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Decolonizing Critical Participation and Writing: A Year of Open Access Publishing on the Margins

 Published on May 28, 2015 /  Written by /  Reviewed by Rolin Moe and Valerie Robin /  “One More Universe” by Ivan Turkouski; CC BY-SA 2.0 /  6

We have an immense amount of power, if we reach out and harness it. This is not just some new age abstraction. To be specific: anyone can create a website, a video, a tweet. People like me, from a working poor family, can go on YouTube and watch a lecture given by the authority of most any field for free. We have access to public spaces where we can define our own identity.

One part of this narrative is about me as a writer, figuring out that I wouldn’t settle for selling out and giving up my ideals. The other part is about how my experiences as a contingent faculty member informed my decision to start a project, which I hoped would spark critical participation in my community and set a good example for former students, as well as help teach people — some of whom I had never met — how to find their voice.

In March 2014, I started an open access, digital journal called Lehigh Valley Vanguard. When I founded the journal, it was with a sense of urgency and immediacy; the kind that  comes from being told “your voice is not important enough to matter” and growing tired of it. Being told, locally, my writing was “too political” and that I should write features on happy, feel good topics to make money. I also think this was related to the provincial gender stereotype that women cannot write about political or critical topics.

This project had several motivators, which had been prodding me for years. As I was coming to terms with being a contingent faculty member (McInstructor?), I was starting to understand that I was giving power to a hierarchy that does not need to exist. As a writer, I would submit my writing to publications branded as “local venues.” Instead of dynamic writing, if the ideas were not pro-capitalist, no matter how many people they connected with in the community, they were not seen as holding any value.

This is not so different from what we have come to see as valuable in our society: careers/pursuits which make the most money. There is something very wrong with this, and it is these same forces which undervalue teaching, an incredibly important job. Our local media should not be colonized by the same forces that co-opt our larger media. We see this through mainstream rejection of those who are interested in: nonpartisan politics, exploring non-normative gender roles, representing positions as marginalized due to race or class, alternate economies, and other underrepresented positions.

People can be rejected for subverting the dominant paradigm or problematizing hegemony, even if that means they are exploring ways to uplift the underserved. Rejection from traditional publishing outlets due to being outside of the discursive formation would historically leave someone with little recourse, other than conform to the publishing milieu of the places they wish to be part of, and mimicking other people’s voices. Many have come to be ambivalent about this “reality,” but I was not convinced this was the way it needed to be.

In a time when people from my generation (Millennials) are told they don’t participate enough, that they are self-serving and ineffectual people, being rejected because I was offering an alternative discourse was unacceptable. I refused to believe this narrative about myself, or, (since they were so close to my age) my students. I thought, “Maybe the system was designed to frustrate people into not participating or giving up?” I wanted to participate in the larger public discussion, just not the way I was “supposed to.”

As Raymond Williams says in Hegemony, we must be cautious of “a whole body of practices and expectations, over the whole of living: our senses and assignments of energy, our shaping perceptions of ourselves and our world” (110). Students should critically examine media spectacle to see themselves as creators, not just consumers. Williams goes on to say, “the most interesting and difficult part of any cultural analysis, in complex societies, is that which seeks to grasp the hegemonic in its active and formative but also its transformational processes” (113). When students create their own public narratives, they can see the process of media creation and become more critical citizens. Creating media, then, exposes media processes and cultivates media literacy. This was another element I tried to include in my classroom and in the Lehigh Valley Vanguard.

I was never satisfied teaching students in my English Composition classes the “common syllabus” because it seemed extremely inadequate at showing students why it was important to engage with the writing process. I was supposed to give them some meaningless research assignment designed to teach them MLA format. These prescriptive lessons also could not make up for years of insufficient public school education, (which I myself am a product of), focused on top down hierarchy and assaulting critical thinking. (Add to that months of meaningless testing designed to break the will of students and you have an institution resembling a prison more than a place that nurtures individuals into critical, effectual people.)

When I was still teaching in the college classroom, I tried to do a similar project to Lehigh Valley Vanguard, on a more pedagogical level in a remedial English course. I designed a website addressing different compositional styles that the students could access and create blog posts in that style, the administration of the school told me I should take the site down. Their reason: the privacy of the students.

I wondered about the validity of this since we live in an age where if I Google a student’s name, I can find them (listed with their full name) on sometimes five or more forms of social media where some ways they depict themselves can also be a detriment to their professional appeal (drinking alcohol, objectifying themselves). I did not see a blog showcasing their writing as a negative outlet. In fact, I was taking a graduate class where we blogged for the course. I told the administration we could remove last names. They said no. I wondered why. They told me we shouldn’t allow people to see what we were teaching in remedial English. I found this troubling.The students in my class were developing confidence in their writing — they wanted to share their work, and I wanted to help.

Teachers are an essential bridge between students and social action. In her 2013 dissertation at University of Massachusetts-Amherst, “Writing for Social Action: Affect Activism, and the Composition Classroom,” Sarah Finn explains, “I argue that an emphasis on the classroom as a neutral, apolitical, or even artificial space also has the potential to denigrate student writing within the classroom. … Student writing is real and important, and the classroom writing that student activists do is real and important as well” (9). What we wrote for our class blog certainly wasn’t overtly political, but students were recognizing themselves as members of the public, capable of  generating interest in their work and creating change, especially on their social media and (as was the case in this scenario) blogs. The administration did not seem concerned with this idea, and that, I felt, was sad.

This was probably the point where I had to ask myself whether this was really the job for me. I knew that as a pedagogical method, blogs were highly effective with demonstrating the importance of engaging with the writing process. Personally, nothing pushes me to want to edit my writing more than being on public display. I saw the students become more concerned with the quality of their work, and felt I was getting somewhere as far as teaching methodology. When I was told “you can’t do that,” it really cemented that I was not made “teacher” of the course, but I was more a distributor of administrator-prepared materials.

Lehigh Valley Vanguard was established for people experiencing marginality on every level: for their race, gender, political views, or sexuality. And as far as the regional basis, the phrase “buy fresh, buy local” comes to mind. I also decided to employ a progressive editorial process, one that gives feedback instead of a dismissal, and I use this process to mentor writers and thinkers in the community. As an educator, this felt more meaningful than wasting my time for fast food wages as contingent faculty, where my job was essentially making up for the abysmal working class education in our country, adulterated by the common core and standardized testing.

Creating this project has gone against everything I was taught in my working class education, which is: first, you ask the gatekeepers if your project is worthwhile. If they say “yes” then you can proceed. If not, you abandon your project and start again. Well, sorry, but that hierarchy can no longer dominate in our world.

With Lehigh Valley Vanguard, people send me their thoughts, and we can work together on their rhetorical methods. This is real, meaningful work — the kind of work that enhances people’s feelings of connectedness in the community. In these learning conditions, too, I find people taking charge of their learning. After seeing college students of all ages in an educational setting where they did not feel there was any stake for them, dispassionately composing about subjects they could not fully explore, not fully engaged in the writing process, and to then witness passionate composing, is incredibly rewarding. The stakes are high when you have something you want to say and you know your whole community will see it.

With this journal, the community is now a type of classroom. I encourage people to write about discrimination, poverty, activist pursuits, and generally topics that engender critical participation in our culture. I just provide the space for them. And when we go back and forth about their writing, I find, most times, we become friends.

As far as submissions, I was not interested in haughty rejections or elitism. However, I must report, when people have something they want to express, something from their soul, perhaps years of marginality, wow, do they produce beautiful work. If only classroom teachers could be interested in eliciting this type of work. One of the most fulfilling experiences of my life so far has been creating this journal. It acts as a progressive, thought-provoking force in my local community.  I have made connections and formed strong alliances with people from social action groups not just in my region, but also around the country. In issues of advocacy and social justice, that is so important.

Digital composition and new media, for me, remains a way to take back my agency. To say, “maybe this doesn’t matter to you, but it matters to me, and it matters to these people I’ve met along the way.” So for those people who say these dissenting, subversive ideas don’t matter: they don’t just have to answer to me now — they must answer to all of those people who have told me they do, in fact, matter.

As I have now retired from adjuncting, this has also become a way to remain a teacher. To avenge the working class people who, in their inadequate education, may not have learned the joy of writing to express important, world-changing ideas.

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6 Responses
  1. I’m smiling. I submitted my resignation yesterday after teaching high school for 26 years. I’ve spent the last five doing self-determined learning, which was a challenge within the system. It will cost me when it comes time for my pension. But I don’t work or live for the money. I get what you’re saying. This post is another encouraging sign that I’m doing the right thing.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Barry. I am glad you found this piece encouraging during such a big life transition. I applaud your resolve to use self-determined learning within the system.

  2. Marlana,

    Appreciate your piece here. Curious how you engage in editing/revision with folks who submit to your publication. Is it just you, are there several folks, etc. Just wondering about the mechanics of running a small journal while also staying on track/in alignment with your politics. I find it’s easy to slip into directorial-speak, so I’m curious how that process works for you.

    Thanks for pubbing,

    1. Good question, gz.

      It may come through in the piece a bit, but in case it doesn’t, I’m concerned with issues of labor. The publication itself explores issues of labor as well. With a small press like this, at the present time there is no capital attached to labor and I am very conscientious about that reality. From the start, there have been many people interested in involvement–whether it be through frequently submitting their work, participating in events, or asking to become engaged in the process of editing/reviewing. This is both affirming yet problematic. I am careful to involve people only to the degree that I am not exploiting labor.

      To take a detour answering this question (because it may help illustrate my point), several years back I chose to work for someone for $5 per hour because I believed in their business (it was a yoga studio). After I agreed to do this, in a few months I was being asked to run errands for the owner using my personal vehicle and gas money along with other tasks a $5 an hour salary could not sustain. Because of this experience, I am aware that people will do a lot, sometimes to their detriment, for a cause they believe in–but that doesn’t mean you have to let them. This informs how I handle the operations of the publication. If someone wants to contribute an article–fantastic, I’m glad they are moved to do it. Never should that cross over to making demands on people. This also means picking up much of the work. I will sometimes work up to 50 hours a week on this project, but I realize this is self-imposed and I don’t try to delegate that work I create. This is not a light choice, but, to answer your initial question, that’s one way I stay aligned with my politics, as you put it.

      There are people I work with in a light consulting capacity and they are affiliated with the publication. These people believe in the project and want to be involved, and I am beyond grateful for their support and expertise. But there’s a definite line there. I don’t set hours for them, I don’t send them editing work. I ask them for input on higher order concerns. Many events and offshoots of this project have come from these relationships.

      As for editing/revision this is complex as well. I was a bit naive about this process when I first became interested in publishing the work of others but also publishing my own work elsewhere. I feel as though when people think of any journal, they have this image in their minds of submissions pouring in like a mail sorting room. I had that idea about publications too. I pictured this editor just sitting at a desk carefully sifting through dozens of blind submissions. I found it doesn’t work like this–for me or other publications. Sure, there are plenty of submissions I get which are “traditional,” but publishing, especially on a smaller scale, is much more nuanced. There’s a percentage of work published which has been solicited from authors who I’ve come upon, whether through their blog or a recommendation from a friend. There are also contributors who submit unsolicited work all the time. And of course, there are people I meet for the first time through their submissions, which is, I think, what you are asking about here. With these types of submissions, I try to understand what the writer wants to do with the piece, not impose what I want them to do on the piece. Especially at times when I am first encountering someone’s work, it’s best to tread lightly and offer encouragement. If the document needs smaller, sentence level editing, I do a lot of it myself. The author will then see these small changes and that becomes part of the learning process. I find it similar to “modeling language” in second language acquisition. Collaborating via Google Docs works in situations where the author could develop more. I find there is also a line here–I make sure my comments function to draw more out of a writer.

      This also process also hinges on the message I am getting from the author. Many times the author will let you know if the piece is something they would like to develop more, or, if it’s something they want seen as finished. This informs how I approach authors as well.

      I tried to answer your thoughtful comment thoroughly here, so I got a bit long winded. I hope I answered your question, although I probably could have gone on more because this is such a complex process in many ways. Perhaps I will write about this topic in long form on my personal blog. Thank you!

      1. Hi Marlana,

        Thank you for your thoughtful and lengthy response. Definitely appreciate your concerns about labor, and there’s much to be learned–especially by and for folks just starting out with their own projects–about fair distribution of work and responsibility. I hope that you continue to write and discuss your experiences. Lived experience in trying to make alternative/radical/progressive journals is vital, but equally vital, I think, is sharing those experiences so others can learn and grow from the experience.

        Indeed, from all I can tell, the process is quite complex. However, by sharing experiences, lessons learned, and discoveries, hopefully you can help make the process easier for others. I look forward to reading more of your work!


      2. Jeff Boggs

        Thank you for the clear description of your work flow in the preceding comment. It was very enlightening.

        Also, thank you for the inspiring article.


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