A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

On Storied Potential: An Autoethnographic Excavation of Required Spaces --- A Response by Courtney Cox

Courtney Cox, Illinois State University

(Pubished December 18, 2019)

“There is always something unsaid and yet to be said, always someone struggling to find the words and the will to tell their story. Every day each of us invents the world and the self who meets the world, opens up or closes down space for others within that. Silence is forever being broken, and then like waves lapping over the footprints, the sandcastles and washed-up shells and seaweed, silence rises again.”

—Rebecca Solnit (Mother of All Questions, 65)

What follows is a grappling of concepts, a back and forth between lived experience and theorization. During my first year as a doctoral student, my relationship with my controlling and abusive boyfriend took most of my time. His cynical disbelief in my abilities began to characterize me entirely. The police were called to my apartment following a domestic incident, and because we were both students, a formal Title IX investigation began. I was forced to deal with the sudden demise of the only close relationship I had in a relatively new city. I was also forced to deal with the deep investigation into my personal life because of university protocol. The latter had a greater impact on my healing and well-being, as I was forced to re-visit the worst moment of my life over and over again in the company of strangers. I politely protested the investigation each step of the way, explaining that the crisis situation had nothing to do with our roles as students and was entirely out of the purview of the university because it occurred off campus. Each time, university administrators denied my request, and I felt increasingly silenced in my role as a victim. Although institutional policies vary, at my university I was required to participate in this Title IX investigation, and thus, I became painfully aware of the effects of the institutional pathways surrounding mandatory reporting and participation. As a result of this experience, I was required to develop a critical institutional literacy I did not previously possess.

Prompted by this experience as well as my role as a student, scholar, and teacher of rhetoric and writing, I argue that as members of the university community who interact directly with students, writing instructors need to be more aware of the ways in which these mandated policies can impact both them and us. While it’s true that we do not always have the time or energy to attend carefully to all administrative functions of the university, we ultimately do our students a disservice if we do not understand the potential impact of certain kinds of required texts on students’ lived experiences. Despite wider conversations surrounding institutional abuse and sexualized violence, I argue that the field of rhetoric and writing has not paid enough attention to the work that institutional communications wield over our students as it pertains to their own embodied experience with sexual assault investigation. Compulsory academic genres, which I define as the required communications surrounding university crisis and emergency management, are predicated on the notion of inevitable institutional disorder, but they often do not seem to consider the embodied experiences of students as recipients of these messages.

By defining the compulsory nature of these genres, teachers of rhetoric and writing can better understand how students make meaning in the world and navigate their tenuous roles as students within the university. What follows is a multi-genre text intended to function as an experimental autoethnography. My experience with domestic and institutional abuse has taught me much about (re)invention, claiming space, and reckoning with how I wager my efforts as a feminist scholar. Royster and Kirsch define the aims of a strategic contemplative approach to feminist rhetorical research as “learning to withhold judgement, to linger, observe, and notice what is there and what is missing” (145-6). Ultimately, this is the intention of this article.

As a researcher who remains embedded within the institution I am studying, I must never lose sight of my place within it. Autoethnographic and situated reflective work is the first step in working towards an institutional ethnography. This type of ethnographic work aims to “uncover the social organization of knowledge through its materialist method for mapping out what happens to people and operates under the assumption that social organization occurs through texts” (Malachowski 85). Researchers who use this approach theorize with many of the same expectations as scholars in critical literacy studies, studying how individuals’ lived experiences are mediated by texts, often focusing first upon the people on the peripheries of power (Malachowski 103). In my “Some Considerations” section, I hope to move towards this approach, taking what I’ve noticed about the social organization and beginning to develop some future research angles that might work to consider the institution’s policies of compulsory academic genres as an object of study.

Case Study: Personal Title IX Experience

this is the decay of my storied potential

this is duality of things, how I speak in two voices, but mostly just hear in my futility

there is no space for my story

there is no room for the swirling hurricane I planned for

and I am lost in the subjectivity I cannot define, except for the absences

-- interlude: untitled poem draft, February 2018

I met him through friends of friends. He said that I was “10 out of 10 cute.” I needed someone to remind me. On our first date, we met for pour overs, and before we left the coffee shop, I felt like I knew him best of anyone in this not-so-familiar town. Later, I made him peppermint tea in my second favorite mug, and I let him hold my hand. We liked breakfast foods not at breakfast times, and indie rock concerts, and stealing chocolate from the bulk bins at the grocery store. I wish I could crystalize it here, make their story something warm and safe. But that would be lying or fiction, and besides, that telling has no place here.

If I made you a map of my trauma, I could draw it surrounding the coffee shop where I now write, extending farther than I can see, lingering in a concreteness in administrative hard drives, filed away in dusty office shelves and within the summons that remain in my own inbox. Out the window, I can see the commuter lot, the one where I know my former partner parks. He drives a black Ford Escape. There are two such vehicles within view in this relatively small lot. I wonder if black Ford Escapes seem as prevalent to everyone else, or if it’s my hyper-awareness that makes them feel ever-present. The Title IX office is on this side of the street, and when administrators emailed me for my meeting, they seemed overly concerned about where I should park. If you keep driving on this intersecting roadway, you’ll pass the Dean of Students Office, which is where I first learned to carry the burden of university-prescribed victimhood. I went here first and then my final administrative step, university “suggested” therapy, is directly across the hallway. When I was assigned a therapist, I emailed her to ask, “Could you please check the schedule and tell me if someone will be there at the same time?” I heard from friends of friends that he lied, that he never went to therapy at all. I wonder sometimes what his map would look like, but I know that humans only make maps when there is something to be avoided or when they wish to escape to some other place. What use is a map when space need not be demarcated, when you can move through the world on your own terms?

Compulsory Academic Genres: An Emerging Definition

In considering the literate spaces that students and their instructors occupy together as members of the university community, we must examine the genres that form the boundaries of our roles and responsibilities, which I call compulsory academic genres. These genres refer to the types of communications that are required for university students such as crisis communication alerts, Title IX documentation, and mandated student training modules. Each of these genres are composed with the intent to regulate, educate, and standardize. Due to these imperatives, I argue that these genres wield more power than other types of institutional texts that students will encounter. They’re composed with the assumption that things will, in fact, go wrong, in hopes that the disorder will be mitigated with their creation. These include, in my initial reckoning, crisis communication text messages and emails sent en masse, university mandated ethics training modules, and summons for administrative investigatory proceedings, such as the university policies and procedures of Title IX. In considering the latter, once this university office has been made aware of misconduct between students, faculty, or staff, either on or off campus, an investigation begins. All involved parties are contacted via email, and an investigation begins, regardless of the participation of the involved individuals.

Despite this rigid and mechanical process, Title IX proceedings can be disruptive, both in terms of the time allotted and the emotional resources required. These genres are as fundamental to how members of the university take up space in this institution as any other, and yet, they may become rhetorically black boxed. They are often hidden from critical view unless one has direct experience with them. In order to understand the effects that these messages have on those involved, we must understand the personal and political potential for harm that they introduce. When we take these genres that form the boundaries of an institutional sexual misconduct investigation for granted and presume their effects as neutral, technical communications scholar Elizabeth Britt argues that these genres risk the enactment of symbolic violence (140-1). When institutions become ubiquitous, they resist critical consideration and begin to mold subjects as implicit social agents who are likely to overlook that institutions themselves are of human creation (Britt 136). Britt argues, “Though institutions are certainly powerful, they are not monoliths; they are rhetorically constructed human designs (whose power is reinforced by buildings, laws, transitions, and knowledge-making practices) and so are changeable. In other words, we made ‘em, we can fix ‘em’” (137). Although the identification of compulsory academic genres is still a small step in providing any large-scale solutions, perhaps in the process of closely studying this aspect of institutional communication, so too is the potential for change made possible.

Within the framework for institutional ethnography, Malachowski’s definition of an institution mirrors that of Britt. She writes that an institution “serves as an abstract reference to an embodied complex of ruling relations that are organized around a distinctive function . . . Organized by texts, ruling relations are the complex practices that coordinate people’s actions locally and ‘translocally’ in ways that people are often not fully aware” (86). From these theoretical institutional critiques, as subjects of academic institutions, we can understand that the power a university exerts depends upon the cementation of genres as cornerstones. The power that the institution holds is in the unquestionable nature of the genres that shape our roles and expectations in the roles that we hold as members of the university body.

Considering the embeddedness of institutions, Wargo and DeCosta present the theory of the sponsorscape and explain how literate practice is derived from sponsors that demonstrate the convergence of systems and communities to interconnect people in a common, cohesive goal. Wargo and DeCosta expand that, “literacy sponsorscapes work to provide what Latour (2005) would call a ‘backstage view’ of production. It traces the experiences students have with sponsors and the range of repertoires used to navigate the multiple literacy contexts in which they work, live, and learn” (104). In utilizing literacy sponsorscapes to help complicate the working definition of a compulsory academic genre, I understand that academic genres are composed in response to the cemented expectations of those invested in the continued power of the institution itself.  Compulsory academic genres are an imperative part of student sponsorscapes that necessitate interrogation.

Although university students have limited input in the composition and implementation of compulsory academic genres, their effects are wide-spread and storied. Given the sensitive content of many compulsory genres, they have an undoubtedly large effect on how the associated information is processed. When we dig deeper into compulsory academic genres, we will also better understand these larger questions: What does autonomy look like within the university system? Who has a right to speak, and how does this right intersect with their abilities to learn, listen, write, and excavate meaning?

Some Thoughts on Silence

Before my experience with institutional silencing, I hadn’t thought much of silence because with my consideration of language, silence seemed to be a negation, an absence, irrelevant. But theorizing silence may be most powerful when considering the rhetorical situation, taking into account the constraints of the speaker, the cost of their words, and the weighed risks of staying silent. Through my experience with Title IX and its associated compulsory academic genres, I was silenced for the first time in my adult life, and it’s the effect of this, most of all, that made me begin to think of silence as a potential subject for rhetorical investigation. This led me to understand silence’s role in mediating the total construction of the individual identity. Kennan Ferguson writes:

“It may be that silence has no predetermined structure of power at all. If this is the case, silence can play an infinite variety of roles in social, political, and linguistic networks. If it can be destructive, defensive, and evocative of selves and social relations, then it can also contribute to the constitution of these identities” (121).

Compulsory academic genres garner control over the ability of the speaker to stay silent, drawing forth words, establishing their impact systemically. In the process of Title IX proceedings in particular, each individual’s role is pre-dimensioned in their relation to silence. The victim, in their initial set of proceedings, is allowed to speak first, followed by the indicated perpetrator. The exchange of information is connotated entirely by the silence of the other, in the closed deliberation.

As rhetors and policymakers, I argue that administrators must reckon with how the genres they create anticipate and engage with the silence of their students. Just as compulsory academic genres are composed with the anticipation that subjects of the university system will be misaligned in some way, students may also have preconceived notions of these same systems inevitably failing them in some regard. Thus, the cycle of silence is put into motion and ultimately continued. In order to better accommodate the individual experiences of silence and silencing during compulsory academic processes, I suggest that administrators focus upon the imperatives of rhetorical listening in the construction and implementation of university mandates. Krista Ratcliffe defines rhetorical listening as interpretive intention, “a stance of openness that a person may choose to assume in relation to any person, text, or culture” (1). Compulsory academic genres bring insight into the institution’s need to fully listen without initial judgement, to actively provide the resources and support for students who are re-traumatized through the process of speaking and listening. Since the work of compulsory academic genres are ultimately rendering students silent in one way or another, in order for the process to be more equitable, administrators must instill a model of rhetorical listening to students themselves as they go forth in the process of healing. Silence will continue to mean a multiplicity of things, but due to this, it is imperative that literacy educators and advocates for students pay attention to the implications and effects of silence within and across compulsory academic genres. When we confuse silence for resolution, we enact a disservice to students and the complexity of their tenuous roles.

Some Considerations: affordances of a critical literacy of academic compulsory genre

Rather than offering a definitive conclusion, I seek to offer several suggestions on how we can take up the ideas I present here and better represent the realities of student institutional engagement. As educators and advocates, there is still much work to be done, in our research and our practice, to better represent and acknowledge student agency and embodied knowledge in the classroom space and beyond.

Awareness over the impact of these genres on our students

Although graduate students are subject to many of the same sexual assault trainings as their undergraduate students, other faculty members do not have access to the content of some of the genres that students are required to interact with during their time as students. Without insight into these genres and the foresight to think about the potential for the effects, educators may not be prepared to best support students in their literate practices. For students who may not have the sense of self and confidence in their own identities to maintain composure in light of institutional confrontation, speaking back to these genres and forming opinions in reaction to them may be next to impossible. Language sets expectations, and speaking back against dominant institutional discourse may result in self-judgements that their responses are ‘wrong’ or abnormal” (Chandler 154).

For instance, “Not Anymore” training—a required module-based program intended to educate students of sexual assault, stalking, and proper professional conduct—is not made available for university faculty at my institution. Despite the productive information this module provides, many of the scenarios presented in this module may be triggering for students as they complete this mandatory online training not only at my institution but also at other colleges throughout the country. As college instructors, we often teach within a fishbowl, not having access to the motivations and roadblocks of our students; however, since I argue that many compulsory genres do have lived impacts on students, providing instructors with some insight into the contents of these genres may serve to whittle away at the width of the glass that separates instructors from their students. Once the distancing effects are lessened through awareness of the texts that span this gap, instructors can be more informed resources for their students, and perhaps they can begin having conversations about how to prepare future students to engage more actively and safely with required university communication.

Pedagogical philosophies that better account for students’ realities

In addition to providing students with resources and support throughout their interactions with university administration, as literacy educators versed in rhetoric, we can utilize awareness of compulsory academic genres to update our pedagogical philosophies. By investigating and discussing these genres from a rhetorical standpoint, students may better understand the innerworkings of the institution and their roles within it. These administrative literacies not only are necessary for students beginning their college careers but also are imperative for students who continue on with their education.

I was unaware of university practices and policies until I experienced them first-hand. If a student needs to report misconduct within the university, be it concerning a university employee or a fellow student, gaining institutional literacies may prove to be necessary for their safety. In considering the complexity of institutional literacies, Altwerger and Shelton write, “A true participatory learning environment that maximally develops these literacy proficiencies locates agency, power and control in the hands of the participants themselves rather than through external agents” (43). Navigating the complexities of establishing a participatory learning environment means that educators must embrace adaptability and flexibility to make the effects more responsible for their students. In order to accomplish this goal and adequately prepare students for the realities of their literate tasks, instructors will need to take up multiple pedagogical approaches.

Altwerger and Shelton’s “transformative stance” requires “an ideological shift in the goals of education from individual self-actualization to social critique,” which will allow instructors to “prepare students to become active participants in addressing issues and problems within their own communities, the broader society, and the world around them” (59). Through this framework, the literacy classroom might become a space where students are better prepared to engage as active agents of the university system, to understand from a rhetorical standpoint how these genres fit within the university model and reveal much about the institution itself.

The role of the rhetorician

Due to our skills in critical reading and analysis, scholars whose work intersects with rhetoric and writing are especially well-suited to critique and reform these genres. Beyond the scope of the classroom, rhetoricians and technical communication experts are uniquely suited to consider the effects of texts in ways that other administrators or content generators may not. Cheryl Glenn explains why a careful rhetorical investigation of silence may enrich the ways that power is understood and responded to within academic institutions, explaining, “rhetors using silence will not be participating in the conditional rhetorical discipline of combat and dominance; they will be sharing perceptions, understandings, and power. They will use silence to embody new ways to challenge and resist domination and hierarchy at the same time that it disrupts and transforms it” (157).

Although I am uncertain if relevant channels of advisement and advocacy exist within most institutions, I posit that siloed consideration of texts that have lived impacts on students are disadvantageous for all members of the community. Rhetoricians should look for opportunities to represent a more embodied advocacy for students who may be affected by compulsory genres, be it through the implementation of advisory boards or through the creation of crisis communication templates.