a pixelated illustration of a torture method

Syrians for Truth and Justice: Articulating Entanglements, Disrupting Disciplinarity

Steve Parks with Bassam Alahmad and Ashanka Kumari

Disrupting Disciplinarity

A consistent theme across many of the essays in this collection is entanglements (Sheridan). Those moments where we cannot but be implicated in oppressive narratives (Pimentel) and where we must strategize to build an alternative ontology within an activist ecology (Rhodes). While this essay has been more colloquial in its use of the term “entanglements,” somewhat based on the work of Karen Barad, the intention was to explore what networks our discipline might understand themselves as always already existing within; what assemblages, both sedimented and emergent, might it imagine as the field of its activity. This essay has been an attempt to answer such questions as: Is the work of STJ really the work of composition and rhetoric? Why not just take up activism? And this essay has implicitly argued that such a question is a desire to articulate our discipline out of socio-political contexts. It is asking us to pivot into a field where writing teachers focus on writing, or, as mentioned at the beginning of this piece, one might even say focus on writing about writing.

Yet, such a pivot ignores how the sheer fact of essays for a collection on rhetoric and composition (let alone a conference dedicated to them) is dependent on the work of our elders, such as Black, Latino, LGBTQ, working-class, Asian American, Indigenous, and disabled activists who literally entangled their bodies into the apparatus of the university. Elders who demanded an accessible education for all students as well as courses and programs which spoke to the intellectual and moral heritages in which their identity was fostered (see Kynard, “‘I Want to be an African’” and Vernacular Insurrections; Smitherman; Parks). And we cannot but be aware that many of the very bodies that made events like this possible are still systematically and institutionally blocked from taking full advantage of this legacy of public and institutional activism. So, we would argue, that yes, such activism concerning human rights based on localized histories was, is, and always should be an inherent part of composition and rhetoric.

We would further argue that to disentangle ourselves from the global context—except for the production of rhetorical analysis of discursive structures—is to give ourselves a moral alibi, dressed in cloak professionalism that allows for the continued and systemic human rights abuses by the United States and other global powers. (And if this is particularly true in the Middle East and North Africa, it is equally true in the legacy of colonialism which covers the ground on which we walk every day.) What is the sense of privilege that understands acting against the immorality of Assad’s brutality as not part of our profession? Why does the “disciplinary we” being produced for “scholars” and “teachers” in our field get a pass? Why does this “disciplinary we” become allowed to disentangle itself in the name of professionalizing the writing classroom when other bodies are being entangled in brutal and inhuman systems?

For as we draw from the work of elders, we understand public rhetoric not as an object of study, but an enactment designed to alter oppressive apparatuses; community not as a romanticized whole, but a constellation of interests attempting to alter the micro-material practices which currently exclude but which can be transformed into openings for new possibilities; and partnership, not as an act of benevolence, but as a collective project from which new insights and skills can be produced. And across all these domains, we can see how we were always already enacting our field within an international terrain marked by both indigenous and colonialized legacies. With Kynard ("Teaching While Black"), then, we can begin to recognize the contours of white United-States/Euro-centric privilege (too often framed in ableist terms) and perhaps, strike a blow against it. (For a discussion of how we too often work within ableist paradigms when announcing progressive disciplinary projects, see Caitlin Ray, “The Shit that Still Haunts Us: Disability in Composition and Rhetoric Research.” We are grateful for how her essay allowed us to see such limitations in this essay.)

Yet here is the sad truth. Much of what we have just said, much of the work of building STJ, much of our colleagues’ activism, is not considered the work of composition and rhetoric. Consider graduate education. All too often, graduate students are taught to write for academic journals; not how to use their academic knowledge to right systemic wrongs. They are too often taught their labor is valuable only in the classroom, not in the community. They are taught history through James Berlin, not through the activism of the Latinx, Black, Queer, or Native American caucuses. And they are taught how to talk to administrators, not to the public activists, policy makers, and international human rights advocates.

Working and Writing for Change: Caucus/SIG Video Series

Created by Cristina Kirklighter, Samantha Blackmon, and Steve Parks

We would go even further here and argue our graduate programs actually de-skill committed individuals in the name of their only learning how to work in writing classrooms. My own graduate education (Parks) provided almost none of the skills needed for the work described above. And while we all need to work for a more just labor system within the university (see Schell/Stock), preparing students with skills that seemingly only have value within that currently unjust labor system seems wrong—particularly when we often sell that future in mantles of activism and justice. If we claim to be a socially-committed discipline, if we recognize the activism that was a fundamental foundation to our field, then we also need to claim the responsibility of fully preparing our students to take on such work in writing program and in public writing projects.

So, yes, it is true, much of the work discussed in this essay, and many of the individuals highlighted, are not seen as being entangled in the work of composition and rhetoric. And what, we wonder, does that say about the future of our discipline?

Written by Steve Parks with Ashanka Kumari.