Jul 13, 2016
Bootstraps, Victor Villanueva
What does a rhetorician look like? When you imagine a rhetorician, maybe you see some white-toga-ed Roman, crossing his legs under his seat, holding a stylus to his chin. Or maybe you imagine a tweedy early twentieth century rhetorician, shaking out a newspaper and frowning. Or maybe you even imagine a contemporary rhetorician, presenting at the Rhetoric Society of America in front of a powerpoint presentation. But here’s a question for you--did you imagine a white rhetorician?
Today on Mere Rhetoric, we talk about Victor Villanueva’s book Bootstraps: from an American Academic of Color, which interrogates our discipline’s white privilege and privileging. But before we get to that, let me start out by thanking some people. First off, much thanks to the Humanities Media Project at the University of Texas at Austin for supporting the show, including letting me record in this great recording booth with great people like Jacob here to record and edit. Also, thank you to everyone who took the time to leave a review of Mere Rhetoric on iTunes. Also thanks to my fiance Krystian for always believing in me. Know how you feel when you get written comments on end of semester evaluations? That’s how I feel everytime someone leaves a review. Finally, since I just came back from a conference where I got to meet some great people who like the podcast, I’d like to give a big shout out to Clancy Ratliff for showing me a great restaurant in Lafayette and her student Nolan, who let me jabber about the connections between creative writing and composition while he showed me where my next session was. If you have strong opinions about the best place to eat in your hometown, or if you have a suggestion for the next episode, why not drop us a line at email@example.com? Okay, enough business--let’s get to it.
I first became aware of the racial imbalance in rhetoric at my first RSA conference. Sharon Crowley was giving one of the key addresses, talking about racism in our students, in our institutions, and at one point I looked around at the audience--and wondered about racism in our own field as well. There were a few black and brown faces, but almost everyone in the great hall was white. We couldn’t, I realized, talk about racism in our classrooms and our colleges without interrogating our own racial assumptions.
That’s exactly what Victor Villanueva sets out to do in Bootstraps. Villanueva is a hot shot rhetorician, by almost any standard possible. He’s received the David H Russell Award for Distinquished Research, the Exemplar Award and Scholarship in English and was Rhetorician of the Year in 1999. Side bar: I did not know there was an award for being Rhetorician of the Year. Somehow, I imagine a People Magazine spread like for Sexiest Man Alive, but with pictures of academics mid-gesture in a lecture or thoughtfully frowning at a computer. Villanueva has also published and edited over 80 books including the essential anthology Cross Talk in Composition and Rhetorics of the Americas: 3114 BCE to 2013 CE. Guy knows his stuff. When you are literally rhetorician of the year, you must be the quintessential rhetorician, confident and poised in your rhetoricianness.
You’d think so.
In Bootstraps, Puerto-Rico-born Villanueva weaves autobiography, scholarship and teacher research together into an exploration of how the academic world can seem uncomfortable and unwelcoming to academics of color. He himself, for his PhD and his 80 books, when he writes about himself in the third person “He still suffers [the fear that he isn’t as smart as he thinks] today, thirty years later, PhD, publications and all… He has seen the liberal’s fear of being honest with people of color about their abilities; the fear of being considered a bigot .. He has seen that tokenism, even when well-motivated, even though somehow necessary, makes things seem equitable when they aren’t equitable at all… he always wonders if, maybe, he isn’t as smart as people think” (13).
Little commentary here: this feeling, like you don’t belong, is called impostor syndrome and it’s pernicious among graduate students, more especially people who already feel like they don’t belong, as Villaneauva says about his own PhD “I didn’t know what I was getting into, but knew I was getting into something not intended for the likes of me” (xv). I remember when I got accepted at the University of Texas at Austin, I had nightmares that I hadn’t been, in fact, accepted, but had been allowed to complete on a reality to show to gain entrance into UT Austin. “Who Wants to Be a Longhorn?” Other graduate students, professional athletes and actors, and anyone who feels like they got into something for which they secretly might not be qualified suffers from this feeling. We’ll talk about more impostor syndrome in another podcast, but for our purposes here, the key thing to remember is that academics of color, even when they are invited into programs and departments warmly can still doubt the sincerity of the welcome. They can doubt themselves, when the culture has been insisting for their whole lives that academia is “not intended for the likes” of them.
Villanueva’s education in the 60s certainly didn’t forsee a brilliant rhetoric academic career for little Victor. His first school that assumed that “you people need to learn a trade,” in the words of one of his teachers (3) and at the next one the PE teacher shouted “Go home and get a haircut! And don’t come back until you do!” So, he didn’t (38). Yeah, that’s right--Villanueva, probably one of the most important rhetorical authors of the later 20th century didn’t graduate high school, but the high schools he would have graduated perpetually underestimated him. Only through detours in the military did he finally come to Tacoma Community college: “I wanted to try my hand at college, go beyond the GED. But college scared me. I had been told long again that college wasn’t my lot” (66).
So I started this podcast talking about Sharon Crowley’s speech at RSA, and she shows up at a crucial point in Villaneuva’s life because it was Crowley, “the first person he had ever read who had written of the sophists--a bigshot” (118) who offered him a job. It’s not a happy ending though--material conditions are hard for any young academic and more especially those who don’t have large family resources.
One of the reasons why he had been underestimated is that he was a minority in the nation. That’s a word that’s hard to pin down or used too casually, but Villanueva makes a distinction between the immigrant and the minority: “We behave as if the minority problem where the immigrant problem,” (19) and all we need is to make the minority sound or act like the majority. “The difference between the immigrant and the minority amounts to the difference between immigration and colonization” (29). He tells the story of two of his students arguing about English’s role in the composition classroom. “Both are Latinos, Spanish speakers, but Martha is Colombian; Paul is Puerto Rican. Martha, the immigrant. Paul, the minority. Martha believes in the possibilities for complete structural assimilation; Paul is more cautious” (24). “The immigrant seeks to take on the culture of the majority,” he suggests, “and the majority, given certain preconditions, not leaves of which is displaying the language and dialect of the majority, accepts the immigrant. The minority, even when accepting the culture of the majority,is never wholly accepted. There is always a distance” (23).
“The code switcher is a rhetorical power player,” he quips, pointing to how bilinguals recognize intuitively the fluid nature of language, the rhetorical nuances that comes from understanding the inexact nature of self-translation (23).Villanueva points out that we often assume that cultural shifting happens naturally, without any work, when, in fact, it’s very hard to try to keep both of your identities as an other-American. Villanueva tells of his own personal experience with assimilation when he was drilled into strict prescriptivist English as a young boy in Puerto Rico. He was criticised for speaking with an accent, but “there was no verbal deprivation at play, just a process that takes time, ‘interlanguage’ to use a sociological term” (32). Eventually he read and listened and spoke more in English until “the accent disappeared, and Spanish no longer came easily, sometimes going through French or through Latin in my head, the languages of my profession, searching for the Spanish with which to speak to my family. Assimilation” (33).
But it’s very difficult to try to be perfect at Spanish and perfect and English. “Biculturalism,” he writes, does not mean to me an equal ease with two cultures. That is an ideal. Rather, biculturalism means the tensions within, which are cause by being unable to deny the old, ot the new ...I resent the tension, that the ideal is not to be realized, that we cannot be the mosaic … nor can we be the melting pot if that were the preference” (39). Those old metaphors, the mosaic and the melting pot, don’t do enough to describe all of the cultures in the country and the complex ways those cultures relate.
The first step, it is implied, is just to make the implicit explicit and recognize that culture is necessarily complex and changing. “It is not enough to recognize and make explicit our cultures. We need to recognize cultures in the context of other cultures, since none of us can be monocultural in America. Mexican americans may have a culture in common with many Mexicans, say, but Mexican Americans also have a culture in common with fellow Americans” (57). It’s like the classic 1997 film Selena where Selena’s dad points out the frustration of trying to navigate two culture and two languages, “We have to be more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans, both at the same time! It’s exhausting!”
Selena’s dad is right. It’s additionally important not to essentialize. “Puerto Ricans may be ‘Hispanics.’ Yet our history in general and our history as it pertains to the United States is very different from the histories of both the Mexican American and the Mexican” (57). These differences are sometimes bluntly painted over, through terms like Hispanic or even “minority.” Villanueva tells ruefully of being asked to review an article on Mexican rhetoric, even though he isn’t Mexican, but even if had been Puerto Rican rhetoric, he’s a classicist, working on the sophists. He knows about Isocrates best, so why would he be pigeonholed in this way?
If it’s not obvious by now, Villanueva is also heavily influenced by Marxist thought. He suggests that the ultimate goal of the field of Rhetoric and Composition is to develop the “organic intellectual,” a theory from Antonio Gramsci about the combination of personal experience and academic learning--much like the book Bootstraps itself. Don’t ever say Villanueva doesn’t practice what he preaches. The organic intellectual doesn’t stay in the ivory tower, but “is involved ‘in active participation in practical life’ … an intellectual liaison between the groups seeking revolutionary change and the rest of civil society” (129).
This perspective should influence everything we do in our weird academic culture--the way we teach our classrooms and the things we research and publish, the way we structure our departments and graduate programs and admissions and graduation requirements.
Villanueva ends the book with a call that I find pretty darn stirring. I’ll give him the last word: “As our status as workers becomes more apparent and as we come more in contact with more of those who are intellectuals from non-traditional backgrounds, we find ourselves in a potentially decisive moment. The moment is right for America’s intellectuals in traditional academic roles to help organize intellectuals recognize themselves as such and to begin to fuse with them--creating Gransmi’s new intellectuals” (138)