Teaching Students to be Bearers of History

Teaching Students to be Bearers of History

Q&A with New Professor Adam Banks - by Guy Spriggs

You joined UK’s Division of Writing, Rhetoric, and Digital Media in 2010. What motivated your decision to come to Lexington and join the faculty at UK?

First, I saw the formation of this division as something unique and something that could create some really different approaches to not only the teaching of writing, but to scholarly work as well. Second, in our conversations, both my department chair Roxanne Mountford and Dean Kornbluh showed that they really understood and valued my work and wanted to build from that. I was excited by the work that we’re doing to reinvent composition instruction by fully bringing together print literacy with oral production and digital production.

In 2006 you published “Race, Rhetoric, and Technology: Searching for Higher Ground.” What did you hope to achieve with your work in this book?

The broad goal was to bring together conversation partners and discussions that you usually don’t see happen together – to bring together pockets of the academy that don’t get to talk to each other about the relationships between technology and cultures. I wanted to say to a broader African-American community outside the academy that technology and technology issues are just as important a site of struggle and activism and work as any number of issues that might seem to be more on the forefront.

Your current project is a book entitled “Digital Griots: African American Rhetoric in the Multimedia Age.” What inspired this project?

In “Race, Rhetoric, and Technology,” I was trying to clear broad theoretical ground for this conversation. In “Digital Griots,” I work to build on that, to develop a specific approach to teaching writing rooted in African-American rhetorical traditions. I believe that we need to centralize the experiences, the traditions, the truths of many different groups of people in how we teach for everybody. So in this particular example, I argue that the DJ gives us a powerful model for what that writing instruction can be, and the DJ’s practices give us a powerful lens for looking at black rhetorical traditions more fully.

Can you explain your use of the word “griot” in the title of your book?

The common definition for the griot is the storyteller figure. The griot is not only a bearer of a community’s stories, but also of its history and collective memory, and that’s what made that figure so central in African societies. So my argument is that we should be teaching our students to be griots, to be bearers of history, of collective memory, of stories, and at the same time have the skills to produce in multiple modalities.

What makes music such an influential part of your work?

Music is a primary way in which I find my path into the intellectual questions. There’s deep epistemological, intellectual work happening up in that music that not only inspires my thinking, but becomes that living bridge that can help connect us all to each other more deeply, more powerfully. While for many people that would seem to somehow be separate from intellectual work, for me it’s organic and really important, and I often find my way into these big theoretical questions from that music tradition.

Why is community engagement so important to you?

Community work is about genuine engagement with communities, working long-term to build with people in their own spaces, taking their own truths and their traditions seriously, their knowledge seriously. Getting an education for me never was about just being inside the academy – it was about using intellectual work to somehow bring people together. Many people who do community literacy work go out into communities to build literacy. I flip it: my goal is to use literacy broadly – reading, discussion, writing, whatever – as means for building community.

Is there a distinction between your goals as an educator on campus and a participant in a larger cultural dialogue off campus?

At my best, my hope is that they are seamlessly linked, that I’m doing the same kind of work for my students here at UK, that my research feeds my teaching, my teaching feeds my community work, my community work feeds my research, that all of these things feed each other and push me to be better, stronger in all those areas.

What are some of the books that have influenced you personally and professionally?

The “when and where I enter” questions always begins with “Voices of the Self” from Keith Gilyard and “Talkin and Testifyin” from Geneva Smitherman. Derek Bell’s book “And We Are Not Saved” is a powerful piece that still resonates with me today, and Katie Cannon’s “Katie’s Canon: Womanism and the Soul of the Black Community,” that is another book that moves me profoundly. Also James Washington’s collection “A Testament of Hope” – the books, essays, and speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., all in one place so that we get folks beyond just the March on Washington speech.

“Digital Griots: African American Rhetoric in a Multimedia Age” will be published in 2011 by Southern Illinois University Press. You can learn more about Adam Banks and his scholarship at http://dradambanks.net/.