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Teacher, Writer, Scholar: Tessa Brown

Above: Tessa in the Mission district. Photo by Alexis Collatos.

By Emily Polk

PWR Lecturer Tessa Brown has a lot to celebrate as the end of her first year in PWR draws to a close. Her first peer-reviewed article just came out in this month's issue of Peitho (Journal of the Coalition of Feminist Scholars in the History of Rhetoric & Composition). It's called "Constellating White Women’s Cultural Rhetorics: The Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching and Its Contemporary Scholars."

The article applies a cultural rhetorics methodology to a recovery of a 1920s era white women's anti-lynching advocacy group, ultimately arguing that other contemporary scholars' apologias for the group's segregationism continues the group's own orientation to whiteness and erasure of Black women anti-lynching advocates like Ida B. Wells.

The seeds for the article first germinated as a seminar paper she began working on four years ago in Dr. Eileen Schell's Women's Rhetorics class that she took as a doctoral student. “I feel really proud that this is my first paper, since it brings together my interests in digital women of color feminisms, cultural rhetorics, antiracism and critical whiteness studies, and intellectual property or what I'm starting to think of as intersectional feminist citation practices,” Tessa says.

These same interests intersect with other kinds of activism she does around rape culture, antiracism, and building critical Jewish futures. 

Tessa notes that she was drawn to studying the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching as a white woman invested in antiracist work, looking for historical precedents. She says, however, that her research took her in a more critical direction.

“Ultimately, questioning white women's complicity in racial supremacy is more important work than finding white women to lionize who are above criticism (if such women exist),” she says. “As I argue in the article, it is no longer acceptable to evade discussions of race when studying white rhetors; rather, we need to use critical race theory and critical whiteness studies to examine whiteness and white supremacy in our analyses.”

One of the biggest challenges Tessa faced while writing the article was figuring out how to tell a story as a historian as opposed to “weaving asynchronous theories together as I do in much of my other writing,” she says. “One of my favorite moments that came out the endless cycle of revision, though, was a very cultural rhetorics move in which I characterized my own criticality of whiteness as ‘kvetching,’ a Yiddish word meaning whining or complaining.”

Tessa brings her work into her classroom in different ways. The content connects with her teaching in both her PWR 1: Hashtag Activism and PWR 2: Hiphop, Orality, and Language Diversity courses where she centers Black women creators and digital remix methods as foundational to the digital media environment we live in.

During this past winter quarter she talked her students through the whole peer review process, showing them different drafts of her article and the multiple rounds of letters from the reviewers.

“That was a fun way to illustrate what peer review really means--what the standards of knowledge production are in the academy--while also showing them how rewriting and reconceptualizing become more intense, not less, as we get more professional as writers,” she says.  

As for making time for her writing, Tessa notes that she’s been assiduous this year about leaving one day a week empty to stay home and work on other things besides her teaching. “Whenever I'm working on a new project, I try to write 500 words a day on a first draft and that's my magic sauce, because you can't polish or hone anything until you have that first draft out there,” she says.

Next year Tessa will be teaching an Advanced PWR called "Being [Blank] at Stanford," which she says emerged out of some of her favorite projects from PWR 1, in which students engaged critical autoethnography and institutional research to research Stanford itself and what it meant to inhabit their own identities here. The name is inspired by the hashtag #BBUM, or Being Black at Michigan, in which Black students discussed experiences of marginalization and joy at the University of Michigan, where she did her Masters.

Tessa will be working with University Archivist Daniel Hartwig to help students do original archival research in the Stanford archives “and to help them recognize ‘me-search as research’ in thinking about their literacy and identity practices on and off campus,” she says. Students will produce a major project at the end of the quarter that could be a paper, performance, installation, or multi-media project.

“In particular, my new course will introduce students to critical autoethnography and embodied archival research, inviting them to pursue a sustained research project in which their own knowledges and experiences become central to their knowledge production about Stanford, higher education, and/or literacy,” she says. “I’m excited to see what happens!”


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