In April 2014, I had the great pleasure of attending the First Symposium on Teaching Composition and Rhetoric at Historically Black Colleges and Universities. With the theme of “Let Our Voices be Heard,” the symposium was held at NC A&T and sponsored by publisher Bedford/St. Martin’s. Shortly after the symposium, I wrote about it, focusing on a powerful and provocative keynote address by Vershawn Young. (I also gave a keynote but didn’t need to talk about that!) As always happens when I get to visit an HBCU, I learned a ton–especially from the talented and vocal students who attended.
Everyone at that first symposium left hoping for another one, and this year our wishes came true: again sponsored by Bedford/St. Martin’s, chaired by David Green, and held at Howard University and at the United Negro College Fund offices in DC, this Symposium on Teaching Composition and Rhetoric at HBCUs: Remembering Our Pasts, Re-envisioning Our Future certainly lived up to my high expectations. Keith Gilyard closed out the first day with his keynote, “Paying the Price to Make the Mic Sound Nice,” in which he urged all of us to begin with who our students are, not where they are, and to put autobiography and an exploration of the “I” at the center of our teaching and writing. In Gilyard’s view, progressive education is characterized by “rigorous and democratic development of ‘I’” and by exploration of the social/political world our students inhabit.
The other conference keynote was delivered by my fabulous colleague Adam Banks. In “Hold My Mule: Black Twitter, Digital Culture, and a Renewed Version of Students’ Right to Their Own Language (SRTOL),” he offered a holistic view of what it means to “do language work,” demonstrating the influence of GIFs and memes especially in articulating and disseminating black culture. Arguing that if technology and technological issues are a key area of inquiry and if “Black expressive culture is on the rise, the goals in composition classes must change.” A renewed vision of SRTOL, then, would put an emphasis on Black language and rhetorical practices that go “far beyond the linguistic”; would go well beyond print; and see remix as an indisputable part of Black culture. These new foci would help us to completely rethink intellectual property (which, as Larry Lessig has long argued, we absolutely must do) and to create pedagogical and social spaces where young people can “come with the remix” as accepted and valued practice.
These very brief summaries don’t do justice to the rich talks given by Gilyard and Banks: for more from them, you can pre-order their forthcoming book, On African American Rhetoric.
While no open conflict erupted, it was clear that not everyone at the symposium embraced these “newfangled” ideas, and there were those who advocated adherence to standard edited English, citing a 2010 study that found that 58% of those using AAVE have writing problems and 73% have reading problems (see Abha Gupta, “African-American English: Teacher Beliefs, Teacher Needs, and Teacher Preparation Programs”). In spite of a lack of unanimity, I came away reminded, once again, that English has always been a plastic language, shifting and changing shape as it absorbed new features from many other languages and from many dialects. And there’s nothing I’d love more than a “renewed vision of SRTOL!”
Every panel I attended during the conference left me instructed and inspired. From Corrie Claiborne and Jamila Lyn’s description of a program they developed to work with young men at Morehouse around issues of gender and of sexual harassment, to ALEXANDRIA LOCKETT’s exploration of “Gender Politics of Excellence at HBCUs,” to Kendra Bryant’s forceful evocation of “Black Student Writers in the Social Media Age,” to Khirsten Echols’s “Turning the Page, Shifting the View: Considering HBCU Literacies,” and to a very powerful closing roundtable on the “Challenges and Triumphs of HBCUs” (featuring a searing testimonial by Faye Spencer Maor on why her work at HBCUs has been central to who she is and why she is where she is today) as well as Jason DePolo’s haunting reminder that “faculty working conditions [which are sorely lacking at most HBCUs] are student learning conditions.”
I could go on and on about this remarkable gathering, and I am grateful for the opportunity I had to learn from all these remarkable scholars. Best of all, I learned that there will be a THIRD symposium on HBCUs, this one to be held at Morehouse College in the Fall of 2019. You know I’ll be there!
To view the full program from this year's symposium, visit the HBCU Forum.