Meet Social Justice Scholar Laura Tetreault
Major and expected graduation date: Ph.D., English Rhetoric and Composition, May 2018
My research interests include cultural rhetorics; gender studies; contemporary intersectional queer, feminist, and antiracist activism; social justice informed pedagogies; new media and multimodal composition; and translingual approaches to the study and teaching of writing.
I am currently working on my dissertation, which focuses on the communication strategies of some contemporary movements at the intersection of LGBTQ and antiracist activism. My dissertation project explores three examples of contemporary arts activism in digital spaces. I ask how the writers and artists in each of these examples engage with histories of LGBTQ and racial justice movements in the U.S., and what productive conversations about intersectional activist rhetorics these examples raise. I also ask how scholars of rhetoric can act as informed and invested advocates while interrogating our own social locations.
In the future, I hope to do more work with LGBTQ and feminist digital “content creators,” especially creators of color, and explore how these creators work uneasily within and potentially subvert increasingly corporatized digital media environments, and what that can tell us about forms of activist communication in neoliberal society.
Why are you pursuing a graduate degree in English?
I have always been interested in how the ways in which we use language shape our experiences and interactions with the world. I was, and am, fascinated by how important language is to how people perceive the people and spaces around us, and how language changes across time, context, and culture. I am especially interested in the role language plays in both maintaining and disrupting societal power structures.
When I found out the meaning of “rhetoric” – the use of language and other communicative resources to persuade and shape perception – and that there was a whole field of study devoted to this subject, I was in. But it took me a long time to figure out what to do with that interest. What made me decide to go for the Ph.D. was my love of both research and teaching.
My favorite thing is to dive deeply into a topic or idea, exchange knowledge about that idea with others, and collaboratively work toward new understandings of it and the larger societal problems it connects to.
Tell me about your 2017 CCCC Gloria Anzaldua Rhetorician Award. How did you win, and what is the impact of the award for you personally and academically?
The Gloria Anzaldúa Rhetorician Award is given to three scholars per year who do work that participates in meaning-making out of sexual and gender minority experiences.
To win, I had to be accepted to present at the Conference on College Composition and Communication, and to submit an expanded abstract of my presentation and a research statement. I’m very grateful to have received this award, and it has meant a lot to me personally and academically. I really appreciated the recognition for my research and scholarly commitments, and the award also opened up a lot of opportunities to connect with others in the field doing related work. I was so glad to talk with the other award winners this year, Leida K. Mae (Oregon State University) and Gavin P. Johnson (Ohio State University), and to connect with both new and established scholars in the field doing work on issues related to gender and sexuality.
Do you have any key mentors? Tell me about them.
The mentoring I’ve gotten from my dissertation director, Prof. Karen Kopelson (English), has been vital to me since my first year in this Ph.D. program, and only continues to be more important. Karen strikes an incredible balance between supporting me as a scholar and a person, and pushing me to grow.
My dissertation committee members – Department of English professors Mary P. Sheridan and Kiki Petrosino, and Michigan State University professor Danielle DeVoss, former Thomas R. Watson Scholar-in-Residence in the Department of English – have also all been amazing mentors to me and have helped me learn in so many different ways. They are all such skilled listeners and also challenge me to think more deeply about so many complex issues of methodology, positionality, and just the difficulties and importance of writing about contemporary social justice issues.
I also have many key mentors outside of my committee. University Writing Center Director Bronwyn Williams (English) and Associate Director Cassie Book were such supportive mentors to me during my time as Assistant Director of the University Writing Center, and Brenda Brueggemann, former Department of English professor, has helped me become more creative and critical in my writing pedagogy.
Outside of the College of Arts & Sciences, I’ve been so grateful to call John Trimbur (Emeron College) an essential mentor and friend from my MFA program at Emerson. My thesis chair from my MFA program, Jabari Asim (Emerson College), helped me view my work as responding and contributing to important cultural exigencies and encouraged me to envision ways to write for both academic and public audiences, which continues to shape my writing.
From my undergraduate program at the University of Rhode Island, several professors encouraged my early writing and mentored me in ways that remain deeply important now; I’m especially grateful to Mary Cappello, Peter Covino, and Talvikki Ansel.
In addition to the faculty I’ve worked with, I also want to highlight how important my peers have been to me, personally and academically. My Ph.D. cohort is very close and they have made this often weird and intimidating experience so much better. I consider many of my fellow grad students to be mentors because they have taught me so much; we all have different experiences, commitments, and aspirations, and learning from them has been one of the most important experiences I’ve had in my degree programs.
What is the last non-required book you read? What made you pick it up?
I’m always reading at least one novel, creative nonfiction book, or book of poetry. Right now I’m re-reading Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. It’s one of my favorite books and I have read it so many times, over and over again since I first read it as a teenager. I love how evocative Woolf’s writing is, and Mrs. Dalloway captures this very specific way I think about the passage of time that is gorgeous and joyful and sad all at once. I especially like to reread it in the spring and summer because the book’s imagery evokes the feeling of these seasons. Rereading it is like stepping back into all these emotions and thoughts that are always familiar yet also fascinating to me.
Advice for exceling in writing and English as an undergraduate?
To do well in a writing or English program, I recommend reading widely and using that knowledge to think critically and deeply about your course material. Also, talk to your professors! I always encourage my students to come to office hours, and I know my colleagues and I love talking to students one-on-one. Seek out feedback on your writing at every chance you get; it’s how you grow. Listen to feedback from professors and talk to them about it, even if you’re not sure what questions to ask. Make use of the University Writing Center! They work individually with writers from all over the university to help them develop strategies for every stage of the writing process.
My biggest piece of advice is to seek out examples of what you can do with an English degree and connect with people doing different things. If you love to write, find a way to make that work in the context of your other ambitions and visions for your life. It’s true that most writers do not make their primary income from writing, but there are plenty of ways to do amazing things as someone who loves writing, reading, thinking critically, and communicating.
Many people think the downside of an English degree that it doesn’t translate into one specific career, but I think that’s a benefit. I have friends and colleagues with English degrees who do so many different things. Just a sampling of people I know: editors in all different industries, from book publishing to tech; literary agents; lawyers; directors, executives, and communications staff for national organizations; nonprofit, foundation, and community organization leaders; university staff in student services; journalists; city, state, and federal government employees; marketing professionals; small business owners; and on and on. They live all over the U.S. and the world.
My advice to undergraduate English majors is to seek out examples like these at every chance you get. Ask your English professors to put you in contact with colleagues, friends, or former students who have done different things with their English degrees. Connect with people in your local community and if you find out someone is working in a cool job and has an English degree, ask them to get a coffee. English majors are so numerous and part of a huge but often untapped national and worldwide network.