Q&A with Adam Banks, faculty director of PWR, on black rhetoric

Feb. 7, 2016, 11:36 p.m.

Last Thursday, the Program in Writing and Rhetoric, PWR 194: Contemporary Black Rhetorics and OpenXChange’s Open Office Hours Series presented “Hidden in Plain View: Centering Black Voices on Media, Protest and Everyday Life.” Moderated by journalist Tonya Mosely, the event featured Jamilah Lemieux, a senior editor at Ebony Magazine, and Meredith Clark, who teaches journalism at the University of North Texas. Discussion centered around the rising power of black voices in various forms of media. The event was organized by Adam Banks, Faculty Director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric. The Daily sat down with Banks to discuss the timeliness of the event, his PWR 1 class on black rhetoric, and the future of this conversation at Stanford.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): Can you tell us about the event?

Adam Banks (AB): The event is about getting a wider range of voices with respect to African-American life, both in terms of these protest movements that are happening around the country and the complexities of everyday life that we rarely see portrayed. When we look at national media, everything gets flattened, so it’s not just what happens with African-American or black folks, but this is a gesture in broadening that conversation in terms of looking at black-owned and -oriented media and looking at black presence on social media like Twitter.

TSD: Why is this discussion so necessary?

AB: There are many reasons why it’s necessary. It has nothing to do with ethnicity or culture. It has to do with the fact that acts of writing and discourse are central to how we figure things out in society. So any time where we have compelling cases of that kind of rhetorical production, of people trying to persuade in public and in private, then that deserves some attention.

There’s also the question of how that happens in technologized spaces. One thing that’s really unique about what Ebony Magazine has been doing is they’ve gone through a significant rebrand and reboot to truly be multi-platform, to be digital and print and hybrid. And in terms of black Twitter, that’s a phenomenon that’s been really well-documented in a lot of cases, to such an extent that the LA Times saw themselves assigning a beat reporter to cover black Twitter. Every time something happens [on black Twitter], Mashable’s all over it, the New York Times is on it, and so the public attention to the phenomenon means that we need a greater understanding of the phenomenon itself.

Broader, in terms of Stanford’s context, Stanford has done a really good job at being thoughtful about composing its classes of students so that it admits and represents a wide range of diversity, not just in terms of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, race, culture, but across a lot of levels: income, where people are coming from. What that means is we need programming on campus so that students from those various groups and perspectives see themselves in the day-to-day life of the campus. That’s why, for me, it was important that PWR hold this event rather than some other entities that might do it as well.

TSD: How does this event tie into the class [PWR 194: Contemporary Black Rhetorics] that you’re teaching?

AB: It’s a direct extension of the class in that my students have taken at least an informal look at what happens in various modes of discourse as they happen on Twitter. We’ve done a lot of work on that. They’ve been looking at memes and Vines somewhat informally, but they’ve also been looking at these spaces for public debate and where they happen in magazines, on a site like Ebony, on a site like Twitter, stuff that comes in the New York Times or The Atlantic, as Ta-Nehisi Coates has been writing for them. So we’ve been investigating, one, spaces where public debate happens; two, the contours of the debate, the richness of the conversation; and three, the modes of discourse and the ways of communicating that people are bringing to it when they’re dealing with a combination of both a public audience and a distinctly African-American audience.

TSD: To paraphrase your own question from the event’s promotional material, how does flipping the perspective through which we view recent activism help us learn?

AB: It’s a matter of centering the voices and the stories of a wide range of groups of people. So I could just as easily imagine the importance of an event if it were focusing on Latinx or Chicanx voices in these same issues. In terms of my role as Faculty Director for PWR, I see this working in two directions. One is honoring the traditions, the perspectives, the practices of various groups of people on their own terms. But then two is putting those cross-currents in conversation as we build whatever the new University ought to be, a different approach to teaching writing and rhetoric ought to be. I’m trying to work in both of those directions.

TSD: How do you think Stanford could go about continuing the conversation?

AB: I think what the Vice Provost’s office and the Provost and President are doing through OpenXChange, while on the one hand there’s some justified skepticism from students given the activism that had been happening last year, the goals that they’ve outlined in OpenXChange represent, really, the best of what higher education [sets] out to do, period. What I would like to see happen is those goals that the President and Provost and Vice Provost Elam have identified be taken to another level where the question is asked, “How do all of our programs and departments implement those goals in an ongoing way into our curriculum, into our programming, into our individual interactions with students, into the opportunities student organizations have to generate the kind of programming and the kind of courses they want to see?”

TSD: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

AB: I’m grateful for the Vice Provost’s support for this event. And I think that Jamilah and Meredith and Tonya, our moderator, are just really compelling voices in this landscape. They are brilliant and committed folks doing very important work right now.


Contact Sarah Ortlip-Sommers at [email protected].

Sarah Ortlip-Sommers '18 is a senior staff writer and former Student Groups desk editor. A senior studying political science, she grew up on the beautiful island of Martha's Vineyard (yes, people really live there; no, she hasn't met Obama). Catch her ordering her fifth cup of coffee from Starbucks, singing with Everyday People, or watching Grey's Anatomy. Contact her at sortlip 'at' stanford.edu.

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