When I applied for graduate studies at Penn State, I anticipated focusing on composition studies, continuing the work I had started with my undergraduate thesis project on first-year writing. I had never studied rhetoric. After I enrolled, when friends asked what a concentration in “Rhetoric and Composition” would entail, I struggled to explain rhetoric as a scholarly discipline. Now, after completing the MA years, I have come to understand and appreciate what it means to study rhetoric. To me, it means investigating how people contribute to public discourse—how they perceive their purpose, how they formulate a message, and how they connect with others. If my definition appears quite broad, that is because I value this field’s openness to a huge variety of material. While I still cherish composition studies, I now take greater interest in studying the rhetoric produced by historically silenced groups—women, migrants, and minority religionists—and I plan to continue charting the breadth and depth of this field as I work toward my PhD.
Every semester represents an opportunity to push my understanding of the discipline further, but my first semester was especially pivotal. In Fall 2015, I undertook two research projects that have proven generative. First, in Dr. Xiaoye You and Dr. Suresh Canagarajah’s “Global Rhet/Comp, Inc.,” I embarked on my study of immigration rhetoric. Their seminar encouraged me to think about how rhetoric and composition—which we in the US might view as a predominantly American discipline—is taught and studied in other countries around the world. Taking this global perspective led me to wonder, how does migration affect writing practices? For my project, I studied the rhetorical strategies employed in the online forums of a website for would-be documented immigrants to the US. My project indicated the power of digital and English literacies in enabling mobility, despite the government’s putatively total control over the process. Migrants often need to be resourceful rhetors (just ask my husband, who immigrated in 2015). I presented this paper several months ago at the national Computers and Writing Conference, which I was able to attend thanks to a travel grant from the English Department. In addition, following “Global Rhet/Comp, Inc.,” I pursued my interest in immigration rhetoric in Dr. Susan Squier’s “Graphic Medicine” seminar, researching how graphic narratives about migration represent health. The resulting paper, “Intersections of Migration and Medicine in Graphic Narrative: Moving toward Healthier Selfhood in Parsua Bashi’s Nylon Road,” demonstrates both my investment in studying migration and my consciousness of visual rhetoric.
My other first semester project came out of Dr. Cheryl Glenn’s seminar, “Landmarks in Rhetoric and Feminism,” a course that introduced me to the possibilities of rhetoric as a collaborative rather than competitive enterprise. Nevertheless, I observed an understandable but pervasive discomfort with organized religion in the feminist scholarship we read, which led me to consider the religious exigence that sparked the oratorical careers of US women who became Bahá’í itinerant missionaries—or “travel teachers”—in the first half of the twentieth century. Those women who traveled globally caught my attention, since a desire to understand how people practice cosmopolitanism in the era of nationalism animates most of my work. In fact, my seminar paper for Dr. Glenn indirectly fed into a project in Dr. Sandra Spanier’s “American Expatriate Modernists” seminar, in which I studied plays by another early Bahá’í convert, Laura Barney. I submitted the resulting article, “An American Expatriate’s Inspirations from East of Paris: Laura Barney’s Dramatized Persia,” to a journal. I continued working on the travel teacher project in Dr. Nicholas Joukovsky’s workshop, narrowing my scope to one rhetor, Martha L. Root, who traveled the globe nearly nonstop for twenty years, speaking and writing about the requirements for world peace. Root’s talks seemed to evince her own feminist mode of rhetoric, but I needed access to her unpublished scripts to confirm this theory. Thanks to a Center for American Literary Studies grant, I traveled to the US National Bahá’í Archives in July 2016. I now have a trove of Root’s scripts, which I analyzed in Spring 2017 in an independent study advised by Dr. Canagarajah. I submitted the resulting paper as my MA thesis, because this project comprises a thread weaving through the entirety of my MA studies.
For me, success in the PhD program in Rhetoric and Public Culture would entail steady enhancement of my capacity for understanding others’ research in the field of rhetoric and for making meaningful contributions to it. My idea of “meaningful” involves intervening in what I see as the critical issue facing our species: coexistence and collaboration beyond national borders, which requires the active participation of marginalized groups, including women and migrants. I expect my dissertation project to take shape around immigrant rhetoric, perhaps examining the deliberations unfolding in the Global North around the question of accepting Muslim migrants and refugees.