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The Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics

ISSN: 2472-7318

Special Issue on Carework and Writing during COVID: Part I


Edited by Ruth Osorio (Old Dominion University), Vyshali Manivannan (Pace University - Pleasantville), and Jessie Male (University of Pittsburgh)


Table of Contents

Content Notes: Ableism, racism, police violence, queerphobia

First, an Opening:  “What Counts” as Academic Writing & Disrupting Academic Norms



A professor, scrutinizing my transcript and CV, says, “An M.F.A.? Doesn’t mean much for a Ph.D. in social science. You’ve got your work cut out for you if you want to keep up.”



At an empty bar at two in the afternoon with my advisor, I hesitantly but firmly make the case for a multimodal digital dissertation and am surprised when he accedes. “But,” he warns, “you should know the university doesn’t accept that kind of work. You’ll have to write two—the digital one for your committee, a formatted PDF for the graduate school. I’m here for it, but this route does create extra work for you.”



I’m speaking to the chair of a department where I teach as an adjunct, about applying as an internal candidate for a TT position even though I’m still ABD. She responds with a riddle about eligibility, telling me about a candidate they just interviewed who made a “critical error” by publishing a novel after finishing his social science dissertation. My confusion must be apparent, because she explains, with a knowing chuckle, “Well, he doesn’t look like he does rigorous work anymore, does he? Between you and me, that’s why he’s not getting the job.” 



Ruth, Jessie, and I are preparing the summer issue of our Carework and Writing During COVID collection, and I defend my digital dissertation, and in order to graduate, I begin the arduous process of selecting what can survive in a print adaptation formatted to the graduate school’s specifications. To be credentialed in this field is a slow death of the spirit. 


Our CFP started out with “we’re tired,” but fuck tired, I’m furious. At every step of my academic career, I have been reminded that the cross-genre, dynamic, multimodal chaos that is my sense- and knowledge-making does not count. By this, academia means that value is created and measured by what it looks like, the one-size-fits-all template of normalcy, in addition to its content—even when the content demands a different form. 

I’m a storyteller, performance artist, autoethnographer. I live with fibromyalgia and myalgic encephalomyelitis, chronic nomadic pain and permanent malaise exacerbated by physical and cognitive exertion. I am constantly producing knowledge in whatever ways my bodymind permits, be it lyric essays, bullet point lists, fragments quilted until a larger pattern surfaces, narrative footnotes, compositions in Twine or Ren’py, all forms that don’t count. Forms I have to list under Creative Publications on my CV, itself a category beneath Peer-Reviewed Publications, as though it is inferior. And further down, Multimodal Compositions. The more a piece resembles art, the less academia grants it value.

The things that earn us promotion are, traditionally, not the creative, artistic, informal things we might create and publish. But shouldn’t they be? As writing that preserves, reflects on, and analyzes the affect, discourse, experiences of writing and carework during the pandemic, writing that will act as referents for future authors who need to justify to the institution similar forms of writing, shouldn’t all this count? As publication lines with academic merit? As service to the field? As labor? As proof of the social, economic, and medical inequities that inform many of our lives?

Writing is never easy, and disability, grief, trauma, and carework commitments jumble our processes further. Over the years, I tried (with varying success) to sneak lyric forms into so many academic publications, the same forms accepted without question in literary magazines. I masked until the loss of health care during the pandemic stripped me of my filters and breathing, speaking, attention switching—let alone writing—once again became exertion. If a shift in acceptable forms admits the voices of people like me who just can’t anymore in polished, un-queered, neurotypical, flattened forms, then why the fuck wouldn’t we make space for it?

The sicker I get, the more difficult it is to make knowledge the way academia wants me to. Clean layouts. Linearity. Little to no use of embodied language. All the trappings of “normal.” Except I’m not normal. So many of us aren’t. And it’s an open secret that knowledge is not made linearly, but in fits and starts, the sentence hastily penned on your hand, the cascade of Post-Its, the Notes app on your phone full of quotes and seeds. By publishing our naked writing processes, as so many of these pieces do, we tackle academic norms; we honor different modes of knowledge-making and theorizing—anti-racist, anti-ableist, feminist, decolonial—raw and analytical, creative and critical, because these things can and do coexist.

We declare: This is how writing gets done. This labor, and its fruits, have a place.

We wanted to archive the writing of this moment, and we want this archive to stand as proof of precedent that can be referenced by future interdisciplinary, cross-genre writers with unruly bodyminds or circumstances, who hope to further break down academic norms. We want this issue to prove that the struggle can be as worthy as the work. Worthy of publication in an established journal, of being shared and read. We want this issue to demonstrate that such work is useful even in the circumscribed terms of neoliberal academia: teachable, citable, it models ways of knowing, being, and doing that serve self, classroom, and community. It counts. The writers producing it count. This is writing that sings and bleeds, the bowstring after the arrow is loosed, the fingernail or lip chewed to the quick from the stress of protecting ourselves and our loved ones from a world that outdoes itself every day in being too hard, too fast, too much.


Next, a personal reflection on the content of the Summer 2022 Issue


This is as critical and theoretical as an academic journal issue can be while serving as a playground in a public square: a space where grief, celebration, introspection, academic terminology, and poetics intermingle. Taken together, these pieces are about love and loss, material and symbolic violence, resistance and resilience in academic workplaces and the broad political sphere, self- and community advocacy.

Our Summer issue contains 57 pieces, too many to appropriately introduce, and all of which are perhaps best experienced without an academic preamble. Instead, we’ll talk about some of the themes of the issue that spoke to us personally, highlighting the effects of writing the body in a system that threatens to erase it.

It’s probably no surprise that the pieces about parenting spoke to me the loudest. When the pandemic hit, I was raising a five year old and a two year old. Their preschool, which was run by my university, shut down as the campus did. Despite a fairly egalitarian approach to parenting with my partner, my work’s presumed flexibility thrust me into an unfamiliar role: I became a stay-at-home parent, and eventually, once virtual schooling proved to be a failure, a homeschool kindergarten teacher. My days, which had previously been full of meetings with colleagues, teaching in the classroom, and writing, were now (additionally?) devoted to keeping my kids safe, entertained, and engaged. The tenure clock was paused, sure. But I was still thrust into an increased teaching load, and balancing attending to my students’ very real trauma with attending to my children’s. As I taught my students how to analyze rhetoric, I taught my eldest how to read. As I comforted my kids who missed their friends and became terrified of human contact, I comforted my students who felt the same. So many tears, so many scraped knees, so many traumas. I kept moving as I tried to carry it all. I had to. We all had to. What other choices did we have?

Like so many other parents of young children, writing wasn’t just a low priority: it was impossible. But I knew we were doing literacy work. We were creating. It just wasn’t in venues or modes the academy values, to Vyshali’s point. So when I read the pieces in this issue, I felt seen. Jessica McCaughey’s photo essay documenting the challenges of pandemic writing with a toddler made me cry with laughter and recognition. Jenna Morton-Aiken and Dani DeVasto’s text messages echo how collaboration became my own saving grace, a way of deepening bonds with other drowning parents in casual, sustaining ways. Sarah Polo, Natalie Szymanski, and Christina Michaud each capture how unexpected moments of joy can emerge even during the oppressive monotony of parenting during a pandemic. And Erin B. Jensen details how single parents were left behind in singular ways, a reminder for me to be intentional about building solidarity with single parents. 

These pieces and the other wonderful stories of parenting in a pandemic illustrate how we live in a society that doesn’t care about parents, and thus, doesn’t care about children. The pandemic has made that disregard visible to privileged parents, who previously had been sheltered from this reality. And now, I hope that we can move together, parents and non-parents of all genders and ages and statuses, to build futures that care for children and their carers, the land they grow on, and the bonds we build. 

Of course, carework isn’t only about parenting. This issue captures the many ways that carework is a deeply embodied practice, and that caring for others (and the self) involves labor and sacrifice. Our contributors experienced grief, exhaustion, and trauma in so many different ways, and we are honored to bear witness to that reality. And yet, we must also speak to the incredible joy captured in this issue, and the ways that reading about joy can itself be an act of care. It was an unexpected joy when I was sorting the pieces into different categories in preparation for the Summer issue launch, and I saw that making/crafting and friendship were also amongst the most common themes in these pieces. It wasn’t that these pieces had happy endings. We pushed our authors to fight against the impulse to make their stories appear tidy, to wrap up their pieces with a hopeful nod for the sake of closure rather than authenticity. And yet, several of these authors balanced despair with joy, stagnation with creation, and isolation with community. 

Mudiwa Pettus’s essay on finding connection with other Black women while COVID-19 was surging in Brooklyn reminded me of the creative ways we build community, even when it feels impossible. Her essay underscores the intimacy that can bloom in writing groups, and the need for universities to support peer mentorship among Black women and other minoritized faculty. Mary Lourdes Silva reconnected with the Argentine tango community over Zoom, an activity that allows her to sweat, touch, and move rhythmically while processing her sister's death. Rosanna Vail’s card-making enterprise merged both friendship and crafting, as she provides a moving account of how makers found ways to care for other careworkers from afar. Don Unger’s comics reflect on both queer joy and queer isolation, and his essay describes how drawing became a venue for critique, expression, and learning. None of these pieces, or the other pieces in this issue, paint a falsely pretty picture of writing and carework during the pandemic. But they remind us of the human potential to create something out of nothing, and that gives me hope: this issue is a testament to the power of breathing community and art into life. 

This issue is not just about COVID-19’s impact on writing. It’s impossible to detangle COVID-19 from the legacy of white supremacy, ableism, sexism, and queerphobia that allowed the virus to disproportionately affect already minoritized people. 2020 is not just the year of the onset of COVID in the United States, of quarantines and toilet paper shortages and wiping down groceries and abrupt transitions to online teaching. Police murdered Breonna Taylor in 2020. Police murdered George Floyd in 2020. White supremacist civilians murdered Ahmaud Arbery in 2020. As we reeled from the racist murders of Black people, as our lungs filled with the chants and cries and demands for justice, white supremacists launched an attack on the Capitol in January 2021. White nationalist terrorists didn’t stop there: attacks on trans and queer youth dominate the headlines in 2022, as children become the targets of a right-wing death machine that cares more about the state of kids’ genitals than their safety. As we wrote this introduction, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade—with Clarence Thomas’s concurring opinion taking aim at the right to contraception, decriminalization of sodomy laws, and legalization of gay marriage—and expanded gun rights in New York, legitimized prayer in schools and the use of public funds for religious schools, and eviscerated the EPA’s authority to set climate standards. And as all this unfolded, anti-Asian hate crimes continued to rise, with Asian and Asian-American people attacked, murdered, and harassed (a horrifying trend that is addressed more thoroughly by writers in the Fall issue).  

How do you talk about the impact of COVID without talking about the impact of state violence against Black people? Or the Asian women murdered in their workplace? Or the insurrection? Or the violent surveillance of queer youth? Or the blatant disregard for disabled life? Or the lack of support given to mothers? Or or or or…? Our contributors show that we can’t separate these issues: we live intersectional lives, and thus, we experience life intersectionally. Kimberly Fain’s multimodal essay documents the life of a Black woman navigating the medical system. She bears witness to how pressures to write and pressures to survive as a Black woman in the United States are etched onto her body as she navigates pain control during the pandemic. Kristi Murray Costello powerfully documents how her health, personal, and professional journey as a COVID long-hauler is shaped by ableism and sexism. And I can’t stop thinking of Susan Naomi Bernstein’s title, “​​the body cannot sustain an insurrection,” a political and emotional and physical truth of living and dying in 2020/2021. And Tracey Flores, Jung Kim, Eliza Braden, Sanjuana Rodriguez, and Sandra L. Osorio’s polyvocal rally cry emphasizes how our kids’ schools were leveraged as proxy wars for right-wing policies. The attacks against CRT echo the attacks against mask mandates: both are fueled by a lack of care for the lives of Black, Asian, and brown children and families. 

We can’t separate the violence of white supremacy from the violence of institutional pandemic apathy. And as we move toward a world that's being treated like it's post-pandemic (though we insist that the pandemic is not over despite the collective will to pretend that it is), we refuse to return to a normal that upholds some bodies as inherently more valuable than others. And we refuse to leave anyone behind. 


Conclusion: A Manifesto

–Vyshali, Ruth, and Jessie

What does it mean to do an act of love in a system that doesn’t value love?

Carework is both the subject and object of this special issue: in other words, guest editing this special issue is not a strategic move. Though it confers symbolic capital in academia—after all, Tenure and Promotion committees may favorably view serving as a guest editor—we were motivated by our anger at academic publication practices that shut us out and sideline our desire to change the way things are.

We want this archive—the summer issue you are about to read and the fall issue that we hope you dive into as well—to serve as a repository of the invisible labor and composition done by so many of us during the COVID-19 pandemic. We also want it to actively work toward a world that so many of our contributors yearn for. So we build this archive, in community with the authors who have honored us by allowing us to share their stories here, in the spirit of social justice movements in and outside of academia.

Let these issues serve as proof that:

1. ​Non-traditional academic writing is valued by the field of and fields adjacent to Writing Studies.

2. We need new definitions of rigor and what counts for hiring and promotion. All stories are theoretical, and just because a composition doesn’t look rigorous—because it is multimodal, messy, personal and analytical—doesn’t mean it isn’t. 

3. Similarly, carework is rigorous work. We can’t talk about carework without talking about disability justice. As Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha argues, the often unpaid work of keeping ourselves and our loved ones alive is labor. It is a source of knowledge, a place of praxis. 

4. Gaps in our publication records on our CVs do not indicate a lack of writing. They attest to the lack of publication venues and submission and editorial protocols that accommodate writers in crisis.

5. We can’t separate our bodies/politics/state violence from our writing. The movement of our bodies through this world shapes how/if we compose meaning, and we are tired of hiding that.

6. When institutions fail, our communities prevail. In so many ways, universities failed to protect us. But this issue reminds us that we are powerful together: we free us, we love us, we protect us. 

7. We need more spaces for messy writing. Our field talks about loving process, but where in our field’s scholarly publishing do we embrace incomplete ideas? We need more venues for folks to experiment, take risks, and dabble. 

These calls to action involve risk, risk that will be disproportionately felt by minoritized scholar-teacher-carers. But if that risk is taken collectively, it can be radical, it can be generative, and it can be loving—and we hope that this issue is proof of this.

Now, finally, the pieces.

We sorted the pieces into the categories we observed as we prepared for this issue, with feedback from the authors. You’ll notice that some pieces appear in more than one category: that’s because it’s impossible for many of our writers to boil their identities or experiences into just one theme. Each piece begins with content notes, so you can prioritize your comfort when navigating.