This past Halloween weekend, the Cultural Rhetorics Theory Lab hosted the first ever Cultural Rhetorics Conference here at Michigan State. There are many dynamics of the conference worth talking about, but in this post I will limit my focus to one theme that seemed especially prevalent in my experience at the event, and which I think is also important for those of us engaged in cultural heritage informatics to keep in mind: that of positioned authorship.
Many presenters reflected the theme of the conference—“Entering the Conversation”—by relating our own personal, cultural and academic experiences to our scholarly work. This often took the form of story-telling around how we came to be involved in the field of Cultural Rhetorics. At least one panel was dedicated primarily to this form of story-telling—“Origin Stories—Tracing Our Academic Roots,” which was comprised of four of my graduate colleagues in the Department of Writing, Rhetoric and American Cultures: Victor Del Hierro, Phil Bratta, Matt Gomes, and Ronisha Brown.
One of the things I enjoyed about this panel (and others like it) is that it reflected the personal stakes many of us have in the scholarship we engage. Not only is our work impossible to separate from our own personal narratives, but our work is literally shaped by the prior and concurrent experiences we continually bring to it. Obvious though this may sound, the myth of objectivity still often overshadows our extremely important subjectivities in order to conform our work to Western notions of scholarship, intelligence, and professionalism. This can have very real consequences that work to de-legitimize not only our own personal narratives and scholarship, but also the narratives of the communities from which we come, as well as the academic communities we are forging through Cultural Rhetorics.
And it is in response to this sort of colonial standardization that Cultural Rhetorics, from my perspective, has been created. I advocate for an understanding of the field’s work that has been described in a recently published essay, “Our Story Begins Here: Constellating Cultural Rhetorics,” which states that “[i]n practice, cultural rhetorics scholars investigate and understand meaning-making as it is situated in specific cultural communities. And when we say ‘cultural communities,’ we mean any place/space where groups organize under a set of shared beliefs and practices—American Indian communities, workplace communities, digital communities, crafting communities, etc.”
While the understanding of “community” in this description is necessarily broad in scope, it seemed that many in attendance at the conference have shared the specific experience of having our work seen at “marginal” to the larger discipline of Rhetoric, and to the academy as a whole. This is of particular concern to me as a CHI Fellow this year, as I begin building a multimodal genealogical project on Midwestern Chican@ Rhetorics and my family’s migrant history from Mexico to Michigan. My family’s story is important not only because it informs my approach to scholarship, but also because it reflects larger cultural trends experienced by many Chican@s. There is power in the margins, as my colleague Victor Del Hierro has shown me, and at the same time it would be a mistake to view our experiences as Chica@s simply as marginal to our discipline(s). Our experiences are central, because we are here, because we exist, and because we recognize the multivocality of the histories we come from.
So by “positioned authorship” what I mean to imply is that I am in my research, that I cannot be taken out of it, and that I mean to make these dynamics explicit, not marginal. I saw this approach taken by many people at the conference in ways that were beautiful, creative, and determined. As a first-year PhD student, many of you/them are my elders, and I leave that experience with a sense of gratitude for the path that has been paved for me and other newcomers.
I look forward to reading about more peoples’ experiences at the conference in the upcoming special issue of enculturation, and to developing my CHI project throughout the year. I will now end this post in the same way that many of the presentations at the Cultural Rhetorics Conference began: by paying my respect to the Indigenous people on whose land the conference was held, and on whose land this blog post was composed. Wa’do to the People of the Three Fires—Ojibwe, Odawa, Potawatomi.