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Composition Forum 30, Fall 2014

“I Just Have to be Free!”: An Interview with Gwendolyn D. Pough

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Candace Epps-Robertson

Abstract: In this interview, Dr. Gwendolyn D. Pough talks about her history in the field. She reflects on the commitments and research interests that shape her past work and new book projects. Throughout her reflection, Pough provides insightful advice for those who may struggle to find a home for themselves in the academy.

Dr. Gwendolyn Pough’s work in the intersection of women’s and gender studies and rhetoric and composition has produced groundbreaking scholarship that continues to influence conversations about African American women, counter public discourse, and hip hop. Her book, Check It While I Wreck It: Black Womanhood Hip-Hop Culture and the Public Sphere examined African American women, counter publics, and hip-hop. Her articles have tackled similar themes and her forthcoming books continue to move the field forward with conversations about race, gender and rhetoric, and the often under appreciated literacy practices of African American women. Pough’s work as a scholar and leader in both national and local levels is inspiration to many. In addition to her scholarship, she is a published fiction writer whose work has been recognized with a number of awards. Dr. Pough won the Romance in Color Best New Author, twelve Emma Awards from Romance Slam Jam and was awarded the Margaret Walker Creative Writing Award from the College Language Association. Currently, she is completing her term as chair the department of Women’s and Gender Studies at Syracuse University.

Through a series of email conversations we had the opportunity to talk about everything from what brought her to the field, to the scholarship and connections that sustain and inform her work. Through honest reflection and conversation, Dr. Pough traces her development as a scholar with commitments across disciplines. Her journey is a testimony to what can be accomplished when you remain true to your voice and values. I believe her story and experience provide timely advice for graduate students and early career faculty on how to navigate the academy while still honoring yourself and your commitments.

Candace Epps-Robertson (CEP): For those of us in composition and rhetoric there seems to be a theme of arriving to the field “accidentally.” Will you tell your arrival to the field story?

Gwendolyn D. Pough (GDP): I arrived in the field in an accidently-on-purpose sort of way. I have always loved to write. The first career that I claimed for myself in that, “when-I-grow-up-I-want-to-be” way was a writer. From the time I was around ten-years-old, I loved to write stories, essays, poems, plays, etc. So of course my undergraduate major was English with a concentration in Writing. The Writing Concentration exposed me to not only creative writing workshops and seminars in play writing and screen writing, but also classes in Advanced Composition and Advanced Persuasive Writing. It was these advanced composition classes that introduced me to Rhetoric via the classic Edward P. J. Corbett text Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student. My love of writing and desire to write led me to take as many writing classes as I could. It also led me to pursue a Masters in Creative Writing. My MA program required that students have a dual focus and my desire to write as much as possible made me pick Composition Studies as my second focus thinking it would be more of the kinds of advance writing classes I took as an undergraduate. What I found instead was an entire field of study that exposed me to everything from Classical Rhetoric to composition pedagogy. I soaked it up and soon found myself pursuing a doctorate in Composition and Rhetoric. So my very purposeful quest to write and only take classes that had to do with writing led me to accidentally stumble on Rhet/Comp.

Portrait of Gwendolyn Pough

CEP: Did any of your experiences an undergraduate shape your decision to work in composition and rhetoric? I find it interesting how for many, the seeds of our careers are sown across multiple experiences.

GDP: My experiences as an undergraduate very much shaped my decision to work in composition and rhetoric. I think the early exposure to the field through advanced composition classes and the fact that English Studies didn’t just mean Literary Studies at my undergraduate school had a lot to do with me being able to envision a career in composition and rhetoric. I’m not sure if my experiences outside of formal education shaped my decision to work in composition and rhetoric as much as it shaped my decision to continue my education and get an MA and a PhD. For me it was more about finding a career that would allow me the flexibility to write. I’d always wanted to be a writer. Getting the undergraduate degree was about getting the skills to be a great writer and getting the credentials so that I could get a job and support myself while I became a famous writer. Undergraduate exposed me to just how much there was to still learn and sparked a desire to go to graduate school. But that stint as a substitute teacher during my junior and senior years of college let me know that my plan to teach high school English while I wrote the next great American novel had some holes in it. I realized I lacked the patience to be a good high school teacher. So I was going to “teach college” instead. The 21-year-old me had no real idea that “teaching college” meant becoming “an academic.” But becoming an academic helped me become the writer I always dreamed of being. So, I guess it all worked out in the end.

CEP: I’m really interested in this last comment, that you didn’t realize at 21 what it meant to “become an academic.” I would wager that many folks don’t know exactly what the work entails. I wonder if you could talk a little about that journey, what does being an academic mean to you?

GDP: There were so many little steps to my “becoming.” When I graduated from what at the time was a small liberal arts college and entered an MA program for the first time, not only did I have to get used to living in a state other than my beloved New Jersey for the first time, but I had to get used to an entirely new way of thinking and writing. It was the first time I got introduced to theory with a capital “T.” And it felt like everyone was in on a conversation that had been going on long before I entered the room. It was alienating and frustrating, as well as intriguing and tempting at the same time. The little girl who always had her head in a book had found a home, but the home didn’t always feel welcoming. It wasn’t until my first year in the doctoral program that I realized the only way to survive and potentially thrive in academia was to set my own terms and chart my own path. Instead of trying to figure out what the conversations were around me in order to fit in, I had to be able to quickly cut through academic jargon and translate it in order to figure out if they were having a conversation worth my time and energy to engage in. Serious Jedi mind trick action, I know. But changing my perception helped to change my relationship to the academia and helped me become an academic on my own terms. I spent a large amount of time in the first year of my Masters program feeling like I was running to catch up and would never “fit in” and truly be an academic. I spent my first year in my Doctoral program listening, translating and deciding if I wanted to be a part of that particular conversation. The most important thing was realizing my agency. It would have been so easy for a young black girl from Paterson, New Jersey to just let the tide take me wherever it wanted to. But I firmly believe that tide would have drifted me right out of graduate school and out of the academy if I hadn’t charted my own course. Everything about academia tells us we don’t belong here.

Being an academic has meant a lot of different things to me through the years. In 1992 when I started my MA it meant learning the jargon and discourse, proving I belonged, and trying to find a space all the while wondering if I should quit. In 1994 when I started my doctorate it meant looking for a space cool enough to hang out in for a while all the while wondering if there were cooler places to be outside of academia and wondering if I had made the right choice to pursue a Doctorate. The first year in my first tenure track, it meant publishing as much as I could and who could really think about anything else but publishing while on the tenure track at a research university? In for a penny, in for a pound, I had made my choice to be an academic and I had to make it work. Being an academic for many of those years meant getting tenure. Period. Now that I have tenure, being an academic means continuing to be a scholar, to write, to think, to influence conversations, to teach, to shape and to continue to grow.

CEP: I appreciate what you said about recognizing your agency. It can be easy to feel as if the way to survive in the academy is to become what others expect--to conform. What you are suggesting here is something much more powerful and rewarding. You found your own pathway and it was both informed by the new terrain you were exploring, and in the interests you brought with you. This is something I see people in the field talk quite a bit about with regard to undergraduate students: How can we show them that the knowledge they bring with them into our classrooms is worthy and does not have to be shut out? I don’t know how often enough we have these conversations in graduate school. Does this particular stance you’ve developed play into how you mentor graduate students? Or, how you mentor early career faculty?

GDP: Anyone who knows me knows that I love music and I have a soundtrack playing in my head for any given moment and for anything that anyone might say. It is nothing for me to start singing or rapping if something sparks a song memory in my head. And one song that has constantly played in my head ever since I was way too young to know what the lyrics meant, was Deniece Williams’s “Free.” That refrain in the chorus when she is saying “but I just have to be me… and I just have to be free…” And she is telling her love that there is nothing too good for them and they can be together and be the best, but she has to be able to do her and be herself… The words to that song have guided every meaningful relationship I have ever had and my relationship with the academy as well. It influences the way I mentor graduate students and early career faculty as well.

The advice and the model that I hope I give to them as I move through the academy, is to find a way to be free to be yourself and do the work you love to the best of your ability. I once had a junior faculty member come up to me after a meeting and tell me that she felt like she could be herself in department meeting because of me. And at first I thought well who else would you be in a department meeting but yourself? But so many graduate students early career faculty members are taught early on to play the game of fake it till you make it in graduate school and don’t say anything or have an opinion until you have tenure. That works for some people, but at what cost? Rather than faking it, what about spending that time learning and figuring out what really interests you and becoming really good at that? And it is much more useful for early career faculty to be themselves from the start of the tenure track because post tenure they might just forget who the hell they were before. My motto throughout the tenure track was they needed to know the real me and the real me needed to know if she could hang with these folks for a little while. Free… me…

CEP: That refrain is now looping in my head! So you have this motto, this song that speaks to your soul and guides your work. I’m wondering also if you could talk about texts, or mentors during graduate school and early in your career that sustained you?

GDP: My early mentors during graduate school were Cheryl Johnson and Susan Jarratt. Susan became my mentor before I even met her because her essay, “Feminism and Composition: A Case for Conflict” changed my life. As I mentioned, when I entered my MA program I just wanted to write and picked Composition Studies as my second focus because I thought it would be more writing. So, color me surprised when I took my first composition class and it was about composition pedagogy. Add to that the majority of the students in the class were teaching first year writing and I was on fellowship so I had never taught composition. But we had to pick one essay and I picked Susan’s and reading it and the way she talked about the classroom as a space for conflict and change made me want to teach and it made me want to be a part of a field where they did this kind of teaching. It made me want to know more about the field of Composition and Rhetoric. I ran into Susan Jarratt’s work again in the Introduction to Rhetoric graduate seminar and engaging her work on the Sophists in my exams is part of the reason I was able to pass my exams with distinction, I think. But when I applied to Miami University’s Doctoral program, I had no idea she was there. I was still pretty green and clueless at this point and it never occurred to me to look at the graduate program to see who was teaching there. When I got there and figured out that “my” Susan Jarratt was a professor there, and I was going to be taking a graduate seminar with her, well, once I got over fan girl inspired performance anxiety, we were able to build a wonderful mentoring relationship. She helped me develop my interests in feminist pedagogy and feminist rhetorics and helped me grow into the rhetorician I am today.

While at Miami, I also had the honor of studying with Cheryl Johnson. She became my blueprint for being a black feminist scholar in the academy. When I met her she was engaged in a spirited debate at one of those academic gatherings with a couple of black men professors and she was on it. They couldn’t handle it! I saw how she held her own and thought, “she is going to be my mentor.” I know that I wouldn’t have made it through the doctoral program without her. She became a mentor, friend, and second mom. We are still very close and she continues to be the scholar and mentor I call when I have a question or problem, or just to talk to. Everything about the way I move through academia as a black feminist scholar and mentor is all because of her. There are other black women scholars in our field who have fortified me and sustained my work. Women such as, Geneva Smitherman, Jacqueline Jones Royster, Shirley Wilson Logan, Akua Duku Anokye, Joyce Middleton, Beverly Moss, Lena Ampadu and Elaine Richardson, sustain me as I continue to make a space for my work. In Elaine Richardson I have found a scholar-sista-friend to collaborate with and do some really good work with. And my former students, you, Tamika Carey, Helen Crump, Ayana Weekley and Aisha Durham all inspire me to do the best work I can so that you all can come through and do even better work.

CEP: I greatly appreciate both your mentorship and scholarship. One of the things you model so well is that you seem to be at home in both composition and rhetoric and women's studies. While some struggle to make roots in one disciplinary space, you have successfully navigated two. Can you talk about your experience balancing work within both fields? Is it a balancing act or do the two areas work in tandem?

GDP: I have always straddled several fields throughout my studies. As an undergraduate I minored in African American Studies and during graduate school I had an assistantship in African American Studies as an MA student I did a concentration in Women’s Studies as a doctoral student. I also taught Introduction to Black World Studies and Introduction to Women’s Studies as a doctoral student along with my composition classes. I have always been drawn to interdisciplinary fields like African American Studies and Women’s Studies. And my first job ended up being in a Women’s Studies department. Because my first job was in Women’s Studies and I didn’t want to lose touch with composition and rhetoric, I remained active in national groups like CCCC and NCTE. My work has always appealed to both fields and it probably always will. So, I didn’t have a problem on the academic side. But being active on a national level and local level in both fields as a leader in professional groups and my home departments required juggling acts that I have no idea how I managed. I will say that a key part of balancing for me is that I want to be a part of both fields. Both spaces feed me intellectually and I need what they have to offer. So, I balance them because they feed me and I need them to do the work I want to do.

CEP: I like the way you describe how the two areas work together for you. I’m wondering, because you mentioned national organizations and local work, would you talk about your commitments and work in these areas within the scope of your national organizations?

GDP: There is so much that you get to steward and shape when you serve in national leadership positions like being a part of CCCC chair rotation. You do a lot in those four years of service that helps the organization to continue moving forward and grow. And all of it at the time feels like an accomplishment! I mean try to get folks to agree to serve on committee that needs reconstituting, or better yet, try to come up with a carefully worded charge for said committee, or even better, try to get said committee to stay on task and actually complete the charge. You start to think about “accomplishment” in entirely different ways. My major focuses the year I was chair were future leadership and diversity issues. And some of my guiding concerns dealt with: How can the professional organization better encourage involvement from members beyond coming to the convention and reading the journal? What should CCCC be doing to grow and develop involved members and future leaders? What should diversity mean to CCCC? How might we think about growing and increasing the organization’s diversity in the future? I think I was able to do a lot on these issues in different ways. But when I think back on my time as chair one thing stands out that feels like a real accomplishment. After my chair’s address a young black women came up to me and told me that it was her first time at CCCC and she had no idea that this would be a space for her, but she believed it could be after hearing my chair’s address. It was one of those pay it forward moments because it brought me back to 1995 and my first CCCC conference and hearing Jacqueline Jones Royster’s chairs address and knowing that I had finally found an academic home. Having that one woman of color realize that she could make a space for herself here in our field after hearing something I said was a memorable accomplishment to me because if I heard Royster and stuck around long enough to become CCCC chair and give my own chair’s address, who knows what the future holds for that young woman.

On a local level, my commitments to Women’s and Gender Studies and Composition and Rhetoric looks like a balancing act. I am no longer in a joint appointment with two departments, so that part is less hectic. But I am still very committed to both fields nationally and to the health and growth of both departments locally. I am just finishing up being the chair of the Women’s and Gender Studies department, so that has taken a lot of my time and focus.

CEP: It sounds like you’ve sparked the fire for perhaps a future chair! I think one of the things I admired about your CCCC work was how well you listened, and you have to listen to multiple stakeholders in that position. You have to listen to the pulse of the field, to the people you are working with, and you have to listen to yourself as well. That is quite a balancing act. It sounds as if your commitments to your scholarship also inform your administrative and service work. I want to shift gears a bit and go back to talking about your scholarship. Would you say that there are central themes of research that you began your career with that you continue to engage with?

GDP: I think so. I am still very much invested in Black women writers, Black feminism, Black women’s rhetorical practices. I am still interested in how Black women claim a space for themselves in the public sphere and what they do in those spaces. My dissertation looked at African American rhetorics of disruption. My first book examined how black women in hip-hop culture bring wreck rhetorically. I’m currently working on two projects, one that examine black women reading groups and another that rethinks Sapphire and tropes like the “angry black woman.” With the book clubs, I am interested in how black women readers combat the stereotypes that black folks don’t read and continue legacies of literacy in our communities. And the Sapphire project grew out of my fascination with the word “bitch” and thinking about issues of reclamation and the politics around it. Both project are well within the themes that guided my early work.

CEP: Your work is grounded in examinations of race and gender. What impact, if any, has discourse about the post-racial had on your work? As someone who looks at historical moments of racism, my own work is focused on the civil rights movement. I’ve found that it is often easier for people to “see” race operating in those moments. I’m really struck by the ways in which racism continues to be both blatant and innocuous at the same time. Does your work engage, or respond to the discourse of the post-racial?

GDP: No my work doesn’t engage in the myth of the post-racial and not just because it is a myth. But also because I try to stay away from conversations that will annoy me and cause my blood pressure to go up. People who insist that we are “post-racial,” much like people who insist they do not “see” race, are either delusional, in deep denial, or just plain lying and I don’t have time for that. I am sensing in this question that folks doing work on contemporary issues and race are required to prove that race is still important and racism still exists for some audience of non-believers who will then judge the relevance of the work and I reject that. It is the equivalent to saying that you have to prove your scholarly project is worthy of scholarly attention outside of the scope of argument, research, etc. And how many scholarly projects that don’t have to do with race have to do that?

Because of our racial past, because of that racist history that built the foundation of inequity that we currently “rest” on, we will never truly be post-racial. Racism is systemic, embedded in our foundational structure and weeded through the fiber and fabric of our nation. Race has become more nuanced. But to not be able to “see” it at play when we have more multiracial people and mixed raced couples at the same time as our cities and schools are even more segregated than they were prior to Brown v Board of Education? Really?

CEP: I just finished writing a review of bell hooks’ Writing Beyond Race: Living Theory and Practice and she says that we have to be able to name how race operates in our culture, how it has operated historically, and how it continues to manifest. One of the things I enjoyed the most about the book were the essays where she is analyzing race in pop culture and every day life. The point of her analysis goes back to what you are saying here, race is more nuanced, but the same narratives and stereotypes get produced and sold to us. She challenges us to write back. I feel like your work is responding and pushing against the stereotypes many still face.

GDP: Thanks! I love bell hooks. And you are right, my published work on the ways in which Black women have used the counter-public sphere of Hip Hop to claim a public voice. And that has motivated me to examine other ways in which Black women interact in the larger public sphere and to work on two new book projects. The first project, Reading, Writing and Resisting: Black Women, Book Clubs and New Black Fiction is a book-length project which explores contemporary African American women’s book clubs, reading groups, 21st century African American literacy practices and literacy events. It expands the conversation on African American readers and writers to include contemporary literacy practices that are often ignored in academic studies. It draws on actual book clubs, works of popular African American fiction, and the complicated and often conflicted relationship between capitalism and literacy as politics. It expands the work of African American literacy scholars such as Jacqueline Jones Royster and Shirley Wilson Logan who have examined 19th Century black women’s literacy practices. It also builds on the work of Elizabeth McHenry, Maisha Fisher, Elaine Richardson and Beverly Moss as they each have expanded the study of African American literacy.

The second project, tentatively titled Rethinking Sapphire: The Angry Black Woman and Contemporary Black Feminism is a book-length project that examines current reclamations of the word bitch—mostly among white women non-fiction writers and journalists—and defines bitch as a rhetorical stance. It also questions if this is a rhetorical stance that is politically feasible for Black women. This book project will explore what happens when bitch is raced and the bitch in question is a black woman. The book will examine the ways in which contemporary black women find voice in the larger public and the personas they create in order to do so. How do they push back against the “politics of respectability” and “culture of dissemblance” that have restricted how they can be in public? How do they claim a space for themselves in situations where they are already read—just by virtue of how they look—as “attitudinal,” “angry,” “sapphire-like” in short black bitches? When they are read as not the positive reclaimed bitch but the racialized and stereotyped representation of black woman that populates rap lyrics and the like? This project will examine digital spaces such as blogs and vlogs where black women have created and enacted bitch personas successfully and used them to comment on everything from politics to popular culture. It will also examine books like Bitch is the New Black: A Memoir by Helena Andrews and the representations of supposedly real black women on popular reality television shows, women like Omorosa and the Real Housewives of Atlanta. The project expands the work I did in my groundbreaking book, Check It While I Wreck It: Black Womanhood, Hip-Hop Culture and the Public Sphere, which examined how black women using hip hop to disrupt oppressive situations.

CEP: This seems like a good place to end our conversation, Gwen. You’ve given us just a sneak peak at what’s to come! I want to thank you for your time, your scholarship, and your presence in the field.

Works Cited

Corbett, Edward P.J. Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student. Oxford University Press, 1990. Print.

hooks, bell. Writing Beyond Race: Living Theory and Practice. New York: Routledge, 2012. Print.

Jarrat, Susan. Feminism and Composition: A Case for Conflict. Contending With Words: Composition and Rhetoric in a Postmodern Age. Eds. Patricia Harkin and John Schilb. New York: MLA, 1991. 105-223. Print.

Pough, Gwendolyn D., Check it While I Wreck It: Black Womanhood, Hip Hop Culture, and the Public Sphere. Northeastern University Press, June 2004. Print.

Pough, Gwendolyn D., Elaine Richardson, Aisha Durham, and Rachel Raimist, eds. Home Girls Make Some Noise: Hip Hop Feminism Anthology. Parker Publishing LLC. March 2007. Print.

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