RSA News

Farewell from outgoing rsa president vanessa beasley

July 2, 2024

A picture of Vanessa Beasley behind a podium.
Dear Members,

As my term as president of RSA comes to an end, I am writing to share a revised and abridged version of the remarks I made at the 2024 biennial conference, which was timed in conjunction with a change in leadership within the RSA Board of Directors. 

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Because RSA does not have an official transfer of a gavel or any other such ceremonial act, I want to take a few minutes to express my gratitude for President-elect Gwendolyn Pough’s service and her vision for the society, including the one made manifest through the 2024 conference and its theme, “Just Rhetoric.”   

You may or may not be aware that the RSA president-elect is tasked with organizing the biennial conference. With her choice of the conference theme, Pough invited us to think of that small-but-mighty modifier “just” in at least two ways: first, by considering how or even if rhetoric can bring various senses of justice into the contemporary moment, informed by the past even at a time when past practices are insufficient and/or exhausted – and even as we know that our iterations of invention will be riddled with disagreement about the best way forward – and second, by affirming rhetoric’s place, power, and possibilities rather than refuting or minimizing its significance. 

Given the scope of the call, Dr. Pough invited conference co-chairs to collaborate on the design of this meeting, and I would like to use this platform to thank them here as well:  Bernadette Calafell, Tamika Carey, Andre Johnson, Lisa King, and Erin Rand. Dr. Pough also convened an additional program committee to ensure attention was given to accessibility, technology, reviewing practices, recognition, and mentoring. I would also like to thank the members of this group: Christina Cedillo, Eric Detweiler, Rebecca Dingo, Allison Hitt, Vox Jo Hsu, Stephanie Jones, Myles Mason, Anita Mixon, Timothy Oleksiak, Kate Siegfried, Rico Self, Jill Swiencicki, Rodney Herring, and John Rief. In addition, I also note the contributions of Casey Boyle, who has given generous amounts of his time to the conference app and website.

On July 1, Gwendolyn Pough will officially become RSA’s president, and I predict our society will flourish under her leadership. This moment also marks the biennial change of leadership within the Board of Directors. I want to acknowledge the dedicated service of the Board members whose terms conclude at the end of June, 2024:  Tamika Carey, Lisa Corrigan, Celnisha Dangerfield, Debra Hawhee, and Theon Hill. These individuals joined the board in the summer of 2020 at a time when we were all trying to imagine how to process loss, fear, anger, and change during the first months of the pandemic and in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd. They joined the RSA Board at a time when it was intentionally committing itself to creating new ways of imagining and acting on its core mission to serve its members. As a central example, they were part of the board that dedicated much of its time to supporting and implementing the vision previously created by the IDEA committee through its strategic plan, work that continues today and that I predict will be long remembered as some of the most consequential work of the society and its membership.  

With their departure, the following newly-elected directors will begin their service: Mikayla Torres, Matthew Houdek, Ryan Skinnell, Allison Prasch, Jen Clary-Lemon, and Erin Rand.

I have devoted a lot of my time so far to stating individual names, and I have done so for a reason. While the concept of a presidency may emphasize a singular individual, or more accurately a single body as symbolic head of an organization, all of that is a myth. Nothing about this society, its work, or our convening happens through one person’s efforts alone.  

Except, perhaps, for Leslie Dinauer’s. Leslie joined RSA as its Executive Director on January 1, 2021. Her impact on the society deserves its own separate epideictic address, and yet I cannot let this moment pass without offering at least a few sentences to praise her. Leslie is the society’s sole employee, and she allegedly works part-time. (If you have ever sent her an email or text and received an almost-immediate response, you have the same questions I do about that status.) Thus it is very important the membership is aware of how much RSA depends on her leadership to function and, indeed, to improve. In ways seen and unseen, she has created systems, opportunities, and collaborations that have made RSA better, just as her commitments to equity, transparency, and fiscal responsibility have driven her decisions and recommendations alike.  Thank you, Leslie.

While these leaders are aligned in their commitment to serve the membership, it is truly up to the membership to sustain the society and design its future. When I think about my own experience with RSA – as a member, as a director, and as president – I see the relentless and courageous pursuit of “getting better at getting better,”  a phrase I’ve learned from one of my colleagues at Trinity University. I appreciate both the humility and the ambition the phrasing of that goal suggests. In terms of humility, you have to be comfortable with knowing that your version of “getting better” and someone else’s are likely to be different, and yours may be incomplete, as it surely is. If we want to be in and build strong communities together, we have to listen to each other and perhaps even commit to some foundational agreements about shared purpose — even as we also know we will make mistakes, leave some questions unanswered, and get tangled up in contradictions along the way. The ambition comes when we decide to do it anyway, adjusting and revising as we go.

That has been my RSA experience. For almost three decades now, RSA has been a place where I could learn, where I could ask questions, and where I could listen. At both the conference and the institute, in webinars and in board meetings, I could do these things not only because there were people in the room/Zoom who were smarter than I am, but also because there was a shared norm to learn, ask, and listen together in ways that were intellectually engaging and yet also humane, generous, and generative.

In that spirit, I end my presidency with deep gratitude to our members. Thank you for being willing to sit with hard questions, profound and/or confounding answers, and with each other. 

You are the society, and the way you imagine its shared future is what RSA will become.  

Best,

Vanessa Beasley
President, Rhetoric Society of America
 

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