The Humanities and the Rhetorical: Being a Professional Human in a Border Writing Studies Program

Apr 2022
10-minute read

I earned a master’s degree in comparative literature in my hometown in the South of Mexico while working as a teacher of English as a Second Language (ESL), and even as I went on to become the academic coordinator of my English school, it never occurred to me that teaching to respond to classic literary texts could have a place in professional life. The purpose of literature in academia I came to know had more to do with “developmental” skills of intellectual and even moral sorts, with its impact on one’s empathic response through the representation of diverse human experience. On the other hand, I thought of competence in a foreign language to be more of a technical affair, an easily measured skill clearly mapped out by objective assessment tools. As I came to realize later, language is a byproduct of the use and abuse of symbols by symbol-driven animals, so it is hardly ever anything less than something always already as ambiguous and contingent as human experience itself.

After completing my master’s degree in the humanities, I was presented with the opportunity of pursuing a doctoral degree in the US. Initially, I registered in a rhetoric and writing program to continue exploring literary texts, as rhetorical approaches to criticism was understudied according to renowned intellectuals like Terry Eagleton–or in his own words, “literary criticism is in danger of breaking faith with its origins in classical rhetoric” (16). Contrary to my expectations, the emphasis of the Rhetoric and Writing Studies (RWS) program at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) was placed on qualitative research approaches, a methodology that involved understanding the impact of language on shaping the cultural environment of a particular community. This emphasis on discourse as the arena where human behavior can be scientifically researched made me understand rhetorical methodologies as traversing both the social sciences and the humanities, opening for the first time for me a vital part of my everyday experience to the ways in which academia made sense of things. Suddenly, every aspect of my private life became a relevant area of academic inquiry; the object of study of rhetoric and writing studies came to be that which made me human in a world of ill-defined symbolic situations.

Soy el estudiante borrado / I Am the Stuffed Student
Back in my days as a literary student, I became fascinated with the figure of the questing knight as a “Grenzgänger,” or “crosser of borders” of medieval narratives of chivalry. With this characterization of the chivalric hero, Marco Nievergelt points out that the allegorical significance of the knight expresses a state of constant becoming, a transitioning and negotiating across multiple cultural landscapes, “between multiple roles, sets of values and expectations” (4). Ideologically, the journey of the Grenzgänger straddles the divide between the values of a shifting feudal world and those of a nascent bourgeois class. As I entered my doctoral program, I embraced the identity of the crosser of borders as my own. There I was, a de-Indianized Mestizo, first-generation student, commuter of the Mexico-US border, a flâneur of cultural, generational, and political crossroads, like a questing night. Better yet, I saw myself as Juan Preciado, the protagonista of the novel Pedro Páramo in the town of Comala, Mexico, facing an aventure merveilleuse neither aquí o allá, inhabiting a teeming city in-between the American Dream and the hope of every migrante leaving home in the pursuit of happiness y una vida mejor.

Understanding the linguistic dimension of human endeavor as a “literariness” within culture—metaphoric language as the organizing principle of how we make sense of the world—I came to understand the relationship between place and migration, especially against the backdrop of the ongoing geopolitical histories of the El Paso del Norte region and their impact on this border community. In my view, universities occupy a similar middle space between transboundary flows because of their relationships to local communities and the constant movement of both local and non-local people. This unique geopolitical and cultural location places a great demand on UTEP’s faculty and students. We are part of a community which is literally and symbolically the pass through a cultural divide that no media depiction that I knew understood. El Paso del Norte region is a bi-cultural, bi-lingual community where my own experience as a Mexican, and the things I grew up admiring from American culture co-exist, cobijándome with the warm feeling that I never really left home—como un cobertor San Marcos con un tigre—while at the same time opening up like a pilgrimage where values and ways of being in the world shifted in new exciting configurations.

EPCC-UTEP’s Collaborative en tiempos de pandemia
As the end of this perilous pandemic year filled with emotional and economic hardship, my quest into the México-American border found me holding a position as a Doctoral Teaching Fellow of the The Humanities Collaborative at EPCC-UTEP. In my first semester, the initiative provided me with more opportunities for continued reflection on my identity as a symbol using animal crosser of borders. During this painful period, amid the increased availability to indulge in leisure pursuits, I was once confronted with the question, “If you could do anything in the world that you wanted, what would it be?” The day that I'd thought that question, like many days since the beginning of my doctoral program in English Rhetoric and Writings Studies, I had woken up, brewed some coffee, turned my ebook reader on, and caught up on Dr. Henne’s decolonial guide to read the Maya ancient book of the Popul Wuj. I had taken plenty of notes on Henne’s concept of translation as a methodology to map out cultural in-between regions. From the perspective of rhetorical theory, Henne’s methodology fits perfectly with what Kenneth Burke calls “arts of translation and inducement” (272), a discursive maneuver that seeks to broaden symbolic horizons by integrating new meanings to re-shape cultural settings . . . Cultural translation for Burke revolves around a “transterritorialization of vocabularies” or “transplantation of words” disrupting “the properties of the word in its previous linkages” (109; 90), opening up a perspective never imagined before, a figurative paso between a cultural divide along which one can re-arrange one’s own human experience.  Like I was saying, there I was, paralyzed by wonderment, taking notes and reading and musing, doing what I loved the most, confronted with the idea of what I wanted the most in life, to be a professional writer, becoming it, putting forward the meanings to make sense of what the humanities can actually look like if one could make a living out of it. I was in my quest for a mejor vida, on my way to becoming a human making sense of the humanities, using and abusing these symbols.

It is not a coincidence John Swales’ model for a methodology of writing research relies on the metaphor of “mapping.” For him, presenting an academic argument clearly implies three “moves” (230) that he compares to establishing a territory, that is, making out an area of research we wish to venture into, then identifying a niche and, finally, actually occupying that niche, an empty space to be filled with what we hope to discover as researchers. It is also no coincidence that Swales’ metaphor can easily be stretch out sufficiently to scrape the trope of colonization. As an inquirer of the humanities, writing for me has become a way to do the critical cartography of my own journey, my own myth of cultural mobility motivated by the prospect of finding an academic-professional niche. It is my way of becoming a better human and, ultimately, contrary to every personal and public expectation, how I am a writer making a living doing what he loves the most in the world: this.

Written by Juan Moisés García-Rentería, Doctoral Teaching Fellow
The University of Texas at El Paso, The Humanities Collaborative at EPCC-UTEP

Banner image courtesy Iulia Mihailov via Unsplash.com.

Works Cited
1.  Burke, Kenneth. Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose. U of California P, 1954.
2.  Eagleton, Terry. How to Read a Poem. Blackwell, 2007.
3.  Henne, Nathan C. Reading Popol Wuj: A Decolonial Guide. U of Arizona P, 2020.
4.  Nievergelt, Marco. Allegorical Quests from Deguileville to Spenser. D.S. Brewer, 2012.
5.  Swales, John M. Research Genres: Explorations and Applications. Cambridge UP, 2004.



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