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Chalk to Me


The Search for Useful Knowledge in a Local, Rhetorical Ecology

Margaret Williams

Western Carolina University

We writing teachers stand in front of a classroom of first-year writing (FYW) students

and wonder: How do we reach them? How do we connect? We want to share our passion for

writing and rhetoric and, in the process, help students join in meaningful conversations as

engaged citizens. In this essay, I suggest that we reach out to FYW students where they are, by

connecting with the informal rhetorics they practice. One such avenue comes through applying a

rhetorical-ecology model to sidewalk chalking, a dynamic, interconnected, informal system of

campus communication that is available to them in their immediate environment. While not

prevalent on all American campuses, at the regional comprehensive university where I teach,

students interact via chalking as an available means of persuasion. They use playground chalk

for “writing” (or drawing) messages—everything

from art to insults, event notices to poetry, political

messages to love notes. Chalking relies on simple,

cheap tools; its compositions can be washed away

by rain or by students armed with water bottles; and

its audience includes those who traverse the

physical spaces chalking occupies. Such campus

chalking, I argue, represents what Margaret

Syverson (1999) called an ecology of “writers, Figure 1: Chalking takes various forms; most are
alphabetic, like this example. The most common
readers, and texts [that form] a complex system of surfaces at my public university includes gray
concrete and red brick.
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self-organizing, adaptive, and dynamic interactions” (p. 5).

In this essay, I report observations of campus chalking, the results of a 2016 election-

season field experiment, and chalking’s potential for practical use in a first-year-writing course.

These informal modes of research help demonstrate that, as a rhetorical ecology, campus

chalking persists despite the changing population of students from semester to semester, the

constraints of the environment, or its temporality. In an ever-changing, sidewalk-based network,

themes and topics rise, subside, wash away, get interrupted or added to, and often recomposed

and negatively (or, less rarely, positively) appropriated; chalking circulates or moves within the

rhetorical ecology. Such observations also suggest how chalking might fit within 21st-century

composition studies and what practical knowledge we (teachers and students) can gain from

studying it.

My own chalking experiment began as a rhetorical intervention during the Fall 2016

semester. At that time, an active, student-directed, voter-registration campaign was underway on

campus, and I wondered whether chalking would be a productive way to support that effort. On

the national stage, meanwhile, the presidential campaign had grown acrimonious and various

protests movements were very active. In my first few weeks on campus, I had seen a variety of

messages etched into the concrete and brick that connect campus parking lots, dorms,

classrooms, dining halls, and library (see Figure 1). Two examples observed during the Fall 2016

semester were “BLACK LIVES MATTER” and “Veteran’s Day / candlelight vigil / Nov. 9th /

[Plaza]” (the forward slashes indicate line breaks). These individual chalkings had been placed at

several locations around campus but primarily on major routes between buildings and parking

lots. I wanted to know how campus chalking works. Does it move across the college’s

physical/social spaces and through time? What are its constraints and affordances? I also
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wondered where the campus chalking came from—what was its history and other possible

contexts? To explore these questions, I turned toward Syverson’s theory of rhetorical ecologies

as distributed, emergent, embodied, and enacted, but first, I suggest a few definitions.

What is “chalking”?

These days, some of us continue to pick up a piece of chalk and write on a blackboard—a

19th century medium that often still hangs on classroom walls behind “Smartboards” that we

control by computer, remote clickers, and (for the digitally savvy) hand motions. Fewer of us,

perhaps, have picked up a piece of chalk and etched the conventional squares and codes of

hopscotch into the pavement. In any case, unlike a 19th century American recipe that included

“good whiskey” and “ground plaster” (Karpf, 2012, p. 65), modern sidewalk chalk is more

commonly made with plaster of Paris, which may scratch blackboards but is well suited to the

rough textures of brick and concrete. For these and other reasons, chalk remains a practical tool.

Some of the most sophisticated sidewalk chalkings in America were produced by Robert

Guilleman, aka “Sidewalk Sam,” a 1980s artist who reproduced classic but momentary art like

the Mona Lisa on Boston’s sidewalks (Romano, 1980). Whatever its modern composition or

potential applications, chalk is cheap, widely available, and easily removed, which may partially

explain why it is commonly used in situations as varied as a street-and-sidewalk vigil for the

young woman killed during the August 2016 protests in Charlottesville, Va., or a college fitness

club’s invitation to an off-campus hiking trip. This sidewalk-based genre of informal

communication, by the way, includes posters that stick to brick and concrete; information and/or

activity booths; or banners, kiosks, display boards, and the like. All are periodically placed on or
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beside campus sidewalks, and many of them invite some degree of interactivity. To help us

better situate chalking as a rhetorical ecology, here are a few key terms:

1) Chalking: an interconnected system of sidewalk-based communication that uses

chalk for “writing” (or drawing) messages—everything from art to insults, event

notices to poetry.

2) A chalk message: a single communication (“Black lives matter!”).

3) Chalk event: one or more messages that elicit a response or responses (“Black BLUE

lives matter!”).

4) Chalk campaign: a coordinated delivery of multiple messages placed

simultaneously, or near-simultaneously, in multiple locations, one large area, or a

major artery in the sidewalk network (such as excerpts from Beat poetry “posted” or

distributed around the university’s bricked “Central Plaza,” a large, outdoor space

encircling a water fountain where major sidewalks converge and students often


I argue that campus chalking is an interactive, dynamic system of communication; it is a

rhetorical ecology that embodies informal discourse at the university where I teach and, possibly,

other American campuses. It is persistent over time despite the changing population of students

from semester to semester, the constraints of environment, or its temporality. For example,

during the university’s Fall 2016 semester, from one side of campus to another, unseen rhetors

added “DUMP” in the margins of “Trump 2016” chalkings; “readers” intervened by crossing out

the first word of a “Black Lives Matter” message and adding (in the appropriate color) the word

“BLUE.” One love message elicited a chalked, misogynistic rant about women who need
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“work,” while another sparked the addition of colorful hearts (whether chalked in by a “reader”

or the one receiving the message, we can never be sure). What connects such informal messages?

Marshall McLuhan’s “media is the message” comes to mind, particularly as Lance Strate (2008)

observes: “Media function as environments, ecologies, and systems” (p. 135). The sidewalks and

the large bricked [fountain] area form a physical network across campus; concrete and brick

serve as media; and messages (texts) are delivered via chalk.

An ecological model for the rhetoric of chalking

But what do I mean by rhetorical ecologies? Syverson (1999) explains that processes in

complex systems “are distributed, that is both divided and shared among agents and structures in

the environment … [and] across space and time in an ensemble of interrelated activities” (p. 7,

emphasis added). The processes within complex systems are not contained within individuals or

individual elements; instead, they spread out, link, and connect. Syverson counters here the

understanding of the classic rhetorical situation of rhetor, audience, and text by expanding

Marilyn Cooper’s (1989) argument that “writing is an activity through which a person is

continually engaged with a variety of socially constituted systems” (p. 367). In the classical

triangle of a rhetorical situation, Cooper suggests, the rhetor does not exist or operate within a

static, isolated environment, nor is the situation a one-way transaction from rhetor to text to

audience. Rhetors influence audiences, audiences influence rhetors, the texts influence both—

and all exist within larger “ecologies.” Syverson’s broader framework includes the material

elements of the rhetorical ecology. She insists that the space, place, and material components

matter (outdoors or indoors, in a classroom or in a ship’s navigation room, tools like pen and

paper, “files of ideas and correspondence,” the “arrangement of objects on [the desk],” weather,
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software, buildings, and so on [Syverson, 1999, p. 9]). My take on Syverson’s notion of

distribution is that knowledge, the sharing of it, and the creation of it move dynamically within

physical and social environments.

Within such complex systems, says Syverson (1999), rhetors draw on “a vast ocean of

words, phrases, and ideas … to bring forth texts that organize themselves into more or less

coherent and recognizable forms” (p. 10). She adds that from the high volume of texts that arise

from or within a distributed system—from metaphors to lab reports, dissertations to detective

novels—some texts or parts of texts gather “genuine force and momentum through the more or

less coherent activities of a large number of writers and readers” (Syverson, 1999, p. 10). Words

and ideas stick and take on new life, like “catch-22” and “anti-hero,” and new genres take form,

like multi-authored fiction, to list a few of Syverson’s examples. This process, which she calls

emergence, is how genres coalesce and meaning accumulates or spreads. With a strong nod to

Jenny Edbauer’s (2005) work on rhetorical ecologies, Ken Gillam and Shannon R. Wooden

(2013) sum up Syverson’s idea this way: “An essay … emerges from a complex ecological web

of knowledge formation, rhetorical expectations, and lived experiences, and then succeeds or

fails largely in terms of how it integrates into the communicative ecology to which it aspires” (p.

26). Syverson, though, speaks not in terms of success or failure but evolution. The process

always moves, even when it appears static. Edbauer (2005) famously remarks that “rhetorical

situations simply bleed” (p. 9). Following Syverson, I take up emergence as an ongoing process

in which some ideas, arising as “texts” from ecological, rhetorical environments, disperse or

decompose, subsume into or consume other emerging forms; some persist; others transform (or

mutate, to follow the ecological metaphor).
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The third and fourth properties of rhetorical ecologies, in Syverson’s model, are

embodiment and enaction. We are physical beings and, as such, we ground “our conceptual

structures” within and through our physical selves and environments (Syverson, 1999, p. 13).

This is embodiment. Syverson (1999) explains, “Neither writing nor reading can be

accomplished without physical activity: clasping a book, moving the eyes across a line of text,

using the muscles of the hand, arm, and fingers to handle a pen or keyboard” (p. 12). The

physical processes may vary (now we “swipe” through messages and news on smartphones, for

example), but interactions between readers, writers, and texts continue to be situated in the

physical. Syverson’s (1999) enaction theory moves from this physical foundation to “knowledge

[as] the result of an ongoing interpretation that emerges through activities and experiences

situated in specific environments” (p. 13, emphasis in the original). A key word here is

“ongoing.” Edbauer (2005) posits this process as “temporal, historical, and lived fluxes” (p. 9),

which implies change, movement, and evolution as we create knowledge. In a related vein,

Michael Warner (2002) speaks of publics coming “into being only in relation to texts and their

circulation” (p. 66). Further, “a public is poetic world making” (Warner, 2002, p. 114). What I

draw from such threads is that within rhetorical ecologies (and between larger, often overlapping

ecologies), we create meaning, substance, and knowledge.

Ecologies, publics, and ANTs

Applying Syverson and many others who have followed (Rice, 2005; Fleckenstein et al.,

2008; Rivers & Weber, 2011; Gries, 2012, 2013; Gillam & Wooden, 2013; Mays, 2017), I posit

that chalking does not occur in isolation. As noted earlier, I see chalking as an ecology of

discourse, one grounded in simple technologies, involving both material and social structures,
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and delivered in an outdoor environment (chalk, brick, asphalt, concrete, rhetor, “reader,”

message, and weather conditions; out in the open, shaded by a tree, or beneath a building

archway). Its human and nonhuman participants—its agents—are dynamic and interrelated. Liza

Potts (2009) explains that agents “come together to form temporary networks, creating

assemblages of relations specific to an individual act or broader event and forming a collective,

referred to as an actant” (p. 286). Gries (2012) adds, “Within this assemblage, people are just

one agent among a host of other human and nonhuman entities that have potential to catalyze

change” (p. 52). Drawing further on Bruno Latour’s Actor Network Theory, Gries (2012)

explains, “Claims such as ‘woman writes with pen’ are … inaccurate. Instead, by thinking of

actant, we acknowledge that, in fact, ‘woman-pen’ writes” (p. 59, emphasis in the original). In

the rhetorical ecology I describe, then, “woman-chalk” writes, in dynamic relationship to the

medium (brick or asphalt), weather, light/shade, time, proximity to buildings and gathering areas,

historical/cultural contexts, and so forth. Beyond that hybrid actant, though, in what ways does it

exhibit the four characteristics outlined by Syverson?

Before undertaking my field-work project, I had learned that chalking was a “thing” at

the university. I had often paused to read messages when I walked across campus and observed

an ongoing, sometimes interactive collection of dialogues and mini-dialogues that, because the

mountain region of the state experienced a severe drought for much of the semester, persisted for

days and weeks. Other passersby noticed the chalkings, too, pausing to read, chuckling, or (for

the most provocative chalkings) pouring the contents of their water bottles over them. When a

new batch of “Trump 2016” chalkings appeared early in the semester, scattered across campus,

but concentrated on the plaza, students responded with counter-campaigns, etching quotations

from 1950s Beat poetry, Civil Rights activists, and Bible verses. While such individual chalkings
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and chalking campaigns can be analyzed as visual rhetoric, that approach obscures their dynamic

qualities, I suggest. Middleton, Senda-Cook, and Endres (2011) note rhetoric’s “participatory”

turn toward in situ field work, or what they call “rhetorical field methods:” “participant

observation [that] allows critics to experience rhetorical action as it unfolds and offers

opportunities to gather insights on how rhetoric is experienced by rhetors, audiences, and critics”

(p. 387; p. 390). In short, I wanted to experience chalking as lived, everyday rhetoric; I wanted to

participate and, by doing so, deepen my understanding of chalking’s ecology.

I bought a box of chalk, selected a color I thought would be most visible on gray concrete

in bright sunlight, found a location between one of the university’s most heavily used parking

lots and the plaza, and etched out a message. Together, all these individual agents—woman-

chalk, bright sun-gray concrete, the university’s chalking history, and its collection of chalkings

at that moment—formed a collective or actant situated in networks of actants. Such networks are

inherently ecological, which Laurie Gries suggests in both “Iconographic Tracking” (2013) and

“Agential Matters” (2012). But where she focuses on digital (i.e. computer-based) ecologies,

with chalking I see a more basic “digital” ecology (fingers gripping the chalk), and an almost

anti-computer rhetorical ecology. To borrow from Cooper (1989), chalking is a “dynamic

interlocking [system that] structure[s] the social activity of writing” (p. 369). Few of chalking’s

rhetors, I believe, have read university rules that limit chalking to horizontal surfaces (etched

onto vertical surfaces like walls, it becomes “graffiti”). Many who responded to the provocative

Trump-themed chalkings did not know that, in early April, former Trump social-media director

Dan Scavino Jr. and two social-political groups (Old Row and Students for Trump) had urged

college students to take part in what came to be called #TheChalkening (Kutner, 2016). With or

without direct knowledge of these factors, students picked up some chalk and intervened in the
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conversation. They shared or enacted distributed knowledge, experience, and activities. As I

picked up my own chalk, in short, I became part of this broader rhetorical environment.

A little history may help further untangle the backdrop to the Fall 2016 chalkings. For

those unfamiliar with what happened at the university during the Spring 2016 semester, a local

news reporter writes, “It started with a poster” (Kays, 2016, n.p.). That is, as part of the

nationally celebrated Black History Month, some students set up an Intercultural Affairs (ICA)

display that referenced the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman. A

university student/staffer posted on Facebook about the display and the “lies” circulated by the

#BlackLivesMatter movement; his post elicited racist comments. Students responded with a

#BLM chalk campaign on campus, while anonymous posters on the social-media site, Yik Yak,

countered with anonymous, intensely racist comments that were seen by some students.

University administrators responded with a campus-wide, conciliatory email and a meeting of

students and Facebook posters who were not anonymous. On April 4, a group of students,

children, and adults of various ethnicities staged a live protest at the [fountain]. They circled the

fountain at the plaza, held up #BLM posters, and supplemented their performance with chalkings

(Ball; Calhoun; Kays; Krueger; Simkiss). Meanwhile, #TheChalkening was simultaneously

underway in campuses across the United States, from the University of Tennessee to the

University of Oregon (Kutner, 2016).

This series of incidents illustrates the complex ecology in which chalking is situated: “a

network of independent agents [who] act and interact in parallel with each other, simultaneously

reacting to and co-constructing their own environment” (Syverson, 1999, p. 3). That is, the

events that unfolded from February 2016 to April 2016 demonstrated the inter-connectedness of

campus communication, social media, students, administrators, and national events. In this case,
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smaller ecologies (a poster display, a local chalking campaign) interacted with larger ecologies

(the campus as a whole and its student, administration, and staff subsets; potentially global

social-media ecologies like Facebook, Twitter, and Yik Yak; and national movements and

counter-movements like Black/Blue Lives Matter or #TheChalkening). Themes and memes

(“Dump Trump” and “Black Lives Matter”) took form and circulated through the rhetorical

ecology. In short, chalking’s ecology showed signs of Syversonian emergence. The campus

chalkings were, I suggest, intensified by national initiatives and events.

Although I was not on campus to see these events first-hand, I had heard about them and

had informally asked fellow students and professors what they remembered. And as I thought

about WCU’s recent chalking history, I was reminded of the spread and evolution of the “Keep

Austin Weird” movement Edbauer examines. Drawing on the rhetorical ecology work of

Syverson and others, Edbauer emphasizes that the rhetoric situation is not as simple as Lloyd

Bitzer (1968) would have it. Arguing for a linear relationship involving such elements as

exigence, audience, and response, he had declared, “[T]he situation … calls the discourse into

existence" (Bitzer, p. 2). Bitzer had also defined the rhetorical situation as “a natural context of

persons, events, objects, relations, and an exigence which strongly invites utterances” (p. 6). His

framework is linear and logical. But Edbauer, like Syverson, argues that rhetorical reality is not

so simple; it is dynamic and/or fluid. It is ecological.

Furthermore, Edbauer’s Austin, Texas, case includes a publics/counterpublics element

that operates within an ecological framework and shows the movement or circulation of ideas

and texts similar to the chalkings. In response to the bumper stickers that were distributed in

Austin, Edbauer (2005) writes, someone posted a “piece of white paper … on the side of a

newspaper stand. In all block letters, the words read: ‘Keep Austin fucking normal. Conform. It’s
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just easier.’ [Such] counter-rhetorics directly respond to and resist the original exigence [and]

expand the lived experience of the original rhetorics by adding to them” (p. 19, emphasis in the

original). From Warner (2002), we know that “a public comes into being only in relation to texts

and their circulation” and that a counterpublic is the nondominant or subordinate

corollary/response (p. 66). In short, the original Austin message “circulate[d] in a wide ecology

of rhetorics [and] accrete[d] over time” (Edbauer, 2005, pp. 19-20). The Austin message

gathered meaning, or rhetorical weight, to which audiences and rhetors continued to respond.

In both Edbauer’s “Keep Austin Weird” example and in the Spring 2016 chalkings on my

campus, rhetorical ecologies demonstrate that discourse evolves. The rhetorical situation is more

than simple stuff happens / we act (apologies to Bitzer with this oversimplification). Further,

despite the ever-revolving student body, knowledge of chalkings gathers over time; some sort of

collective memory lingers, whether students share stories of previous events or professors and

staff (who are around for much longer) foster long-term or ongoing awareness. Such ecologies

are complex; they are living and non-static. They are, in Syverson’s framework, distributed and

not contained by one individual rhetor, audience, situation, or physical-social environment.

Viewing the informal discourse of chalking in terms of rhetorical ecologies provides a practical

metaphor for understanding the evolution and decay of campus discourse in general, and the

social and physical circumstances that contribute to its movement and patterns. Further, this

chalk-based messaging system resembles such digital ecologies as discussion forums or social-

media feeds. As Gries (2012) remarks, “[T]hinking ecologically acknowledges the dynamic

complexity of these networked systems, the interrelated, laminated layers of activities that

constitute them, and the mutual transformation that occurs among intertwined elements” (p. 51).
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One of those transformations is the rise and fall of publics and counterpublics within the

chalking ecology, as mentioned earlier, and within the broader ecology of the campus as a whole.

That is, chalking invites passersby to read as they walk past or stop to read, not unlike motorists

reacting to billboards on the highway (thankfully, most of them rarely stop in the middle of the

road to read the things). In this process, there is an interactive back-and-forth movement between

rhetor and audience; unlike Bitzer’s static view of situation-rhetor-audience, chalking engages in

an organic way. A chalking might be ignored, laughed at, grumbled about. Its most engaged

public will write over it, wash it away, report it to campus administration, or launch a counter-

campaign. Chalking is common, somewhat valued on campus, cuts across various public and

counterpublic spheres, and invites response. I add that chalking is performative, involving the

interaction of bodies with the environment, texts, and other elements both social and material.

Chalking is, to apply Syverson (1999), “dependent on, and reflective of, physical experience” (p.

12). Chalking is embodied.

Chalk, study, map: A Fall 2016 in situ exercise

I gathered and pondered such ideas as I developed a plan and etched my first chalk

message. Middleton et al. (2011) note that “processual forms of rhetorical action [may be]

accessible only through participatory methods (and … flattened when those forms of rhetorical

action are reduced to exclusively textual representations)” (p. 387). As they explain, qualitative

and ethnographic methods of rhetorical analysis can provide insight into the process or, in the

case of chalking, into a rhetorical ecology. Like natural or biological ecologies, chalking entails a

dynamic system of chalk, talk, interrupt, engage, ignore. It occurs in both time and space, in what

seem to be random patterns and placements across campus but are concentrated in the area of
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highest traffic (the central plaza). To study chalking more fully, I needed to do it, to step into its

milieu. So I mapped its outlines informally, starting with the underlying ecology(ies): the

environment and/geography of the campus, chalking’s possible rhetors and “readers,” and its

historical/social context. The university’s physical environment includes a system and pattern of

sidewalks, buildings, trees, hillsides, flat areas, and other features that constrain, encourage, or

protect delivery (a section of sidewalk covered by a building archway, for example, shields

chalkings from rain but also accosts students as they enter/exit that building or walk under the

arch). Outside forces add another layer that can catalyze the system or constrain it, such as the

2016 presidential campaign or heavy rains.

As I plotted the delivery and possible circulation of my chalk campaign, I considered the

university’s physical environment, as noted above; its temporal environment (time of day,

weekday/weekend, external/internal factors—that is, campus and non-campus events); the

historical/cultural environment of chalking on campus; and observable chalking messages,

events, and campaigns. I plotted and placed chalkings that on sidewalks extending from well-

trafficked buildings and parking lots and ending at the central plaza. Afterward, I observed chalk

messages, events, and campaigns (my own and others), noting “reader” or “passerby” reactions

to them; and catalogued chalkings (by photographing, and/or transcribing them). In the vein of

Gries’ (2013) iconographic tracking method for “empirically account[ing] for how images flow,

transform, and contribute to collective life,” such considerations situated my study (p. 337). I

took notes on date, location, and text to denote an “original” chalking message,

modification/amendment, color, size, and “font” or style—the constraints of the chalking

ecology as visual rhetoric. Some colors stand out more than others on the two types of surfaces

(red brick or gray concrete); effective chalking requires large, bold characters and images; and
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chalking occurs mainly at the most traveled points in the physical network. Based on a weather

report that predicted thunderstorms, I “performed” most of my chalking on a clear Sunday

morning. I added one more element: I left pieces of chalk near each sidewalk message, in the

hopes that readers would pick them up and respond to #ChalkToMe. By Tuesday, heavy rains

had washed my work all away.

I also used Twitter, which encourages sharing and/or recomposition. Kathleen Yancey

(2004) says that we “already inhabit a model of communication practices incorporating multiple

genres related to each other, those multiple genres remediated across contexts of time and space,

linked one to the next, circulating across and around rhetorical situations both inside and outside

school” (p. 308). I used the means of persuasion available, and as a former journalist, I had both

a pre-existing, active Twitter account (@mvwilliams) and knowledge of useful hashtags. As

Bitzer (1992) says, “A work of rhetoric is pragmatic. It comes into existence for the sake of

something beyond itself; it functions ultimately to produce action or change in the world” (p. 3).

In several tweets delivered in the days leading up to my chalkings and afterward, I combined

these hashtagged ideas into a core message: “#ivote #uVote #WHEEvote = #democracy.” I also

tweeted about a small group of students who were publishing voter-registration guides, hosting

presidential debate parties, and urging fellow students everyone to vote. I talked with one of

those organizers, who steered me toward fellow students handling the voter-registration

campaign’s social-media outreach. These students, however, were not very active on Twitter. I

monitored similar state and national efforts, passing along useful information for voters via

Twitter. To minimize negative appropriation, such as retweets by the many “haters” and trolls in

the #Election2016 cycle, I also made a conscious choice to keep my posts nonpartisan—no

#DumpTrump or #HillaryForPrison tweets or chalkings.
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When I gripped the chalk, bent down, and etched a message on a concrete sidewalk,

however, I was not thinking about rhetorical ecologies, human-nonhuman agents, publics-

counterpublics, interventional discourse, or teaching composition in the 21st century. I looked

over my shoulder because I was worried about being seen. I also wondered whether anyone

would pick up the chalk I planned to leave next to the phrase, #ChalkToMe, and, if they did,

would they choose to be crude or thoughtful? Would they notice the twitterized hashtag approach

and share my message via social media? Woman-with-chalk, I felt the same rush I had as a kid,

picking up a No. 2 pencil and writing about my latest summer vacation in a Red Chief notebook

(a nod to my fellow Baby Boomers here). The vacation report had a limited audience: an

elementary-school teacher. My chalk message, on the other hand, could reach thousands of


Conclusions and suggestions: Beyond the chalk

“Sometimes, you know, you have a moment,” Yancey (2004) says. “How we value [our

moments] is in part a function of how we understand them, how we connect them to other

moments, how we anticipate the moments to come” (Yancey, 2004, p. 297). Conversations

bloom across campus, disperse, and disappear. Stepping into that rhetorical ecology, I

experienced its limitations and possibilities. For example, one response to a “#iVote /

#WheeVote” message of mine was “#REVUPTHOSEFRYERS,” a racist and juvenile hashtag

used on Twitter and Yik Yak. Another chalk-responder delivered a counter-message urging

people to vote for the Libertarian presidential candidate. A nearby response filled the sidewalk

with a misogynistic twist on “if you need a job…” But one reader drew an elaborate, colorful
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swirl that seemed happy and hopeful (see Figure 2). One of my messages, placed under an

archway between dorms, survived the Tuesday rain, although letters at the edges were faded.

Figure 2: This chalking appeared as a response to the #ChalkToMe invitation in the Fall 2016 campaign.

Nonetheless, analytics indicate that I gained few new followers on Twitter and inspired

few retweets. The #ChalkToMe message elicited a handful of responses, as noted above. It was

far from certain that I had encouraged anyone to register to vote. By choosing to be neutral and

non-provocative, I may have limited both the circulation of my messages and the possible

responses. Perhaps, by Gillam and Wooden’s measure, I had also failed to integrate into the

“communicative ecology” I sought to enter. With few campus-based followers and low activity

from student tweeters, the muted response to my social-media campaign was predictable.

Furthermore, as with Twitter, chalking seems to encourage anonymity and thus an element of

disengagement, especially in the absence of a major catalyst like #TheChalkening.

Nonetheless, as I reviewed such findings, I thought of Fleckenstein, Spinuzzi, Rickly, and

Papper, (2008) who express “a belief in the possibility of both a coherent story of reality and

multiple coherent stories” (p. 390). What is the long-term “story” that the chalking phenomenon

reveals? Students, staff, and professors still talk about the Spring 2016 events, and some seem to

be actively, albeit quietly, continuing to respond, like the Beat poetry campaign, sparked by a
PAC Postscript Williams: Chalk to Me 18
The Search for Useful Knowledge in a Local, Rhetorical Ecology
professor whose students had questioned how to respond to antagonistic Election 2016

chalkings; some of these students had witnessed the Spring 2016 chalking-related events. With

messages espousing themes of protest, peace, and perspective, their rhetorical intervention and

others like them may help keep chalking dialogues civil. The Beat-poetry campaign also

demonstrates one way that chalking continues to evolve on campus over time. But in a larger

sense, the moment of heightened chalking had passed before the presidential election season was

even over.

Implications for Teaching FYW

In any case, how does my research and initial findings suggest a learning unit for first

year writing? A full discussion exceeds the limits of this essay, but I can offer a preview of the

possibilities. At the university, all students are required to take a sequence of writing courses,

ENGL 101 Writing and Rhetoric, and ENGL 202 Writing and Critical Inquiry. Both classes are

grounded in the basics of rhetoric: What is ethos? Pathos? Logos? What is the rhetorical

situation? How do we construct arguments? How do we make meaning in the world? For

example, a common assignment for ENGL 101 is a rhetorical analysis. Many students struggle

with understanding the basic concepts, couched in Greek and other fancy words; visual rhetoric

often helps them see rhetoric in action. Both in composition textbooks and classrooms,

advertisements often fulfill this approach. But I chose chalking examples, drawing from Gillam

and Wooden’s ideas for fostering interactive, collaborative practices in the classroom. Chalking,

like other modes of informal discourse, is present and continually enacted in the students’

immediate environment.
PAC Postscript Williams: Chalk to Me 19
The Search for Useful Knowledge in a Local, Rhetorical Ecology
As students were in the process of choosing texts to study for their first paper, a rhetorical

analysis, I showed slides of present, recent, and past chalkings. I asked them questions about

fonts, colors, medium, arrangement, and message. We discussed how these elements contributed

to or detracted from a chalking’s effectiveness—was a message hard to read because of poor

color choices, bad lighting, or arrangement? Students easily identified basic problems or

successes, such as long, textual messages that were hard to read because they did not fit in the

visual “frame” of a casual passerby; or colorful etchings that drew attention and invited response.

Students also related to the context of chalking campaigns that occurred before they came to

campus as freshmen. One student, for example, chose to create a chalking campaign as part of a

multimodal campaign to build awareness about student homelessness. Others photographed

chalkings they had seen on campus, shared them with the class, and analyzed them rhetorically.

One student was inspired by a chalking that showed rhetors recomposing a “Black Lives Matter”

chalking by crossing out “Black” and replacing it with “BLUE,” then crossing out “BLUE” and

replace it with “HUMANS.” In each “edit,” the student wrote, different rhetors were

communicating what they thought or believed about race, police actions, and our shared

humanity. The tension between these beliefs had sparked protests in his hometown, Charlotte,

N.C., after police shot and killed 43-year-old Keith Lamont Smith in mid-September 2016

(Domonoske, 2016). With a question not easily answered, the student wrote of the chalking

“edits,” “Which one was truly right?”

Campus chalkings often address big issues, but even in the mundane (“FREE

CUPCAKES TODAY!”) they offer a localized, tangible element to class discussions and

assignments. My point is that such modes of informal discourse allow students to create their

own meaning-making in the rhetorical ecologies they move through and intervene in. Chalking
PAC Postscript Williams: Chalk to Me 20
The Search for Useful Knowledge in a Local, Rhetorical Ecology
highlights the “drive of people to interact socially” (Porter, 2009, p. 219), even if its “writers” are

rarely seen and are sometimes as disruptive as trolls on the internet. Chalking’s rhetors and

readers nonetheless demonstrate that they are engaged with issues and ready to talk about them.

In October, in connection with a national campaign, messages about domestic violence spread

from the plaza to the library, written in childlike block letters and plain white chalk: “LOVE

DOESN’T HURT,” for example. If we, as teachers and scholars, can understand this ecology and

what it says about our students and their culture, then chalking affords a possible way to engage

them in meaningful assignments and activities. Claude Hurlsburt (2012) suggests, “If we have

learned anything in composition studies over the last thirty years, it is that formal exercises do

not, largely, encourage student engagement” (p. 35). Could chalking somehow also help us

achieve that higher aim of rhetoric, the fostering of good citizens?

I am encouraged by such scholars as Erwin Cherminski and Howard Gillman (2016),

who found that millennials remain sensitive to issues of free speech, including how we mediate

hate speech yet engage in meaningful conversations. Also, Simmons and Grabill (2007)

comment on rhetorical theory’s usefulness in “connecting students to a long and meaningful

history of people communicating to change communities but also to help students develop habits

of mind that will enable them to recognize problems and design inquiry strategies to work

toward solutions” (p. 442). If chalking and other campus-oriented, informal forms of discourse

provide available means of persuasion within or as a rhetorical ecology, then students of all

levels can learn to evaluate chalking as rhetoric and, in a variety of situations, use what they

learn. As Gillam and Wooden (2013) say of their goals, “Ideally, our students would think and

write in environments rich with interpersonal communication, rewarding collaboration, and the

formation of productive learning communities” (p. 25). In other words, chalking can be a way for
PAC Postscript Williams: Chalk to Me 21
The Search for Useful Knowledge in a Local, Rhetorical Ecology
students to enter the dialogue of engaged citizenship. “Writing itself is always activism,” say

Marback and Bruch (2013, p. 61). If not chalking, other modes of informal discourse, from

bulletin-board messages to event posters, Snapchat to the 6-second video app Vine, might open

the door to dialogue and critical inquiry. The key to finding that doorway is stepping back and

discovering the rhetorical ecologies we and our students live in.
PAC Postscript Williams: Chalk to Me 22
The Search for Useful Knowledge in a Local, Rhetorical Ecology

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PAC Postscript Williams: Chalk to Me 24
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