The following response was written by the nextGEN community to WPA-L on November 6, 2018, in response to the sexist-turned-racist discussion on WPA-L.
To the members of the WPA-L and the wider Rhetoric & Composition community:
We, the members of nextGEN*—a graduate-student listserv created for and by graduate students and allies—recognize that the recent conversations on WPA-L are yet another manifestation of an oppressive discourse that created the exigence for nextGEN’s founding in April 2018. We collectively respond here to the perceived tendency toward minimizing, if not outright belittling, issues on the listserv and in the field pertaining to sexism, racism, ableism, professional power and privilege, among other axes of intersectionality. We respond here—listserv to listserv—because the culture cultivated on WPA-L directly impacts and, at times, even restricts the culture that is allowed to be cultivated on nextGEN due to the realities and consequences of misused professional power and privilege.
The existence of structural inequities—often compounded by tendencies toward adversarial academic argumentation that purposefully obscure the real issue or intentional sarcasm that sidesteps the issue—creates a toxic environment and places an invisible burden on those who already exist and speak from the margins. This preemptively devalues the public work done by graduate students, NTT faculty, and other members of the precariat. It also discounts their voices in public spaces that are prone to perpetuating power dynamics and public-facing hostilities, whether through explicit language or as a consequence of tone.
Given this reality, we find the culture of WPA-L to be structurally inadequate and rhetorically irresponsible. We share deep concerns about the witnessed misuse of professional power and privilege, which can have chilling effects and material consequences for members of nextGEN.
We stand in support of those who have expressed their experiences and concerns with the lack of intersectional structures and those who have supported these testimonies. And we welcome the broader range of perspectives that has emerged. Accordingly, we write to urge the WPA-L community to reflect on issues of audience and consider the effects of their rhetoric and tone on graduate students (both domestic and international), independent scholars, and others in the field who are disenfranchised, many of whom regularly face the realities signaled or encapsulated in recent rhetorical choices made on this listserv.
We ask that the WPA-L community pay attention to how we use and define anger, civil discourse, and critical debate in the field, attending especially to the rhetorical purpose of anger and whose anger, culturally, is discounted as irrational and temporary or constructed as threatening, violent, and uncivil. Most importantly, considering where we conflate direct, unanticipated disagreement by women and people of color with anger.
We ask that the WPA-L community consider how we, as teachers, cannot ethically continue to reproduce the structural power imbalances we experience and observe on the listserv and in our everyday lives. As graduate students, we often must teach according to someone else’s ideas about “good” or “correct” writing, content, and praxis. This forces graduate students to acquiesce to a power structure that is predicated on our exploitation and reify that power structure in our classrooms by taking advantage of our students’ desire to learn. How can this conversation and the obstacles we have encountered move us toward a more open and ethical praxis?
We ask that, as rhetoricians, we collectively consider and reflect upon exigence and kairotic interruption before insisting on quarantining or tone-policing expressions of anger and dissatisfaction with rhetorical choices on the listserv and with social, ethical, and professional issues in the field.
We encourage those who are made aware to resist retreating from perspectives and experiences at odds with their own. Retreating in this way blocks intellectual growth and reinforces the injustices to which the rhetor is responding.
Instead, we encourage those who are made aware to listen and remain mindful toward personal growth and the expansion of your horizons of knowledge-building practices as we build more inclusive spaces by taking these beginning steps in future discussions:
(1) apologize for what was said, not for how it was perceived;
(2) acknowledge and appreciate that someone shared their perspective with you; and
(3) make a plan to educate yourself and those around you about that perspective, without placing additional burden on those who may have been harmed by your language and/or behavior.
As professionals in Rhetoric & Composition, we have a responsibility to ensure that our language creates and sustains learning environments—on and offline—where graduate students, independent scholars, NTT faculty, women, and people of color feel welcome, safe, supported, and able to engage in critical dialogue and intellectual endeavor without fear of censure or fear of interpersonal, institutional repercussions. This recent discussion, along with previous threads and subsequent discussions, has revealed the need for effective practices for open, equitable dialogue.
The following are some practices and principles that the nextGEN listserv adheres to and hopes that WPA-L will adhere to including (but are not limited to):
We hope that our professional public spaces can more actively and collaboratively develop critical praxis as we develop and disseminate knowledge as a field.
The nextGEN Listserv
*nextGEN stands for both the “next generation” of Rhetoric & Composition scholars as well as “Graduate Exchange Network” to connote the listserv as a diverse community of support, knowledge-sharing, and networking. The creation of nextGEN offers a social justice-centered space that values and creates productive, engaged, critical conversations among graduate students and those who actively support graduate students. Its founding responded to how grad students have historically been discounted and talked over (and challenged in unfair ways) on WPA-L, creating a fear and hesitance to post among and on behalf of graduate students, especially those in further vulnerable and marginalized positions.