Catching up with ASU English chair Krista Ratcliffe

By

Kristen LaRue

Krista Ratcliffe’s first semester at Arizona State University began in a cloud of dust.

The new chair of one of the largest English departments in the U.S. arrived on the Arizona State University campus in Tempe in late summer 2017. She took the helm just as renovations were being finalized on ASU English’s new administrative home, Ross-Blakley Hall. Formerly ASU’s law library, the building required a creative transformation from a book storage facility to a suitable people-centered one.

One of Ratcliffe’s early tasks was to tour the in-progress space, so she set off across campus in the heat to don the requisite construction vest and hard hat.

“I was amazed by the cool architectural style,” she said. “I was equally amazed that the university had invested the financial and physical resources in the humanities and in the Department of English more specifically. I took that as a sign that ASU is interested in promoting the work of our Writing Programs, especially their role in the retention of first-year students, and also in promoting ASU as a leading place for discussing the importance of humanities and their interdisciplinary intersections in the twenty-first century. The latter is visibly represented by the Institute for Humanities Research’s being in the same building.”

With all these thoughts swirling, Ratcliffe tried to imagine the place as anything other than covered in drywall dust. She tried to imagine the different ways it would serve her colleagues and students — most of whom she had yet to meet. She tried to imagine herself in this space.

Aerial view of cubicles in the new English Department building
English's new space in Ross-Blakley Hall features soaring ceilings, floor-to-ceiling windows, and ample doses of color. Chair Krista Ratcliffe calls it "a lovely rendition of mid-century architectural style." Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Then she stepped out into that sweltering July heat and got to work. 

Ear to the ground

The Department of English completed its move into Ross-Blakley Hall last September. Since her trial-by-construction, Ratcliffe has settled into a routine in the Department of English, handling issues large and small with a dose of Midwestern practicality.

Ratcliffe was previously head of the Department of English at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, and before that, chair of the English department at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In her administrative jobs as well as in her scholarship, Ratcliffe continues to demonstrate a commitment to hearing others’ viewpoints. Ratcliffe cultivates what she calls “rhetorical listening” in order to move ideas forward most harmoniously.

“Rhetorical listening,” she explained, “is choosing to put your ideas alongside someone else's ideas in order to see where they may lead.”

“I'm basically a collaborative person,” Ratcliffe said. “I have a lot of faith in other people's intelligence and insights; consequently, I believe the best ideas and the best outcomes are generated collectively.”

Ratcliffe has authored two books on the concept: “Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness” (2006) and “Silence and Listening as Rhetorical Arts” (2011).

“My scholarly focus is on how this process may foster cross-cultural conversations in the public sphere,” she said, “in rhetoric and composition scholarship, and in the classroom, particularly in terms of race and gender and their intersections.”

Krista Ratcliffe and Patrick Kenney at Ross-Blakley Hall open house on Oct. 31, 2017 / Photo by Bruce Matsunaga
Krista Ratcliffe (left) and Patrick Kenney greet guests at the open house celebration for Ross-Blakley Hall on Oct. 31, 2017. Photo by Bruce Matsunaga

The dust clears

For her extensive rhetorical expertise, Ratcliffe is frequently engaged as a consultant. This past October, she traveled to Sweden, where a new national curriculum requires that rhetoric be taught in all secondary schools for the purpose of encouraging democratic deliberation. Ratcliffe was one of four experts in the field from the U.S. who convened at Örebro University with Swedish rhetoric scholars and secondary teachers as well as with other European scholars to discuss just what a “rhetorical education” might look like.

And of course, there are awards. This January, the National Council of Teachers of English announced the prestigious 2018 CCCC Outstanding Book Award in the edited collection category for “Rhetorics of Whiteness: Postracial Hauntings in Popular Culture, Social Media, and Education” co-edited by Ratcliffe with Tammie Kennedy (University of Nebraska) and Joyce Middleton (East Carolina University). Essays in the book explore — and argue against — the notion that America has moved beyond issues of race in its political and social discourses.

This is Ratcliffe’s second time winning a CCCC Outstanding Book Award, the first for “Rhetorical Listening.”

In typical fashion, Ratcliffe was gracious in receiving congratulations for the honor but pointed out that several ASU scholars’ articles were also represented in her laudatory volume, including those by English faculty Lee Bebout, Ersula Ore and Keith Miller who co-authored with doctoral student Casie Moreland. Retired faculty member Sharon Crowley provided a provocative epigram.

Amidst her packed schedule, Ratcliffe answered a few questions about her award-winning book, her journey to ASU, and her goals for the ASU Department of English.

New ASU English chair Krista Ratcliffe talks with other ASU faculty and staff at the Ross-Blakley Hall open house on October 31, 2017 / Photo by Bruce Matsunaga
Krista Ratcliffe talks with other ASU faculty and staff members at the Ross-Blakley Hall open house celebration on Oct. 31, 2017. Photo by Bruce Matsunaga

Question: Your “Rhetorics of Whiteness” book, published in 2016, is certainly timely in its discussion of American race relations. What led you to that project? Did events over the past year make it seem somewhat prescient, and if possible, even more relevant?

Answer: In the early 2000s, my co-editors and I had been invited to co-edit a special issue of the journal Rhetoric Review, focusing on how whiteness studies could inform rhetoric and composition theory and pedagogy. Since that time, we have continued talking about racialized whiteness.

When Barack Obama was re-elected president in 2012, we became fascinated by two paradoxes: (1) as whiteness studies was waning a bit in the academy, "white" was becoming an operative term in daily journalism, particularly in terms of reporting voter demographics and (2) while President Obama’s elections were being used to define the 21st century as “post-racial,” white was becoming a visible term in daily journalism, in movie titles ("Dear White People"), in award show speeches, etc. So we decided to put out a call for an edited collection about how whiteness haunts our lives in the 21st century and see what emerged. From our contributors we learned that whiteness haunts novels, films, TV shows with closed-captioning, TV shows starring black women, online dating sites, Facebook, state laws, textbooks, national testing, Rolling Stone covers, the Oval Office, and philosophy.  

As for the events of the last year, yes, they have generated an interest in the book. For the past three years, I have been invited to universities to talk about cultural logics of race in the U.S. (e.g., white supremacy, colorblindness, separatism, multiculturalism, critical race studies). People want to learn concepts and tactics for talking about race.

Q: Moving locally now, what was it about ASU and the job that drew you?

A: I love the beauty of Arizona, particularly the desert landscape. For several years I have visited friends here at Thanksgiving and during spring break. But what drew me to accept the job at ASU was the mission and the people. As for mission, I respect the dual focus on access and excellence ... and love the fact that these two goals are imagined at ASU as reciprocal, not opposing. I also like the innovative spirit at ASU — that is, that people are willing to try new things and that failure is imagined as simply a step toward success. As for people, I was impressed when I visited with how nice, smart, and energetic the people were in both the English department and in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Q: What has been your biggest challenge so far at ASU? Biggest surprise?

A: The biggest challenge was (and still is) learning all the people, policies, and procedures at ASU, while trying to maintain a research agenda that includes travel (I spoke in Texas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Sweden last semester). But I must say that I've had wonderful support in the English department and in Liberal Arts and Sciences. I couldn't have asked for more supportive coworkers.

My biggest surprise was when I was called out of a visiting scholar’s talk thinking I had an urgent problem to solve and discovered the staff simply wanted to sing "Happy Birthday" to me.

Q: What are your short- and long-term goals for the ASU Department of English?

A: My first goal was to meet people in the department and find out what was important to them, which is no small task given the size of the English department. My first charges from our college were to review our online programs, to update our governance documents, to get a handle on our budget, and to move the department into a new building, Ross-Blakley Hall. (Because the planning for our new building had been in place for more than a year and was being run by a very efficient team of departmental members — thank you, Doris Warriner, Kristen LaRue, Kristin Rondeau-Guardiola, Bruce Matsunaga, and Sarah Saucedo — all I had to do was pack and follow their directions!). Those four items took up a large part of the fall semester, along with all the other regular chair duties such as promotion and tenure, hiring, etc.

As for long-term goals, I plan to survey the English faculty and staff this spring to determine their priorities. Some items to discuss might include considering curriculum design at the undergraduate and graduate levels, negotiating partnerships across units, and reviewing our promotion guidelines. I look forward to reading the feedback from this survey and then developing a three- or four-year plan, although as fast as things move at ASU we'll have to make sure the plan is flexible.

Q: How do you see English’s recent move to Ross-Blakley Hall impacting its mission and goals?

A: The building is beautiful, a lovely rendition of mid-century architectural style. Ross-Blakley's location across from the College of Liberal Arts and Science's new building, Armstrong Hall, with its new Future Center for students, will help create a hub for students who need to see teachers, advisers, and career specialists in a one-stop venue. Ross-Blakley Hall’s open concept is conducive to conversations among faculty, staff and students because we run into one another much more than we did in the Language and Literature Building. As such, the hope is that Ross-Blakley Hall will foster collaborative work and will help build community among these groups. But as with all moves, there are adjustments that we are all making to the new space, and it is important that going forward we attend to the adjustment issues that arise.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

A: I am VERY grateful for all the support I've received, especially from the English department but also from the college; every new chair should be so fortunate as to have a dean like Elizabeth Langland, interim dean of humanities in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. And a side benefit of living in Arizona is: I now have a lot of friends who want to come visit me!