~ By Jefferson Beavers, communication specialist, Department of English

The Fresno State faculty who are teaching in the Rhetoric & Writing Studies program in the Department of English are working to change the conversation about writing on campus, in the community, and beyond. This fall, we will introduce you to these professors and tell you about the ways in which their research, teaching and service — to both the university and to the discipline — intersect.

In our first installment, meet Dr. Rubén Casas, an assistant professor of English who came to Fresno State in 2016.

Question: What is your area of focus within Rhetoric & Writing Studies, and how does that inform your teaching of writing?

Answer: I am particularly attracted to all the ways marginal people and groups are able to influence others despite lacking access, either to the modes of deliberation we tend to see or recognize within society (i.e., voting, organizing, protest), or to the discourses that are intelligible within these (i.e. speaking English, “writing well”).

My aim in looking out for and studying what some call “everyday rhetorics” is to show that there exist opportunities for — and the possibility of — transforming one’s lived realities even though one may lack the status, access, or the right “tools” to secure a place on the proverbial table. So, I’m very much on the rhetoric side of things, and because I want to bring what I learn from what marginal people and groups are doing to the attention of the larger field in order to shift what we now see and recognize as “rhetorical,” you might say that I do rhetorical theory. 

An example of this is the work I’m doing around undocumented people and migrant workers. One of the most important things I’ve learned in my time thinking about and paying attention to how these individuals make their way within U.S. society even at times of high anti-immigrant sentiment is that choosing to remain unseen — and seeking out ways of casting off certain types of looking — can have a greater impact on their ability to remain here, working, studying, playing — without getting caught — than would playing into the visibility politics that we so often expect and prescribe for people fighting for civil rights.

This insight has got me wondering how some of my own students might be successfully navigating classroom contexts in which they might be asked to write about or take a position on urgent issues such as immigration or particular policies currently being debated at the local or national context. Because a lot of the field places great value on what people are able to do with their writing — how it can be a “liberatory” practice — we might insist that students take a stance and build an argument, and that as part of argument they appeal to readers via personal experience.

The visibility that could result from doing this type of writing could be dangerous for undocumented students. So, not only does this tell me that I should be mindful of the types of prescriptions I make in regards to how people appeal to audiences most effectively, it also tells me that there’s likely a need to reassess how we assign writing so that we aren’t inadvertently asking or maybe even requiring some of our students to disclose a status that could well make them a target.

At the same time, I’m certain that students are able to, because of lived experiences outside of classrooms, able to navigate these situations effectively, so that even if they are confronted with an assignment or instructions that seem to require such disclosures, that they are able to negotiate visibility and invisibility rhetorically, so as to complete the assignment without putting themselves in potential danger.

Currently, I’m co-editing a collection of essays focused on undocumented students in writing classrooms. The hope of my co-editors and I is to spark a more sustained discussion of how our teaching and research practices in the field of Rhetoric and Composition can better address the realities of many of our students, as well as how our own students can be part of that conversation.

Q: How does your research and work as a teacher/scholar engage the campus, community, and the discipline as a whole, on the conversation about how and why we write?

A: My attention to how people are able to get things done despite a lack of access necessarily makes me attuned to all the ways access is limited or withdrawn for certain individuals and groups among us. This line of inquiry isn’t particularly new. We know well enough that one’s race, ethnicity, gender, class, ethnicity, legal status, and physical ability/disability have been mobilized against us in ways that make mobility — actual and social — difficult if not outright impossible. Much has been said and written about this both in and outside of the academy, and I’m certainly motivated by it.

What I find particularly interesting, though, is how these vectors of difference influence how physical space is built, organized, and controlled currently, so that the access we, as a nation, used to be able to withdraw of racial others lawfully can still be withdrawn socially. I have a growing hunch that one way more powerful actors in a society are able to marginalize and curtail the agency of less powerful individuals and groups is by reducing or cutting off access to public space.

If we think about the purpose and value of public space within a democratic society, we recognize how invaluable public space is to the production of a civil society and of community. Public space is where people go to exercise their rights and to hone their democratic ideals. When a municipality or an institution reduces or limits access to public space, there is (I think) a direct correlation with how much people are able to feel that they have a stake in that community.

Less public space means less civic participation. It means greater resentment and suspicion. Most people would say that less civic participation and greater resentment and suspicion are net negatives in any community or society, but we must also recognize that, historically, more powerful players in society have always been able to profit — politically and monetarily — from these. 

Much of the non-academic writing I now do is geared toward critiques of how civic and institutional leaders regulate or control what ought to be public space. I’ve written a lot since getting to Fresno about the lack of parks and other green spaces, and about the ubiquity of fences in the city. (I keep a blog called The Fences of Fresno in which I document fences.)

Much is being said in relation to parks in the city on the front of physical health. My public writing around this issue adds to these by, hopefully, indicating that a lack of parks and access to those we do have also has a negative effect on civic health. To me, the lack of parks and the prevalence of fences explain the historic segregation and disparities in the city as much as anything else. My sense, though, is that these two features of Fresno aren’t accidental: curtailing access further marginalizes those who could do the most with having regular opportunities to get out and meet their neighbors. 

I write because it’s the best way I have of participating in the world. Some issues, however, require that we write to different audiences and in different ways. While I will likely do more with issues of spatial justice on the academic side, I’ve been mostly writing about these issues for local and popular audiences because I perceive this to be an issue of greater urgency; the conventions of writing in academic genres and for academic audiences would make it so that the people who I think could do more with what I’m writing would see it months or years down the line, if they ever did. 

Q: How do you involve or impact students, both graduate and undergraduate, in your research work and projects?

A: For one, I encourage students to likewise consider, in each writing situations, why and how to write, even in terms of my assignments. I don’t often prescribe specific genres in my writing assignments so that students can make deliberate decisions about what form their writing will take in consideration of their writing and purpose.

More concretely, though, my co-editors and I are seeking direct editorial assistance from students on the collection I mentioned above. Our student collaborators will help us respond to authors and may even respond to them; their own writing will appear alongside that of scholars. 

Q: What are your other research interests?

A: Soon after arriving in Fresno, I found out that the plane crash of which Woody Guthrie sings in “Deportee (Plane Wreck Over Los Gatos)” happened in the Central Valley, not far from Fresno, on January 28, 1948. I found out that The Fresno Bee was the only newspaper to print the names of those migrants who died in that plane crash, and that Guthrie’s poem-turned-song was likely motivated by the general dismissal of migrants in death as in life. (The song inspired Central Valley author Tim Z. Hernandez’s latest novel, “All They Will Call You.”)

Since then, I’ve been cataloging and looking into what turns out to be an overwhelming number of instances in which migrants die en masse while migrating or once in the U.S.; the dismissal which Guthrie was attempting to correct with his poem is and has been an aspect of migrant death in many if not all of these instances. In researching migrant mass death, I’ve been asking — what is the rhetorical significance of migrant mass death? It happens a lot and many of us don’t know/don’t care — what is the rhetorical function of all this death and, further, of its collective forgetting?

I want to know how this public and collective forgetting happens. Memory is an important tenant within rhetorical studies, and so is forgetting. I want to know what it is that people/the state/institutions are able to do with migrant death and its forgetting.