In keeping with scholarship across the disciplines on the history, nature, and functions of the public sphere, composition and rhetoric scholars have repeatedly called for a renewal of public sphere writing, research, and engagement. Evidence of the impact of this call can be seen in the proliferation of projects across the U.S. bringing students and researchers into contact with local communities. Such projects include oral histories in public schools and neighborhoods, rhetorical histories of African American, Latino/a, and immigrant communities, participation in the international street newspaper movement, and the creation of an electronic “agora classroom” in which students role play Israel-Palestine relations. Key to these calls for public engagement on the part of students and faculty is the relationship between civility and democracy, and the capacity of universities to promote cultural understanding and communication through local initiatives with global implications. The March 2011 Writing Democracy Forum and Workshop will examine the common and unique features of local projects, the significance of their increasing appeal to scholars and teachers in composition and rhetoric and other related disciplines, and the ways in which the remarkable knowledge and cultural communication they generate can be more effectively shared and disseminated. As rhetoricians, we are keenly aware of the role language plays in promoting or eroding participatory democracy and public debate. The planners see the event’s focus on rhetorical research and university-community writing partnerships as an occasion to examine the dialectic of civility and democracy based on equitable laws, opportunities, material conditions of life, and cultural diplomacy within and outside our country’s borders. Our aim is to encourage intercultural inquiry and exchange and to use higher education as a strategic base of support for community and civic projects in the ongoing recovery of rhetorical history and diverse voices to preserve our past, look toward a more peaceful, productive future, and illuminate contemporary successes and failures in communication across cultures.

The proposed symposium will address two national trends in rhetoric and composition and writing across the disciplines:  university-community writing partnerships and rhetorical and ethnographic research that expands our understanding of diverse subcultures through recovery of underrepresented cultural, political, and historical legacies and voices. As a Bridging Cultures project with the theme “Civility and Democracy,” the symposium will bring together a multidisciplinary panel of participants from a variety of universities, colleges, organizations, and communities to 1) examine the “public turn” in writing; 2) reinforce academic commitments to collaborating with and providing resources to surrounding communities; 3) foster discussion and debate over substantive questions about our national identity similar to those the Federal Writers’ Project under F.D.R.’s New Deal set out to answer in the 1930s in its American Guide Series; and 4) consider the possibility of creating a consortium to link local projects on a national and even perhaps an international basis. The university will sponsor a two-day forum on research, pedagogy, and methods aimed at bridging diverse subcultures within the U.S. and advancing knowledge of our own rich history and culture through rhetorical and historical research, oral history, ethnography, writing, and multimodal compositions. Following the conference will be a one-day workshop with a smaller number of forum participants selected on the basis of geographical, disciplinary, and institutional diversity. The goal of the workshop is to summarize the proceedings in order to envision next steps. Among possible workshop outcomes is the implementation of a translocal consortium co-sponsored by one or more institutions that would preserve the diversity of existing local projects, serve as a model for others, archive and showcase digital publications and artifacts, and host regional, national, and/or electronic discussions about the symposium theme. Such a translocal consortium would promote reciprocity among participants across time and space, providing local projects with global audiences and linking local communities historically and geographically.