Online forums including mailing groups or listservs can be spaces where rising scholars like graduate students and junior scholars learn about the spirit of the field and contribute their emerging perspectives. Following a series of events on a major disciplinary listserv that made some graduate students feel disempowered, a group of young scholars decided to take back the forum and formed their own public channel, nextGEN. In this webtext, DRC Fellows Angela Glotfelter and Jason Tham share an interview with members of the nextGEN listserv start-up team where they share their motivations, missions, and observations about graduate student voices in disciplinary communication. We are particularly interested in the impact of this initiative on digital rhetoric practices and ethics.
Listen here to the full interview.
nextGEN start-up team members:
Kyle Larson, PhD student, Miami University of Ohio (moderator)
Ashanka Kumari, PhD candidate, University of Louisville (moderator)
Sweta Baniya, PhD student, Purdue University (moderator)
Estee Beck, Assistant Professor, University of Texas at Arlington
Lucy Johnson, Assistant Professor, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire
Khirsten L. Scott, Assistant Professor, University of Pittsburgh
How did you all meet and begin talking about nextGEN?
Johnson: NextGEN was created because of a kairotic moment that happened on the WPA listserv in the spring of 2018. During this time there was a lot of discussion about the CFP for our national CCCC conference. Much of the conversation in this space was racist, classist, and incredibly hostile. Specifically, we noticed the ways in which grad students (and specifically a graduate student in particular) were treated when they not only decided to engage in these conversations, but to challenge them in thought-provoking and social-justice oriented ways. Considering the ethical factors in public-facing communication, we were struck by the ways in which interpersonal communication (meaning, conversations that weren’t necessary for all but were deliberately chosen to be), created an uncomfortable power dynamic of talking down to/shaming junior scholars. It was then that conversations back-channeled in spaces such as Twitter and Facebook, and Kyle Larson, Estee Beck, and Lucy Johnson began discussing (with Estee’s initial tweet of recognizing the need for such a space to exist), how to enact a graduate student listserv.
Baniya: Kyle also tweeted during that time calling for graduate students who wanted to be part of the start-up team. Because of that tweet, I decided I wanted to be a part of this conversation.
Beck: When I saw the conversation as it unfolded on WPA-L, I was horrified. For a graduate student to stand up and post on the WPA-L and then get that reaction—in that moment, I felt such a loss, because I remember when I was a graduate student, I never wanted to post on the WPA-L because I saw it as a space that wasn’t for me as a graduate student. In that moment, I thought, “I wish when I was a graduate student that there was a place just for graduate students.” A listserv for them to post and talk about issues that matter, not only nationwide, but also international. That’s when I tweeted about it, and all of a sudden Lucy and Kyle were talking about it, and we all joined together.
What is the mission of nextGEN?
Kumari: We’re still developing that mission collectively as we figure out what’s useful and not useful in this space. Because it’s new, we can continue to build it together. This is a space for peer mentoring; you can find your people here rather than trying to navigate the bigger waters of WPA-L. Recently, we’ve been talking about developing a code of conduct as one way to respond to the most recent issue on the WPA-L. What if, by developing this code of conduct, our list could be better from the start?
Baniya: We have been talking a lot about empowering graduate students, networking, collaborating, and creating a common space created by graduate students for graduate students. It’s oriented towards social justice. Our mission is inquiring, “How can conversation empower graduate students? How can conversation create a network for collaboration and intellectual development for graduate students that’s outside of the university?”
Johnson: To create a safe(r) channel for collaboration, networking, and dialogue with the primary audience of graduate students (also with moderators in place that are graduate students to help keep conversations focused, civil, and engaged).
How are you keeping nextGEN based in critical discussions?
Kumari: Each week, Kyle, Sweta, and I discuss, “What are the things we wish we knew or would like to talk about right now?” For instance, at the beginning of the semester, it was helpful for us in that moment to talk about teaching. So we brought up conversations about topics of teaching, putting together courses, etc. What’s helpful to us might also be helpful to others—maybe that’s a place to start. We want to avoid imposing a structure, leaving it open ended so you can find your way in, find the things that you need. That’s the only way that conversations happen.
Baniya: We three just don’t want to be the only ones posting questions all the time. We reach out to other people and ask them to post questions. If we see a tweet or some messages on Twitter that have a good question that we want to post to nextGEN, we reach out to those faculty members or graduate students and ask their permission to post their content.
Larson: The question of how to keep it critical is something we’re continuing to grapple with. Our announcements about the nextGEN listserv have expressed our commitments to social justice and to keeping a critical discussion framework within the listserv. We’re brainstorming ways to follow through on those commitments in very structural ways. For instance, “Who will be the next moderator?” is an important question. Ashanka is on the job market right now, so we’re going to need another moderator in a year. When kairotic moments like the recent WPA-L discussions come up, we can mobilize graduate student energy in a way that brings the community together to build and reflect upon this moment and on what kind of community we can be.
What is the significance of the name “nextGEN” and what do you see as the role of the next generation of scholars in this field?
Beck: In my zeal for getting the listserv to come together, I was like, “I’m just gonna go ahead and think of a name.” I really wanted a name that reflected that this was going to be a graduate student space, that this was going to be the next generation of scholars, and that they were going to do it better and they were going to do it smarter and they were going to do it in so many amazing and awesome ways. It was just a short brainstorming session; then I tweeted out, “What do you all think of ‘nextGEN’?” Then that gained traction.
Kumari: My dissertation looks at first generation to college doctoral students in Rhetoric and Composition. What I’m learning in my research is that we can do better. We can do better in all our spaces to encourage and bring in voices that often feel underrepresented—first gen., included, but also people of color, students with disabilities, students who might identify as LGBTQA, etc. Something that we don’t see a lot of on the WPA-L is those voices. It’s often white scholars that are speaking, often men. Something nextGEN as a listserv can do—even in enacting our moderator structure—is to bring those underrepresented voices to the front, maybe even in terms of a cultural rhetorics methodology approach to creating a listserv by centering it around the voices that are often underrepresented, starting with, broadly, graduate students and then within that, even more specific voices.
Scott: In my early interactions surrounding the development of nextGEN, I was very interested in the graduate student leaders thinking carefully about what it means to enact change and personify a call to action for a generational shift in communication, engagement, and support. That shift is how I characterize nextGEN’s role in the field. In that way, the shift can include anyone who desires to support the actual nextGEN, graduate students, but also those who see themselves within that shift.
Does the current membership composition of the listserv represent the directions you want to go in the future?
Larson: That’s a great question, one that we need to continue asking ourselves; we need to continue partnering with orgs like DBLAC. We’ve talked to Khirsten a bit about that, particularly never having nextGEN and DBLAC have competing events.
Beck: This question brings to mind sending out a survey to all the people who are on the list and to see how many are students versus faculty, to learn about certain demographic categories, to learn why people are interested in participating, and whether they are participating. If the list is to really represent a diverse population of graduate students and bring in voices that are underrepresented and also empower them to talk out in a very public forum, then I think it would be a pretty cool project to do to make sure that we’re aligning with and acting with those goals.
Kumari: One of the reasons that we first invited faculty was because of the timing of the listserv’s creation. It was created around April which is the end of the year for many of us. Some of the original start up members were in that moment transitioning out of graduate programs into jobs, into careers, beyond, so they in that moment became faculty; they were a graduate student at the beginning of our creation and then within a week, they were faculty somewhere else. It became this complicated negotiation of, “Do we now kick you out after your labor? and your work? Or do we let you stay on as an ally to graduate students that can impart recent experience?” It becomes complicated. Those are questions we do have to address, especially in light of the new WPA-L mess.
Baniya: I don’t have a specific answer to the question of whether we want to have faculty or not on nextGEN. So far, for me, the experience has been good because if some graduate students were not able to reply to my question, I found faculty members very helpful. That kind of mentoring is something that we don’t want to lose from nextGEN. But having said that, if some members feel a threat from having faculty members, we need to come up with a mechanism that does not ignore faculty members, does not ignore graduate students, and tries to create a safer, professional space that allows everyone to have their say.
Larson: There are benefits and drawbacks to nextGEN becoming an enclaved graduate space. There are benefits and drawbacks to including faculty. I think for the first time, we’re up against the question of, “How does our space interact with the larger field? Because the questions that we are asking right now are, “How does the toxicity that we see on WPA-L and the kind of culture that faculty bring to the field then affect how we navigate ourselves on nextGEN?” That’s a very complicated question. Because if we enclave ourselves, there’s a benefit to that. And then on the other side, I’m wondering how nextGEN can better inform faculty members and nextGEN can help change the culture that is the very reason we are even raising these questions. Those are really important and complicated questions that I’m excited to grapple with because I think this is a perfect moment to grapple with them. I always come back to the bell hooks quote of, “Those who love justice stand on the side of justice, refuse the logic of either or, and embrace the logic of both and and.” So I’m wondering what kind of imaginative structure we can put in place that might enact a both/and methodology for creating a critical community here.
Beck: There are so many faculty members that are really allies to graduate students. For those who tend to be critical or negative—that might be the minority, whereas I do think there is a majority of faculty who really do want to see the next generation of scholars do well, and succeed, and do better than current faculty.
What directions do you see nextGEN going in the future?
Scott: I hope to see nextGEN move into a space that has regular conversations related to graduate student productivity, but also one that allows wider possibilities for growth across generations. I think nextGEN is and will be a model for disciplinary shifts in support and engagement that center on respect, transparency, and inclusivity.
Kumari: One thing that we’re starting to do is develop small gatherings at conferences. We want to find ways to make nextGEN more inclusive by making networks happen elsewhere other than online. Creating the code of conduct is going to be a big step toward building the listserv community. I really like the idea of collaborating with other caucuses, organizations like DBLAC, people of color, and spaces like that. We want to make this a space that continuously gives back to graduate students at all levels.
Beck: Moving forward, I would love to see some kind of website that had resources for graduate students, model cover letters or model job application dossiers, or how to approach comprehensive exams, time management strategies—almost like a toolkit.
Baniya: I want nextGEN to be an intellectual force in Rhetoric and Composition and Writing through a lot of networking, collaborating, stuff like that. I see nextGEN as a network of faculty and graduate students that support each other.
Larson: I would like to see nextGEN not just be a listserv, but a movement that pushes back and changes the ways in which graduate students are not seen as the intellectual forces that they are. I’m so impressed with my fellow grads and what they’re doing, incredible work that often goes unnoticed by faculty or not supported if faculty think it’s not the direction that they personally would take it. I’m hoping that it really helps open some discursive space for grads to be a force within the field that’s respected and where we cultivate each other’s emotional and intellectual growth.