Welcome to Praxis: An Interview with James Garner

Welcome! Jimmy_Joe, 2007

Welcome! Jimmy_Joe, 2007


Hi, James! This is kind of a welcome-to-Praxis post, but it’s also a chance for us to get to know you. Welcome! Because I’m a southerner the first thing I always ask someone is where they’re from, so let’s start there. Where are you from, and how did you end up here at the University of Texas at Austin?

Because I too am a southerner, I love talking about where I’m from, so I think this is a great place to start. I originally hail from Augusta, Georgia, which is known primarily for golf (it’s the home of the Augusta National and the Masters golf tournament) and the godfather of soul, James Brown (apparently, our state motto is “We Feel Good”).  We also have killer sweet tea (no, really, as in way too much sugar) and a little hole-in-the-wall called Knuckle Sandwiches, with which Austin’s generally stellar cuisine has yet to compete (if you find yourself in the Garden City between the hours of 9 PM and 2 AM, get the PBR-B-Q). 

Anyway, in late 2010, I completed my undergraduate degree in English literature at what is now called Augusta University (when I graduated, it was Augusta State University). In 2012, I matriculated at the University of Georgia in Athens, GA as an M.A. student. My degree was in English Rhetoric and Composition, culminating with a thesis on rhetorical ethos in John Milton’s Areopagitica (with quite a bit of Paradise Lost) directed by Christy Desmet. Several of my rhetoric classes were more focused on composition pedagogy, and I’d become enamored of classical rhetoric and thinking about its reception in the English Renaissance (particularly the seventeenth century), so it was important to me to have the opportunity to pursue those newfound interests in my Ph.D. study. Once I heard from UT Austin, which has a number of scholars studying both rhetoric and Renaissance literature, I informed one of my recommenders at UGA that I’d been accepted and, before I even heard from any of my other schools, she encouraged me to go ahead and accept their offer. So, last summer, I packed my silver Ford Taurus with as much as it could carry and made the thousand-mile drive from Georgia, and here I am, writing more about Milton, editing Praxis, and regularly eating non-McDonald’s breakfast burritos. Now that I’ve been here for a little over a year, I’m confident that it was the right decision. Not only have I found the faculty and my colleagues to be convivial and encouraging, there’s an intellectual energy here that’s infectious.

How do you think that path has led you to the writing center and to the editorship of Praxis? Have you spent a lot of time in writing centers before now?

While my research interests (which now I’d more specifically define as rhetoric and pamphleteering during the English Civil War) didn’t necessarily include writing center pedagogy, I actually have a long investment in both editorial and writing center work, so my academic path has absolutely led to my editorship of Praxis. As a sophomore, Tim Sadenwasser, the head of AU’s Honors program, recruited me to edit Choice Voice, a small undergraduate journal that publishes the best student essays from the previous year’s freshman composition courses. I took a keen interest in Choice Voice, and after the first year, I found myself not only helping to select essays but also helming layout design, which was something I really enjoyed. Although it was on a much smaller scale than something like Praxis, it definitely contributed to my fondness for editorial work. Likewise, I found myself working in the writing center at the behest of another professor. When I was a rising junior, Wesley Kisting, Augusta University’s Renaissance professor at the time, asked me and a few other students who had just completed his Milton class (you can see how important this would end up being) whether we would be interested in consulting in the writing center, which was undergoing a regime change. To be perfectly, frank, I was working a retail job that was draining the life out of me every time I walked through the door, so I sprinted at the opportunity to start working in the academy, even if in a small way.

Working in Augusta University’s writing center proved to be one of the best decisions I made during my college career. The writing center would become one of the places I’d spend the most time in during those last two years of college. Although I’m sure my first consultations were bumbling and far less helpful than I hoped, I took to the job quickly, and I loved getting to know the students and their work. I learned the place inside out, and by the time I left, I’d taken on quite a bit of responsibility as a senior consultant. A few months after I’d graduated and began working (a job that I enjoyed but wasn’t particularly intellectually stimulating), Logan offered me the chance to return and work as her assistant. Once again, I found myself working in the writing center but in a new role, and I was overjoyed to be back. It really helped me sustain my scholarly development in that season when I wasn’t taking classes. I got to see the inner workings of the writing center, and I even had the chance to manage it while Logan was teaching abroad that summer.

Once I went off to the University of Georgia as an M.A. student, I was disappointed to find out that only Ph.D. students worked in the English department’s writing center. However, a member of my cohort revealed that he’d been tutoring student athletes in the Rankin-Smith Athletic Center, and when he heard about my previous experience working at my alma mater’s writing center, he suggested I apply. I worked there for one semester, and it was equally as rewarding as my previous experience, but in new ways. At Augusta University I’d consult with student athletes occasionally, but working with the same few students every day at Rankin-Smith was illuminating (especially when I’d go on to teach student athletes in my own classes), because I got to see just how rigorous and exhausting the day-to-day experience of a student athlete is. By the time they met with me at 8 AM, my students had already been to practice and worked out in the gym, and then they had a full day of academics ahead of them.

This, of course, brings me to my time at the University of Texas and Praxis. At UT, part of our initial teaching assignment was either working seven hours in the writing center or the Digital Writing and Research Lab. For me, the choice was easy, and I came aboard the University Writing Center in the fall of 2014 as a consultant. I’ve loved every second of it, and I couldn’t ask for better directors than Trish Roberts-Miller and Alice Batt, and better colleagues and co-workers than the graduate and undergraduates who serve our campus.  

Sorry for the long answer, but it’s all to say that I’ve now spent the better part of my adult life thus far working in writing centers in some capacity or another, and I’ve been grateful for the opportunities not only to help student writers hone their craft, but also the opportunities that working in the writing center has afforded me as a teacher and scholar. Owing to my fairly extensive writing center experience, I’m thrilled for the chance to participate in writing center scholarship and continue Praxis’ reputation for publishing top-notch work.

Though you clearly have plenty of WC experience, you taught over the summer and joined the editorial team when the Fall semester started, so you’re still fairly new to editing Praxis. What do you notice coming in? Is there anything you’re still figuring out, or anything you find more enjoyable than you expected?

When I first joined the team, I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of what the work flow/load would be like, but so far, you and Sarah [Orem, former managing editor] have the Praxis review machine fairly well oiled and easy to run. I think for the day-to-day responsibilities, I have a good grasp of my duties, but I still find it daunting to think about Praxis over the next couple of years, and even beyond that. This, I’m sure, will become less intimidating over time. 

As far as things I find more enjoyable than I thought I would, I definitely relish the opportunity to correspond with luminaries of writing center scholarship and publish exciting new work by up-and-coming scholars. So far, the best feeling has been getting to send acceptances to fellow graduate students like myself.   

I agree that sending out positive editorial decisions is a lot of fun – I especially like knowing that what Praxis’ reviewers and authors do pushes the field forward while also helping individual careers – but what do you think is the most important thing about being the editor of an academic journal, from your point of view?

So, this is all going to be me speaking from my extremely limited (four weeks?) experience, but so far I’ve observed that being able to multi-task and ensuring quick and clear communication with both your submitters and reviewers is vital. You’re juggling any number of projects at one time to get the issue out by the deadline, and as long as you’re able to remain organized and efficient, it isn’t too much of a problem. I’ll be interested to see what happens as we get down to our deadline, but I can say I’m grateful to have you to guide me through the process. 

As far as quick and clear communication is concerned, I think we can all agree that there are few things more frustrating than receiving largely useless feedback after waiting the seemingly interminable amount of time it can take to hear back from a journal when you’ve submitted a manuscript. One of the many things I admire about what Praxis strives for is returning clear discursive feedback to our submitters in a timely manner. We encourage our reviewers to be kind but thorough, and as someone striving for publication of my own work, I’m glad that we try to return to our submitters useful feedback that will ultimately help them get their manuscript published, even if not in Praxis.

While you’re still figuring things out, you’ve got two years as managing editor. Do you have plans for making changes or starting any new initiatives during your tenure as managing editor?

With a new job, you don’t want to just walk in and start moving the furniture around, so to speak. Southern gentility and decorum aside, though, I do have some ideas for new initiatives over the long run on both the audience side and editorial side.

With respect to our audience, I’m thinking about how we can increase our use of social media platforms (further cultivating our Twitter presence, perhaps Instagram, as well) to bring Praxis to a wider audience within writing center studies. Obviously, our blog is meant to do this and is, I think, the most substantial way we can draw more attention to Praxis. It’s a great way to keep in touch with our readership between issues. But I’m also interested in what Praxis can do to serve the writing center community in larger ways, especially through the Praxis Research Exchange, as well as on our own campus here at UT.  I’d also like to find some ways to build and strengthen our relationship with other writing center journals—I’m still not sure exactly how that would manifest, but given that collaboration is one of the primary goals of the writing center in our pedagogy, I think it makes sense within our editorial practice, too. Finally, I have a soft spot for guest editors and special issues, so I’d love to have the opportunity to manage and help out with a couple of those.

 From the side of the editors, I’m interested in further improving Praxis’s editorial apparatus, and one of my big initiatives before my tenure ends will be coming up with a Praxis style bible. I’m not sure how this will play out, but my aim is to have a single, unified document that further encourages consistency and quality in our publication. I’m not sure whether we’ll make that available for submitters, but at least from our side, I think it would be useful to have our aesthetic and stylistic aims consolidated in one document to smooth the transition as new editors take over.

I think that sounds amazing! However, I remember that in your interview, I asked you what your biggest fault was and you said that you worked too hard. I think that’s sort of a common problem among academics, even one that academia self-selects for. Especially with new initiatives on the horizon, how do you see that playing out as editor, and do you think that having to balance your editorial duties and your research is harder or easier than balancing teaching and research? Or is that even a comparison that can be made?

If it isn’t a fair comparison, I’m going to try to make it one! The answer I gave always runs the risk of sounding like the standard, formulaic, and cliché interview answer (“I care too much”). I went with it, though, because I think academia definitely attracts people who have little to no sense of work-life balance (and to be fair, you can’t always have a work-life balance when you’re teaching, researching, and grading endlessly), and I am—much to my own chagrin sometimes—chief among sinners. This has benefits, of course: I can see this playing out especially once we get toward our deadline because I usually have no problem pushing forward and working until a job is done and done well. The downside to this, of course, is that I sometimes want to have too much control, so learning to delegate tasks to our copyeditors is going to be crucial once I take the reins next year.  

It’s interesting that you asked about balancing the responsibilities of editing and research versus the responsibilities of teaching and research because I don’t think one is always harder than the other, so much as there are particular ways in which one is harder than the other. So, for instance, on the whole (and this is so far, as we’re waiting to hear back from this current round of reviewers), I find that editing is less time consuming than teaching in many ways; despite that, there are also many ways that teaching and scholarship can benefit each other. With teaching and being a scholar, you have the opportunity to try out your research in a classroom setting on a semi-willing audience (for example, while teaching this summer, I was able to test out ideas from a paper I was writing about a text my students were reading to see how clearly I was articulating my thoughts), but you can have far less time to be a scholar because you’re planning lessons and grading while squeezing in some time to write. In that way, if you’re strategic about it, there can be a symbiotic relationship between teaching and scholarship as they feed into one another. Being a graduate student, of course, complicates things because you’re also in classes and doing your best to tie all of your myriad responsibilities together to try and be at least a little efficient. In that way, teaching can be a time sink that drains the amount of time you have to conduct your own research, but there are more opportunities to feed your research into your pedagogy.

With editing, I think there are different benefits—you have more time, but you don’t get to try out your ideas as often if your primary areas of interest aren’t necessarily the same as the publication that you’re editing. At the moment (until late October or so), I have more time to be a scholar than I do when I’m teaching, which will help me with this last round of course work and some major academic milestones I have coming up. In that way, I actually think my research will benefit from my editorial work, if mainly by virtue of having the additional time free during which I would have been planning classes and grading free. The downside to editing, though, is that I don’t get the chance to try out my ideas on a more regular basis. Time is always the thing that we wish we had more of, so there’s something to be said for having a little more of it, even if only for a little while. I can’t say, then, that balancing one set of responsibilities is more challenging than balancing the other, but they have different benefits and drawbacks.

Thanks for the questions, and I’m excited to be a part of Praxis and to get involved in writing center scholarship, and I’m really looking forward to attending the IWCA conference on behalf of Praxis this year. If you’re reading this, don’t be afraid to say hello! 

Thanks for the answers, James! I’m glad to work alongside you and I think your tenure here will be exciting. I’m proud of the work Praxis does and I think you’ll be a great steward of the journal.