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The Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics

ISSN: 2472-7318

Special Issue on Carework and Writing during COVID: Part II


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


Table of Contents

Content Warnings: Parental death, gun violence, medical gaslighting


I tell these stories / living through a pandemic / and / what a gift / the modes of meaning-making / a readied knife / to create what should be / in a logic of care / so far from a singular benefit / the resilience of over one hundred writers / a calibration of shared memory / at a new time / not attempting exorcisms / witnessing other people’s pain / unimaginable in academia / this project / the most challenging part / we can’t do it alone



I write this on the overcast morning of the fifth anniversary of my Appa’s death. I don’t remember that day very well. I remember, as it’s been every time disaster strikes, that I wasn’t there. I remember the material fact of the body from which he departed, and I remember viewing that fact, laying my hands on it, knowing I would never feel a fact so tangibly again, the most clinical, empirical observation I would ever conduct.

Seven years and one month ago, I nearly died of a ruptured appendix because I wasn’t believed. Because I wasn’t believed, I underwent a possibly unnecessary transvaginal sonogram that felt like rape.

I’ve been in one shooting and once had a gun pointed at me. I was viciously bullied. I self-harmed in high school, college, my M.F.A. program. Once, in my sophomore year, I attempted suicide.

I grew up with intergenerational trauma, my birth year bookmarked with Black July, believing that I wouldn’t know life without the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, feeling justified in this belief some thirty years later because, still, I don’t.

Catastrophe becomes me is the lie I tell myself. I want to say that I develop a real, safe distance between myself and my traumas. I want to say that, five, seven, ten, twenty years later, I understand my trauma and grief. I don’t. Particularly the circumstances and certainty—never as certain in my mind as it was five years ago—of Appa’s death.

I tell these stories for this reason: they have no place in academic work. Mullivaikkal Remembrance Day is too obscure for the university to recognize. Depression and suicidal ideation are an open secret in academia. Gun violence has become ordinary. Medical trauma and sexual violence are tasteless and taboo. And when Appa passed, I begged the institution where I taught as an adjunct to postpone my faculty observation, and my request was denied. Two days after his death, I taught that class in a daze, and the observer called me brilliant, said, “Condolences, but you really need to focus on finishing your Ph.D. so you can apply for a permanent position with us.”

Afterwards, I sobbed uncontrollably in the empty classroom and re-registered what I already knew: academia concerns the “life of the mind,” and that mind mustn’t be influenced or delayed by pain.




As I reflect on the editorial process for this project, I am struck by the sense of intimacy–with contributors, and between editors. Trust can be difficult to manifest in any professional setting, but academia can seem particularly tricky. Often colleagues are passing nameless figures in hallways; adjuncts and other precarious faculty a changing of the guard without ceremony. Conversation–and congregation–are often a privilege granted only to those with secure status. At my last part-time faculty position, adjuncts were allotted two hours of office space each week. Each minute felt precious; no time for chit-chat, saying hello to your neighbor, asking about their kids or if they had time for a meet-up later in the week.

I’ve always felt that academia was a bit of a lonely world; quite a statement for an extroverted person like me. Covid’s arrival, with the (somewhat) swift closure of colleges and universities, exacerbated my feelings of isolation, a visceral disconnection from scholars and colleagues. I completed my dissertation in the months pre-vaccine, hiding in a tiny office, a nineties playlist on loop in a failed attempt to drown out the constant sirens outside my Brooklyn apartment building. I defended over Zoom, 500 miles from my committee. After it concluded I closed my computer and hugged my husband. I felt the grief of an alternative scenario which could not be. Celebrating with my advisor. Going out with my cohort. A long, worry-free sleep.

By the time I joined the editorial team for the summer and fall issues, I was back in a physical classroom. However, there was still a deep-rooted sense of academic anonymity. Interactions with colleagues were limited to head nods and hellos behind masks. And even in these moments, there was the ever-present knowledge that many students, peers and mentors were missing—university and other academic spaces decreasingly accessible, some choosing to leave and others forced out. In the name of “normalcy,” we were simultaneously living through a pandemic and already forgetting.

What a gift, then, to be part of this project, to engage with authors who actively resist false narratives of “return,” instead acknowledging the ways the pandemic has changed us, how it continues to change us. What a gift to witness the experiences of writers who’ve navigated covid in myriad ways, and to locate connections between the texts, thus—it is a hopefostering community.

Over the past fourteen months, this editorial process became the type of gathering–a way to congregate on the page–that I had been missing. 



Just starting this project was an act of self-care. I had watched CFP after CFP dance through my inbox during lockdown, some with extended deadlines but most with the same expectations: 8,000-word essays, MLA or APA or Chicago format, original ideas, linear thinking, fancy academic words. While our profession seemed ready and able to re-imagine new ways of teaching as we drowned in isolation and fear, I wasn’t seeing that same creativity applied to our expectations for publishing. Where was the space for the modes of meaning-making most relevant to my life? You know, the ugly sobbing, the crayon drawings on the wall, the sourdough starter, the porch visits with a sick friend, the playlist of movement songs and Cosmic Kids yoga, the late-night freakouts, the frantic whispering, the drive-by preschool graduation parade… those were my pandemic compositions, but there was no space in our profession to share them.



This doesn’t have to be true. I’ve never felt that so clearly as I have while working on this issue. Then again, I have never worked with other academics who so intuitively understood that the act of looking is a necessary and ethical choice but a potentially catastrophic one. Ruth and Jessie grasped without my having to say so that two days, five years, it’s all the same: Appa is dead and the grief stays the same while I accumulate around it like a bezoar.

Wounds are easy to reopen when everything before you is a readied knife. You don’t need experiences like mine to feel the edge of the blade.



So, why not build that space? A personal mantra of mine: when institutions fail, our communities prevail. Our institutions were reluctant to change the models of scholarship, so I realized it was up to us to archive and theorize our pandemic compositions. I was tired of feeling beholden to unchanging standards of academic publishing when everything in the world was changing every day. Instead of agonizing over what wasn’t, self-care pushed us to create what should be.



We received submissions full of content that could be potentially (re)traumatizing to readers of this issue and to us as editors. These writers lost children, parents, siblings, and friends. They endured academic ableism. They suffered illness and medical trauma. They dealt with job insecurity. They struggled with anxiety and depression. They felt the profound burden of caring for themselves and/or others during the pandemic.

During the selection process, we each read everything, and given my own brand of grief and secondary trauma, I could see how the editorial work we had ahead of us was risky. With our own storehouses of grief and trauma and our varying capacities to look, we wanted to ensure, as much as possible, that we wouldn’t exit this endeavor with more scars. We met and openly discussed how to respect our limits—boundaries life had clearly mapped for us; borders we were only just beginning to perceive in the mist—and we agreed that we, as editors, needed to approach these pieces first and foremost with each other in mind.

One of the primary ways we did this was by creating a classification system that accommodated our needs and facilitated reasonable, caring expectations of ourselves and each other regarding our publication timeline. For organizational purposes, we had designed a spreadsheet listing titles, authors, genres, and decision type, and we decided to add a column for descriptive tags that anticipated each other’s needs.

Most of these pieces didn’t come with warnings, so if a theme, idea, or description felt categorically important or wounding to us or an imagined audience, we added a tag. Many of these pieces received more than one. We each read all of the submissions once, and we each added content descriptions that struck us as we read. We didn’t set out with a predetermined classification system. We individually originated labels as needed and standardized their wording across tags for the sake of consistency. When we returned page proofs to the authors, we asked them to approve, veto, change, or add content tags to their pieces. Thus, our final categories are consensus-based, community-specific, steeped in a logic of care.



When I reached out to Vyshali about this project, I prioritized care for myself and my community over academic definitions of rigor. I wanted to create something with my friend that felt doable. That felt affirming and kind and weird–exactly what I needed. When Vyshali enthusiastically agreed to co-edit, I knew I wasn’t alone in needing an outlet for messy scholarship. The trick, then, was finding a home for this project. What a joy and relief when Christina Cedillo, lead editor of the Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics, *got it.* She totally understood the vision of the project and invited us to “explode” the CFP genre. (She didn’t realize it at the time, but once she said yes, Christina committed to uploading over 100 multimodal pieces that bear witness to the grief, creativity, and community of pandemic life. And I will always be grateful.) Something else changed when I decided to prioritize care: when Jessie offered to help with the project, we said yes. Welcoming Jessie onto the team was an act of joy and a resistance to the culture of overwork, of martyrdom. 



It seems counter-intuitive to consider taking on additional labor as an act of self-care, especially as I simultaneously resist academic impulses towards consistent production and constant striving for CV additions. And yet, that CV line is so far from a singular benefit. By working with a team that centers interdependence, accessible production, and mutual care I’ve gained insight into an editorial process that values compassion for all party members, and into writing processes that acknowledge—and emphasize—the vulnerable and messy nature of the world(s) in which we exist.

In class, Disability Studies students and I often talk about Mia Mingus’s concept of access intimacy. Of all the concepts we discuss, this is one that students return to most, “ that elusive, hard to describe feeling when someone else “gets” your access needs” (“Access Intimacy: The Missing Link”). They reflect on moments with partners, family, and friends. The touch of a hand to signal one’s active presence. Bringing meals to peers in covid isolation when the universities did not meet dietary needs. And now, as I reflect on the care of this editorial process, I am struck by the ways access intuition was navigated in this professional space. Before I even had to ask for more time to read submissions (or write my portion of the introduction!) Vy and Ruth provided alternate timelines. Mental health check-ins arrived in the moments anxiety peaked or when getting out of bed felt particularly challenging. The thread of our correspondence on Twitter and email and chat is itself a pandemic composition, stories about vaccine appointments, doctors visits, and diagnoses, interspersed between questions about subject tags and formatting.



In many ways, this project cultivated joy in my professional life: I spent time with friends, laughed while reading a zine about pooping on Zoom (thanks to Franny Howes), and celebrated the resilience of over one hundred writers. I punched the air in celebration when contributor Morgan Hanson emailed us months after her acceptance for no other reason than to share that she had adopted a baby after over six years of trying to become a parent.



This editorial process has been, for me, a far cry from the academic environment where a faculty member prioritized scholarship over Appa’s death, from the colleague who minimized Mullivaikkal, from the countless academics who have suggested that pain stymies productivity and thus belongs to the private sphere.

It doesn’t have to be like this. It does require a collective, tactically coordinated push.

In the end, our communal consensus-based labels include (but aren’t limited to): infant loss; parent death; grad student; pregnancy; cancer; disability; depression; racism; NTT faculty; hospitalization; infertility; family; suicidal ideation; online teaching; anxiety. Assigning tags to each piece allowed us to divide our editorial labor (rereading, commenting, and rereading again) in ways that centered our comfort and well-being. Parent death, hospitalization, and suicidal ideation were important signals to me, giving me the opportunity to say the unspeakable in academia—I can’t do this—and ask Ruth and Jessie to edit those pieces while I took on pieces that felt similarly impossible for them.

Any archive is a nomenclature containing invisible narratives of conflict and compromise, a calibration of shared memory, of the personal and the collective. In keeping with the work of classification, our tags likely speak volumes about us as human beings, how we organize the world, the experiences we foreground, our fears, our demons.



Our methods surprised us. We thought we could replicate our editorial processes from the summer issue for this one. Yet we quickly realized compiling and editing the pieces occurred in a new time, in a new world. The production period–like the pieces themselves–was unique. In the months between the issues, universities continued to erase covid protocols. Conferences were held without mask mandates. And yet also, we witnessed (continue to witness!) productive shifts born from this moment, and active resistance to the exploitation of precarious members of the academy. As I write this, 48,000 teaching assistants, postdocs, researchers and graders in the University of California system are on strike. Fifteen hundred part-time faculty are on strike at the New School. Seventy thousand staff are on strike at colleges and universities throughout the UK. After threat of a strike, adjuncts at NYU will receive a $4,000 raise for each four-credit course, in addition to expanded access to healthcare and other benefits to improve their quality of life.

The grief, the celebration, the joy, the frustration, the rage. This is reflected in our editorial process, the pieces in the issue, and the organization of categories. We hold space for those reflecting on academic overwork and precarity. The stories of sick and disabled people who are attempting to survive in a world that justifies their demise. The experiences of those impacted by racialized violence and other forms of discrimination based on identity.



The fact that we are not attempting exorcisms but giving them names to enable us and others to engage. To remind our community that pain walks among us and seeps into everything we do. It will not be pretended away. It can be the slow death of the spirit, or it can work with us, if we allow ourselves to acknowledge and accommodate it.



But while an editorial ethic of care can bring intimacy and joy, it can also require witnessing other people’s pain. I approached these pieces as I juggled full-time work, parenting without childcare, and a new mental health diagnosis. I imagined navigating this path alongside the writers while being in solidarity when the experiences were outside of my lens. That, to me, is what witnessing requires.

I wept reading Raquel L. DeLeon’s essay about her son’s death in the midst of graduate school and a pandemic. To care for myself, I read in starts and stops, allowing myself to mourn alongside DeLeon for her son while also learning from her advocacy and community-building. Rather than approaching each piece with a critical distance, I allowed myself to stroll with Michelle LaFrance in the cemetery, to feel the vibrations of each step echo in my chest. When Ashton Ray, Ally Whiting, Emily Wieman, Lilith Osburn-Cole, Shelby Ramsey, and Cindy Tekobbe wrote “We Are Too Tired to Give This a Title,” I whispered back, “me too.” I listened to Chen Chen remember the helplessness and fear of living through multiple pandemics, and then I warmed up my voice and “shrieked like peacocks” in solidarity at the rising tide of anti-Asian hate. With each piece, I hoped that listening was enough. In the midst of lockdown, bearing witness felt like all I could do.



I tell my therapist all the time: Pain is repetition. I can’t go on, and I must. I can’t pretend I don’t bleed, and I must. And I can’t. And I must.

There is a reason, I think, that we received nearly 150 submissions, during a collectively traumatizing time, with our CFP that permitted—that outright requested—undiluted expressions of the authentic self, in a forum that counts on a CV, which is unimaginable in academia but doesn’t have to be.

Ultimately, this two-part special issue—and what we want its legacy to be—is saturated in this deceptively easy realization: caring for our contributors’ work could only occur if we enacted self- and mutual care. Editing and copy-editing requires close and careful attention to a given piece, and when that piece contains triggering content, the act of editing becomes a minefield. Making space for the trauma of the writers who trusted us with their stories—colleagues, friends, conference acquaintances, strangers—has been profoundly painful. Even with content tags and carefully divided labor, it was hard to balance editorial distance with empathy, and harder to resist secondary trauma.

Our system of self- and mutual care foregrounded us as human beings with messy lives and painful experiences, instead of machinic, unfeeling editors with hard deadlines. Crip time, which we already set our clocks by, became even more important in this process: that is, we honored our pain in reading and editing these pieces by slowing down when needed. In Zoom meetings and Twitter DMs, we talked about how we felt about the pieces that hurt to read. When my therapist advised me to take breaks, I did, without trepidation, because my co-editors wouldn’t fault me for it.

Our slowness, our informal discussions, our requests for assistance with wording our feedback, or to switch editing assignments due to our fluctuating capacities, ultimately aided our editorial perspective as well.



Now, more than a year since we started this project, I am immensely proud of what Vyshali, Jessie, Christina, the authors, and I have accomplished. But as touchy-feely and lovey-dovey as I am feeling now at the end of this massive project, I also want to emphasize that this is work. I have never created anything that twisted my insides, demanded my attention, and pushed my mind into uncomfortable yet electric postures as much as these two special issues did. And oh, the emails. You can only imagine how many hours I spent emailing with over 100 contributors across the two issues. The invisible drudgery of email, this often undervalued feminized labor (like carework), is what makes possible the discovery that is celebrated in academia. So I want to stress: an editorial ethic of care requires labor. What I hope we offer to the profession is a defiant and generative re-orientation to work, one that can foster community and impact together.

With this issue, we declare that our stories matter, our carework matters, our pain and trauma matter, and our joy matters. And we refuse to let our institutions ignore our weird and messy ways of making sense of the world.



My mentor in graduate school, the memoirist and craft scholar Louise DeSalvo, often reminded her students that one of the most challenging parts of any writing project was letting go of it. As we have moved into the completion stage of the issue, we have had multiple “final meetings.” There always seems to be one more element to discuss, one more task to complete, one more avenue to explore. This project could look very different in a year and it is tempting to let it continue to evolve, to treat the collection as an amorphous being.

But it is time to conclude this process, and to do so knowing other projects will rise from author collaborations, experimentations with language and form, and three editors working in three different cities.



This is ongoing work, and we can’t do it alone.

Make space for these stories. Make space for grief, pain, and trauma in the academy, yours and others, in the individual and collaborative work that you do.


With care and solidarity,

Ruth Osorio, Vyshali Manivannan, and Jessie Male


Hi, I’m Ruth Osorio! In my work life, I am an Assistant Professor of English and Women’s Studies at Old Dominion University. In my home life, I am a mom of two, lover of shelter dogs, avid reader of novels, and aspiring activist. You can check out more of my stuff at


Hi! I’m Jessie Male! Currently I am the Postdoctoral Associate in Disability Studies at The University of Pittsburgh. I’ve previously taught writing and literature courses at NYU Gallatin School of Individualized Study, Ohio State, and Hunter College. Proud union member, rescue dog mom, activist, memoirist, and part-time seller of vintage clothing. More info at


Hi, I’m Vyshali Manivannan, and here’s what’s essential to me about me: I’m a queer disabled Eelam Tamil American, an activist in all the ways my capacities allow, a writer of fiction, nonfiction, lyric prose, and scholarship, cat mom despite my allergies, all about pacing and aggressive rest. In my work life, I’m a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Dept. of Writing and Cultural Studies at Pace University - Pleasantville. More info and links to my work at

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