2021 Editor’s Introduction

To slow the spread of COVID-19, UMass Boston opted to operate remotely for the entire 2020-2021 academic year. As instructors quickly adapted to teaching online and via Zoom, students attended class meetings from their bedrooms, kitchens, and living rooms. Residing across time zones, some students attended Zoom classes during night hours, while other members of their household slept. Remote learning life brought moments of delight, as we introduced each other to our pets and the quirks of our home spaces, as well as frequent moments of frustration (“You’re on mute!”). For some, operating remotely came to mean putting in the effort to learn despite the increasing weight of isolation, as the months of social distancing stretched from fall to spring. For others, remote learning has meant trying to find time and energy for academic life while coping as an essential worker and/or as the parent of a child learning from home. While the Undercurrents editorial team has been impressed by the large number of high-quality submissions we receive each and every year, which makes the selection process an enormous challenge, we are especially proud of this year’s nine honorees. At the same time, we also celebrate the thousands of students and more than sixty faculty members in our program who, despite the disruptions and setbacks in their own lives, still found ways to connect, write, and reflect.

While the acquisition of new rhetorical knowledge and practice is a central goal of the program, such learning has implications for identity, as new discourses bring new ways of writing and speaking, and therefore new ways of belonging. Hadassa Soussou takes up this tension by raising a concern that the rich language repertoires of multilingual students would be impoverished by the wrong pedagogical approach. Soussou makes the case for incorporating a narrative approach to the multilingual writing classroom, in which students can develop language and literacy proficiencies—including strategies for organization, structure, and audience engagement—while cultivating a sense of confidence as novice members of an American English academic discourse community. Seemingly demonstrating a product of such a pedagogical strategy, John Nobile Carvalho’s literacy narrative captures his own journey as a multilingual student pursuing higher education in a cross-cultural contact zone: “I feel responsible to share the American culture with my friends and family who live in Brazil,” he writes. “Likewise, I am responsible for sharing Brazilian culture with American society.”

But the development of new discourses and cross-cultural contact is not always met with unbridled enthusiasm, since encounters with new discourses can bring clashes with familiar communities, beliefs, and identities. Tyler Tran identifies a writerly strategy of avoiding such clashes: “self-censorship,” or “the act of students replacing their true voice, with a voice that is not entirely their own”—aptly echoing the title of Jacqueline Jones Royster’s now-famous essay on her own experiences with crossing discourse boundaries as a Black rhetorician, “When the First Voice You Hear Is Not Your Own.” In another examination of the impact of language learning on the self, Adia Samba-Quee’s critical engagement with a well-known pedagogical debate between Stanley Fish and Vershawn Young affectingly traces the push-and-pull of entering academic discourses. While Samba-Quee is drawn in by Young’s argument for codemeshing—that is, the strategic blending of discourses, such as Black rhetorical traditions and (White) American academese—Samba-Quee also sees risks inherent to such blending: “I’m not one to believe in gatekeeping, and what I want most of all is to be understood, I am curious to what extent will letting outsiders into our world, a world the product of years of mistreatment and oppression, come back to hurt us.”

Outlining one example of the oppressive systems by which marginalized communities are excluded, Sarah Islam examines the inherent biases of archival holdings and the histories that are generated from them. Since “documentation tools have only been available to . . . those in power,” Islam argues for structural and methodological reform in archival research in order to save the materials that are historically ignored and elevate the stories that have previously been silenced. Navasz Hansotia, too, has questions about exclusionary rhetorical practices, as she responds to an essay by James Warren, who contends that students’ lack of familiarity with the rhetorical situation of college application essays presents an undue challenge to students. Hansotia asserts that the challenge is especially problematic for international student applicants, who may be doubly disadvantaged due to lack of familiarity with the cultural contexts of their application. Exposing the hidden agenda of the application essay, Hansotia extends Warren’s argument to raise a call for change in the ways that application essay prompts are designed.

Taking a somewhat different tact that is no less concerned about questions of access and inclusion in academic contexts, Maggie Buyuk asks an especially timely question: “Can scientific rhetors ease the confusion and frustration that scientific research causes the general public?” As the spread of misinformation about vaccines and the COVID-19 virus seems to expand, Buyuk presents rhetorical strategies for going public with complex (and life-saving) scientific information. Also in favor of techniques for educating through open communication rather than restricted access, Hannah Ortiz casts doubt on the wisdom of censoring discriminatory works of literature—including those expressing overtly racist views, as doing so might “attract interest without context.” Rather, controversial or offensive texts might be put to use as occasions for teachers and students to openly and actively examine the contexts and consequences of those perspectives. Likewise calling for more expansive perspectives on literate activity, Alex Quadros makes the case for increased attention to orality in the composing process; reminding us that the acts of writing are not solely restricted to the inscription of words on a page by human hands, Quadros calls for the recognition of conversation and speech-to-text tools as legitimate resources in the writing process. On behalf of the editorial team, I welcome readers to the pandemic issue of Undercurrents and thank our nine honorees for sharing their outstanding work with the world.

-Lauren M. Bowen, Editor-in-Chief of Undercurrents and Director of the Composition Program