Writing Democracy: A Rhetoric of (T)Here, March 9-11, 2011

Next March, the 2011 Federation Rhetoric Symposium joins the Sam Rayburn Symposium to address the nature of here and there as rhetorical constructs, especially as this rhetoric of here/there, us/them identifies, connects, and changes regions like Northeast Texas: at once rural and increasingly urban (suburban), agricultural and increasingly technological, grounded in the local and shaped by the larger global factors that likewise condition local publics across the nation. Poverty is widespread, wealth increasingly concentrated; local publics such as those across North Texas are (almost simultaneously) fluid and static, homogenous and diverse, integrated and segregated, conservative and staunchly liberal (see O’Donald and Wilkison’s The Texas Left, 2010).

According to keynote speaker Nancy Welch, when we “rhetoricize social class,” we “shift our definition of [working] class from a focus on cultural identity to a focus on one’s available means for exercising decision-making power within and against privatization’s strict limits on public rights and voice, including in the workplace” (Living Room 2008).  In North Texas, Sam Rayburn and the US Congressional District this congressman represented between 1913 and 1961 is a case in point. Throughout much of the 20th century, rural conditions and poverty defined North Texas. Forever loyal to the (white) farmers and small business owners who were his constituency, Rayburn was fond of saying: “I want my people out of the mud and I want my people out of the dark.” Rayburn’s advocacy for rural electrification helped bring power to the remote farms (Rural Electrification Act, 1936). His first-hand accounts of the harsh, muddy soils of the region helped justify the paving of multiple farm-to-market roads, vastly improving access and connectivity among farmers in remote areas businesses in town. As Speaker of the House, fiercely local democrat, and mentor to LBJ, Rayburn was instrumental in passing the most significant civil rights legislation since the Reconstruction: the Civil Rights Bill in 1957.

It is in this sense that local rhetoric both connects—at time literally—and separates us to/from one another and the rest of the nation/world. Thus, March 9-11, 2011, at Texas A&M-Commerce, we bring together scholars, researchers, historians, students, archivists, and journalists to examine our various and expanding notions of the local as it relates to the global through questions like the following: How do we identify the local in everyday contexts? To what end(s) might we identify and draw boundaries around “here”? What role does this identification play in a participatory democracy? How might local rhetoric enable change? Promote equity and social justice? Hinder equity and social justice?  To what extent has the “public turn” across the disciplines, including composition studies, already begun this process through engagement in university-community research and projects? And how might something like the Federal Writers’ Project, part of FDR’s New Deal in the 1930s, serve to link all of our projects nationwide to tell America’s story today in its local and global contexts as we enter the second decade of the 21st century, still reeling from the crash of 2008?

Featured Speakers include Nancy Welch, University of Vermont, David Gold, University of Tennessee-Knoxville, John Duffy, University of Notre Dame, David Jolliffe, University of Arkansas-Lafayette, Jerrold Hirsch, Truman State University, Michelle Hall Kells, New Mexico State University, Elenore Long, Arizona State University

The Federation Rhetoric Symposium is part of an annual series, "A Symposium in Rhetoric" that has welcomed many notable speakers since the first meeting in 1973. These keynoters have included Patricia Bizzell, Karlyn Kohrs Campbell, Deborah Brandt, Kathleen Blake Yancey, Sonja Foss, Richard Enos, Cynthia Selfe, James Kinneavy, Kenneth Burke, Stephen Toulmin, and many others.

Beyond March 2011 and Commerce, Texas (with co-organizer Deborah Mutnick, Long Island University-Brooklyn)
Writing Democracy will bring composition and rhetoric scholars, whose work frequently crosses disciplinary boundaries, together with artists, historians, media specialists, and community members engaged in interdisciplinary research methods. These methods, ranging from ethnography and oral history to qualitative research in sociology and cultural geography, are drawn both from traditional humanities scholarship in literature, language, philosophy, religion, and history and from critical theory’s critique of many of the liberal assumptions informing those traditions. Influenced by critical race theory, gender studies, working class studies, and immigrant studies, the symposium participants will utilize a wide range of methods from oral history and ethnography to rhetorical analysis and memory mapping to engage in community-based projects. Such projects create conditions for college students, community members, and scholars to learn from one another through research designed to preserve local history and give voice to those—past, present, and future—whose stories and contributions to American life might not otherwise be entered into the historical record. A common ground of all these endeavors is their commitment to the goals of recovering, fostering, teaching, and enacting civility and democracy.

Our vision for Writing Democracy is inspired by the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), created in 1935 as part of Federal One—the umbrella organization for arts, theater, music, and writing—and Roosevelt’s New Deal. Since the economic crisis in the fall of 2008, numerous calls for the revival of the FWP have been made by journalists, cultural critics, and academics. Whether or not funding for such an ambitious, federally sponsored project becomes available, we believe that we are well positioned through already existing national organizations, college and university writing programs, oral history and neighborhood writing projects, and university-community partnerships to replicate some of the profoundly important work accomplished by the FWP seventy-five years ago. To do so fully would entail not only collecting the publications and artifacts of independent, local projects but also deliberating on the overarching goals a national consortium might achieve. For the Federal Writers, that goal was to redefine American identity and “to introduce America to Americans.” In Portrait of America: A Cultural History of the Federal Writers’ Project (2003), Jerrold Hirsch writes:

Not only were American intellectuals in the 1930s trying to rediscover America, as so many commentators then and since have pointed out; they were also trying to redefine it. The studies published by the Writers’ Project tried to broaden the definition of who and what was American. To answer such questions the FWP offered new materials: ex-slave narratives, folklore and folk song, and the life histories of ordinary people. In the American Guide Series, which included guidebooks to every state in the union and to numerous cities, counties, and geographic areas, the FWP tried to provide the nation with a “road map for the cultural rediscovery of America.” (19)

While reprising the FWP for 21st century America is beyond the reach of this symposium, our call for participation has demonstrated enthusiastic support for the idea from a wide range of scholars, cultural institutions, and non-profit community organizations. In late 2008, numerous journalists, academics, cultural critics, and arts groups called on President Obama to allocate money from the Stimulus Package to arts funding—specifically for a new Federal One, the umbrella for the arts, music, theatre, and writing projects that made history in the 1930s (see, e.g., Pinsky, Hoekstra, Cebula, Goldbard). The idea gained momentum so swiftly in large part because of the emergence of highly publicized story projects like StoryCorps and The Center for Digital Storytelling, and smaller, local non-profit writing organizations like the Hub City Writers Project in Spartan, South Carolina, and New River Writers Project in the New River Valley of Southwest Virginia, all of which cite the Federal Writers’ Project as a model. At the same time, the increasing influence of history from the bottom up (see, e.g., Zinn, E.P. Thompson) and the popularization of oral history have contributed to heightened interest in first voice narratives and everyday life in academia, community-based theater, site-specific performance art, and community writing projects. These grassroots, arts, and academic initiatives have in turn galvanized college writing program faculty to utilize what Mary Louise Pratt famously called “the arts of the contact zone” to reach beyond university walls and engage in community writing inspired, consciously or not, by the pluralist ethos the FWP helped define.

It is a mark of the timeliness of the conference that Professor Hirsch is among the many individuals who have accepted our invitation to participate in Writing Democracy. In his acceptance letter, Hirsch emphasizes the parallels between the proposed symposium and the FWP:

[Writing Democracy] raises issues that the New Deal's Federal Writers’ Project addressed seventy years ago and that we still need to address:  How well do we know our country? Whom do we include when we use the word “American”? These are not just contemporary issues but recurring and seemingly permanent questions Americans have asked themselves throughout their history-and questions that were addressed when, in 1935, the Roosevelt administration created the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) under the aegis of the Works Progress Administration. Therefore, I would be delighted to participate in your current effort to deal with “writing democracy.”

Writing Democracy’s goal of bringing local initiatives and research into conversation with each other through regional and national networks, like the FWP’s American Guide Series, has the potential to introduce and redefine America for Americans. It is precisely the kind of projects that Writing Democracy is bringing together that support on-the-ground, face-to-face contact and communication needed to confront the persistence of deeply uncivil rhetoric from racial profiling and hate and bias crimes to anti-immigrant legislation, anti-gay attacks, state control of public school curricula, and the torrent of racist slurs that accompanied the inauguration of our first African American President. Such rhetoric endangers our safety, cuts off dialogue, and encroaches on fundamental democratic processes. As NEH Chairman Jim Leach asserts in a recent speech to the Georgia State Humanities Council, “In the context of American history . . . little is more important for the world’s leading democracy than recommitting to an ethos of thoughtfulness in the public square.”  Through the collective portrait of America that Writing Democracy participants have already begun to create, and that the symposium promises to deepen and expand, we will present another side of our national ethos that can provide a model for cultivating civility of intercultural communication and interaction based on mutual recognition of each other’s humanity, without which democracy cannot prevail.

In Tactics of Hope: The Public Turn in English Composition (2005), Paula Mathieu, another symposium participant, characterizes the “public turn” in composition studies as follows:

University writing specialists are working outside the walls of universities at increasing rates, in part because of political or pedagogical aims, and in part because of shifting university mandates. Service learning, community literacy, and public writing are just some of the names given to a broadening array of outreach initiatives that find writing teachers or their students working and writing in neighborhood centers in addition to university classrooms. (1)

This trend toward public engagement and writing with, for, and about communities outside the university can be seen in the practice of service-learning programs, community literacy, and composition scholars and teachers in numerous local contexts. As part of a “public turn” in academia which has produced a wide range of community-based projects, the symposium will provide a unique opportunity for scholars and community members across the country to share resources, research, publications, and artifacts. While such work is regularly reported at national and regional conferences across the disciplines, Writing Democracy will focus attention on this increasingly popular form of community-based scholarship and civic engagement and consider the potential for a larger, more ambitious endeavor modeled on the remarkable achievements of the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s. Both dimensions of the symposium—the already existing local university-community projects and the potential for developing a national consortium linking them—are driven by the need for greater democratization of our national discourses and insistence on recognition and respect for the pluralist values upon which our country was founded.

The conversations emerging from and informing the proposed symposium are decidedly significant. Invited speaker Steve Parks describes its potential as serving

…as a seminal moment in the creation of a disciplinary status of community-based work in the field. My own argument would be that the event could rival the importance of the Dartmouth Conference, which in the early 1960’s set a trajectory of issues [that] framed the field of Composition/Rhetoric for the next 50 years. At this moment, a similar seismic shift in the field seems to be emerging and by bringing together the primary researchers in community-based work, I believe the work resulting from this event will have [a] significant and long-lasting impact on the field. [. . . ] For the scholars fortunate enough to attend this event, I believe they will not only participate in discussion that will shape the field, but a program which will be studied by the field in the years to come.

The scholars, writers, and community members at the symposium will share artifacts in the form of student writing, community writing, videos, mixed media, and posters. They will explain what called them to particular kinds of projects, such as narratives of public education, youth literacy centers, and histories of Latino/a, African American, women, GLBT, and working class people. Symposium participants will also explore the disciplinary implications for this public turn to community-based writing in terms of emerging research methods and interdisciplinary collaborations. They will theorize the educational, digital, historical, social, economic, and cultural dimensions of such work; and they will deliberate on prospects for linking the local projects into a translocal network. In other words, the forum will join these two conversations together—the first about local university-community initiatives and the second about how they might be linked by a larger network that would both support the local groups and construct a larger, translocal public sphere.

For example, the New City Writing project at Temple University trains college students to conduct literacy-related activities at non-profit community agencies, including the publication of community-based books and journals in association with local groups such as the Asian Arts Initiative (see Goldblatt and Parks). A similar endeavor founded in 2004 is The Neighborhood Story Project, which partners with University of New Orleans staff to work with community members to create books about their communities (Breunlin). Current NSP initiatives include the “Seventh Ward Speaks” oral history project in which neighbors are encouraged to share life stories with each other to be presented as posters and eventually turned into a book; and the 2006 publication of Coming Out the Door for the Ninth Ward, a book by members of the Nine Times Social and Pleasure Club about growing up in the Desire Public Housing Development and the creation of one of the first second line clubs in the Ninth Ward. In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the Community Literacy Center—a partnership between Carnegie Mellon and the Community House, a settlement house founded in 1916—has been engaging community youth in literacy activities with college mentors since the 1990s, carrying out what CLC founder Linda Flower describes as “a working hypothesis about how we might construct a community that supports dialogue across difference” (Community 21).

Along with these better known initiatives, composition scholars across the country have developed a wide range of university-community projects involving histories of cultural institutions such as an African American museum in Reading, Pennsylvania, audio-recordings of vanishing speech communities off the coast of Georgia, oral histories of gay and lesbian steelworkers in Seattle, teaming up with homeless writers involved in the international street paper movement, and ethnographies of local neighborhoods struggling to preserve affordable housing in urban centers nationwide. Such community-based histories and stories of everyday life, institutions, neighborhoods, and local struggles have, according to Flower “exerted a magnetic influence on the emerging field of rhetoric and composition” (Community 1).

Such a national consortium linking local projects would foster precisely the kind of intercultural inquiry and communication necessary to promote “civility and democracy” through creating a new roadmap for the cultural rediscovery of America in the 21st century. Through promoting literacy, writing, and rhetorical knowledge, it would enable such communication to occur more effectively with more meaningful results. And it would help preserve and disseminate local histories through digitization, archiving, and careful publication of project outcomes.

The unique contributions of the forum and the half-day program development workshop to humanities scholarship and the cultivation of intercultural inquiry and dialogue will be 1) to share, assess, and document community-based university projects; 2) to share and discuss research (historical, contemporary) on local publics; and 3) to consider the possibilities for creating a national network or institute with both electronic and face-to-face meetings that could link existing local projects and give rise to new ones. Just as the FWP debated its purpose, methods, and goals during the Great Depression, any new formation will require a great deal of deliberation and debate to define its mission—a topic that will be addressed at the forum and form the substance of the program development workshop. While workshop participants will have to determine the feasibility of making translocal connections and plan a course of action beyond the forum, the planners will propose the creation of a national consortium to affiliate local projects as a concrete step toward rebuilding the public sphere and directing our collective efforts, once again, toward “the cultural rediscovery of America” and thus fostering the civil discourses required for the enactment of genuine democracy in the 21st century.