Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Find a Place, a Community

A former classmate recently asked me if I belong, actively, to any of our academic communities. The very question reminded me how outside the community of scholars in my academic discipline I am. The word "community" is overused in composition and rhetoric. Beyond overused, I've wondered if it is part of an inside joke.

He clarified, thankfully, by asking which groups of scholars would know my name or my work. I asked why that matters; as long as I'm writing at home with my cats and my wife, I don't need to be known. I wasn't understanding his point.

"To build an academic career, you need to be known."

That makes sense, I suppose. You have to publish papers and appear at conferences to earn tenure. You must be a part of the "community" to reach the top of the field.

I doubt I'm destined for the top of rhetoric or writing studies. I'm on the fringes of the community.

My friend advised me to focus on the communities I would want to be among, the people I admire and enjoy. That is, he wrote, a good way to build the career you want instead of the career people believe you should have.

For the last decade, my scholarship has focused on technology and writing instruction. I'm planning to explore the "rhetoric of interfaces" and "rhetoric of computing" at some point. I'd also like to explore the "rhetoric of economics" and the "rhetoric of theater." There are an infinite number of ways to apply my rhetorical education to the knowledge ("content areas") I enjoy. Writing about "rhetoric of…" should grant me some admission into the community of scholars, but I sense that isn't going to be my path.

Maybe I will write on rhetoric outside academia. I seem to fit better outside my discipline, both by way of my interests and in terms of my personality.

I love so many topics, as I've written many times on this blog, that I don't want to be a specialist. I love being a generalist — always learning a bit more about everything I can.

Currently, I'm trying to give a few hours over to computer programming. It is no humility to state I am a mediocre computer programmer, with rusty skills I am trying desperately to revive. As the least-skilled of coders in the local CocoaHeads chapter, you might imagine I'd feel like an outsider. But, I find programmers generally embrace those willing to learn. They enjoy discussing technology and spreading their passion for coding. I am comfortable among programmers.

I'm far, far less comfortable among my academic colleagues — despite my academic and professional qualifications. It's not bragging to say I have more accomplishments as a writer than programmer, but I always feel like an outsider among my colleagues in English and writing departments. When I work on theater projects, I am as comfortable as when I'm among programmers, so I must conclude this is not techie vs fuzzy. It is a discomfort with some academic disciplines.

Can one find success on the fringes, or do I need to belong to a community to have success? Belonging is more than simply meeting the basic requirements of residency, too. I can live somewhere and never belong to the place. Minneapolis was that way for me — we could live there for 20 years and I'd never "belong" to the city.

I can be "in" rhetoric, but never quite belong. An interesting situation, if it didn't also affect my livelihood.

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