Vignette: Not-Quite-a-Love-Letter Manifesto

Christie Toth

I’m sitting with six students around the table in LNCO 3840, our department’s windowless conference room, which is dominated by a raft of wooden tables and a smudgy white board. We’re all hunched over our laptops, surrounded by auras of open notebooks, coffee cups, and cast-off winterwear damp with melted snow. Other transfer students in the Writing Studies Scholars program wander in and out, greeting each other and grabbing food, sometimes finding an empty chair and setting up their own little writing stations. It’s finals week, and like several other folks in the room, I waited until the last minute to start my assignment: a vignette about how student writing has impacted my scholarship. I’ve been mulling this question for weeks, composing soaring mental prose while driving back and forth between Salt Lake Community College (SLCC) and the University of Utah. The prompt makes me want to write love-letter-manifestos that will show too much of my heart to an academy I don’t especially trust. But time is up. I have to write something. I’m struggling, pecking out a sentence or two between conversations with students who bring over laptops for feedback on drafts. I distract Nate Lacy from his video-editing to ask, “Do you remember whether it was 2016 or 2017 when we wrote that ‘Traveling Together’ article?” Belatedly, I realize we’re enacting an opening for this essay. I can’t and don’t want to separate “my” scholarship from students’ composing, from the work we do together. 

Of course it was student writing that sent me down the path I’m traveling now. My first teaching gig was in the summer of 2006, when, at the age of 24, I lucked into a position as a composition instructor in a live-in version of Upward Bound, which is a federally-funded TRIO program for high school students who would be in the first generation of their families to attend college. These students were from working-class communities in North and Northeast Portland and several suburbs west of the city. Some were White, some Latinx, some African American, some the children of immigrants from Asia and the Pacific Islands. Several were resettled refugees from Myanmar and Somalia, a year or two or three into learning English. I came to writing from a different set of identities and experiences, and many corresponding privileges: I am U.S.-born, White, the daughter of two college-educated military officers. At that point, I had lived almost as much of my life “overseas” as I had in the United States, and I’d been in Oregon less than a year. I was also shamefully unprepared to teach composition. I’d talked my way into the job on the basis of a bachelor’s degree in anthropology, a handful of freelance journalism publications, and a few literature courses I’d taken the previous year to gain admission to Portland State University’s master’s program in English. When I applied to that program, I’d never even heard of composition studies. 

In terms of teaching writing, I’m sure I did a terrible job that summer, but I loved reading the students’ compositions. We were experiencing a particularly immersive version of “schooling:” we lived in the dorms together, ate our meals together, sat on the lawn and played cards together, went to the bowling alley and movie theater and beach together, spent the evening study halls together. For a one-hour block each day, we also found ourselves in the writing classroom together. As I read and responded to those students’ handwritten pages, I was getting to know them in far more complex, human ways than the typical writing class affords. I valued the glimpses they offered me of their varied interests, and what I’d later learn to call their diverse literacies. They wrote about experiences and people that mattered to them, their lives-so-far and their imagined futures. Presumably, they often wrote what they thought I wanted to hear. Still, it felt like we were traveling together, if only for a few months. I couldn’t believe that writing ourselves into relationships—with each other, with the places we found ourselves at this moment in our lives, with our respective histories—was an actual job. When I started my master’s program that fall, I declared a concentration in rhetoric and composition. 

A decade later, I had a master’s degree, a PhD, and a tenure-track faculty position in the University of Utah’s Department of Writing & Rhetoric Studies. My path to university-based academia was somewhat accidental: I applied to doctoral programs because I couldn’t figure out how to get a full-time faculty position at a community college, and I thought a PhD might help. Community colleges were where the student writers I wanted to work with—students like the Upward Bound writers who set me on this path in the first place—most commonly enrolled. I’m deeply committed to the democratic promise of open admissions education and deeply troubled by the race- and class-based disparities in degree completion and transfer rates at most community colleges. By the time I went on the academic job market, I believed challenging those structural inequities required collaborators working the university side of the equation. In Utah, I’ve been lucky to have excellent faculty colleagues at SLCC, and over the last seven years, we’ve been working to reimagine our relations to expand opportunities for the student writers moving between our institutions. We’ve done that work in deep—although by no means imperfect—collaboration with transfer students. 

Those students, nearly all of whom were among the first in their families to attend college, tossed me once again into an immersive kind of schooling. We researched together: developed surveys and interview protocols, interviewed other transfer students, transcribed and analyzed, gave presentations across both campuses. We developed programs together: raised money, ordered swag, recruited students, designed curricula, collected and analyzed assessment data, rethought and reformed our transfer programs in response. We taught together: co-facilitated bridge courses for transfer students, met with students individually about their writing, commented on their work-in-progress, launched a peer-led writing studio. And, over a period of several years, we wrote and wrote and wrote together. At first, we composed fairly pro forma institutional documents like IRB proposals and grant applications. But as we traveled together—literally, to conferences in Houston, Las Vegas, Tacoma, Portland, Boulder, Louisville, East Lansing, Pittsburgh, Reno—how and what we wrote together became more polyvocal, less linear, weirder, and, in my estimation, better. 

I don’t want to romanticize the work involved or deny my own privileged position in our writing-based relationships. These collaborations have taken place across many asymmetries of power: professional, institutional, socioeconomic, racial, and linguistic. As consciously as I have tried to distribute it, I’ve always had the most authority. Indeed, I’ve been the one positioned to do the distributing. Although I’ve tried to make sure students got compensated for their labor with money and/or academic credit as well as named co-authorship—and although I made a commitment to support each of them academically, materially, and socially to graduation and beyond—I ultimately had the greatest professional stake in the the academic writing we did, and I’ve sometimes had to make judgment calls. My judgment is shaped by my White middle-classness, as well as the publication requirements of my tenure-track faculty position at a research university.   

I have always discussed those requirements candidly and critically with my student co-authors. I’ve taken what felt, at the time, like real risks in the writing, pushing back at our department’s RPT guidelines, which require a “scholarly monograph,” to produce what we eventually took to calling a “polygraph.” Perhaps I should have performed more certainty about these choices, because they led to a moment of crisis in fall 2017, as we drafted “Composing Salt Lake’s Writing Ecology,” a collaboratively authored piece that eventually became the lead chapter of our book, Transfer in an Urban Writing Ecology: Reimagining Community College/University Relations in Composition Studies. This chapter tacks between short individually composed essays by seven members of the transfer research team—Nic Contreras, me, Sandra Salazar-Hernandez, Wes Porter, Kelly Corbray, Claudia Sauz Mendoza, and Nate Lacy—and somewhat more conventional academic discussions of six transfer-related themes (relations, identities, valuing, motion, difference, and change) that emerge across our individual essays.

These essays started as our respective contributions to a collaborative presentation at the 2017 CCCC Convention in Portland. Over many months, we revised, workshopped, and, in some cases, entirely rewrote our individual essays as the chapter took shape. Some were primarily narrative, others more expository, but all were written in purposeful, personal challenge to academic conventions. By fall, we were getting close to submitting this text as the sample chapter accompanying our book proposal. We met in the evening—LNCO 3840 again, this time with pizza—to work through close-to-final revisions. I can’t remember exactly how the conversation started, but suddenly Nic, Wes, and Nate were expressing concerns that their essays were “just stories,” that they weren’t actually doing “real” academic theory. The pizza churned in my stomach. I felt a wave of anxiety. By insisting that my co-authors should be able to express their ideas in the ways they wanted rather than taking on more conventional academic voices, had I pushed them to perform student roles that suggested all they had to offer academic readers was their stories—that they were incapable of performing academic theory in academic terms?

As I remember it, I checked my bodily reactions and tried to respond with both respect and conviction. First, I tried to acknowledge that their worries were a valid and understandable response to the dominant messages the academy sends about what and who is valuable. Second, I emphasized that we could still rewrite or scrap anything—we would not send the chapter to the publisher until they were satisfied with how they were representing themselves. Finally, I invoked conversations in Indigenous rhetorics to suggest that theory can take many forms, that theory is story and story is theory: in my view, their narratives were theory just as much as the other scholarship we were citing. I remember Claudia and Kelly chiming in to support that idea. I’m not claiming that mine was an ideal response, but the team seemed to talk and write themselves through their concerns. I recall both Nic and Wes invoking their experiences at SLCC’s Community Writing Center to affirm the capacity of nonacademic writing to theorize. I also remember Wes later describing that evening’s crisis as a moment when “the academy almost got me.” (Responding by email to a draft of this essay in Spring 2021, Wes wrote, "[M]y moment of clarity/relief was in remembering that the academy is fucked and I don't really care if they value my contribution or not because I knew that y'all did.") I can report that, on the five-year road to book publication that followed, reviewers consistently identified the students’ writing as the most compelling part of the manuscript.

As I compile my academic publications for my upcoming tenure review, I am grateful for the ways my transfer student co-authors have overwritten me. With each successive project, this ever-shifting crew of collaborators pushed me to undiscipline my sense of audience. They encouraged me to shed a lot of my academic trappings, to write more personally and more accessibly for readers who were not already “in the parlor.” That unlearning has carried over into almost all my academic writing. I don’t always succeed in composing more accessibly, and even when I do pull it off, I don’t always get that prose past reviewers and editors. However, I can never not hear my student colleagues asking me why I would bother writing something t­hey couldn’t or wouldn’t want to read. After all our traveling together, I find that I’m never writing without them.


Thank you to my student co-authors and fellow travelers at the University of Utah: Katherine Allred, Tanya Alvarado, Jem Ashton, Jarrod Barben, Sabita Bastakoti, Joanne Castillo, Aaron Clark, Nic Contreras, Kelly Corbray, Lisa Donaldson, Shauna Edson, Angie Gamarra, Cassie Goff, Heather Graham, Cristina Guerrero Perez, Kate Henderson, Keyon Hejazi-Far, Nate Lacy, Jose Loeri, Joseph Moss, Wes Porter, Mitchell Reber, Sandra Salazar-Hernandez, Claudia Sauz Mendoza, Jacque Thetsombandith, Adi Tolentino, and Andrea Valverde. Special thanks to my long-time student co-authors Nic, Nate, and Wes for feedback on drafts of this vignette.