The theme of last week’s Conference on College Composition and Communication (4 Cs) was “All Our Relations: Contested Space, Contested Knowledge.” Many of the presentations were about the struggles in our profession, the tensions between rhetoric and literature, for example, or the conflicting relationships between teachers and resisting students, for another. Indeed, many of the American Indian studies sessions I attended began with some recognition of the city of Atlanta itself as a site of contested space. The land was once occupied by the Cherokee and Creek peoples until white settlers claimed it as their own, which eventually led to the removal of the Indians by what is now known as the Trail of Tears. Cherokee professor Chris Teuton opened his talk by expressing mixed feelings about being at the conference because of the contested land history. I must admit I shared his mixed feelings about being at the conference, too, but for very different reasons, and upon reflection, I have decided that my work at the conference and in the classroom answers a haunting historical question.
I didn’t want to attend this year’s conference. Certainly, many months ago when my colleagues and friends Lindsay Dunne, Nicole Escuadro, Robyn Russo, and I discussed proposing a panel on student resistance, I felt the same excitement they did. I wrote my section of the proposal with great enthusiasm. Here was an opportunity to reflect on my students and on the theories I have developed to guide my pedagogical approach. Here was an opportunity to contribute to conversations in a forum with others who have helped to shape my teaching. Here was an opportunity for academic growth. The thrill soon waned, however. As the conference drew near I became increasingly busy at work. Potomac Review Issue 49 was a large focus of my semester; the AWP conference was quite an effort; next weekend, I’ll be helping to coordinate another writing conference (happily, a smaller and more intimate affair). Safe Zone training, which will be taught over three weeks, began last week; this afternoon, I will be presenting on “coming out” issues. Also, later today, I’ll be presenting a workshop at MC’s Will Power Festival. My talk will focus on making Shakespeare’s poetry accessible to college students.
My head and heart were fast becoming contested spaces themselves as they were filled with ideas and emotions devoted to my work at Montgomery College but were suddenly forced to make room for composition and rhetoric theory. Frankly, the last thing I needed was to take a trip that took me away from MC and redirected my focus. My students were also working on research papers and needed so much of my time and attention, which was limited and often cut short. Last Wednesday, I had to cancel my office hours in order to catch an afternoon flight, which made me feel like I was neglecting my students in the name of professional development. The irony is that I was attending the 4 Cs to share with my colleagues the work I was doing with my students while I was making myself less available to my students. As one gets busier in this profession, one learns the actual professor-student relationship takes only a portion of one’s time. Students, which were once my major focus, are now often secondary to reading journal submissions, attending governance meetings, planning training sessions, and writing conference presentations. This is only the beginning, I fear. A commitment to a life in academia, I acknowledge, calls for the academic to participate and contribute to the field in many different ways.
All the efforts outside of the classroom should feed back into the classroom, but I cannot help lament the segmentation of my teaching roles and the sense that I am leaving something behind. There is a true feeling of loss here. As I reflect on my few days away from the classroom, away from my students, I find myself focusing on the American Indian sessions I attended and on the repeated references to the Trail of Tears, an emotional name given to the Indian Removal Act of 1830 which relocated the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee-Creek, and Seminole tribes from the Southeast to what is now known as Oklahoma. When I arrived home I began re-reading Removals: Nineteenth-Century American Literature & the Politics of Indian Affairs by my Georgetown professor Lucy Maddox. Professor Maddox’s book is about the public debates that surrounded some of the literature being written in the mid 1800s. Among the debates was whether or not the Indians could be civilized before they became extinct and whether or not they could participate in the political and social life and help to develop the country’s literature. All these debates were going on while the Indians were moved “out of the way of the flood of emigrating whites” (35).
I do not have any blood ties to the Indians of the Southeast — my family are from the Southwest — but their removals are part of all our history. On Sunday evening, as I read Maddox’s opening chapter, I lingered on the question of whether or not Indians could participate in literary production. She means, of course, how Indian histories would affect our national narrative, which would in turn be represented in our literature, but I extended the question to mean how Indians would contribute to America’s body of literature. I thought of the fiction I write, the creative writing courses I teach, and the literature I steward, a particular brand of which would not exist if Indian peoples had been completely and utterly erased. Reflecting on the threat of erasure — a term I prefer over “extinction” as extinction suggests Indian populations were dying off with no explanation — reminds me of the responsibility I have to history. My body and mind do important and valuable work, and my students — white, black, brown, and red — reap the rewards of my labor. To have a sense of loss is a healthy reminder that I’m committed to my profession, and to have contested space tells me that professional priorities are shifting, necessarily. I may not have wanted to go to the conference because I was so busy at Montgomery College, but I recognise now that my being busy is a loud and indisputable answer to a question the American government posed 200 years ago.
Sometimes it takes doing something you don’t want to do to appreciate and respect the necessity of being able to do it.