Let me start with a confession. I did not agree with the calls to relocate the Conference on College Composition and Communication (4C’s) to a city other than Kansas City or to boycott the conference. I listened to the concerns and heard that prospective attendees of color did not feel safe. I asked colleagues for evidence of danger but did not receive any replies. I searched the Internet for any statistics showing an uptick in police harassment or violence in or around Kansas City. I looked for signs of a surge in hate crimes or police selectively enforcing laws. I came up empty. I reviewed the controversial law that had been cited, SB43, and while I objected to it, the law did not concern the primary issue of safety. As a matter of ethics, I believe NCTE should agree to not hold conferences in the state of Missouri in the future as a protest against the law, as the organization has done elsewhere because of objectionable legislation, but the financial commitments to Kansas City had already been made for 2018. Pulling out at a late date would have had little impact because 4C’s would have had to pay the money anyway. I could find no connection between the law and the safety of conventioneers staying downtown for 3-4 days. Next, I read the NAACP’s travel advisory, which did cause me to pause, wondering what made Missouri more dangerous for people of color than other states, but then I was presented with the NAACP’s recommendation against any boycott. In the face of the apparent and perplexing turnaround by the NAACP, I again went to our colleagues and asked for the basis of their fears. I was told, pretty bluntly, they didn’t need evidence, that their feelings were very real and that was all that mattered.
So I was in a position of having to believe a problem existed in Kansas City without so much as the type of evidence I would expect from a student paper, much less in my own life. I wanted to be supportive. I know how subtle racism can be, how it can work its way into public debate invisibly. I also know how whiteness can blind a person to the struggles people of color endure. But I also knew the Chair of 4C’s was a person of color, one put in an incredibly difficult position and one who would be blamed for any financial losses 4C’s endured by switching cities or for a poorly attended conference. I was not sure what good having a stain on his leadership would do anyone. Ultimately, then, I felt that a decision of this magnitude had to be based in strong evidence. Fear has historically sent humanity down horrible paths. Calling attention to racism is a worthy cause, but the apparatus in this instance—validating unsupported fears—could be twisted by other not so worthy causes in the future and become what it so often had in the past—an instrument of oppression. That danger has been verified countless times. So I was not in solidarity. I was glad when the announcement came that the 4C’s would stay put in Kansas City.
Yet, the underlying issues stayed with me. I wanted the field to develop an edge again, something that had been missing for a while. When Rhetoricians for Peace was formed in response to the invasion of Iraq, Chuck Bazerman raised the question at its first meeting, “Where are the rhetoricians?” He was pointing out that so much of the obfuscation, disinformation, and lack of critical discourse in the George W. Bush propaganda machine could be resisted by active scholars in our field, using their expertise in and out of the classroom. We could complain all we wanted to each other, but
what were we actually doing? If we responded to Bazerman’s words initially, questioning not just the war but all forms of social injustice and raising awareness through our teaching and public stances, I think our voices softened as a field after Bush’s presidency ended, perhaps subconsciously, so as not to undermine Barack Obama, who many viewed as a savior. We let hostile, conservative, anti-intellectual forces control the news cycle and the spin. Thus, fifteen years after that first meeting, in the midst of an alt-right revolution that has promoted racism, sexism, and violence, Bazerman’s question resonates. How are we using our skills to counter the destructive forces that threaten to undermine democracy and freedom? Perhaps the cries for racial justice from those wanting to boycott Kansas City were just the kick we needed to wake up the field.
Some of my colleagues posted on Facebook and elsewhere that this convention would be done differently, and I hoped they were right. Indeed, Asao Inoue prepared us for this change by having social justice materials distributed, written by leaders in the Standing and Special Interest Groups, and devoting the entirety of a prime meeting time to an all-attendee’s event, focused on social justice. However, the spirit in the sessions struck me more than anything. People were angry. As a field, I think we had reached our point of tolerance at the dismissal of knowledge and sensibilities derived from research, logic, and ethics. We had had enough of seeing unarmed African Americans killed by police, of receiving only “thoughts and prayers” in the face of the latest mass shooting, of gritting our teeth at another overturned environmental regulation, of knowing that the richest 1% of the population would be the recipients of massive tax cuts while the poor and the working class would continue to suffer. I have become used to criticism of my work that I politicize the teaching of writing. This time, I heard nothing of the sort, directed at me or others, in all the sessions I participated in or simply attended. I could feel an energy among the conventioneers, beginning with the half-day workshop I helped chair about ways to facilitate intellectual inquiry in a post-truth world. In all the years I’ve been coming to 4C’s, I’d never seen so many compositionists feel the responsibility to fight back against oppression and propaganda through their teaching and scholarship. Ideas to reach out to non-academics seemed more serious and prominent than previous attempts. Wherever I went, the same buzz filled the air. Judging by the emails and requests for materials I have continued to receive several weeks after the fact, the enthusiasm has not dimmed.
Prior to this conference, I had questioned the wisdom of conventions. What can we do meeting face-to-face that we cannot do online? I had pondered making 2018 my last 4C’s. Yet, it was the convention itself that changed my mind. Conventions can be powerful. More than in online discussions, we feel the emotions of our colleagues. We bond over our struggles. We emerge recharged to face the challenges ahead of us. When handled properly, conventions can becomes sites of social justice. Even when we disagree over an issue or a course of action, the tensions and dialogue can serve purposes beyond the immediate goal. In this case, I hope the pre-convention controversy and the convention result in more critical teaching, both in our classrooms and elsewhere.