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What I Learned at the FemRhet Conference
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At the 12th Biennial Feminisms and Rhetorics Conference at James Madison University on November 13-16, I attended many inspiring panels and, as I always do, learned so much from scholars in our field. This meeting held special significance for me because it honored the memory and legacy of Nan Johnson—and awarded a number of Nan Johnson Graduate Student Travel Grant Awards. So I very much wanted to be there, along with nearly 500 other participants, and to meet with the Board of the Coalition of Feminist Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition, a group Nan helped to found more than three decades ago.
Reflecting now on the conference, I realize how much important work remains to be done just to understand the enormous contributions women/feminists have made to every field of study and every walk of life. I learned about Virginia Penny, who wrote an encyclopedia (!) of women’s work in 1863, about Fannie Barrier Williams, the first African American to serve on the Chicago Library Board and who, like all other African Americans (except someone impersonating Aunt Jemima and flipping pancakes) was excluded from the World Colombian Exhibition in 1893 even as she continued to give eloquent speeches. I learned about Nell Donnelly Reed, who created a huge and hugely successful garment manufacturing business begun in her own home, who hired women and supported and paid them well—but who resisted unionization. These complex stories need to be told, and need to be analyzed and studied. There is so much more work to be done, by us and by our students, to document and understand and celebrate the work of women.
Several sessions at the conference brought disability studies into sharp focus. One especially memorable panel featuring Professors Jennifer Nelson and Tonya Stremlau focused on ARTavism, Deaf art and poetry, and more. Nelson described the work of De’VIA (Deaf View/Image Art) and the Surdists, groups that promote artavism “by any medium necessary.” Surd, which is French for “deaf,” puts emphasis on the viewer rather than the hearer, who is so often privileged in our culture (the key rhetorical element of “audience” after all is based in sound). You can read the Surdist Manifesto, which calls for full recognition and celebration of Deaf creation, here.
Nelson referenced the 17th century work of John Bulwer, whose Chirologia and Chironomia presented a study of hand communication and gestures (pictured above)—a manual rhetoric. Bulwer’s books have long been studied in courses on rhetorical history as examples of visual communication. Nelson pointed out Bulwer’s personal connection to these works, noting that Bulwer adopted a daughter who was deaf and wrote extensively on educating people who were deaf. Arguing that rhetoric is not necessarily about the spoken voice, Bulwer insisted on the “miracle of human eloquence” through signs and signing. Noting that there is currently no print version of ASL, Nelson explained that bits of such a version are beginning to appear, as in the work of Adrian Clark, who uses a written ASL signature. “How can we make English more visual,” this panel asked, and wouldn’t doing so benefit all?
These panelists got me thinking hard about these questions and also about how a constant privileging of sound is deeply disadvantageous—indeed dangerous—for people who are deaf. Stremlau read from her first published short story that shows, in graphic detail, how a wife who is deaf is ignored, even dismissed, by her husband if she won’t “talk.” She went on to describe the danger faced by deaf people who are harmed or even killed by police who are giving them orders they cannot hear.
They also convinced me I need to work much harder at bringing artivism and Deaf culture into my teaching. And to try to make prose more visual (perhaps through the use of drawn signs, emojis, or other symbols?). These efforts, too, would benefit all.
Image Credit: Chirologia, 1644, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
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