Like most of us, I’ve been adjusting to the pedagogical, administrative, and interpersonal exigencies of COVID-19. Like most of us, I’ve found some of those adjustments challenging, particularly as they relate to making workload allowances for students and myself — for me, being a single dad for three to four weeks at a stretch without available daycare has required some re-thinking of priorities. In the fall semester of 2020, I found myself teaching our graduate seminar in classical rhetoric (which we’re in the process of re-thinking, especially in light of the recent conversations in classics among folks like Shelley Haley, Shadi Bartsch, Dan-el Padilla Peralta, Mary Beard, and others about the problems of whiteness) and our Digital Technology and Culture courses on information structures and the history of digital technologies as a one-course overload, which led me to do some of that re-thinking of priorities. And our enrollments for this coming fall are still in flux, so I wound up with the opportunity to teach a couple of courses that I haven’t taught before, which is kind of nice — I’ve been feeling the need for a bit of a pedagogical reset.
I’ll leave discussing the first new prep for last, because it’s for me the most interesting and challenging. But for the second new prep, there were only a few classes in the schedule that were needing to be taught and that I felt like I had the expertise and desire to teach. The first possibility was an open upper-division literature elective that only fulfilled elective requirements, and I wrote up a proposal for an elective in postmodern and experimental fiction, since that’s where a lot of my MFA coursework was. And because we’re trying to increase or at least maintain our enrollments, we’ve been encouraged to advertise the courses we’re offering, and I decided to take the opportunity to fool around with Photoshop and try to teach myself more about using layer masks and such. Not a great first effort, but I’m happy with what I learned from doing it:
And yeah, you can see my protanopia, I think, in addition to the other dubious design choices—I had to ask for help re which colors went with which. Beyond that, though, in putting together the syllabus I took a look around the web at other college courses teaching postmodern and experimental fiction—and it was saddening to see how white and how male the reading lists were. I mean, I know all the problems with authenticity arguments and such, but still, beyond the inevitable and to-be-expected sexism and racism still visible in much of American academia, there are even female scholars who publish on feminism without a single female author in their postmodern/experimental reading lists. My own reading list is only somewhat less homogenous, I’ll acknowledge.
Long story short, 492 is harder to fill than some of our other upper-division courses, and then the grad student who was scheduled to teach our course on the 20th-century novel while the usual faculty member to teach is on sabbatical decided not to, so I was asked if I’d be interested in doing that instead, and I said yes, with part of my thinking being that it would be a relatively easy adjustment to make in terms of content. Part of the question for me, beyond how to adequately represent the twentieth-century novel in English in a single semester’s readings, was then: how to represent those twentieth-century readings visually? I figure it’s not too controversial to select 9/11 as the marker of the cultural end of the 20th century, so then I found myself seeking visuals from around the beginning of the 20th century with similar themes, and a picture from mother of American modernism Georgia O’Keeffe seemed to mostly fit the bill, although with the actual painting dated 1926, I admit it’s stretching the bounds of contemporaneity. Certainly looks better than the first flyer to my amateur’s eye.
And you know what the biggest stumbling block was? Thinking I had to start with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. For whatever reasons—the zombie of the canon still rotting at the back of my unconscious, not being able to get past my own undergraduate experience, or whatever—that idea just would not get out of my head. Until finally, looking at that previous syllabus on Experimental and Postmodern Fiction and thinking about the problems with whiteness there made me stop and say: why do I keep thinking the twentieth-century novel needs to be defined by whiteness? How might it be otherwise? That line of thought helped me ask: what novel in English—American novel, I would say, because to my mind in many ways the twentieth century was the American century—would I want to define the beginning of the twentieth century? That was easy and immediate: Cane, and the metonymic way in which it embodies and anticipates so much of what comes after, culturally speaking. Once I recognized that, everything else fell easily into place, including the theming and the sequencing.
The cultural anxieties around race, truth, and trauma that I’ve been hinting at above and in the linked syllabi have been dominating my attention this past year, much as they have for many of us, and they coalesced in an alarming way around the 2020 election and its aftermath. The final course I’ll describe is one in rhetoric rather than literature, and it reflects and embodies those anxieties and the way I’ve been thinking about them since the events of January 6. Perhaps obviously, the tagline on the flyer—”We’re doomed. Now what?”—is shamelessly plagiarized from Roy Scranton’s book of the same name, but since I’m assigning Scranton in the course, I’m not going to worry about it too much. But yes, I’ve been trying to be mindful of the overdetermined nature of our continuing crisis, and examinations of that overdetermined nature seems to me to be part of what’s missing from many of the rhetorical analyses of and responses to that crisis.
Here’s my take, and a big part of the animating spirit behind the design for 460: to my mind, the discourses surrounding the 2020 United States Presidential Election and its aftermath, culminating in the United States Capitol events of January 6, indicate a massive complex of problems in our national rhetorics. Writing curricula and the study of rhetoric—and especially academic programs in rhetoric and composition— offer possibly unique and powerful ways to respond to that complex of problems, potentially in ways that extend recent academia-wide conversations re-envisioning the democratic possibilities of the public land-grant university. This complex of overdetermined problems includes
- divisive and polarizing rhetorics;
- racist and hate-based rhetorics;
- unconsciously white supremacist rhetorics that reinforce and compound white privilege;
- competing truth claims and competing bases for truth;
- counter-claims of false consciousness and authenticity claims;
- the accidental and intentional distribution of misinformation, including for the purposes of stochastic terrorism; and
- information overload among faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate students, leading to an obscuring of the possibilities for democratic collective action.
These problems are pressing and urgent, but they also present a unique opportunity for rhetoric and composition scholars to demonstrate our collective and intersectional disciplinary expertise in such areas as:
- anti-racist rhetorics;
- civic and civil discourse;
- community, public, and religious literacies;
- cultural rhetorics;
- digital and online rhetorics;
- feminist rhetorics;
- indigenous rhetorics and land relations;
- information literacy and circulation;
- power and economic and class relations;
- rhetorics of institutional critique;
- rhetorics of whiteness;
and other areas, as well as considerable overlap with the work of scholars library and information sciences on information literacy and critical reading. And I see intersections as well with questions of what the role of higher education should be in the 21st century, particularly in terms of re-seeing the role of the land grant university and the possible new roles in the humanities for the extension services formerly associated with agriculture schools—as well as reconsidering the role of land grant universities in the context of American indigenous history. So following the events of January 6, I’ve been talking with some folks about the fractured nature of national discourse, both academically and politically, and have suggested that the polarization and violence necessitates the positioning of these concerns as not only local and community-driven but also as governmental and related to national security—and I get the sense that there are other folks in the discipline who share the sense that this is something that demands our attention and action. The course is one way to start thinking about that — I’d welcome hearing other perspectives.