Review by Virginia Kuhn
Will Banks, East Carolina University
Jonathan Alexander, University of California, Irvine
Few people can pull off what Will Banks did on Saturday morning at C+W 2012: He was the only panelist physically present during his session, yet it actually took me until I was drafting this review for that simple fact to sink in: the session was smartly poly-vocal. Indeed, Will and Jonathan Alexander planned and conducted this featured session in a way that leveraged digital technologies to spark dialogue and creating event-ness, an approach that is way too often absent from conference sessions.
Will opened by contextualizing the session and describing the agenda: In 2002, he explained, he and Jonathan planned a special issue of Computers & Composition with a queer focus, but they were hard pressed to find submissions. When planning this session, he continued, they both agreed they wanted to give graduate students a voice. Thus, Will and Jonathan interviewed 11 advanced graduate students (a few of whom are actually junior faculty), during the CCCC in March, and out of the ten hours of footage shot, they had a 29 minute video cut for this session (the cut was done by Jackie Rhodes). The video includes clips of all 11 interviewees and is grouped thematically. Jonathan, who could not be present, recorded his own four-minute video in response to one of the strands raised in the interview footage.
After the introduction, Will played the interview footage and the audience heard a nice smattering of issues as the grad students responded to questions Jonathan and Will posed about the nature of sexuality, identity politics and academia in general, and rhetoric and composition in particular. Since the session’s assigned room was laid out pod style—clusters of desks, each of which had its own screen—the effect of the video was quite nice and enacted the multi-vocal nature of the discussion. Will then led the audience through a lively discussion and, when the issue of downplaying one’s queer identity in order to get work in academe, Will played Jonathan’s video, which extended the conversation and provided a nice ending to the session, though, clearly many wanted to stay and talk.
There were numerous issues raised throughout the session, the nuances of which are not fully captured here, but I offer the following highlights:
- Coming out online: can digital space provide a rehearsal for coming out f2f? What are the structural implications of social networking in terms of controlling one’s identity?
- Queering as method: Hacking and remix are, in many ways, inherently queer practices. But if queer becomes a methodology—a disruptive practice which eschews the intent of the original—does it lose its political edge?
- Private | public: What is the relationship between identity politics, the performance of gender and the private/public spaces that characterize digital networks? How do we understand scholars who are queer but who don’t do queer theory? What about straight scholars who focus on queer issues?
- Separate but equal? What are the dangers of ghettoizing queer theory? One interviewee noted that the queer caucus sponsored two sessions at the CCCC, and they were held simultaneously effectively limiting who might attend.
- Queer pedagogy? Is there such a thing? Should queer teachers step back and let students find their way? Is the skepticism required of critical thinking problematic when paired with progressive politics?
- The whiteness of queer theory: how do we become more inclusive, particularly given the fact that often queerness is not as immediately visible as are the markers of race and ethnicity. How are one’s identity choices impacted by factors they cannot control?
Jonathan’s video found him picking up on a thread raised with regard to one’s professional stance: how does one balance one’s political beliefs with one’s desire to work? How “out” does one have to be to stay true to oneself? And how does the performance of identity and gender impact one’s professional life, if at all?
The really compelling issues that arose in this session ultimately centered on the balance of retaining a fluid identity such that one can highlight or submerge certain characteristics in the service of others as is rhetorically valid. On the one hand, you do not want to bifurcate yourself and violate your beliefs, on the other, the type of essentialism associated with stereotypes is worth fighting and so showing our complexity should be paramount. In this regard, there is no one better to look to than both Will and Jonathan who have managed a smart career as scholars and not strictly as queer scholars.
I believe Jonathan and Will are planning to publish some of this video work, and I look forward to the contribution it will make to this field, as well as to academia more generally.
Virginia Kuhn, Ph.D., serves as Associate Director at the Institute for Multimedia Literacy and Assistant Professor in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. She directs the Honors in Multimedia Scholarship program, teaches a range of graduate and undergraduate classes that marry theory and practice, and her research centers on visual literacy in the digital age.