This interview introduces Candace Epps-Robertson, Ph.D., a collaborator with Heart-Head-Hands, facilitator of writing groups, and co-creator of the new offering, “Pathways Through Burnout: A Cohort Experience.”
Candace is a writer, researcher, and educator with deep commitments to justice and more than twenty years of experience in literacy education. She is also Associate Professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she teaches writing and rhetoric courses, including rhetoric and social justice, the history of writing, life writing, and professional writing in the arts.
I am incredibly excited about this interview because Candace speaks to a wide range and depth of curiosities. Her related work ranges from reflecting on her journey as part of the BTS global fandom ARMY to curating museum exhibits to teaching writing with visual art and music to caring holistically for ourselves as writers and to navigating burnout. Candace describes the underlying motivations—the deep why—behind the range of questions she asks about social justice, cultural rhetorics, literacy, and writing. It’s clear that this range speaks to the importance of everyday, integrated living for justice: for striving toward justice in all ways of showing up and being in the world—relating, listening, and living.
Of note, Candace discusses her first book, Resisting Brown: Race, Literacy, and Citizenship in the Heart of Virginia, which won the 2019 Coalition for Community Writing Book Award. And she addresses her current work, which includes wanting to hold space for BIPOC writers and caregivers. Candace brings together many positionalities and commitments in her writing, her teaching, and her coaching. These weave together personal and family stories with questions about literacy, education, and citizenship.
I am so grateful to have connected with Candace since early 2020: co-learning and co-creating in writing groups along with other writers and sharing our stories of burnout, realizing how isolated we felt and how much we desire to be in community. Over this time, we’ve recognized that we share many commitments and deeply value relational approaches. We also share histories of working in and out of higher education, and we share the disciplinary home of writing studies.
I’ll add that Candace is one of the people I trust most with my own writing. I’ve appreciated writing feedback, questions, and prompts she’s offered me over the past few years. She’s curious about what writing can do in the world and how we can honor each other as writers. I see how she interrupts injustice and shows up with deep integrity. I trust her deeply, and I feel honored to co-creating and co-facilitating groups with her now.
In addition to reading this interview, I hope you’ll navigate over to Candace’s website to learn more about her research and her work with writers. And please reach out if you’d like to learn more about joining writing groups or pathways through burnout. Contact me and contact Candace. Anytime.
Q&A with Dr. Candace Epps-Robertson: Writing, Reading, Resting, and Listening with and from Home
1. Candace, I learn so much from you. Every time we talk, it’s something new about BTS or museums or caregiving (and so so so many more things!). How would you describe the work you do and the directions your research and teaching take?
Thank you, Beth. I hope you know that I learn so much from you as well. If I’d had this question ten years ago, just coming out of graduate school and preparing for my first year on the tenure track, I would have had a very concise answer. I would have told you I work in cultural rhetorics and literacy studies, focusing on rhetorical education. (Wow, I can still remember that!) While my work is still grounded in those areas, when I’m asked now about my research and teaching, I rely much more on telling stories as a means of expressing my commitments.
Now, looking back at the interests I brought with me into graduate school—my lived experiences as a Black woman from the South, the experiences I had as a student, a parent, caregiver, and the many questions and curiosities I have—I think I would describe myself as someone interested in asking questions about how people understand what it means to be a citizen of the world. I know when I hear the term “global citizen,” I’m curious about how people are using it, especially in relation to education. How do we teach global citizenship in a world with so much violence and injustice? It’s a term that has such a contested history especially for underrepresented and marginalized communities. What does it mean to learn to be a global citizen? That feels like a broad (almost too big) question, but it best represents how curious I am about how people understand what it means to be present and engaged in the world, to find our place, and to foster connections with others. I often think of my grandmother, Kathryn W. Anderson, who was born and raised in the South in the late 1920s and experienced many injustices in her life but was always seeking ways to be present and active in her community in small and big ways. I think of her often because my curiosity about the world was nurtured so much by her.
I recognized early that school is not the only place learning occurs. From museums and fandoms to places of worship and crafting clubs, many spaces offer opportunities for us to learn and think about what it means to be in community with one another. That’s not to suggest that any one place is better than another and that there aren’t problems everywhere regarding how we learn what it means to be a global citizen. Still, I am most interested in the spaces that are not “traditional” schools. These various spaces hold implications for us to consider or reconsider what matters when we talk about learning. They help us understand what it means to identify as part of a local (sometimes chosen) community and part of the wider world. Often, these spaces inspire thinking critically about our place in the world, by starting with shared interests or commitments.
While I appreciate thinking about how schools teach citizenship and can inspire us to ask questions about community through their curricula and pedagogy, I like learning about how individuals create their own global citizenship education (sometimes unknowingly) through different lived experiences. Trying to answer these questions means that my research has taken me into archives—like my first book project on the Prince Edward County Free School Association, where I looked at the literacy program designed to support students locked out of education when public schools closed to resist integration. Right now, my two primary sites for exploring how people think and learn about what it means to be in community are my work with museums and my experience with fandom.
At the center, the questions that I keep coming back to are how these spaces—whether it be an art museum or a group of ARMY friends from around the world—how it is that these spaces offer us opportunities to think about what it means to be in a community with one another. How do these spaces offer their own curricula and pedagogies around global citizenship?
When I ask these questions, I bring a deep commitment from my lived experiences. I’ve been visiting museums since I was a child, and my first memory of museums was that this was a place for quiet and slowing down; it felt very different from other spaces for learning. Visiting museums is a constant in my life, and I feel like some museum spaces attempt to have us think critically about our place in the world. I’ve been teaching now for just over twenty years, and I think having students engage with art is another way to invite us to learn about the lived experiences of others. I also appreciate that some museum experiences invite us to slow down in a way that can be quite different from how we experience text, especially online.
When it comes to my fandom experience, I’m a huge fan of BTS and consider myself a member of their ARMY fandom, which came much later in life. I learned about BTS from my oldest daughter, and at the start, it was a learning experience not just about the group but also about fandom traditions and practices as well as Korean language and culture.
In the beginning, when Phoenix began learning about BTS, I was curious and respectful, but I didn’t anticipate that I’d become a fan. What interested me was not only the music itself but the fact that she was so committed to being part of this community and that it made her so happy. At the time, she read translations, was self-teaching Korean, and was eager to learn more about Korean history and culture. She was so excited and motivated to learn, so of course, as an educator, I wanted to know more about these self-driven independent studies.
There was joy from experiencing the music, and there was joy in the learning and engagement she had with other ARMYs. I loved seeing her so happy and had no idea I’d experience the same joy and connection. For me, this learning has meant reflecting on what it means to be an older fan and continuing to ask questions about what it means to learn in fandom spaces. People are connecting over BTS’s music, and for some, this also means deep learning about oneself and others.
Check out this interview with Candace for more about BTS, ARMY fandom, and the BTS Syllabus Project.
So, yes, big questions and lifelong learning underlie all these interests—these seasons of life—and hopefully are pointing me toward expansive literacy and justice-oriented work. I’m committed to research and teaching aligned with and enriching life experience. That’s true both looking back and toward the future.
2. How does this current work grow out—and even point to the larger story (lived experience)—of writing your first book, Revisiting Brown: Race, Literacy, and Citizenship in the Heart of Virginia?
My first book came from my dissertation, and I wrote that dissertation as a way to go home.
Sometimes I say this jokingly, but I don’t think it’s a joke. It’s absolutely true. While I enjoyed my experience as a graduate student (in Syracuse, New York), I longed to go home (back to Richmond, Virginia). I wrote my dissertation as a way to go home, to honor the people and stories that nurtured me, and as a way to attempt to answer questions about histories of literacy and social justice. I wanted to feel connected to the people who raised me during a time when I felt pretty homesick. I was fortunate to have a good experience as a graduate student. I felt supported, but at the same time, I had a deep longing to return home, not just physically but emotionally, relationally, and spiritually. For many, graduate school is like baptism by fire: navigating a new university and department culture, new ways of thinking and learning, and trying to figure out who I was in relation to a discipline that didn’t quite feel like home is hard. It made sense that I wanted to connect with familiar stories and people, and I also thought that they knew me in a way graduate school could not.
My grandmother, Kathryn W. Anderson, was born and raised in Farmville, Virginia, a small town in Prince Edward County. After Brown vs. The Board of Education, Prince Edward County resisted integrating public schools by closing them. White leaders in the county literally closed the entire public school system as part of Massive Resistance. White officials in the county worked to create and operate private schools that were funded by state vouchers and tax credits.
The Black community responded in a number of ways: grassroots organizing through churches and Black teachers who were now without work, homeschooling, and coordinating efforts with the American Friends Service Committee, along with many other actions. Four years into the school closures, The Prince Edward County Free Schools, the subject of my first book, came about because of efforts from Prince Edward’s Black community, President John F. Kennedy’s administration, and many others who were determined to bring public education back to the county for Black children.
I grew up with stories about Prince Edward, which I often recall as being whispered and shouted. Whispered because there was so much pain and hurt. And shouted because there was joy, community, and hope even amid that hurt. My grandma left Prince Edward before she finished high school, but my mom spent her first five years there with her grandmother while her mom worked, and she would spend her summers there. So my mom had stories, too.
I wrote my dissertation because it was an opportunity to return home to people who cared about me and to stories I’ve had with me since before I went to school. The dissertation was the groundwork for the book, and I kept a similar energy and intention while working on the book. I wanted to return home.
I also knew that I wanted an opportunity to continue working with these questions about how literacy is connected to citizenship and examining how the Black community has worked to provide access and opportunity to education for their children. So, I wrote that dissertation and the book to answer larger questions about social histories of rhetoric, literacy and citizenship, and African American rhetoric. Still, I also wrote it to honor the people and stories that nurtured me.
When I finished that project in 2018, it became clear that I wanted to continue thinking about citizenship education, pedagogy, and literacy, but not necessarily in connection to “traditional schools.” I remember during an interview, I asked one of the former Free School students about where they learned about citizenship practices. They said that it wasn’t so much through formal education but through their community and family: from places of worship, family stories, and role models within the community. I knew this, of course, but there was something about hearing it from someone else that was a lightbulb moment for me regarding how I would approach these questions next.
In 2018, I was introduced to BTS through my daughter, and it really did change not only my research trajectory but my life too. In many ways, my fandom experience has been my own global citizenship education. I recognized, and continue to learn, how fandom is a space for learning. I think there are still a lot of misconceptions around what it means to be a fan of pop culture. And in particular, for a Black woman who is a fan of Korean pop culture, there are lots of assumptions about my connection to the music and fandom experience.
While most of my work in this area to date has been more academic focused (I’ve given several talks, such as the one I did in 2020 for the Korean Embassy in DC, published about ARMY and transcultural fandom, and with Dr. Jinha Lee, I maintain the #BTSSyllabus project), I think what I’m feeling drawn to right now is more personal reflection and writing about what it means to be a fan and what this experience is teaching me. There’s something about my ARMY experience that feels very personal and, at the same time, has made me think about my place in the world in different ways—with experiences and connections—than I’d ever imagined. At this point, I am working on two projects: the first is a more academic exploration of the ARMY fandom and its social justice work, and the second is more memoir-like, as I reflect on my experiences as a Black, middle-aged woman from the South who is a huge fan of BTS.
Take a break to listen to and watch the music video for “Spring Day,” one of Candace’s favorite BTS songs.
My teaching and writing about museum work are also crucial to these questions. I’ve had the pleasure of curating an installation for two of my classes (one last spring, one this fall). I enjoy curating in connection to teaching because there are ways that we can engage with art that feel different from text. Being in the museum offers an opportunity to slow down and connect in ways that can be difficult to achieve in the classroom. I want to make more time for writing and doing this work: working with museums to develop programs and writing experiences around issues like art, social justice, community, and care.
I share all of this, as I am providing support for writers and reaching into the work of supporting museum curators, researchers, organizers, caregivers, and caregivers. I see life pointing me in this direction, and if you’d like to connect, please reach out.
3. I’m so grateful to be co-facilitating writing groups with you, and I know you’re interested in offering other writing support. What are you hoping to create, and who are you hoping to connect with?
Yes, our paths first crossed through sharing space in writing groups. I enjoy working with you and the many writers who find their way to our groups. For me, writing alongside others makes the process feel less isolating. I discovered your writing groups at the beginning of the pandemic, and that was when I questioned what it meant to be productive as a writer (one of many moments). I was longing for connections with others.
Facilitating writing groups has allowed me to continue to witness the power of what happens when we can hold space for writers from all paths to come together, to share the ups and downs of writing, and to acknowledge that for many of us, it can be hard to show up for writing. Still, the first step, or word on the page, often feels less intimidating with others who are supportive and understanding around you.
As I think about my current work and the work I feel called to do, I would like to create writing groups and writing support specifically for caregivers and BIPOC. As a Black woman who spent most of her working life in higher ed, I have significantly benefited from spaces where I could find support, empowerment, and understanding of the complexities of being a Black scholar. Alternatively, I know what it’s like to be in spaces without this support that considers our lived experiences. I would like to offer online writing groups and one-with-one coaching for BIPOC writers where our perspectives and experiences can be centered, and we can have conversations about what it means to be a writer not only in higher ed settings but in any setting where we are underrepresented.
I also know that even if we identify as BIPOC, we don’t all bring the same stories and experiences, so I think it’s important to acknowledge that I’m not talking about a space that collapses experiences. Instead, I hope to offer writing spaces and coaching that affirm the uniqueness of our identities and experiences and also where we can feel seen and not othered. Such offerings are ways to continue to disrupt the whiteness in academic publications and certainly in my own field.
Similarly, I know the importance of holding space for caregivers. I have spent the entirety of my academic career navigating writing and caregiving. I have two children. My mother was diagnosed with ALS during my first year on the tenure track. My father has a complicated health history that has required care. I’ve written in hospital waiting rooms, carpool lines, and between my physical therapy sessions. I share this because caregiving has undoubtedly impacted me in many ways.
For example, I am still learning how it has influenced how I see myself as a writer. I know that there have been many instances when I’ve not allowed myself to use that title of “writer” (even after my first book!) because I’m not someone who can write quickly or can write every day, and these are attributes I believed “writers” to have. I know that’s not true, but it’s taken me such a long time to say that I am a writer, and no less a writer, because I use my van as a mobile office!
I’ve been working this summer to imagine what it would be like to have writing groups designed for caregivers. I’m thinking about the support and flexibility caregivers need and the desire to still have some space for ourselves. I don’t see this as an academic writing support group at all. Indeed, academics who identify as caregivers would be welcome to attend, but I hope this would be a space where we could use writing to care for ourselves. I’ve been keeping a list of writing prompts and questions for reflection that range from silly and imaginative to holding space for grief and fear.
4. This imaginative + creative work feels connected to our collaborative offering, too: “Pathways Through Burnout: A Cohort Experience.” What are your hopes for the cohort? And how is your experience with burnout informing the experience we’re co-creating?
I hope we can co-create a space that helps people feel it is possible to hope, imagine, and rest. During my own burnout seasons, on top of the physical and mental exhaustion, I was often left feeling that these three things were impossible. They either felt impossible because of the fatigue, or they felt frivolous. It’s hard to imagine anything when operating from a place of energy deficit.
I also hope that together, we can reflect on the systemic issues often at the root of burnout. While it’s true that we all have our own stories and experiences, more often than not, systemic injustices are contributing to burnout. As someone who is always thinking about language, I’m very aware of how so much of the language around burnout often frames it as an individual problem that can be solved through better habits, attention to one’s schedule, or self-care.
While those things can help, they don’t address the complexity of burnout, and they often make it seem that burnout is something that you are responsible for and that you can fix on your own. I don’t doubt that self-care practices are essential, and of course, being mindful of one’s time is a good practice, but those aren’t always going to fix things. Burnout has often left me feeling isolated and hopeless. Through being in community with others, though, I safely share my experiences with and find ways to rest.
Tricia Hersey’s book Rest is Resistance and her broader work through The Nap Ministry profoundly inspires me. I know I’ve been in states of burnout where rest has felt like a dream. But I am also learning why rest is one of the most fundamental ways to realign ourselves with our commitments.
We’ve been working on this offering for many months now. I’m eager to share the many practices we plan to offer as part of the experience, some of which include meditation, writing prompts, discussion, small group coaching, and more.
5. Finally, many answers are already clear throughout the interview, but let me ask the question that runs throughout these Q&A blog posts: What does “everyday living for justice” mean to you? Or, said differently, what does striving toward justice look like now, in this season of life?
Right now, striving toward justice means constantly thinking about listening to others from a place of openness. I often think about the many steps it takes to work alongside others for change. Truly listening to the stories and experiences of others requires me to slow down my incessant need to ask questions!
My kids have taught me the importance of listening without interruption. Questions have their place and can help us learn and work for change, but listening is a necessary first step.
I know that most often, I want to listen, but I also want to have actionable steps or a plan so that it feels like I’m prepared to do, to take action, to work for justice. But more and more, I’m reminded that listening is integral to striving for justice. I’m also reminded of bell hooks, who talked about compassionate listening as part of building community and connection.
Everyday living for justice doesn’t mean having one pathway to achieving justice. If there’s anything that listening has taught me, it is that we need a multitude of pathways to work for justice and to care for one another.
If you’d like to learn more and receive news from Candace, follow her blog posts through Medium.
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