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“Writing Democracy: Towards a Translocal Consortium for Access, Preservation, and Exchange of Community-Based Discourses” will consist of a forum and program development workshop scheduled March 9-12, 2011, at the campus of Texas A&M University-Commerce (A&M-Commerce), Texas. As a “Bridging Cultures” project with the NEH theme “Civility and Democracy,” the forum will bring together participants from a variety of universities, colleges, cultural centers, community centers, and schools to consider overarching themes of the relationships between civility and democracy at various points in time and across cultures in the United States, explore the sociological and cultural seedbeds of civility as embedded in languages and rhetorics of communities, and discuss the ways that civility has served to bridge cultural divides.

While the disciplinary home of many of the featured speakers is rhetoric and composition, many of these invited scholars push beyond disciplinary boundaries. Their work is informed by ethnographic studies, and theories and methods of sociological, historical, and anthropological inquiry. In turn, their work informs scholars of other disciplines, also represented among the featured speakers, all of whom have published widely on the issues most directly informing the symposium theme. The role of discourse in cultivating and forging civil exchanges in a participatory democracy has long been the focus of our field, thus the confirmed speakers making up our proposed program are uniquely situated to generate productive public programming that helps “Bridge Cultures” through civility and democracy. As Elenore Long explains in her letter of commitment, “[P]olitical philosophers have long held that . . . [among] the best measures of a strong vibrant public is its capacity for the shared use of reason.” Public engagement through reasoned discourse demands civility on all sides. “Yet today,” Long continues, “such public engagement is rare. And yet a shared sense of reason is imperative for civic participation in diverse locales such as East Texas, where almost every significant economic, social, and cultural issue unfolds within a larger translational context.” Long further observes:

The [program] that faculty members at A&M-Commerce and Long Island University have prepared promises to situate “the dialectic of civility and democracy” around translocal issues at once grounded in East Texas and shaped by larger global factors that condition all of us—that is, factors that condition an understanding of what it means to be human and the quality of our individual and collective lives.

In her letter of commitment, featured speaker Nancy Welch turns our attention to the scholarly and practical implications of investigating civic discourse at local levels from historical perspectives. In anticipation of our forum theme, Welch asks:

What difference might a recognition of the central historical role played by disenfranchised and rank-and-file groups by people assumed and represented to have the least amount of social power . . . make to how we theorize today and about what participatory democracy looks like, who constructs civic space and ideas of civility, and what’s at stake in reclaiming and listening to diverse voices? These are questions I can imagine a lively discussion about through the forum you propose.

The forum features individuals nationally recognized as key influences in rhetoric and composition joined in conversation with cultural historians (Hirsch), public historians (representing the Brooklyn Historical Society and the Texas Historical Commission), representatives from public programs (the Neighborhood Story Project), journalism faculty (campus papers, radio and television stations), K-12 teachers (representing the National Writing Project), artists (photographers), and community organizers.
The participants include academics trained in history, English, rhetoric, and composition who have worked as teachers, community outreach leaders, directors of writing centers, and those who incorporate the newest digital technologies in their scholarship and teaching. Humanities Team members also include journalism faculty responsible for campus newspapers at community college levels, station managers for local radio (KETR, an NPR-affiliated station) and television stations (KETV), and university archivists, public historians, and representatives from the Brooklyn Historical Society and the Texas Historical Commission.

The planners of the proposed forum and program development workshop are keenly aware of the role language plays in promoting or eroding participatory democracy and civility in public debate. Thus, we see the forum’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 both within and outside our country’s borders.

Coming from a variety of institutional settings and with experience working with students of diverse ethnicities, classes, and regional cultures, the participants will come together to (1) examine the public turn in rhetoric, composition, and associated fields which is increasingly considering rhetorics in different cultural discourses; (2) disseminate and reinforce academic practices in collaborating with and providing resources to surrounding communities and creating reciprocal relationships that enhance both disciplinary knowledge and contribute to the common good; (3) engage in discussion and debate over substantive questions about our national identity relating to the relationship between civility and democracy; and (4) consider the possibility of creating a consortium to link and support local and relevant translocal projects on a national or even international basis.

The forum speakers and resulting conversations set the scholarly foundation for the program development workshop that follows the forum, so we have asked each forum speaker to (1) deliver a presentation to forum participants, (2) participate in an online discussion to begin two weeks before the forum and serve as online communication point among participants and speakers during and after the forum, (3) respond to relevant themes emerging from the collection of presentations and related conversations, and (4) contribute to the program development workshop that follows, where we will, as the NEH grant materials suggest, collaborate with other “humanities practitioners, scholars, and teachers . . . to devise content, formats, training strategies, and education and dissemination methods for a national or regional program that engages people in communication across the country in reflection on, and discussion of, the forum theme.”

The two-day forum will include participants ranging from graduate students and scholars in our field to local and public historians to public school teachers, university archivists, city librarians, representatives from state humanities councils and historical commissions, local activist groups and cultural centers, and others involved in local preservation, research, and related efforts. Forum speakers “featured” throughout the day will be scholars from rhetoric, composition, and literacy studies who offer significant contributions to program the theme. The forum will include concurrent sessions before and after each featured speaker, with speakers in concurrent sessions drawn from an open call for presentations and poster sessions and selected on the basis of geographical, disciplinary, and institutional diversity (see “Call for Proposals” in Other Documents, page186). A forum objective will be to bridge diverse subcultures within the US and advance our rich history and culture through rhetorical and historical research, oral history, ethnography, and multimodal compositions.

--See detailed agenda above [draft]

During the two days of the forum, the following participants have agreed to share their work with audience members in attendance and with a wider audience via new and old media technologies. Additional information on their scholarly production and community outreach projects is included in the section below.

Featured Speakers (in order of appearance)
Dean Terry (University of Texas-Dallas) opens our forum with his film Subdivided: Community and Isolation in America (2007), a documentary about the complexity of developing and sustaining community in the suburbs of Dallas, offering important implications for the erosion of community as consequence of poorly designed responses to urban sprawl across the contemporary American landscape. Respondent will be Harvey J. Graff, author of the controversial The Dallas Myth: The Making and Unmaking of an American City (see Appendices for additional information about these confirmed speakers).

Deborah Mutnick (Long Island University) has facilitated university-community writing projects in Brooklyn, NY, and published on the role of place, oral history, ethnography, and community building in composition studies and civic engagement. As a Principle Investigator, she helped develop the forum theme exploring how a national consortium modeled after the FWP might link existing university and community oral history, writing, literacy, and service learning programs.

Jerrold Hirsch (Truman State University) brings a valuable perspective on writing democracy today by drawing our attention to a massive, federally-funded undertaking that serves as one model for the forum, the New Deal’s Federal Writers’ Project. His Portrait of America: A Cultural History of the Federal Writer’s Project offers a much-needed historical perspective on this Works Progress Administration project. Especially important to our conversations is FWP leader Henry Alsberg’s goals to redefine American culture by embracing its diversity.

Kathleen Blake Yancey (Florida State University) foregrounds the increasingly significant role of what she calls the “citizen composer,” analyzing the importance of ordinary, everyday writing in a participatory democracy by drawing r attention to, among other collective writing events, “the country’s first vernacular scrapbooks documenting a public event”: the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. As Past President of the National Council of Teachers of English, Yancey brings experience with a translocal initiative that might serve as yet another model for Writing Democracy: the NCTE-sponsored National Day on Writing and National Gallery on Writing. As Yancey explains of NGoW, “. . . my own work with the N[CTE]-sponsored National Gallery of Writing, the first such national gallery of ‘everyday’ writing, connects beautifully and critically with the forum and workshop theme” (Yancey, “Letter of Intent,” Appendices, page 81). Additionally, as current editor of our field’s flagship journal College Composition and Communication, Yancey is particularly well suited to help launch and support the conversations suggested by the forum theme (see Yancey, CCC, Other Documents, Bibliography, page 175).

Elenore Long’s (Arizona State University) extensive research in what she calls “the rhetoric of local publics” offers participants a much-needed perspective on community literacy that tests the limits and potential of day-to-day democracy. Bringing together theories of political philosophy with grounded studies of situated literacies, Long’s research helps us understand how writing at local levels among ordinary citizens can lead to purposeful action in a participatory democracy.

Nancy Welch (University of Vermont) engages participants in an exploration of local publics from a historical perspective. Her work conjoins recent interest among composition scholars and teachers in public writing and rhetorical history to present a theory and method for engaging students in effective participation in an increasingly complex and culturally divided society. By recovering rhetorical histories like those of unsung civil rights and labor activists and providing students with literal soapboxes to stand on to learn to participate in public debate, Welch not only puts the “public turn” in composition in sharp historical and political perspective, but also suggests concrete ways of enacting it in the classroom.

David Gold (University of Tennessee-Knoxville) expands our understanding of local publics by presenting his research on the historical elements of university outreach, focusing on in-depth analysis of the rhetorical history of local, non-elite institutions with respect to the communities they served in the first decades of the 20th century. His award-winning study Rhetoric at the Margins “examines three understudied sites of instruction in Texas, a black liberal arts college, a public women’s university and a rural teacher training school” (Gold, “Letter of Intent,” Appendices, page 92). The third university he mentions is the one hosting the event. The public women’s university studied is represented in our “partnering organization” the Federation Rhetoric Committee, part of the North Texas Area Federation of Colleges and Universities. Gold’s historical perspective on local institutions focuses on the intersections between literacy and civil action and how marginalized groups use their rhetorical training to engage in the public and professional spheres of a democratic society. In his presentation “Beyond the Local,” he invokes the translocal dimensions of our work by arguing  that “for historiographic scholarship to be relevant, it must not simply recover neglected writers, teachers, locations, and institutions, but demonstrate connections between the local and larger, national conversations” (“Letter of Intent,” Appendices, page 92).

Nedra Reynolds (University of Rhode Island) theorizes the local by drawing our attention to what she calls the “geographies of writing” —the where of writing. As she explains in her award-winning study Geographies of Writing, “geographies of rhetoric and writing begin with the assertion that the way we map the world is a direct but complex result of gender, race, class, and abilities . . . affecting how we walk through a neighborhood, choose an apartment, find our way across campus, or navigate texts or acts of literacy” (140). Indeed, her work helps us see the very specific, embodied and material ways that where we write is no less important than any other element shaping the creation and circulation of texts, thus offering insight “into the social production of space, embodied in the moves a writer makes and the products of a writer’s work” (177). In short, place matters. We see this attention to place enacted in the projects featured by our forum’s next two speakers.

David Jolliffe (University of Arkansas) offers a fruitful example of the “geographies of place” in his, reciprocal. city-wide university-community partnership and research project “The Arkansas Delta Oral History Project.” As described in a recent conference presentation, “In the small, rural town of Augusta, Arkansas, scholars from the University of Arkansas and George Mason University are supporting health centers, schools, and churches to help community members develop their literacy through two projects, expanding their individual opportunities and shaping their sense of shared inheritance and collective aspirations. This first project has been successful in part because it engages a wide range of local sponsors of literacy (Brandt, 2001). As the project has matured, genres of writing have been remixed as they migrate between activities within these multiple, sponsoring institutions and from a local to a regional scope” (CCCC 2009). ADOHP provides teachers and scholars with a model for engaging authentic literacy events to bring together communities with their local histories and one another.

Rachel Breunlin (New Orleans), co-director of The Neighborhood Story Project, offers another example of city-wide and authentic literacy events that bring communities together, this time through a collective documentary. With the motto “Our Stories Told By Us,” project co-directors “work with writers in neighborhoods around New Orleans to create portraits of their places, then publish the books and host a block party to celebrate” (“About Us,” The Neighborhood).

Jan Cohen-Cruz (Imagining America, Syracuse University), closes the forum’s first day by offering a vision for the translocal implications of the conversations represented at this forum, speaking from her extensive experience in community-arts and, most recently, as Director of Imagining America (IA): Artists and Scholars in Public Life. Whereas the previous speakers offered local instantiations of city-wide, community-based writing, Cohen-Cruz provides a significant, highly relevant example for those of interested in theorizing the local and establishing, sustainable infrastructures for translocal engagement.

Imagining American (IA) is a national consortium of more than eighty colleges and universities hosted by Syracuse University broadly and systematically engaged in the public humanities through a collective commitment to strengthening the civic purposes of the humanities. An institute supporting regular, annual meetings, providing models and structure for productive working conferences at regions throughout the country, and generating reports that enable productive humanities-based collaborations across the United States, Imagining America provides an important, contemporary model for civic engagement through humanities. Where the Federal Writers’ Project provides a historical model for us, Imagining America provides a contemporary model illustrating the sorts of public programming that might result from Writing Democracy. Jan Cohen-Cruz has agreed to serve as our consultant throughout the process, including helping us engage in a productive workshop following the forum that offers multiple, relevant deliverables designed to engage others in this important conversation (see “Cohen-Cruz” and “Imagining America” Other Documents, Bibliography, page 175).

Michelle Hall Kells (University of New Mexico) will open the second day of the forum by drawing our attention to concepts of civility and democracy embodied by “We the People.” Kells’ key research interests (civil rights, sociolinguistics, and composition/literacy studies) coalesce around problems related to ethnolinguistic stratification, and intercultural communication. Balancing extensive research on intercultural communication among Latino/a populations with a responsive teaching agenda, Kells has published extensively on issues of direct consequence to participants and larger projects emerging from the theme “Writing Democracy.” Her presentation will build from this work.

John Duffy (University of Notre Dame) brings research expertise in the historical development of literacy and rhetoric in cross-cultural contexts, thus extending our understanding of “We the People.” His work draws from individual life histories to trace the historical development of literacy and rhetoric among marginalized populations. He is also a regular speaker at public forums featuring immigrant and global populations working from invented writing systems.

Julie Lindquist and Bump Halbritter (Michigan State University) consider what is possible in a participatory democracy when principles of ethnographic research and oral history interviews are coupled with digital media, where embodied rhetoric and non-linguistic diversity exposed in videotaped interviews may provide important data, especially regarding literacy opportunities among working class students. Lindquist has written extensively about working class rhetorics, and Halbritter is the new editor of the national journal College Composition and Communication Online. Their work expands our understanding of the translocal by drawing our attention to the modalities through which individual stories are collected and received, with important implications for any translocal models our workshop participants recommend. As editor of CCC Online, Bump Halbritter has offered to support these key conversations for virtual audiences, suggesting that “CCC Online will provide a venue for distributing multimedia products that emerge from the proceedings and may also host some of the interactive features of community involvement before, throughout, and following the events”  (“Letter of Intent,” Appendices, page 73).

Jeff Grabill (Michigan State University) furthers our understanding of technology’s role in a participatory democracy. While Lindquist and Halbritter’s research suggests a translocal initiative should consider delivery systems for collecting and telling stories, Grabill insists that equally important is the technology available to access relevant data used to participate in civic discourse. Grabill is a long-time researcher in MSU’s Public Humanities Initiative and has written extensively about the intersections among technology, literacy, and civic engagement. As he explains in his letter of intent, “My own work dovetails nicely with the forum and workshop themes. I have long been interested in the relationships between literacy and citizenship. Accordingly, I have led a number of engaged research projects that explore how community-based organizations and groups engage in the work required to participate in complex public decision-making processes. In fact, I am at work on a new book-length project that details what the public rhetorical work of community groups looks like and links that work to American traditions of pragmatic thinking about language and public life. As you can tell, I am excited about your proposal because it promises to explore an area of work that is vital for a participatory culture” (Appendices, page 65).

Gail Hawisher (University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign) turns our attention again to the lived experiences of writing, especially as shaped by the technologies of writing. Drawing from many years of extensive research on how people here and abroad develop digital literacies, Hawisher’s work contributes a transglobal perspective to our Writing Democracy initiative.

Eli Goldblatt (Temple University) offers another important model for university-community relations in New City Writing (NCW), the outreach arm of the writing program. NCW supports students working with Open Borders Project, a technology and language learning center in Latino North Philadelphia, as well as Tree House Books, a literacy/literature center near the Temple campus and the four K-8 partnership schools. The center provides a new model for community-university collaborations by placing literacy instruction within a network of relationships forged across disciplines and beyond campus, an approach Goldblatt calls “Writing Beyond the Curriculum” (Goldblatt, Because We Live Here, 2007)

Paula Matthieu (Boston College) contributes to our understanding of the translocal by offering an important example of community publishing—locally enacted, yet globally connected. In Chicago and now Boston, Matthieu writes about and works for the international street newspapers movement, which brings together local publications that provide income and a public voice for homeless people worldwide. She is a writer and board member at Spare Change News in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and serves on the Executive Committee of the International Network of Street Papers. Through this model, Matthieu offers a sustainable infrastructure enabling informed, civil discourse in public spheres among some of the most disenfranchised Americans. Through interviews with other area homeless, rich observations, and other primary research methods, street paper reporters draw the general public’s attention to the real-world issues affecting our area homeless.

Steve Parks (Syracuse University) offers another model for community publishing that establishes, extends, and sustains strategic partnerships by providing venues that offer disenfranchised communities greater access to political power. Parks is editor of the scholarly journal Reflections and founder, editor, and executive director of the New City Community Press—a community press that has published books that provide a vehicle for greater political power. Among its publications are books on disability culture and immigrant labor rights as well as oral histories of local communities, such as Chinatown and the Forgotten Bottom in Philadelphia. Currently Parks is working to expand New City Community Press nationwide, providing yet another venue for projects resulting from this forum and workshop.  

Tobi Jacobi (Colorado State University-Boulder) brings his model of supporting and publishing community writing to local prison populations. Director of the Community Literacy Center, Jacobi engages writing as a way to explore and, where possible and appropriate, disrupt uneven power relations through writing workshops led by university interns and faculty that led to a regular symposium and the journal publication of inmate writers called SpeakOut! Jacobi’s work extends our understanding of the role of writing in a participatory democracy through research and activism among those populations that seem the most removed from civil discourse and democratic processes.

Joe Lambert (Center for Digital Storytelling) extends this model still further, offering a community-based model of a non-profit organization whose mission is to assist people in using digital media to tell their own stories. CDS partners with community, educational, and business institutions and gives workshops for organizations and individuals throughout the U.S. and Canada and in several European cities.

Linda Adler-Kassner (California State University-Santa Barbara) extends our understanding of the symposium’s translocal potential by articulating our collective capacity to yield research-based and sustainable change. Drawing from her interests as researcher and community organizer along with extensive experiences as writing teacher, teacher trainer, and administrator of large writing programs, Adler-Kassner articulates possible ways to develop strategic programs of collective action that do justice to the field’s best principles. Responding to recurring themes emerging from the two-day forum, Adler-Kassner offers a critical perspective likely to prompt further discussion among participants on issues engaging the panel topic “In Order to Form a More Perfect Union.”

Harvey J. Graff (Ohio State University) draws our two-day forum to a close, highlighting recurring themes he sees emerging from our conversations and placing them in perspective with historical trends that offer implications for the translocal potential of engaging local publics in these ways. On the basis of both his scholarly work and long history of very relevant public history and community projects (see full vitae), Graff is particularly well positioned to offer this important response. As he explains in his letter of intent, “[o]verall, I see my work as helping to create new paths of understanding—and possible paths of action—based on critical understanding of the relationships of  history, literacy, language, rhetoric and discourse, schooling, social structures, and social change. Such work, like the theme of the forum, is interdisciplinary, engaged and relational, reflective, and self critical. It is precisely through such historical and critical approaches that powerful myths like those I have addressed—from the literacy myth to the Dallas myth—can be evaluated effectively and challenged.” It is with this important perspective that we draw our two-day forum to a close, collecting together the key elements most important for our planning workshop that follows. (See all curriculum vitas and letters of intent in Appendices.)