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Dubisar, Abby M. Mother-Based “Buffer” Rhetorics. CE, Jan. 2018. Posted 02/11/2018.

Dubisar, Abby M. “Mothers Against Gun Violence and the Activist Buffer.” College English 80.3 (2018): 195-217. Print.

Abby M. Dubisar responds to a call to recognize, value, and study “knowledge production by women” (195). She finds that rhetorical studies has not paid adequate attention to such knowledge production, especially that by African American women (195, 211, 213). In order to show how attention to rhetorical work by African American women can illuminate important strategies to serve the needs of communities and causes, Dubisar provides a case study of the group Mothers Against Gun Violence (MAGV) in Syracuse, New York (195-96).

Dubisar’s focus is “mother-based buffer rhetorics” (212). She defines “buffer rhetorics” as “embodied position[s]” that can appeal to wide audiences; as “a networked tactic” that both allows interaction with audiences and serves as a “unifying” force within communities responding to grief; and as “a stance that ranges from presence to direct action, able to be mediated online as well as in person” (196). She finds these rhetorics at work in a number of contexts, “as activists strategize ways to put themselves between public audiences and perpetrators and their victims and mourners” (196).

Dubisar presents the work of mothers of slain gun-violence victims to demonstrate how buffer rhetorics enable activists to lay claim to effective rhetorical identities and keep issues publically visible (211). Dubisar’s project grew from the 2008 Ray Smith Symposium: Feminist Rhetorics for Social Justice, in Syracuse; she took notes on MAGV speakers and went on to investigate media coverage of MAGV (196-97).

The author connects her study of MAGV with other rhetorical scholarship that examines the use of “maternal activism” (197) to further struggles for social justice. “Public mothering” has been studied for its ability to foster identification across racial and contextual boundaries (199). In Tamika Carey’s words, mothering rhetorics are “rhetorics of healing” (qtd. in Dubisar 198) that can appear in public spaces and in social and public media as well as in fiction and nonfiction (198).

Founded in 2005 by Helen Hudson after her stepson’s death by gun violence, MAGV illustrates how, as a buffer rhetoric, the rhetoric of public mothering functions to intervene with the younger audiences most likely to be affected by gun violence at the same time that it empowers activists as “liaisons” between grieving families, affected communities, and institutions like police and hospitals (200). Public mothering assures young audiences that they are cared for and valued (197), while “[i]dentifications in mothering and expressions of love for children, even grown children” draw in “disengaged white audiences” who may tend to blame family dynamics for violence and crime (201). In Dubisar’s view, risks that the use of motherhood as a persuasive strategy will “essentializ[e] mothers as a monolithic group” (198) can be overcome by careful use of the trope.

Noting Jacqueline Jones Royster and Gesa E. Kirsch’s understanding of rhetoric as “embodied social experience” (qtd. in Dubisar 200), Dubisar explores the embodiment inherent in MAGV’s activism. She illustrates this embodiment with the example of vigils that reclaim spaces where violence has occurred, pictures of people holding hands as “physical touches of care,” and an image of Hudson hugging another grieving mother, an action that “protect[s] people from the camera’s gaze and exposure to others” (202).

Dubisar sees such “invitation[s] to grieve” as encouraging more embodied action as community members, especially young people, are moved to speak up when they see signs of imminent violence (202). Members of MAGV also interject their physical presences into events and make themselves visible through speeches and videos. Dubisar provides the example of Lepa Jones, president of MAGV, who was featured in a 2015 news story and video in Syracuse and again in a video interview in 2016 (203). Dubisar argues that Jones is able to translate her presence into an appeal for solidarity, casting community members as “family” who have shared embodied experiences (203-04) and standing in for young people who may be cast as the cause of violence by white audiences (205). These efforts, Dubisar writes, allow MAGV participants to “make a mourning stance an activist role” (204), one that can remain visible beyond specific moments and events (211).

Dubisar further discusses how MAGV action creates networks, both to share comfort and to reach young people “who need support and to hear the message that they are loved and appreciated” (206). This networking extends to public office and to participation in other service organizations such as the Trauma Response Team, which calls on MAGV to step in between the many actors involved in a violent event, like families, hospital personnel, police and sources of financial support (206).

Involvement in these networks as mother-based rhetors generates authority and expertise as well intervention that contrasts with that of officials and social workers (207). Noting that such action cannot completely combat the extant “systemic racism and pro-gun legislation,” Dubisar contends that the group’s rhetorics of care provide “essential” connections among diverse groups who are working to limit gun violence (207).

The work of MAGV, Dubisar states, is also “mediated” in that it expands through media and mediates in that it actively enters spaces where young people are likely to congregate to assure them that they are loved (208). She illustrates the media influence that derives from the group’s mother-based rhetoric with a public-service video narrated by Hudson and other members. This 38-second video, “Dead is Forever,” which was shown widely in the area in venues where young people would see it, spoke directly to youths, urging them to see themselves as the children of mothers who would suffer if they were killed. The public-service announcement, which claimed space between “a police-produced antiviolence PSA and a news report about gun violence,” urges young people “to identify with their moms in a new way” by imagining themselves as capable of “pleas[ing] their mothers and mak[ing] them proud” (210).

Dubisar cites the embodied, networked, and mediated work of maternal spokeswomen like the mothers of Emmett Till, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and Michael Brown to illustrate specific examples of the “range of strategies African American women invent and adapt, both when asked to respond to violence and to sustain attention to an issue” (213). These strategies, in Dubisar’s view, deserve increased attention from rhetorical studies as forms of knowledge production by women.


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Arnold, Lisa. International Response to Rhet/Comp Theory. CS, Spring 2016. Posted 06/14/2016.

Arnold, Lisa R. “‘This is a Field that’s Open, not Closed’: Multilingual and International Writing Faculty Respond to Composition Theory.” Composition Studies 44.1 (2016): 72-88. Web. o2 June 2016.

Lisa R. Arnold discusses the responses of teachers at the American University of Beirut (AUB) to canonical texts of rhetoric and composition theory, in particular “Language Difference in Writing: A Translingual Approach,” by Bruce Horner, Min-Zhan Lu, Jacqueline Jones Royster, and John Trimbur. Arnold notes that in Lebanon, where translingualism is an “everyday reality” (80), the question of how to accommodate and value multiple language practices can resonate very differently than it does in the presumably monolingual North-American context in which the theory was proposed.

As the first director of the AUB writing program, Arnold hoped to provide faculty with professional development opportunities (75), at the same time responding to questions from scholars like Mary N. Muchiri and her colleagues and Christiane Donahue that ask composition professionals in North America to recognize “the diverse pedagogical traditions, methods of research, and values attached to literacy in non-U.S. contexts” (72).

As an “American-style university that is a leader in the Middle-East North-Africa (MENA) region,” AUB presents an opportunity for the study of such issues because it is “unique” among institutions outside of North America in having four “full-time, professorial-rank” lines for rhetoric and composition PhDs; the university also plans to implement an M.A. in rhetoric and composition (74).

In order to further faculty engagement with composition theory, the university offered a ten-session seminar during the 2013-2014 academic year. These seminars, attended by seventeen AUB faculty with varied levels of experience teaching in the program, explored a range of topics addressing writing theory and instruction (75). The final sessions each semester addressed teaching writing in the particular context of Lebanon/AUB.

Arnold attended all seminar sessions as a participant-observer and subsequently conducted interviews with fifteen participants, asking them to focus on what seemed “most relevant” to teaching and to the specific environment of AUB (77). Five faculty who had audited a previous graduate course on writing theory and pedagogy facilitated the sessions. Participants also completed an anonymous survey (76).

General responses indicated that faculty found rhetoric and composition theory to be “open,” “tolerant,” and “concrete,” engaged with students as individual writers (77-78). The issue of translingualism was among the discussions that inspired a range of responses (78), especially in regard to the question of how rhetoric and composition theory applied to teaching in Lebanon (78).

The Horner et al. article, which attendees read during the final fall-semester session, addressed the monolingual audience that presumably characterizes North American contexts. To this audience, according to Arnold, Horner et al. argue that rather than being treated as “an obstacle to be overcome,” difference in language should be viewed through a lens that “takes advantage of and appreciates students’ different strengths in English as well as in other languages and . . . reflects the heterogeneity of communicative practices worldwide” (79).

AUB faculty expressed interest in the theory but also voiced concerns about what it might mean in their context when implemented in the classroom. Many seminar attendees brought backgrounds in EFL or ESL to the sessions; Arnold reports general agreement that a “more flexible approach toward language difference” would be worth considering (79).

Concern, however, seemed to center around the degree to which a more tolerant attitude toward error might impact the need for students to learn formal English in order to succeed in the non-U.S. context (80). Arnold writes that in Lebanon, as in the African contexts discussed by Muchiri et al., universities like AUB are “highly selective” and “English carries a different value for its users” (80). She notes the concerns of “Rania,” who posits that British universities expect less expertise in English from students from “developing nations” who will presumably return home after graduation than from native speakers. Rania fears that allowing students flexibility in their use of English will become a process of withholding “correct English” in order to impose “a new form of colonialism” (81). However, according to Arnold, Rania subsequently appreciated the opportunities for learning offered by a translingual approach (81).

The response of “Rasha” similarly indicates ambivalence toward translingualism. Students either liked the opportunity to use Arabic or, in her words, “just hated it” (qtd. in Arnold 82), but she found that discussions of whether or not such multilingual practice was appropriate increased student engagement with issues of language use itself (82). Other examples demonstrate that students do translingual work regardless of the teacher’s goals, for example, using Arabic for group work (82). A number of the teachers drew on their own experiences as learners of multiple languages to encourage students to embrace the challenges involved in a multilingual context. Arnold reports that these teachers felt empowered by translingual theory to draw on language difference as a resource (84-85).

Teachers like “Malik,” however, highlighted the importance of providing students with the kinds of English skills that would serve them in their culture (83), while “Jenna” expressed concerns that the increased tolerance urged by Horner et al. would lead students to become “too confident” that audiences would understand translingually inflected communication: “[Students] get this false perception of abilities and skills which are not there” (qtd. in Arnold 85).

For Arnold, her experience working with writing instructors charged with teaching English outside of an English-speaking environment gives presence to the theoretical precepts of translingualism. She notes that graduates of rhetoric and composition programs may often find themselves taking jobs or providing resources to colleagues outside of the North-American context, and she urges these graduates to attend to the degree to which their multilingual colleagues are often already unacknowledged “experts in their own right” with regard to working with language difference (87):

[T]here is a complexity to literacy practices and pedagogies that practitioners outside of North America understand deeply, and from which those of us trained in a presumably monolingual context can learn. (87)