Flat Discussion

I recently facilitated a graduate course discussion of a collection of texts. It’s a fairly typical assignment in a graduate seminar to ask the grad students to take one week and lead at least part of the week’s discussion. I’ve led these kinds of discussions before, but I don’t particularly enjoy them.

As I was preparing for this, I kept asking what is it that we expect of/as grad students when we assemble?

Flat-discussion seems to be the prevailing mode of graduate education in rhetoric and composition. We might ask of graduate students that they read generously or critically, that they engage in more activity-based work surrounding their writing projects, or that they read/discuss in particular ways or with particular facilitations in mind (such as a read-pair-share model, or other kinds of writing-as-preparation-for-discussion models).

This may be a limitation of my own memory or experiences, but I’m unclear as to why. Is it simply comfortable? Traditional? The lingering hauntings of literature programs?

It seems strange to me for a field that has such a vested and historical interest in the class room seems so… unimaginative in the education of its future educators. Our connections to pedagogy and education are vast and run deep, our scholarship on the teaching of undergraduate students is equally vast and deep. And while, I hear rumblings of a growing interest in understanding how graduate students are educated in our field, there seems, to me, a curious lack of practice/praxis there.

I’ve used the term flat-discussion to refer to the mode of graduate education that I’ve come to be most familiar with: go read one book or five-to-six article, come sit in a circle, and let’s talk. I use the term flat here both to evoke a particular sense of dryness and lack of dynamism, but also to suggest that it assumes a particularly flat ontology of the discussion, of equal participation, that seems to fail to account for the unevenness within classroom dynamics. Perhaps this underpinned by the idea that we are all, at ‘this level’ beyond or critical of such power-dynamics in graduate classrooms, which seems to me to be a particularly white-utopian view of a classroom or of graduate education.

Put slightly differently, flat-discussion fails to account for the unevenness of emotional labor it takes for participants to engage with that discussion, particularly when we are often asking graduate students to explore questions that involve certain subjectivities, questions of justice and violence, and implications of our being and knowing that each impact us unevenly.

Our classrooms are not apolitical, which seems like an empty commonplace when we talk about the undergraduate classroom, but when we turn our tassels at commencement, we do not somehow transcend politics when we enter new classroom spaces. I have no prescriptions for this for the ‘perfect pedagogy,’ but I can at least ask what that we consider our graduate pedagogy with the same rigor that we attend to undergraduate education.

With this particular class session, we read a number of texts that dealt with intersections of technology, identity, and embodiment. I asked my peers to think of, or bring, a text (defined broadly) that they felt like mediated an identity or group of experiences they had (I used Love, Simon as an example to talk about gay-coming-of-age/coming-out experiences, the experience of being outed, but also how this was rooted in a white-gay-‘universal’-“It Gets Better Project”-model of gay narratives). When they came to the room, I’d set out a series of writing technologies:

  • Pen and paper
  • Chalk (for the chalk board)
  • A note that asked them to compose on their laptops (and to consider sound, video, picture, etc.)
  • A note that asked them to compose on their phones (and to consider sound, video, picture, etc.)
  • Play-doh
  • Legos
  • Construction paper, scissors, and clue
  • Watercolors and watercolor panting paper
  • Printer paper and paints
  • Markers and construction paper
  • Banner paper and markers

I briefly introduced the authors and texts and raised the same question I am attempting to raise here before outlining that this session would be run in a series of workshops. The first is modeled after a workshop I first did with Brianne Radke for WIDE-EMU 2016 and I’ve since adopted for a first-year writing activity. I asked them to just compose for a minute with the technology in front of them and then to use that same technology to compose something that responded to memories, affective responses, limitations or affordances that arose from their composing.

Afterwards, we talked about that experience, reflected on some of our compositions and what motivated them, and connected the exercise to some of the readings. This was the first workshop.

After, I asked them to recall the text that I asked them to think about before class and to either draw a network or write a short reflection that put the text they thought of in conversation with other texts or histories that are either tacitly or actively evoked in their original text and what futures that text makes possible for them to imagine. We did a similar follow up of talking about the experience, reflecting on our compositions, and connecting to the readings. For the last piece, I asked them to do the same activity as they did for their text for themselves as composers and instructors with a final similar wrap up. The idea was to think through our histories and how our identities are mediated in texts and through the discipline, and, in turn, to think through what futures are possible to imagine out of them.

The intent was to change to locus of discussion/emotional/subjectivity work from the center of the circle we all sit in for flat discussion to the space between the composer and their composition, in the hopes that we can connect out of that shared experience instead of discussing/critiquing texts. I don’t know that I was wholly successful in doing that, but I think it was a useful exercise to think through what graduate education is supposed to be and how we can acknowledge the unevenness involved in participation.

I was really impressed with the work that my classmates were doing. Even though while they were playing with Legos they, like my first year writing students when they say the activity “feels like Kindergarten with a purpose,” said that it just felt fun, they made really awesome connections between their lived experiences and what the technologies made them imagine and compose.

It was also a lot to try and put into one class session, and perhaps a series of activities trying to do too many things at once. I can also see how some of my colleagues might have felt that I didn’t respect the attention they’d given to each of the readings, if that was how any of them felt, since I did not linger on any one argument or textual argument—but even then, part of that was a conscious effort to encourage different relationships to the texts we read for the week and to create spaces for those relationships.

But I’m glad for the work that my colleagues did, and I think the activities did at least some of what I wanted them to. And I am glad for the chance to have thought with my colleagues around this question of what we expect of and as grad students when we are gathered. We should all be thinking about the conditions of participation, the ways in which we are precariously situating certain bodies.

My Long View is Broken. No Hope, No Answers, No Answerability.

I’m in the basement of H.B. Crouse, where hope goes to die—maybe not die, maybe where I realize that hope is so thin that fluorescent lighting can pierce it. I’m in the basement of H.B. Crouse, where hope mixes between students and faculty and staff and the air vents that never turn off and the shivers that run down your spine because it’s hot outside in September and the sweat meets the bone in the cold. I’m in the basement of H.B. Crouse where I’m surrounded by white walls and neutral blues, staring at some rainbow pins and a pin with Judith Butler’s face on it that ask me to believe—to hope in the work that I’m doing, in survival, that the world won’t be flooded (but global warming and it’s hot outside in September). I’m in the basement of H.B. Crouse—

I spend a lot of time in the basement.

And I’m talking with a new friend, and we’re talking about how our minds are elsewhere, about how we’re checked out of this PhD work project that we’re both involved in and he says to me “My long-term view operating system is busted” and I can hear it in my own heart that same beat that I didn’t download that patch either.

And I say yes, yes there’s a certain amount of irrelevance to the work that we do. When I can’t see the future, when I can’t see the long view that this academic project is, when hope isn’t, what is teaching, what is research, what is the doing of being here when here is always out of reach in this academic enterprise?

Our work has no answers. It shouldn’t. But what are we doing if we aren’t answering to? Or what is it that we are answering to? What answerability does our work have? What hope can we have—and for what can we have hope–when we do not answer to?

At least 21 trans lives have been taken in 2017. Mesha Caldwell, Jamie Lee Wounded Arrow, JoJo Striker, Tiara Richmond, Chyna Doll Dupree, Ciara McElveen, Jaquarius Holland, Alphonza Watson, Chay Reed, Kenneth Bostick, Sharrell Faulkner, Kenne McFadden, Kendra Marie Adams, Ava Le’Ray Barrin, Ebony Morgan, TeeTee Dangerfield, Gwynevere River Song, Kiwi Herring, Kashmire Nazier Redd, Derricka Banner, Ally Steinfeld. But I’ve wrote smart things.

What haunts our work? Are the ghosts of lives that we lose what sustains the answers we look at?

How does our work answer to our presence? Our absence?

Notes: Danielle Endres and Samantha Senda-Cook, “Location Matters: The Rhetoric of Place in Protest”

Endres, Danielle, and Samantha Senda-Cook. (2011). Location matters: The rhetoric of place in protest. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 97(3), 257–82.


Endres and Senda-Cook analyze the ways that place participates in social protest as an argument or as a rhetoric of (re)constructed meaning. Place is thus performed in social protests.

Keywords: activism, affect, communication, embodiment, materiality, place, rhetoric


“(Re)constructing the meaning of place, even in temporary ways, can be a tactical act of resistance along with the tactics we traditionally associate with protest, such as speeches, marches, and signs… place (re)constructions can function rhetorically to challenge dominant meanings and practices in a place. Place is a performer along with activists in making and unmaking the possibilities of protest” (p. 258).

“Place in protest allows us to understand how social movements use both place-based arguments and place-as-rhetoric” (p. 258).

“[M]aterial rhetoric is always temporary. Place in protest acts as a reminder that places are always being reconstructed or deconstructed. We are interested in material aspects of place that are best revealed when we consider materiality as fluid, temporary, and embodied” (p. 262).


Amy Villarejo, “Tarrying with the Normative: Queer Theory and Black History”

Villarejo, Amy. (2005). Tarrying with the normative: Queer theory and black history. Social Text, 23.3–4, 69–84.


Villarejo develops a queer of color critique that tends to the symptom (the affective) and system (the normative).

Keywords: affect, bodies, critical race theory, embodiment, film studies, queer, queer theory


“[Q]ueer theory seems to me most equipped to ‘tarry with the normative’ when it forsakes its claims to the literal and makes for the more dangerous—but also more commodious—complications of relationality and variegation.1 Queer is but one name, hurled back with pride, for social abjection, exclusion, marginalization, and degradation; it provides, by this logic, but one opening toward freedom” (p. 70).

“Queer theory offers a view of relationality that is not strictly speaking symptomatic; it offers ways to fly with language and desire away from homology and continuity. Queer theory can offer, in other words, a way to grapple with feeling and with response (affect), a way to work in the interstices of contacts, affiliations, relations” (p. 75).

“The powers of the normative do not yield themselves at all times according to systematic rules of equivalence, where what is progressive lines up historically or theoretically with content alone…. The challenge is to parse the difference between prescription/symptom and living/agency, to resist the desire to tell the old story about how black nationalism is a ruthlessly masculinist enterprise, or to remark the heteronormative assumptions without moving on. The challenge is not, finally, to confuse similarity with equivalence” (p. 82).

Notes: Sara Ahmed “A Killjoy Survival Kit” in Living a Feminist Life

Ahmed, Sara. (2017). A killjoy survival kit. Living a feminist life. Durham: Duke University Press, 235-249.


Ahmed assembles her feminist toolkit for feminism and feminists around key points of time, life, permission, others, humor, feelings, and bodies.

Keywords: affect, bodies, embodiment, feminism, feminist theory, theory,


“Survival can thus be what we do for others, with others. We need each other to survive; we need to be part of each other’s survival” (p. 235).

A killjoy: a project that comes from a critique of what is.
Speaking of projects:
We are our own survival kits
” (p. 249, original emphasis).

Notes: Sara Ahmed, “Feminist Snap”

Ahmed, Sara. (2017). Feminist snap. Living a feminist life. Durham: Duke University Press, 187-212.


Ahmed puts forward the idea of the snap as a site of feminist work and the creating and maintaining of crises to make the violences of experience visible.

Keywords: embodiment, feminism, feminist theory, queer, queer theory, theory


“We can see how resilience is a technology of will, or even functions as a command: be willing to bear more; be stronger so you can bear more…. Resilience is is the requirement to take more pressure; such that pressure can be gradually increased” (p. 189).

“Feminism: a history of willful tongues. Feminism: that which infects a body with a desire to speak” (p. 191).

“A case for a feminist life can be made in a moment of suspension: we suspend our assumptions about what a life is or should be. Just opening up room for different ways of living a life can be experienced by others as snap” (p. 196).

“We thus learn the need for caution about harm: difference and deviation are often registered as damaging those who are different, those who deviate. So much conservation of power rests on the assumption that not to conserve the familiar forms of an existence would cause damage to what might be or who might be” (p. 197).

Notes: José Esteban Muñoz, “Feeling Brown: Ethnicity and Affect in Ricardo Brancho’s ‘The Sweetest Hangover (And Other STDs)'”

Muñoz, José Esteban. (2000). Feeling brown: Ethnicity and affect in Ricardo Bracho’s “The Sweetest Hangover (And Other STDs)”. Theatre Journal, 52(1), 67-79.


Muñoz looks at Ricardo Brancho’s “The Sweetest Hangover” to show ethnicity as in-process as the performance of affects.

Keywords: affect, bodies, citizenship, critical race theory, culture, embodiment, ethnicity, performance studies, utopianism


Alarcón, Norma. (1996). Conjugating subjects in the age of multiculturalism. in Avery F. Gordon & Christopher Newfield (eds.) Mapping multiculturalism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 127-48.


“Latino, a term meant to enable much-needed coalitions between different national groups, has not developed as an umbrella term that unites cultural and political activists across different national, racial, class, and gender divides. This problem has to do with its incoherence, by which I mean the term’s inability to index, with any regularity, the central identity tropes that lead to our understandings of group identities in the United States” (p. 67).

“To be cognizant of one’s status as an identity-in-difference is to know that one falls off majoritarian maps of the public sphere, that one is exiled from paradigms of communicative reason and a larger culture of consent. This exile is more like a displacement, the origin of which is a historically specific and culturally situated bias that blocks the Latina/o citizen subject’s trajectory to “official” citizenship-subject political ontology” (p. 68).

“This blockage is one that keeps the Latina/o citizen-subject from being able to access normativity, playing out as an inability to perform racialized normativity. A key component of my thesis is the contention that normativity is accessed in the majoritarian public sphere through the affective performance of ethnic and racial normativity” (p. 68).

“This theoretical formulation, ‘dreaming of other planets,’ represents the type of Utopian planning, scheming, imaging, and performing we must engage in if we are to enact other realities, other ways of being and doing within the world. The play, like the poem, does not only dream of other spaces but of other modes of perceiving reality and ‘feeling’ the world” (p. 74).

“This analysis has posited ethnicity as ‘a structure of feeling,’ as a way of being in the world, a path that does not conform to the conventions of a majoritarian public sphere and the national affect it sponsors. It is my hope that thinking of latinidad in this way will help us better analyze the obstacles that must be negotiated within the social for the minoritarian citizen-subject” (p. 79).