Coalition of Who? Regendering Scholarly Community in the History of Rhetoric

Perhaps best regarded as an extended thought experiment, this 20-minute video captures our conversation about issues we believe are crucial to the Coalition’s future. This introduction offers some brief background to better contextualize how we, a founding member of the Coalition (Patricia Bizzell) and a rising young scholar (K.J. Rawson), came to be sitting together on May 19th, 2014 to discuss the Coalition of Women Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition.

When Pat Bizzell came to Holy Cross in 1978, the college offered no courses on literature by women. She taught the first course, and she also redesigned a traditional rhetoric course to include material on rhetorics of white women and men and women of color. Her colleagues showed little interest in intersections among literature, rhetoric, gender, and sexuality. Thus for Bizzell, the creation of the Coalition of Women Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition in 1989, which provided easy access to like-minded researchers, was a long time coming. She was a founding member of the Coalition and remains committed to its prosperity.

Over the years, the faculty and the curriculum in the Holy Cross English Department diversified, and though queer theory was taught, it was not taught by Pat. She knew little about transgender rhetorics until what she remembers as a landmark moment in her thinking: when she read K.J. Rawson’s essay in the collection he co-edited with Eileen Schell, Rhetorica in Motion. When K.J. became Pat’s colleague in 2012, Pat looked for opportunities to learn from the younger scholar. And when the anniversary of Peitho approached, she realized this might be an opportunity to share her learning experience with others. Pat wanted to testify to K.J. about the importance that work and work spaces still defined as “women’s” retained for her. At the same time, she wanted to learn more about how to honor the Coalition’s tradition of inclusion. Could the Coalition widen its tent to welcome transgender experiences at large, and to include people who are male-identified, whether cis- or trans-?

At the same time, K.J. realized that he had little awareness of the situation of struggle that gave rise to the Coalition. In his graduate education, feminist work seemed firmly entrenched, mainstream, even old school—certainly not the kind of work that needed a protected space. He was keen to learn more about the context within which the Coalition was founded. Although he had never perceived the Coalition as welcoming the kind of research on transgender rhetorics that engages his scholarship, there were no other spaces in the field that readily lent themselves to scholarly community on this topic. Could the Coalition widen its circle of inclusion to provide an intellectual and mentoring community for scholars like K.J.? In light of the goals and purposes of the organization, would such a move even be desirable?

We didn’t want to engage these issues via typical academic agonistic argument. We wanted to experience and record a scholarly informal conversation directed by theoretical questions that are crucial to the center of the field. Should the organization continue to provide those safe spaces for people the world sees as women? Should it acknowledge that biological gender has become a fluid category, just as femininity did for feminists of Pat’s generation? Should the organization redefine its mission to include anyone who self-identifies as feminist? Is “feminist” even the right word to use for the scholarly and political agendas that still inspire passion in long-time Coalition members, if attracting new and diverse scholars is desired?

Without providing answers to these questions, we place them on the table in productive dialogue. Our aim is not to make an argument to point the Coalition in any particular direction, but rather to model the kinds of serious collaborative conversations that we hope can move the Coalition forward.