Filling In the Gaps:
Primary Voices of Japanese American Incarceration

Conclusion: Looking to the Future of Vocal Rhetorics in Scholarship and Pedagogy

Dilapidated building at Poston, AZ
Pictured: Photograph of abandoned building in Poston, Arizona, taken May, 2015. Graffiti is visible on the outside walls and the building appears to be caving in.

When I visited the Rohwer Memorial Cemetery site in 2018, I brought my then-68-year-old father with me. My father is not Japanese American, though he had heard me talk about Japanese American incarceration for years. Despite this previous knowledge, visiting the site had a profound effect on his understanding. We first went to the interactive museum and spoke with Susan Gallion. We then traveled to the memorial cemetery. As we stood listening to the final kiosk, we both became overwhelmed with emotion. He told me then, as he described again recently, "I didn't get it before. I wasn't getting it." His reaction was similar to mine the first time I saw a video of a survivor tell their story.

My descriptions of Japanese American incarceration to my father lacked the "getting it," what could also be called filling in the emotional gaps; being in the physical space, hearing the voice, and understanding the history changed how my father understood a subject he thought he knew well. I see both and the Rohwer Memorial Cemetery as two sites that are utilizing voice in the physical and digital to create this kind of experience.

In this conclusion, I would like to not only consider the implications of vocal rhetoric to the history of Japanese American incarceration but also share some of the teaching materials generated with this kind of approach in mind. After the trip with my father, I began actively working to further develop research methods and a pedagogy that would help students have this kind of experience, the "getting it" that doesn't always come with reading academic texts. The following section shares how I help students to move beyond mere descriptions of their research topics and subjects and begin to "get it"—to fill in the emotional gaps by listening to oral histories, watching films, reviewing art, and other means of expression from primary sources. I've also included how I create opportunities to slow down student research and include voices in their final projects.

In the final section of the conclusion, I reflect on the future of primary voice and Japanese American incarceration in the public memory of this event.

Pedagogy: Vocal Rhetorics in Student Digital Writing

This section provides a brief look at how I structure research in the first-year writing classroom. I share the research methods I encourage students to practice, an assignment that helps students slow down the research process, and an open-genre final assignment in which students can choose to include primary voices for their own projects.

I am highly influenced by Shari J. Stenberg's (2015) Repurposing Composition: Feminist Interventions in a Neoliberal Age, in which she argued for a repurposing of emotion as an important rhetorical tool. With Julie Jung (2005), Stenberg also claimed that we are "in need of new processes and practices that help support rhetorical listening—and that break the repetition of reading to summarize or to dismiss," to encourage dialogue with rather than consumption of a text (p. 83).

It is often challenging to disrupt the process by which students quickly dismiss or ignore sources that do not immediately agree with their initial assumptions. Below, I've reproduced a slide that specifically encourages students to seek out oral histories, but the full slide-show can be downloaded as a pdf. The presentation is divided between "steps" that offer a process and "tips" that provide further context for engaging with sources. The steps encourage student reflection on topics and sources as a way to slow down and disrupt a quick dismissal. These steps include evaluating your relationship to the topic, beginning with questions, seeing texts as products of other texts, and practicing listening skills. The following slide can be found in the "tips" section, in which students are also encouraged to be mindful of genre during research and their incorporation of sources. Students have often been trained to seek out sources that are peer-reviewed, but such practices sometimes mean that students do not hear from those within a community affected by their topic. Attention to the purpose of each genre helps students to utilize texts accordingly. The following is a reproduction of the Tip 3 slide that focuses on primary voice. This slide encourages students to not only think of sources as something to be "used," but as something to help you better understand the topic:


  • If your topic involves humans, you need to hear some stories from those humans.
  • We saw the way that oral histories, photographs, or other kinds of media can help us better understand an issue, so make sure your research approach includes these kinds of texts.
  • Stop seeing sources as something to be "used" in your paper and start seeing them as a way to better understand your topic.
  • This means you may look at photographs or listen to stories related to your topic that you never directly cite in your essay—that's fine! Include it on a works referenced page. You'll have a better sense of the topic from having done this research, and you never know when you might want to cite, reference, or share the material with your reader.

I find that encouraging this sort of exploratory research nets much stronger research projects, though it is worth noting that students often cite “time constraints” as the reason they have not previous engaged in such thorough research. To help students, we must adopt assignments that encourage a slower research process, which makes room for thoughtfulness and rhetorical listening. I have begun incorporating a conference-style presentation assignment as the middle assignment in a research course, which allows for students to speak more informally about their research journey and begin to brainstorm (with the help of the class) what genres are best suited for the final project. Engaging with digital sources is particularly time consuming, as they require rewatching and relistening to better understand. Whereas sections in a written article can be quickly identified and reviewed, audio and film texts require a greater temporal commitment, as we cannot easily jump to specific moments. But inclusion of digital sources can play an important role not only in student understanding of a topic, but also their future literacy as they necessarily engage with more and more digital material.

In her last book, Carolyn Handa (2014) made a claim that "without research and studies analyzing the ways in which we can begin to understand this digital age rhetorically… both young and, well, 'older' folks will feel disenfranchised in classrooms that do not acknowledge the influence of new media in twenty-first century learning. The university will become irrelevant to the ways future generations learn and live in the world" (p. 5). As a grad student coming from a somewhat traditional literature program, I felt reluctant to engage with these new media. What was wrong with the novel? The physical book that students held? Carolyn once jokingly told me, "You don't like computers," and at the time, she was not wrong. I remember hearing her bluntly say that whether we liked digital rhetoric or not, it was here, so we had to deal with it. And again, she was right.

In the years since, I've seen how embracing digital writing in the classroom can increase student investment and create opportunities to include and amplify audio sources. For the final project in the second part of the first-year composition course sequence, students are encouraged to choose the genre that is best for their individual subject and purpose, each mode being particularly suited to accomplish various tasks (Kress, 2003). This allows students to generically address meaning-making in their own work the same way they were asked to consider genre during their research process.

Throughout this webtext, I’ve explored how vocal rhetoric may be particularly suited to help the audience fill in the emotional gaps, which makes primary voices central to an audience’s meaning-making in histories such as Japanese American incarceration. I make similar arguments in my classrooms, and as a result, some students choose multimodal forms for their final projects as a way to incorporate different voices.

One student in particular chose a podcast so that listeners could hear the voice of their friend whose story of sexual harassment they listed as a primary source in during their research presentation. The student's overall purpose was to share the sexual harassment experiences college students had on campus in order to educate college students on the prevalence of these acts. They also aimed to explain the process involved when such acts are reported. It was a well-researched and expertly implemented project that featured the voice of their friend. In their reflection, the student explained why they had made particular rhetorical choices, sharing that they chose the podcast genre because they felt audiences needed to hear the story in the words of their friend. While the student chose to distort the voice slightly in order to maintain their friend's anonymity, the emotional effect of hearing the voice was very much present, as the pacing, pauses, and other vocal elements helped the listener to better understand this individual's story.

While not all courses and classrooms will be suited for these kinds of approaches, many first-year writing courses can become sites where students begin to practice important feminist research methods as they engage more and more with digital material that requires rhetorical listening and attendance. As teachers, we can encourage students to, when appropriate, make use of multimodal projects that include voices from communities affected by their topic, or at the very least, to listen to these stories so they have a stronger understanding of their subject. Utilizing primary voices in the classroom creates opportunities to build the digital literacies students will need to navigate our current moment, where they need not only critical reading skills, but critical viewing and critical listening skills.

Primary Voices of Japanese American Incarceration

In the Introduction of this webtext, I shared how dismayed I felt over the past few years as the history of Japanese American incarceration seemed to become more relevant. This is true not only because of the similarities in racist and xenophobic rhetoric but also because of the references to this history in disturbing ways. In November of 2016, a pro-Trump advocate cited Japanese American incarceration as a "precedent" for a Muslim registry (Rothman, 2016). In December of 2020, Representative Clay Higgins compared the injustice of Japanese American incarceration to false claims about alleged 2020 election fraud (Wallace, 2020). These two examples illustrate the ways that references to this history have been used for the purpose that suits the speaker, whether they are excusing the injustice or misrepresenting it through false comparisons. Listening to primary voices, engaging with the digital materials on and visiting former sites of incarceration, has become urgent as public figures continue to misrepresent this history for their own purposes.

The popularity and accessibility of podcasts have created further opportunities to listen to and circulate vocal rhetorics. In Order 9066, Sab Shimono and Pat Suzuki (2018) utilized voices to share the history of the event in an eight chapter series. Densho's own podcast, Campu, featured Noah and Hana Maruyama (2020) as they "weave together the voices of survivors to spin narratives out of the seemingly mundane things that gave shape to the incarceration experience." These works contribute significantly to the history of this event, as the voices help audiences fill in the emotional gaps, to "get it," to recognize the injustice and ensure it will not happen again.

As scholars of digital rhetoric, we can include these voices in our scholarship, not always to analyze, as I've done here in an effort to show how and why voices are significant contributors to meaning, but simply to include so our audiences may also fill in the emotional gaps. As digital scholarship gains greater traction, academics must utilize the technologies available to enrich our approaches. As we study new media, we may also invite it into our scholarship and our classrooms. In the case of neglected or misrepresented histories such as Japanese American incarceration, this inclusion becomes all the more important.