“If there were 100 essays on this table, no names, I’d know which one was yours. You always sound like you.” This is such a clear memory for me. As a first year Ph.D. student, I didn’t know if my professor was paying me a compliment or not.
I still don’t.
I started my Master’s program deeply under-prepared. I’d never read a word of literary theory – didn’t even really know there was such a thing. I was trying to catch up, but it turns out it wasn’t just my lack of theoretical knowledge that was a problem; apparently, I didn’t even sound right. While I had always considered myself a decent writer, in this moment I learned that I didn’t sound like my peers: I hadn’t mastered that detached “academic voice” thing yet.
It took me years to learn that “academic voice” isn’t the neutral descriptor that I had, at the time, been led to believe. I had my first hints of that realization while reading a rich tradition of feminist rhetorical and composition theory (shout out to bell hooks, Gesa Kirsch, Jacqueline Jones Royster, Gloria Anzaldúa, Cheryl Glenn, and so many more). Things started to really crystalize for me, though, when I read Will Banks’ “Written Through the Body: Disruptions and ‘Personal’ Writing.” Here’s a quote that shaped—and continues to shape—my academic life:
it is, quite simply, impossible (and irresponsible) to separate the producer of the text from the text itself. Our belief that we could make such a separation has allowed masculinist rhetorics to become ‘universal’ in modernist discourses because the bodies producing the discourse have been effectively erased, allowing them to become metonymies of experience and knowledge. (33)
One of the reasons I didn’t sound like everyone else was that I hadn’t yet been steeped in that academic language, language that has been crafted over centuries by upper-class white cisgender men (typically heterosexual, able-bodied, neurotypical, upper-class white cisgender men). When only one kind of person is empowered to write and speak publicly, then their ways of writing and speaking, their very ways of knowing, become imagined as the only acceptable, intelligent, clear ways of writing, speaking, and knowing. “Our” definitions, then, of what counts as knowledge and clear writing have been crafted in rather narrow ways, and it’s been happening for so long that we’ve forgotten that the very voice and style we often associate with academic writing is gendered, raced, and classed. What counts as “legitimate” knowledge and “appropriate” ways of writing have been imagined as universal when really, they’re quite particular. In fact, they’re embodied, impacted and shaped by the very bodies that we each have. As Banks says “the bodies producing the discourse have been effectively erased.” And bell hooks reminds us that “the person who is most powerful has the privilege of denying their body” (137). This denial of a particularized body producing scores of academic writing has also allowed the erroneous but persistent mind-body split to be mapped onto (deeply limited and limiting) notions of gender, where those who identify as female are associated with the messy, irrational body and those who identify as male claim the logical, intelligent, mind. But, of course, the mind is body. In fact, Margaret Price has called us to start thinking, instead, in terms of bodymind, as we cannot separate the two (268).
The recognition that there is no such thing as disembodied, universal, “pure” knowledge or a neutral academic style is the backbone of my recent collection Bodies of Knowledge: Embodied Rhetorics in Theory and Practice, co-edited with Dr. Marie E. Moeller (UW-La Crosse) and published by Utah State University Press in 2022.
As Marie and I say in the introduction:
embodied rhetorics attempt to make visible and audible the social identities and positionalities so often made to play ventriloquist to majoritized voices, privileging experiences and knowledges best captured by the languages and structures of the presumed norm: white, cisgender, heterosexual, middle/upper-class, able-bodied males. As language is always a reflection of culture, to attempt to erase communicative practices that reflect minoritized cultural experiences is an attempt to silence those ways of knowing. This collection provides space for an exploration of rhetorical practices not always valued, taught, seen, or heard.
In short, the way we make sense of the world, and the sense the world makes of us, is intimately tied to our bodies. With chapters ranging from the ableist assumptions of Western academic conventions and timelines, to the potentials for violence in the rhetorics of touch, to Senator Duckworth’s embodied arguments on the Senate floor, and an analysis of avowed embodiment in TRAP Karaoke, each contribution to this collection reaffirms the ways that embodied knowledge, embodied ways of knowing and writing, and bodies themselves, continue to shape and reshape what and how we know.
My hope for this collection is that it reminds readers that those of us who might not look like, or think like, or sound like the “norm” in academia are valuable. I’d love to be able to send it back in time to that young Ph.D. student as a way to tell her that there’s nothing wrong with her voice or her ways of knowing. But I also know that she’s not alone, so I hope this work—and all of the brilliant work out there from those the academy keeps trying to push to the margins—finds its way into the hands of scholars who need it. I hope it helps others feel like they belong.
Banks, William. “Written through the Body: Disruptions and “Personal” Writing.” College English, 66, 2003, 21-40.
hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. Routledge, 1994.
Price, Margaret. “The Bodymind Problem and the Possibilities of Pain.” Hypatia, 30, 1, 2015: 268-284.
— Abby Knoblauch, Associate Professor
One thought on “Faculty Spotlight: Abby Knoblauch”
Enlightening! So proud of you Abby.