A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture



Lights up. Andrea is seated at a kitchen table, stage left. She is preparing food.

ANDREA. For over five years, I have worked on a series of oral history projects with a group of urban, multigenerational Native women. They have served as resources, friends, aunties, elders, and inspiration for doing rhetoric. Their stories function in so many ways: as theories of visibility, as rhetorical histories, or as theories on how to do community-based research—to name a few.

We met each other because of a series of requests and preexisting relationships. As a first year PhD student in American Studies, I made an appointment with my anthropology professor, Susan Applegate Krouse, to talk about a degree completion plan. At the time, I knew I wanted to write about American Indian women and their roles and responsibilities. But, I didn't call it that. Instead, I used words like "leadership" and "activism"—knowing that I was wrong, but I wasn't sure how yet. I mean, this is why I moved away from creative writing to American studies to work with and for Native peoples (spoiler alert: a year from that conversation, I realize that I am actually doing rhetoric and apply to the rhetoric and writing program and start all over again). After we came up with a plan, Susan told me that she knew of an elder who was interested in recording her oral history.

"Her name is Geri and she's looking for a graduate student to help her write her life history."

I found myself sitting in Geri's living room with Susan, once a week listening to stories—laughing, crying, keeping silent. Months later, after I figured out how to form relationships with Geri and Susan, after I told them how I was grateful for these weekly meetings, how they became more than just work, Geri requested that Susan and I get more Odawa women together for a group of talking circles (an indigenous approach to communication).

"There are more of us in Lansing, and you two should get them together."

Susan and I spent months organizing the talking circles. The stories these women told during those events and the relationships I formed with them became the theoretical framework for my dissertation a few years down the road. When beginning these projects, I never intended to use them in my dissertation, something I didn't intend when I began the circle work. But, as I progressed in coursework, I realized that I couldn't stop talking about the women. I carried their stories and our relationships with me while I inhabited academic, institutional, and non-institutional spaces. As I sat in graduate seminars, I couldn't help but re-tell the stories told during the talking circles as a way to make connections to the course objectives or position myself within the discipline. And, in the act of re-telling, I started to articulate a language about how these American Indian women made themselves visible, how I made myself visible in academia, and how our discipline can learn from them/us.

To be clear, when I talk about relationships, I mean approaching the development and maintaining of research, teaching, and collegiality the same way you would develop and maintain relationships with people, land, spaces you inhabit, and the universe. I mean developing and maintaining relationships that encourage accountability and reciprocity. I mean being present within the spaces and places we belong to and continue belonging to. The Native women with whom I work with theorize this as: to be there. I argue that these relational approaches are rhetorical practices. Of course, these stories—these practices will look different depending on the community—on the relationships formed between participants and on your relationships to the material and the people who make it.

Through relationality, we have to exhibit patience, understanding, and willingness to slow down, to wait, to dwell. As a discipline, we struggle with teaching each other and talking to each other about how to do this work and what it looks like. I believe that a language of relationality is our way into these conversations. I practice relationality in my writing as well as in the process of gathering and listening to stories (i.e. data analysis/gathering). While working with these women, what became clear is that relationships are always uneven, or at least they always go through periods of unevenness. Here, I've shown glimpses of what my relationships looked like, at a specific time, with Susan and Geri. But, that's just one set of stories, one set of glimpses of what those relationships looked like then, and it doesn't even scratch the surface.

Here's the thing: this is seriously hard work. In fact, for the first two years I was working with Geri on her oral history and as I was forming relationships with the stories for my dissertation, I really struggled. I didn't know what I was hearing, but I knew I heard something. I didn't know how to talk about what I heard and when I did; I was too busy explaining why it was important rather than offering a theoretical discussion.

What I need to emphasize, dear readers, is that relationships can create research opportunities; relationships dictate methodology and questions and structure. This is a far different approach than the idea/practice that researchers should venture out of academia with a research idea in mind in search of a community to work with until the project is over. Earlier, I told a story about how Geri asked Susan and I to "get the women together." This request helped me realize how Geri is my research partner as well as my elder and my advisor. Geri and I are still working on her oral history. In fact, as I write this, I keep reminding myself that I owe her a revision and a phone call. Through relationality, her work becomes visible—without her relationships, without her intellectual practices, there would be no project. And, who knows, maybe, I would have taken those exams in American studies and never applied to rhetoric & writing.

While working on my dissertation, I was also drafting chapters for Geri's life history. I used to joke that I had two dissertation advisors for two different projects: Malea and Geri. On the same day that I would meet Malea to talk about the job market and the dissertation, I would also meet with Geri to talk about her book. When chapters or market materials were due to Malea, chapters, transcript materials, or book proposal drafts were due to Geri. When my chair handed back revisions, Geri handed back revisions. Sometimes, I would leave one meeting thrilled and energized and another meeting with hands full of balled up tissues.

These meetings and the stories were intellectually relational. When I struggled with my dissertation, especially as I tried to communicate how a certain rhetorical theory was created, I would go back to a meeting with Geri as it was "data" to analyze and dwell on it to see if there was something there. I used these moments as markers to examine my relationship to the women, to the material, or to the spaces we shared. I began there instead of ended there. After my dissertation defense, I contacted the women and told them that I had passed and that the committee thought I have a strong project. I sent each one of them the final copy of the dissertation and let the women know they could "read it or not." And that "I would welcome the opportunity to further talk, answer questions, or listen to any feedback." My inbox was full of congratulations and minor revision requests. They shared stories about reading the dissertation and these stories helped me understand their perceptions of me as a researcher, storyteller, and relative.

Malea, Maria, Jenn, Daisy, and Mari walk on from stage right, carrying food that they place on Andrea's table.

US. Here, we want to recall something we claimed earlier—that people make meaning through relationships that are always constellated. Remembering this helps us to mark our own cultural practices and objects as scholars as fundamental to the knowledge we are actively making and distributing. Cultural rhetorics as a scholarly orientation, necessitates our attention to how relationality exists in different ways and at every step of a scholarly project's process. The practice of relationality changes throughout that process, and is made visible in multiple ways. In Andrea's case, this practice entailed a conscious departure from the traditional "dissertation model," and in some of the other stories we are telling, the practice might suggest other choices, too. Certainly, relationships are important because they are about people. But we want to be clear that they're also important because they tell us stories that live in between data, in between other stories, in between ourselves as scholars, in between the institutional products, and in between stories of our various projects.

We recognize that, at this point, in the discipline of rhet/comp, many scholars still consider that they don't have any need to learn from the intellectual practices of scholars of color, dismissing it as irrelevant, or separate from the "mainstream" of the discipline. The way that many of us have heard this is through a question like "What does this (Native rhetorics, queer rhetorics, feminist rhetorics, etc.) do for the rest of us?" Our intention here is to intervene in this presumption, to insist that methodological practices like the ones Andrea is describing, can enable all rhetorics scholars to study all people, places, and spaces.

Lights dim. All players leave the stage except for Mari.


Lights up. Mari sits in a comfy chair, stage right. She's crocheting

MARI. For two years now, I've been a member of a crafting group. The group is composed, primarily, of women who are graduate students in humanities programs at Michigan State University. We call ourselves the Crafty Beavers. Individuals in the group, Beavers, make a lot of different things. Some crochet, some knit, some draw, some bake cookies to share at our meetings. I asked them if I could study the ways in which the crafting, gathering, and other practices that happen within the Crafty Beavers are rhetorical and place-making practices. As a whole, the Beavers seemed happy to oblige, and a few members were especially enthusiastic. They agreed to interviews about their crafting histories and their histories and experiences with the group. They also agreed to my (video-recorded) observations of the group. They've been cheerful and kind, open and honest. So, like Andrea, I've engaged in a project that began with oral history.

My dissertation, Crafting Place: Rhetorical Practice and the Everyday, situates and theorizes place-making as a rhetorical act by exploring the ways a crafting group makes, maintains, and manipulates space and place through the practices of gathering, crafting, remembering, and talking. Space and place are often seen as empty material, physical locations. Instead of focusing on space and place as merely physical and material entities, I focus on the relationship between the cultural, social, intellectual, and physical components of space and place. The Crafty Beavers are an excellent group for this research, since they do not consistently meet in the same physical space/place. To study them, I must study space/place as something that goes beyond the physical/material.

The most difficult part of the project was using their stories, my experiences, and my observations of our interactions as a group to write about the ways in which the group makes space and place and, from that, theorize about place-making as rhetorical. And, it scares me. I have three data chapters about the ways that the group members acknowledge how they work within the group, what they think about the group, how their crafting and personal histories affect their relationship to the group. Some of this information is rather personal, tied to family history, individual stories of depression and loss, and difficult experiences with graduate school. I spent about two months just arranging and rearranging the stories that Beavers told me when I needed to be writing "data chapters" of my dissertation. I wasn't sure how to theorize about rhetoric and place-making with the stories and observations I'd collected. I wanted to honor their stories and use as much information from the stories as possible without making claims that I felt might upset group members. I conducted one group interview and six individual interviews as well as film three of our meetings; that's a lot of data to wade through. Those are a lot of stories.

Researchers who use ethnographic methods often talk of data overload—having collected so much information that they are daunted by the prospect of putting together something meaningful with it. There is a lot to read and look at, a lot to process and analyze. But, it's not just about having a lot of information; it's about being responsible with that data, too. Some folks might say, "It's just data, not people." But, that's just the thing, those stories belong to people. People I know. People I spend time with. People I care about. People who have not only been kind enough to share their stories, but people who might not have shared those stories had I not been connected to them through the communities of the craft group and of graduate school. These concerns aren't unique to cultural rhetorics; they're concerns that anyone who has done participant-observer research or ethnographic methods thinks about, but a cultural rhetorics orientation leads me to linger over these concerns and think differently about the relationships in play—those between me and the group that I am part of and study, those between me and the "data," those between the participants and their own stories, and so on.

Malea, Maria, Jenn, Daisy, and Andrea enter, stage left, and gather around Mari's chair.

US. Earlier, we made the argument that cultural practices are built, shaped, and dismantled based on the encounters people have with one another within and across particular systems of shared belief. Mari provides an excellent example here of how responsibility is not a set of static practices but is dependent on the encounters we have in particular communities.

MARI. For instance, it might seem that the responsible thing to do is to provide each participant with a pseudonym of her choosing to "protect" her identity. Of course, I offered this option, but I am also of the mindset that a more responsible and respectful approach is to give them the option to use their own names, should they choose. Wilson discusses this approach in Research is Ceremony: "I would like to use the real names of everyone I worked with on this research, so that you will know exactly whom I am writing about. This goes against the roles of most university ethical research policies. However, how can I be held accountable to the relationships I have with these people if I don't name them? How can they be held accountable to their own teachers if their words and relationships are deprived of names?" (63). Although sometimes it might be necessary to protect participants with pseudonyms, it makes a great deal more sense to use their real names. When we do cultural work, we do work with people. Our work needs to be situated within the communities we work with and responsible to them. And, we need to recognize that, ultimately, research in rhetoric is research with/of/about people, humans, cultures.

This emphasis on responsibility is deeply tied to a concern with relationality. When we work with groups of people, we are forming a relationship with them. As someone who studies rhetoric through the concept of place and place-making, I am consistently interested in the surroundings, the environment, the places and spaces of the communities I work with and within. Those places are not just physical and material, but also social, emotional, and intellectual. They are classed, raced, and gendered. And, most importantly, they are all in relationship with one another. Rather than demarcate these kinds of relationships away from one another (e.g. just focus on physical place or just focus on gendered place), I want to emphasize their connections, and a cultural rhetorics orientation and methodological foundation helps me attend to these relationships responsibly.

US. Earlier, we said that in the discipline of rhetoric studies, often, human practices become objects of study that are reduced to texts, to artifacts, to objects, in a way that elides both makers and systems of power. Mari has emphasized how her training encourages her to pause and think about this. Andrea talks about this as well, when she makes the decision to include methodology discussions throughout her dissertation instead of siphoning it off to one chapter. So, when we talk about cultural rhetorics as an orientation to methodology that constellates, rather than one which "siloes" and alienates, we are partly talking about how our discipline has trained us to demarcate and draw clear borders. We are talking about acknowledging the interconnectedness of research and its location in our bodies.

Lights dim. All players leave the stage except for Daisy.


Lights up. Daisy slowly dances and moves around the stage.

DAISY. You should know that I came to rhetoric studies from dance and movement education. I also want to admit that phrase— "movement education" —is one I culled together from various disciplines—physical therapy, kinesiology, yoga, Alexander Technique, pilates, Bartenieff Fundamentals, Rolfing, massage, etc. As a field, it's not quite as clearly drawn as we tend to expect in the university, but it encompasses any systematic approach to studying the body, how it functions and moves, and how to teach it to other bodies. I have a history as a professional in this field, as well as being a student. I've rebuilt a shoulder and a knee and have worked with people trying to rebuild similar and other joints, as well.

Here's the thing I've learned about bodies—you can't look at one piece of it without seeing all the others, can't manipulate a part without having to negotiate every other aspect of that body too. You can try, but you can't do it. It just won't happen. It's not how bodies work.

I must have been about halfway through taking history of rhetorical theory in my first seminar as a PhD student when it occurred to me that when I said "body" I was intending something different than what the other folks in the room were hearing. I wasn't articulating myself well, I realized. I wasn't taking into account all the ways I had become used to thinking of bodies that other people in the room either didn't know about me, didn't share with me, or both. Bodies seemed to be somehow outside of the conversation for most of my peers, or afterthoughts, whereas I couldn't think about these theories without also thinking about arms and legs and bones and muscles. Where were they? I felt like I could see them—old, dead ones, and young, living ones gesturing and speaking and living day to day with all their needs and desires, doing things, making things happen with their bodies.

How was it, I worried, that this whole other discipline had come to separate the makings and distributions of knowledge from the makings and distributions of bodies? And somewhere in here, my project began taking shape. It's not an easy question to answer, I came to find out; in fact, it's one I think will take me a long time to satisfy, but here's where I've arrived so far and how I've gotten there. First, I committed myself to trying to listen to our discipline—to what scholars in our discipline are saying about bodies, how they think of them as relevant, as well as who and which traditions they are relying on to help them inform those views. Then, I had to listen to those traditions. "Those" traditions, as we've already suggested in earlier pages, are primarily ones from European adaptations of ancient Greco-Romans, so I listened particularly close to them. What I heard, over and over again, was a generalized list of assumptions about the relationship between body and mind: 1) that the body is subservient to the mind; 2) that the body needs salvation and redemption; and 3) that bodies are understandable as always better or worse than other bodies. Simple enough to identify, I thought, and in some ways all these statements infer one model of relationality.

However, that model is based on only one worldview, one that is tied to historical, cultural, social, political, economic, and religious practices. Those practices influence the particular sense of the role or value of physical bodies, but too, they carry out the work of it, in turn dictating other practices. These practices could include legislation and governance, but could also be less "visible" forms of punishments and valorizations, like representations of body types in the media, or cultural norming for particular groups of bodies. And, as we know, all these practices weave together to make a messy, layered, systemic practice. One such practice, of course, is colonialism. All of these practices, systemic or otherwise, dictate that any behavior or action outside of the conceived "normal" body is a mis-practice—a perversion, distortion, deviation, disease, and malfunction. These mis-practices can only be seen this way because our bodies are intended to be predictable, understandable, and more importantly—controllable.

This belief about the role of bodies as controllable, subservient, predictable things wasn't consistent with beliefs I had accepted from other communities, and so I felt a revision was in order. I know that embodiment necessitates an action. It requires movement. It's not the body's relationship to the mind that marks something as embodied, but the body's relationship to space, time, and other bodies or objects. While rhetoric studies' traditional insistence that "relationality" depended on the spatial arrangement of over and under, I knew that movement theorists articulated it as between/among. Of course, there are lots of rhetoric scholars who are also emphasizing these relational proportions, many of whom we've already mentioned in this article.

Of these scholars, I looked particularly to Royster and Kirsch to ally my methodological choices and my theoretical premise. In Feminist Rhetorical Practices, Royster reflects on her own theory of "disciplinary landscaping" as "a springboard from which [she] started thinking in a more coherent way about the need in RCL (Rhetoric, Composition, and Literacy) to incorporate deliberately into our theoretical and methodological approaches mechanisms for moving beyond the constraints of habitual paradigms in order to notice conceptual and ecological features that might otherwise go unnoticed." (11). This need that Royster articulates reflects a complex system of relationality; that I think we don't often notice in our scholarship—the way our cultural community's practices shape and are simultaneously shaped by the multiple and shifting processes, habits, and artifacts within and without that community. This helped me understand how powerfully embedded was our traditional perspective on rhetoric and the body.

In my own research, my own attempt to "notice conceptual and ecological features that might otherwise go unnoticed," I began to see a useful model illustrating exactly how relationality worked, in the body. In my conversations with Barbara Mahler (a prominent movement educator, theorist, and practitioner) and in listening to the published works of Irene Dowd (a contemporary of Mahler's), and those of Mabel Todd (also a prominent theorist and practitioner from the 1930s), I heard the body being articulated as an entity which is always understood as deeply connected, through gravity, to the ground, and through the ground to other bodies. This connection moves through bodily tissues, through bones and nerves and other matter, connecting the physical objects as well as the abstracted ones—the consciousness—via the nervous system. One of Todd's foundational premises is that the way a person understands her or his relationship to the universe occurs at the level of the bones. She argues that the bones' relationships to each other instigates postural patterns, which then allow for neurological transmission, which engage muscular support and movement, which feed the body's cognition—about place, about relationship, about the universe. When I could hear and see this, I felt I could see as Royster had called me to see; embodied rhetoric was in the bones, I understood, but not only there.

In my interviews with Barbara Mahler, I learned how she emphasizes the bones as "the deepest and densest tissue [that] conducts the most energy, gravitational force." She is talking about harnessing gravitational force falling down through the skeleton into the floor and back up; we might understand this as Todd would ask us to—as a force which connects us to the universe, and as a force which allows our body to make meaning from this connection. What we can understand from such a connection includes the distinction between our self and other selves, or our self and the rest of the world, but also, importantly, our relationship to the world, to other bodies in the world. When I say in the previous paragraph that embodied rhetoric is not only in the bones, this is what I mean. Embodied rhetoric travels through the bones, into the ground, and through all other organic things, which also harness physical energy. This underscores for me the single most important thing I have learned: that bodies are always in relation to the world around them, to the other bodies, and that, truly, there is no good or bad body.

Malea, Mari, Jenn, Andrea, and Maria enter, stage left, and begin to dance with Daisy.

US. Unlike the movement of the body, in scholarship we can—and often do—look at one piece of a system of communication without seeing its relationship to others. It is also true that we can/do manipulate a part of a project without having to negotiate every other aspect of the associated body of knowledge alongside it. However, as Daisy's work asks us to consider, what is lost in such a deliberate extraction? In the practice of cultural rhetorics we emphasize a deliberate and purposeful methodological movement across disciplines and fields (read communities) because we wish to acknowledge our relations via what we mutually share. It is one thing to ask, "What makes scholarship between disciplinary communities different?" It is another to ask, "What do we learn when we understand what they have in common?" This is the heart of our project.

Lights remain on as players assemble center stage.