When thinking how to represent my experiences at the 1998 Conference on College Composition and Communication (April 1-4 in Chicago, IL), I imagine three frameworks from which to speak:
First, I could, as a specialist in computers and composition, choose to focus on the sessions I attended and how they mapped out the key issues that are currently being debated by scholars in rhetoric and composition. Such a framework would feature a discussion about the technology sessions that I both attended and presented at--sessions about the Web, MOOs, and the pedagogical/research issues that these new technologies introduced. I would then explain how these sessions (with a primary interest in CMC) intersected with and were complicated by the other sessions I attended--talks that ranged from Sharon Crowley's "Featured Speaker" session about the status of the profession (which was, by the way, teeming with our colleagues) to "(Off)White Papers" in which the presenters urged a full room to reconsider the racial assumptions that drive our pedagogy to a panel that featured the editors of various journals and publishing houses in our field. This panel focused on the ethical issues of citing students' work in our own research papers/books/talks. These and the other sessions I attended helped me to see what issues are currently being debated and what sorts of responses audience members offer about these topics. This rather traditional framework, while certainly workable and "expected," would not, however, fully describe my experiences at the conference. For me, conferences have always been about more than the sessions. The conversations in the elevators, the feel of the Palmer House lobby where hundreds of people mingle between sessions, the buzz of conversations at the French Quarter Cafe--these elements would have to be left out of a more standard story of the conference.
On the other hand, I could choose to map my conference experiences by describing the Exhibits: My conversations with large textbook publishers about their rapidly expanding "Guide to the Web" series (all the major publishers have them now), the electronic membership renewal service at the NCTE booth, High Wired, the new edited collection about using MOOs in the classroom that dovetailed nicely with a discussion at the end of a conference session on MOOing. I might then paint a picture of one technology representative who, in a kindly manner, asked me "Are you an English teacher? You look like an English teacher," or my re-union with former colleagues at Sixth Floor Media and my delight at hearing that CommonSpace, a collaborative writing software project on which I consulted, was succeeding. I could take readers through my understandings of the field by explaining what books I bought, how I see will fit them into my research, and how I plan to use them in the graduate course I will teach in the fall. One key insight would be to point out that for the first time, Routledge had a booth at 4C's, highlighting, perhaps, that we (i.e., rhetoric and composition scholars) have finally "made it" in the world of a traditionally literary-theory bent publisher. We can certainly understand a lot about the field by examining what gets published, who's reading what, and how it's being used/taken up, as well as by seeing what's not being published. But this, too, is not the entire story.
These two structures, however, are not the methods I want to use to tell my stories. (By not telling them, however, I have already begun to make them real, so that the story I do want to tell is layered with these other stories that "could have been.") Instead, I want to frame my conference experiences around the meals I had and the conversations that occurred there. I want to focus on two meals which highlight why I am excited to be continuing my involvement in this field. These meals emphasize the many hats we in Rhetoric and Composition must wear and the ways that they can tie together.
The first meal I want to talk about was one hosted by the current editors of Computers & Composition, Gail Hawisher and Cynthia Selfe. They invited all of us who have been working for the journal, and the dinner served as a moment when scholars in the field who are also involved in editing that journal could come together and discuss our visions for the coming issues--future issues to address in the journal, ways in which the on-line version is taking shape, methods to encourage conversations in the chat spaces provided in the Web version. Over an amazing five-course meal, we also heard about each other's current projects and our teaching experiences. We talked about using MOOs in our classes, heard about Cindy's revisions of her Chair's address, and continued to get to know one another. Topics that were formally addressed at sessions throughout the conference and reflected in published books displayed in the Exhibit Hall (MOOs, gatekeeping, community-building, etc.) were informally mulled over at dinner, but our musings were always framed by our concerns with publishing. The people assembled at this meal ranged in computer expertise, age, teaching experiences, school affiliations, and career positionings. What we shared, though, (besides wonderful comraderie and a delicious meal) was an abiding interest in the professional venue called C&C. Likewise, at the heart of our conversations was a commitment to teaching and a desire to use technologies to help people--ourselves, our students, our colleagues--write better (whatever "better" is). Separating publishing from teaching would seem incongruous, and all parts of our responsibilities were woven throughout our dinner discussions. Personal/professional binaries were pleasantly and productively troubled as we shared ideas, exquisite desserts, and cab rides back to our hotels.
The following evening I found myself at a boisterous Italian restaurant dining with two of my new colleagues from Arizona State University. We talked about the papers my two colleagues had given that day--one of which concerned a racially-charged dispute that had occurred on the ASU campus. This point echoed a session I had attended, so we talked about how to better include diversity throughout the curriculum and teacher training. Two of us who had attended a session on MOOs shared our responses to the very enthusiastic but somewhat undertheorized presentations there. Drawing on Sharon Crowley's session, we discussed the ways that ASU had effectively changed its policies toward non-tenure line faculty. And throughout, we mapped out what I would bring to the department when I came this fall. I have been hired to share my expertise in computers and composition (which is continually being built through conversations over e-mail, in professional journals, at conference sessions). But I was also made aware that I am entering a department filled with colleagues who specialize in other areas. Part of my job, then, is not only to share my expertise, but to explain my positionings in ways that have meaning for others (both in my new department as well as in other social arenas). Conferences are places where we can hear the other conversations that are occurring in our field and where we can build new alliances between specializations so that we are, as a whole, more effectively accomplishing our goals as educators.
This recognition that my position as a new assistant professor makes me a part of a vibrant, diverse community--a community which draws on conferences and many other venues (both personal and professional) to keep it growing and strong--has led me to consider important questions. These questions come out of my myriad experiences at 4Cs, and since I think the value of a conference is to raise lots of questions and not provide "fixed" answers, I want to conclude this short piece with the ones that have continued to hail me after the conference: Where do computer and composition specialists fit into the larger field of computers and composition? Why is the study of information technologies crucial to writing education? How do our various positions inform/shape/conflict with one another? What responsibilities do we have--to our students, to our colleagues, to our departments, to our profession, to the communities in which we live and work? How are the institutions we work for changing? How are new members of this field being mentored? What do we need to do to make entrance into the "conversation" more inviting, more equitable? What can we do so that our field continues to grow rather than ossify? After attending 4Cs, it's clear to me that many of my colleagues in this profession are thinking long and hard about these issues, and for that (and the great conversations over dinners), I am grateful.