTQ+ inclusion at their private university. “We’re not even allowed to show LGBTQ+ flags, let alone an allyship sticker,” they told me. “How can we demonstrate our allyship for students who may be struggling alone?”  

I return to this question in this short essay to ask: in this anti-trans atmosphere, how can educators and allies partner alongside students? In this contact zone, how can we show up for LGBTQ+ students? When we can’t visually signal allyship, how can we make sure that LGBTQ+ students are not isolated, are not struggling alone? 

Drawing from my experience of designing courses in topics from women’s, gender, and sexuality studies in the writing classroom, I offer a series of concrete takeaways and reflections for teaching in this environment, from first-year writing to Writing Across the Disciplines. I reflect on using feminist digital archives, along with my experiences in referencing broader concepts of gender and sexuality in writing classrooms.  

Think Outside the Circle 

When I taught for the first time at Oklahoma State University, I knew I would be teaching students who had grown up in rural and conservative areas. I was determined to define the ground rules for my classroom and make sure that all interactions created an atmosphere of shared respect, where students took accountability for their own work and writing. Towards this goal, I allowed all students to introduce themselves. This may seem a small form of resistance, but in providing students with tools to define who they are, we can all be what feminist scholar Sara Ahmed calls “feminist killjoys” (“Killing Joy: Feminism and the History of Happiness” 582). Ahmed argues that the apparent “feminist killjoy” exposes the “bad feelings that get hidden, displaced, or negated under public signs of joy” (“Killing Joy: Feminism and the History of Happiness” 582). In our current exigence, laws which attempt to erase LGBTQ+ students from the university and from public life negate any avenue for LGBTQ+ students to express bad feelings. In effect, these laws attempt to silence feminist killjoys before they even have the chance to articulate themselves. These same laws dissuade teachers from affirming their LGBTQ+ students in the university. If we are to affirm students, we must, in effect, be willing to kill joy by exposing potential bad feelings, exposing how these laws erase and erode complex human experiences. As feminist killjoys, then, it is our role to partner with our students to make sure that they are offered the tools to express themselves.  

At the time, I worked in a front-facing position at the writing center, where I noticed that the forms to schedule a writing center session included a space titled “name you prefer to be called.” This scripted form of prompting allows students to introduce themselves in a manner which may differ from the name on their official registration, offering a more personal form of communication. I drew on this form to create my introduction strategy. 

At the beginning of the first class held on campus, a class on expository writing, I prepared a stack of index cards, which included space for names which students preferred to be called, majors, and current aspiration students hoped to achieve in the class.  I explained that these index cards would serve as an aid for our introductions, and then used the board to fill out my own version of an index card for students to follow: I wrote out my name, my pronouns, my prior major, and my current aspiration for the class (which was to introduce students to the tools of expository writing for the college classroom). I then passed out the stack, gave students time to fill out the cards, and suggested they introduce themselves, first to their fellow students on either side, then to the class. In creating this introduction script, I talked with my fellow writing professional Christina Lane, who suggested the idea of the index card as a means of offering a means for students to assert their own identity. As students introduced themselves, if they included pronouns, I made sure to repeat those pronouns, along with their names, to affirm how they referred to themselves.  

This first class is instrumental in creating an atmosphere of mutual respect between my students: we go over my code of conduct for the class, which is listed in my syllabus and includes the following clause:  

A classroom is a community. Thus, all members of a community should respect the work and dignity of others. A community founded on mutual respect and good faith will be much more conducive to the conversations which we will have throughout the semester. As a community, this space should promote an environment of mutual respect regardless of gender, sexuality, race, disability, etc. 

First, I read this code of conduct aloud to my class. Then, we go through it and define each term, from dignity, to mutual respect, to good faith. We discuss what it might look like to treat one another with respect, especially in evaluating one another’s writing. I usually write out two statements on the board, one as an example which offers respectful criticism, and one which does not engage in good faith. The first statement usually reads something like this:  

“I thought your use of imagery was really effective throughout this essay. However, I had some trouble tracing your argument in your second and third paragraphs, especially your use of evidence.” The second statement usually reads something like this: “I didn’t like your essay because I don’t think you know what you are talking about.” Together, we underline portions of the statements which indicate respect or disrespect.  

So much of our work as writing professionals is based in showing up for our students through our physical outreach, as Eileen Schell argues, “leading through presence as well as understanding” (322). In this way, establishing an inclusive atmosphere affirms the right of students to express themselves, without insulting or disrespecting one another, and works through the presence of the writing professional to provide an example. If forbidden to ask students what their pronouns are, allow all students to introduce themselves, and establish a code of conduct for the class. For transgender students, this provides the opportunity to express their identity. As we face growing backlash towards trans lives and identities, educators can still support their LGBTQ+ students. These activities promote an atmosphere of shared respect, setting the standard for the classroom.  

“Our Life On the Page” 

I wanted to create opportunities for students to encounter diverse voices on the page, including LGBTQ+ voices. Our first assignment was a literacy essay, which asks students to consider a time in their lives in which literacy played a significant role. In this assignment, students reflect on their first experiences with literacy, whether on the page or learning a skill. As writers, this assignment provides students with a means of explaining how their understanding of literacy has changed, and how their identity continues to affect their experiences.  One student commented when we were first discussing what makes an essay a literacy narrative, “It seems like we’re supposed to put our life (sic) on the page.” This is an astute observation, since in this assignment, students often confront their own identities as writers on the page, and how they negotiate that identity while trying on the notion that they might also be writers.  

In introducing this assignment, I was determined to offer students a wide variety of literacy narratives to discuss. I wondered how students would respond to a discussion on the work of Alison Bechdel, whose work as a cartoonist graced the pages of gay and lesbian newspapers in the long-running comic strip Dykes To Watch Out For. Today, she is better known for her coming-out story in her graphic memoir Fun Home, now a Broadway musical. I had a particular piece by Bechdel in mind, her short comic “Compulsory Reading,” which deals with the act of reading and writing, especially dealing with what we are supposed to read, versus what we do read and enjoy. I knew students would connect with its themes of feeling guilty over not reading.  

We even had a copy of the comic in our digital textbook, so access would not be a problem. Our textbook had image descriptions of Bechdel’s comic “Compulsory Reading,” intended to contextualize the visual aspect of comics for sight-impaired readers. I was pleased to see this feature, since digital editions of textbooks have unique opportunities to provide accessibility for all students, and image descriptions are underutilized as a means of providing access. However, there was a glaring issue: in the caption, Bechdel’s comic persona was described as a man with spectacles. I knew this presented a conflict, and I would need to explain why the discrepancy existed. As comics scholar Hillary Chute argues, “Comics is largely a hand-drawn form that registers the subjective bodily mark on the page; its marks are an index of the body… Comics works are literally manuscripts: they are written by hand” (112). As a form, comics presents embodiment as a form of manuscript, and here, the caption served to override Bechdel’s queer authorial presence on the page. 

As I flipped to the introductory panel on the projector, the caption stood out in bold font. A student near the front, who never ceased to have questions, raised an eyebrow as he pointed to the caption. “While that’s the caption,” I said, “Alison Bechdel is a woman cartoonist. This just goes to show that fact-checking can always help everyone, no matter how advanced they might be!”   

The students chuckled at this comment. And we moved on. Rather than dwelling on a moment of anxiety or discomfort, the conversation branched into the reasons why the captioner might have assumed that Bechdel was a man, from the short hair of her comic persona to the overwhelming gender discrepancy in comics, a field heavily dominated by men. One student offered the fact when a field is dominated by men, people tend to assume that people within it are all men as well.  

I explained to my students that Alison Bechdel also lent her name to the Bechdel test, which allows critics to evaluate how a piece of media can avoid gender stereotyping of women. As depicted in Bechdel’s 1985 comic “The Rule,” a work which passes the Bechdel test must feature two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. In the comic, Bechdel’s character remarks, “Last movie I was able to see was Alien…the two women in it talk to each other about the monster.”) In naming this visual form of queer complaint in our class, I offer students a means of reading against the grain, reading against intended meanings of a text, which helped to frame our discussion of reviews as critical texts where queer complaint can thrive. 

In this same class, students went on to write literacy narratives on diverse topics. One student described the first time he went duck hunting, while another student described the literacy needed to read a driver’s manual and the experience of learning to drive for the first time. Yet another student described the time she wrote a letter to a traveling member of her family, and described the process of learning how to properly address and send a letter through the mail. In a reflection, one student shared, “I thought writing this [literacy narrative] was going to be difficult, but with the examples and the parts we wrote in class, it wasn’t that hard.”  

In the discussion which unfolded from this stray moment in our first-year writing class, we discussed how different identities can be expressed across media and how such depictions make a difference. When we see our own identities represented, we might also feel empowered to express ourselves as we attain further literacy. As I think back, I wonder how discussions like this one might be halted or stopped altogether, if those in favor of silencing LGBTQ+ voices have their way. 

Digital Archives As Diverse Research 

As I introduce students to methods for academic research, I draw on digital archives as a method of bringing diverse voices into the writing classroom. This assignment was informed by the work of scholar-teachers Jess Enoch and Pamela VanHaitsma, who have argued “it is crucial to pause before asking students to leverage digital archival materials in their writing projects and prompt them first to read these archives carefully and critically” (217). Students should first achieve a basic level of archival literacy to draw on digital archives in an effective manner.  As Charles Morris shows, archives are “dynamic sites of rhetorical power” (115). In understanding archives as a site of critical rhetoric, digital archives can provide potent case studies for students as they understand what research can look like. Moreover, in a mediated encounter with digital archives, students can respond to an ongoing conversation through carefully addressing the rhetorical situation of a chosen archive, understanding its overall rhetorical purpose, and then addressing how a particular archival entry addresses an unfolding conversation. In this way, students situate their own critical voices to express rhetorical purposes and perform research within the exigence of digital archives.  

Informed by Enoch and VanHaitsma’s work, I have found that this assignment is readily adapted for writing classes, as well as classes which focus on introducing students to the basic frameworks of gender and sexuality studies. In providing these resources, I draw from feminist frameworks, such as bodily autonomy and intersectionality, to consider who is included in archives and who is left out. In utilizing digital archives, I focus on a series of outcomes:  

  • Students will be able to define and identify digital archives and their rhetorical purpose. 
  • Students will be able to navigate a digital archive through either a Boolean search or through a finding aid. 
  • Students will be able to identify criteria of organization for a given archive. 
  • Students will critically consider questions of curation: whose voices are involved? Whose voices are missing? How are these sources contextualized through text like metadata, keywords, and captions? 
  • In class, we will connect feminist frameworks such as intersectionality and bodily autonomy to contextualize archival entries within a larger context of political activism. 

Many of these digital archives fall neatly into Kate Theimer’s definition of a digital archive: “online groupings of digital copies of non-digital original materials, often comprised of materials (many of which are publications) located in different physical repositories or collections, purposefully selected and arranged in order to support a scholarly goal.” Others fall into Enoch and VanHaitsma’s inclusive definition of digital archives: “any digital resource that collects and makes accessible materials for the purposes of research, knowledge building, or memory making” (219). The latter provided the guiding definition for my assignment. After identifying a list of digital archives, I pull up several of these archives onto the projector, and ask students to tell me where to go on the archival page. Through most classes, we examine the “About” page, any contextual menus or navigational aids on the homepage, or any disclosed institutional affiliations, and other explanations provided for the archive’s curation and general archival standard.  

Students particularly liked the Queer Zine Archive Project digital archive, which catalogs zines from the riot grrrl movement, along with contemporary queer and transgender zines. This archive often limits the metadata provided to explain the context of these zines, which offers students a chance to research for themselves. In keeping with K.J. Rawson’s argument that environment and language can obscure portions of archives, providing creative means of imagining archival inquiries, we discuss how this apparent lack of context offers new entryways into research for future projects. In our class, we reference the article “Zines, Art Activism, and The Female Body: What We Learn from Riot Grrrls” by Dr. Rebekah Buchanan (author of Writing a Riot: Riot Grrrl Zines and Feminist Rhetorics) to offer historical context for this art as a form of activism. Through texts like “Awkward at the Doctor,” a zine which discusses the experiences of queer, trans, and gender-nonconforming patients as they negotiate complex interactions with medical practitioners, students read through a mode of archival queer complaint. 

Figure 1. Screenshot of the QZAP Zine Archive homepage. Image description: the title QZAP Zine Archive in black and hot pink all caps at the top, a black navigation bar across the top of the image under the title, sections of the website (Browse, Advanced Search, About, Help, Blog) in all caps in a sans-serif hot pink font. The center of the screenshot has an image of a zine, with handwritten words and phrases as well as a collage of some typography. The right side has a brief text description of the archive. 

Figure 1. Screenshot of the QZAP Zine Archive homepage. Image description: the title QZAP Zine Archive in black and hot pink all caps at the top, a black navigation bar across the top of the image under the title, sections of the website (Browse, Advanced Search, About, Help, Blog) in all caps in a sans-serif hot pink font. The center of the screenshot has an image of a zine, with handwritten words and phrases as well as a collage of some typography. The right side has a brief text description of the archive.


In the feminist writing classroom, digital archives can form a gateway for students, as educators demonstrate the research process in class, assessing these archives as sources. In our class, we discussed this archive as a source, considering who assembled the archive and where its limits lie. Whose voices are included, and whose voices are missing? What gaps exist in the archive, and how might research fill in those gaps? In offering diverse voices in the classroom,  educators can offer new methods of introducing students to academic research and analysis.  


For teachers of writing, especially in fraught times like ours, questions of how to introduce students to diverse identities in the classroom have only become more difficult. As I sit here writing this essay, I learned that The Hill We Climb by poet Amanda Gorman has been banned in Florida, a choice made by a single person (Holpuch). Pictures of shelves stripped of books proliferate, and  teachers are constantly facing obstacles that interfere with the jobs we are hired to perform.  

As educators consider how to ally with LGBTQ+ students and diverse students in the classroom, we can provide opportunities for students to introduce themselves, and thus support their identities. We can still provide opportunities for students to read and learn from diverse voices. And in drawing from diverse digital archives as opportunities for research as feminist killjoys, offering critical means for students to question and assess sources, educators can also engage students in critical thought enriched by feminist frameworks.  

If institutions do not support us as workers, then our work suffers. But dispensing with reliance on institutional support, in the 2019 Peitho Journal: Special Cluster on Gendered Service in Rhetoric and Writing Studies, Jennifer Heinert and Cassandra Phillips, Michelle Payne, and Eileen Schell show how feminist writing program administrators contribute to institutional change, despite its challenges. And as Anicca Cox and Rachel Riedner show, coalition building takes place across national, institutional, gendered differences, tenure-track and non-tenure track faculty, graduate student educators and advanced scholars alike, as we look to our growing labor union movement throughout higher education as a model for coalition building, that is, working towards “horizontal, coalitional practices within institutional structures,” dismantling our hierarchical places within institutions in favor of solidarity (18). Beyond the university, library professionals, like Martha Hickson, fight an onslaught of attempts to limit the right to read (Peters). Through reaching out to supportive communities, these library professionals mobilize public support for free exchange of information, despite efforts to ban books.  

As a means of organizing, coalition building is deeply relational, bridging institutional divisions based on rank or status to create partnerships. I was only able to offer these assignments and activities for students because writing professionals in my graduate program supported me and offered feedback, sharing their own statements of mutual respect and introductory assignments, which served as a model for my own. Similarly, I have partnered with graduate students and professors alike in designing classes on digital archives, which seek to increase visibility of LGBT+ history, the struggle for racial equality in the United States, the history of feminist struggle, and more. Solidarity with one another as educators fosters greater support in the classroom, and in all other aspects of our profession. 

Solidarity also looks like working with, not against, the needs of our students. As bell hooks urges in Teaching To Transgress (1994), we must view our students as “whole human beings with complex lives and experiences” (15). In her retrospective piece on the legacy of bell hooks and the feminist writing classroom, Patti Duncan reflects, “I was also able to bring my full self to our classes. In the process, we were able to care for one another, learn from each other, and create a sense of community and commitment to our shared space” (2). During a recent community dialogue on public education in Rockingham County, Virginia, high-school students expressed that mental health is one of their greatest stressors, especially in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic (Hagi). Community dialogues, like the one held in Rockingham County, can bridge seemingly insurmountable gaps between educators and the public, and allow us to work with our students to promote further solidarity. 

As feminists, we as writing professionals can work together to bridge the barriers of homophobia and transphobia, which stifle our students’ ability to meet each other on equal footing, while realizing, with the Combahee River Collective, that “the major systems of oppression are interlocking”: that we all approach our work through intersecting oppression, which we must seek to dismantle (n.p.). We can work together in refining our methods of fostering inclusivity in the classroom, through mentoring emerging scholars in the field, through sharing methods which worked in our classroom, and by being open about the methods which did not work for us. This might look like creating space at conferences for mentorship, or reaching out to graduate students who express interest in establishing a feminist classroom. Beyond support, solidarity must be the driving force for ensuring that students (LGBTQ+ or otherwise) are able to interact as equals within classrooms and meeting rooms alike. We must all be Ahmed’s “feminist killjoys” (“Killing Joy: Feminism and the History of Happiness” 582). We must work together to design pedagogy which allows LGBTQ+ students to see themselves in curriculum, even as institutional voices clamor for their closeting, attempting to render them invisible.  

As Sara Ahmed suggests in her lecture “Complaint as Queer Method,” we must attempt to create “a conversation that can open a door, just a little, just enough, so that someone else can enter, can hear something.” In drawing upon queer practices of complaint in the classroom,  we can create critical space for students to engage in rhetorical experimentation as they express critical arguments. These methods may be in our classroom organization, in the texts which we choose, or in our intertextual engagement with archives. By providing students with a critical method of queer complaint as feminist killjoys, we can open the door for our students- and for ourselves.  

Works Cited 

Ahmed, Sara. “Killing Joy: Feminism and the History of Happiness.” Signs: Journal of Women In Culture And Society, vol. 35, no. 3, 2010, pp. 571–94. https://doi.org/10.1086/648513  

—. “Complaint as a Queer Method.” Feministkilljoys, 24 Mar. 2022, https://feministkilljoys.com/2022/03/24/complaint-as-a-queer-methodb/ 

Bechdel, Alison. “Compulsory Reading.” Edited by Lunsford, Andrea A., et al. Everyone’s an Author with Readings, ebook, second edition, W.W. Norton, 2016. 

—. “The Rule,” Dykes To Watch Out For, vol. 1, Firebrand, 1986, p. 22. 

Busby, Jennifer, Lance Heisler, and Kari Odden. “Awkward At the Doctor.” Queer Zine Archive Project, 2010, https://archive.qzap.org/index.php/Detail/Object/Show/object_id/229 

Bullard, David, et al. “Oklahoma SB129: 2023: Regular Session.” LegiScan, https://legiscan.com/OK/text/SB129/id/2623314 

Chute, Hillary. “Comics form and Narrating lives.” Profession, 2011, pp. 107-117. https://www.jstor.org/stable/41714112  

Combahee River Collective Statement: Black Feminist Organizing in the Seventies and Eighties. Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1986. 

Cox, Anicca and Rachel Riedner. “Persistence, Coalition and Power: Institutional Citizenship and the Feminist WPA.” Peitho Journal, vol. 25, no. 2, 2023, pp. 14-28. 

Enoch, Jessica, and Pamela VanHaitsma. “Archival Literacy: Reading the Rhetoric of Digital Archives in the Undergraduate Classroom.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 67, no. 2, 2015, pp. 216–42. 

Hagi, Randi B. “Rockingham County students weigh in on their needs, pitch solutions.” WMRA, 13 Mar. 2023, https://www.wmra.org/2023-03-14/rockingham-county-students-weigh-in-on-their-needs-pitch-solutions  

Harris, Richard, Ann E. Wilson-Daily, and Georgina Fuller. “‘I just want to feel like I’m part of everyone else’: how schools unintentionally contribute to the isolation of students who identify as LGBT+.” Cambridge Journal of Education, vol. 52 no. 1, 2022, pp. 155-173. 

Heinert, Jennifer and Cassandra Phillips. “Transforming the Value of Gendered Service through Institutional Culture Change.” Peitho Journal: Special Cluster on Gendered Service in Rhetoric and Writing Studies, vol. 21, no. 2, 2019, pp. 255-78.   

Holpuch, Amanda. “Florida School Restricts Access to Amanda Gorman’s Inauguration Poem.” The New York Times, 24 May 2023, www.nytimes.com/2023/05/24/us/biden-inauguration-poem-florida-ban-amanda-gorman.html. 

Kosciw, J. G., Clark, C. M., Truong, N. L., & Zongrone, A. D. “The 2019 National School Climate Survey: The experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer youth in our nation’s schools.” Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), 2020,  https://www.glsen.org/research/2019-national-school-climate-survey 

Morris, Charles. “The Archival Turn in Rhetorical Studies; or, The Archive’s Rhetorical (Re)turn.” Rhetoric & Public Affairs vol. 9, no. 1, 2006, pp. 113–15. 

Munro, Lauren, Robb Travers, and Michael R. Woodford. “Overlooked and invisible: Everyday experiences of microaggressions for LGBTQ adolescents.” Journal of Homosexuality, vol. 66, no. 10, 2019, pp. 1439-1471. 

Payne, Michelle. “Administration, Emotional Labor, and Gendered Discourses of Power: A Feminist Chair’s Mission to Make Service Matter.”  Peitho Journal: Special Cluster on Gendered Service in Rhetoric and Writing Studies, vol, 21, no. 2, 2019, pp. 308-33. 

Peters, Carol. “Rutgers Alumna Who Fought Book Ban as School Librarian Receives National Award.” Rutgers University. www.rutgers.edu/news/rutgers-alumna-who-fought-book-ban-school-librarian-receives-national-award  

Queer Zine Archive Project, https://archive.qzap.org//. Rawson, K.J. “Accessing Transgender // Desiring Queer(er?) Archival Logics”. Archivaria, Vol. 68, Jan. 2010, pp. 123-40, https://archivaria.ca/index.php/archivaria/article/view/13234. 

Schell, Eileen. “Is it Worth It to ‘Lean In’ and Lead? On being a Woman Department Chair in Rhetoric and Writing Studies.” Peitho Journal: Special Cluster on Gendered Service in Rhetoric and Writing Studies, vol 21, no. 2, 2019, pp. 308-33.  

Snapp, Shannon D., et al. “LGBTQ-inclusive curricula: Why supportive curricula matter.” Sex Education vol. 15 no. 6, 2015, pp. 580-596. 

Theimer, Kate. “Archives in Context and as Context.” Journal of Digital Humanities, vol. 1 no. 2, 2012. https://journalofdigitalhumanities.org/1-2/archives-in-context-and-as-context-by-kate-theimer/  



Addressing the Barriers between Us and that Future via Deep Rhetoricity

In our CCC 2022 article, “Deep Rhetoricity as Methodological Grounds for Unsettling the Settled,” we (Gesa and Romeo) preliminarily sketched out deep rhetoricity. We acknowledged in that essay rhetoricity can convey a doing such as historiographic, archival, feminist rhetorical, and decolonial research, among other forms. At the onset, however, it was deliberated and determined that in the next iteration of conversations on doing what needed to be reemphasized was the unsettling of the settled. Our hope, as appealed by indigenous scholars such as Linda Tuhiwai Smith, was for an unsettling of self-being anchored by identity politics or benevolent lexicography; knowledge production organized by axes of academic theories-values inextricably linked to modern/colonial projects of territorial and epistemological expropriation; and politics of critical positioning detached from location and disengaged from the particularities and specificities in which power unfolds. Deep rhetoricity was our attempt to intervene in a doing undaunted by the hauntings, unscathed by the haunting situations, and unfazed by the wounded/ing spaces-places of a modern/colonial world system.[1] The actor-agent of this doing recognizes nobody exists outside of such and thus has it figure prominently in returns to spaces-places where one does and thinks.[2]   

We advance a doing accountable and responsible to self(ves), others (broadly conceived), and communities. In the spirit of Gayatri Spivak, we set out to think of a doing not purely academic, situated squarely as a responsibility to what is formalizable (e.g., responding – being answerable to a call to action), what must endure (e.g., the ungraspable), and to the trace of the other (radical contamination). Such a doing underscores an ethos unhinged from an allegiance to a proper name or finality and grounded instead in being present to self(ves), others (nonliving, nonhuman), and the infinite demand for getting caught up. In the vein of Donna Haraway and Linda Alcoff’s work on epistemology, situated knowledge, and truth, we also conceived of a doing unseated from automatic equations between a postion/ality and disposition. Herein lies its formation as praxis insofar that it is a doing grounded in becoming ready to be answerable for how one has come to walk and see the world and interact and exchange meaning with others. Deep rhetoricity was our wager all doing demands as a starting point the corporeal exercise of addressing oneself to hauntings, inheritances, and dwellings as obligation-responsibility. The actor-agent of this doing would embody an ethos and praxis of unsettling the settled. 

Deep rhetoricity is our attempt to situate ethos and praxis in the elsewhere and otherwise. Alcoff argues we need to relearn how to make truth claims and reconstruct epistemology. That is a course-of-action, however im/possible, we accept, and one that demands the language of constellations and coalitions. A truth: our stories-so-far are a cosmo of constellated hauntings, inheritances, and dwellings. The racist Arthur de Gobineau understood the world was being staged for a haunting-and-ghostly totality to become a structure of feeling: “so long as even their shadows remain [e.g., monuments], the building[s] stands [e.g., economic, authorial, educational, political, and knowledge], the body seems to have a soul, the pale ghost walks” (33). Though not all feel equally the haunt in their bones, we argue in our essay, we are all in this palimpsest narrative—Raymond Williams’ structures of feeling or Michael Taussig’s public secret—of settler sites, haunted/ing communities, and wounded/ing spaces-places. It will take a coalition to unstage such a totality. In the spirit of Karen Barad, Walter Mignolo and Catherine Walsh, and others then, deep rhetoricity is about the staging of an epistemic doing that fractures barriers between us (living, nonliving, nonhuman) to make visible invisible structures of feeling that attune us. [3] The actor-agent of this doing is driven by an ethic of being-and-thinking-with others otherwise that underscores critical frameworks of feminist rhetorical practices and coalition-building. This doing is animated and facilitated though by the epistemic principles of returns, careful reckonings, and enduring tasks to ensure a responsibility beyond mere representation.   

The focus of our previous essay is on the inward process of deep rhetoricity. By couching ethos and praxis in hauntings, inheritances, and dwelling as language, rhetoric, and corporeal exercises of address we are afforded the opportunity to deliberate an-other set of choices, options, and responsibilities. We concur with scholars such as Jacques Derrida, Avery Gordon, Sylvia Wynters, and others that an-other epistemological framework for the living is needed; one predicated on an ontology of truth not instituted by an epistemology that dehumanizes and devalues human beings (coloniality of knowledge) but one that strives to liberate, however im/possible, pluriversal truths and constellated truths; one that partakes in responsible and accountable knowledge production instead of idealized reconstructions of knowledge; one that underscores a humanness in the service of others, a being human as praxes. What continues to be at stake in our inability to live or have something in-common is the possibilities of new stories. The actor-agent of this doing foregoes the given-ness and peels back the layers of what is constituted as settled. To begin every conversation on doing with hauntings, inheritances, and dwellings is to station self-being within that intermediary stage between what is formalizable and what must endure as an ongoing task. This is the very space-place of deep rhetoricity. [4]   

We acknowledge that deep rhetoricity can be aligned with the Modernity/Coloniality Collective’s prospective task and feminist and coalitional work. A return to hauntings, inheritances, and dwellings is a return to where one does and thinks; a careful reckoning with the settled-ness of self-being is a learning how to unlearn cultural and thinking programs to relearn how to be-and-think-with self(ves), others, and communities otherwise; and the enduring task of getting caught up is a commitment to hope-struggle. But because the impetus for deep rhetoricity was to go beyond mere critique of Western epistemology and advance a doing attuned to the messiness of life, agency, and coalitional work, we did not advance it as a decolonial project.[5] For anything with a proper name, and the irony is not lost on us here, prescribes a proper method of seeing, being, and doing.[6] The same goes with feminist-coalition work and the advancement of a certain form of agency. Deep rhetoricity emerges in the vein of Saba Mahmood and Kenna Neitch, where agency is not a synonym for resistance, subversion, and/or resignification of hegemonic norms but rather reflective of a capacity for action that haunting(s)-situation(s) enable and create. It neither portends to be a panacea nor a mechanized application of a proper method but rather a commitment to/wards unsettling the settled. The actor-agent of this doing engages reconstructive work in epistemology to surrender formal representations of proper names, producing a rupture, creating a clearing, and initiating an opening. This must remain most vital within feminist rhetorical practices and coalitional work where the door must remain open to anyone, wherever they may be (Fanon) and in the non-name of all (Acosta).  

The reconstruction of epistemology that we forward in this essay is based on the outward-facing aspects of deep rhetoricity. Its epistemic principles-as-heuristics are not a panacea but build on that hope for a future of mutual wor(l)ding animated by a struggle to unsettle “the barriers between us” (Lorde 57). Like our previous essay, our goal is to open up a conversation, this time on being-and-thinking-with others otherwise. The relational framework we advance in this essay is informed by feminist and coalitional work as well as scholars such as Audre Lorde, Jim Corder, Joy, Ritchie, Frantz Fanon, María Lugones, bell hooks, Jacqueline Jones Royster, Andrea Riley Mukavetz, and Ana Ribero and Sonia Arellano. We tentatively outline three epistemic principles that are introductory and subject to revision. They are not carried out evenly in this essay but figure prominently throughout. The principles are as follows: 

  • Returns to our ways of walking and seeing the world. 
  • Careful reckonings with our understandings of being-and-thinking-with and exchanging meaning with others.  
  • Being-with, or a commitment of being-and-thinking-with others (past-present-future; environment; living, nonliving, nonhuman) otherwise. 

Though incomplete, we believe the above epistemic principles are points-of-references that can put feminist rhetorical practices and coalition-building on pathways towards the possibilities of new stories amid troubling times and pedagogical challenges. In this context, deep rhetoricity will remain quite ambitious in what it strives for, intervention through the unsettling of the settled and (re/co)-invention for the sake of relearning how to see and walk the world and interact and exchange meaning with others otherwise. [7] The modification to rhetoricity here is less about achieving rhetorical effect and more about making visible the work of doing before us all. Such doing will echo the undertones of love, care, healing, and learning that are so important to and within frameworks of feminist rhetorical practices and coalition-building work.  

Feminist coalition-building, as we envision it, is rooted in principles articulated and advocated by feminist scholars and activists over several decades. While it is beyond the scope of this essay to discuss those principles in detail, we list a number of them below to situate our work and to acknowledge the important work and legacies of feminist activist scholars, scholars who have charted multiple paths for us; have insisted on making commitments to community, collaboration, and coalition-building; and have created/ claimed spaces for women (and women-identified people) whose voices and perspectives that have long been missing, ignored, silenced, or erased from public memory (Applegarth, Buchanan & Ryan, Enoch, Glenn, Logan, Ratcliffe, Royster). Among the feminist activist principles that ground our work are the following:  

  • questioning the status quo of gendered, hetero-normative, social, political, cultural, economic systems that privilege small groups of people while disempowering/alienating a large number of others, whose stories, lived experiences, and communities have been deemed unimportant, marginal, or deliberately omitted from public narratives (Butler; Duplessis and Snitow; Hanish; Rich).  
  • questioning epistemological/ontological assumptions of research methods and methodologies and the ethos/ethical practices of researchers. While it is now commonplace among rhetoric and writing studies scholars to reflect on their membership in and commitment to the communities they are studying, early feminist scholars and activists were the ones who insisted on and argued for the importance of these principles (Bizzell, Gilligan, Jagger, Harding, hooks, Lorde, Spivak, Royster, Smith, Sandoval).  
  • reflecting on one’s own ethos as scholars, teachers, community members, and activists (Ryan, Myers and Jones) while working toward reciprocity and collaboration among researchers and community members (Alcoff; Chilisa; Cushman; Powell and Takayoshi; Riley-Mukavetz). That means scholars engage in shared knowledge-building, work with community members who set priorities for the research agenda and for best use of (re)sources–in contrast to Western research practices steeped in traditions of gathering/extracting/exploiting information from community members that can–and have–caused great harm (Caswell; Hughes-Watkins; McCracken and Hogan; Cushman). Reciprocity and collaboration involve listening to community members and centering their needs, values, and perspectives rather than imposing the researchers’ agenda, questions, and values on the community. It also involves protecting the dignity, respect, and autonomy of those we study with an emphasis on fair, ethical, dignified portrayals of research participants and building communities of solidarity.
  • developing new tools, frameworks, and methodologies for conducting research, such as the analytical frameworks articulated by Royster and Kirsch (critical imagination, strategic contemplation, social circulation, and globalization/ transnationalism). It entails efforts to disrupt/unsettle supposedly “neutral /objective points of view” which tend to reflect white western male perspectives. Moreover, it comes with efforts to narrate a greater variety of stories and more complex, diverse representation of human experiences (Graban, Gutenson and Robinson, McDuffie and Ames, Logan, Royster, Schell, VanHaitsma).
  • working toward a sense of care, well-being, and love towards those we work with (Corder, hooks, Lorde). Feminist scholars have long recognized that relationships of care can and do create unequal power relations, yet rather than avoiding those inequalities, feminist scholars and activists have challenged researchers to acknowledge potential power differentials and apply an ethics of care to support those who might find themselves in vulnerable positions (Gilligan, Noddings, Tronto). 

Embracing deep rhetoricity as an intervention into the settled can be helpful to feminist activist and coalitional principles. First, because an ethos and praxis of unsettling the settled remains oriented to power structures and hierarchies based in Western settler colonialism, coloniality, patriarchy, and capitalism. Second, because the epistemic principles of deep rhetoricity as heuristics underscore deliberative intentions to produce ruptures, create clearings, and initiate openings. Joy Ritchie warned experiences are not universal, strategic essentialism is only a temporary point of departure, and self-analysis and reflexivity are vital to collective work. Uninterested in hand-waving or “virtue signaling,” we advance a doing that incessantly grounds a question, where are the lessons of ethos and praxis being proposed from? If we are where we do and think then hauntings, inheritances, and dwellings must figure prominently in doings. And third, because embracing deep rhetoricity is about standing at the nexus of an-other’s stories-so-far and possibilities of new stories as an ethic of love, care, healing, and learning.  

The goal of this essay is to animate each facet of the outward-facing aspects of deep rhetoricity some of which occurs within the classrooms in which we teach. Our essay below is organized into two sections. In the first section, we explore the barriers between us and a future otherwise; the hope-struggle that underscore both possibilities as well as the complexities, complicatedness, and messiness of doing human work and carrying out human projects. Such reflections are necessary because sometimes theory and theoretically informed praxis do not easily translate or bode well in practice. This section includes case studies drawn from Kirsch and García’s research and teaching at two different institutions. The second section offers a reflection by all four co-authors, guided by two questions: one, what does feminist coalition-building mean? And two, what does feminist coalition building look like? Such a reflection is necessary given an essay that aims to illustrate how feminist coalition-building might work among a group of four co-authors with diverse backgrounds, lived experiences, and academic standing/privilege.  

The Barriers Between Us and that Future 

The discussion that follows draws on examples from undergraduate and graduate courses that Kirsch and García teach. We share examples of how we resist palimpsest narratives that aim to normalize haunted/ing structures of feeling (Williams; Gordon), smooth frictions (Lueck and Nasr), hide fissures (Mignolo), and keep the dark corners (and secrets) of history out of sight and out of mind (Bunch). The discussion aims to animate our attempts at implementing the outward epistemic principles of deep rhetoricity amid troubling times and pedagogical challenges. 

Kirsch reflects on one question that animates this essay: How can we learn to practice being-and-thinking-with others otherwise in and out of the classroom? Drawing on an undergraduate course, “Writing the Archives,” Kirsch offers a discussion of her feminist commitments and coalition-building practices by working with two student authors, Valeria Guevara Fernandez and Nicole Salazar, who reflect on their own experiences of working with primary sources, conducting archival research, and engaging in feminist coalition-building and activism. Rather than speaking for or about students, Kirsch decided to invite students to be-with/in this essay as coauthors, sharing their insights, reflections, and challenges of unsettling settled histories. Kirsch imagines and enacts a pedagogy that invites pathways of learning to unlearn as being-with, highlighting the possibilities of the outward-facing principles of deep rhetoricity and the opportunities that can arise when we find a productive tension between intervention, our current sets of stories-so-far, and invention, the possibilities of new stories. 

García reflects on a recent experience in Tokyo and then segues by recalling work he does with students at the University of Utah (UoU). He then contends with a coloniality of instruction-and-curriculum (broadly conceived) in Utah. García proceeds by making an argument for the utility of settler archival research as place-based pedagogy that invites students to return to and carefully reckon with how their stories-so-far and everyday adhere to, interact with, and carry out the histories, cultural memories, and literacy-rhetorical practices settler archives represent. He reflects on failures and minimal successes in an undergraduate course, “Intermediate Writing,” that marks the interplay between a hope for wor(l)ding a future otherwise and the struggle to unsettle “the barriers between us and that future” (Lorde 57) through the human work-projects of unsettling the settled, being-and-thinking-with, and mutual deliberation-determination of an-other set of choices, options, and responsibilities. 

Standing at the Nexus of Stories-so-far and the Possibilities-of-New-Stories  

In this section, I [Gesa] explore the outward-facing epistemic principles of deep rhetoricity against the backdrop of pedagogical challenges and opportunities. In many ways, deep rhetoricity resonates with the challenge posed by Audre Lorde:  

… looking out and beyond to the future we are creating, [recognizing that] we are part of communities that interact, … and arm[ing] ourselves with accurate perceptions of the barriers between us and that future” (57). 

Lorde’s call anchors the three inward epistemic principles of deep rhetoricity as an ethos and praxis of returns to our local histories of hauntings, inheritances, and dwellings; careful reckonings with self as the place of multiple returns and becomings; and enduring tasks of this work. What prompts me to continue exploring deep rhetoricity is the potential of the outward journey: the epistemic principle of standing at the nexus of another’s set of stories-so-far and possibilities of new stories. 

When we envision “standing at the nexus” of these two spaces, we invoke movement, fluidity, change–all enduring tasks. Drawing inspiration from Lorde and from hooks, who reminds us that “solidarity requires sustained, outgoing commitment,” I invite students, in an upper division course on “Writing the Archives” to explore what it means to unsettle settled histories, to confront hauntings and inheritances, and to establish an ethos and praxis that address the barriers between us and another future via a praxis of being-with others, otherwise. In the course, we study–and contribute to–many different kinds of archives, including personal and family archives, community archives, digital archives, ephemeral archives, and archives-in-the-making. In the syllabus, I describe the course goals as follows:  

This seminar explores archives as sites of cultural interpretation, civic engagement, and social change.  We will explore a broad range of archives, including family archives, community archives, digital archives, and institutional archives. Drawing on feminist, rhetorical, indigenous, decolonial, and other perspectives, we will focus on what stories, social memories, and public histories can emerge from archival research, and just as important, what remains hidden, missing, silenced, or erased in archival collections.  We will also study how archives in your concentration can illuminate the histories, intellectual frameworks, and methodologies of your field of study. 

The course readings are interdisciplinary and include work by feminist and feminist rhetorical scholars, Indigenous scholars, and African American scholars, amongst others. We read chapters from Unsettling Archival Research (Kirsch, García, Allen and Smith), articles from a special issue of the digital journal Across the Disciplines with the theme Unsettling the Archives, and articles by critical archival scholars. One of the articles that became a powerful touchstone in class was Michelle Caswell’s “Seeing Yourself in History: Community Archives and the Fight Against Symbolic Annihilation.” Caswell explains that she adapted the term symbolic annihilation from “feminist media scholars in the 1970s” who use it to “describe what happens to members of marginalized groups when they are absent, grossly under-represented, maligned, or trivialized…” (27). Caswell deliberately calls out the willful erasure, disremembering, and omission of records that are part and parcel of many institutional “capital-A” archives, archives that represent on a limited version of history: that of the powerful, wealthy, often white-identified men. She cautions: 

“If archives are to be true and meaningful reflections of the diversity of society instead of distorted funhouse mirrors that magnify privilege, then they must dispense with antiquated notions of whose history counts and make deliberate efforts to collect voices that have been marginalized by the mainstream” (p. 36). 

In class discussion the term “symbolic annihilation” resonated as both a powerful and haunting concept, offering students an entry point, a measure, a criterion for assessing what happens when “stories-so-far” are missing entirely from public discourse/memory and thereby negate the “possibilities of new stories.”   

The first half of the semester we focused on readings and case studies that illustrate how researchers can engage in reciprocal work, contribute to the communities they are studying, and produce narratives that unsettle settled histories. Students undertake three assignments: an “archival adventure,” a low-stakes exploratory assignment that invites discovery of personal or family archives and reflection on what constitutes an archive, how collections are created, and how memory/ meaning are attached to artifacts. The second assignment explores the conventions of a research proposal and asks students to articulate an original research project that draws on primary sources housed in a digital archive and/or one that builds on the archival adventure. The third assignment asks students to conduct the research they proposed in the second assignment. That is, students follow through on the research goals they set, including analyzing and interpreting primary sources from digital archives, and/or creating original sources via conducting interviews/collecting materials, and/or examining artifacts in small-a archives.  

In all three assignments I invite students to see themselves as researchers who reflect on stories-so-far and, in the process, work toward the possibilities of new stories that might evolve, challenge, or amend stories-so-far. I ask students to practice reciprocity, a being-and-thinking-with, to make a contribution to the community(ies) they study and/or the archives they work with, so that the archival research they are conducting can enable the possibilities of new stories. One of the evaluation criteria for the final assignment, the original research project, addresses outcome, impact, and contribution.  

The writer clearly explains how conclusions are drawn, what contributions the research makes, and considers the impact of the research, including likely impact on intended audiences. The writer considers potential reciprocity, benefits, harms to participants/ community. Explains how the results will be disseminated and why these means are appropriate to the subject matter and audience. 

Finally, I invite students to articulate the contribution(s) they might be able to make to the communities they are studying. In many ways, this assignment sequence aligns with García’s portfolio requirements: constituted by returns home (archival adventure), careful reckonings with stories-so-far (research proposal) and a commitment to reciprocity, to being-and-thinking-with others, otherwise (original research project).   

In the hyperlinks below, readers encounter the words and work of Valeria Guevara Fernandez and Nicole Salazar who describe and reflect on their archival research projects and what that work means to them. Guevara Fernandez’s research project touches on the many ways in which archival materials can get flattened, homogenized, erased; her research focused on holdings in the University of Louisville (UofL) Oral History Center. What caught her attention were nine oral histories–testimonios actually (more on this below)–all classified with a single, generic description:  “Latin Americans – United States.” As she was about to embark on her research, Guevara Fernandez reflects: 

As I was browsing through the long list of subjects, a specific one caught my attention: “Latin Americans – United States”. The lack of detail in its title is what drew me in the most. Was this an archive about immigration? Politics? Xenophobia?” 

As Guevara Fernandez quickly discovered, issues of access, selection, power, and privilege are deeply intertwined with archival holdings. She deliberately positioned herself at the nexus of stories-so-far and the possibilities of new stories by making a critical intervention: engaging in archival labor. She contacted Heather Fox, the director of the UofL Oral History Center and started a fruitful collaboration, taking on the role of “activist archivist” (Wakimoto, Bruce, and Partridge) and serving as a vital contributor to the archives by creating new records, coding interviews in both Spanish and English, analyzing themes, and making visible the lost and hidden histories contained in these testimonios. Quite literally, Guevara Fernandez began creating presence from absence and sounds from silence with her research project. 

For Nicole Salazar, connections of stories-so-far and the possibilities-of-new-stories were invoked when she began her archival adventure by sorting through bins of her grandmother’s clothing, many of which were sewn by her grandmother, an accomplished seamstress who worked in factories that produced designer fashion. 

“My grandma worked many jobs as she was raising my mom and my aunts. All her jobs always had something to do with sewing, whether it be swimsuits when she worked at La Sirena, costumes while she worked at a factory called Clemente, or luxury purses and belts at the Louis Vuitton factory not too far from her house.” 

As Nicole sorted through the bins, she came upon a pair of well-worn, low-rise jeans, an item of clothing that she learns tells the story of intergenerational, border-crossing connections. Here, we see Nicole “bearing and being a witness to stories-so-far and embracing the possibilities of new stories that she is able to embody, a college student and athlete.” Nicole reflects: 

“The majority were memories of my mom since the clothes used to be hers with an occasional piece or two of my Nina’s but when I showed her a pair of light washed low-rise Levi’s, my grandma had lots to share… The low-rise Levi’s were hers when she was in her early 20s and later on she passed them down to my mom. To think that this pair of denim was over twice my age and had seen more of the world than I had was mind blowing. I was so excited to think that a pair of jeans that were once my grandma’s and then my mom’s could be mine, and that I could make my own memories with them. Once we finished running through the other items I selected, I rushed to try on my new pairs of jeans. I put them on and I immediately felt a sense of belonging. Not only because they fit like a glove, but also because I felt like I filled in the missing part of a puzzle. I had the opportunity to carry on the lineage of the Levi’s that had been well loved by my family before me; it felt like an honor to wear them.” 

Nicole’s discovery of her grandmother’s sewing skills and sense of fashion led Nicole to a research project focused on a community where fashion and style are used as elements of activism: the community of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Through exploring an archive in the making, that of the Los Angeles house of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, and conducting interviews with current sisters, Nicole was able to reckon with stories-so-far, build solidarity across communities, and learn to be with/think with others, otherwise. 

 Creating Coalitions of Solidarity via Testimonios 

Creating Coalitions of Solidarity via Fashion Choices

An Experience of the Im/Possible  

Recently, I (Romeo) was in Japan with the family. We visited TeamLab Planets (Tokyo), an art installation that aims to unsettle barriers between self and boundaries, self and artwork, and self and others. Its theme, “Together with Others, Immerse your Entire Body, Perceive with your Body, and Become One with the World,” is aspirational, an invitation to learn how to be-and-think-with others otherwise—an archival impression. Activities peeled back layers of accessories (quasi bare-life), unsettled the grounds on which we walk (obscuring the senses), and simulated journeys from darkness to light (regeneration of life). [8] Feminist and coalitional principles were unavoidable. And a decolonial ethic, ethos, and praxis of learning-unlearning-relearning was not lost on me.[9] But the full-body immersive experience, for which I will call a decolonizing archival impression, was actually more emblematic of more to the inward and outward facing aspects of deep rhetoricity. Deep rhetoricity, conceives of our stories-so-far as archives, its epistemic principles the vehicle in which to engage in a slow and deep (de) and (re)-compositioning of self. Returns and careful reckonings reposition the contents of our archives so that we can reposition ourselves in relation to it otherwise while enduring tasks invite the ongoing process of initiating archival impressions otherwise.

Returns. The first installation, “Waterfall of Light Particles at the Top of an Incline,” invites participants to enter a space of darkness and water. Both are intended to unsettle the grounds by which one walks and sees; one is but walking into the abyss of darkness amongst other shadows. It was not lost on me either the significance of entering spaces-places as stories-so-far and the symbolism of water both in its ability to restore self(ves) and invite a re-connection with [We/arth]—we are all in and part of an archive. The second installation, “Soft Black Hole–Your Body becomes a Space that Influences another Body,” invites participants into an ever-changing space. The beanbags succumb to the weight of others and in turn affects the bodies of others; an archive and its archival impressions. It is meant to underscore how we always already stand at the nexus of an-other’s stories-so-far and the possibilities of new stories. How then, I wondered, do we become more intentional with the way we initiate such impressions?

Careful reckonings. Perhaps the most moving installations was “Floating in the Falling Universe of Flowers.” We laid down amongst other shadows and playfully world-traveled (Lugones) into the universe of the seasonal bloom, change, and de-composition (diastema). Individuality ceased to be, shadows coalesced, and in a moment in time the space was but the substance of humanity and air the song of [We/arth-ly] particles being-and-thinking-with others—archival impressions constellating an archive. The decentralization of self and other meant we were once again distributed of the same root and that all bodies (living, nonliving, nonhuman) were one heart reflecting its surroundings; [We] were all just Matter. It was in this moment that I came to realize that the story of life before us all was not that of the [I] or the [You] but of the [We/arth]. And in that story, being-and-thinking-with others no longer meant finding the proper words or identifying a proper way but rather what [We] hoped would live-on (sur-vie) in the wor(l)lding of a future of the [We/arth] after our own de-composition; a Matter otherwise.[10]   

Enduring tasks. Every installation immersed the senses in a way to illustrate the effects of presence and consequences of that presence. They amplified the ability for non-humans to (re)attune and of non-humans to alter the ambience. “The tragedy” of a human being, Fanon (echoing Neitzsche) would tell us, “is that [we were] once a child” (231). Yet, in the art installation I was like Chihiro in Spirited Away who could see, feel, and hear the wind of the [Earth] pull, once again; because all the years were inside of me. For a moment, I was a child again–before the interruption that unsettled my childhood–and existed within a cosmo of fleeting glimpses, borderless worlds, and endless possibilities beyond myself. Life, agency, and rhetoric shifted in register to shared values: where will we choose to stand in order to see, welcome, know, be present to, and be a witness to an-other? what will we have wanted from one another after we tell our stories-so-far? But then came the interruption that ended the exhibit and the question of whether I or a generous reciprocity will ever have arrived somewhere, someday?[11] The enduring task for me was (re)learning how to reconnect with a doing that I once knew. 

The exhibit was about stories-so-far and the possibilities of new stories. That is a feminist aspiration. Deep rhetoricity can help facilitate its principles in nuanced ways though by ensuring returns, careful reckonings, and enduring tasks remain at the fore. The exhibit was about hope-struggle. That is a coalitional longing. Deep rhetoricity can advance its principles in nuanced ways though with an ethic of being-and-thinking-with which assures in the words of indigenous and native feminist scholars such as Maile Arvin, Eve Tuck, and Angie Morrill that longing remains “people-possessed” rather than “individually self-possessed” (25). I thought to myself after the experience, “if an art installation that is a byproduct of human doings could create such dispossessions in me there is no reason to believe such im/possibilities are subject to a specific time frame in life.” Sandra Cisneros’ poem, “Eleven,” speaks to this: “all the years inside of me–ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two and one” (n.p.). I am both an archive, “repositories of feeling and emotions” (Cvetkovich (7), and an “archive in the making” (Browne 51). Perhaps, the tragedy of being human is forgetting we are self(ves), stories that are not fixed but always subject to change due in part to the initiating of archival impressions—that which acts on one’s archive rhetorically. My experience with TeamLab is what I strive for at the UofU amongst the undergraduate students I work with, which I have written about elsewhere (García and Hinojosa). 

Coloniality of Instruction-and-Curriculum

Utahans and Utah stand apart. I say this at the risk of homogenizing culture and reducing rhetorics of place to a monolith.[12] In Utah, K-12 education, religion, and group circles are a prism by which to see coloniality of instruction-and-curriculum, inseparable from coloniality of knowledge–the invisible constitutive side (and not derivative)–and being. Especially if by power we in part mean epistemic and aesthetic campaigns to hoard and produce knowledge in excess that feed a war to dominate information (and mediums of circulation) fought on the battlefields of ideas (Man), images (Human), and ends (Rights-to). It was during my first year at the UofU, and from both students’ strong sense of obligation-responsibility to and my own readings of church-settler discourse on work,[13] that I encountered the work of reestablishing Zion and instructing salvation, reeducation, conversion, and restoration (work-instruction). This, in addition to my readings of discourse by Spanish Friars and Jesuits, Kant, and Hegel of whom emphasized instruction, curriculum, and/or pedagogy,[14] would lead me to coloniality of instruction-and-curriculum. [15] In Utah, it unfolds as the idea of Mormon/ism,[16] land as inheritance, an Other-as-Same relation, and work-instruction, all of which produce images of empty landscapes from which the inhabiting bodies of the other vanish or disappear.  These are all archival impressions that feed into a much larger modern/colonial and settlerizing archive. 

In part, without the classroom of education (broadly conceived) and coloniality of instruction-and-curriculum, neither coloniality as a disputed logic of domination, management, and control nor the epistemological regime of modernity could have been consolidated and sustained so successfully across space-place and time. [17] Coloniality of instruction-and-curriculum is the medium in which knowledge becomes factual and the tool by which epistemic obedience is managed and controlled. It is a settler-centered instruction in which educators, like the “men of letters” of the past, are entangled in informing-giving form to coloniality of knowledge. They become complicit in naturalizing a colonial matrix of power and its modus operandi of modernity/coloniality–“The control of labor and subjectivity, the practices and policies of genocide and enslavement, the pillage of life and land, and the denials and destruction of knowledge, humanity, spirituality, and cosmo-existence” (Mignolo and Walsh 16)–cloaked by images of empty landscapes, narratives of land waiting to be discovered, owned, and transformed into fertile “resources,” and rhetorics of peaceful Man-Human possessing the masculinity and intelligence to transform land into fertile “resources.” For me, students’ stories-so-far that year were examples of what coloniality of instruction-and-curriculum has done to and made of them. Because stories are imbued with meaning and consequences insofar that they circulate widely, have structural underpinnings, and carry material consequences (Rohrer 189). Students that year were a testament that stories are political because they “mobilize” histories and geographies of power (Alexander and Mohanty 31). But that too is a story-so-far. 

Neither Utah nor the students I teach are inherent or essential to themselves. Coloniality of instruction-and-curriculum in Utah thus can be approached a racial matrix that peddles racist worldviews predicated on the pretext of epistemic and ontological difference; law of who can be in-common; and subtext for coloniality of power. It affords us a window, in other words, into discourse-about actions (Benoit 70; 75). Coloniality of instruction-and-curriculum plays a role, adjacent to the material forms of public memory and everyday human projects in Utah, in how the past and certain ghosts are kept alive in ways that rewrites Utah in modern/colonial ways. But again, that is but a story-so-far. This means that if space-place, language, and identity are made by the same token they can be remade. This experience allowed me to coalesce the interworking’s of deep rhetoricity, decolonial work, and feminist coalition-building. And what resulted my first year at the UofU was an archival approach, an effort to create a public record that would afford students the opportunity to view the contents of their archives as stories-so-far and initiate decolonizing archival impressions; the unsettling of the settled-ness of Self.

The Fly in the Elephant’s Nose 

My first year at the UofU was marked by racist fliers, not-in-Utahism, determined epistemic ignorance, and Utahn niceness-politeness. But to identify students as problems is in itself problematic. Corder claims we are all narratives of histories, dogmas, and arguments. Sometimes they crush up against each other (19). So, when students carried out rhetorics of epistemology through church-settler epideictic rhetoric–“they [the other] love when we bring them things [the gift]”–during the first week of my “Intermediate Writing” course I choose to see this as an opportunity. If coloniality of instruction-and-curriculum has informed how such students walk and see the world and interact and exchange meaning with others by the same token both can be the means to unsettle barriers between us and bring forth a future of being-and-thinking-with each other otherwise. Friction, in the vein of Anna Tsing, became part of my vocabulary and pedagogical praxis. It afforded one way to think about what happens when there is an opportunity for non-humans (people, stories, knowledge) to come together and get to work. Things, however, do not always go as planned, and sometimes friction is just resistance.  

 If the rhetoric of place and the everyday are outcomes of literacies, rhetorics, and human projects by the same token they can be the means for a new arrangement. That kind of human work, however, requires a public record, cultural (archives) and individual (self as stories-so-far). The racist fliers found on campus were part of it. And so, we began there. A public record can afford students opportunities to utilize hauntings, inheritances, and dwellings as categories of analysis that can point towards connections between the past and the present in terms of social activities. In Utah, those activities can be as small as partaking in a service mission and as large as views on race and sexual orientation shared by the Church. A turning point for me in the ways I teach about settler colonialism and coloniality came by way of an email from a student. They were bothered by their peers and appealed for “more accurate accounts” of Utah history. The student offered to “assist” me in “researching and planning” and therein emerged my archival research of church-settlers of Utah. The student introduced me to the Book of Mormon and the General Conference corpus which led me down a rabbit hole and to the Journal of Discourses and The Millennial Star (and Ensign).  

Now, students were not inclined to accept conversations about settler colonialism or coloniality much less if they were abstract. So, I turned inward to the haunting(s)-situation(s) I know while I acquainted myself with church-settler history in Utah. In my previous work with students at the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley I had done archival research on settler-pioneers of the LRGV (see image below). This activity set in motion my endeavor to be vulnerable and be-and-think-with others, unsettling the distance and barriers between us. It animated Avery Gordon’s argument about how [We] are all part of and in this story. My hope was that settler archives would illustrate how ideas “dwell across the ages in the concepts and institutions human beings have built” (L. Gordon 13). Concept and institutions are what allow ideas to appear and become consequential within and beyond immediate settings and contexts (123). This reflected my effort to stand at the nexus of their stories-so-far and possibilities of new stories. 


Figure 1. Image description: a promotional poster with “The Beautiful Valley of the Lower Rio Grande” at the bottom in beige font on a black background. The image shows three men harvesting large baskets of fruit among palm trees. 

Figure 1. Image description: a promotional poster with “The Beautiful Valley of the Lower Rio Grande” at the bottom in beige font on a black background. The image shows three men harvesting large baskets of fruit among palm trees.


Students, to my surprise, were receptive, given the friction I encountered early on in the semester. They demonstrated their intellectual capacities to explore, investigate, analyze, interpret, determine, and translate meaning. For example, one student wrote about how settlers had control over mass media production (left image). This stood out to me given the mass management and control over multiple mediums of media in Utah and the way the war of information has influenced how “people dehumanize/other individuals.” Another student documented what they saw: white women, old white angry settlers, and white mayor. This response stood out as well because Utah is notoriously White and the rhetoric of place is “the glorification of settlers/colonialism/manifest destiny” (right image). With this settler archive I was able to underscore the effects and consequences of settler colonialism and coloniality on land, memory, knowledge, understanding, feeling, and being. 

Figure 2. Image description: a piece of notebook paper with doodles of three cartoon figures at the top and a list of notes in blue ink.

Figure 2. Image description: a piece of notebook paper with doodles of three cartoon figures at the top and a list of notes in blue ink.

Figure 3. Image description: a piece of notebook paper with a doodle of an eye with long, thick lashes at the top right. The notes, written in black ink, have the heading “1910-1960” and a list of phrases.

Figure 3. Image description: a piece of notebook paper with a doodle of an eye with long, thick lashes at the top right. The notes, written in black ink, have the heading “1910-1960” and a list of phrases.



Students were keen on what they encountered in the archives. One took note of key phrases that stood out to them: “rails brought civilization” | “men of integrity” | “destined to lead.” Their observation did not go unnoticed: “Everybody in the picture is white” (left image). I say this because the course was demographically majority white church members with only a couple of exceptions. I wondered, how did students internalize all this? Did it even cross their mind? Another student comments on the “dangerous aspect of this writing” because it “allows sentiments” about “Mexicans and Native Americans” to “silently embed themselves in society” (right image). The irony of this statement is not lost on me either particularly as it is read alongside the claim, “by only providing one viewpoint…it leads the reader to assume that the correct narrative is that of the author.” Because Utah is a case study in just how that has happened. I wondered here too, if they found irony in how they dismissed the racist fliers discussed at the onset of the semester. 


Figure 4. Image description: a photograph of a sheet of notebook paper with notes written in black ink: a numbered list 1 through 4 at the top, and phrases and quotations on the lower half of the page. 

Figure 4. Image description: a photograph of a sheet of notebook paper with notes written in black ink: a numbered list 1 through 4 at the top, and phrases and quotations on the lower half of the page.

Figure 5. Image description: a photograph of a sheet of notebook paper with notes written in black ink: a section at the top with the heading “Hear” and notes underneath, and a section in the lower half with the heading “See” and notes underneath. 

Figure 5. Image description: a photograph of a sheet of notebook paper with notes written in black ink: a section at the top with the heading “Hear” and notes underneath, and a section in the lower half with the heading “See” and notes underneath.


But this activity reflects the extent of my success that semester. By week three the language of the everyday shifted from Texas/me to Utah/Utahns. The classroom environment changed. We focused on haunting(s)-situation(s) that marked settler arrival, settlement, and expansion in Utah: the various wars between church-settlers and American Indians/Native Americans (Battle at Fort Utah, Battle Creek Massacre, Black Hawk War, Wakara’s War, Tintic War); the multiple treaties (Treaty of Abiquiú of 1849, The Spanish Fork Treaty of 1865, Fort Bridger Treaty of 1868); and coloniality of instruction-and-curriculum (Intermountain Indian School, The Indian Placement Program-Lamanite Placement Program, and Relief Society). Friction was at work. But so were many of the students. Because friction cuts both ways. Such friction laid bare the public secret of Utah, the structure of feeling haunting Utah, and the function of Utahn niceness-politeness (and not-in-Utahism); a faux listening to the Other-as-Same.[18]

Corder anticipated moments in which people can be steadfast in convictions. Coloniality of instruction-and-curriculum had only ever underscored the structural underpinnings and material consequences of their stories-so-far. Returns to and careful reckonings with how stories-so-far and the everyday adhere to, interact with, and carry out the histories, cultural memories, and literacy-rhetorical practices settler archives represent amplify a threat to foundations of self, stories-so-far, and community. What happens in such cases? The image below comes from students responding to the Texas settler archives. Notice, the students refer to the settler as a “good man” and applaud the settler for taking risks and establishing a white school for children. Now, this comes off the heels, once more, of discussions on settler colonialism and coloniality. Utahn niceness-politeness, in this context, is the act of listening with no intention to have critique bear on the self while epistemic ignorance is the production of knowledge wielded to create distance-separation and maintain relations of power.  

Figure 6. Image description: a photograph of four lines of notes written in black ink on a sheet of notebook paper 

Figure 6. Image description: a photograph of four lines of notes written in black ink on a sheet of notebook paper


Figure 7. Image description: a photograph of four lines of notes written in black ink on a sheet of notebook paper 

Figure 7. Image description: a photograph of four lines of notes written in black ink on a sheet of notebook paper


But I was persistent. We tried the privilege walk and privilege for sale activity. I invited colleagues (Christie Toth and Jon Stone) to attend class. We watched short documentaries. We listened to music. We read the words and ideas of their ancestors. I was still green in the world of teaching. And so, I tried everything. Because I refused to allow church-settler epideictic rhetoric to go unchecked; a wor(l)ding aspiration, which underscores students’ understanding of the ways words and worlding can take and make space-place. Overall, my goal was to utilize the language of the everyday, attending to the appeal by the student who emailed me, to both illuminate cultural and thinking program/ings and create friction. Hardly anything changed. But I did have four students who were doing shadow work; work behind the scenes without any guarantee or certainty for what it might yield (see Arellano et al.). By week 7 of the semester, I decided to scrap the final project and create a new one on the fly. I would call it, “Stories-So-Far and the Possibilities of New Stories.” The title would be inspired by the work of feminists such as Doreen Massey and Judy Rohrer. 

Figure 8. Image description: screenshot of an assignment description document for a multimedia portfolio 

Figure 8. Image description: screenshot of an assignment description document for a multimedia portfolio

Figure 9. Image description: screenshot of the second page of an assignment description document for a multimedia portfolio 

Figure 9. Image description: screenshot of the second page of an assignment description document for a multimedia portfolio


The assignment description is rather long and imperfect but overall the goal for the final project was to create an opportunity for students to gather their ancestral stories-so-far and collect evidence to support the verisimilitude of them—demystifying and extending archival research to the elsewhere and otherwise. The inevitable friction would hopefully aid them in considering an-other set of choices, options, and obligations-responsibilities. The assignment builds on the ideas of griots, corridistas, and elders as keepers of history and knowledge, time benders, and canon makers entrusted with being the affective channels of rhetorical transmission of and for a politics of hauntings, inheritances, and dwellings. They operate under a simple premise that people can listen to know-learn complex issues if the intention is truly for them to understand. It is a portfolio assignment constituted thus by returns home, careful reckonings with stories-so-far, and the praxis of unsettling the settled. But again, things do not always go as planned. The assignment went to work, because what was at stake was a grade for students, but so too did students, because friction cuts both ways. 

Unlike the scenarios Corder plays out in his essay educators do not have the luxury to walk away, the right to blame students for past atrocities, nor are they entitled to create a culture of adversaries. Still, I find myself agreeing with Corder that argument is not just a noun but a praxis of being-and-becoming, reminiscent of Sylvia Wynter’s being human as praxes. Friction holds value for me because intervention is rooted in the specificities and particularities in which power unfolds; we must know where we are at and who we are teaching. It holds two truths, first, that there is an opportunity for some-things to be-with each other, get to work on un/settling grounds, and mutually co-invent in friction in ways that can take and make place otherwise; power is un/made through friction. And second, friction can be like the fly in the elephant’s nose, which is to say, that at the very least we can be the wrench in the assembly line of normative stories-so-far. [19] The goal is not a totalistic rejection of religion nor is it to deliver conversion-type of education but rather it is to create solidarity in and around deep commitments to unsettling the barriers between us and that hoped-for future.  

Sometimes neither a theory (a decolonial option) nor concept (deep rhetoricity) will go as planned in the classroom. The entirety of the semester was not all marked by failure. I was able to reach four students. The student below was affected by classroom conversations, the behavior of their classmates, and the unwillingness within group circles to have critical dialogue. So, they decided to lead blog posts anonymously which culminated into an end of the year presentation.  

Figure 10. Image description: a screenshot of a slide deck with six thumbnail images on the left and the title slide on the right. The title slide is a blue-green background with “Race in Salt Lake City” in a serif font.  

Figure 10. Image description: a screenshot of a slide deck with six thumbnail images on the left and the title slide on the right. The title slide is a blue-green background with “Race in Salt Lake City” in a serif font.


Figure 11. Image description: a photograph of notebook paper with notes. Some words and phrases are scribbled out, and lines and arrows are drawn to indicate moving some words from one place to another.  

Figure 11. Image description: a photograph of notebook paper with notes. Some words and phrases are scribbled out, and lines and arrows are drawn to indicate moving some words from one place to another.


It is our hope, as educators, that when we offer an-other set of choices, options, and responsibilities students will pick it up, hold onto it, learn from it, and even pass it along. Sometimes, however, the work of our work will only be felt after the fact. So, perhaps, a reconceptualization of failure is in order, because the students I taught that semester will never be able to truly claim they never knew. And that for me is the power of being-and-thinking-with. Stories from faculty of color advancing the projects of unsettling and a decolonial option at PWIs are few and far between in WRS. So, I wanted to share a story of tension, frictions, adjustments, and failures from within the classroom. 

Still, I believe feminist activist and coalitional work can benefit from deep rhetoricity. Fanon to Mahmood warned about the predicament of contaminating life questions and questions of agency with reductive, dichotomous, and oppositional rhetorical structures. There is almost a sense of simplicity that underscores the aims to unsettle the settled-ness of systems of hierarchy, patriarchy, and other forms of oppression-repression. But at the moment life and agency get reduced to binaries (black/white; good/bad; right/wrong) and options (confront; resist; re-signify hegemonic norms) that human work-project becomes unsuitable for anyone, even if resistance is what is happening. Because it presupposes the proper grounds and name for knowledge, understanding, and being; speaking the proper words and identifying a proper way, reproducing a story of the [I] and the [You] instead of the [We/arth]. Feminist activist and coalitional work still have some unsettling of the settled to do, and deep rhetoricity can aid in such endeavors. 

Feminist coalitional work can benefit from deep rhetoricity insofar that it thrives in the complexities, complicatedness, and messiness that comes with friction. In fact, the epistemic principle of enduring tasks underscores the anticipation of that. For me, the wor(l)ding of a future of the [We/arth] complements Fanon’s vision for a building of the world of the [You]. [We/arth] unsettles the barriers between us and that future by embracing how [W]e all need to give an [E]ar to what lives in our bones [/] and both re-introduce (co/re)-invention as [A]rt and be receptively generous to each other and the [Earth]. [20] And yet, it nuances the [You]. First of all, wor(l)ding is what we do in WRS, because wording is human work and worlding is a human project. [We/arth], second of all, unsettles the settled-ness of proper words and identifying a proper way. It holds that rhetoric matters because it demands an engagement not just with human beings but with everything that surrounds us—[Earth]. To have [We/arth] in common is to value the possibility for commonality and radically reframe the worth (intentional homonym) of a gift in the non-name of all and for the sake of all Matter living-on [sur-vie] and flourishing otherwise 

Feminist Activist and Coalitional Work 

In this section, we, the coauthors of this essay, reflect on what feminist activist and coalitional work means to us and what it can look like. Our reflections do not attempt to settle on [A] definition of feminist coalition-building but rather underscore the importance of thinking-and-being-with others (inheritances, dwellings, ghosts, people, non-humans) otherwise. Our reflections below highlight feminist Ribero and Arellano’s concept of comadrismo at best and at the very least our aspirations for the wor(l)ding otherwise.  

Gesa: The feminist activist principles we describe in the introductory section of this essay have become integral to all courses I plan, design, teach, revise, or re-envision. For example, in the course discussed here, Writing the Archives, I center the readings, assignments, research methods, and research projects in feminist pedagogical principles. Although the class did not have an explicitly feminist theme, feminist activist principles inform my course design and presentation, including readings selected, questions raised about research methods, emphasis on reciprocity, respect, collaboration, and dignified relations with participants, as well as discussions of differences between stories-so-far and the possibilities of new stories. Moreover, my goal is to invite students to make meaningful contributions to new or existing archives; to consult, collaborate, and build coalitions with community members whose stories and lived experiences became the subject of their inquiry; and to contribute to conference panels or scholarly publications (such as this article). 

Valeria: Coalition-building means and manifests itself through many different ways in my life. I am the start of a new generation in my family, I was the firstborn of the fourth living generation. Every time I go home it is essential to me to come to where my family started. I ask to be taught about the struggle, the sacrifice, and all the work done. I constantly visit the house where my grandmother was born. That’s where everything started. To me, it is the house that reminds me of why I need to keep going. Feminist activist and coalition work to me is paving a path for all the women in the world who are underrepresented and come from similar backgrounds as me. We are incredibly hidden in important professional sectors such as the finance field. I emphasize this because the journey I am currently on has not been easy. Coalition-building to me is sitting down and listening to the several two-hour interviews I worked with and making sure every experience was documented correctly on the UofL’s Oral History Center website because I know what it is like to have your story be told incorrectly by others. Voices are important, and making sure experiences are transmitted correctly is even more essential to advocacy, inclusion, and trust. Coalition-building is the reason why the organization Pathways to Citizenship, a 501(c)3, is now a priority in my life. Pathways to Citizenship’s mission is to help undocumented individuals navigate the complicated legal and cultural pathway to citizenship in the United States. It is essential to give back to my community and contribute to the success of the Latinx community in the United States as well as in Latin America. Every year, I distribute educational resources, food and clothes to my community in Pereira, Colombia. It is important for me to take the time to invest in others who were born into my same struggles. My success is measured through how many lives I impact, not how much profit I can make. Coalition-building to me means I do not win unless the people around me do too. 

Nicole: What feminist coalition-building means to me is to be able to build not only strong but also meaningful connections with the people and communities I am working with which in my case were the Sisters. Feminist activist and coalition-building work means you’re able to find common ground and help each other in a mutual way, although sometimes you may be working with diverse communities and/or people. This was how it was with me while working with the Sisters that although a community themselves, as individuals they were extremely diverse and complex in the best of ways. I was able to learn from the Sisters while also being able to help them add to their digital archives. It was a mutual exchange and was a building of feminist coalition from both ends. To have successful feminist activist and coalitional work I wanted to represent and advocate for the Sisters. While carrying out my work this meant being able to make sure not to speak for but on behalf of the Sisters, what they shared with me was their truth and stories that I was granted access to share with others; the Sisters held the power in their voices and what I shared. I wanted others to see the more intimate side of the Sisters they don’t always get to share, and what made this feminist coalition-building really special for me is that because the Sisters are so diverse, they advocated for many other communities along with the feminist community which meant we were able to do some coalition-building for those communities as well. I always wanted to make sure that everything I did with the Sisters was done with dignity and respect. 

Within my project feminist coalition-building looked like working continuously with the Sisters and constantly asking them for their feedback. With everything I did I worked closely alongside Professor Caldwell who gave me honest and very useful feedback. As a Professor and Sister themselves, their feedback meant a lot to me as they saw both perspectives and were the blend within the two parties involved. While interviewing the Sisters I made sure to not only ask my own questions but also give them the opportunity to share what they wanted to say and allow them to have liberty within the project so it wouldn’t be just a script. The coalition-building did not only come off from my end but it was a collective effort to do what was best for all involved; most importantly, the Sisters and their individual stories were the center of it all.  

Romeo: At the heart of feminist rhetorical practices is an ethic, ethos, and praxis of unsettling the settled-ness of societal, cultural, and/or communal mechanisms of oppression, repression, exclusion, and erasure. Several examples in English and Writing and Rhetorical Studies come to mind that speak to coalition-building and efforts to undertake the [R] project (rescue, recover, recognize, reinscribe, and represent) in order to restore women to rhetorical history and rhetorical history to women: Walking and Talking Feminist Rhetorics (edited by Buchanan and Ryan), Rhetorica in Motion (edited by Schell and Rawson), Available Means (edited by Ritchie and Ronadl), and Feminist Rhetorical Practices (Kirsch and Royster) among others. I think Ribero and Arellano capture the connecting threads across these projects when they advocate for comadrismo. If coalition-building is going to mean anything it must include networks of care, mindsets of no te dejes, relations of trust, reciprocal empathy, and most of all love. I think of my Grandma and her comadres in this case, who exhibited for me an awaiting (“ojalá”): a hope without guaranteed predicate, a hope for that which may or may not arrive.[21]  

Grandma and her comadres were more than ready to carry out work for an-other (me) without ever any certainty or guarantee for what it might yield. Not only does this speak to the ethic of paying it forward but also underscores the ethos and praxis of (rhetorical) poder y fuerza. Royster might refer to this as rhetorical prowess, but a more appropriate phrase might be a no te dejes mentality. It is best captured by the words of my Grandma, “¡No dejaremos (terconess) que cualquier cosa o persona nos trate comoquiera. Porque si lo dejas, ya valio!” That is the personification of poder y fuerza, which is not predicated on pre-commitments to idioms of resistance, subversion, and re-signification of hegemonic norms but rather reflective of the complexities of reality and to political realities; we do despite hauntings and in spite of gaining meaning from haunting situations. In other words, haunting(s)-situation(s) enable and create our capacity for action. I am not sure if the comadres I know would refer to themselves as feminist but that is not the point. Here, the point is the ethic, ethos, and praxis of coalition-building that strives to engage in a wor(l)ding of futures otherwise. And that is work worth undertaking. That is the work I hope can live-on [sur-vie] and flourish beyond our immediate settings and contexts. 

Concluding Thoughts, Visions for a Future, Otherwise  

Our goal in this essay is to open up a conversation on the outward facing aspect of deep rhetoricity and advance a relational framework of being-and-thinking-with others otherwise. The epistemic principles of a return situates us squarely on ways of walking and seeing the world; careful reckonings is a coming to terms with understandings of being-and-thinking-with others and reciprocity; and being-and-thinking-with is a commitment of unsettling the barriers between us and a future of mutual wor(l)ding. Our discussions strive to animate these outwards epistemic principles of deep rhetoricity amid troubling times and pedagogical challenges. In all sincerity, we have no remedy, nor do we offer a how-to guide to do this work. Yet, we believe that the concept we lay out and the outward principles we have tentatively sketched out amplify the demand to learn how to be-and-think-with each other otherwise.  

As the examples from García’s and Kirsch courses illustrate, instructors always already stand at the nexus of stories-so-far and the possibilities of new stories. As García illustrates, this is an enduring task, a call for an intervention, when we become too comfortable in the settledness of our assumptions and our communities. We must continually ask, where are the lessons of ethos and praxis being proposed from?  To be-and-think-with another, at least as conceived in this essay, is to engage in friction: an opportunity for non-humans (people, stories, knowledge) to come together and get to work. At times, to channel Corder, it will feel like we as educators are plunging on alone and that we might have to continue to do so as friction becomes resistance. In those instances, the barriers between us and a future of mutual wor(l)ding becomes muddy. But unlike the scenarios Corder plays out in his essay, educators do not have the luxury to walk away. In such instances, all we can do then is be the fly in the elephant’s nose. That too is a form of unsettling the barriers between us and a future,  

As Kirsch’s students so eloquently narrate, the enduring task is one of making ongoing commitments to relearn to be with ourselves, others, and communities otherwise, a call for invention and co-invention. As Salazar’s and Guevara Fernandez’s research projects illustrate, taking seriously questions of ethos and praxis–reflecting on our own commitments–and of reciprocity–how we might engage with and contribute to those whose lives we study and document–will lead us to co-create spaces/ places that allow for possibilities of new stories, for creating coalitions of solidarity, and for committing ourselves and our work to bold visions of the future. If the research, ethos, and commitments of up-and-coming scholars like Guevara Fernandez and Salazar is any indication, we are well on our way to overcoming the barriers that might stand between Us and that Future. 


Works Cited 

 “About the Sisterhood.” The Los Angeles Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, https://www.ladragnuns.org/  accessed 15 August 2023. 

Acosta, Abraham. “Hinging on Exclusion and Exception: Bare Life, the US/Mexico Border, and Los Que Nunca Llegarán.” Social Text vol. 30, no. 4, 2012, pp. 103-123, 

Alcoff, Linda. “An Epistemology for the Next Revolution.” Transmodernity, vol. 1, no. 2, 2011, pp. 67-78. 

Alexander, M. Jacqui  and Chandra Mohanty, “Cartographies of Knowledge and Power: Transnational Feminism as Radical Praxis.” Critical Transnational Feminist Praxis, edited by Amanda Swarr and Richa Nagar (SUNY Press, 2010), pp. 23–45. 

Applegarth, Risa. “Children Speaking: Agency and Public Memory in the Children’s Peace Statue Project.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 47, no. 1,  2017, pp. 49-73. 

Arellano, Sonia, José Cortez, and Romeo García. “Shadow Work: Witnessing Latinx Crossings in Rhetoric and Composition.” Composition Studies 49, no. 2 (2022): 31-52, p. 31. 

Arvin, Maile, Eve Tuck, and Angie Morrill. “Decolonizing Feminism: Challenging Connections between Colonialism and Heteropatriarchy.” Feminist Formations, vol. 25, no. 1, 2013, pp. 8-34. 

Brasher, Jordan. Derek Alderman, and Joshua Inwood. “Applying Critical Race and Memory Studies to University Place Naming Controversies: Toward a Responsible Landscape Policy.” Papers in Applied Geography 3, no. 3-4, 2017, pp. 292-307. 

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[1] See Till (6).
[2] See Mignolo, Darker Side of Western Modernity (xvi).
[3] See Brasher et al. (292-294); A. Gordon (184; 190); Maldonado-Torres (262); Rushdy (33; 57; 174).
[4] See Alcoff (70-71; 76); A. Gordon (190); Derrida (46); Mignolo and Walsh (170).
[5] See acknowledge Cusicanqui (98-104); Fukushima (14-15); Tlostanova and Mignolo (7). 
[6] But as Spivak would say, “all complicities are not equivalent” (63; 59).
[7] See A. Gordon (5); Maldonado-Torres (251);  Corder (23; 25; 31); Lorde (409); Fanon; Lugones; hooks (67).
[8] See Mignolo, “Epistemic” (3)
[9] See Tlostanova and Mignolo (7).
[10] See Derrida, SoM (xx); García, Making it Out (Under Contract, Utah State University Press).
[11] See Corder, “Argument as Emergence” (17; 23); Lorde, “There are no Honest Poems” (409); Maldonado-Torres, “On the Coloniality” (260).
[12] See Endres and Senda-Cook (260).
[13] See García (2022a); García (2022b).
[14] See Dussel, Quijano, and Mignolo for conversations on instruction, curriculum, and pedagogy.
[15] See García, “Personal and Collective Memory.”
[16] See Mignolo, The Idea of Latin America (151): “The ‘idea’ of America’ is not only a reference to a place,” but that which “makes it possible to transform an invented idea into ‘reality’” (The Idea 151). 
[17] See A. Gordon (10).
[18] See Dussel on Other-as-Same (12; 32; 34-36; 39; 44-45).
[19] See Tsing, Friction (4; 5; 6); Mignolo (“Delinking” 498); Tuck and Yang (21); Tsing, In the Realm (31); Tlostanova, “Can the Post-Soviet Think” (40); See Giddens (171); Villanueva, “Blind” (10); Villanueva, Bootstraps (121); Blommaert and Huang (271); Endres and Senda-Cook.
[20] Upon a Google search, and finding the project Wearth, I decided to align my acronym with theirs as it underscores my aim with [We/arth] (https://www.wearth.eu/).
[21] See García and José Cortez (105).

Rhetorical Resilience and Righteous Discontent in Eurasia: Female Students Leading the Way

On a sweltering July day in 2022, we had found refuge in the air-conditioned living room of Sona’s home in Yerevan. The Armenian apricot season was underway, and the table, elegantly dressed in red cloth with small, embroidered crosses, featured a fruit bowl as its centerpiece. The crystal vessel was overflowing with apricots, peaches, pomegranates, and last-year apples.  

We were getting together to talk about our feminist academic work. Four of us, women at different stages of our personal lives and professional development, felt connected because of the work we were doing at the American University of Armenia (AUA) and in the community. Lilit, a recent AUA graduate, had produced a feminist film that revisited ideas from Soviet Armenian cinema. Nairy, a Lebanese Armenian junior, had composed one of her final course projects on how traditional marriage practices in Armenia and Lebanon infringe on women’s rights and dignity. Sona, a Kuwait-born Armenian senior student, had developed and delivered a TED talk on women’s health and reproductive rights in Armenia. I, a professor at the English and Communications program, have been doing research on the rhetorical practices relative to gender roles of Armenian rural women who are left behind by their husbands for seasonal labor migration.  

Lilit, Nairy, Sona, and I felt connected over the work we have done together and the experiences we have shared. In the last years, we read, discussed, and wrote about feminism in the world and in Armenia in classes and outside them. We bonded during Covid-19 isolation using online platforms. We cried together at memorial ceremonies during and after the 2020 Artsakh War–a military conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the beautiful mountainous region of Nagorno Karabakh. The war came upon us unexpectedly to steal thousands of young lives, our friends and students among the victims. We survived Covid. We survived war. These experiences made us stronger but also closer and even more connected through our common interest in issues related to women, despite our differences in age, origin, and professional development. We felt we were part of a community where everyone had the right and space to voice their own opinion. We felt empowered together. We read more, we discussed more, we did more for women’s rights in the unique context of Armenia and its history.  

The four of us had built a relationship over the years that offered a safe space to share stories and learn from each other’s experiences while also drawing connections to the scholarship. In our classes, we often combined autoethnography—analyzing our own personal narratives in relation to larger cultural phenomena[1] —with discussions of theory to effectively link the personal experience of students to a wider cultural experience and more abstract ideas. As a teacher, I always found this approach to work well—once students were allowed to share their own stories of oppression, it was easier for them to understand ideas that often remained abstract when presented in foreign social contexts. Lunceford also reminds us that people are unlikely to care about theory without emotional investment in the text, and autoethnography can bridge caring about a person to caring about an issue that is part of their lived experience.[2] As an instructor and moderator of conversations in the classroom, I thus follow the lead of Sara Ahmed who encourages us to start “close to home” in order “to open ourselves out.”[3] I try to create an environment which allows for a safe exchange of local experiences of struggle and resistance that we can then add to the chain of global histories of activism and thought. The conversation that follows, part of my autoethnographic approach to teaching, has the same goal—to add student narratives to the canvas of global feminist resistance and inscribe them into a wider activist movement toward resilience.  

Feminist activists in and outside the classroom, my students and I actively practice what social scientists call ethnomethodology—the study of real-life activity, including the study of discourse—to find connections to bigger cultural phenomena. Using a cognitive-process model in combination with a constructivist approach, [4] our conversations in the classroom intend to explore real-life situations and challenge, rather than perpetuate, the cultural norms that produce oppression. Deborah Brandt dubs an ethnomethodological approach to composition as sociocognitive, a much-needed empirical method that allows us to understand reading, writing, and (I would add) dialogue as aspects of the social structure of literacy while she views literacy as a cultural activity[5] . A hermeneutically trained scholar of composition, Brandt sees writing as interaction between context and cognition, society and the individual. [6]   

Feminist social science scholars have used ethnomethodology to see how women “do class,” [7] or to explore the social organization of race.[8] Black feminists[9] have used autoethnography as a method of resistance to challenge the American mainstream historical narrative. Furthermore, teachers[10] have seen autoethnography’s pedagogical possibilities as a critical method in the classroom allowing to explore race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality, religion, ability, class in order to “trouble boundaries,”[11] to challenge the borders of identity, [12] and to give voice to oppressive silences. [13] Using autoethnography in the classroom and beyond helps evoke reciprocal relationship with audiences, inviting participation and a sense of responsibility. [14] Finally, autoethnography can be rhetorical when it draws on experiences that are relative to a rhetorical transaction with the purpose of engaging the audience and seeking response and participation. [15]  

In this conversational piece, we employ rhetorical autoethnography as a critical method to embed personal lived experiences of female oppression within a larger sociocultural framework, thus connecting the local to the global, the personal to the political, and the private to the public. We believe that the shared stories will emotionally appeal to the audience in ways to make them partial to an argument relative to feminist resistance. We hope that our conversation will evoke engagement in two rhetorical transactions: one starting “close at home” and working “to open ourselves out” and the other (intended for those coming from other sociocultural contexts) offering a glimpse into a local manifestation of a global feminist project—coalition-building for feminist resistance to systems of oppression.  


On that hot July day, Lilit, Nairy, Sona, and I got together again to talk about some new ideas and see how they related to our current work. Sona’s mother had just served lemonade. I took a sip of the refreshing drink:  

Elitza: We proved we are resilient by making it to Sona’s lovely apartment without fainting with the heat. Our resilience was certainly fueled by a determination to fulfill our feminist mission. 

Sona: It is interesting you think of it this way. Your comment takes us straight back to our last discussion about feminist resilience.  

Elitza: Yes, you are right. We defined feminist resilience as a product of conscious and persistent feminist resistance, and we looked at its dimensions: physical, material, and even bodily, [16] as well as linguistic, [17] but also emotional. [18] We often can be resilient in one of these ways but then fail in the others. In all of your feminist projects you have shown how Armenian women can be resilient in material, linguistic, and emotional ways.   

Sona: Feminist scholars use the term resilience in a sense to describe communities taking action together toward addressing social injustice, inequality and oppression. With our work here in Armenia, we try to achieve all of the above. As we work with language, our resilience practices are within the scope of rhetorical strategies because we are trying to paint a picture about the ways women are oppressed and experience social injustice in the context of our culture.  

Elitza: As feminists, we have to be rhetorically resilient. As we were reading the book by Flynn and her collaborators, we decided to think of rhetorical resilience as a practice that is communal, relational, and social. How do you think your work and experience fits within our working definition of feminist rhetorical resilience? 

Lilit: I believe our projects resonate within our definition of feminist rhetorical resilience. Feminist scholars refer to the Greek term mêtis, which they define as a force that combines creativity, opportunism, and even deceit to create situations that allow for seizing chances and utilizing potential.[19]  

Sona: That’s right, Lilit. My personal story illustrates well the idea behind mêtis. A couple of years ago, I was diagnosed with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), a hormonal disorder that affects women’s reproductive health. At the time, research on this condition was relatively new in the medical world, so, naturally I went to different doctors to understand more about the effects this condition had on my health. PCOS is caused by an imbalance of hormones, and women struggle with infertility. In Armenia, women’s reproductive capacity has become the main marker of the Armenian nation’s survival and the primary measure of authenticity and traditionalism in maintaining national identity. [20] This is why infertility is seen as a huge struggle for a couple to have. In some families, if the couple struggles with infertility, women are blamed for it. After my diagnosis, what really caught me by surprise was the advice from my female doctor. She advised me to hide this condition from my future husband. As a woman, she was only looking out for me. When I asked why, I was told, “After learning about your condition, your partner will not want to marry you.” This followed countless stories I heard of married women secretly taking hormonal pills to conceive, or young women getting divorced, or breaking off their engagements because their partner and their families found out about their infertility struggles.   

Nairy: Actually, last year, I had to visit a gynecologist because of my irregular menstrual cycle, and the very first thing she asked me was if I was married. I believe this was a “safer” way for her to inquire if I was sexually active or not. Advice like that by your doctor, Sona, can be quite devastating, especially since you heard it from a professional, who is supposed to look at your case on a medical level and not on a cultural one. Hearing such advice from friends and family members is also very unpleasant—they are supposed to accept you no matter what. How were you able to stay resistant and strong after being urged to not disclose your condition to others? 

Sona: It was very difficult, Nairy. I was stuck with the uncertainty of not knowing what this condition appearing in my life meant for my future. Feminist scholars define that resilience recognizes the need for flexibility and adaptation in situations characterized by change and uncertainty (Youssef and Luthans). For me and my circumstances, it wasn’t just about dealing with the condition but facing the stigma around it, which is why I decided to talk about it in public. In Armenia, traditional perspectives hold a strong influence over Western notions of modernity and feminism. It is a society deeply rooted in patriarchal values. Women are regarded as mothers, caretakers, and protectors of their home.[21] Their roles in our society continue to be confined to their reproductive function. I decided to share my experiences with a wider audience. On April 30, 2022, I gave a TEDx talk about my condition and its effect on my life and tied it to being resilient when faced with uncertainty.  

Nairy: Telling our stories of vulnerability to anyone is challenging, let alone talking about them in a public setting. This is especially true in our culture where we are forced to stay silent about issues related to women’s health. Was there anyone who encouraged you to tell your story? Anyone you looked up to? 

Sona: Yes, of course. Growing up, I always associated resilience with my grandmother. She suffered from a spine injury, and she could barely walk. Despite that, no matter how difficult it was for her, she would get out of bed and help the family when she felt she was needed the most every single day. Feminist rhetorical resilience is seen as communal, relational, and social. It is often perceived as a psychological trait, not a rhetorical action.[22] But it is not simply about individual strength. In my case, it wasn’t just my grandmother’s strength that motivated me to tell my story, but the stories of so many young women who are ashamed of talking about their PCOS struggles. Popular understanding of resilience envisions heroic individuals performing acts of resilience. But I think it is not like that. Acts of resilience are more communal and relational. Also, it was emotionally very challenging for me to show this part of my life to the public. I didn’t know what the response would be. I didn’t know if it was the right move.  

Elitza: Not only that it is the right move, but it is a recommended move for all women who find themselves in precarious situations. This is how we develop rhetorical agency—though rhetorical engagement—and with that, you perform resilience. As Flynn, Sotirin, and Brady explain, resilience as a form of rhetorical agency “begins from a place of struggle and desire.” [23] You wanted to have your story heard and made it available to the community. I remember how difficult it was for you to open up about something so personal when even your family was not ready to hear you speak about your infertility issues in public. 

Sona: Yes, it was difficult. A couple of days before the TEDx talk, I was telling my mother about  my speech. She was worried about my reputation as a woman in Armenian society. 

Lilit: How did you deal with your mother’s concern about your reputation? Armenians live in tight-knit communities. It is very difficult for parents to see their daughter’s reputation compromised. This precludes her chances of getting married and threatens the future of the family line.  

Sona: You are right. It was not surprising that my mother agreed with the doctors because she was worried about my marriage prospects. She didn’t understand why it was so important for me to talk about it in public. I knew where her concern was coming from, but I also understood that if I didn’t speak about it, it was highly unlikely that anyone was going to do so because of the stigma around the topic. Feminist scholars think of resilience as seizing an opportunity even in the most oppressive situations. They see resilience in the form of a small step toward chance, acting in the face of impossibility, and finding strength in vulnerability [24] .   

Elitza: Your story is a great example of what female rhetors call righteous discontent. Shirley Wilson Logan borrows the term from historian Higginbotham—who developed it in her study of Black Baptist women movement at the turn of the 19th c.—and appropriates it to address contemporary women’s issues. Logan applies the notion to rhetorical situations in which women speak about social injustices with a moral authority, strongly believing that they are correcting these injustices. [25] She thinks that the rhetorical situation of women today and in the 19th c. are not that different, and therefore they use similar rhetorical strategies. [26] Logan recognizes three manifestations of righteous discontent: 1. Telling the stories of people, 2. Invoking the past, and 3. Establishing a common identification. Sona, you have managed to tell your story, invoke your past experience and, with that, the experiences of many other women. I’m curious now about the reaction of the community after your talk. Did any women identify with your story? 

Sona: After the TEDx talk was published online, many women in their twenties reached out to me. They warmly embraced me and thanked me for speaking about my condition so openly. “Not many women speak about this,” I was often told. Some shared that they were on different hormonal pills, while others, like me, were told by their doctors, “When you get married, your condition will disappear.” This was an indirect way of the doctors saying that your hormonal imbalance will fix itself if you are sexually active. The women I spoke to were frustrated and found it absurd that they had to wait until marriage to take care of their health. “What if I don’t want to get married?” one asked. I empathize with all of them because the stigma and shame around the condition forced them to hide that part of their lives. We have had conversations about different treatments and how we can help one another. I believe we established a form of identification in the same sense as Burke sees identification endemic to rhetoric. These women and I have established common ground and a shared understanding of what needs to be done. As I explain in my talk, resilience is bolstered by the identification with others, especially when we speak about what we, as women, struggle with the most.   

Resilience shapes the relationships among ourselves and others, speakers and audiences too. Before getting on stage to deliver my talk, the TEDx event organizer approached me and said, “If you get emotional on stage, pause for a moment, if you need to, and take it all in. Remember that the audience will appreciate your vulnerability.” I always get goosebumps when I think of the moment I had to follow her instructions and pause because all my emotions were welling up inside me. And then I heard the applause—the understanding and appreciation of the audience. That’s when I truly realized that the audience and I had established common ground. My fright disappeared. Instead, resilience became the stepping stone in my relationship with the listeners.  

After the talk was published by TEDx, the response completely transformed my life—I realized how many women like me empathized with me and felt empowered as a result of my public speech. Feminist resilience is transformative — it changes the way a life is lived. It can be creative and can come through a suitable rhetorical resource in the form of music, film, family narratives, performance and more. The stories women tell should also address wider audiences, not one’s immediate community. That’s how as feminists, we can develop a bigger rhetorical agency.  

Elitza: Telling our stories to transnational audiences is crucial. In her famous book Bananas, Beaches and Bases, Cynthia Enloe makes an important statement about international politics in relation to women’s issues across the globe: analyzing international politics must include the visibility of women and, even more importantly, their analytical visibility. That means that women affect politics even when they are not actively involved, but it mostly means that we should be aware of the ways in which governments depend on the control of women as symbols, consumers, workers, voters, etc. Enloe asserts that power is gendered and, therefore, women’s stories matter to the crafting of politics across national borders. I remember that a couple of years ago when I met Nairy, she was telling me about women in her Armenian village in Lebanon and how their stories of oppression were similar to those of women in Armenia.  

Nairy: Yes, it has been only recently that I realized how the cultural rites in my village of Anjar in Lebanon were similar to those in Armenia in the way they institutionalize female oppression. When I was a child, I was introduced to the Armenian tradition of Hinoum. The ritual takes place one night before the wedding as a major celebration and involves all guests. Central to the celebration is a tray containing henna, decorations, alcohol, and a red apple. Every unmarried woman is expected to take a bite from the apple. The red apple is a symbol of the bride’s virginity. By taking a bite of it, every girl is marked as a virgin, and later their pinky fingernails are also painted red to announce their purity as virgins to the community and maybe thus attract fellow suitors. As a child, it was all fun and games until I realized how the ritual was actually indoctrinating women into patriarchal society as it was teaching us children about its ideals–in this case, celebrating girls’ virginity as a critical part of the wedding ritual. And we were expected to accept it simply as a tradition in our culture. And we did accept it because we were children and not aware of its deeper meaning. And when I started asking my female friends about it, no one knew why they took a bite from a red apple. Some of my girlfriends were told that by participating in the apple-biting game they were receiving a blessing to get married. The response by itself reflects the patriarchal expectation of young women to be wed as unquestionable. 

Elitza: It is so interesting how cultures are political even in their rituals, and how girls are taught to behave within the norms of the traditional society from early childhood. From a rhetorical perspective, it is brilliant—the whole community teaches their female children how to be good daughters and good wives by having them participate in a ritual symbolic of ideal womanhood. I wonder what happens when women resist the traditional norms and engage in premarital sexual intercourse. What do their families do? 

Sona: The act of premarital sexual intercourse is seen as a violation of societal norms, religious beliefs, and traditional family values in Armenia. It leads to disapproval, conflict, and strained relationships within the family which may involve verbal abuse, isolation, or even physical abuse. In such cases, many Armenian women resort to surgical operations to reconstruct their hymen and safe face. This way they can go back to meeting the traditional requirements for the ideal woman and partake in community life with restored dignity.  

I remember that in my Gender and Social Change class we read a report on the first sexual intercourse of women and men in Armenia. The 2015-2016 United Nations Health Survey Report shows that Armenian women, if asked whether they had a sexual relationship before marriage, 99.3 % out of 1,830 surveyed women answered negatively. On the other hand, only 46.9 % out of 1,190 surveyed unmarried men claimed that they have never had an intercourse with a woman. It is significant that only 0.7 % of the interviewed women felt comfortable to admit that they have had sex before marriage. While the report does not analyze this data, I think the numbers suggest something about the bias of the female respondents to the question since a positive answer may harm their reputation in the community.   

Nairy: This data illustrates well the point we are trying to make, Sona. Women in Armenia don’t have the right to their own bodies. They seem to be fully aware of it. They know they cannot share in public anything that is not in line with the tradition’s rules. And traditions relative to virginity are not only endemic to Armenia. They are present in some other cultures as well. While reading about virginity rites, I came across an article by ethnographer Iklim Goksel on squatter settlements on the outskirts of the Turkish capital Ankara. In these poor neighborhoods, women undergo a procedure to reconstruct their hymen to “be a virgin again” in order to be able to get married. [27] These women are mostly illiterate—they cannot read or write. They must take different strategies in order to go on with their day-to-day activities which require reading and writing. I found it interesting that in order to get married, they need their index finger dyed black to be able to sign their marriage certificates with it.  

I could not help but notice the analogy between the Turkish case and the tradition in our culture of painting the pinky finger’s nail red during the wedding ritual. The colored mark becomes a symbol of women as illiterate in the first case and women as virgins in the latter. In both cases, it is about marking women or, rather, labeling them, or even branding them, like animals. Their bodily rights have been violated but—because the mark is already a symbol—they have been also labeled as incapable of communicating on their own using oral and written language. Empathizing with these women for the violations of their human rights, Goksel sees in their actions a different type of literacy. For example, she describes the process of searching for a place and physician to do a hymen reconstruction as a form of resilience as well as a form of literacy. However, like Western anthropologist Elizabeth Chiseri-Strater who was doubtful of Goksel’s argument, I also disagree that this can be considered a form of literacy. I’d rather refrain from referencing such practices as a literacy event. I see the actions of these women more as a survival strategy to which they resort in order to continue living respected in the community. 

Elitza: But isn’t that a form of literacy as well–learning how to read the culture so they can survive in it? Goksel lists all kinds of vernacular literacies related to everyday life activities –from going shopping, to organizing gatherings at their houses to gossiping. Women in such poor neighborhoods engage in all of them and, in this sense, are literate in these activities. In the case of hymen reconstructions, women need to find ways to seek a physician who can perform the surgery outside of their community for obvious reasons. With that, they need to invent strategies, discover how to engage in the given tasks, develop relationships, etc.  

Nairy: I fully understand Goksel’s point when she references Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism. She suggests that Western scholars, even those who study cultures, are tempted to essentialize and look at other cultures with a Western lens. Goksel accuses Chiseri-Strater of reinforcing an Orientalist paradigm on her ethnographic study, which Goksel explains was contextualized within a specific part of Turkish culture. However, I believe that Chiseri-Starter did not have these intentions because this is about violation of women’s rights to their own bodies, no matter where they live, in the East or West. And traditions of virginity should not violate women’s rights either. 

Elitza: Can the practices of hymen reconstruction among these Turkish women be considered an act of resistance to the norms that violate women’s rights? When they repeatedly resist the patriarchal rules, don’t they, in a sense, show resilience to the violation of their human right to make a choice regarding their own body?  

 Nairy: I think that their arduous endeavor can definitely be considered an expression of resilience. Flynn and her cowriters assert that “resilience suggests attention to choices made in the face of difficult and even impossible challenges.” [28] These Turkish women choose to get hymen reconstruction in order to be considered pure again as virgins and they meet the demands of a patriarchal society. 

Sona: What about the case of Lebanon? Have you noticed any form of feminist resilience there? 

Nairy: Actually, during my recent visit I was lucky enough to be invited to a wedding and took it as a chance to observe and think about the ceremony. During the ritual of Hinoum, the guests were offered an apple on a tray. I was shocked to see that everyone, regardless of their gender or marital status, took a bite from the apple! I do not know if it was because they were not aware of the hidden meaning of the tradition and did not see that the apple serves as a symbol of female subordination and oppression. They did not seem to understand that participation in the ritual indoctrinates one into patriarchal norms. I did not take part in Hinoum and thought of my resistance as a success story, a step toward resilience against traditions that perpetuate female oppression. 

Sona:  I do believe that resisting participation in such ceremonies could be a way toward gradual dismantling of these traditions either consciously or subconsciously. We have a similar tradition in Armenia. It is really concerning because women here, too, are deprived of the right to make choices regarding their own bodies. They need to follow specific social norms and traditions in order to maintain their reputation in society. When I first heard about the Red Apple, I was horrified. Nairy, can you tell us more about the Armenian version of this tradition?  

Nairy: In Armenia, people practice the Red Apple tradition as a rite of passage for women who are getting married. When I first walked into your apartment, Sona, I noticed the fruit bowl on the table, specifically the red apples. Before doing my project on marriage traditions in Armenia and Lebanon, the red apple was just a piece of fruit for me. Now it has changed its meaning.  

Elitza: What does the red apple mean to Armenians? 

Nairy: The Red Apple tradition is an Armenian tradition that celebrates a bride’s virginity by a basket of red apples. Armenia society, who is quite religious, has strict rules on virginity and premarital sex like the Christian doctrine stipulates. In the Bible, the original sin of Adam and Eve is represented through an apple—with one bite of the apple they lose their innocence, that is sexual innocence. The Armenian Apostolic Church has strict rules on sex before marriage, where they view virginity as a form of purity. In short, being good Christians, Armenians preserve the Biblical symbols in their traditions as they practice them today. On the wedding night, or sometimes on the second night, the newlyweds are expected to have a sexual intercourse for the first time. The following day, the mother-in-law inspects the sheets of the bed where the bride and the groom spent the night. The anticipated scenario is for her to witness blood stains on the white sheet signifying that the hymen of the bride was broken, hence she had been a virgin. The groom’s family then sends a celebratory basket of red apples to the parents of the bride to congratulate them on having a pure daughter. If the blood stains are not witnessed, the marriage could end without even properly starting, and the bride’s family is shamed. There are cases in which the marriage lasts only for a day because the bedsheets did not feature blood in the morning.[29] When I learned about this, I was so shocked until I saw the similarities between the Armenian red apple tradition and that in my town in Lebanon. 

Elitza: Your findings prove that women face similar issues across national borders, and to be resilient, they need to be creative in their rhetorical strategies. As Logan reminds us, the rhetorical situations of women are similar regardless of time and geographic differences. The contexts may differ significantly, and within that, the choices we make to develop an argument against patriarchal structures differ too, but the strategies remain the same. This reminds me again of Cynthia Enloe’s book on women’s importance in politics across borders. Her conclusion carries an important message: The personal is political. And vice versa, the political is personal. Enloe recommends that we pay attention to the fact that, in a globalized world, personal relationships have been politicized. Allegedly private personal relationships have been “infused with power that is unequal and backed up by public authority.”[30] In Armenia, women’s personal relationships with men have been governed by patriarchal norms but also by state politics, which has, in turn, been influenced both by the Soviets and by the West in recent years. When I was working with Lilit on her capstone project, she thought a lot about these influences. Lilit, can you tell us more about your film Section of Fairy Tales as you discuss why you chose to focus on the relationship between men and women in Armenia? 

Lilit: I’ve always thought that films have a lot to say about a country’s traditions and mindset in general. Movies can tell us about the relationship between men and women in a certain culture. Over the centuries, the role of women in respect to men in Armenia has changed dramatically, but in the last century, Soviet culture influenced it the most. During Soviet times, women were encouraged to partake in paid labor and participate in public life, but at the same time, the Soviets also promoted the image of women as mothers and household carers.[31] In the post-Soviet period since 1989, women were pushed back into their traditional roles. They were expected to be good wives, homemakers, and mothers—not only in the family but on the national level, too.[32] In her article “Motherhood as Armenianness”—you already referenced it earlier, Sona—political scientist Sevan Beukian observes that women were perceived within an ethno-nationalist discourse as “biological (re)producers of the nation as mothers.” [33] I was really interested in exploring how during the Soviet period in Armenia, traditional patriarchal and Soviet “modern” female ideals were enmeshed to govern women’s behavior in public.  

Nairy: I am always intrigued by films and specifically their language with regard to ideology. I believe that cinema is a very powerful medium that reinforces ideas for the better or, sometimes, for the worse. Actually, growing up in Lebanon, I didn’t learn much about Soviet Armenia even though I attended an Armenian school. I wonder how women were portrayed in Soviet films. Did their presence and presentation reflect the reality? 

 Lilit: Soviet Armenian cinema offers an array of memorable female characters. However, there are very few films that revolve around female protagonists. Women are often portrayed as secondary characters that complement male protagonists in their role as a mother, daughter, or love interest. For example, one of the most popular roles of the famous Armenian actress Verjaluys Mirijanyan is when she plays the wife and mother in Bride from the West (Harsnacun Hyusisic 1975) by Nerses Hovannisyan. The husband in the film feels proud every time Arusyak, his wife, manages to accomplish her household duties. Moreover, in the late Soviet period (1970-1990), women in Soviet-Armenian films were desexualized as a result of the Communist government’s normative ideology with respect to private life in combination with prohibitionist social-sexual mores prevalent in Soviet Armenian society during that time.[34] Scholars like Azatyan and Kaganovsky have pointed to the detrimental nature of desexualized portrayal of women to cinematic love stories. I myself was intrigued by these realizations: women were playing secondary roles in films, and they never actively engaged in a love narrative in Soviet Armenian cinema. And in those few cases that included an intimate loving relationship between male and female protagonists, oftentimes female characters were portrayed in an extremely innocent and pure manner. 

Sona: I’ve noticed this too, Lilit. While I grew up in Kuwait, my parents, who lived in Armenia during the Soviet era, often watched such films where women characters were always secondary to men. I know about them too—A Piece of Sky (1960), The Tango of Our Childhood (1984), Khatabala (1971), Bride from the West (1975), The Men (1972), to list a few. Even today, the films are often broadcast on Armenian TV channels, and people continue to watch them. I remember when we talked about Judith Butler and her theory of performativity, we discussed the power of repetition and citationality to our social identities. We talked about how if we make meaning within repetition, then agency comes with the possibility for variations. Lilit, I have seen your film and know that you wanted to develop rhetorical agency for the female protagonist as you challenge the portrayal of women in Soviet Armenian cinema. How did you develop the idea?  

Lilit: Just like with your TEDx talk, I decided to practice what we discussed as righteous discontent. With my project, I wanted to retell a story that portrayed Armenian women from a well-known film produced during the Soviet years, which you just mentioned, The Men (Tghamardik 1973). The plot of the original film revolves around the main character Aram who tries to win over his love interest with the help of his close friends. I wanted to make my female viewers think about it from a different angle as they identified with the main character, a modern woman. A sexually appealing female protagonist, she acts upon her feelings and is not afraid to be the first one to approach the opposite sex to initiate a love relationship. 

Nairy: From a rhetorical point of view, this sounds very interesting. Rhetorical resistance in the language of cinema—is this what you did?  

Lilit: Yes, in my film, the main character—a young girl—tries out all the possible scenarios in her head and never gets the courage to speak directly to the boy she loves. Although the girl acts only in her imagination, it is already a huge step toward feminist resilience. In her book Traces of a Stream, Jacqueline Jones Royster describes the phenomenon best. She dubs critical imagination the commitment to making connections and seeing possibilities where there are none. It is a tool to see and rethink what is not there and speculate about what could be there. Royster encourages us “to look at what we know and reconstruct with critical imagination the worlds that might have been.”[35]   I end my short film with a call-to-action encouraging those who identified themselves with the main character to act, not wait and observe patiently. I invite all Armenian women to “say something.” I tell them simply, “You can’t just live in your head forever.” 

Sona: That’s a great message, Lilit. I wish they showed your film on Armenian TV channels instead of repeatedly broadcasting Soviet Armenian movies, which many people, like my parents, have watched so many times that they know the script by heart. I wonder what would happen if they showed Lilit’s film. What would our society’s response be? What do you think, Nairy?  

Nairy: That would be great. The film invites people to rethink their traditional views on gender roles. I believe that initially there would be some criticism, as expected of anything that challenges the norm. Change doesn’t happen overnight, but we should not be afraid of taking the first step. Sitting right here, right now, and talking about these issues together is already a step toward change. Maybe we were scared to voice new ideas a few years ago, but now we have developed more confidence and I believe we can become change-makers. I hope that Lilit’s film will be aired on TV alongside the old Soviet films soon.   

Elitza: Lilit’s suggestion for change in the relationship between men and women in Armenia is certainly a step toward rhetorical resilience. It is more. It helps build rhetorical agency here and now. Your projects and ideas, Sona and Nairy, too are contributing to the common effort. Like you in your inquiries, we need to follow Enloe’s example and worry about the personal first, knowing that it relates to the political. The moment we learn how to better investigate our own personal position to gendered power, how to develop stronger arguments and how to act upon them, we will be able to change the political locally, regionally, and even globally. The personal is political, and we are together working on improving the rights of women in Armenia, and by proxy, across the globe. Building coalitions of solidarity here and now can positively affect the life of women elsewhere. This is what we all are here for.  


Sona’s mother called from the other room, asking if we wanted more lemonade. We did not. “Shnorhakalutyun!” we thanked her. She came into the room and looked at us, puzzled. Her expression revealed that we must have appeared thoughtful or somewhat detached from the reality of her living room. She tried to bring us back: 

“Would you like some fruit?”  

Her slender figure gracefully glided across the room. Her hand reached toward the fruit bowl. 

“Let me treat you to the best fruit before you leave.” 

She picked a fruit from the bowl and lifted it in offering toward us.  

It was a shiny red apple.  


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[1] See Elllis and Bochner; more recently Poulos.
[2] Lunceford 8-9.
[3] Ahmed 58.
[4] For cultural and textual criticism approach to composition see Cooper and Holzman, or refer to Berlin’s and Bizzell’s scholarship. 
[5] See Brendt 317.
[6] See also Flower and Hayes.
[7] See Scharff
[8] See Whitehead
[9] See Griffin, Rodriquez
[10] See Queer Communication Pedagogy, eds. Atay and Pensoneau-Conway
[11] Johnson 84
[12] See Alexander
[13] See Glenn.
[14] Holman-Jones et al.
[15] Lunceford 17.
[16] See Fleitz or/and Shellenberger.
[17] See Glenn.
[18] See Ahmed and Canter.
[19] See Flynn et al.
[20] Beukian
[21] See Beukian.
[22] Flynn et al.
[23] Flynn et al. 7. 
[24] Ibid.
[25] Logan 35.
[26] Ibid.
[27] Goksel 107.
[28] Flynn et al. 1.
[29] See Poghosyan.
[30] Enloe 348.
[31] Eichler.
[32] Beukian.
[33].Ibid 252.
[34] Dmytryk, Azatyan.
[35] Royster 84.

Pedagogies of Social Justice in Miami: Reflections on Healing Wounds of Discrimination and Inequity while Teaching at a State-Funded University

Heritage stories are representations of the lived experience of individuals who carry their home with them or re(create) a home when relocating to a new country. More specifically, looking at Haitian heritage, Haitians continue to find the strength to escape oppression and secure their basic human rights in other locations such as the Greater South Florida (GSF), which includes Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties. These stories of their new lives in GSF are blurry: there is no certainty of what the future holds. Yet, their endurance brings about and passes on heritage stories from generation to generation. These stories have shaped us, the authors of this essay–Haitian women who are socially present and teaching in the GSF area at Florida International University (FIU), a state-funded Carnegie Classified Research University (R1) in Miami, Florida. FIU is at once a Hispanic-serving Institution (HSI) whose Spanish-speaking Latin America, the Caribbean, and U.S. students predominately identify as white Latinos; and it is an institution that celebrates having a diverse and international student body. In gratitude, we continue the work of our Haitian ancestors by embracing heritage in our pedagogies. 

This heritage work is often challenging, so utilizing decolonizing tools, particularly Black feminist/womanist frameworks, is central to our pedagogies in the diverse yet hyper-segregated and racist context of GSF where most of our students reside. To carry on this work, we gather tremendous wisdom and strength from the writings of Black women authors/scholars such as Patricia Hill Collins, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker, alongside other feminist and womanist writers and educators committed to equity who have made space in feminist and academic discourse. Situated in these frameworks, our essay serves practitioners committed to Black feminism/womanism, anti-racist, and decolonial pedagogy.    

As Haitian American women and faculty in the English, History, and Politics and International Relations departments at FIU, a growing awareness that the personal is political has strongly influenced our experiences with the power dynamics of racism and sexism and, consequently, led us to shift from traditional pedagogies toward liberatory ways of teaching in our classrooms. We do this by moving away from traditional pedagogies that generally marginalize, alienate, and attempt to silence Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), and any other students for that matter. 

Shifting away from narrow, alienating systemic traditions allows for ethical and healthy ways of sharing and creating knowledge relevant to contemporary realities. This shift involves asking critical questions, such as what pedagogical approaches help to preserve and share heritage stories in institutional spaces. How do marginalized practitioners, who bear the weight of heritage pain and trauma, persevere and set an example for persisting in challenging and uncomfortable work within colonial and oppressive environments? What does it mean to take risks and refrain from being silenced in the classroom? While there may not be definitive answers or a singular approach to tackle these critical questions, we can intentionally revisit questions like these when teaching, particularly at a time when Florida’s educational regulations are contentious and unjust. 

In this essay, we (Nou in Haitian Kreyòl) focus on our teaching at FIU. Our discussion begins with a reflective exchange about our respective and overlapping journeys in healing the intersectional wounds of racism and sexism we have experienced as academics. Then, we offer a peek into our classrooms by sharing examples of pedagogies we use to support ethical and healthy classroom experiences for our students and ourselves. In her History and International Relations courses, Chantalle implements a “horizontal classroom design” that includes a practice commonly referred to as “un-grading” as a decolonizing practice to make the classroom authentic and transformative for her and her students. In her writing studies courses, Shewonda encourages students to value sociocultural writing projects (SWP) by incorporating Black feminist principles that foster transgressive pedagogy, freedom, inclusivity in the classroom, and empathy for diverse cultural experiences by analyzing the writing project Feminist Zines for Social Action  

Below, we invite readers to journey with us as we explore the transformative power of inclusive pedagogies and their crucial role in reshaping academia’s landscape toward equity, and its significance for the broader world.  

Ayisyèn: Reflections on Belonging and Pedagogy 

“When everyone in the classroom, teacher and students, recognizes that they are responsible for creating a learning community together, learning is at its most meaningful and useful.”  

bell hooks, Teaching Critical Thinking 

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”  

Audre Lorde, A Burst of Light 

Nou: So, let’s begin: How do we, Sè Ayisyèn (Haitian sistas), find belonging in academic spaces that continue to invalidate our experiences and heritage?  

Shewonda: So much of it lies in the story of how our life paths have crossed and are intertwined in many ways. Since we first met in February 2020, we’ve learned that we share the same Haitian cultural background, Miami upbringing, and Michigan State University grad school experience. I rarely come across another Haitian woman in academia who understands both the struggles and beauties of being Haitian and rooted in South Florida. 

Chantalle: The overlap in our identities, academic paths, and the synergy between our intellectual interests is super energizing. When we met, you were presenting your research on digital storytelling about how Haitian women make sense of and name their identities by reflecting on their cooking practices at an FIU Humanities Edge (HE) workshop. It blew my mind that there was now a Sista on the faculty whose research questions, methods, and overall presence spoke straight to my soul. 

Shewonda: Exactly. Meeting you at that HE event brought a sense of familiarity. It’s not often I feel that kind of connection in academic settings. I remember being at FIU’s new hire orientation, feeling the lack of diversity, with just two other Black women from other disciplines in attendance. I thought, how could I feel this way at a Hispanic Serving Institute (HSI) with a high population of first and second-generation Black and Brown immigrant students? I realized that my Black faculty community would require building across disciplines. Reflecting on my graduate program and noticing this currently, students are diverse, but there needs to be more diversity in faculty. So, with campus engagement slowly resuming, it feels right to continue where we left off, building community as two Haitian women professors collaborating at HE and LACC workshops. 

Chantalle: Consciously acknowledging one another and finding ways to connect allowed us to continue the conversation. And, while the pandemic made it difficult for us to follow up immediately, recent opportunities for on-campus faculty development offered us a space to reunite and collaborate.  

I am grateful to FIU’s HE and Latin American and Caribbean Center (LACC).
Administrators in these units have used their funding to support our research, the courses we offer, and our commitment to community engagement. Their workshops (especially the grant writing one led by my History colleague Bianca Premo), undergraduate research assistantships, and public symposiums have offered us opportunities to advance our research and teaching in ways that are rewarding and life-giving (a term used frequently by Sherry Watt, my dear friend and colleague at the University of Iowa). 

Nou: Unfortunately, this season back on campus also includes the reality that FIU administrators and faculty are negotiating impending educational mandates being legislated by the Board of Governors and State of Florida officials who fund our institution. How has it been adjusting to this period of political assault and uncertainty?  

Chantalle: Currently, faculty are spending energy managing so many unknowns about how to lead in their classrooms. My response has been to put my fears aside, work despite them, and practice civil disobedience. In a context where we are already overworked, this is exceptionally exhausting. 

We are being terrorized by national, state, and institutional politics. I have deep concerns about how the political current impacts our faculty body (e.g., who we can retain or recruit as new hires, what positions will be funded, and how our daily work becomes even more challenging).  

We have to contend with looming and actual threats of censorship: what terms or topics we can or cannot discuss and what draws backfire. There are also union-busting tactics to continuously contend with such as the recent outlawing of public employer payroll deductions for union members (excluding police, fire, and corrections officers!). For the past 40 years, public workers in Florida have had the benefit of paying their dues through their paychecks. Eliminating this benefit makes it more difficult to maintain the minimum 60% membership roster required for the certification of our union chapter. Decertification means the loss of our Collective Bargaining Agreement and all the rights contained in that contract. 

Our students are also impacted directly. They are fearful (at worst) and cautious (at best) about what they can or cannot say or do in the classroom. This is compounded for students who work in our public schools. They are concerned about how this plays out in their K-12 classrooms. Even as their university experiences help them think more critically and boldly, they are unsure of how to hold space for their primary and secondary-level students.  

Shewonda: What you’re saying reminds me of bell hooks’ warning that when the process of thinking is no longer enjoyable, we fear the thinking mind. We are silenced. So, knowing that students will walk into my college classroom in a state where they are afraid to ask questions because they are used to being silenced, I approach teaching from a Black feminist pedagogy. I can’t teach with the fear of thinking.  

I don’t leave myself out. With everything I do as a scholar and educator, I value the self.   

I deliberately echo Audre Lorde’s words, “I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood” in my email signature. Being exhausted by the persistent underrepresentation of voices like mine is what keeps me courageous in institutional spaces. I am determined to challenge and disrupt patterns of dominant discourses that ignore and devalue Black women’s ways of thinking. As a Black educator, I embrace connecting with my students in ways that help them feel comfortable to begin to unlearn oppressive mindsets. I aim for students to leave my writing classroom with a newfound sense of empowerment, unafraid to engage in Black feminist critical thought.  

Chantalle: I was not always so courageous in the classroom. I did not recognize it at first but I learned through sessions with my writing coach Cassie Premo Steele (a white woman who shared her expertise in feminist writings, particularly wisdom from Audre Lorde, with me quite generously) that fear was paralyzing me during my early teaching days. I was highly cautious and tentative about bringing politics into the classroom. I understood that the topics I was teaching about race, class, gender, and imperialism in the histories of the United States, Caribbean, and Latin America history could be considered political.

That fear led me to become anxious when teaching. A very pronounced version of this was during and following the elections of Barack Obama in 2008 and Donald Trump in 2016 to the U.S. presidency. I didn’t want to alienate any students. I didn’t want to be questioned about whether or not I was offering a fair and quality classroom experience. I guess, in the traditional social science academic way, I was trying to be as objective as possible. I got caught up in this quixotic pursuit despite knowing from my experiences assessing published scholarship that it is impossible to be objective and, therefore, we must be transparent about our subjective stance. 

Shewonda: I give students a disclaimer on the first day to avoid tensions about the topics and readings I teach in my classroom. I make it transparent that my teaching approaches are informed by my own identities and oppressions—that of being Black, Haitian, and a woman. I make clear my commitment to incorporating the voices and experiences of underrepresented groups in our class materials and discussions to challenge the problems of representation. I make it apparent that we will have dialogues about race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class, and various social, economic, and political issues, even if these conversations may be difficult or uncomfortable. Acknowledging and addressing these topics within the classroom is crucial for students to recognize and confront injustices that affect them, their peers, and their loved ones. 

Chantalle: Now more than ever, I recognize that everything we do is subjective because we are all subjects – everyone, including those passionately waging cultural wars as if they are defending objectivity. We all have experiences and knowledge that inform our positions and approaches to whatever we do in life. And so, contrary to my first instinct, I now understand that when I leave my politics out, or anything critiqued for being political, I am not being authentic, and more importantly, I am not being transparent. Being transparent means unapologetically including my personhood (who I am, what I think, what I experience, how I see the world). This allows me to discuss the logic behind my choices and the basis for my understanding (i.e., the meaning I make of things). 

Nou: Typically, graduate school does not include training on being transparent and capable of having difficult conversations in the classroom. How do we help our students learn how to have difficult conversations?  

Shewonda: I don’t remember ever being fearful about my teaching or research practices and topics. For instance, in my dissertation, I made the rhetorical choice to cite only BIPOC scholars. I didn’t care how many well-known white scholars talked about the topics within my dissertation; they weren’t gonna get a citation from me. How I value and make visible underrepresented voices is crucial to me and my work. The lack of Haitian women’s representation in academic spaces keeps my fear away. I don’t have the luxury of being fearful when there’s a need for Haitian women’s voices. I refuse for my Haitian community to continue being underrepresented. I didn’t go into academia with the fear of the personal being political because it’s the personal that keeps me in academia doing this work. I’m not fearful because I imagine the hope I give underrepresented students when they walk into the classroom and see me, a Haitian woman, standing in front of the classroom. Hope hits differently when it’s visible.   

Chantalle: Now, I talk with as much transparency as possible about my focus and approach in the classroom. I either explicitly discuss or let students know that I am open to discussing why I might choose a particular text or organize a course in a particular way in terms of the thematics.  

And now, in terms of the structure: I have learned that if I leave myself out of the classroom, my ability to connect with and elicit genuine engagement from the students is less effective. I learned this and continue to learn this from a treasured network of pedagogy mentors and colleagues who specialize in teaching and learning. Besides my writing coach Cassie, experts from FIU’s Center for the Advancement of Teaching (Erica Caton, and before her Isis Artze-Vega. and Leslie Richardson) and at the University of Iowa’s Multicultural Initiatives Research Team, led by Sherry Watt, have been instrumental in helping me strengthen my capacity as an instructor.

These interlocutors have led me to ask the question: How can I invite students to bring themselves into the learning environment if I am hiding behind something else myself? 

I used to get evaluation comments where a handful of students criticized my discussion of race and topics that can be easily labeled Black history when in fact, they are simply History (i.e., history that does not exclude Africans and African-descended people from the narrative). Now that I am more open about my stance and approach to teaching, I generally don’t get those comments anymore. 

Shewonda: Sè Ayisyen mwen an (my Haitian sista), we must be aware of our role as Black, Haitian, and underrepresented educators and actively engage in a continuous learning process that forces our students and us to think critically. We have to keep asking questions that shift and decolonize systemic education practices that hinder the learning journey of marginalized students. 

“Learning in action means that not all of us can be right all the time, and that the shape of knowledge is constantly changing.” 

 ––hooks, Teaching Critical Thinking  

Chantalle: Horizontal Classrooms as a Decolonizing Practice 

As a scholar of Haitian descent and one who studies Haiti, it might seem a given that decolonization would be at the center of all that I am and what I do; but that was not entirely the case when I first began teaching. It took many semesters and conversations with colleagues and coaches immersed in pedagogy and Black feminist writing before I fully embraced implementing horizontal classroom structures as a way of establishing a more equitable learning environment. While there are many ways to design a class “horizontally,” in essence, the practice calls for a focus on a student’s strengths, emphasis on everyone in the classroom as participants on equal footing (i.e., students and instructors alike), building on existing knowledge and skills, and supporting holistic learning by bridging theory with practice (Gawinek-Dagargulia and Tymoshchuk). 

When I teach about Haiti or the experiences of other historically marginalized groups, I am encouraged to align myself and my teaching with decolonial ways of being. The very existence of Haiti is the result of decolonization (a thirteen-year war that culminated in the founding of an anti-slavery and anti-colonialist Black state). The ability of Haitian people (and particularly its women, given the heightened assaults they face) to survive and thrive amidst persistent and new challenges requires recognition of colonial vestiges and new forms of colonialism. When I speak to students about hierarchy as a historical and sociological term, i.e. something from the past and something that persists in present-day society, be it along lines of class, color, gender, sexuality, religion, or any other demarcating factor, it soon becomes apparent that our understanding of hierarchy cannot be bound to a classroom discussion. The values and circumstances that come up in discussion frequently translate to our lived experiences. Whether I invite specific examples or not, students usually introduce examples from their workplaces, civic settings, or the world stage that they are on their minds.  

Thus, there is ample room to practice decolonial ways, and for those who are committed, decolonization is an imperative path that shapes our everyday realities through the meaning we make of things, the forms of resistance we take, and the ways of Being we embrace (Watt et al. 2022). An equitable learning environment invites us to care for ourselves not only in the physical sense but also in how we care for our ideas, our right to speak, to write, and to simply be in this world. When students experience this type of care in the classroom, they have an opportunity to better know their rights in this world. I consistently aim to pass on these lessons, which I’ve learned so poignantly from the writing coaches and the teaching and learning experts (listed above) who inspire, instruct, and support me in more ways than I could ever describe. 

However, teaching from a liberatory space is not always easy. I have come to realize that while university instructors may be refined in helping students recognize inequity when studying historical figures and moments, we can be less adept at living in alignment with our historical observations. This reality frequently comes to light when I’m listening to deliberations in faculty meetings or trying to make sense of the disconnect between a university administrator’s words and their actions. And, in a more personal context, parenting a child who is now 5 years old has helped me appreciate even more fully the challenge of consistently practicing a decolonial way of Being. As the teachings of Akilah Richards, author of Raising Free People, and other members of a virtual parenting community called My Reflection Matters (founded and facilitated by Chemay Morales-James) remind me regularly: a commitment to decolonization requires patience, continuous self-reflection, assessment, and adjustment. When we lose sight of all that is required in a decolonial practice, we inevitably and at times unintentionally (like a reflex) fall back into practicing fear-based tactics such as minimizing, shaming, and imposing hierarchies in our relationships with one another.  

Decentering myself to decolonize my classrooms

Setting up a horizontal classroom is one way that I practice living and modeling in the classroom what I would like to see in the world. By decentering myself (the instructor) and, anyone else working with me to administer the course, in cases when I have teaching or digital assistance, I invite and emphasize an equitable space and place for all members of our learning community to participate in our collective knowledge and skill-building experience, including evaluation measures in the course through a process commonly referred to as un-grading (See Appendix 1). 

This means that whether teaching in person or online (synchronously and asynchronously), the parameters of the course are set up in a way where everyone occupies relatively equal power in the classroom. I say relative because I acknowledge my power as the instructor of record who sets the tone (how I show up and invite others to do the same), who sets the overall agenda, as presented in the syllabus, accompanying materials, and assignments, and who submits final grades to the Registrar’s office. However, my tone and how we proceed with the agenda, including the un-grading approach to final grade calculations, is always in relationship to, respectful of, and responsive to all who participate in the course. 

A horizontal classroom design amplifies the opportunities my students have to be seen, heard, supported, and welcomed to fully express themselves orally and in writing, as they study, and grow. While I offer students this type of support, I also invite them to offer others the same. Thus, when I create a radically open space for my students to learn, I model in the classroom what I would like to see in the world. In these political times, that offering includes the capacity for each of us to engage in civil dialogue, and to co-create spaces of equity, respect, and genuine learning. It is the space where we truly get to heed hooks’ caveat in the above quote: that we cannot “be right all the time, and that “the shape of knowledge is constantly changing. 

Our students regularly express that participating in a horizontal learning environment does not come naturally, it can be difficult to adjust to, and for some, it can be anxiety-inducing. Students typically expect me to set their learning priorities for them and to tell them how well they are progressing toward a particular final grade. Ceding this power to students means that they take the lead, and I simply make myself available to coach them through a personalized learning plan (PLP) they define for themselves. The self-directed plans are a modified version of the process in Personalized Learning in a PLC at Work (Stuart, et al.) and are intended to help students take stock of how their personal interests, priorities, and needs align with the goals of the course, as well as how to establish strategies that can help them meet their goals. 

The liberatory learning environment I offer students through horizontal classroom design is an opportunity for healing. A horizontal classroom structure supports a socially-emotionally healthy and ethical classroom environment. Evidenced-based findings in pedagogy and general brain development indicate that the absence of fear, anxiety, and other stressors facilitates emotional regulation which in turn allows for higher-level cognitive function (i.e., a greater capacity for critical thinking, verbal expression, and writing) (Matsumoto, Conscious Discipline Brain State Model, Ambrose, Verschelden). 

Whether teaching a lower-level course on the History of the United States or Latin America, an upper-division course on the History of Haiti, International Relations of the Caribbean, or a graduate seminar on related topics, I begin with bell hooks to invite students to a joint commitment to critical thinking in our learning process: “Everyone is participating and sharing whatever resource is needed at a given moment in time to ensure that we leave the classroom knowing that critical thinking empowers us.” (hooks, Teaching Critical Thinking, 11) The setting calls for all to be engaged, for there to be a “radical commitment” to “radical openness” by “[k]eeping an open mind.” (hooks, Teaching Critical Thinking, 10). These practices usher in the possibility of experiencing radical freedom and for new perspectives and even knowledge to emerge.  

In the essay I assign, hooks describes that “children’s passion for thinking often ends when they encounter a world that seeks to educate them for conformity and obedience only. Most children are taught early on that thinking is dangerous. Sadly, these children stop enjoying the process of thinking and start fearing the thinking mind.” (hooks 8). By reading and discussing hooks in my classes, students have an opportunity to learn that critical thinking is an innate and organic skill that children of all backgrounds come into the world doing (e.g., investigating and interrogating with curiosity and without reservation). They soon realize for themselves when relaxing into a different type of learning environment that most of their social experiences and traditional classroom experiences discouraged and challenged them, even at a physiological level (i.e., in the ways that fear and anxiety blocked their mental processes) from the practice of critical thinking. 

The process of engaging in the risk-taking required in a horizontal classroom, for instructors and students can feel and can become dangerous, particularly in our current political climate. However, in these moments, I remind myself and encourage my students to heed the words of Audre Lorde, so that we can remember: “…when we speak we are afraid/ our words will not be heard/ nor welcomed/ but when we are silent/ we are still afraid/ So it is better to speak/remembering/ we were never meant to survive” (Lorde). 

From my vantage point, those who are engaged in the backlash that has fueled this politically turbulent time are also afraid. Those who aim to censor information fear the awakening that comes when we gain an awareness of more complex realities about the world we live in. At the university level, there are many uncertainties about such censorship efforts, therefore, the ultimate costs associated with the risks that come to those who choose civil disobedience in settings such as a horizontal classroom also remain high at this moment. 

It may not seem very consequential to some; but, two stage plays recently produced in South Florida vividly underscore otherwise. The theatrical works Cry, Old Kingdom, written by Haitian playwright and Miami native Jeff Augustin, and Create Dangerously, based on a book of essays by Haitian author Edwidge Danticat and adapted by Lileana Blain-Cruz remind us that in times of political repression, those being repressed often grapple with whether or not take risks (such as practicing civil disobedience) and that the costs of those risks can be high. The plays emphasize that how we live and what we do is a creative process and that when anyone attempts to create authentically, without reservation, and unapologetically, they are taking risks that leave them vulnerable.  Periods of political authoritarianism, such as François Duvalier’s authoritarian regime in Haiti (1957-1971), that of his son Jean-Claude (1971-1986), as well as the administrations of and popularity of Donald Trump (at the national level) and Ron DeSantis (at the state level, jockeying for national attention and influence) in the United States, raise the level of these risks to potentially lethal ones. 

Shewonda: What’s Sociocultural Writing Projects Got to Do with Transgressive Pedagogy?  

My Haitian cultural identity and gender shape my pedagogy. 

When it comes to applying certain pedagogical principles that center on race, class, gender, ethnicity, citizenship, sexuality, and ability, there are significant challenges, risks, or obstacles we face in our role as Black educators. We engage in education as a brave practice, as it involves confronting prejudice, advocating for change, and challenging oppressive educational practices. While Black feminist pedagogies have made progress to improve systemic structures in institutional spaces for marginalized students, these foundations remain threatened and face resistance. Emerging education policies in Florida “attempt” to tear down the transgressive pedagogical work put toward academic freedom. I emphasized “attempt” because by implementing sociocultural writing projects in my writing classroom, I reject political agendas that force educators to ignore issues of social inequality and power relations. Sociocultural writing projects allow students/writers to access knowledge about different facets of history and society. Access to knowledge does not solely depend on or come from teaching materials but also on guiding students to recognize that their experiences contain valuable insights that contribute to history, heritage, and culture. 

As a transgressive pedagogy, I implement sociocultural writing projects because students center on the interaction between society and culture, which enables their experiences and insights to be part of the knowledge creation process. Undergoing the research and writing process, students come across historical contexts crucial to understanding how those events influence their current cultural and societal practices. These projects challenge traditional educational norms and promote social justice, allowing students/writers to think independently and find their unique voices. When I plan my writing courses, I employ strategies that enable students to grasp the reasons behind my commitment and desire for them to engage in transformative writing processes and practices that happen through sociocultural writing projects. 

I analyze the writing project Feminist Zine for Social Action to discuss the connection between sociocultural writing projects and transgressive pedagogy. Generally defined, zines (/ziːn/ ZEEN; short for magazine or fanzine) are personalized booklets that amplify or voice diverse personal and political narratives and social issues. Further, zines “demonstrate the interpenetration of complicity and resistance; they are spaces to try out mechanisms for doing things differently— while still making use of the ephemera of the mainstream culture” (Piepmeier 191). However, at the same time, “they aren’t the magic solution to social change efforts; instead, they are small, incomplete attempts, micropolitical. They function in a different way than mainstream media and than previous social justice efforts” (Piepmeier 191). Zines are a powerful medium through which marginalized communities record their stories, disseminate underrepresented stories, and organize collective efforts for awareness and change. As a feminist practice, zines offer a unique and accessible platform for individuals whose narratives are often underrepresented or overlooked in mainstream discourses. I emphasize to students that creating a feminist zine does not necessarily label them as feminists but allows them to engage in and make sense of intersectional and feminist principles. What defines their zine as feminist work is the alignment of its content with intersectional and feminist framewroks and practices to improve the quality of life for marginalized voices.   

I assign the zine project to my Writing as Social Action (ENC3354) students as their first project (project name: Feminist Zine for Social Action). In Rhetoric and Writing II (ENC1102), wrapping up the semester, students remix their cultural identity essay into a zine (project name: Cultural Identity Zine). Starting the semester with the zine, the goal is for students to make sense of how their identities intersect. Concluding with the zine, the aim is for students to articulate how they want their culture to be represented—they create narratives of representation. In this discussion, I emphasize transgressive principles when students start with the zine project. Therefore, my analysis focuses on my ENC3354 writing course. Despite zines being an old feminist and political practice, this genre of writing and activism is fading with new generations. Before we start the project, I take a poll asking who has heard of zines. In ENC3354, 3-4 hands go up, and in ENC1102, 0-1 hands go up. We need to assign feminist zines more often in the writing classroom because the content of the zine showcases stories, words, artwork, photography, poetry, and other creative mediums that show the intersection of marginalized identities because “the social divisions of class, race, gender, ethnicity, citizenship, sexuality, and ability are especially evident within higher education” (Collins and Bilge 2), which is noticeable at FIU. So, when writing projects guide students to realize how their intersectionality shapes their interactions within institutional spaces and influences how others treat them, they are empowered to take proactive steps to enhance their college/campus experiences. They navigate the world with a lens that allows them to recognize and consider the different forms of social inequality and power relations their peers encounter and experience. Through this assignment, they adopt a mindset rooted in relational thinking; they embrace a both/and frame instead of an either/or approach (Collins and Sirma 27), recognizing the value in every aspect of their identities.

Breaking down The Zine Project

The Project and Objectives

In the Feminist Zine for Social Action project, the writing prompt asks students to craft a zine that explores the intersections of their race, class, gender, sexuality, and other forms of identity markers and oppressions that collectively impact their experiences and existence in the world. (Refer to Appendix 2 for the project instructions). My objective in assigning the zine project is to prompt students to engage in critical thinking and self-reflection to explore aspects of their identities to understand the various dimensions of their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, socioeconomic background, and more to understand how these aspects influence their thoughts, beliefs, behaviors, and interactions with others. Critical thinking and self-reflection practices actively include students in transgressive teaching by helping them make sense of what they already know and have experienced. bell hooks describes the thinker as someone who sees thinking as an action. The (student) thinker’s thoughts are “where one goes to pose questions and find answers and the place where visions of theory and praxis come together. The heartbeat of critical thinking is the longing to know—to understand how life works” (hooks, Teaching Critical Thinking 7). In this project, students must critically think and reflect on their experiences to bridge concepts of identity with their real-world implementation. By the time students complete this assignment, they discover the who, what, when, where, and how of things, which are the sociocultural factors that influence and shape their identities. While creating their zine, they recognize critical social locations and begin to make sense of both their individual or a group’s social positions within the hierarchies of race, class, gender, and sexuality, as well as other significant social hierarchies like age, ethnicity, and nationality (Weber 24). Students/writers acknowledge the who, what, when, where, and how of things and name their identities through the writing process, and ownership happens. Recognizing ownership of their identities becomes fundamental to self-expression within a cultural collective.  

Assigned Readings for Foundational Building

My students start the semester by reading two chapters from Lynn Weber’s book Understanding Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality: A Conceptual Framework. They read Chapter 1: “Defining Contested Concepts,” to define and understand concepts, including race, class, gender, sexuality, oppression, and social location. To recognize that oppression manifests differently in different social arenas, Chapter 1 helps the students understand how ideologies, politics, and economics further complicate how these concepts intricately shape how individuals experience the world. Next, they read Chapter 10: “Envisioning Social Justice.” They analyze the social actions Mamie Mobley, Emmett Till’s mother, took to get justice for her son’s murder. They see how race, class, gender, and sexuality systems can lead us to act for social justice—which further helps them understand why the personal is political. After being introduced to these contested concepts, they realize that these concepts always intersect when talking about social action, so to make sense of this realization and name it, they read Chapter 1: “What is Intersectionality” and Chapter 5: “Intersectionality and Identity” from Intersectionality, by Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge, and as a class we watched Kimberlé Crenshaw’s TED Talk The Urgency of Intersectionality. To understand the writing genre of a zine and the complexity of identities, they read Chapter 4, “We Are Not All One”: Intersectional Identities” from Girl Zines: Making Media, Doing Feminism by Alison Piepmeier. These course readings help them understand intersectionality as “a way of understanding and analyzing the complexity in the world, in people, and in human experience” (Collins and Bilge 2) and how, as an analytical tool, it drives social action and social justice. They recognize how the intersection of these socially contested constructs leads to inequitable circumstances that shape individual experiences in the broader world. Together, these readings provide a framework for creating their zine. 

Transgressive Principles Practiced by Students/Writers

Students engage in various transgressive pedagogies, such as intersectionality, critical thinking, self-reflection, critical consciousness, storytelling, and ethical considerations, while crafting their zines. Through a deep understanding of intersectionality, students/writers ensure that their zine content acknowledges the complexities of lived experiences and considers how various forms of discrimination and privilege overlap. Students identify and critically analyze the oppressive social and cultural factors perpetuating inequality, discrimination, and injustice during critical consciousness moments. The stories they choose to share in their zines serve as potent tools for sharing lived experiences and amplifying the voices of marginalized communities.  

Sociocultural writing projects not only empower my students to prioritize their personal experiences but also equip them with the ability to write effectively across various academic disciplines. Through this approach, I have seen my students gain greater cultural awareness as researchers and writers attentive to multiple human experiences. As my students become more familiar with writing across the curriculum, there is a transformation in how they learn to approach topics with cultural sensitivity. They become more aware of the potential impact of their words and ideas on individuals from diverse marginalized or cultural backgrounds—a vital aspect of cultural awareness. 

Why do we need sociocultural writing projects?  

The final deliverables develop through sociocultural writing projects in different modes, including languages and dialects, carrying cultural identity and history. The practice of assigning sociocultural writing projects is critical because the products the students produce in different modes in different languages carry their cultural identities, their histories, and the oppression(s) that their families went through and the current oppression(s) they’re going through. Sociocultural writing projects serve as knowledge repositories that document histories, cultural practices, and resistance movements that might be overlooked or erased elsewhere. The deliverables from sociocultural writing projects become dynamic archives, preserving the richness of cultural diversity, and serving as a testimonial space to capture social action. So even if the education system bans books or censors what sorts of topics or issues are discussed in class, the one thing they can’t do for certain is take away our lived experience. Implementing writing projects that ask students to write about their culture and lived experiences, as a form of activism, keeps circulating the knowledge/information that the education system is trying to censor.  

With sociocultural writing projects, we continue storytelling practices and pass on cultural heritage. Through sharing methods such as peer review or even organizing student conferences that showcase their work, students are exposed to other stories and experiences. Further, with student permission, their final products are shared with students who take the class after them, and those students see their stories and engage with their peers’ histories and cultures. Sociocultural writing projects are acts of social justice for South Florida educators and learners. Sociocultural writing projects are powerful pedagogical tools and a movement to keep the dominant culture from silencing marginalized voices and experiences in institutional spaces. 

As We Transgress  

As our forebears in Haiti, the United States, and worldwide resisted and found ways to thrive amidst conditions intended to extract from them or even eliminate them, so too are we learning to sharpen our capacity for sitting with the discomforts that come with practicing civil disobedience and other risk-taking. This is what supports the possibility for us and our students to survive and thrive amidst the assaults on our right to think, speak, and write freely. 


Works Cited 

Augustin, Jeff. Cry, Old Kingdom. Directed by Marlo Rodriguez, New City Players Production, Fort Lauderdale, April 13-30, 2023. 

Ambrose, Susan A. How Learning Works : Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. Jossey-Bass, 2010. 

Matsumoto, David.  “Emotions and Critical Thinking – Update 2021,” Accessed 27 November 2023. https://www.humintell.com/2021/01/emotions-and-critical-thinking-update-2021.  

Conscious Discipline. “The Brain State Model,” Accessed 27 November 2023. https://consciousdiscipline.com/methodology/brain-state-model/. 

Danticat, Edwidge. Create Dangerously. Adapted and Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz, Miami New Drama Production, Miami Beach. May 4-May 28, 2023. 

Gawinek-Dagargulia, Marta and Maria Tymoshchuk, n.d. “What is Horizontal Learning?” Accessed 27 November 2023. https://horizontal.school/wp-content/publications/rethinking-citizenship-education-03-what-is-horizontal-learning.pdf. 

Hill Collins, Patricia and Sirma Bilge. Intersectionality. Polity Press, 2016. 

hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. Routledge, 1994. 

—. Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom. Routledge, 2010. 

Lorde, Audre. “A Litany for Survival” from The Black Unicorn (1978). In The Selected Works of Audre Lorde, edited by Roxane Gay, Norton, 2020. 

Piepmeier, Alison. Girl Zines: Making Media, Doing Feminism. New York University Press, 2009. 

Richards, Akilah. Raising Free People: Unschooling as Liberation and Healing Work. PM Press, 2020. 

Stuart, Timothy S., Sascha Heckmann, Mike Mattos, Austin Buffum. Personalized Learning in a PLC at Work: Student Agency Through the Four Critical Questions. Solution Tree Press, 2018. 

Verschelden, Cia. Bandwidth Recovery for Schools: Helping Pre-K-12 Students Regain Cognitive Resources Lost to Poverty, Trauma, Racism, and Social Marginalization. Stylus, 2021. 

Weber, Lynn. Understanding Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality: A Conceptual Framework. Oxford University Press, 2009.  

Watt, Sherry K., et al. The Theory of Being: Practices for Transforming Self and Communities Across Difference. Stylus, 2022. 

Appendix 1 

Boilerplate Language for Syllabi about Ungrading 

Some of the recurring comments and questions that many of my faculty peers and I have had for one another are: we love the idea of un-grading in theory, but how does it work? How do we put the concept into practice? Here is some language that I’ve been using in my syllabus, particularly since at this juncture, we are still operating within a system that requires grades: 

Throughout this course, we will be working with an evidence-based approach known-as “Un-grading” (i.e., undoing the traditional grading process). 

Instead of the traditional process where the professor assigns grades, you will assign yourself a final grade based on an evaluation process that tracks your completion of assignments, your engagement in overall course activities, and the personalized learning plans (PLPs) you establish for yourself. This alternative approach is intended to eliminate the focus on earning points or seeking praise. Instead, this approach emphasizes the importance of investing in your learning experience to develop the capacity to identify meaningful goals, learn how to assess yourself along the way including determining when you have reached your goal, recognize and remain responsive to feedback, be open to employing intervention strategies, and ready to implement an alternative approach when appropriate. 

For the work you submit, you will receive different types of feedback, which I will also refer to as offerings. These offerings will be general comments to the class at large based on student submissions; at other times, they will be specific comments directly addressed to you from me or a peer in the learning community. 

The only points I will assign to the work you submit is a single point in the grade book for each submission. 

The submission marks will look as follows: 

  • I will assign a point value as a marker that you DID (“1-pt”) or DID NOT (“0-pt”) practice the assigned activity by submitting an assessment 

Therefore, do not distract yourself with the Canvas Letter grade, since this is NOT the final grade that I submit to the Registrar’s office on your behalf at the end of the term for reporting on your transcript. 

Always remember that your course grade will be based on self-evaluation of the work you complete, in consultation with offerings from me and your peers, as well as rubrics provided throughout the course. 

The PLPs, offerings from me and your peers, and related self-assessments will be tools that help you remain clear on some nuts and bolts of the process, allowing you to conclude by the end of the term about whether or not you have reached your goal. You will submit your conclusion in an Assignment called: “Assign Yourself a Final Grade” which I take into consultation, and generally follow, when it is time for me to submit a letter grade into the university system.

Throughout the term, I aim to communicate with you as explicitly as possible about the process  to ensure that there are no surprises at the end of the term and that you have confidence in the work you completed and the grade reported on your transcript. 

NOTE: Failure to submit a specific letter grade recommendation and supporting information as outlined above may result in an Incomplete grade being entered for the final grade. Incomplete grades that are not addressed promptly revert to an F after two semesters (including the summer term). Skip the hassle and complete the steps in this assignment or ask questions if needed along the way

For more info on this approach to grades, see:
“The Case Against Grades” by Alfie Kohn, https://www.alfiekohn.org/article/case-grades/ “Teaching: Notes on the Thought of Luce Irigaray” by Tomoka Toraiw, https://criticallegalthinking.com/2015/04/13/teaching-notes-on- the-thought-of-luce-irigaray/ “How to Ungrade” by Jesse Stommel, https://www.jessestommel.com/how-to-ungrade/

Appendix 2

Feminist Zine for Social Action: Project Guidelines 

This is a brief overview of the project guidelines. Reach out for the complete project guidelines, learning resources, in-class workshop activities, student examples (with student approval to share), and grading criteria.  

Project Overview 

For this project, you will create a feminist zine. A zine (think magaZINE) is a sharable/tangible multi-feature item that explores a topic of interest. Your feminist zine aims to express your sociocultural story while focusing on intersectionality. Your feminist zines will create (add to) inclusive spaces that embrace intersectionality.  

The purpose of creating a feminist zine is to stimulate awareness and represent diverse experiences and perspectives that make up (embody) our classroom community, grasp how sharing your experiences is a form of social action, and understand how personal stories impact broader social conversations. 

What information do I include in my zine? 

  • Personal sociocultural stories with a focus on intersectionality.  
  • How your intersecting identities shape your navigation through social and institutional spaces. 
  • Important definitions or concepts necessary for readers to understand specific cultural practices. 
  • Cultural language(s) or dialects. 
  • Secondary sources to further support your understanding of intersectionality. 

Overall, the information within your feminist zine serves as a written/creative expression to advance feminist principles and amplify marginalized and underrepresented experiences while contributing to ongoing social issues. Collectively, through your thoughtful stories and reflection, your zines become writing as social action. 

As you create your zine, explore other feminist zines to gather inspiration for layout and design, but strive for originality in your creation. Pay attention to various features that can enhance the appeal of your zine, making it compelling—something people want to engage with. Incorporate modes, such as interviews, letters, comic strips, photos, original illustrations, poetry, short stories, jokes, quotes, resources, songs/lyrics, fun facts, statistics, guides, tips, puzzles, and questionnaires. The possibilities of how to include information in zines are extensive, allowing you to create a piece of writing that resonates with various audiences. 

What else do I have to do for this project? 

  • Participate in a zine fest (short for “zine festival”). We will have an in-class zine fest to showcase your zines. Hosting a zine fest will allow you to think critically about each other’s work and see how you connect with your peers to build our class community.
  • Make two photocopies of your zine to bring to the zine fest to exchange with your peers.
    • You will submit the original zine to me.
  •  Write a reflection. (Reach out for the reflection prompt.)


Subverting from the Inside: Inclusive Assessment Practices in First-Year Writing

Subverting from the Inside: Inclusive Assessment Practices in First-Year Writing 

 When Michelle LaFrance and Elizabeth Wardle facilitated the 2019 symposium for developing a feminist ethos for WPAs in the twenty-first century, their driving questions aimed to push the field further towards intersectional, inclusive WPA work as they asked: “How do we build an intersectional feminist ethos into WPA work?” and “What does ‘radical inclusion in WPA work’ require, look like, inspire, or unfold?” (LaFrance and Wardle 13). These questions—and, importantly, the responses by senior scholars, early career WPAs, and graduate students—built upon decades of feminist WPA scholarship and lived experiences and propelled us towards the future where we have a responsibility to center intersectional, inclusive practices at the heart of our work (Bishop; Cole and Hassel; Glenn; Nicolas and Sicari; Ratcliffe and Rickly). These timely questions were with us before 2020 and these questions remain deeply important as we transition from triaging during a pandemic to reflecting on the future of our work as feminist WPAs. 

In many ways, the pandemic was an important catalyst for our programs. We find ourselves in a time and space that is inherently different from our pre-pandemic academic contexts and constructs. For many folx in writing program administrator positions, we responded to ever-changing situations for the past three years by “leveraging our disciplinary expertise and the tactic of rhetorical feminism to work through issues . . . all while finding ethical ways to reenvision the status quo” (Glenn 190). The pandemic largely disrupted the status quo in many—if not all—of our writing programs, and while each program and university responded in their own ways, this disruption made space for something new to emerge. We are thinking deeply about our programs as important sites for writing, teaching, and administrating and as sites of ethical practices for our students, our teachers, and ourselves. We are in a reenvisioning era where we can resist returning to a previous status quo—one that likely privileged certain folx, languages, writing practices, and positionalities—and instead, we can use this transitional period to center equity and inclusion in our writing programs. It is, as Fedukovich and Doe reminds us, “an important and challenging time to explicitly identify as a feminist Writing Program Administrator (WPA) and to envision how feminist principles might be enacted in our programs” (31). 

It is in this context of programmatic investigation that we share our experiences as the Writing Program Administrator (Callie) and an Assistant WPA (Michelle) at Texas Tech University, an R1, Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI) in Texas. We began the 2022-2023 academic year with a commitment to investigating assessment practices in our FYW program, and we launched a labor-based grading contract pilot in our second sequence FYW course, Advanced College Rhetoric, in Spring 2023. Programmatically, we were ready to embark on a labor-based grading contract pilot to reenvision our assessment practices. Students and teachers were back on campus, experiencing a more stable environment post-pandemic, and our administrative team wanted to make the most of that new environment with an effort to align the writing program with our feminist ethos focused on intersectional and inclusive practices. Moreover, we had institutional support from our department to begin the pilot study. At the same time, a backlash against DEI initiatives in Texas dominated the news cycle with the governor directly targeting our institution, among other state universities. In this article, we respond to Natasha N. Jones’ timely question: “How do you work within a system . . . to change and resist the very system that you are working within?” (“The Complicity/Complexity Problem” 5). While Jones offers a critique of DEI programs, we extend her question to our situation at a public university in Texas, and we explore how our FYW program is, to quote the CFP for this collection, “doing the work of antiracist pedagogy . . . during this current wave of backlash.” We provide the example of our labor-based grading contract initiative—launched under intense conservative scrutiny—hoping that our experience will contribute to conversations about how WPAs do strategic work, anticipate potential risks and ramifications, and build coalitions to do this work together. 

Institutional Context 

 We began working together in the First-Year Writing (FYW) program at Texas Tech in Fall 2022. Callie, an assistant professor, was in her first year as the WPA after a year as the acting WPA of the program. Michelle was a fifth year PhD candidate and was an assistant WPA for her final year in the PhD program. Our institution has an undergraduate population of approximately 33,000 students, with 30% identifying as Hispanic (“About TTU”). The FYW program is housed in the English department, and it benefitted from previous programmatic changes. In 2017, the previous WPA, Michael Faris, wisely introduced an innovative rhetoric-based curriculum with pedagogical development that supported university retention and engagement initiatives.[1] The FYW program now serves approximately 10,000 students a year through a two-course sequence: ENGL 1301: Essentials of College Rhetoric and ENGL 1302: Advanced College Rhetoric. 

For the first two years following the major programmatic revision, our FYW program was in a crucial phase of working with the new curriculum, new textbook, new delivery models, and new instructional methods. When the pandemic hit, our program navigated the challenges abundantly well under the direction of our program and department administration. The FYW program traversed complex modalities, institutional mandates that FYW would continue to offer face-to-face classes, and the health considerations of our students and teachers, all while undergraduate enrollment increased, almost in spite of a global pandemic. As we navigated these years, our program administrators and teachers became more comfortable with the new curriculum, something that comes with time, regardless of a pandemic. Importantly, we began to critically reflect on our curriculum and the ways in which we operate to meet course objectives while also thinking deeply about our students, specifically the ways we prioritize—or fail to prioritize—equitable and inclusive practices. Continuous, incremental change was embedded within the fabric of our FYW program well before we launched our grading contract pilot. 

When Callie took over as WPA, there was already a key inclusivity-focused curricular change in the works for ENGL 1301, our introductory rhetoric course: a language autoethnography assignment that Michelle Flahive, at the time a PhD student and assistant WPA, and Michael Faris had adapted from Corcoran and Wilkinson’s language autoethnography. The assignment itself values “the rhetorical and linguistic expertise” of students (Corcoran and Wilkinson 19), asking students to analyze their own language practices, and even the creation of the assignment itself recognized the expertise of graduate instructors/students to develop curriculum and spearhead projects that matter to them at a personal level. Since 2022, we have expanded the assignment to all ENGL 1301 classes. Although the language autoethnography assignment and the removal of standard academic English language in FYW prompts are important moves toward radical inclusion in our curriculum, as new administrators, we were interested in embarking on an additional aspect of the program which had yet to be studied in our institutional context: labor-based grading contracts as a more inclusive and equitable assessment method for FYW. Fortunately for us, a cohort of instructors gathered with interest in creating a new and better assessment paradigm for our FYW students. 

The Grading Contract Pilot and the Attack on DEI in Texas 

In Spring 2023, we initiated a labor-based grading contract pilot in twelve ENGL 1302: Advanced College Rhetoric sections. Although the pilot and our study of it exceeds the scope of this article, a few specifics are helpful to situate our initiative and rationale behind it. We recruited five teachers, in addition to Michelle Cowan, who occupied different roles and ranks in the department: one lecturer in FYW, two advanced PhD students, and two second year MA students. Our teachers came from diverse backgrounds and areas of specialization, including technical communication, rhetoric and composition, creative writing, literature, and film. Some of the teachers in the pilot had twenty years of teaching experience; others had two. This breadth of disciplinary and pedagogical diversity enriched our study, as each teacher brought new perspectives and areas of interest to the pilot. Given the size of our program and the make-up of teachers—predominantly graduate students across disciplines—the teachers in the pilot did not artificially skew the pilot by only having teachers with rhetoric and composition areas of emphasis participate. Each instructor held their own motivations for participating in the study and taught their courses differently based on their previous training and interests. Some instructors were looking for fairness—or assessment they could better justify to their students. Some instructors wanted to diversify their teaching experience and felt that learning a new grading approach would be beneficial on the job market. Most wanted to de-emphasize grades so students could be more creative, take risks, and feel less fear and animosity about the course. One instructor was specifically looking for an assessment approach she could adapt for creative writing classes. In this regard, we were thinking about developing a diverse and inclusive group of researcher-teachers from the very beginning, considering what we might learn from their experiences, knowledge, and curiosity.[2]

As we thought through how to construct our assessment pilot, we were aware that incremental changes to curricula and assessment can lead to positive differences in student outcomes, but grading schemas that stick too closely to traditional norms usually continue to reinforce the same patterns of marginalization and normative thinking about writing that our program was looking to avoid (Carillo; Huot et al.; Inoue; Kohn). We were interested in making a bolder move toward labor-based grading contracts, but evidence of the impact of labor-based contracts on a large number of classes had yet to appear in the scholarship (Cowan), a gap we are now working to fill. Our location within an R1 institution meant that we not only had a desire, but also a commitment to pursue high-quality research into alternative assessment approaches. This project had the potential to increase inclusivity and equity in our first-year writing classes, while also providing our graduate instructors with an opportunity to participate in an innovative and timely research project. We framed our project as an effort to train our teachers, encourage engagement from students, promote revision, and give more agency to students. It is in this framework that we proposed our grading contract as a more equitable and radically inclusive assessment practice for all students, not to mention an avenue for us to explore how we teach writing and engage our students in the process of it. 

Although the term “grading contract” tends to be bandied about these days as an antiracist practice (which it certainly can be), grading contracts offer numerous benefits. One of the major benefits we hoped for was increased communication and innovation among instructors. We intended to get instructors thinking differently about assessment, and our research team demonstrated that many instructors were hungry for new approaches and ideas. No matter our intention, we understood that using the term “grading contract” would instigate assumptions about our motivations that were correct in part but did not encompass the whole. Certainly, grading contracts can mitigate instructor bias and encourage non-standard forms of writing (Inoue), and we wanted to achieve those goals. However, framing our pilot as a DEI initiative became a point of serious contemplation—with significant implications—for us, especially as the Texas government began issuing negative statements about DEI efforts one month into our Spring 2023 pilot. 

On February 6, 2023, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott restricted DEI initiatives at state-funded agencies, stating that: “The innocuous sounding notion of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) has been manipulated to push policies that expressly favor some demographic groups to the detriment of others” (McGee, “Gov. Greg Abbott”). For Texas public institutions, Gov. Abbott’s decree focused on hiring practices, a direct response to a Wall Street Journal opinion piece on DEI hiring practices in the biology department at Texas Tech University. [3] Gov. Abbott’s directive follows a trend in Republican politics that claims the demographic groups being disenfranchised are not historically discriminated peoples and that DEI offices are focused on promoting “woke” liberal agendas. [4] It was not surprising—though still incredibly disappointing—that, shortly following Gov. Abbott’s public statement, the Texas Legislature introduced Senate Bill 17, which would ban DEI offices and programs at state public institutions, as well as DEI training for public employees (Texas Legislature). In April 2023, the Texas Senate approved the bill (McGee), and on May 22, Senate Bill 17 passed the house (Menchaca), making Texas the second state (preceded by Florida) to ban DEI offices and mandatory DEI training at state institutions. This legislation has upended well-established practices in higher education, placing any activities associated with DEI under intense public scrutiny (McGee, “Texas House”). 

We conducted our pilot study during the timeframe when Senate Bill 17 was proposed, debated, and accepted. While we worked to build camaraderie among our study instructors, as project leaders, we could not help but be aware of overarching questions: What does this mean for our home institution, an R1 public university, and its faculty and graduate students who are trained for and tasked with high-quality research activity? We are committed to federal grant funding, which often entails DEI requirements, and to our own scholarly, pedagogical, and personal convictions around the diversity, equity, and inclusion of all peoples. What does it mean that our Chief Diversity Officer resigned in May 2023 and is leaving not only our institution but the state? What does it mean for us, an untenured assistant professor and a—at the time of this writing—PhD student, to run a labor-based grading contract pilot that we deeply believe in and are committed to and that is, as we stated earlier, a radically inclusive assessment practice for all students? And are we putting graduate and NTT instructors at risk by encouraging them to participate in this study with us? We do not know the answers to these questions. We infer that as readers, you may also be contemplating this complexity with us and wondering how all of this will play out in the months and years to come. We are, too, and would be grateful for the solidarity. Importantly, this is a very real context in which we work and live and in which we are piloting an assessment practice that we know to be theoretically sound and pedagogically ripe for investigation in our FYW program. We will not pause an effort that we believe in because of this uncertainty, but we do not ignore it either. In effort to grapple with these tensions, we tap into Ratcliffe and Rickly’s framework of the politics of locations as we navigate and mitigate these complicated politics, and we attempt to theorize an answer—or at least a start to one—for Natasha Jones’ question: “How do you work within a system . . . to change and resist the very system that you are working within?” (5). 

Navigating and Mitigating within the Politics of Locations 

Over a decade ago, Ratcliffe and Rickly reminded the field that our work as feminist writing program administrators is always within the context of the politics of locations—administrative, institutional, and cultural—and the intersections between these locations deeply impact the ways in which we perform our labor (viii). We have touched briefly on these locations throughout this piece, particularly our own positions within our university and department contexts. We named ourselves as early-career administrators for a FYW program that is not new but that was recently drastically reinvented, and we identify as administrators with a commitment to an ethic of care (Leverenz) and an intersectional feminist ethos (LaFrance and Wardle). Our professional location—a public university in the state of Texas under intense legislative scrutiny, not to mention the court of public perception—is a complex one. And the gender disparities and labor inequities endemic to that space (the second location in Ratcliffe and Rickly’s framing) are aspects we could address more thoroughly than we have in this article but will resist for the sake of time, space, and focus. For the task at hand, we turn to the third location—cultural location—and the ways in which we navigate and mitigate our labor-based grading contract initiative within this context. We offer an intersectional approach to thinking about these locations as distinct and, also, as overlapping, a poignant point for those of us at public universities in our current political climate. As we pilot this alternate assessment method, we are not just doing one thing, but many things, in complicated contexts and with people whose intersectionality cannot be ignored. Our tactics are largely indicative of our own positionality, our power to make change within the FYW program, and institutionally, our lack of power as a pre-tenure WPA and graduate student assistant WPA.  

In their theoretical situating, Ratcliffe and Rickly place Rich’s theory of location and Butler’s theory of performance in conversation, stating that “agency and restrictions on agency arise not solely from individual will, but rather from whatever acts are allowed (or disallowed) within cultural scripts” (x). We find this language to be particularly helpful as we think about our own language relating to our grading contract initiative and the hidden scripts that are culturally written for us and those that we write—and rewrite—in this process. A quick glance at some of the primary current texts on writing assessment scholarship, particularly related to grading contracts, reveals language that folks may latch onto as buzz words without taking the time to actually learn about this assessment method (Inoue and Poe 2012; Inoue 2015). Within writing studies scholarship, framing labor-based grading contracts as an antiracist initiative is a script that has been written by the leading scholars in the field. It is well established that grading contracts have been used for decades to mitigate instructor and institutional biases that tend to privilege middle-class, white, or so-called “standard” Englishes and counter racism, as well as opportunities to negotiate course requirements, holistically assess work, motivate students, and/or foster social engagement in the classroom, all of which are often framed within a DEI context (Blackstock and Norris Exton; Brubaker; Inoue; Massa; Poe et al.; Taylor). These are important rationales that circulate at our national conferences and in our discipline-specific publications. It is, however, not a script that directly translates outside of these locations, particularly in the context of the attack on DEI in states such as Texas, Florida, and a growing number of others. It is not a script that we can use at our institution to describe our grading contract initiative, not in the era of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, sudden personnel departures, and public statements by the governor that directly name our home institution. Does this mean that we abandon the script and toss it aside, along with the decades of research on this specific value and benefit of the assessment practice? No! Rather, the politics of our locations require us as researchers, teachers, and administrators to be particularly attuned to the multifaceted cultures in which our work is embedded and the complex perspectives through which our work is scrutinized. 

As we articulate our grading contract initiative to university stakeholders, we find ourselves drawing heavily on the many benefits of grading contracts. At first, support on the basis of equity was enough. For example, in Fall 2022, Callie wrote an internal grant proposal to Chair and the Executive Committee of the English department. She used the phrase an “inclusive and equitable assessment initiative in 1302” to describe the grading contract initiative, as well as referred to the project as a “study [of] the ways in which we can incorporate anti-racist commenting and grading practices in the FYW program.” Interestingly, the Chair’s primary concern regarding this initiative had nothing to do with our descriptors of the pilot. Rather, they were concerned with university perception that this alternate assessment method in FYW would resemble a prior failed distributive grading initiative. For context, the FYW program at TTU has long been under intense university scrutiny, primarily related to the extremely high drop/fail/withdraw (DFW) rates the program saw under the pre-2017 model, which included a distributed grading system that was controversial from the very beginning. Since 2017, FYW and English department administrators have worked diligently to articulate the revisions and to change the narrative of how upper administration, advisors, and students view the FYW program not as a gatekeeping course but as a gateway course where students could be successful in the FYW sequence and develop important skills for further academic success and civic engagement. Once Callie was able to clarify that the grading contract initiative was not a return to distributive grading in any shape, form, or fashion, the Chair wholeheartedly supported our work. This support extended to funding, as the Chair and Executive Committee unanimously approved a grant to fund this project and were—and are—supportive of our clear and transparent objectives for this pilot. 

However, as we continued pitching aspects of this ongoing project in Spring 2023, the political climate changed swiftly. We initiated conversations with additional partners across campus, such as the University Writing Centers and Teaching, Learning, and Professional Development Center, two well-respected and valuable resources at TTU. These campus partners were—and are—interested in our pilot and in having conversations about our work. At the same time, we were all increasingly aware of the amount of FOIA requests and public scrutiny at our campus. Therefore, we began to think through best practices for garnering university support during this specific context, and we found it beneficial to articulate the broad array of possibilities alternative grading affords. For example, grading contracts can emphasize student customization and individual goal setting and be instruments that facilitate more interaction and communication between students and teachers (Cowan). Similarly, grading contracts can also increase student buy-in, allow for negotiation to meet specific instructor and student needs, encourage the writing process as a process not as end result, and promote risk taking and the opportunity to do something new and different in our work. Moreover, a process-focused approach to assessment can help us better reach students who feel overlooked or disempowered in the classroom and continue to challenge more confident writers. This assessment method is also an opportunity to introduce graduate writing instructors to evaluation methods that are not dependent on teacher preferences or prior training in which kinds of writing are labeled “good” or “bad.” These principles speak to racial, gender, and class diversity, but they also speak to the ways in which all students can feel left behind, unchallenged, invisible, and at the mercy of systems that have nothing to do with their lived experience. Thus, this project is helpful for initiating conversations about the priorities of our writing program and the ways in which grading contracts are tools to push us all towards a clear focus for our pedagogies, curriculum, and assessment practices. 

These are goals and objectives that can be communicated to stakeholders in ways that may make this alternative assessment practice more accessible and approachable—dare we even say, less threatening. In addition to campus partners, we saw this firsthand as we began working with the teachers in our pilot, who helped assess the grading contract in light of differing pedagogies. The instructors played a major role in articulating what mattered to them and the impacts they saw in their classrooms. Through regular bi-weekly team meetings, we were able to align the contract with our overall program objectives while preserving the autonomy of highly motivated instructors. There were diverse interests in and support for piloting the grading contract. Some instructors used the contract to show students they valued labor or engagement over subjective ideas about “writing quality.” For those instructors, the contract helped them implement more definitive measures of completeness that could be described qualitatively rather than applying numerical assessments that necessitate subjective judgments about “flow” or “style” that tend to be mysterious or opaque to students. Others wanted to see how students responded to a different kind of grading scheme, hoping they might take risks or work in different ways. Others were attracted to the opportunities to customize the contract with individual students. Importantly, there was not one set rationale held by all the teachers in the study. Building a coalition of teachers meant that we did not mandate a one “right” reason for participating in the study. Rather, this was an invitation to collaborate, to learn alongside one another, and to explore the ways in which this alternate assessment practice relates to our objectives—programmatically, personally, and pedagogically. 

Although our goals and rationales varied, we did agree to all work with a common contract, which was labor-based—similar to Inoue’s (2019) but with many differentiating factors, largely to account for students’ shifting abilities and motivations in a post-pandemic academic space. When we presented the initial draft of the contract to the teachers at the beginning of the semester, they immediately started making changes through group conversation. We brainstormed, revised, and adapted the contract to accommodate everyone’s input and to value the collective nature of the study. Moreover, to build unity among our group, we listened to and encouraged feedback at meetings every other week throughout the semester as well as through mid-semester and end-of-semester surveys. From the beginning, we sought to balance the need to let all voices be heard and to agree upon a single contract to use. For instance, our contract centered around a B, but some instructors felt strongly that it should not. We wanted to begin with a contract that matched ones already used in composition scholarship, and we had long discussions about the rationale for presenting the B as the center of the contract. Opting for one instructor’s approach over another’s in instances where compromise was only marginally possible was challenging but resulted in important conversations about the contract. It also amplified our goal to build a coalition of teachers in a manner that provided spaces for dialogue, valued diverse input, and recognized our collective knowledge and experience in creating, executing, and studying this pilot. 

Another essential discovery was how instructors diverged from the contract or made their own innovations to widely varying degrees throughout the course of the semester. Some instructors were extremely hesitant to make adjustments to the contract for their classes, whereas others immediately made small modifications that fit their classes. Working with instructors to amend the contract individually and as a group was an ongoing process—a process that revealed the grading contracts as instructional technologies that do much more than mitigate bias or encourage diverse expression. They can bring instructors and departments together through discussions they would not have had without the contract. Our meetings about the grading contract exposed institutional norms about rankings, homework, deliberate practice, and how we value different kinds of student and instructor achievement. Many of the conversations we had as a study team were about what to ask students in our mid-semester and end-of-semester surveys. Most of our questions, which we wondered if we could ask, were concerned about student’s obligations outside the classroom and how a grading contract might help them manage competing interests. We were also very concerned with students’ mental health. As teachers and administrators, we were constantly thinking about equity, diversity, inclusion, and intersectionality, and while these core values deeply impacted our approaches to the grading contract study, we were also increasingly cognizant of the ways in which we could talk about this work outside of our coalition and in the politics of locations we occupied in this specific time, space, and context. 

Continuing the Work 

 As we reflect on where we started and where we go from here with alternate assessment practices in FYW at Texas Tech, we have hope for the future, with awareness for how our coalition of teachers navigated our initial pilot and plan to continue this work in the coming semesters. As we develop a future trajectory for the project, which includes new pedagogical development, invitations for guest speakers, and collaboration opportunities, we have to take the Texas legislature into consideration. We saw the many facets of the classroom impacted by the use of these grading contracts. Our instructors critically evaluated their teaching practices and philosophies, and students reflected on their writing in ways that emphasizes and values process, student agency, and collaborative buy-in. Our efforts to build a coalition with our pilot instructors helped us see how we can position the nature of our study in terms of innovation, student participation, expanded languaging, and the development of an academic self for both students and teachers. While it can seem that initiatives that value DEI principles may be untenable at Texas state institutions in this political climate, we have found ways to continue this important work and to positively communicate that work to stakeholders in our context. 

For example, when seeking funding from different programs and departments at our institution, we do not describe our project in terms of privilege—whether to privilege certain voices or decenter others. Rather, we share how grading contracts can help students see themselves as active collaborators in the assessment process versus receivers of it. We describe how students learn to navigate the course with rhetorical awareness and learn about different audience and stakeholder perspectives. We explore the ways in which grading contracts can be a means to decenter grades and re-center revision. We highlight how grading contracts can increase students’ attention to course and project goals. We encourage the recognition of a greater variety of writing styles in the classroom and the space to see writing—and the writing process—differently. We invite conversations about grades and assessment in the classroom and programmatically, and we encourage teachers to participate in this process. Much of our initiative centers on not only what is beneficial to undergraduate students, but also what we can do to expand the experience, expertise, and confidence of graduate students teaching in FYW. The scripts we use to describe our work are not fixed. Just like the grading contract allows space for negotiation, so do our conversations about it. As feminist administrators, we have a unique opportunity to create space for this dialogue, to navigate the intersecting locations in ways that open doors for conversation with folx who are in the discipline and far removed from it. When we do this well—and admittedly, we’re still very early in the process!—we can potentially anticipate and mitigate stakeholder resistance that could deter important progress for our programs, our teachers, and our students. 

As a field, we must make bold, intentional, coalitional moves to build and support social justice initiatives in our writing programs (Jones, Gonzales, and Hass). At the same time, we must also consider how the language and methods we use to describe our work might allow us to move forward disciplinarily while remaining grounded and secure in our institutional and cultural realities. In response to Jones’ question, we choose to navigate and map our locations, critically assessing the audience(s), contexts, and cultural scripts allowed (and disallowed) in those different spaces. By fostering an awareness of locations and the coalitions that locations make possible, we can more effectively articulate the benefits of our assessment methods and the goals we have for our institution’s FYW program. We continue to dive into the complexity of what we are doing rather than reducing it into a specific type of initiative, one that often is—purposefully, even—used by those outside of the discipline to harm us and our work. It is in this framing that we further refine our approach to communicating our labor-based grading contract initiative and clarify our goals for implementation as we navigate the politics of our locations and promote the multifaceted benefits of this alternative assessment method. 

Works Cited 


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[1] See Brawley 2023; Das 2022; Faris 2023
[2] In a commitment to decentering positions of power and privilege, we will not be sharing more specifics about the pilot in this space, for our findings and experiences from the pilot must be equally shared by those who participated in this labor, not just those of us, like Callie and Michelle, who held administrative positions over the process. We will be writing collaboratively in the coming months about our pilot, our study of it, and the impact of this work on our FYW program and, to a larger extent, on the field.
[3] See Sailer, John D. “How ‘Diversity’ Policing Fails Science.” Wall Street Journal, 6 Feb. 2023. 
[4] The Manhattan Institute and the Goldwater Institute, right-wing think tanks, are largely behind this legislative push across the U.S. (Rufo et al.).