Must Our Work Always Include Social Justice?

There is beauty in this land . . .

Photo credit: Flickr user sylvar

We need only to recall several recent events and read several think pieces to dredge up the falsities of post-racial America. I won’t get any more specific because the specifics are so obvious and so rooted in our minds that even the most privileged cannot claim ignorance of what has happened in this country (I admit, I’m being incredibly generous to the privileged). I hasten to my question: Given these problems in America and given the history of my field, should all composition and rhetoric scholarship turn to social justice? There is nothing in this country that hasn’t been touched by race, for example. Academics–academics in social science, specifically–play an important role in America: we can bring the public to ask questions and have conversations that they wouldn’t otherwise have or discuss points that they wouldn’t otherwise think of (even though even academia isn’t free from prejudice and discrimination). For a social scientist, I would think the answer would be yes.

A conversation I had with friend the other day prompted this question.  We had just finished reading a monograph on how software and programming language determine who is and isn’t welcome in our personal digital spheres of influence (Twitter, Wikipedia, being examples). The author, my friend noted, had not said anything about equity or access. Social justice is one of the key motivations and frameworks for her research. For my own research interests, I know access and the digital production gap comes to the forefront of my mind. Thus, pointing out the lack of discussion about equity or access in this author’s monograph wasn’t unusual for us. But it’s a concern not everyone in the field is concerned with.

Considering the history of our field and considering that we study symbols and their impact on human relationships and the power structures that regulate those human relationships, we’re not all onboard.

Maybe we save ourselves trouble by not always asking for a social justice arch. The turn to social justice would be reminiscent of the pedagogical turn. Composition and rhetoric’s origin isn’t rooted in a desire to study the writing phenomena in the world but rather teaching students to communicate according to the conventions of the middle class. Any research that does not directly involve the classroom is expected to explain, often in the last chapter of the book or in the last section of the article, how it might apply to teaching.

The pedagogical turn ensures the scholar hasn’t strayed too far from the real concerns of the field: teaching. But the turn can feel forced and disingenuous, I think. And it’s so obvious they were forced to write about it because he or she just hasn’t gone far enough. So it is with a social justice turn.  We’re writing about people and the situations they must grapple with because of (in many cases) macro-level institutions (education, law, culture history, etc.). We don’t have the luxury for very limited, narrow discussions on social justice. It’s probably not the scholar to blame. Maybe the framework and methodology of the research may not allow for an intricate discussion on social justice. Last week I read an article on John A Lomax, a European American who recorded African American prisoners sings songs. A classmate of mine said that Stone described some moments of obvious exploitation and racism, but did not interpret or analyze it. How could your framework not?

Maybe a writer has no formal training in the theory that helps him or her think clearly about race, class, sexual orientation, and so on. They would like to say something more, but really shouldn’t. Otherwise, we get half-baked ideas on the implications or ideas that just doesn’t go far enough, making the reader ask, “Why bother talking about this at all?” I’d rather say there is not a discussion on race than ask why bother.

I think about my own research as I consider this topic. Studying the intersections of labor, African American literacy, and digital literacy immediately lends itself to social justice. History and present circumstances tell me so. My experiences and the experiences of my family and friends tell me so. The efforts to cut generations of African and African American slaves from literacy, the subsequent effort to eliminate African American Vernacular English as a legitimate form of English, the economic disparities, the education debt (NOT, I’ve learned, the “achievement gap”) . . . All of these and more play into my own research, explicitly and implicitly. To be honest, I struggle to bring all of these problems to the forefront. There’s so much. I’m overwhelmed. The subject speaks to social justice automatically. I can say something about equality and access and it would make sense and it would be appropriate. I don’t know what I would do if I had a different topic altogether? What if I were the one writing a book about software and rhetorical theory?

It’s all rhetorical. If there’s room in the framework, you can write thoughtfully about social justice, and you are prepared for counterarguments, then add it to the research agenda. I think some questions would need to be asked in this case. Is social justice my motivation? Is it my framework? Must I stand in my own privileged position and speak for whomever I interview and observe, for whatever event I analyze? Advocate for the marginalized? Who am I to speak? What’s my experience and how different is that from others? Should I let the participants’ stories and perspectives speak for themselves? Does my work lend itself to this discussion?

But I also think that other scholars like my friend really think about this stuff all the time. Write the thing, and leave better minds to draw out the implications from your work. And in the meantime work for social justice or fairness or equality within your sphere of influence. Some scholars may not publish about social justice, but in the committee meeting, at the conference presentation, in the classroom, I would hope they speak up when the time comes.



Published by aabyrd

I'm the instructor for WCATY's Media Studies in a Digital Age course for Summer 2015.

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