I have been told that I need Cs. I’ve been told that, as a graduate student in rhetoric and composition/writing studies, that the 4Cs is the threshold of access to a job after graduate school. I’ve been told that Cs is the only way to network successfully, demonstrate or continue one’s professionalization, and that Cs is where the most engaging conversations about research are happening in the field.
I am sure that those voices that told me this did so out of concern. Sitting across from me as I told them how I was planning on not attending, different faculty from different universities—friends and mentors alike—all said nearly the same thing: you need Cs. They say this all nearly in the same breath as they would say how graduate students are the discipline, shape the discipline, and determine the discipline’s future.
Here are the things that I need: I need an organization that is willing to own and act on their own problems, I need the people within an organization to hold themselves responsible for the actions of that organization and the bodies that the organization represents, I need an organization that concerns itself more with the well-being of those that it serves than the organization itself.
I don’t need Cs.
Here are more things that I need: I need a field that recognizes more ways of accessing and participating in its enterprise, I need a discipline that encourages and values multiple venues as much as it purports valuing multiple ways of knowing, I need a field that is willing to engage in inter/transdisciplinary work and is willing to find and create venues to do that.
I don’t need Cs.
Here are other things that I need: I need faculty that are mindful of how they are positioning graduate students, faculty that are willing to engage in collective action with their students and with each other, faculty that are willing to call out complicity more than they are willing to believe that problems cannot change or are too large for them.
I don’t need Cs.
When engaging a situation or an organization is toxic and violent, it comes time to leave.
I’m a graduate student who has only attended twice. My leaving will not be noticed, it will not create some grad avalanche, and it is not something that I wish to valorize. But as someone who bought into the only narrative I had access to (that I ‘needed’ Cs), I want to create another option and another story. And, as there are tactics in place to dismantle collective action, I want to call attention to the violences that have led to this decision.
To better address even fragments of the complexity surrounding recent events at the 4Cs, I’m including copies of the emails sent out to their members. Even if you are already familiar with these documents, I would encourage you to reread them with me. Further, what I’m assembling here is just a fragment of the institutional work happening at Cs. If this feels like it under-represents the work of the organization, perhaps we, as rhetoricians can engage the questions and problems of how this was communicated to the organization’s membership.
The Costs of Staying
If an organization wishes to demean legislation of being dehumanizing, it ought to look at the choices it is making as possibly guilty of the same. What we have presented in the first email is a simple equation: We might lose a chunk of the discretionary fund, have to cut back for a conference cycle, and lose possible revenue versus the risk of violence against members and possible member boycotts. But, as presented here, there are no costs of staying, only risks. The costs of staying, the trauma, the precarity, the violence against brown and black bodies is not a cost here—it is framed as a personal risk that members might choose to undertake (which also doesn’t necessarily account for the institutional pressures surrounding attending CCCC, the narrative of “needing CCCC.”).
We are asking members to pay for the conference both with their finances and with their lives.
Now, it might be easy to say “brown and black bodies are precariously located across the country—this is not a Missouri-isolated condition.”
Sure, but what if it’s not even about that? What if it’s about acknowledging the collective action made by persons whose bodies and lives this effects? What if this is about valuing the voices of people of color who have created a travel advisory?
Staying isn’t just “conferencing as usual” but it is white supremacy as usual. When we as an organized body with a mostly white EC and officer community—and a largely white field—decide that the financial costs, that would not situate our organization in a way that the threat of dissolving would be considered is greater than the cost of violence against its members, then let us make no mistake that this is white privilege and our collective benefiting from white supremacy.
Oh, and while we’re here, let’s talk about this representative from the NAACP. Which, before I begin, if you haven’t read Sara Ahmed’s On Being Included or Living a Feminist Life, you should. Mr. Pruitt has been very vocal in the state of Missouri and his work there instrumental to the national conversation surrounding the NAACP travel advisory. And his comments that are included addressed to the EC are valuable comments. But that is not what is being done here. It is an all too familiar tactic of hearing and including the voices that assent, to include the voices of people of color insofar as they do not disrupt the institution from which they are being ‘included.’
So, inasmuch as the NAACP is invoked here to look like color to appease a membership that may not have access to the complexities of the events or what dissenting voices are saying, this exercise is only another violence.
The Value of Color and Other Institutional Tactics
As part of this year’s ‘transforming’ of the conference, the conference has expanded the Scholars for the Dream, which was designed to provide money for first time presenters of color to pay for travel and the cost of attendance. This is the first year that the scholarship has been expanded: doubling the number of recipients, raising the amount received to $1,000 per awardee, and allowing returning presenters to apply for the award.
This misguided, attempted band-aid, like the single narrative of “you need Cs,” is part of the way that institutions can destabilize ability to engage in collective action. And even the scarcest scrutiny, when weighed against the cost of leaving Cs shows how much the institution values its members of color.
Now of course, this minor expansion is not guaranteed to happen in future years and its money can come out of the discretionary fund.
To be clear, I am not against expanding the scholarship. Please do. But in the wake of attempts of scholars of color to organize boycotts, this tactic undermines collective action for those that may not have access to the information surrounding the organization’s activities.
Please tell me how this purchases security for brown and black bodies. Please tell me how this confronts the institutional racism that creates these conditions. Please tell me how this does not say that your color is worth $1,000 to us. Please tell me how you would spend $10,000 to not confront your own racism.
This is “conferencing as usual,” but with the airs of progress: a triumph of the white institution’s ‘turning to action’ in the face of racist legislation at the expense of its members of color. This conference will continue to be invested in its own interests and benefiting from white privilege. This conference will continue to project a field that is largely white and not challenge structurally the ways in which whiteness and race are embedded in our meetings or our practice.
What’s more is that the Executive Committee is now under nondisclosure agreements, after a measure made by Joyce Locke Carter, limiting the already scarce access that certain members have to the conversations that determine futures for our bodies and our discipline. As graduate students, newcomers to the field, or even long-time members of the field that are not privy to members of the EC, NDAs further disallow access to other narratives that allow us to challenge institutional practices.
Now, as someone less privy to these conversations, the best I can figure is that these nondisclosure agreements were instituted after the EC’s battle over a position statement on sexual conduct that started in its 2016 Houston conference, but before the current conversation surrounding its decision to stay in Kansas City, MO for its 2018 conference.
Nondisclosure agreements only attempt to define a barrier between the organization’s actions and the statements and discourse used by those whom it protects. After people said sexist, violent things in the EC committee over the sexual conduct statement, which could easily be traced back and affiliated with them, I can only imagine why there might be an impulse to institute nondisclosure agreements.
But let there be no mistake, I am not disgusted with the fiction of an organization, I am disgusted with the members who have done this. We cannot hide behind the invisible wall of an organization: you. did. this.
The theme of the 2016 4Cs was activism, but as the EC and officer’s, like Joyce Locke Carter and Linda Adler-Kassner, demonstrated, that activism was only meant to be the convenient, low-stakes, low-cost, white liberalism variety whose investment in the incremental change of their own institution is threatened by disruption of those institutions from which they benefit. As we continue to hear that this conference will make activism its priority as an after-the-fact addition to the conference, I can only think it is the same ineffectual and self-congratulatory nod the organization’s members have been getting for years.
I cannot attend Cs. And I will not attend Cs for the foreseeable future. And I will continue to withdraw any affiliations with CCCC, NCTE, and its affiliate organizations from myself. The talk I was slated to give, “Safe Spaces, Queer Places, and the Labor of Sustained Attention,” was on the ways in which our students’ bodies and our own bodies are situated precariously and subject to institutional violence. I had hoped to encourage, through my talk, instructors to consider mobilizing our collective vulnerabilities to levy change. I will continue to make that claim—and I will do so in other venues, through my absence, and by attempting here to create another story than “You need Cs.”
I hope to meet and work with many of you in the future, and I hope we can strive together to create spaces of activism for this field and for productive change.