Academic journal article College English

(Re)Writing Local Racial, Ethnic, and Cultural Histories: Negotiating Shared Meaning in Public Rhetoric Partnerships

Academic journal article College English

(Re)Writing Local Racial, Ethnic, and Cultural Histories: Negotiating Shared Meaning in Public Rhetoric Partnerships

Article excerpt

The student and an 83-year-old Holocaust survivor meet many times over the course of a month; he signs a consent form and talks; she listens, takes notes, and writes a narrative of his experiences. A week later, he withdraws it from A History of the Jewish Community in Reading and Berks County, telling the student he never gave her permission to write it.

An African American student acknowledges that she "felt like the token black kid in the group " and consequently stopped putting her energy into researching and writing for Woven with Words: A Collection of African American History in Berks County, Pennsylvania.

A white student is interviewing a local African American senior citizen for The Future's Past: Life Histories of 17 African American Residents of Berks County, PA. The interviewee tells the student that a local politician has acted in a racist manner; the politician is the student's father.

hese three scenes from an ongoing, multiyear public rhetoric partnership illustrate that students, faculty, and community partners are immersed in pragmatic, ethical, and theoretical questions of discourse, race, power, and history as we uncover, recover, and preserve underrepresented stories of racial, ethnic, and cultural history in Reading and Berks County, Pennsylvania. I view this accumulated (and still accumulating) body of knowledge, hereafter referred to as (Re) Writing Local Racial, Ethnic, and Cultural Histories, as "public rhetorical work [that] can result in substantive, even transformational change" (Welch 701). Yet, as the examples that begin this essay demonstrate, central to this work is Eileen's Gunn's assertion that "[i]n the study of history, control of the narrative confers power" (1). From this vantage point, students, faculty, and community partners must negotiate meaning collaboratively, crossing and re-crossing the shared and sometimes contested spaces of communities, texts, and circulating historical and cultural discourses.

In this article, I argue that (Re)Writing Local Racial, Ethnic, and Cultural Histories projects are one substantive response to the ongoing, growing demand that English studies teacher-scholars and students participate in purposeful, impactful public work. These projects position students as rhetorical citizen historians, a term I use to signal the convergence of Kathleen Blake Yancey's notion of "citizen writers" (1), Cecelia O'Leary's notion of "citizen historians" (Coventry et al. 1397), and Kathleen Turner's notion of "rhetorical historians" ("Rhetorical History" 8); rhetorical citizen historians produce both original historical and rhetorical knowledge, and promote democracy through conscious, deliberate rhetorical historical work. But these partnerships also raise complex issues of unequal, fluid, and shifting discourses among community partners, students, and faculty, and, consequently, inform ways to enact publicly shared meaning in community literacy partnerships.

Undergraduate Students as Rhetorical Citizen Historians: (Re)"Legitimating" the Discipline of English

The (Re)Writing Local Racial, Ethnic, and Cultural Histories projects have included more than 250 undergraduate students in thirteen participating courses over six years, including first-year composition and honors composition, sophomore-level honors writing, and upper-division rhetoric and writing classes for the professional writing major. In each case, students' work has been publicly disseminated through books printed with funds from various local and internal grants as well as through websites and videos. In total, approximately 6,000 books and booklets on local African American, Hispanic/Latino, and Jewish history have been printed and publicly shared. As they work collaboratively with community partners, students become rhetorical citizen historians, a triad encapsulating a rhetorical attitude as well as the implementation of ethical, civically invested citizens and rhetors. …

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