Watson Session C7: Minor Professionalization: How Minority Rhetoric and Composition Professionals Navigate Mobility, Intersectionality, and Embodiment


Travis Webster, University of Houston-Clear Lake
Chanon Adsanatham, University of Maryland-College Park
Bre Garrett, University of West Florida

In this panel, Travis Webster, Chanon Adsanatham, and Bre Garrett shared with us three different perspectives on minority professionals in rhetoric and composition through lenses of mobility, intersectionality, and embodiment as they navigate their professional lives. Webster and Adsanatham conducted empirical research and shared narratives by participants such as LGBTQ Writing Center Administrators and Asian/Asian American graduate students who were marginalized in their institutional and professional contexts. Garrett discussed her own struggle of balancing the life of a WPA and a mother when her professional role was being challenged by her institution. In all three presentations, they discussed the affective dimensions and the invisible aspects of academic labor that these minority professionals have to perform as they move through their professional lives.

In the opening session, Webster provided touching voices of LGBTQ Writing Center leaders and practitioners who experienced mistreatments and inequalities in the age of post-DOMA and Pulse. He defined the purpose of his empirical research project to be tracing the state of LGBTQ labor in writing center studies, to contribute to subjects of labor and identity in writing center research, and to encourage disciplinary discussions on LGBTQ issues beyond marriage equality. In his participant interviews, he asked for coming out stories, writing center work origins, connections between their LGBTQ and administrative identities, moments of tension/conflict and resolution/ease being LGBTQ admin and the impact on their administrative work and philosophy.

Arguing that writing center is a space for social action, Webster applied the concept of “brave space” from social justice scholarship to describing writing center space. The concept of “brave space” critiques the illusion of safe space because learning spaces aren’t safe when interfaced with privilege, justice, and identity. Writing center is a learning space, an administrative space, an institutional space, where there’s potential for tensions and conflicts. The voices of Webster’s participants demonstrated that LGBTQ writing center practitioners/administrators often had to navigate their professional lives by dealing with these tensions and conflicts. In a post-DOMA era, much still needs to be done on bringing social justice to the LGBTQ community on the national level, as manifested by the Pulse incident. At local levels in higher education, administrative labor involved in writing center work embodies many affective dimensions for the LGBTQ communities.

In the three participant voices that Webster shared with us, participants in his study have often experienced mobbing, bullying, and gaslighting often coming from colleagues, micro-aggressions coming from other LGBTQ colleagues. Invisible labor was expected of them, and their work and practices were sometimes referred to with sexualized stereotypes. On the other hand, they have also reported support from their colleagues and superiors, consultants in the writing center and students. It’s clear that they often had to resort to rhetorical and administrative strategies stemming from non-academic, lived experiences when trying to resolve conflicts and tensions. Their testimonies demonstrate that there is much work still to be done in our field to fight the oppression, regression and unsustainability of LGBTQ writing center work. While providing practical suggestions such as listening, empathizing, calling in, and building brave spaces by talking and learning, Webster also argued that we need to produce more empirical research to bring the lore of writing center work into fruitful solutions on improving the conditions of marginalized professionals.

One of the main points in Webster’s talk was the critique of the concept of “safe space.” He argued that we must realize that our liberal academic spaces aren’t safe, especially for historically marginalized groups. Experiences of participants in Adsanatham’s study support the notion that unforeseen challenges and struggles often exist for these groups. In the second presentation of the panel, Chanon Adsanatham presented his research on the professionalization of Asian/Asian-American doctoral students, highlighting their needs and concerns which have also been neglected by faculty and their institutions, arguing that an in-depth understanding of their needs would help provide more productive mentoring to these students.

In his interview of 16 PhD students in rhetoric and composition, all of Asian/Asian-American descent (citizen or non-citizen), Adsanatham explored what it meant to be Asian/Asian-American PhD students in rhet/comp and what it meant for them to professionalize, relating to their different career goals after their PhD programs. When asked about their professionalization priorities, his research participants reported teaching as their top priority, followed closely by reading and writing. They also expressed a variety of career aspirations, including tenure-track positions, non-tenure-track positions in and out of the U.S., high school teaching and administration, directors of ESL programs or writing centers, and enhancing their credentials for their current professions. In this myriad of contexts, Adsanatham’s participants believed that personal encouragement on building confidence and promoting one’s work, as well as the Asian/Asian American Caucus at CCCC, were among the most helpful things to their professionalization.

Their unique cultural backgrounds often indicated that Asian/Asian Americans tend to feel more pressure to overwork and to over excel at their work, especially teaching, and that pressure can be taxing, affecting their quality of life. However, they are often not properly and adequately supported because of their institutional conditions. For example, often a lack of diversity in faculty can mean that there’s no specialist in Asian/Asian-American rhetoric which these doctoral students would want to study. There’s also a lack of support for their teaching. Among these challenges, sometimes Asian/Asian-American students also need more support on developing social skills and competence for social interactions and functions, an area of professionalization that we need to broaden to in our field.

Although not explicitly mentioned, traces of invisible and affective labor could also be found in the experiences of Adsanatham’s participants. In closing, Adsanatham asked us to interrogate structural racism issues that might affect the way we set up professionalization in our institutions and to think about how treating the differences in subject position as parts of the whole would produce thorough understanding in the process of problem-finding and problem-solving.

As demonstrated by the studies of the first two presenters, minority professionals often suffer from overworking and/or the pressure of doing more work that may not be recognized by others. Bre Garrett’s presentation further explored the problems of invisible labor by marginalized professional groups, in her case, women and mothers, through examining the presence of “hyper-ableism” and “ the ideal worker” in WPA work, especially under the influence of institutional sexism.

By sharing her personal experiences as an untenured WPA going through pregnancy and raising a small child, she pointed out that the vulnerability and the embodied experiences of women and/or mothers often put them in the position where they had to rearrange their own dispositions in response to institutional, often male, expectations of them. In this process of rearranging professional mobility, many factors would come into play, such as perceptions of success, power and agency, and work and life balance.

Garrett invoked feminist scholarship by Audre Lorde and Gloria Anzaldúa to discuss how we could disrupt hyper-ableism by transforming emotions into rhetorical actions. Referencing Theresa Enos’s research, she pointed out that the field has not changed and is not changing, not when a male faculty member on her tenure review committee asked her to provide a statement on how she might account for her baby/work balance, not when her program’s status and her position were changed during her maternity leave without her knowledge, and not when, as a field, we continue to emphasize the “able-body performance” as the norm.

Like the first two presenters, Garrett also provided praxis suggestions on how to negotiate workload. She further advocated for embodied time, and a rhizomatic professional development model, where we could challenge the norm, and listen. Listen to the voices of the historically marginalized groups, who are continually being marginalized in our field. And while we navigate within the constraints of the dominant structure, we may disrupt. Disrupt the “safe spaces,” the “hyper-ableism,” the “stereotypes.” And we must continue to reach out and connect. Connect with a community where we can collaborate, find and share support, and advocate for ourselves.

The work studied and presented in this panel is crucial to our field as we continue to move toward a discipline that will embrace diversity and transformation. A discipline where those of us who have been invisible and marginalized can learn to love again.

About Author

Chen Chen

Chen Chen is an Assistant Professor of English at Winthrop University where she teaches composition, professional and technical communication courses.

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