I’m back from the 2015 Conference on College Composition and Communication convention, a 5-day trip with the academic community I was last immersed in in 2012.
I caught up with colleagues I’d left behind, and reconnected with others who were years ahead of me and now teach as tenured faculty members at universities across the South and Midwest. I also surprised my dissertation chair and watched him at an early morning research panel. He still writes and presents exceptionally careful, thoughtful case studies of inhumane organizational rhetoric.
Between Thursday and Friday I also had several conversations with professors, staff members, and nervous about-to-be-graduates about alternative academic life: their worries, their frustrations, and their options. (I’ll share video of my dialogue with Paula Chambers when I have it.)
I pushed through a day or so of imposter syndrome—the nasty nag of whether I belong and what I have to show for three years in the wild—and as I pushed through that din, I regained a sense of my common bond with those writers, scholars, researchers, activists, dreamers, and teachers who promote freedom through the practical disciplines of composition and communication.
Dr. Adam J. Banks, a writing, rhetoric, and digial media professor at the University of Kentucky, pointed the convention outward and upward on Thursday morning. “Ain’t No Walls Behind the Sky: Funk, Flight, and Freedom” combined music, film, pop culture, and politics, and it confronted ways that composition scholarship turn students into clean, conventionally respectable disciplinarians. Banks spoke as a digital griot, as a contemporary tech-fluent expression of West African story-seinning history-keepers and truth-tellers. The griots have held ancient communities together for centuries. And we will hold the future together as well.
If you weren’t present during this address, no post hoc description will be adequate. But the [as yet un-captioned] video offers a glimpse. Watch it if you can. (39 minutes)
“It’s time for us to travel… We need to build deep and long-term intellectual relationships with university libraries and high schools that go beyond the first year comp trip to the library to learn about source use. And we need to keep working hard on that fourth “C” in our title [Communication]. We have to do long-term work to build more on our relationships with communication programs, schools, and departments. Many of our members attend RSA [Rhetorical Society of America] and ACA [American Communication Association], but how can we take those individual relationships that exist and use them to deepen our programmatic relationships?
“What can we do throughout 4Cs and our home departments and programs to build long-term with Hispanic-serving institutions and tribal colleges and HBCUs [Historically Black Colleges and Universities]? We need greater connection and collaboration across programs and organizations, because even the most brilliant faculty, even the largest writing and rhetoric programs, even a badass organization like 4Cs cannot do this futuristic work alone…
“To evoke flight, even imagined flight, at a time like this might seem fraudulent given that none of us on the ground is free… I’m asking us to think about freedom in this un-free world because the only freedom we will see, the only freedom we will get, is the freedom we take. And the only way we get free is to get off campus, and walk with and learn from those who are out here working in freedom struggle right now…
“One thing this means in our work is we have to focus less on the rhetorical exemplars, focus less on the ‘successful’ movements. Freedom work is funky rather than refined. It is becoming rather than overcome. It is in process rather than proclaimed.” —Adam Banks [27:22-31:14]
I spoke to Adam a few hours after his speech in a room without stage lighting, with no transparent podium and no cued soundtrack.
He’s 100% real. I sensed no disjunction between what he said in his address and the spirit he carries into his teaching, scholarship, and work in the wider world.
And I find that inspiring. It’s what I’ve wanted for myself for years.
Since my early 20s, I’ve sought a fully-embodied experience of wholeness. I’ve sought it in religion, in scholarship, in relationship, in activism; everywhere I am, it’s the same core mission:
Name: Keisha E. McKenzie
Developmental Stage: intermediate
I entered the technical communication and rhetoric program at Texas Tech in part to understand integrity more: what does it mean to live as a whole person and participate in a complex society when you have little more than the coding languages of words, rules, roles, and norms? What does it mean to use these tools to make sense of the community’s rules or live sensibly in relation to them? How does wholeness work in practice, in the government office, in the provost’s office, and at my desk?
I graduated from my program determined to apply what I’d discovered to the world outside the academy. And I’ve been applying as best as I can as a new micro-business owner, communication services provider and consultant, as a new immigrant building a home in a nation still deeply ambivalent about my kind.
And I’m fueled to move forward now. I’m often affirmed by the exhortations of Toni Morrison. As I read about one of my New York siblings forced into psychiatric treatment by psychiatrists colluding with the NYPD, I also read a brief column from Morrison about the liberating powers of art, writing, and creation.
Creation is a testament to freedom. Appealing to the boundlessness “behind the sky” is reaching toward a world that doesn’t demand an escape hatch or a parachute. Yet here, in this moment, Morrison says, is the artist and the writer, rebelliously undermining the ideas and ideologies that, full-grown, nurture tyrannies of body and mind.
“There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.” —Toni Morrison, The Nation (March 23, 2015)
Because we live in this world and not in another preferred reality; because we join our ancestors in adopting the stories and rites of freedom even when constrained; because there’s nobody as “badass” as Toni Morrison and she is 84 years old—if we’re gonna go down at all, we’re gonna go down making art and writing books… and the status quo will have to deal.