I am not a fan of the professional conference at this point in my life. Between the expensive hotels and registration fees and the mall-like spatial feel, it just ain’t for me. Ima blame this one of Robin Kelley though—- his piece about “Black Study, Black Struggle” still resonates with me, namely his poignant argument that universities are NOT engines of social transformation, never have been and never will. If you agree with Kelley’s critiques about labor, race, and empire at the American university today, then you have no choice but agree that professional organizations— housed in neoliberalist, “non-profit” corporations that professionally organize and credential academics— are even less aligned with radical social thought and action.
Regardless of whether or not you were in actual attendance, all compositonist-rhetoricians know that its major, professional organization— the Conference on College Composition and Communication, often called 4Cs (or the C’s by many black folk)— went down this past weekend. It is no secret that many folk of color feel marginalized by that space, despite decades of activism for inclusion born in 1960s and1970s Black Freedom struggles. Quiet as it’s kept though, younger white scholars are making the same claims of marginalization everywhere that I meet them: fed up with an Old Guard who do not speak to them or to their needs, embarrassed by a new White Backlash, and unimpressed by uber-professionalized middle class comforts and happiness. Many (not all) of the chairs who organize the yearly conferences have humanized that space in wonderful ways, but that doesn’t necessarily change the organization. As a professor from a financially strapped city/public university with a heavy teaching load rather than an R1 with its comparatively unlimited funding and leisure time, the conference isn’t designed for me (given its gross expense and time commitment) or my students (given its white, middle class content) anyway.
4Cs has traditionally offered a space for compositionists to talk about and think around their precarious roles on university campuses where few respect their work. Such conversations for women of color take on a whole new meaning though within the contexts of institutional whiteness. These are the kinds of conversations I have despite 4Cs, not because of it, given that 4Cs does not organize itself spatially or politically for such concerns. This year, one of my sister-friends told me she is in a department where she is the only compositionist; her one other comp colleague left and the department decided it did not need to replace this person. Instead, my sister-friend is expected to run the writing program when she gets tenure in a few years. No one asked her or talked to her about it— quite typical— they just planned it out for her. When you are a compositionist, folk just assume you are there to fulfill whatever needs they have and if you are a woman of color, institutions cannot fathom you as someone who can and will control her own labor/body/time. These stories always have the same ending. Girlfriend is doing what all successful academic women of color do: she is moving to another university. This is as much about being a woman of color as it is about being a compositionist…folk will do their best to get ovuh on you… but only if you let them. Our antagonisms and critiques must work as much against universities as against our professional organizations.
There are so many problems here with my sister-friend’s experience that it becomes difficult to unravel. First, her story is not a center of gravity for how the field and its many conferences do their work (though our presence and energy often sustain these spaces). Second, sister-friend’s body is consumed and disrespected in multiple, intersecting ways in university spaces: as a compositionist, as a woman, as a person of color, as a researcher focused on race and communities of color, as a multilingual speaker and writer, as a multimodal & critical pedagogy/curriculum designer. Third, her WPA/administrative labor is not respected in any way. WPA work is a separate contract or verbal agreement during the hiring or assignment process: a fair course load has to be worked out, the pay scale shifts, the contract has to be (re)negotiated for summer pay or vacation, the allotment of administrative assistants and TAs has to be clarified, the publication expectations have to be as clear as possible, the number of new hires you can make has to be articulated, the future budget and staffing has to be discussed, the curricular possibilities have to be mapped, assessment models need to be discussed, the physical space needs have to be addressed… the list goes on. Let me break it down like this: WPA work has its own conference, a journal, best practices, theories and histories, central debates— everything in academia that we call a subdiscipline of a discipline. Composition/WPA is NOT something you do out of the kindness of your heart because you like your colleagues (which might wrongly assume, in fact, that you even do— somewhat of an impossibility when you are facing “micro-aggressions” like this and this and this and this). It’s like asking you to publish a journal article in a top-tiered journal, put the department’s name on it, but have to publish your own work elsewhere. No one asks an academic to do that. Just like no one asks a psychologist who specializes in adult workplace health for a free diagnosis since you work down the hall. That’s not how academia works. And so we move on… from our institutions and from our professional organizations.
Ultimately, these kinds of conversations with and updates from sisterfriends are what once drew me to 4Cs. I see no indication, however, that 4Cs will institute an apparatus that makes these kinds of experiences central to its advocacy work. The wonderful thing about neoliberalist competition amongst professional organizations today though is that what one organization will not provide, another will… if only because they need my body… and my money. I’ll keep looking for another organization that can match at least some of my political convictions and passions (albeit never fully, given what these professional organizations are and do). My gaze won’t be setting on 4Cs anytime soon.