Egner Theater at sunny University of Findlay filled up slowly, attendees holding cups of free drip coffee and suppressing early-morning yawns. The space felt casual. There wasn’t any indication of an event taking place there, aside from the groggy academics wandering into the hall to find seats.
I got a seat toward the front of the auditorium. I wasn’t sure what the town hall would be about—something about wander, or wonder (or both)—but, I was familiar with all the these women’s work. I had parsed through Techne by Jackie Rhodes during an MSU Queer Rhetorics class and knew that she was unpacking queerness bravely – and even more bravely, she was unpacking this embodiment with words. I wandered in late to Kristin Arola’s job talk at Michigan State, where her work about digital composition and indigenous practices left most of us in the audience silently marinating with her words, ideas, and stories. And Jody Shipka, who I had not met in the flesh before this conference, had been referenced in several of my graduate-level papers, in my attempts to learn how (and if) I ought to write my story through my own personal artifacts. So, while I walked into the auditorium thinking I had managed to pin these women’s ideas down by claiming to have an abridged version of their work in my back-pocket rhetoric arsenal, I wouldn’t have been able to predict the significance of my stepping into that room with them.
By the time my coffee cooled down enough to remind me why I try to avoid drip coffee altogether, Patrick Berry walked on stage to introduce the morning’s town hall. Berry said the speakers were planning to go back through some of their past work and discuss how these pieces have changed with them over time. These speakers, as Berry foreshadowed, planned to discuss how their work ethics from these projects affected the ways these projects were composed and how this act of recounting this process of wondering and wandering can shape future projects.
Arola came on stage, backed by what appeared to be a powerpoint showing images of an aged website. She started by telling a story of her graduate school career. The audience could practically feel the walls of her cramped apartment that housed late-night card games and stress from familiar family drama. Kristen didn’t take us back through pictures of her grad school days, but she may as well have.
As I listened to Arola retell her process of making this project, I recounted the countless hours I spent in IHOPs and coffee shops and friends’ apartments, letting school projects consume me in an attempt to distract myself from the wave of mania and trauma that would inevitably swallow me up during my studies. Arola was able to rearticulate that feeling of escapism that can come from enveloping yourself in complicated, tedious, and distracting work.
While wrapping up her portion of the town hall, Arola reminisced on how she wished she were able to luxuriate in her work the way she did with this Pandora project. While she admitted that she would have done this project differently, were she to do it again now in her career, she still made it clear that her process of creation needed to take place the way it did for this project because of where she was in her life. This process of being consumed in her work seemed to grant Kristin a familiarity with this project unmatched to other thirteen year-old projects. Without saying outrightly, Kristin seemed to allude to the ways that this practice of basking in your own work both creates a space for processing, while simultaneously removing another space wherein that articulation could be attributed to other areas of life.
Following Arola’s public reminiscence, Shipka came on stage to share an intimate story that focused not on her own work, but rather a final project of one of her students. When she began telling her story, she alluded to the sheer magnitude of this student’s project, not only in scope, but also in how it affected both her an her student in separate yet equally mindful ways.
Shipka told the story of a student’s unconventional final project that involved half-cooked chicken breast, the multiple definitions of the word “Lost,” and a locked tackle box delivered to Shipka’s office without instruction. While the sheer macabre nature of the project evoked some stifled laughter from the audience, the effect that this student and her project had on Shipka was visceral during the town hall.
While Shipka painted this story for the audience, leading us through the many steps she and this student had to take during the completion and post-mortem of this project, I felt a panic that I hadn’t felt since undergrad. Shipka’s student felt familiar to me. Shipka’s student was me at points in my undergraduate career, perched in chairs across from my professors in their offices, articulating a half-baked, sprawling project that would force my professors to try to finagle a kind of specialized grading system that would allow them to apply even a semblance of assessment to my work. Most of these projects never saw the light of day in undergrad, because I wound up being swallowed by mental hospitals, or because my professors discouraged me from completing the projects, or both. Shipka’s almost-faltering voice was heavy in the auditorium. Listening to her articulate all the ways that her handling of this student’s project was irresponsible reminded me of all the apologies from university faculty I would never hear aloud. She wasn’t just telling a story of a wacky student who completed an equally wacky project – Shipka was creating a space for her and us, the audience, to wander as both student and teacher to make sense of how we ought to ethically create and assess each other’s composition. In opening up this space, Shipka called on us and herself to reconsider our practices as writers, researchers, and teachers.
Closing out the town hall, Rhodes attempted to reconsider a past publication that attempted to distance queerness and composition. In the original article, Rhodes made claims that the very act of being “composed” is counter to the queer narrative. While queerness implies a constant renegotiation and malleability, composition alludes to a wholeness that appears to be counter to queer experience. Nothing drove the danger of the queer negotiation home more than Rhodes opening her segment of the town hall by reading off names of trans women who had been murdered. This somber moment reminded the audience of the ways that queer identities are more than just a practice of academic theorizing: these identities can oftentimes cost others their lives.
During Rhodes’s speech, I considered the ways that my own path appeared to zigzag in and out of spaces of safety. While this personal path of mine had so little to do with my own queerness as an identity, I wondered how this process has reoriented my sexuality and gender expression over time. Was my refusal and/or inability to compose a traditional route to college a queer expression? To even determine a definitive answer seemed counter to Rhodes insistence that queerness is just that: impossible to pin down.
In trying to reconcile composition by articulating the ways in which it can be a queer practice, Rhodes reminded the audience of how the very concept of clear cut composition is a neoliberal tool meant to produce artifacts that perpetuate the capitalistic narrative. This narrative, which values production over process, forces works that may otherwise have a queerness about them to name and adequately articulate meaning(s). Rhodes wrapped up her talk, and the town hall, by calling back to the practice that Kristin shared of luxuriating in one’s work. She called us to consider this practice of doing slow and thoughtful writing as a means of queering the practice by upturning the neoliberal expectation of a fully-completed and published text. As Rhodes closed out the town hall, her and the other speakers fostered a critical but openly reflective mood that fell over the entire auditorium.
Each of the speakers, in unique but complimentary ways, implored us and each other to reconsider our writing practices as a means to engage with our process. In implementing these slower and more mindful writing practices that Arola, Shipka, and Rhodes articulated, we could become more responsible writers, readers, and collaborators.