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The Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics

ISSN: 2472-7318

Professional Leadership As Rhetorical Carework: Service and Fast Rhetoric in the Digital Pandemic

Holly Hassel and Julie Lindquist

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Keywords: CCCC, leadership, gender

Categories: Revisionings of Teaching, Facilitation, and Professional Leadership; Forging Communal Ties Through Collaborative Writing; Reflecting on and Refusing Racial and/or Gender Inequity


During the last several years, the co-authors have served as members of the Conference on College Composition and Communication Officers Committee, a rotation of four years where the elected leaders of the governing body (the conference itself, and the CCCC Executive Committee) make decisions and coordinate with the NCTE liaison to CCCC on governance work. Holly began her service in 2019 and Julie in 2018, each serving successively as the associate chair (also functioning as the annual convention’s program chair) for the 2020 and 2021 conventions, the former being canceled outright at the beginning of the COVID_19 pandemic, and the latter held entirely virtually.

In March 2021, the pandemic had been ongoing and vaccinations were only being rolled out on a preliminary basis and for certain groups. As a result, the conditions were favorable for an in-person meeting. This, in turn, created a situation that called for a kind of rhetorical work–a new practice of speedy responsivity to emergent concerns as they showed up “out there” in the communications landscape. We became responsible for reassuring CCCC members that the benefits they had come to expect from the organization–community, the opportunity to develop new ideas and practices (and to validate old ones), and professional networking and relationship-building–would persist, even as the experience of the convention itself would be significantly different.

This work often took place outside the locations and timelines of leadership work as it had always been defined: communications with fellow officers on the leadership team, as well as with the organization’s members,  was now ongoing, responsive, and adaptive. It took place between officially scheduled meetings and outside the usual channels of communication (e.g. via social media). We found ourselves, in an effort to control the effect of chatter we were seeing on social media, “scanning the horizon” to predict the emergence of bad-faith narratives and real-time crises that would require more direct intervention on the part of the leadership team. 

When we look back on the leadership and rhetorical requirements of these key moments in the COVID-19 pandemic that have shaped and reshaped how "business as usual" would no longer be possible, we can't help but reflect on the interactions of what we know about gender, leadership, the rapidly evolving expectations for effective governance, and how old ways of doing things simply can and do not adapt to the current (and evolving) requirements called for by academic leaders. As Detweiler, LaWare and Wojohn observe, "the pathways may seem labyrinthine when women in English departments and across the academy step into leadership responsibilities that are not fully recognized or clearly valued" (454). Though most readers who work in departments in higher education will fully recognize this reality from their own academic contexts, we see value in mapping on this same pattern of gendered leadership style--and the practices required to sustain it--become amplified by distance and circulated in unexpected ways through social media networks. In this way, as Detweiler, LaWare, and Wojohn note:

...a good deal of service work involves relationship building, a skill that is often attributed to women and undervalued as insubstantial and unproductive....this work also requires listening to the concerns and needs of faculty....To recognize 

the leadership that women exercise, we need to elevate this vital relationship-=building and community-building work because treating these forms of collaborative leadership as women's work fuels the ambivalence that we and many women feel about what it has too long meant 'to lead' in higher education. (p. 456)

In March 2020 and 2021, we faced a moment that required translating the landmark experience in the professional rhythms of writing and rhetoric studies--the annual meetings that has been held for three-quarters of a century--into a bold, uncomfortable new venue. We also observed how the leadership practices most associated with women and feminist community building became more important than ever.

Relationship- and community-building, more necessary than ever in the fractured academic workplace during COVID lockdowns and mandatory emergency remote instruction, accelerated even as the need to build communal understanding of decision-making intensified. Daniel Keller draws from Lester Faigley's work defining 'fast rhetoric" "e-mail, instant messaging, digital images, websites" (95), and the "increasing pace of the information glut and communication technologies" (95), contrasting with 'slow rhetoric' or the sorts of texts that are taught and learned in our classrooms. Keller makes the case that the field misses opportunities when it does not "pursue the benefits of fast rhetoric" (96). The planning and implementing work that evolved over nearly 18 months in decision-making around the 2020 cancellation and the shifting location and program content of the 2021 convention illustrate Keller's claim that "Students, employees, and citizens often need to turn a slower rhetoric into a faster rhetoric" (96).  This ongoing, unrelenting need to move the processes ordinarily attached to convention planning from "slower to faster" rhetoric was layered on to the already intense shifts taking place in the local and personal contexts of CCCC members--pandemic adjustments to household labor, to healthcare, to travel and personal interactions, to their classrooms and research. Faigley's characterization of email as fast rhetoric seems almost quaint in the face of social media communication technologies like Twitter which take the genre of an email itself a legacy of epistolary genres and transform it into an instant, 280 character take. Like Inoue in a series of blog posts in 2017 addressing the travel advisory in Missouri issued by the state’s NAACP chapter, Hassel sought to make transparent the practices and processes in the decision around the both slow and rapid decision-making of the conference program (see "2021 Decisions and Advice"; "CCCC 2021 Virtual Convention April 7-10; and "CCCC proposal Review Updates: Information and Continuing Questions).[1]

These sped-up communication practices, insofar as they have as a goal the building and maintenance of relationships–between members of the leadership team, and with an increasingly anxious membership–entail significant emotional labor; specifically, strategic listening and practices of empathy. The idea that women are often compelled to deliver emotional performances in the service of public relationships is not new. Sociologists such as Arlie Russel Hochschild (1983) have inquired into the terms of emotional labor routinely performed by women in the service of the public good.  Hochschild, for example, documented the “emotion work” of two groups of women whose jobs positioned them to interface with the public: bill collectors and flight attendants. In both of these lines of work, Hochschild learned, workers had to manage their emotional responses in the service of customers’ expectations and company profit.  In “Class Affects, Classroom Affectations'' (2004) Julie explored the idea that teachers, in their interactions with students’ desires and expectations, also managed their emotions via the performance of “strategic empathy'' in an effort to build relationships that might lower the stakes of, and thereby enable, learning. CCCC is not a commercial organization, nor is it a classroom but it, too, has an interest in managing the expectations, and serving the needs, of its constituents.

Endnote: We say much in this essay about our own personal carework circumstances, but they also undergirded and shaped the exigencies of the rhetorical carework we discuss here.


For Holly, as a parent of two school-age kids, these experiences were accompanied by the sudden transition to emergency remote instruction in March 2020, and then attendance through an entirely virtual school experience in 2020-2021 (one a mix of scheduled and off-line instruction for his 4th grade year and the other an entirely asynchronous self-paced distance learning model for 9th grade). Her husband's job as a taxi dispatcher required regular interaction with the public and punching a clock, with some limited flexibility to support their kids' schooling.  Like most academics, her teaching, service, and research responsibilities were shaped by the changes that impacted not just her own teaching modalities but the pandemic-influenced changes to household members. The pandemic carework during the years we describe were shaped by her identity as a white, cishet, married woman. With 15 years of prior online asynchronous, remote synchronous, and other distance learning experiences, her own teaching work was minimally affected. As a two-year college faculty member for 16 years prior to her current position, she also had a vast store of experience helping students with non-academic demands on their lives and time, as well as instabilities, a reservoir of experiences she drew on regularly during the pandemic.  She also had no administrative responsibilities that called upon her to prepare or train others to make the transition, though she collaborated with the outgoing director of first-year writing to prepare Fall 2020 instructors to teach exclusively online asynchronous sections of our first-year writing courses.

For Julie, the abrupt transition to online/remote instruction at MSU in the week of March 6 coincided with sudden need for CCCC to make an assessment of the growing public health crisis, to consider the available options, and to take the necessary steps to make a decision about the fate of the 2020 conference in Milwaukee.  At MSU, the need for Julie to reinvent the graduate research methodology seminar she was currently teaching as a virtual experience presented itself during the same week when CCCC officers and EC had to be convened to determine how to proceed with the 2020 convention in Milwaukee scheduled to take place three weeks hence.  Earlier in the semester—prior to the onset of the pandemic–Julie had agreed to take on the position of Director of a First-Year Writing program staffed by 70 teachers, and serving 7000+ students per year, an administrative job contracted to begin in May of 2020. She told herself that, even though she also occupied a national leadership position with CCCC, the WPA job was one with which, having served in that role five years earlier, she had some experience, and a workable understanding of the nature and routines of the work. It would, she supposed, be a familiar enough job to be manageable, even while serving on the CCCC leadership team. And after all, the department was short on senior faculty, and long on administrative work that needed to be done.  So went her thinking, anyway, before it became clear that the work of directing the FYW program would entail creating a new virtual orientation experience for new TAs,  moving 150 Fall 2020 courses online, and preparing returning teachers, most of whom had no experience or prior instruction in teaching remotely, to teach in a way that was responsive to program learning goals in a new and unfamiliar modality. It would also entail a kind of rapid and strategic responsiveness in communications to faculty, students (both graduate TAs and FYW students) and other administrators in the college and university (the latter, as they attempted to control messaging around the value MSU experience in a time of Covid-19).



Detweiler, J., LaWare, M., and Wojohn, P. (2017). Academic leadership and advocacy: On not leaning in. College English, vol. 79(5), 451-465.

Hassel, H. (2020, August 16.) CCCC 2021 Proposal review: Updates, information, and continuing questions.

Hassel, H.  (2020, April 8). CCCC 2021 decisions and advice | hollyjhassel.

Hochschild, A. R. (2012). The managed heart (3rd ed.). University of California Press.

Inoue, A. (2017, Oct 31.). #4C18 brief update - The new wait list. Infrequent Words.

Inoue, A. (2017, Dec. 17). 4C18 update - Welcoming survey out and all-convention event moving forward.

Inoue, A. (25 September 2017) CCCC 2018 update - Task force on social justice and activism at Cs.

Inoue, A. (2017, August 7). Letter to CCCC members about the NAACP travel advisory and CCCC statement on It.  Infrequent Words.

Keller, D (2014). Chasing literacy: Reading and writing in an age of acceleration. Utah State UP. 

Lindquist, J. (2004). Class affects, classroom affectations: Working through the paradoxes of strategic empathy. College English, 67(2), 187–209.

[1] These blog posts received, respectively, 1,875 views; 1,533 views; and 1,331 views.



Holly Hassel has worked at North Dakota State University since 2018 where she is currently the Director of First-Year Writing and Professor of English. She previously taught at an open-access two-year college, the University of Wisconsin-Marathon County, for sixteen years and is past editor of Teaching English in the Two-Year College. She served as the program chair for the 2021 CCCC Annual Convention (held virtually) and in 2022, as chair of CCCC. Her most recent and forthcoming publications include articles in the journals Peitho: Journal of the Coalition of Feminist Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition, Teaching English in the Two-Year College, Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy, and the Community College Journal of Research and Practice.  Her recently co-authored and co-edited books include Materiality and Writing Studies: Aligning Labor, Scholarship, and Teaching (Studies in Writing and Rhetoric, with Cassandra Phillips, 2022); Transformations: Change Work across Writing Programs, Pedagogies, and Practices. (Utah State UP, 2021, co-edited with Kirsti Cole) and A Guide to Teaching Introductory (co-authored with Christie Launius and Susan Resning Palgrave, 2021).

Julie Lindquist is Professor of Rhetoric and Writing and Director of First-Year Writing at  Michigan State University. At MSU, she has taught courses in first-year and professional writing, and graduate courses in cultural rhetoric, research methods, and pedagogy. She is author of A Place to Stand: Politics and Persuasion in a Working-Class Bar (Oxford) and, with David Seitz, Elements of Literacy (Pearson). Her writings on rhetoric, class, literacy, and writing pedagogy have appeared in College Composition and Communication, College English, JAC, and Pedagogy, as well as in edited collections, including Keywords in Writing Studies. She has co-authored several articles on literacy research, writing pedagogy, and reflective learning with Bump Halbritter, her colleague at MSU. Her article, co-authored with Bump  (“Time, Lives, and Videotape: Operationalizing Discovery in Scenes of Literacy Sponsorship,”), received the Richard Ohmann Award for Outstanding Article in College English in 2013. Julie and Bump are co-editors, with Bree Straayer, of Recollections from an Uncommon Time: 4C20 Documentarian Tales (NCTE). Julie has served on CCCC Nominating and Awards committees, and is active as a reviewer for several journals.  She was elected in 2018 to serve as Assistant Chair for the Conference on College Composition and Communication, and as Program Chair for the 2020 Convention in Milwaukee, WI; she currently serves as 2021 Chair of CCCC.

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