Crawford, Anne E., Peyton Galloway, and Jane Greer. “Drawing Hope from Difficult History: Public Memory and Rhetorical Education in Kansas City.” College English 82.3 (2020): 255-80. Print.
Anne E. Crawford, Peyton Galloway, and Jane Greer present an upper-level English course, “Rhetorics of Public Memory,” taught at an “urban research university” in Missouri prior to the March 2018 College Composition and Communication convention in Kansas City, Missouri (256). Materials from the course were exhibited at the convention as a series of panels titled Deconstructing the Divide: Rhetorical Activism in Kansas City (264). The exhibit was also displayed at the Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Heritage Center on the authors’ university campus and at other educational venues (256). The resulting article recounting the development of the exhibit has been co-authored by Greer, instructor of the course, and two undergraduates who took part (256). Each author presents her experiences in a dedicated section of the article.
Crawford et al. write that an important exigency for the course and the exhibit was a 2017 NAACP travel advisory citing the need for African Americans to be cautious while in Missouri because of a “series of questionable, race-based incidents occurring statewide recently” (qtd. in Crawford et al. 255). Greer, as the instructor, was moved to ask how a college rhetoric course could address the troubled moment. The resulting course drew on scholarship on public memory and its relationship to “hope” to provide students with opportunities to develop their rhetorical skills while also examining their own situated engagement with their home city (256, 258).
The authors contrast studies of public memory with the study of history by citing Carole Blair’s distinction between history’s “legitimacy based on research norms” and public memory’s “overtly political and emotionally invested” nature (qtd. in Crawford et al. 257). Further review of research in English studies and in college classrooms grounds the authors’ claim that “public memory is a profoundly rhetorical enterprise” and thus a rich topic for rhetorical pedagogy (257).
Drawing on part of Stephen Browne’s definition of public memory as “a shared sense of the past” (qtd. in Crawford et al. (257), the authors note that this shared sense can be “created” for specific purposes (257); they develop a relationship between public memory and “hope” through the work of scholars like Stephen Fishman (drawing on John Dewey) and Paula Mathieu by arguing that despite its attention to the past, public memory serves to remind audiences of their connectedness to others and to engage them in dialogue that often serves as a “provocation” to become involved themselves (258, 261Fr). They cite Fishman’s claim that “for Dewey, hope always arises in the context of anxiety and potential despair” and is inspired by a belief intrinsic to public memory that “things could have been otherwise” and that people have agency to effect change (260). Because of its rhetorical nature, public memory becomes a shared activity that engenders the “fundamentally communal project” of encouraging hope (259).
The course exhibit made use of the relationship between public memory and hope both by reminding viewers of past injustices and also by enhancing public memory of activism that addresses these injustices. The course itself was a reprise in response to the NAACP advisory of one taught over nine years by Greer. As the instructor, she drew on Mathieu’s advice to create a “project orientation” rather than a “problem orientation” because student efforts could not realistically solve the major systemic injustices involved. Rather, the intent of the project reflected the approach advanced in Freeman Tilden’s Interpreting Our Heritage, which Greer identifies as “widely influential” in guiding “public historians, park rangers and tour guides.” Greer writes that Tilden sees the purpose of public memory not as instruction or persuasion but instead as a means of “spur[ring] ongoing engagement between the exhibit’s audience and the material being presented” (263).
The students drew on award-winning exhibits for models. From a 2016/2017 exhibit by university history students came the plan of designing freestanding panels that could be transported to multiple venues. From the curator of interpretation of an exhibit at the National Museum of Toys and Miniatures, with which Greer has partnered, students learned the importance of personal stories to generate immediacy (262). Greer details the multitudinous archives the students searched in order to collect “nearly fifty items/artifacts” relevant to “education, injustice, and activism” in Kansas City’s past (263). She notes that students’ interest expanded from attention to national figures usually associated with activism to “local stories” showing how “resistance,” “resilience,” and “creativity” can be used by lesser-known individuals from their own communities (263).
Students determined that Deconstructing the Divide would create separate sections to address “literacy activism, legal activism, and embodied activism” (264). Smaller groups of students worked on each section. Crawford worked with others on the opening panels (268), while Galloway participated in constructing the closing section (273).
Panels on literacy activism featured a Black women’s book club and a student poet at the only high school offering African Americans educational opportunities in 1918 (264). Legal activism encompassed a challenger to segregated graduate studies at the University of Missouri in the 1930s and a teacher who worked with students in their homes rather than at their unsafe school (264). Embodied activism highlighted students who demonstrated during civil unrest following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and Chicano/a students who organized a walkout to underscore the needs of multicultural and multilingual students (265).
Detailing her participation in the creation of the opening panels, Crawford posits that a “sentimental view” of her home city led her to become “perhaps complacent” as she failed to “appreciate the complexity of the history I had inherited” (267). She recounts the impact of images from the 1968 civil unrest, in which students in familiar locations confronted police in gas masks (267-68). She writes that the opening panels were intended to remind viewers of past injustice while pointing toward the activists included in the other panels (270).
Galloway writes of the revisions required to avoid “creat[ing] a false sense of unity among the preceding panels or to oversimplify” Kansas City’s past (273). The group moved from “imperative statements . . . in the second-person singular (you)” to images of a prominent building that they decided presented “too simplistic a story of progress” (273). The panels as finally completed noted “current social justice organizations” and an example of a communal effort that resulted in historical preservation and neighborhood revitalization (274). Galloway recounts responses via social media and in-person conversations that attested to the exhibit’s effects (274).
Both students report finding personal connections to their city’s past and present as well as renewed hope for the future. Citing the many rhetorical skills involved in creating such a complex exhibit, the authors emphasize the importance of public memory work as an act of forward-looking engagement, the goal of which is
not to present a definitive argument about the past, but to provoke and energize ongoing dialogue about what that future might be. (277)