Video of Recorded Interview
Jesse: Hi, everyone. Thank you for joining us for an informal remote synchronous conversation about being graduate scholars in composition and rhetoric, being white femme disabled graduate students in composition and rhetoric and the intersections of late capitalism, our own embodiment and bodymind needs, and navigating academic spaces.
We're going to have a conversation for about 45 to 50 minutes, and we're going to start by just doing quick introductions and visual description.
My name is Jesse Rice-Evans, and I'm a white fat femme. I have light green hair, and I'm wearing overhead headphones and a dark lip color. Behind me, there is some tendrils from my spider plant that my cat likes to eat. I'm also wearing a printed top with eyeballs and abstract patterns in pink, blue and yellow colors.
Andréa, do you want to introduce yourself?
Andréa: Sure. I am Andréa Stella. I go by she/her pronouns. I am a white femme with brown hair that is currently in a bun. I am actually in Belgium at someone else's house, so the things behind me, I can't speak to. I am wearing a black fisherman sweater, that is a cable knit, and I have on wire rimmed glasses. Yes. Oh, Anna, I'll give it to you.
Anna: Okay, thank you. My name is Anna Zeemont. My pronouns are she/her. I am also a white femme. I also have brown hair, but it's kind of bleached, but it's growing out. My hair is curly. I'm wearing a white button-down shirt that has some embroidering, and I'm in a room that has a very bright window behind me; even though all three of us, mostly, live in New York, two of us (laughs) are not actually calling from New York. I am in California, in Berkeley, which is where I grew up, staying with my parents and escaping the humidity for a little bit.
But yeah, just to say, also we all met in New York at the City University of New York Graduate Center, which is part of the CUNY system, which is the largest public higher education system in the country. It's one of several campuses throughout the city, but it's the only one that's specifically devoted to educating PhD students, and so we met each other in classes that we took there at the Grad Center, but also teach at different campuses across the city. And some of which we've taught at together, some of which we've not. So we've had some overlaps in terms of, like, our professional experience and educational experiences in classwork and have also done very different things as well.
Jesse: Awesome. Thank you, Anna, for adding that important context. I am in Brooklyn, and it's actually not that horrible weather-wise today. It's actually nice out. So just gonna rub it in a little bit.
Jesse: I think it would be great if we could jump into—we wrote up five kind of framing questions for this interview. They're pretty interconnected with one another but we kind of each took a turn to author a question that we wanted to address while we're having the conversation. So I think it would be good to start with our first question. I'll read it for everyone. It will also be readable for folks in the transcript and, and then we can kind of go through some of our responses to that first question, sound good?
Jesse: Yeah, Okay. Our first question. I don't know who wrote it, but there's an I-speaker here.
I'm reading back on our notes, and it looks like we were angry or more energized, six months ago when we first submitted this prompt. How are we, or are we coping six months later, how do we continue on in a perpetually deteriorating state, without support from an institution that will never support us?
Andréa: Well, I can start because I wrote that question, and I responded to it initially, and I think I might even just read my response because it seems to still hold true for me right now.
So I said in response to that, if Mariame Kaba says that, quote unquote, "hope is a discipline," or "hope is a practice" (Kaba et al., 2021), I feel like that's my relationship to coping right now. Like, I don't know what else to do, but I have to find ways to cope feeling a sense of community, of connection. Even if it's a numerically small group, it has been vital—so like what we have together the three of us on our text thread, honestly, it kind of keeps me connected to the world.
And I've also had the same experience with reading a lot of Black femme scholarship recently, also kind of thinking about the reminder that like as individuals, we're here for such a short kind of like blip of time on the larger continuum. I guess that's what's sort of keeping me going. But I say maybe I can survive on embers—I guess that's ultimately where all fires end up anyways. Maybe embers are sustainable, I don't know if I believe that but (laughs) I think that's where I was when I wrote it. And, you know, probably still feel that way a lot of the time. So that is my—that's where I'm at.
Jesse: Yeah, I definitely related to that and Andréa where you responded in the document, I kind of read your response and then kind of responded to your response, and the question simultaneously. So I'll go ahead and read maybe not all of what I wrote. But, but some of them. I wrote, I don't know, not great. (laughs)
In response to how are we, are we coping? I've been sicker in many ways the past few months than ever before, with multiple chronic illnesses. So it's hard to feel any connection to academia when I'm preoccupied by my own simple survival so much of the time. I'm very lucky to have stable housing and a comfortable space of my own, and support from my partners, pals, and my home health aide. But as academia has pushed ever onwards with job market announcements and excited students defending their dissertations, I remind myself how much of this structure is created for people without the press of the world around them. We're so married to meritocracy that academia rewards obsession with labor, lack of boundaries between work and life and individuals whose entire identities are built on their validation from these institutions.
To quote the amazing poet, activist, and artist, Joey De Jesus (2017), "I do not seek inclusion" and living in an increasingly disabled body, mind, I don't expect to find it in the academy.
Anna, did you have anything you wanted to add to our first question?
Anna: Yeah, well first of all I really appreciate this question, Andréa, just because I think that questions about bodymind,1 and about just our general states of well being, are intimately connected to our work as academics as writers and as students even though they don't always enter the classroom or conference spaces or things like that. So even starting with a question like that in sort of this professionalized setting to me is really refreshing.
I feel I'm, I feel very lucky that during this period of kind of Covid, there's just been a lot of structural things that have enabled me to feel a lot more supported. So I'm in my sixth year graduate school and we're only guaranteed funding for five years, but I was able to get a grant. So I wasn't teaching last year. And so I had additional financial support that made my life just much more stable, during this past year, in a way that was not the case for everyone.
I was still working another job because that's just sort of what at CUNY, I would say, we all kind of work multiple jobs just because our stipend isn't enough to cover living in, like, the most expensive place, potentially, in the world—but, you know, I was working at a writing center and enjoying that work. But, um, I think by the way that my mental health works, I go through pretty, like, I definitely go through peaks and valleys. Right now I'm feeling like I'm in a pretty stable place—visiting home and taking time to rest for the first time in a while.
I feel like, because I am physically or often am read as able-bodied, I'm able to kind of maintain a certain level of—kind of like—I was keeping up a pretty fast pace of doing work, like, which—to an extent. I mean, compared to other people probably not. But for myself I felt like I was working really hard and then kind of crashed recently. And so I'm trying to really give myself time to rest but I also feel like, sometimes I feel this sort of guilt that comes with that, which I think we all are probably familiar with like, oh I'm not doing enough. I think that that's definitely a state of mind that capitalism, and specifically academic capitalism, can put on us a lot. And so I'm trying to push that away and just be like, "Yeah, I need to rest and chill out." Yeah, and that's and that's helped me not deteriorate. I think right now it's just trying to give myself space to do that.
Jesse: Absolutely, I really hear that and relate to that a lot. Even though I haven't been working "as hard" or "as much"—yeah, I'm using finger quotes around hard and much because you're right that academic productivity culture is super depleting and toxic especially if you have, I don't know, other things that impact your emotional well-being and your access to resources outside of school, which I think is a narrative that gets suppressed a lot. When we hear from mostly the quote unquote "successful academics" who do have external support from families or partners.
So it's important to acknowledge that and also try to fill space for us to take a break.
Jesse: Okay, I think we're at a good spot to maybe move on to the next question. Anna, I think you offered this initially would you be willing to read it.
Anna: Definitely. Um, so this is a long one, and it has a little bit of a story and then there is a question at the end.
The other day—this is now a few weeks ago—I was helping a colleague who was working on a piece referencing composition–rhetoric's whiteness, but was having trouble finding sources. In the adjacent field of communication studies, there was a whole publicized debate around this issue that was labeled hashtag #CommunicationsSoWhite. And in our resources I can footnote that with some resources people can look at if they're interested in learning more about what was happening in Communications Studies.2 So that was going on around the time of the summer 2020 Black Lives Matter uprisings [note: while discussions around communications' whiteness continued into 2020, the main publicized controversy actually began in 2019.]
Yet when I was asked by my colleague to find comp/rhet pieces about our field's whiteness. It was really difficult for me to think of texts that critique composition–rhetoric's whiteness explicitly—even as somebody who is studying race and whiteness and composition–rhetoric. There certainly hasn't been the same sort of large scale public reckoning with our field's whiteness as something like #CommunicationsSoWhite. Why might this be the case? What is it about composition studies specifically that causes the field to hold on to whiteness in ways that don't just mirror, but might even exceed adjacent fields? What would a hashtag #CompRhetSoWhite movement look like?
We're three scholars taking up space in a predominantly white field. How do we support shifting the dominant narrative when we inherently when we are inherently part of it?
So a number of different questions.
Jesse: You want to kick us off on this part of the discussion and tell us what thoughts you've had since writing the question?
Anna: Yeah, sure. Um, so, I think when I was writing this question, I was also in a place, a little bit of fetishizing other fields and sort of having a grass is always greener moment which I think, you know, I've had that a lot. I think all of us do somewhat interdisciplinary work and I've definitely had moments where I'm like, maybe I should be in education, maybe I should be in communications, maybe I should be in gender studies, or American Studies, because maybe in those fields there's more space and conversations for things beyond what I'm experiencing here, for perspectives that aren't just sort of really normative and, like, you know, monolingual, super kind of cis-male centric. And I think since then I've learned more about, kind of—I think I've had a little bit more kind of the reality check that a lot of this is just endemic to the academy and—which I knew. But it's not just about our field. I think that, obviously, whiteness is at the core in a lot of ways of higher education as it was created in this country. But also I do think that there is something to be said about, you know, just the mere fact that our field has not had this sort of, you know—I don't, I can't speak really to the consequences, or the sort of effects of how successful #CommunicationsSoWhite has been, I'm just not familiar enough with the field.
So, you know, whether that was a sort of successful campaign or not "successful"—as in, like, had sort of material effects around kind of inclusion and whatnot. Um, you know whether successful or not, you know comp/rhet has not had anything like that happen—I haven't seen the same sort of viral kind of public reckoning. I've seen individual scholars who are famous have talks at keynotes of events, talking about our field's whiteness. But I haven't seen it as sort of a public discussion in the same kind of way, which I do think means something. No matter, kind of, like I said, no matter what the long term effects are, I think it does mean something to have this sort of public conversation. So I think that there is still something to be said about our field, and I'm still kind of thinking through that. But first I think I'd like to hear what you both have to say and then maybe as I'm thinking more I can chime in again.
Jesse: Andréa, you added quite a few notes to that section of the doc. So, I wondered if you want to read some back or kind of summarize some of what you included here.
Andréa: Yeah, I think, hearing what Anna was saying it was—it was kind of like what I was summarizing about. One of the things I said, I think that we get by without having to interrogate our field because most people don't even know what we do, which is, you know, sort of, it had it you know it's true and that sense. And then obviously also to do a #CompRhetSoWhite would be to drag, you know, Peter Elbow, Mina Shaughnessy, Gerald Graff, like the canon for us,3 and I don't think that a lot of the, you know, a lot of people are comfortable doing that. I think that we are a field that, by and large, promotes Standard American English; that's our goal with a lot of things and what to me, you know, Anna, listening to you and then thinking back on some of the notes that I wrote is scary, is the fact that even though we are a smaller field, than—definitely than communications and no one in the English department knows who we are, we end up being the ones who run and teach a lot of these first year writing courses. So, our perspective and the way that we are treating these topics is paramount. But yet, like we don't—we don't deal with it.
And so I don't know there's something, Anna, I like in that—like in what you were saying that was just kind of like, Oh, you know, we are, we have our hand and, in, I mean Jesse you can speak to it at least with City College—I think we are into like the entire first-year writing all the composition courses, all the writing courses are all like adjunct-taught by like how many 200 sections or something. It's something crazy. It's like a huge, huge, huge number. And, yeah, we don't—we don't think about it. I read other professors' syllabi, and they horrify me, to be quite honest with you, so—I don't know but I hope that we, you know, we do have a reckoning with it and there are—the sad thing is that—so something else that I had kind of like pulled out was when I was reading Katherine McKittrick's (2021) Dear Science 4 and going through it, there's this—and she has this incredible section of this chapter on citation that I don't even really want to paraphrase just because it's so robust and has so much to say about it. But that's kind of, I think, going a little bit to Jesse, what you wrote in the notes is that there are actual ways out or around this or to do it differently than the way that we have generally done things and I think that's going to be the way, maybe forward or through or whatever it is. So, I will hand it off to you, Jesse.
Jesse: Thank you, Andréa.
I think I want to add a little description for folks who aren't familiar with the way that the CUNY Graduate Center English program works. The majority of students in the CUNY English PhD program focus in literature and literary studies. And there's kind of a couple of reserved slots for people who focus in composition and rhetoric. So, there aren't that many composition–rhetoric students that come into the program—quite small. And it's situated within the larger English department with not, maybe I think like four faculty. We just hired someone, so I could be wrong about that. But the way that our funding package works for any student, if you're in literary studies or competition and rhetoric. We all get teaching fellowships, and that means that we teach first-year writing or another course in the writing programs at one of the 24 CUNY campuses. So that means that you have composition and rhetoric students who are focused more on like pedagogy, like the three of us are, and then you have literary studies students to are assigning William uh, I don't know, some old white dude, dead guy as like their text for their first year writing course.
I won't get too into how I feel about that. It's a little off topic but just for some clarity, thinking about how our particular fellowship model works, and how little pedagogical training people actually get before they're put in a the classroom with majority of Black and brown, first-gen, immigrant, non-native English speaking students to teach them literature when they should be teaching them writing.
Anyway, my kind of addition to this question (sighs)—there's a lot to say. And I think what I really want to do was just kind of do what I what I like to do in my academic work, which is just kind of provide links and resources that I like and people that I turn to for reliable good academic work or academic-adjacent work like activist work or community work or whatever, that I think is really valuable. So it's not super useful for me to read these out because I included links to all of them in this document, and those will be in the transcript. But like some places that I turned to for academic work that I think is being done critically, and more ethically—in terms of who they're citing, what kind of frameworks are being centered, that aren't just the white supremacist frameworks of academia being replicated so few that I listed—are Abolition Science, which is this really cool digital project, focusing on like education studies, an abolitionist education in particular; I listed the Disability Visibility Project; these aren't rhetoric specific things there's a couple of rhetoric things I included. But I'm also pretty focused on disability studies. DBLAC, which is a rhetoric organization for Black rhetoric students and scholars; they do awfully cool work. Rhetoric, Politics, and Culture , the journal—Anna is involved with that journal. The Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics. These are just some examples of spaces I refer to as "peri-academic" spaces, like adjacent to but not super comfortable on the normative academic spaces that that we're all supposed to just be comfortable with. And I have many more listed here. Again those will all be in the transcript with links.5
Jesse: So maybe let's move on to our third question. I wrote this. I guess I will read it:
We're still supposed to concern ourselves with the quote state of the Academy, and how we will each fit into a failing structure that only seeks to preserve whiteness and capitalism. But speaking from experience, I have no investment and preserving the system that fails so many of us, even as the white them with graduate educated parents.
I do not share the values of endless production for a CV line. When (this got a little bit personal), when there is no full time job I can work in academia, anyway. How do we balance our own survival and care with the constant push to produce meaningless shit?
Is it possible to be an abolitionist academic?
I didn't respond to my own question because I don't have any—I don't have a good answer. So I would love to hear from y'all about this question.
Anna: Andréa, you wrote something—I'd love to hear what you said, and I'm still letting it percolate, but I'll chime in after you.
Andréa: Yeah, but it's so pessimistic.
Anna: Bring the pessimism; I'll try to bring some optimism.
Andréa: Oh God. (laughs) So, I don't know, I mean, honestly, yeah, it's like I wrote. You know, all spaces that uphold white supremacy and capitalism are going to kill us, which we know. And I guess this is the one that I'm in because it's the devil I know. And, you know, it's, yeah—I was listening to something from Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and she's talking about abolition, and so I thought for a second I was like okay, well, she is within the framework of academia and yet she is still able to do things—you know—to look at these structures—okay so she's within the frame. And then I think about Alexis Pauline Gumbs6, who's outside of the frame of academia, very much so, and does, you know, alternative of things and (sighs)—you know, it's just hard. I mean, I said it's like to be honest, I am definitely scared to leap away from this abusive safety because I know how to function in abusive situations to survive. And right now it's like, especially within academia, survival feels like making sure that my kids are okay, that I'm okay, that we can cope somehow and that is because when I look at, you know, others.
Unfortunately, I only started thinking, okay, well, what are different paths, and I'm like, well, it's all fucking garbage fire (laughs) so I don't know. So I think that for me is sort of how I've ended up sticking around, but also there's the—for me also because I still continue to teach. I get to have the access to the classroom and to the students and try to do some, you know, reparative things with them within those spaces, whether it be through abolitionist pedagogy and thinking through things differently with the students and what's possible for them and and giving them theory—like thinking through with them about how we can have something different than what exists. And all of those considerations but I mean it's small stuff it's not (laughs) It doesn't ever really feel great, I guess. Anna, bring optimism.
Anna: Okay. Um, I mean I totally agree with everything that you're saying and the complications of this question, you know. I'm also somebody who is applying for full-time academic jobs, and is sort of seeing that as—although I have no idea if I will get one—I'm in that—I sort of had to admit to myself a few years ago, that that's the job I wanted because I had so much, I have a lot of hesitations for the reasons that we've been mentioning around the field's kind of whiteness, it's sort of intense kind of capitalism that sometimes masks itself as a radicalism. But it's you know it's ultimately just, you know, as Carmen Kynard, who's a mentor to the three of us in different capacities, has spoken about, you know, academia, you know, is a field where, as she would say, you know, it's a hustle like any other industry, it's capitalist. And so I think, you know, having kind of a fantasy that it's not is not productive. So remembering that is sometimes helpful for me.
Yeah, as Carmen [Kynard] (2020) has written about, you know, she talks about not confusing the work, what she would call the work with the job, paraphrasing her own advisor, and that's something that I hold on to, for sure. And just, you know, she's someone who's really demonstrated how to prioritize the things that are really valuable work, and the things that we're sometimes made to think our work but actually are not. And it's hard when we're grad students like being offered "opportunities" that are actually sometimes just free labor, or end up being opportunities for others to kind of appropriate our work, which is another question that we have coming up. We've all had experiences of that happening to us, and we've all witnessed far worse forms of appropriation that have happened to our colleagues and fellow students who are Black and Brown. So, yeah, there's that aspect.
So, but here's what I was gonna say, with regards to the question about, is it possible to be an abolitionist academic? I think one thing—in thinking about the state of the academy, I think one thing that's helpful for me to remember is that there, in a way—the idea of an academy a separate from the rest of the world is a myth. The academy is always a part of the world; academics—you are an academic and you're also just like a person you're in the world; you're engaging with other people. So, and we're also kind of like—ultimately, the academy as it is, it can't last forever. Just because it's so, it is so toxic for so many of us. And so thinking sort of beyond that and also beyond the academy as like a space or "the academic" as this sort of bubble helps me. And so for me plugging into spaces, kind of like the ones that Jesse listed before help me remember that my work is never isolated and that sort of transformative movements happen together.
And so like for me, you know, working with Free CUNY, which is an activist group of students and faculty at CUNY that has sort of explicitly abolitionist and decolonial aims, is really helpful for me to kind of see the ways that those barriers between like academic and like activist or whatever those those things are created intentionally sometimes. So like, one thing that I really value about Free CUNY is the way that the group really tries to collaborate with other kinds of activist groups that aren't necessarily—you wouldn't necessarily think of them as having to do with CUNY.
But, um, you know, organizations that are doing things like, trying to take back parks and other kind of natural spaces that are being developed in areas like the Bronx,7 or, you know, community gardens8 and other kinds of different organizations and grassroots movements that are—you wouldn't necessarily think of as being about, you know, working towards an abolitionist academy. But because the academy is located in the city and we're all kind of, we have to destroy all kinds of capitalism together then it kind of is. And so that's a helpful reminder for me. But in terms of the day to day sort of like survival and producing "meaningless shit," I would say, like, yeah, having examples of people who are good at saying no to things, and are also really good at telling when things are going to be an opportunity. And when, and when things are not going to end up being that. So—but that takes practice, I think, too.
And yeah, it also takes being, I mean honestly, I've built a lot of trust in both of you, and that's taken a long time, but I think that we've all kind of learned, like, to be really cautious about who we build relationships and build community with. And I think that that's important.
Jesse: Thank you so much, Anna. I think that's actually a great segue to the next question which is a little bit more, looking at, like, people who are already more, quote unquote, established scholars, or I think we say, "senior scholars," but I don't know what that means, really. So, but the next question is a little bit more focused on, like, the community inside the Academy.
Anna: Just gonna say I have to plug in my computer—
Anna: —sorry, but you can keep reading your question. That's why I'm going away.
Jesse: Okay. Amazing.
Jesse: Okay, so I'll read the next question because I think it was also me, because the focus is on disability, and it's got some cursing so it's a good guess so that was me.
There are loads of disabled scholars doing revolutionary work on Disability Justice on the academy and inside the academy, but a lot of these people already have tenure, or are tenure track, and they're able to work full time, but also largely in like lit or communication studies or disability studies, and not necessarily in comp/rhet, we do have some folk, but how can we make room for disabled graduate students and non-tenure-track disabled faculty who are too sick to perform the like overworked academic image that succeeds in the ableist hellscape of academic work.
(I think this question was definitely written by me.) (laughs)
My kind of response to thinking through this question again was similar to my last response, which is just like, here's a bunch of links to things that I like. So I'll read a little bit of what I wrote as a response. Andréa said in response to a previous question, quote, "I know how to function in abusive situations to survive." I do, too. But I have also outgrown needing the frameworks of abuse to have something to resist, as I've radicalized around the bodymind and disability and how embodiment becomes a target under racial capitalism, looking at the work of Sabrina Strings (2019), the sociologist, Sami Schalk (2013, 2018), who's in disability studies and women's and gender studies. So I've been super excited to see Trisha Hersey's (2018) work with The Nap Ministry spreading more widely online, along with other anti-capitalist projects with center rest and care. I've listed a few here with links that will be in the transcript. I don't know how much I even identify myself as an academic anymore. Thinking back to what Anna just said about the academy being within a larger community. I feel like it's a good way for—it can be the campus, the academy can be such a bubble, people get really invested in like that space and kind of disregard the community, so it's really important to me to not lose that connection that's, like, what I care about. Especially since higher ed's systemic abusive students and workers during Covid has been so egregious.
I've said privately that I chose to pursue a PhD because my health declined so rapidly I had to leave my work in the service industry, and I needed health insurance and funding to figure out how to survive without causing more harm to my bodymind. So while my working conditions have improved in my academic work, my overall health has continued to decline for a lot of reasons, but partially due to abusive ableism, power-obsessed academic gatekeeping and the demands to present my body as upper class in academic spaces. I'm fat and visibly queer and I use mobility aids so no amount of expensive clothes will make up for my body being inherently disruptive (laughs)—Andréa, you've also add to the doc here. Do you want to jump in and add your thoughts?
Andréa: (sighs) Let me look and see what I wrote. Now I was again so pessimistic (laughs)—um, I mean, it kind of goes back to the idea first it's like, well, I don't think that. You know, it's definitely not about having more; I mean, visibility is—it's never answered any problem so it's not like, oh we need to have more visibly disabled people and more people who are disabled who are speaking about it in the spaces that are inherently violent—again, like that's definitely not the answer. Because, you know, like, fuck everyone that needs that kind of explanation for why we should be alive. And so I guess (sighs)—I don't know, I don't (sighs)—yeah, I said I don't really have any optimism (laughs) about sweeping shifts like while I'm here.
But hopefully you know as we do these things and as Jesse, as you so eloquently do, which is in the tradition of so many Black femme scholars of generously citing and all of these things as we continue to do these practices, of turning away from the canonical institution the way things have been and move back towards community and all of these things that you know it's like what we do and what we're doing here is kind of like bursting through the seams of what academia wants us to do and all of small, like (pauses), I don't want to call them I guess they're, like moments of… Now I don't have the word, I can't think of the word—it's late here, it's so past my bedtime in Belgium time. But we are, I don't know, we're just like, you know, it's like the shit is going through the asphalt, it's like we're not supposed to and we just like keep on doing it, and so maybe that's part of it with all of this. This work is less about the visibility and more about just like continually finding ways to like subvert and go through and use the resources and do all of those things that we, we do, and then find a way through (laughs)—God, guys, I'm sorry I'm so dark with this, but, you know, it's beating me down (laughs)—academia.
Jesse: You're definitely not alone there, and, like, I appreciate that you are willing to go to the, to the hard conversations I think we are really ready to avoid because we're supposed to be "professional," and not reveal that we're all psychiatrically disabled, possibly too disabled to like to be in public, or around other people, or whatever. So I really appreciate that about you and that you're not afraid to be honest about how you're feeling. Anna, did you have anything you'd like to add?
Andréa: Thank you.
Jesse: You're welcome.
Anna: Yeah, definitely. I think that one thing, I think that Andréa, you're making me think about too is that—I think that there's a stereotypical image of who grad students are and who faculty are that specifically is kind of, has a specific resonance, I guess, at CUNY because of its specific kind of racialized dynamics. So CUNY is an institution that is predominantly—in terms of students at community and four-year colleges—it's predominantly Black and Brown, it's predominantly students who are—a lot of students are multilingual. A lot of students were born outside of the U.S. A lot of students have ties to multiple other countries. And the reason that the CUNY student demographic is not predominantly white in the way that most of academia is is because of student activism that—basically students in the late '60s occupied some of the campuses and basically demanded that the school population, which was then predominantly white working class, match that of the city. So, um, so CUNY has this sort of, uh, rests a little bit on its laurels of being extremely inclusive, supposedly.
So I think as grad students, it's an interesting thing though, because as grad students getting PhDs, our campus is far and away the most white; it's far and away I think—you know. I don't have the statistics to back this up, but I'm fairly sure that more students—I mean in general in the U.S., more students who get PhDs are children of parents who have graduate degrees, and a lot more, kind of, monolingual English speakers, and things like that—and the same can be said about faculty in the US academy too: The U.S. academy's faculty are still much more white as students, nationally, are becoming Blacker and browner, as is the entire country.9
So what's interesting is that there is this particular thing where it's like CUNY can get away with certain things because they say, "Oh, we are really inclusive," but meanwhile sort of exceptionalizing a group of grad students, you know, in ways like that are both kind of helpful to us, like we're given funding and we can get grants that undergrads aren't eligible for, but also in ways that are kind of toxic like we're up—we're held up against a particular standard of kind of white, hetero, masculinist, normative ways of kind of being, and if we don't meet those things, then we get into trouble. Um, you know, and as someone who is, you know, I'm very privileged in a lot of ways; you know, both of my parents went to grad school—I feel like, and I feel really lucky that I've gotten through grad school relatively unscathed. Although I recognize that like it hasn't always been that always. So it's like, you know, both things I think are true: I'm very privileged and I've experienced ableism in my experience as a grad student. And just a lot of just, yeah, B.S. and things like that.
But basically, in terms of, like, the making room for those kinds of people, it's like recognizing that kind of like what Andréa was saying: we're already here. And there's a legacy of us being here—you know. And I'm thinking about the legacy of the Black and brown, mostly, you know, the African American and Puerto Rican students who occupied City College's campus in 1969 and demanded that the academy make room for them when they said that they would not—and won.10 And, I mean, it's not like it's not like ever since then things have been rosy, but there's a precedent of students who the academy said, "You know, we don't we won't accept you"—kind of entering against their will and being there, and I think, like, even by showing up to things sometimes that people won't necessarily accept, expect us to show up to.
I think that's even saying something and then I think the other thing is, like, also, along with the sort of dynamic of, like, the race—the sort of predominantly [CUNY] white faculty and grad students and then the sort of racialized four-year student body. I think that there's also sort of the legacy of a white savior complex at CUNY, particularly in comp/rhet of, you know, figures like Mina Shaughnessy as this sort of valorized hero of the open admissions and basic writing movement, as this person who was sort of helping the poor Black and brown students and that is absolutely… Carmen Kynard (2019) has blogged about this a little bit, about the way that, you know, professors at the, you know, predominantly Afro-Latinx school that she taught at [at CUNY], which is the same school I taught at, saw their jobs as basically like oh, almost charity, like, I'm all, I'm really roughing it by helping these, you know, students of color.
And I think none of us see our work in that way because I think we all recognize the way that we're also getting fucked over by the same things, although we also recognize that, you know, the way that I, as you know, given my privileged positionality, I'm not affected in the same way as my student who is an essential worker, and has, you know, for example, housing insecurity and food insecurity, but recognizing that we're fighting kind of the same things together. And that we're all affected by this ultimately, I think, helps me to recognize that there's just this absolute need for change that everybody kind of has a stake in.11
Jesse: Awesome, thank you so much, Anna, for adding that.
Jesse: Our last question, build on stuff that we've already talked about quite a bit. Andréa, I don't think that you have read a question for us yet. Would you mind reading this fifth and final question for us to talk about?
Andréa: I will read it, and then I will also just say to keep in. I know you're the timekeeper but then maybe we, you know, we, we, we wrap it up with probably your eloquent response.
Okay, so the fifth and final question is, even as white graduate students, all of us have had experiences of having our work appropriated and more overt and covert ways, particularly, I think, given our activist-oriented research interest and positionalities as queer and disabled. More recently, on Twitter, Eric Darnell Pritchard (2021a, 2021b) brought attention to the rampant and shockingly overt theft of intellectual property of Black femmes, in particular during 4Cs. How can we fight against these forms of theft together as white scholars, what is our role in centering the work of Black femmes?
Jesse: Awesome. I responded to this, just kind of quickly. I was kind of pissed (laughs) because this is something I think about a lot, as an undergraduate, I was a Black Studies major. And so I got to see kind of early, what it looks like for like white, white people in academia, even as undergraduates, getting like credit, extra goodies, for saying for just like stealing the work of Black women that—mostly women but also nonbinary folk—and just kind of regurgitating it and then getting like awards and stuff for stealing work from Black femmes and not citing our sources.
So my response is, again, shouting out some people: Geneva Smitherman (1986), Kashema Hutchinson (2019),12 who is a recent graduate of the Urban Education program at the Graduate Center, Carmen Kynard, who we've mentioned a few times. They and many others have made the points that Black women in particular live their theory: through relationships with others, through embodied practices, through daily quotidian behaviors, and, and how crucial those are to respect as forms of knowledge and ways of making knowledge, as opposed to this very top-down belief in academia that some white guy in a tower had to theorize about you and your body and your life and that is supposed to apply to to everyone's experiences. I also refer to Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha (2018; Milbern, 2011)—their work centers the lived experiences of sick and disabled people, theory as survival: resisting racialized eugenical medical frameworks, resisting productivity culture.
I'm way more interested in praxis than I am in theory, although I think that that dichotomy is false. Also, academic gatekeeping suppresses praxis work: They're really focused on abstraction, and on theory, which they differentiate from actual praxis. So like in my own work, I include academically sanctioned theorists to prove that I have, like, met the standards of the disciplinary—like the English department requires me to, whatever, cite Foucault or whoever to make sure that I've done the reading. So I'll, like, lift them but I, like, won't engage with them or cite them anywhere in actual text so just like in the bibliography like, "Yeah, I read it." And that's important to me because I don't care about that work; I care about the work of people who are living the theory and demanding that that theory and that form of knowledge is just as valid if not way more useful than just a more abstract academic kinds of thinking. I don't know, what do you guys think?
Anna: Do you want it? Well, I guess I'll respond a little bit since I wrote this question.
And, yeah, I clearly have been thinking about a lot of these issues as reflected in my other answers. I think, um, I think what Jesse's modeling is really, really wonderful, like the practice of using our own—the sort of privilege that we have through our body, white, you know, through our whiteness basically and our ability to do things like get an interview with a publication out there to, you know, point to other work by BIPOC specifically by Black femme and nonbinary scholars. Not in a way that's just sort of like, oh, look what I, you know, look at me I'm so great, but honestly just in a way of really (laughs) crediting that this is the way that we've…
I don't want to speak for both of you, but that's completely the way that I've like… reading Black feminist texts and being mentored by scholars who have an orientation that is, you know, explicitly around racial and gender and class justice has been the way that I've learned about teaching and about how I want to be in our field, and things like that. So, and also kind of also what Jesse was doing I think and we've been doing throughout is pointing to examples, like not just even outside of our field but outside of the academy So, which is, you know, including some of the people that Jesse cited.
And yeah, Eric Pritchard really inspires me because they are someone who's—like in their sort of more kind of formal academic writing (2014), like their book Fashioning Lives (2016), they talk about sort of Black queer ancestry, as a way of understanding writing and literacy and method, and they also have written kind of in sort of a blog post about citation practice (2019) as being more than just, yeah, like more than just symbolic, and that citation should mean something. And I know that it's definitely like, you know, it, it's a work in progress for sure for me as well definitely, but I'm invoking writers in ways that—I hope—that when I invoke kind of writers and thinkers that matter to me, it's in some ways it's sort of tracing, yeah, like the sort of intellectual kinships that I feel and connections and things like that, rather than just naming someone because I feel like I should.
Jesse: Totally. Andréa, do you have anything you want to add?
Andréa: I think you both said it really eloquently, I'm like, oh god. I know I'm going to say something like (laughs) really just put the stamp on it at the end. Yeah, I think it's kind of what Anna saying, and it's definitely what you're saying, Jesse, and I think for me when I realized that I am, you know, as a white—I won't say academic because I also don't think that I hold academic but definitely as a scholar—as a white scholar I think that my research and my understanding, and my, all of these, like, epistemologies that have kind of like, come through is, it's all coming through from like Black femme perspectives now and that's very deliberate.
And that is, you know, becoming a way for me to understand this space and I think, Anna, you said it really well about, like, scholars that you feel in kinship with, and then, Jesse, also mentioning like, you know, throwing Foucault there like as a way to say like, hey I'm, like, read the rest of my work you know, almost as like the clickbait thing—I think that's brilliant. And I think that's what we were trying to say with this entire interview and the whole, like, from the get-go is like, you know, how do we do these things, and that's how we just cite, you know, constantly. And then make sure that we use the privilege that we all three of us have to continue to, you know, signal boost and it might not be a lot, but it's what we can do in a sense.
I mean, maybe it's the only thing we can do. I mean, and I'm not going to take credit, like any of my, you know, the way that I'm forming anything because it's all coming from, from brilliant people who have come before me who came before me and people who came before them it's just, it's a whole lineage, and I'm just lucky to be able to be even adjacent to it, I think at this point so that's kind of, that's where I—that's where I'm at.
Jesse: I think that is a beautiful note for us to close on.
Thank you so much for sharing that, Andréa. I am going to stop the recording.
Thank you for tuning in. We're gonna wave. Everybody wave!
All: (waving) Thank you!
Andréa: And I'm gonna say thank you to Kairos for taking a chance on us.
Anna: Thank you, Kairos!
AS: Um. If Mariame Kaba says, "hope is a discipline" or "hope is a practice" (Kaba et al., 2021), I feel like that's my relationship to coping rn—like I don't know what else to do but find ways to cope. Feeling a sense of community, of connection, even if it's a numerically small group has been vital… the same with reading Black femme scholars — the continual reminder that we're here for a blip and we're part of a much larger continuum. That's what's keeping me going. Maybe I can survive on embers. I guess that's ultimately where all fires end up anyway. Maybe embers are sustainable?
JRE: IDK. Not great. I've been sicker in many ways the past few months than ever before, so it's hard to feel any connection to academia when I am preoccupied by my own simple survival so much of the time. I am very lucky to have stable housing, comfortable space of my own, and support from my home health aide and partners and pals, but as academia has pushed ever onwards, with job market announcements and excited students defending their dissertations, I remind myself how much of this structure is created for people without the press of the world around them. We're so married to meritocracy, but academia rewards obsession with labor, lack of boundaries between work and life, and individuals whose entire identities are built on their validation from these institutions. To quote the amazing poet, activist, and artist Joey De Jesus (2017), "I don't seek inclusion." And, living in an increasingly disabled bodymind, I don't expect to find it in the academy.
AS: Comp/rhet holds onto ytness just like all other institutions hold onto whiteness: to cede power/jobs/curriculum to minoritized people would render a lot of yt people useless (already are duh) and out of a job. We're also a small weird field, like we're not English Lit yet we're in the English Dept, and we're not in Communications, but that's literally what we do. I think we get by without having to interrogate because most of the time no one even knows what we do. CompRhetSoWhite would be dragging Peter Elbow, Mina Shaughnessy, Gerald Graff, uhhh all the canonical scholars that people still love to lean on. Oh and tenured (and not tenured) comp/rhet trolls loooovvveeee SAE. Love it. Would die on the sword for it. We're fringe 🙄. SAE is inherently racist, so 🤷🏻♀️. Oh, and we also gloss it over too like sure we want "code-switching" but *finger pointing* make sure you know when to switch to SAE because it's how you get a job/professionalization/become like us! 🤮🤮🤮
I've been reading Kathrine McKittrick's (2021) Dear Science, and it's really made me reconsider the methods I use to uplift and signal boost Black and brown voices/experiences. She takes apart Ahmed's refusal of yt men on the syllabus and gives a much richer history + reasoning + praxis of how to intentionally cite.
I'll paraphrase JRE, we need to continually use the space we're handed to bring in people who don't get that same open welcome.
Sara Ahmed makes the very smart observation that citation practices are gendered and racialized. Citation decisions are a political project for Ahmed because, she argues, absenting white men (from our bibliographies, references, footnotes) reorganizes our feminist knowledge worlds. By excluding white men from her (our) bibliographies she (we) can generate new ideas and chip away at, and possibly break down, the walls of patriarchy that have excluded and refuse feminist ways of knowing. Decentering the citations, and thus the experiences, of white men unmakes a scholarly system that champions and normalizes white patriarchal scholarly traditions. I struggle with the outcome of this citation project. I wonder how it inadvertently turns on impossible foreclosures: What does it mean to read Jacques Derrida and abandon Derrida and retain Derrida's spirit (or specter!)? Do we unlearn whom we do not cite? And what of our teaching practice? Do we teach refusal? Can we not teach our students to engage with various authors and narratives, critically, while also asking them to raise up the work of black women and other scholars, writers, artists, interviewees, teachers, who go unrecognized? How do we teach each other to read (disapprove, evaluate, critique, use, forget, abandon, remember) "white men" or other powerful scholars? Or is the critique (uncitation) to enact erasure? The project of erasure, too, often unfolds as an affirmation of racial privilege: here I recall (mostly white) feminists sparklingly shouting with a kind of breathy desperation that they, too, have been overciting and venerating white male scholarship, and that Ahmed has discovered a brand-new way to recognize and credit and legitimize the ideas of the marginalized; this leads these breathy speakers to hail the work of—mostly nonblack, mostly white feminist, mostly academic—privileged scholars! That aside, Ahmed's citation project matters to me because it asks that we think about the epistemological grounds through which we theorize and imagine and name liberation in our referencing practices.
Citation points to method and how we come to write what we know. Citation is important because it frames and supports (legitimizes) our argument. This also shows that if we begin with Michel Foucault as our primary methodological and theoretical frame —if Foucault is our referential scaffolding—we will, most certainly, draw Foucauldian conclusions. There is nothing at all wrong with a Foucauldian project and Foucauldian conclusions, of course—to suggest so would be remiss and skirt around the work of citations I am seeking to address. This example simply centralizes the importance of how referential beginnings and referential scaffoldings shape conclusions.
Theory is absence, obscure and propitious. Working with scholars like Sylvia Wynter, Édouard Glissant, and Frantz Fanon, I read and reread their work, to observe their complex analytical and methodological worlds. These scholars, it seems to me, are much more interested in how we know, and how we come to know, than in how we know. They tell us that there is no beginning through which firm conclusions can be made. (McKittrick, 2021, pp. 33–34—and it keeps going into this brilliant piece on Wynter and methodology)
JRE: Yeah, I'm only really interested in (peri-)academic spaces like Critical Design Lab; Rhetoric, Politics, & Culture; Abolition Science; Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics; the Disability Visibility Project; the Anti-Ableist Composition Collective; DBLAC; Disability & Intersectionality Summit; Cite Black Women; and anti-academic activist work like much of disability justice work, AWN, For the Gworls; peer-to-peer/horizontal mutual aid networks; Hyp-ACCESS; Abolish Time; Sins Invalid; HEARD; and activist-scholars like Talila A. Lewis (2020), Moya Bailey (2021), Walela Nehanda (2020), Caleb Luna (2018), Jamie Berrout (2021), and many others.
I don't think that disciplinarity will save us. I *know* that hierarchical, white supremacist spaces like academia will never save us, but will invest in architectures hostile to the most insightful, brilliant, and disruptive work out there.
AZ: Going back to the question about comp/rhet's whiteness specifically, I think there's something to be said here about our field's history of white saviorism in the context of something like Open Admissions or the rise of basic writing—and particularly that of white cis heterosexual women, who make the majority of our field's teaching and research force. And also that the teaching of writing as an institutionalized program I believe originally came out of Harvard. These demographics are changing, but I do think there's something to consider here about our field specifically. And that's why looking to these other fields and peri-academic spaces, as Jesse calls it, is so key, both in diagnosing the problem and moving forward.
AS: I don't know… maybe it's about reach? Like in this lifetime, in this form, the place I'll probably be able to provide the most beneficial impact is in academia? All spaces that uphold yt supremacy and capitalism are going to kill us… I guess this is the one that I'm in because it's the devil I know? I was listening to Ruth Wilson Gilmore talk about abolition and she's done so much, like so so so much, and she's within the academic frame. But then there's Alexis Pauline Gumbs, who's building a world outside of it. I love her approach, tbh I'm scared to leap away from this abusive safety because I know how to function in abusive situations to survive. And survival feels like making sure my kids are okay, that I'm okay, that we can all cope.
AS: uggghh I don't know. Visibility has never answered any problems. Calling bullshit out a lot might make room for the next round of people? (But the ones who make noise will probably always be excluded)… I guess recently I'm focused on the long view, the view that's way beyond my time here, because otherwise all of this seems futile. I have no romanticism about large sweeping shifts that will benefit me.
JRE: AS said above, "I know how to function in abusive situations to survive." I do, too. But I have also outgrown needing the frameworks of abuse to have something to resist as I've radicalized around the bodymind and disability and how embodiment becomes a target under racial capitalism (Sabrina Strings, Sami Schalk, etc.). I've been super excited to see Tricia Hersey's work with The Nap Ministry spreading more widely online, along with other anti-capitalist projects that center rest and care—Access Is Love, Abolish Time, along with calls for reparations for Black Americans, and more support for disabled folks on SSI. I don't know how much I even identify myself as an academic anymore, especially since higher ed's systemic abuse of students and workers during Covid has been so egregious. I've said privately that I chose to pursue a PhD because my health declined so rapidly I had to leave my work in the service industry and I needed health insurance and funding to figure out how to survive without causing more harm to my own bodymind. While my working conditions have improved, my overall health has declined, partially due to abusive ableism, power-obsessed academic gatekeeping, and the demand to present my body as upperclass in academic spaces. I'm fat, visibly queer, and use mobility aids, so no amount of expensive clothes will make up for my body being inherently disruptive.
AZ: I'm thinking about coalition building here and working across difference—like knowing my own privilege and working in collective too. I've been thinking about this Fred Moten quote a lot that I was reminded of because an organizer friend from Free CUNY posted it on Instagram, but I think I'd encountered it in The Undercommons originally: "The coalition emerges out of your recognition that it's fucked up for you, in the same way that we've already recognized that it's fucked up for us. I don't need your help. I just need you to recognize that this shit is killing you, too, however much more softly, you stupid motherfucker, you know?" (Harney & Moten, 2013, pp. 140–141).
AZ: Here's the whole thread from Eric Darnell Pritchard from April 10 2021:
And then here's a couple tweets from a related thread on April 11 2021:
JRE: Y'all know me and have seen my dissertation bibliography. I'm not that interested in what academically accepted "theory" says is valuable cognitive labor. Geneva Smitherman, Kashema Hutchinson, Carmen Kynard, and others have made the points that Black women in particular *live* their theory through relationships of care, through embodied practices of joy and connection. Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha's work centers the lived experiences of sick and disabled people's theory-as-survival, resisting racialized eugenical medical frameworks, resisting productivity culture; I'm much more interested in praxis than I am in academic understandings of "theoretical" work because being alive is not purely theoretical. To navigate academic gatekeeping that suppresses praxis work, I have chosen to include certain academically sanctioned theorists (in rhetoric and cultural studies) to prove that I have met (and exceeded) the disciplinary demands of the English department, but you're pressed to find me engaging deeply with Kant or whatever.
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