Erec Smith

Interview by Allison Ellsworth

What would you like to share with readers about your upbringing/background? Where are you from? Where did you grow up etc?

I grew up in Southern New Jersey, about 20-30 minutes outside of Philadelphia depending on where in the city one was going. My neighborhood was predominately white and anti-black racism—macroaggression, if you will—was a daily occurrence. However, after 8th grade, I was slated to attend the regional high school, which was extremely diverse. I thought I’d find a haven among the black students. Unfortunately, my neighborhood upbringing made me too “white” in their eyes. I learned at a young age that people can look down on you for very different reasons and that group-affiliation was arbitrary and based on rules—what I would later call “ideology” or “Discourse”—that are not necessarily apparent or rational.

How did you become interested in Rhetoric?

What my answer to the previous question taught me was that people can say the same thing—e.g., “You suck, Erec,” for different reasons (e.g., “You’re too black” or “You’re not black enough”). I realized that much of my misfit status came from the disconnect between who I was and who I was being cast as in their respective group narratives. I didn’t fit the script in either case. I didn’t realize that this had anything to do with rhetoric; I didn’t even know what rhetoric was. However, I did know that “how” we expresses ourselves was as important as “what” we expressed.

What made you decide to pursue a career in academia as a rhetorician?

I entered graduate school to earn an MA in English Literature. The first class I took was called “Theories of the Sublime,” in which we read authors like Longinus, Kant, Zizek, and Jameson. I had a rough go of it at first, but I eventually learned to love the course. Upon expressing that to the professor, he suggested I look into the program titled “Language, Literacy, and Rhetoric”; I may find work there that aligned more with the writers and theories discussed in class. He was right, and the rest is history.

What aspects of academic life do you find inspiring/fulfilling?

I like the idea of “the life of the mind.” I also like the idea that anything is an academic topic. You can write about anything from bullshit (See Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit) to pro-wrestling (see Roland Barthes’ Mythologies). Lastly, I like the idea the world is an ongoing conversation, what Michael Oakeshott called “The Conversation of Mankind”—or “humankind,” as it should be—and what Hannah Arendt called the sine qua non of the Vita Activa. As many a philosopher has said, it is language and conversation that most distinguishes us from the animals. As an academic, I see myself as one of the people responsible for cultivating and improving that conversation.

If you could change only a few things about academia, what would they be and why?

I would change the illiberal direction in which I see it going. Disagreement, if not debate, is not only becoming rare; it is becoming demonized as a subcategory of violence or bullying. If we can’t disagree and express that disagreement, the aforementioned conversation of humanity will wane into pre-accepted talking points and new knowledge will be harder to discover.

Would it be fair to say that your writing projects/foci changed dramatically over the course of your academic career?
Yes, in 2019, when I realized how far adrift the field was (see my previous answer) my research and writing interests changed. I went from having an interesting in rhetorical analysis and the confluence of rhetoric and Buddhist philosophy to having a duty to combat what I saw as an illiberal turn in academia. Now, I write about the causes and effects of that turn and the efficacy of rhetoric and viewpoint diversity in civil society.

How has your life changed since A Critique of Anti-Racism in Rhetoric and Composition was published?

Writing that book has gotten most of its attention outside of academia. Because of this, I find myself in non-academic or, at best, academia-adjacent spaces more than ever. I believe this is important to shed light on the problems in my field so that others can see what’s going on. (They say sunlight is the best disinfectant.) Presently, I find myself writing in a more “outward facing” direction, for an audience that may or may not consist of academics. I do miss the deep dive of a traditional scholarly essay, but I think the writing I do currently is too important to abandon right now.

In your bio on the Kendall Hunt website, you thank many individuals for their support in writing with Matthew Abraham your latest book, The Lure of Disempowerment. Interestingly, you also thank your detractors for giving you reason to write your new book. Do you honestly feel gratitude for the attacks on your character and scholarship? If so, how does this attitude help you deal with the stresses that I assume come from these sorts of uncivil attacks?

Yes, I do. If it weren’t for the ill-treatment that pushed me beyond academia, I would not have gone beyond academia. I would not have the successes I’ve had in the past few years. Being ostracized forced me to do different things to be heard, which has led me to where I am today. Also, it helped me hone the ability to channel negative energy into positive and productive energy, which I think is one of the most valuable skills a person can cultivate.