Spark: A 4C4Equality Journal

Talisha Haltiwanger Morrison on Black Studies & Writing Center Potentialities

Interview by
Sherri Craig & Karrieann Soto Vega


Talisha Haltiwanger Morrison, PhD, (she/her/hers) is the Director of the OU Writing Center and Assistant Professor of Writing at the University of Oklahoma. She also directs the Expository Writing Program. Her research interests include writing center studies, community engagement and literacy studies.


Sherri Craig & Karrieann Soto Vega (SC & KSV). How would you define the field of Black Studies, especially in relationship to rhetoric, literacy, and writing studies?

Talisha Haltiwanger Morrison (THM): That’s a really hard question. Black Studies, I guess, is pushing back, challenging, redefinition. This definition connects with rhetoric and writing studies because it makes me think of genre, challenging genre boundaries, of new and different and multiple literacies, of changing the rules of what is and isn’t acceptable, revising limited rhetorical histories. And we’re still doing that work. Black scholars and other scholars of color are still changing, redefining, rewriting.  

SC & KSV: What does the emergence of Black Studies as a recognized area of study mean for you?

THM: Black studies, as a discipline and as a movement, I think is what makes my work possible, it’s what makes a lot of me possible. When I first started taking up the work that I’m doing now, in my doctoral program, I was sort of stuck. I was dealing with a lot personally, and I felt like I was sort of going through the motions as a graduate student sometimes. The only things that really felt valuable to me, related to school, were the readings and projects that drew on Black Studies, or that had a connection to that field or to critical race theory. I was drawn to the work that helped me understand my experiences as a woman of color, and a Black woman in particular, in the field of Rhetoric and Composition, but also in the United States.

SC & KSV: How does your research fit in a Black Studies genealogy?

THM: The work I’ve been doing lately, been really invested in, has centered on Black student experience. I’m primarily a writing center studies scholar, but I’ve been trying to push beyond the physical space of the writing center to examine the other campus (and off-campus) experiences for Black student-tutors. I started this work sort of at what was then the height of the Black Lives Matter movement (BLM) in 2015/2016, and a lot of what I was reading at the time was comparing BLM to the Civil Rights Movement, discussing how things had and hadn’t changed, but also talking about the different forms of activism that were being taken up, what was and wasn’t effective, tensions between the generations, things like that. But what stood out to me was the continuation of campus activism. After Ferguson[1] and Tamir Rice[2], and then University of Missouri protests[3] happened, things were intense everywhere, including at Purdue University, where I was working on my PhD. There were campus protests and demonstrations. At Purdue there were several high profile racist incidents. 

And in writing center studies, really for the past 20 years or so, but especially in the past 5–7, there has been a lot of attention to antiracism. I think it was a response to the more visible racism and rising racial tensions; and writing centers, like writing studies more broadly, has a sort of social justice bent to it. We like to feel like we’re doing good in the world. It’s a constant challenge, and a frequent frustration, but also one of the things that makes academia feel worthwhile to me, when we get it right. But I was struggling at the time, because as white as Writing Studies is, Writing Centers is even worse. Valles, Babcock, and Jackson (2017)[4] conducted a survey in 2013 indicating that approximately 91% of the field is white. That number probably overlooks some scholars of color working at small schools, community colleges, and minority serving institutions, but it’s an accurate reflection of who regularly attends national conferences and has shaped a lot of writing center theory and practice. So, my work was trying to draw out more voices of people of color, Black people in particular, to contribute to writing centers’ conversations on race and racism, to how we might as individual centers and as a field take up activist work. I was drawing on a lot of higher education scholarship, and it spoke to how, in many ways, the past and present, historically white higher educational institutions have failed Black students. 

SC & KSV: From which Black Studies scholars do you find inspiration? Which Black Studies scholars do you return to repeatedly?

THM: I’d say the one I come back to most often is Audre Lorde, her essays. My appreciation for her has sort of evolved over time, as I have matured and grown. At first it was just shock and amazement at her power. And that’s still there, but as I’ve become a different woman, I see more of her wisdom, and how it holds over time. And as a writer, and a writing professor, I think about both what she says about writing and how she conveys so much in relatively few words. So, she stays with me. And, also, Carmen Kynard. As someone interested in literacy and activism, and also as an administrator, so much of Kynard’s work resonates with me. 

SC & KSV: Black Studies is rooted in activist action and the courage of change agents to make space for themselves and for others in academia. How have you tried to honor these origins in your work?

THM: Well, I sort of have dual roots in writing centers and community literacy studies in this field. And lately, those have really converged for me, and I’ve been focused on campus-as-community, exploring the unheard stories and voices on campus and the opportunities for activism here. I think going out into the surrounding community is important, but I don’t think we always have to leave campus to, as Carmen Kynard said, “do the work.”[5] I’m transitioning positions right now, over this summer, so it will be interesting to see what that looks like on a new campus, especially during the coronavirus pandemic. This is certainly changing activism short-term, and maybe long-term. And in my research, I’ve really tried to take an open approach. My research is often about activism, writing center activism, and I view it as a sort of activism: research and/as activism. I have been interested in what sorts of activism Black student-tutors engage in on their campuses, and if/how that informs their work as tutors. One student told me that she wasn’t really involved on her campus or in her community, but after speaking with me, she decided to get more involved. I interviewed another young woman, a young Black woman, and the racism she had experienced was horrifying, infuriating. I couldn’t tell her whole story in my project, for a lot of reasons. But she really wanted to tell it, under her real name, but she didn’t know how to do that, so we co-authored a separate piece. Basically, activism  takes multiple forms. Like I said, it’s a constant challenge, trying to help, serve, honor people’s experiences in a way that’s not just exploitative. But I do try. 

SC & KSV: What do you hope to see happen with Black Studies in rhetoric, literacy, and/or writing studies?

THM: I’d like to see more influence from Black Studies, and more Black people, and people of color in general, especially in my sub-field of writing center studies. And as I say that, I should add, I don’t think scholars should take up Black Studies just for the sake of it, or just because it’s trendy or can advance their careers. But the field of writing centers studies, as well as other areas in writing studies, is invested in antiracism and other forms of anti-oppression work, so the activism and collaboration inherent in Black Studies may be useful for writing center scholars to study more to inform our work. 

Endnotes

[1] Ferguson, MO is the hometown of Michael Brown Jr.  Brown, an unarmed Black teenage male, was killed on August 9th, 2014 by a white, male police officer. His death helped spark the Black Lives Matter movement and led to ongoing protests and demands for change that continue today. https://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/rewind/2019/08/michael-brown-death-shook-ferguson-190806075143124.html return

[2] Tamir Rice was a 12-year-old Black boy who was playing with a toy gun at a park in Cleveland, OH. He was murdered on November 22nd, 2014 by a white, male, police officer, who shot him within two seconds of arriving at the park. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/newly-released-interview-footage-reveal-shifting-stories-officers-who-shot-n751401 return

[3] In Fall of 2015, Black students, including several members of the Division 1 football team,  at the University of Missouri made national news for protesting the racial climate of their campus, eventually leading to the resignation of the university President and Campus Chancellor. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2018/09/12/administrators-students-and-activists-take-stock-three-years-after-2015-missouri return

[4] Valles, Sarah.B., Babcock, Rebecca. D., & Jackson, Karen. K. (2017) Writing center administrators and diversity: A survey. The Peer Review , 1(1) http://thepeerreview-iwca.org/issues/issue-1/writing-center-administrators-and-diversity-a-survey/ return

[5] Kynard, Carmen. (2019) “All I need is one mic”: A Black feminist community meditation on the work, the job, and the hustle (and why so many of yall confuse this stuff) [Keynote Address]. 2019 Conference on Community Writing, Philadelphia, PA. return

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