Sarah Snyder, Holly Hassel, Mark Blaauw-Hara, Jacob Babb, and Harley Ferris
It's a long way to the top / If you wanna rock 'n' roll
As people push against, step away from, and shift the terms of their participation in power relations, the shape of power relations changes for everyone. Like individual subjectivity, resistance strategies and power are always multiple and in constant stages of change.
—Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought, p. 275
In 2018, I was the chair of the faculty senate at the University of Wisconsin Colleges, a multi-campus, associates institution, which was slated for dissolution, announced by System President Ray Cross through a newspaper story. Months of traditional forms of resistance, effecting change through governance strategies and organizations (senates, board of regents, formal appeals to leadership) failed spectacularly when the UW Board of Regents passed new policies that substantially weakened tenure and shared governance in the system. Despite my personal history in music, it wasn't until 2018 that music as a form of protest became a tool in which I saw community, respite, and voice. Naming a group—we hesitated to call ourselves a band—"AcaSheMia" (rhymes with "academia," repurposed as feminist-centered) emerged from a sense of deep disillusionment and frustration with the failures of traditional forms of resistance and critique under a system that was increasingly unresponsive, with power concentrated in the hands of a few ideologically driven bureaucrats and politicos. Our previous forays into music videos and musical parody centered on lighter topics such as the penchant of writing teachers to dress in all black remade from AC/DC's "Back in Black". These forays led to a group musical and video that took the UW System leadership to task for their abject failures in protecting the foundational rights and freedoms of the academy. This first, more political foray, a refashioning of George Michael's "Freedom '90" as "(Academic) Freedom '18" was the first step toward a journey of musical collaboration that crossed states and members.
Over time, the group has come to serve several functions—as an explicitly feminist band, we've sought to reimagine traditionally commercial and misogynist genres (such as hard rock songs like "Welcome to the Archive," based on "Welcome to the Jungle" by Guns N' Roses, and "Lair of the Fog: Now You're Messing with a Feminist Text," based on "Hair of the Dog" by Nazareth. We've come to feel music is the feminist act of claiming time for creativity and fellowship (so to speak), as women and midcareer professors in tenure-line positions that demand much in the way of service, teaching, and publication; Audre Lorde's assertion that "caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare" resonsates with the data that white women and faculty of color bear disproprotionate levels of responsibility for service; face higher standards for evaluation, and face greater negative conseqeunces around family formation and balance in academic careers (see Mason, 2013).
As a band (a word that is sometimes fraught with expectations of polish, skills, and performativity), we seek to reclaim a range of musical genres, our time, and labor from intensifying demands of the academy—and using free and available platforms to do it (YouTube, Google Sites, social media, etc.) provides a low-investment mechanism to do so. Likewise, our first opportunity at the Feminism(s) and Rhetoric(s) conference in October 2019 offered us a new way to bring our creative efforts to an academic audience.
We open with this brief history of academic feminist rock resistance to provide a quick illustration of our larger goals in this symposium, to speak from multiple perspectives to the rich history of music as protest, catharsis, community-building, and identity-shaping. We write as musicians and fans who are also writing teachers; we feel we have contributions to make in the form of sympathetic resonances we have observed between music and writing, most especially as we consider ways both music and writing can be harnessed to question and subvert power, to understand and complicate genres and expectations, to foster community, and to project and shape identity.
We write as musicians and fans who are also writing teachers; we feel we have contributions to make in the form of sympathetic resonances we have observed between music and writing, most especially as we consider ways both music and writing can be harnessed to question and subvert power, to understand and complicate genres and expectations, to foster community, and to project and shape identity.
Our goal in describing these resonances in the following sections is ultimately to offer some new ways to listen to writing, new ways to read music that invite readers and listeners to reflect on the relationships between textual, linguistic, and musical composing, as well as the companionability of language and sound. Whether composing essays or satirical cover songs, these creative acts potentially offer composers, well, some pretty amazing superpowers.
This symposium, "Come Together, Right Now: How the Compositional Affordances of Music Shed Light on Community, Identity, and Pedagogy" aims to engage readers in considering how music, particularly how power, language, composing, and discourse function within different discursive, pedagogical, disciplinary, professional, and cultural communities. The contributions of the co-composers in this symposium speak to writing, composing, and circulating sound for social change through an examination of three musical genres: bluegrass, bateria, and outlaw country. We also hope to show, as Hill Collins's (2000) epigraph suggested, that musical collaboration and genres are rich sites of resistance, redefinition, and identity formation.
In Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle (2015) offered a series of threshold concepts for the field—or a key idea in a discipline that calls for learners to step through a kind of portal, a way of seeing, thinking, and knowing that can unlock deeper levels of understanding in that area of knowledge; without such movement, a learner cannot progress further in their understanding. Their first threshold concept is that "Writing is a Social and Rhetorical Activity," composed of a set of interrelated supporting concepts including that writing makes knowledge, has an audience, and expresses meaning to be reconstructed by the reader. We see the influence of this threshold concept in the study of musical genre—its composition and performance. The three genres under examination here collectively show us something about how participants construct self and community.
But why these genres, specifically? What can bluegrass, bateria, and outlaw country help writing teachers understand that other genres cannot? Truthfully, we could expand this webtext significantly to include many other types of music and musical performance that could reveal similar parallels and insights. These three genres were chosen partially because the authors are fans and practitioners. More importantly, though, the genres share certain essential commonalities that allow the types of compositional work we’re describing. All three genres can be traced back to folk music—that is, they spring forth from the people and tell the stories of "real folk," as Woody Guthrie would say, the stories that stand in defiant opposition to the narratives our governments wish us to hear and believe, much like the way AcaSheMia amplifies nondominant narratives and lore within the institution. They exist as a counterpoint to the music of the state, offering alternatives to nationalized or corporatized music, both in their politics and in their notes, scales, and rhythms. Improvisation, bent notes, and polyrhythms resist the prescribed sounds of Western classical music. Compared to an orchestra, the instruments of these genres are relatively affordable (if not freely available) and, similarly, relatively easy to learn. In short, these genres emerged as a way for everyday folk to engage in musical performance and gain access to the levers we describe above.
Our goal is to offer some new ways to listen to writing, new ways to read music that invite readers and listeners to reflect on the relationships between textual, linguistic, and musical composing, as well as the companionability of language and sound. Whether composing essays or satirical cover songs, these creative acts potentially offer composers, well, some pretty amazing superpowers.
As writing studies teacher–scholars, we see productive parallels between musical and textual composing in a range of areas:
We purposefully avoid pinning down these terms to any particular scholar’s perspective or theoretical trajectory in this introduction for two main reasons. First, we see connections across theoretical frameworks and scholarly perspectives, so we prefer to make those connections explicit in our respective sections. Second, and more in keeping with the social, shared nature of music, we invite you to improvise with us, to find riffs and licks of your own as we run through the set list. We’ll return to these categories in our reprise with our own thoughts, but for now, let’s see where the music takes us.
AcaSheMia. (2019, May 24). BACK IN BLACK Winter Break Is Over Edition [Video file]. YouTube. Retrieved May 3, 2021, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KX2_BZm9ADE
AcaSheMia. (2019, November 18). Coopted (by Patriarchy) [Video file]. YouTube. Retrieved May 3, 2021, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VQE-yvTD3ek
Adler-Kassner, Linda, & Wardle, Elizabeth. (2015). Naming what we know: Threshold concepts of writing studies. Utah State University Press.
Collins, Patricia Hill. (2000). Black feminist thought: Knowledge consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. Routledge.
Mason, Mary Ann, Wolfinger, Nicholas H., & Goulden, Marc. (2013). Do babies matter? Gender and family in the ivory tower. Rutgers University Press.