Reflections on the Computers and Writing Conference and the Field in General
This year's computers and writing conference was a wonderfully informative experience. The conference was well-structured and well-attended; moreover, everyone involved in the conference was pleasant and accommodating.
However, although this year's conference was successful, I do want to express my concern with how ideas and issues continue to be presented in our field. During many of the panels that I attended, most scholars either read papers or read papers while directing people's attention to corresponding power-point slides. Unfortunately, many presenters didn't incorporate technology at all in their presentations, which seems - given the conference - particularly absurd. In a field constructed on ancient strategies of public presentation that emphasize the performative nature of rhetoric, how can such presentation techniques continue? As a field, why do we continue to propagate such poor performance strategies?
One of the many contributors to these ineffective presentation strategies may be how we construct our ethos as presenters. It seems to me that, when we present, we may put up a fašade (and fallacy) of authority in order to circumvent interrogation and to assert that we belong as credible figures in the field. Such an ethos, though, gives the impression that what we say is factual rather than under investigation. Such an ethos denies the social construction of knowledge and reinforces modernist notions of the writer and of scholarship that Linda Brodkey criticized several years ago; moreover, it decontextualizes and dehistoricizes not only the ideas being presented, but also depoliticizes the critical moment of communing with peers.1
A second contributing factor may be the nature of the discipline. Many of us are overworked, underpaid, and just plain tired. We may have several projects, as well as administrative and committee responsibilities, clamoring for our attention. We simply cannot devote adequate attention to all of them, so we pick and choose which fire has to be put out first. Unfortunately, because they always seem so far away, conference presentations get little attention. It is much easier just to read an essay: there is little preparation involved; work completed for past projects is easily amenable to current exigencies; half the audience will be too lost after the first page to ask any meaningful questions at the completion of the presentation; the other half of the audience will be too busy fiddling with other things to care that we are, in effect, replicating a type of passive, banking-model pedagogy that the discipline has long ridiculed. As a discipline, we have vehemently criticized teacher-based, lecture-oriented pedagogies for how they present knowledge as static, as divorced from the cultural, historical and social contexts of its construction. Furthermore, we have interrogated this kind of pedagogy for how it reinforces inequitable power relations and further entrenches ideologies that exclude the knowledges, discourses, and narratives of cultures that are not White, not Western, and not male. What does it reveal, though, about our discipline when we continue such exclusionary, poor pedagogical practices in our discussions with each other? Although space constraints preclude a thorough investigation of this question here, my guess is that the ethos that we construct when reading papers may be one example of what Krista Ratcliffe calls "dysfunctions of whiteness" that reveal what Victor Villanueva calls the discipline's apparent "colonial sensibility."2
In future conferences, I hope that our discipline can change the dominant perception of presentations so that we can engage in meaningful, epistemic practices that characterize a sophisticated disciplinary community. We should think of panels and individual presentations as conversations where we discuss and interrogate a particular topic within a particular social and historical context. One purpose of conferences is to converse together on important issues and topics circulating within the field; another purpose is to build community by sharing ideas and constructing knowledge. However, many, if not most, scholars simply read essays, a practice that precludes the possibility of conversation and the construction of knowledge. We are doing our discipline an extreme disservice by continually reading essays at conferences because such a practice prevents - I argue - the possible transformation of dominant paradigms and concomitant disciplinary renewal.
Nicholas N. Behm Arizona State University
1 Brodkey, Linda. Academic Writing as Social Practice. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1987.
2 Ratcliffe, Krista. "Eavesdropping as Rhetorical Tactic: History, Whiteness, and Rhetoric." JAC: Journal of Advanced Composition 20.1 (2000): 87-119.
Villanueva, Victor Jr. "Maybe a Colony: And Still Another Critique of the
Comp Community." JAC: Journal of Advanced Composition 17 (1997): 183-189.