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Ecological engagement is about attending to the possibilities of dwelling in a place; skunkwork is a way of orienting this dwelling. Skunkwork refers to creative, self-coordinated, collective work in informal spaces of learning and reminds us that ecologically attuned work in the world can promote unexpected, yet collectively desired, change. In this essay, we describe how we used skunkwork to orient our ecological engagement in two workshops on ‘community resilience.’ In both workshops, Boulder Creek became our commonplace, with its history of flooding and abatements as well as one city’s planning and management of crisis and sustainability. We draw from our respective home ecologies and our collective experiences in these workshops to highlight how four attributes of skunkwork and ecological engagement, namely proximity, movement, ecological narration, and weak theory, contribute to community engagement scholarship and advocacy.
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Ecological engagement is about attending to the possibilities
of dwelling in a place; skunkwork is a way of orienting this
dwelling. Skunkwork refers to creative, self-coordinated,
collective work in informal spaces of learning and reminds
us that ecologically attuned work in the world can promote
unexpected, yet collectively desired, change. In this essay, we
describe how we used skunkwork to orient our ecological
engagement in two workshops on ‘community resilience.’ In
both workshops, Boulder Creek became our commonplace, with
its history of flooding and abatements as well as one city’s
planning and management of crisis and sustainability. We
draw from our respective home ecologies and our collective
experiences in these workshops to highlight how four
attributes of skunkwork and ecological engagement, namely
proximity, movement, ecological narration, and weak
theory, contribute to community engagement scholarship and
“Rhetorical ecologies” make visible an
interdependency between discursive
circulation within a first local and
then larger community and the urban and
earthly locales that give local talk or a civic
The Skunkwork of
Ecological Engagement
John Ackerman,
Univeristy of Colorado,
Caroline Gottschalk
University of Rhode
Bridie McGreavy,
University of Maine
& Leah Sprain,
University of Colorado,
Reections | Volume 16.1, Fall 2016
conversation their substance and credence. As defined by Edbauer
(2005), rhetorical ecologies extend the concomitant attributes of
rhetoric and writing in context—as literacy, as writing, as dialogue,
as deliberation—to embrace their complicity with ecological scenes
and the policies and economics of consequence therein. Although
rhetorical situations or community-based writing practices would
appear to be open to material ecologies—we doubt anyone who
practices community engagement would deny the value of natural
surroundings—rhetorical ecologies make material and discursive
connections much more explicit. Edbauer frames her proposal for
rhetorical ecologies carefully, so that rhetorical situations, counter/
publics, and discursive communities coincide consequentially with
lived and built ecologies and foreground a common domain of affect,
flux, history, and movement.
We agree that material and immaterial agencies coexist, yet to
discern why and how they matter requires a different kind of labor,
working from different kinds of exposure if the motive for practice is
adaptation within complex ecological systems. Edbauer underscores
the ontological shift from single-sited studies to interconnection,
from stable entities to those in constant circulation and from socially-
indexed identities to networks of affiliation. We share her critical
discernment of the political and economic consequences in affective,
ecological events that rise to the threshold of public concern and
action. What is needed, however, is a critical, embodied process
of discovery that keeps a local ecology at the center of analysis
and practice because that ecological system—a river drainage, a
floodplain, a forest, a suburban tract, and the humans and other-than-
humans within it—must retain the status of the object or field of
analysis to sustain our attention. Edbauer’s object was, ultimately,
discursive—“keep Austin weird”—but equally consequential was
Austin’s exponential economic growth since the 1990s and the
pressures placed on the Colorado River and Lake Austin.
Places—both earthly and built—substantiate any rhetorical ecology
worth representing to others, and as such they are steadfastly
“polyvalent” as a multiplicity of bodies, psyches, movements, forms,
sexualities, and the fullest complement of ecological agencies and
technological arrays (Casey, 1998). Polyvalence suggests to us that
The Skunkwork of Ecological Engagement | Ackerman, Druschke, McGreavy, & Sprain
the writer, the critic, the resident, the manager, or the entrepreneur
cannot simply read or think one’s way into rhetorical, ecological
perception and responsibility. One must perform in place and
spend time in residence, involving one’s self and community in the
biological attributes, rhythms, and circulation that alert people to the
vitality and sustenance provided by an ecology, as well as its fragility
and endangerment. Ecologies do not stand by in silent repose while
a cacophonous public life churns away, and so they must be carefully
attended to and respectfully engaged as work.
The work we foreground in this article is “skunkwork,” a concept
that was employed to describe informal spaces of learning, creativity,
self-coordination, and transformation. It has since been adopted, as
Gunderson (1999) shows, to invent innovative social networks in
relation to dire ecological events, such as flooding along the front
range in Colorado, wildfires in California and the Northwest, or
hurricanes along the shorelines of New Jersey or Louisiana. Trauma
of this scale crashes though received boundaries between natural and
human-made terrain and between human concerns and ecological
capacity. The basis for resilient, adaptive, appropriate human
responses to ecological calamity reflects the timing, morphology,
and complexity of the disruptive event to alter, dramatically and
sometimes tragically, the scale and complicity of those effected.
The term “skunkwork” appeared first in the early 20th century
cartoons of Al Capp whose “skonk works,” or the illegal bootlegging
of “kickapoo joy juice,” appeared in the “Lil Abner” comic strip. Skonk
works were subversively goofy and became “skunkwork” to describe
secretive research and development in the private sector and with
military contractors (Goldstein, 2008). Environmental studies re-
habituated the term further to foreground positive attributes of
“coproduction” and the capricious events from which social networks
coalesce to “think flexibly and creatively across organizational
barriers” (Goldstein, 2009). This adjustment was timely because
matters of ecological disturbance (neither inherently positive or
negative) alter the basis for human interaction, making it “ambient”
in newly political and practical ways (Rickert, 2013).
Reections | Volume 16.1, Fall 2016
We propose that skunkwork adds to the family of terms and practices
that define community engagement in the field of Rhetoric and
Composition and more broadly. Skunkwork sponsors different kinds
of social relations respecting different kinds of social and ecological
connection. The 2016 Conference on College Composition and
Communication Statement on Community-Engaged Projects
in Rhetoric and Composition points to many of the attributes
of resilient communities that can emerge from skunkwork: the
reciprocal benefits of community enhancement; partnerships that
foster community responsibility and the public good. This statement
is robust and germane to our scholarly and pedagogical projects, yet
the work in skunkwork shifts the focus to pending or actual systemic
perturbations, for example when climatic patterns led to historic
flooding along the Front Range in Colorado in 2013. This work must
occur outside the boundaries of organizational control, and it aspires
to think and act creatively in response to different kinds of problems
and toward different kinds of inclusive participation (Sprain &
Carcasson, 2013).
Our own moment of flexible adaptation occurred through two
conference events in 2015, the international meeting of the Conference
on Communication and the Environment (COCE), followed shortly by
the inaugural Conference on Community Writing (CCW), both held
in Boulder, Colorado. We delivered two workshops on ‘community
resilience,’ first for an international audience of resiliency experts
and enthusiasts and then for an audience of environmentally attuned
scholars and teachers in rhetoric and writing. Our primary motive
and scene was not, initially, community engagement per se but was
a “watershed as common-place” (Druschke, 2013). We took as
our commonplace Boulder Creek with its history of flooding and
abatements, as well as one city’s planning and management of crisis
and sustainability. For this article, we share four attributes from
those workshops applicable to resilient communities and animate the
skunkwork we experienced across these workshops that could return
to our home ecologies and academic projects. After a brief description
of the workshops, we turn to proximity, movement, ecological narration,
and weak theory to enrich further the ecological happenstance of
skunkwork and to contribute to community engagement scholarship
and advocacy.
The Skunkwork of Ecological Engagement | Ackerman, Druschke, McGreavy, & Sprain
The 2015 Conference on Community Writing (CCW) featured four
‘deep think tanks,’ in-depth workshops that were, for us and for
conference attendees, opportunities to consolidate conversations
encountered at the conference while delving into specific topics
relevant to community engagement. Our workshop was envisioned
as an exploration into how ‘resilient communities’ are conceived
and brought into being through civic engagement. We knew how
to confect outreach between campuses and cities, but we wanted to
invest more directly in ecological policy that reaches to different
environs across the US and beyond. Our site, our topos, was a
confluence in multiple ways. We met by Boulder Creek that flooded
the city in 2013; we sat in the city’s Council Chambers; we explored
the proximity between campus, city, and creek. Both workshops were
designed to practice the arts of inquiry and presence and foreground
the bio-logics of a community, and we looked for images, stories, data,
and practices that promised to elevate what communities hold dear
rather than discussing resilience as abstract, scientific frame.
The COCE workshop oriented participants to the co-construction
of dialogue through a graphic recorder who captured the emergent
discussion in real time through graphic murals (Figure 1) rather than
presenting PowerPoint slides crafted in isolation. Co-construction
became an iterative exercise of people from different ecological,
economic, and professional orientations working together in place—
even if most of that work was translational beyond Boulder’s
boundaries. Workshops come and go in higher education and city
governance, yet we propose that the labor involved, the dialogues
heard, and the places encountered are worthy of closer attention with
the overarching motive to find ‘natural’ and sustainable connections
between engaged pedagogy, participatory policy making, and
ecological conservation and management. The duality of town and
gown rang hollow in the presence of rivers, residents, and visitors—
everyone brought their own history of place, their own economic
bedevilments, their own aspirations for inclusion.
Our skunkwork in designing these workshops led us to ask how
we could involve people in Boulder’s social and ecological environs,
treating the creek and its flood zone as hypothetical on the one hand
Reections | Volume 16.1, Fall 2016
but also, importantly, analogical on the other. The expressed purpose
of our workshops on resilient communities was to forge partnerships,
locally and globally and then across different spheres of exposure
from the expert in resilience assessment or disaster management
to the teacher, the student, the resident, the small business owner,
and so on. Yet we also sought a different partnership with a local
ecological system and then analogically to assume that one ecological
system, for example a flood zone in Boulder, Colorado, would
map onto other hydrological and urban systems. To confect this
ecologically entwined relationship, we broke from typical conference
practices—by leaving the campus, walking as a group along Boulder
Creek, convening in small groups inside City Council Chambers and
out—to try to make ecological presence and history, consequence and
adaptability, the object of our critical and pedagogical attention. We
now share four attributes of skunkwork, as they emerged through the
workshop process and that we assign to skunkwork more generally for
ecological engagement: proximity, movement, ecological narration,
and “weak theory” (Gibson-Graham, 2006).
We had to disturb the obviousness and thus invisibility of dwelling near
water, in pipe or stream, an obviousness that points to an endangered
condition in late modern life. Not only is water endangered and a vital
source of life in the world, it circulates through urban environments
often treated as a commodity and divided into different jurisdictions—
those who monitor its use for recreation, for flood abatement, for
health—all of which are essential to how a city manages a natural
resource but distinct from the bio-logics of water in circulation that
sustain and enhance everyday life. Both workshops, in retrospect,
required a proxemic relation to ecological systems in civilized spaces
as the basis for generative dialogue and local action, the imaginings
of new ways to dwell and act. Our consortium required different
kinds of affiliations and dialogues across divides (across disciplines,
across campus, between campus and local communities), as well as
with natural and built environments. The difference between one
voice or another was clarified in the presence of water in motion—
without proximity the language depends on distant recollection.
The Skunkwork of Ecological Engagement | Ackerman, Druschke, McGreavy, & Sprain
We suggest that any single ecological or economic policy debate—
the kinds of social controversies and biological spectacles that
energize an engaged classroom or community partnership—requires
a local and global regionalism (Rice, 2012) that finds commonality
not in life along a single stream but across continental watersheds
and ecological hemispheres. We heard and felt the necessity of a
territorial attunement that jointly configured snowmelt and water
tables, potable water and sewage treatment, the economies of fishing
and snowpack—a territorial attunement based on affective ecologies
that connected one water source to another, one story to another, one
expertise to another—to pry ourselves away from the limiting effects
of localized expertise in times of planetary and systemic duress.
The COCE workshop in June put specialists in resilience assessment
in dialogue with city governance in the disciplinary context of
environmental communication. Ecological scholars and researchers
gathered from universities across the US who work with governmental
agencies (e.g., World Health Organization, NASA Earth Science
Education Program) to dialogue with Boulder managers working in
public works, flood recovery, and sustainability. Because the field of
Rhetoric and Composition gathered at CCW, four months later, we had
no shortage of experts on service learning, community partnerships,
and local advocacy, once more in the company of city officials who
told their stories of flood preparations and unimagined consequences
of extreme weather and mountain runoff for canals and streams that
pulse through the city’s floodplain. As productively cacophonous as
both these related groups might sound, a third authority emerged
with coalescent force, no matter the region, no matter the scientific
or linguistic expertise—the motive and medium for coalescence was
for all of us the rivers, tide pools, estuaries, canals, waste systems, and
coastal shores that brought a common frame of reference, a common
vitality of exposure, and a common limitation of the figurative
capacity of representation (McGreavy, 2016).
It is tempting to collapse all social and ecological complicity into a
single term, such as “interconnection” or “network,” but we thought
it more useful to graphically capture at least some of the proxemic
relations that mattered to participants. We share one of five
graphic panels by Karina Branson (
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(Figure 1) that connects the city to the Flatiron mountain range,
Boulder Creek to “disruptive change,” shared values to geographic
tolerances, experts to novices who know the creek differently, and
experimentation to the role of shared language, shared abundances,
and a shared commitment to community resilience in the ideal and
as a daily practice. The proxemics for us were geographic as well as
institutional or logical.
Figure 1: Graphic recording about resilience in Boulder from the COCE workshop.
The Skunkwork of Ecological Engagement | Ackerman, Druschke, McGreavy, & Sprain
Two days and five panels later, resilience became more graphically
rich because abstract language gave way to the sound and touch of
a river system analogic to working together in places near and far.
There are a host of proximities in play for any sort of consequential
ecological engagement, and the challenges are in finding the right
relations, to remember or capture them in some archival way for
engagement and then bring them closer in mind and in the body
collective. Across our collaborations, we found movement to be a
critical practice to make sure our bodies were in play and to find
commonality across our distinct ecological systems and locales. One
of the key tenets of the 100 Resilient Communities (100RC) project
that included Boulder was learning about a socio-ecological system
and how to live resiliently within it. To be near the creek, we had to
walk to it and in it; to sense and measure the powers of hydrological
rhythm and circulation, we had to traverse it: we sought a peripatetic
relation among ourselves, always on the move and in parallel with
the pulsing fluctuation known to the creek. Peripatesis for Aristotle
meant learning from the sage while walking together, but for us, the
sage we needed to learn from was the creek and its banks and their
proximity to the city, the universities, and analogous spaces near and
far. Boulder Creek was, for the day, our resident ecological authority
given its power to shatter the spaces that separate natural and built
features of life in the city, including our personal identities and titles.
And by granting that authority, by paying close attention to what
a river or tide pool or shoreline might say, ecological systems were
pluralized and diversified—they all claimed a seat at the table.
For the COCE workshop, we realized that the pathway between
campus and the city, a link between the conference room with its
structured learning spaces and the creek banks, needed to be forged,
so we met at the Boulder Public Library. For the CCW workshop
four months later, we met on campus, but our first task was to stand,
to greet, to leave, and to walk down Broadway to the Boulder Creek
path and bridge to the city’s Council Chambers within earshot of the
creek. We asked our participants to walk with first, one person and
then another and answer the question: how does resiliency appear
in your homelands? As our brief records demonstrate, to walk in
Reections | Volume 16.1, Fall 2016
someone else’s city brought about nervous chatter and spatial
transgressions. It brought out the fragility of community relations
on the fly and prompted memories of home (
rhodycaroline/resilient-communities-deepthink-tank). We proposed,
and we enjoyed, a commonality of territorial exposure for the sake of
teaching, assessment, policy debate, or residential attunement.
Peripatesis, by necessity, reveals an authority given place, and there
could be the inklings of a kind of ecological wisdom learned over
time then re-acquired through movement near, through, and toward
earthly and worldly ecologies. We borrowed an ethic of exposure
shared from Apache tribal customs and articulated by Basso (1996)
for both workshops: there is learning to be found in collective
movement across different scenes and locales. Bodily movement in
the most practical sense pulled currents into alignment: a common
traverse from campus to the river in the city, commonplace tales of
ecological duress around the work or home life. The scale of the
body’s movement, so present yet so obscured by mindful behavior
can miss that “In the whole context of a whole universe in motion,
the human body becomes a small-scale version of motion with its
own principles” (Hawhee, 2009, p. 337). As we walked, we began to
sense the possibility of a shared ecological imaginary that brought
our distant worlds closer.
Pausing before the turbulent water in Boulder Creek in June and its
quiet eddies in late fall, our skunkwork required ecological reflection
and biological recapture. People wanted to talk about places they
hailed from and places in need of care or under duress. Workshops
on resilient communities imply a commonplace of awareness to
ordinary features, the light shadow down an alleyway, or the time
spent learning how to engage the places of our origin. We cannot
replicate all the stories that needed telling, but to stand in for those
now silent, here are ours.
Water and Mud in Western and Coastal Maine (Bridie McGreavy)
I grew up on the edge of a floodplain of the Saco River, a large
watershed that drains much of western Maine and parts of New
Hampshire. In April, the low areas behind our house would fill with
The Skunkwork of Ecological Engagement | Ackerman, Druschke, McGreavy, & Sprain
little pools not much bigger than puddles that remained wet into
the summer. A few weeks into frog chorus season, my sisters and
I would clamber down the steep banks to the floodplain in search of
egg masses which we would collect and watch hatch in buckets on
our porch. Amphibians, with their dual lives in water and on land
and their propensity for metamorphosis, are a material incarnation
of liminality.
I learned later in life that the emergence of frog song was connected
with a natural phenomenon known as Big Night: the annual migration
of frogs and salamanders to vernal pools, small wetlands where they
mate and lay eggs. Big Night occurs during the first warm rain of
spring. Big Night is that evening when we step out into the rain
and can feel spring seep into our lungs. This is the night when we
can, in a bodily way, remember the movement of our planet around
its sun. This remembering is, as I imagine it, similar to how frogs,
salamanders, and other sentient beings remember their migrations:
navigating by stars and smells and other sensate cues. When frogs
sense this seasonal shift, they start to sing. The chorus, for me,
has become one way of keeping time following a different rhythm:
embodied, sonic, cyclical.
Following frog song down into the river floodplain was the first of
many migrations to these places that exist in the sweet spot between
stability and change. I started by following salamanders, and I now
follow tides too, working with clam diggers who work in the most
liminal of habitats: intertidal mudflats that on twice daily cycles
completely reconfigure their material composition. In seeking these
liminal territories, I have learned that my capacity to do anything—
be it organize a group to go out and meet the spring rains and
save salamanders from getting hit by cars or schedule a meeting
to make progress on opening clam flats that have long been closed
due to pollution--depends on a vast set of material interconnections,
processes, and patterns. Getting a finer-grained and embodied sense
of some of these patterns has helped me learn where to go, when,
and with whom (human and otherwise) and in doing so, how to work
with the world to become something different, and maybe more
Reections | Volume 16.1, Fall 2016
Haunted by Waters (Caroline Gottschalk Druschke)
The rhythms of my life have always been organized around rivers. In
my earliest memory, I’m cross-legged on the cold aluminum bottom
of a canoe on a hot July day, pebbles cutting into my legs, eyes not
quite up to the gunwales. I feel chilled metal, sharp rocks, drops of
water off my dad’s paddle from the stern. I hear birds, other paddlers,
paddles scraping against the sides of the canoe, water. And I’m pulled
downstream in the quick flow of western Michigan’s Pere Marquette
River. An effortless migration.
I returned to that river every summer, fascinated first by the way its
strong, cold current would wind its way through pools and riffles,
eventually linking up with Lake Michigan, the body of water I swam
in—and sometimes got sick from—during my regular life in Chicago.
Later, I learned about the seasonal rhythms of insect hatches and
their perfect symmetry with the migrations of trout and salmon
that populated that river, introduced in the last century but pulling
migrating fishermen from around the country to its banks every fall
and spring no matter their nativity— the central role of circulation,
rhythm, and flow.
I carried that orientation to eastern Iowa, where my knowledge
of migrating fish was useless, but I learned intimately about—and
tried to provide solutions to—a new migration as farmers broadcast
pesticides and synthetic fertilizers onto their fields that leached into
Iowa’s creeks and rivers with every spring rain and strangled aquatic
life from Iowa to the Gulf of Mexico. I then left the Mississippi River
watershed for coastal Rhode Island and encountered—on my first
day—a large man balancing on a small board over a medium sized
mill dam, hoisting fish over his head because tens of thousands of
migrating river herring were stuck below this dam each year on their
way to spawn upstream. This dam, river, fish, town became my place
to dwell.
I’ve waded that river with my two sons and watched them get sick—
like I used to—from the body of water they love. I’ve been reminded
of the porosity of the human body and the bacteria with whom we
always co-exist. Rivers have taught me patience and seasonal rhythm.
Lunar cycles and fish reproduction. Visibility and invisibility. The
The Skunkwork of Ecological Engagement | Ackerman, Druschke, McGreavy, & Sprain
increasingly syncopated rhythm of their 100 year floods: always—but
now visibly so—a measure of intensity, not of time. Flows of capital,
fish, nutrients, sediment, contaminants, people, ideas. Possibilities for
community action, pedagogy, human-fish connection, policymaking,
science communication, interspecies communication. Hope.
River Towns (John Ackerman)
Listening to colleagues, kneeling beside a creek in Boulder, I admit
that much of what I do for the university does not begin, nor end,
with an ecological system nor water. Upon reflection, however, water
ways are constant, pulsing at the periphery of my academic work
that looks at the rise and fall of urban neighborhoods and the often
awkward policy realms that connect a campus to its host city or county
or region. My writing about cities brings rivers and neighborhoods
into closer syncopation, though I didn’t think to frame it that way. I
suspect there is a re-reading of almost any theory and description
to better capture the daily dialogues we have with local ecologies,
silence by over-thinking this, or over-working that.
The workshops not only reminded me that water was everywhere in
my upbringing in the Western Missouri; it coursed through every
degree earned, every study conducted, every document written, every
policy debated, and it would be my loss to forget that presence. My
childhood was graced with hot July afternoons, with burgeoning cloud
systems and air too think to breathe. I’d sit beside a neighborhood
pond, where I tossed rocks to skip over the top or plumb the depths. I
fished for perch and skated in the winter, unaware that this pond was
built by a farmer, one of millions of artificial ponds that in time fade
away from sediment or worthlessness when the farms turn to housing
and retail tracts. My graduate work in Pittsburgh occurred at the
confluence of the Cuyahoga and the Monongahela rivers, the origins
of the Ohio that flows in fettered ways to the Gulf. My fieldwork in
late-industrial neighborhoods depends upon the Cuyahoga River to
connect the now extinct canal system in Portage Country with the
placid estuaries that fade into Lake Erie in Cleveland.
There is no city, no neighborhood, no campus, nor jurisdictional
authority, no economic matrix without a river or body of water in
sight—our history of expropriated rivers, streams, and lakes as
Reections | Volume 16.1, Fall 2016
industrial commodities, yet they archive local history as much as any
library or archive. No mere history in this—if you want to know how
cities produce life or deny it, go down to the river or the lake or the
stream and look to the miracle of clean water under tap to consider
water’s inextricable capacity to make life possible. Put your toes in
the water and look upstream and beyond the banks to find the vitality
of your neighborhood and to listen to its collective force.
Flooding and scarcity along Colorado’s Front Range (Leah Sprain)
I grew up in the shadow of a historic flood. Heavy mountain rains
funneled into the Big Thompson Canyon creating a 20-foot wall of
water that would later be known as Colorado’s deadliest flash flood
in recorded history. Born four years later, we didn’t talk much about
floods except when we glanced at signs in the canyon to “climb
to safety.” In the semi-arid desert landscape, rain and snow were
monitored and celebrated. Water seemed most destructive when
it didn’t come. When history-making rains threatened my August
wedding, I cheerfully told out of town guests to be prepared for
weather: Coloradoans are always thankful for rain. I maintained this
stance until the 2013 flood “ravaged” the riverside park where I got
married in front of a sensible crowd dressed in layers and galoshes
purchased that morning at Target. The park has not yet reopened.
Dwelling in Colorado now means talking about the flood, rebuilding
and recovering, recognizing how flood damage has not been shared
equally. I hiked with a naturalist-lead group in Boulder’s open space
where local residents returned to trails that had been closed for a
year to see Volkswagen-sized boulders in now dry streambeds and
ate popcorn at a community meeting as citizen committees shared
plans for rebuilding while noting not all residents returned home.
This fieldwork informed an interdisciplinary project that designed a
game on flood risk to get people talking about flood damage. Some
conversations need prompting. Others are demanded like when a
community member interrupted a public forum on community
resilience I facilitated last week to demand: Where does flooding fit
in? Floods are how Boulder got money for resilience.
As a high school student enrolled in the Thompson River Project, I did
citizen science before I knew that was a thing—learning how to test
The Skunkwork of Ecological Engagement | Ackerman, Druschke, McGreavy, & Sprain
for nitrogen, phosphate, fecal coliform, and more, while contributing
this data to official channels that enabled raising the regulatory
classification of the river (a truly rare occurrence). Some relationships
between ecology and policy are well-trod; sometimes water, flooding,
creates new relationships. Environmental communication means the
messy work of finding new ways to dwell in this dynamic place that
raised me.
We propose that the skunkwork of ecological connectivity, in
moments of change or duress, is relevant to community engagement
for several reasons we trust are now more apparent. It invites active
engagements with places near and far as it invites movement and
reflection within those places. Skunkwork in ecological networking
emphasizes flexibility, creativity, and transformation when adaptation
is of necessity, and skunkwork fosters an acuity to making use of the
place and time to acquire diverse sets of assumptions and practices.
We seek skunkwork as respectfully post-human because it actively
dislodges the self and the arrogance of mastery over either social or
ecological scenes. We seek a participatory engagement that does not
always begin and end with a well-defined problem or plan. When
walking or traversing, the outcome of movement is wrapped up in the
doing or being open to exposure and recollection. It is an intentional
intervention that is open to surprise. It is important to practice
relations and movements though less-charted regions because, in
times of planetary duress, with so much pain and inequity circulating,
we cannot walk the same paths, think the same thoughts, depend on
the old bonds, and lose track of where we reside.
Gibson-Graham (2006) proposes weak theory (as opposed to hide-
bound strong theories of structure and blame) to “deexoticize power”
and to recover more local, inclusive economies (p. 7). Weak theory is
one of the results of skunkwork, taking rudimentary form through
the habits of bodily exposure that we’ve forgotten along the way
and that are common with people from distant environs. If rivers
are to be protected, we have to wade and work in those waters; if
shorelines are to be adapted, we have to learn from and create with
humans and non-humans who live in those places and the natural
and built infrastructure they live within; if cities are to remain or
Reections | Volume 16.1, Fall 2016
become healthy, we have to take seriously our residence in them and
work with those employed to enhance them and with the bodies,
bacteria, materials, and chemicals that contribute to or detract from
their health.
We understand that some readers might question the practical value
of telling stories about human ecologies in the face of disaster, but
ecological engagement depends on place-based memories in addition
to all the archives of knowledge and policy that shape university
life and the management of cities and waterways. Water—as would
be true for any natural or built system—has the power to enforce
a lively, structuring agency to frame a community’s orientation to
labor and schooling; to privilege forgotten identities and heritages;
to alter economic vitality in regional and global spaces; and to guide
the master plans for parks and civic centers and neighborhoods.
We embrace the fullest methodologies for community engagement,
but engagement for us would never deny the collective powers of
articulation and illumination granted by the natural and built
ecologies that greet each waking day (Ackerman, 2003).
Were we to conduct our workshops again, we would invite the same
array of people, adding more artists, children, financiers, the police—
working people of all walks of life who share common proximities
and exposure to rivers (and lakes, canals, mudflats). We would listen
to experts and stand before them as experts in the analytics and
vocalization of locality. We imagine giving more time to peripatesis as
a collective project of arriving and departing, of working, playing, and
learning in the hydrological systems that circulate through our cities
and neighborhoods. We would practice the virtualizing analogic that
affect theory induces to compare rivers to boulevards, shorelines to
neighborhood boundaries, and writing to mapping.
Ecological engagement as skunkwork points to actual existing
ecologies: flows of energy and matter through interrelated systems.
Those flows circulate through texts but also beyond texts: in policies,
bodies, rivers, food webs, funding streams, and the like. We push
the rhetorical interest in ecologies past the point of metaphor and
into a more productive engagement with (and not just view on or
even attunement to) the ecologies in which we find ourselves and
The Skunkwork of Ecological Engagement | Ackerman, Druschke, McGreavy, & Sprain
through which we deliberate with our words and our bodies about
our collective futures. By focusing on engagement, we wish to build
from the strong, normative tradition in R/C that values commitment,
connection, engagement, and the move to work beyond the classroom
and university walls.
We are moved by a commitment not only to rhetorical listening
(Ratcliffe, 2005) but radical listening to everyday places. The rare
birdcall that stops you dead in your tracks. The surprising sliver
of sun on a grey day. The sinkhole in the road. The flash flood.
The interruption that opens your ears and minds. We suggest that
academia has a too highly developed sense of talking and a less fostered
sense of listening. And we hope that a methodology like skunkwork
would encourage listening, attentiveness, and attunement that might
open us to possibilities for action. In short, we hope to point Rhetoric
and Composition toward a model of engagement that accounts for
and is accountable to resilient ecologies—whether starting with
water or resilience or community gardens or climate change. That
opens itself to the material world—rocks, waters, texts, humans, non-
humans, things—and builds from those interactions and energies to
find opportunities for intervention in ways that promote a more just
and more sustainable collectivity.
Reections | Volume 16.1, Fall 2016
Ackerman, J. 2003. The space for rhetoric in everyday life. Towards
a rhetoric of everyday life: New directions in research on writing,
text, and discourse. M. Nystrand and J. Duffy, eds. Madison: The
University of Wisconsin Press.
Basso, K. 1996. Wisdom sits in places: Notes on a Western Apache
landscape. Senses of place. S. Field and K. Basso, eds. Santa Fe:
School of American Research Press.
Casey, E. 1998. The fate of place: A philosophical history. University of
California Press.
CCCC Statement on Community-Engaged Projects in Rhetoric and
Composition. National Council of Teacher’s of English: College
Composition and Communication [
Druschke, C.G. 2013. Watershed as common-place: Communicating
for conservation at the watershed scale. Environmental
Communication: A Journal of Nature and Culture, 7(1), 80-96.
Edbauer, J. 2005. Unframing models of public distribution: From
rhetorical situation to rhetorical ecologies. Rhetoric Society
Quarterly, 35(4), 5-24.
Gibson-Graham, J. K. 2006. A post capitalist politics. University of
Minnesota Press.
Goldstein, B. E. (2009). Resilience to surprises through
communicative planning. Ecology and Society, 14(2): 33.
Goldstein, B. E. 2008. Skunkworks in the embers of the cedar
fire: Enhancing resilience in the aftermath of disaster. Human
Ecology, 36(1), 15–28.
Gunderson, L. 1999. Resilience, flexibility, and adaptive
management: Antidotes for spurious certitude? Conservation
Ecology 3 (1), 7.
Hawhee, D. 2009. Moving bodies: Kenneth Burke at the edges of
language. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.
McGreavy, B. 2016. Resilience as discourse. Environmental
Communication 10 (1), 104-121.
Ratcliffe, K. 2005. Rhetorical listening: Identification, gender, whiteness.
Southern Illinois University Press.
Rice, J. 2012. From Architectonic to Tectonics: Introducing Regional
Rhetorics. Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 42 (3), 201-213.
The Skunkwork of Ecological Engagement | Ackerman, Druschke, McGreavy, & Sprain
Rickert, T. 2013. Ambient rhetoric: The attunements of rhetorical being.
University of Pittsburgh Press.
Sprain, L. and Carcasson, M. 2013. Democratic engagement
through an ethic of passionate impartiality. Tamara: The Journal
for Critical Organizational Inquiry, 11 (4), 13-26. http://alk.
Reections | Volume 16.1, Fall 2016
Dr. John Ackerman is an associate professor of Communication in the
rhetoric area at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where he teaches
graduate courses on material and public space, social technologies
and participatory design. He is rostered in the Program for Writing
and Rhetoric, where he assists in program administration with a
focus on program assessment, environmental design, and community
outreach. His scholarship attends to cultural and economic change
in late-industrial neighborhoods. His fieldwork is situated in the
industrial northeast and most recently in Boulder and the Front
Range and framed there by the idea of resilient communities. He
brings qualitative and critical methods to bear on how economic
performance, collective memory and material circulation help to
constitute a vibrant community.
Dr. Caroline Gottschalk Druschke is an associate professor
in Writing & Rhetoric and Natural Resources Science at the
University of Rhode Island, where she directs the Society, Ecology &
Communication lab and teaches undergraduate and graduate courses
in public engagement with science, river restoration, community-
based and science writing, and environmental communication.
Never straying too far from the intersections of rhetoric, rivers, and
restoration, Drusckhe’s research spans environmental management,
rhetorical field methods, engaged curricula, and other-than-human
rhetoric. Druschke has long maintained that Herman Hesse’s
Vasudeva was right: “The river knows everything, and everything
can be learned from it.”
Dr. Bridie McGreavy studies how, through communication,
individuals and communities become resilient and sustainable. Her
research and teaching focuses on communication within sustainability
science teams and organizations; community-based marine
conservation and shellfish management; and discourses of resilience
and sustainability in media and academic institutions. She is Assistant
Professor of Environmental Communication in the Department of
Communication and Journalism at the University of Maine. Her
research has been published in Environmental Communication:
A Journal of Nature and Culture, Ecology and Society, and the
International Journal of Sustainable Development. Dr. McGreavy
The Skunkwork of Ecological Engagement | Ackerman, Druschke, McGreavy, & Sprain
has received fellowships from the National Science Foundation and
the Switzer Foundation for environmental leadership and served as
the Director of Environmental Education for fifteen years for two
non-profit organizations. She teaches courses in communication
research, environmental communication, and sustainability science.
She received her Ph.D. in Communication and Sustainability Science
from the University of Maine.
Dr. Leah Sprain’s research focuses on democratic engagement,
studying how specific communication practices facilitate and inhibit
democratic action. Her research and teaching draw on language
and social interaction perspectives to explore environmental
communication, deliberation, and social movement activism. Outreach
and praxis are crucial to democratic engagement thus much of her
research is collaborative and focused on the practice-theory interface.
As an ethnographer of communication, she has conducted extended
fieldwork in Nicaragua and the United States. She co-edited Social
Movement to Address Climate Change: Local Steps for Global Action,
and her work appears in the Journal of Applied Communication
Research, Environmental Communication: A Journal of Nature and
Culture, and Communication Theory. She received her Ph.D. from
the University of Washington and is currently an assistant professor
in the Department of Communication at the University of Colorado,
... As noted above, the scope of innovation for skunk works has traditionally fallen into the realm of technology R&D, mostly in the field of product or service engineering (Bommer et al., 2002;Fosfuri & Rønde, 2009;Gwynne, 1997;Rich & Janos, 1994). Illustrations of non-technological skunk works applications are found in the fields of environmental resilience (Goldstein, 2008(Goldstein, , 2009Gunderson, 1999) and community engagement (Ackerman, Druschke, McGreavy, & Sprain, 2016). For instance, skunk works in the field of environmental resilience are focused on the creation of innovative social networks that allow for flexible and creative thinking across organizational barriers (Goldstein, 2008(Goldstein, , 2009, and thus serve as a basis for resilient, adaptive, and engaged human responses to ecological calamity, such as flooding, wildfires, or hurricanes (Gunderson, 1999). ...
Increasingly, organizations find that they need to be more flexible and innovative in responding to unexpected and emergent human resource (HR) issues affecting their members, such as outbreaks of infectious diseases (e.g., COVID-19) forcing massive transition to remote work, changes in industry landscape altering learning and development, and politically-driven global mobility regulations restricting people flow. Organizations have long utilized informal structures known as “skunk works”, flexible groups empowered to work rapidly with minimal management constraints, to address technological challenges. In this article, we aim to better understand when and how organizations similarly employ skunk works-like structures to help them deal with rapidly evolving HR-related challenges. We discuss three examples of organizations that have utilized this approach. We then integrate the learning insights from these examples to develop a framework supported by a set of research questions to guide future scholarship into HR skunk works. We emphasize that there are both benefits and drawbacks of innovative organizational structures for addressing HR challenges alongside regular, established ways of working.
... John Ackerman, Caroline Gottschalk Druschke, Bridie McGreavy, and Leah Sprain have reflected on two conferences that supported resilience efforts in Boulder, CO, and the broader efforts to shape academic conferences in response to community interests. 22 Inspired by resilience thinking and the concept of "skunkworks," or the informal spaces of creative and critical thinking, they recommend attending to embodied sensibilities and practical knowledge that emerge in the process of immersing oneself in the world. 23 For them, ecological engagement means having a general plan about where one might want to go and letting knowledge of the specific path show itself as one moves in that direction. ...
The Environmental Justice working group took an engaged and intersectional approach, focusing on interconnections between affordable housing, transportation, and University of Nevada, Reno campus planning. The working group made three recommendations to advance local environmental justice commitments: (1) improve air quality and access to green spaces in campus development, (2) prioritize affordable housing and civic engagement, and (3) uphold standards for equity and community collaborations. This essay describes the series of collaborative activities that allowed the working group to identify and prioritize those recommendations, followed by a reflection on how this process may help inform future public rhetoric efforts.
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Resilience thinkers share an interest in collaborative deliberation with communicative planners, who aim to accommodate different forms of knowledge and styles of reasoning to promote social learning and yield creative and equitable agreements. Members of both fields attended a symposium at Virginia Tech in late 2008, where communicative planners considered how social–ecological resilience informed new possibilities for planning practice beyond disaster mitigation and response. In turn, communicative planners offered resilience scholars ideas about how collaboration could accomplish more than enhance rational decision making of the commons. Through these exchanges, the symposium fostered ideas about collaborative governance and the critical role of expertise in fostering communicative resilience.
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Resilience as a frame is increasingly appearing in grant funding, news stories, academic journals, and organization missions. Across these sites, resilience is positioned as an ability to cope, characterized by bouncing back, regaining control, and reducing vulnerability to change. How did resilience come to be understood in these terms? What are the problems with resilience’s frames and the practices that produce them? How might we become resilient differently? Using a Foucaultian archaeology, I examine sites and practices that produce resilience as discourse. I analyze resilience’s origins in biophysical sciences, systems perspectives that define ways of knowing, visual models that constrain the emergence of new ideas, and persistent dialectics that narrowly order relationships within the world. I propose changes in the discourse for more affective and ecological modes of becoming resilient.
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This article, highlighting qualitative data collected from farmers and landowners in the Clear Creek watershed in eastern Iowa, offers a situated analysis of the relationship between rhetorical change and landscape change. After chronicling the rise of government-sponsored watershed-based agricultural conservation efforts, I adopt Kenneth Burke's framing of rhetoric as identification to argue that the watershed, as it is mobilized in contemporary conservation efforts, serves as a potent material and symbolic site for identification. Focusing on my ethnographic research in the Clear Creek watershed in eastern Iowa, I consider how farmers' and landowners' identification with the watershed has prompted changes to the landscape for the sake of soil and water conservation. I then consider the implications of this argument for extending theories of the rhetorical landscape, suggesting that rhetorical landscapes contain elements of both the symbolic and the material.
In this imaginative and comprehensive study, Edward Casey, one of the most incisive interpreters of the Continental philosophical tradition, offers a philosophical history of the evolving conceptualizations of place and space in Western thought. Not merely a presentation of the ideas of other philosophers, The Fate of Place is acutely sensitive to silences, absences, and missed opportunities in the complex history of philosophical approaches to space and place. A central theme is the increasing neglect of place in favor of space from the seventh century A.D. onward, amounting to the virtual exclusion of place by the end of the eighteenth century. Casey begins with mythological and religious creation stories and the theories of Plato and Aristotle and then explores the heritage of Neoplatonic, medieval, and Renaissance speculations about space. He presents an impressive history of the birth of modern spatial conceptions in the writings of Newton, Descartes, Leibniz, and Kant and delineates the evolution of twentieth-century phenomenological approaches in the work of Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, Bachelard, and Heidegger. In the book's final section, Casey explores the postmodern theories of Foucault, Derrida, Tschumi, Deleuze and Guattari, and Irigaray.
In Ambient Rhetoric, Thomas Rickert seeks to dissolve the boundaries of the rhetorical tradition and its basic dichotomy of subject and object. With the advent of new technologies, new media, and the dispersion of human agency through external information sources, rhetoric can no longer remain tied to the autonomy of human will and cognition as the sole determinants in the discursive act. Rickert develops the concept of ambience in order to engage all of the elements that comprise the ecologies in which we exist. Culling from Martin Heidegger's hermeneutical phenomenology in Being and Time, Rickert finds the basis for ambience in Heidegger's assertion that humans do not exist in a vacuum; there is a constant and fluid relation to the material, informational, and emotional spaces in which they dwell. Hence, humans are not the exclusive actors in the rhetorical equation; agency can be found in innumerable things, objects, and spaces. As Rickert asserts, it is only after we become attuned to these influences that rhetoric can make a first step toward sufficiency. Rickert also recalls the foundational Greek philosophical concepts of kairos (time), chora (space/place), and periechon (surroundings) and cites their repurposing by modern and postmodern thinkers as "informational scaffolding" for how we reason, feel, and act. He discusses contemporary theory in cognitive science, rhetoric, and object-oriented philosophy to expand his argument for the essentiality of ambience to the field of rhetoric. Rickert then examines works of ambient music that incorporate natural and artificial sound, spaces, and technologies, finding them to be exemplary of a more fully resonant and experiential media. In his preface, Rickert compares ambience to the fermenting of wine-how it's distinctive flavor can be traced to innumerable factors, including sun, soil, water, region, and grape variety. The environment and company with whom it's consumed further enhance the taste experience. And so it should be with rhetoric-to be considered among all of its influences. As Rickert demonstrates, the larger world that we inhabit (and that inhabits us) must be fully embraced if we are to advance as beings and rhetors within it. Copyright
Although regionalism has long been an important concept in architecture and political science, rhetorical studies has not specifically theorized regionalism as an analytical or productive concept. This introduction outlines four premises of a regional rhetoric that help to articulate a specifically rhetorical theory of regionalism.
Whereas earlier work on rhetorical situation focuses upon, the elements of audience, exigence, and constraints, this article argues that rhetorical situations operate within a network of lived practical consciousness or structures of feeling. Placing the rhetorical “elements” within this wider context destabilizes the discrete borders of a rhetorical situation. As an example of this wider context, this article explores the public rhetoric surrounding issues of urban sprawl in Austin, Texas. While public rhetorical movements can be seen as a response to the “exigence” of overdevelopment, it is also possible to situate the exigence's evocation within a wider context of affective ecologies comprised of material experiences and public feelings.