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Teacher, Writer, Scholar: Holly Fulton-Babicke

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By Kevin Moore

I’ve shared an office on the third floor with Dr. Holly Fulton-Babicke since we both arrived at Stanford last September. Until I sat down with Holly a few weeks ago to discuss the present article, however, I now feel a little sheepish to admit that I knew her mainly as the world’s most courteous office partner. It was a privilege to finally learn more about Holly’s background and work, including her research on digital rhetorics, her innovative pedagogy, and, of course, her three dogs.

Holly comes to Stanford from Arizona State University, where she earned her PhD in 2019 in Writing, Rhetorics, and Literacies. Hailing from the Phoenix area, Holly completed her undergraduate work at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, where she studied liberal arts with emphases in natural science and musical performance. She plays the viola (the “weird one,” as Holly describes her instrument). At ASU she wrote a dissertation titled “Bad Faith Rhetorics in Online Discourses of Race, Gender, Class, and Sexuality” (more on the further evolution of this manuscript project below). Holly explains that she didn’t know that rhetoric existed as a field of study until after graduating from college, when a “serendipitous” conversation with Peter Goggin, the chair of the English Department at ASU, raised the possibility. Having long had a passion for “dismantling bullshit,” the field was a perfect fit. She has never looked back.

            Already an award-winning contributor to the field, in 2018 she received the Theresa J. Enos Award for her article “‘I Can’t Breathe’: Eric Garner and In/Out-Group Rhetorics,” which appeared in Rhetoric Review. This important essay “problematizes the constraints that vernacular understandings of race—including color-blind ideology and active tropes of black masculinity— impose upon verbal and embodied rhetorical agency,” highlighting in particular how “color-blind racist rhetorics mobilize narrative proxies to render these constraints invisible.” Yet the narrative of how this acclaimed article came to be published was hardly simple, and it reflects the very nature of Holly’s argument. As Holly tells the story, the piece was originally rejected by another top-tier journal, which she heard about while she was abroad in Europe. This was, in her words, a true “dark night of the soul,” when Holly quickly discovered that the reviewer was ideologically opposed to the article’s very premise, calling it a “scandal.” Thankfully, with the support of mentors, Holly recognized the experience not as a failing of the article, but as an experience with toxic review culture that lurks in some quarters of academia. This made the well-deserved Enos Award an especially happy ending to the story. The experience became the basis for Holly’s workshop for graduate students at the Hume Center for Writing and Speaking in February, where Holly showed students working on their own publication how she “crunched” the reviewers comments and “distilled” the article into its published form.

This is but one example that illustrates how research and teaching are generally inextricable for Holly. “Here at Stanford, I’ve been invited to teach in a way that is intertwined with my research specializations,” she told me. “But I also speak to my students as someone who is a writer. I use a lot of storytelling about my own fumbles and foreground useful practices.” In her classroom, she approaches rhetoric as “a substrate on which we can grow other things,” a metaphor aptly displaying her science background. Ever since reviewing an essay collection on the topic for Rhetoric Society Quarterly in 2018, Holly also has made serendipity a cornerstone of her pedagogy. Here at Stanford, Holly teaches a PWR1 course titled “From Ghost Bikes to the Googleplex: Digital Rhetoric and Social Action.” In PWR, she appreciates that we practice “much leeway in terms of theming our classes,” especially since “Stanford students are so capable.” Holly considers her high-energy students to be colleagues: they are, for her, “junior scholars.”

            In her time at Stanford so far, Holly has been hard at work on several projects. Currently, an essay of hers titled “Entropic Rhetorics,” which emerged from her dissertation, is under submission at RSQ. In this essay, entropy becomes a metaphor for “characterizing a range of rhetorical practices that are used to derail conversations,” primarily in online spaces. Some of these practices are clear rhetorical fallacies, but more complex and idiosyncratic practices can also share the same “rhetorical DNA.”  The problem is not only one of toxicity and abuse, but of waste: “When we don’t recognize what’s happening when action oriented conversations are derailed,” Holly explains, “there’s a lot of wasted energy. The people who are the most earnest in the most contentious arguments are the most taken advantage of.” The power of Holly’s approach emerges from her method: she analyzes the derailing language as it functions rhetorically, regardless of intent. She “doesn’t like to talk about motives, because having to prove motive itself derails conversations.”

When I asked Holly who were the key influences on her thinking, she not surprisingly named some of the most important names and movements in rhetorical studies today: Ersula Ore, Maureen Goggin, Keith Miller, Dan Brouwer, Patricia Roberts-Miller, George Yancey, public sphere theory, as well as critical race theory. But the “ideal” she considers to be the core of rhetoric, writing, and literacy research and instruction is best captured by Scott Richard Lyons idea of “rhetorical sovereignty,” which he defined as “the inherent right and ability of peoples to determine their own communicative needs and desires in this pursuit, to decide for themselves the goals, modes, styles, and languages of public discourse" (449).  For Holly, this is something to support both in our students’ writing and in our own inquiries.

In her future work, Holly plans to continue her analysis of digital texts, this time focusing on TED-talk comments. As she characterized her larger agenda for investigating digital rhetorics during our conversation, Holly wants to “show these rhetorics in the wild.”

            So what advice does this prolific writer and teacher have for the PWR community about writing, teaching, and balancing those things with life? Holly likes to be realistic, and work with “small, bite-sized goals.” She reflects frequently on when, in the day, she will be likely to do her best writing with the question, Can I make time for writing in this spot? Sometimes, the answer to this question is counterintuitive. “I’m not a morning person, but I do my best writing in the morning.” As often as possible, she also gives herself permission to write on projects that she wants to work on rather than on what she “should” be writing about. Oh, and the company of the dogs help too. Their names are Apollo, Stella, and Starbuck (yes, named for the Battlestar Galactica Starbuck).

Holly lives on campus with her husband Jack, so be sure to wave if you see her on a writing break walking “the pack.”

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