"The Last Session: A Newcomer's Experience of the Chair’s Address and Sessions I.09, L.14, and N.36"
By Andrew Kinney (firstname.lastname@example.org)
It was Saturday afternoon at CCCC and I was eager to get out of Indianapolis and back home. But I was also curious to see what sort of crowd would show up for the session I was most excited about: N.36, “Never Mind Geoffrey Sirc: A Tribute Panel.” I can’t quite explain why I was so enthusiastic about this session, but I was not the only one who feels this way. Maybe it was our collective relief to have made it to the last session after four hectic days. Whatever the cause, the ballroom in the Downtown Marriott was electric.
“Tribute” is misleading. Although panelists Jenny Rice, Byron Hawk (delivered by Christian Smith), Cynthia Haynes, Jeff Rice, Victor Vitanza, and Thomas Rickert retold Sirc’s past accomplishments, there was, thank god, nothing respectful about their epideixis. This was a roast.
“Is the roast a Happening?” I wondered. Not really. The ballroom — there’s no helping it — was “soberly monumental, charged with the heavy burden of preserving the discursive tradition” (Sirc, 2002, p. 2). Still, this was the scene for Hawk’s in absentia stomp boxing, Vitanza’s memory trip down Pre/Text lane, and Jenny Rice’s playful and poignant lines. In the afterimage of this scene, several less memorable sessions recede. In their place burns Cynthia Haynes’ reminiscence: “I lost my academic virginity at the Cs in Milwaukee,” she quips. And to me, a first-time attendee, it felt effortless, even necessary, writing myself into those lines. Thanks, Indianapolis.
CCCC got to me. Like an earworm; like intellectual vertigo. In four quick days, I picked up a new habit. And now — thank god I’m home, but — I’m suffering withdrawal. Maybe writing this will recreate a little of my #4C14 glory days or help me feel something for the 200-person queue at the Marriott Starbucks.
So what might we remember ten or twenty years from now? What ought we keep hold of?
Howard Tinberg’s Chair’s Address, “The Loss of the Public: Two Tales of Indiana,” for one. Let me return to Thursday morning, before I became implicated by Haynes’s memories. And before I realized, while listening to Tinberg’s speech, on the other side of an empty chair sat Angela Davis (my self-introduction to her after the opening session was strange and pathetic, so I’m swearing off selfies with celebrities from now on).
Tinberg’s call to action, though, I experienced as euphoric. We must, he urged us, listen more deeply to our students’ stories. Let us approach the teaching of writing as a way for students to “make a self,” and remember that the students who populate our classrooms constitute that same public in need of reclamation and reconstruction.
And Tinberg’s reference to Shaughnessy’s (1998) “The Miserable Truth” struck home. Even in this era so like 1976 — an era in which we witness threats to basic literacy, a disengaged public, disinvestments in higher education, and insufficient advocacy for part-time faculty — Tinberg’s use of Shaughnessy was euphoric (literally, helping us to bear it well). For the “lion got out of the cage before the gates were shut,” Shaughnessy said in her now classic speech, reminding us nearly 40 years later of the power attached to teaching writing (1998, p. 112).
“Even if male lions sometimes eat their cubs? And some species are endangered?” joked my new friend, Tom Luckie, who I got to know later that evening at High Velocity. Tom and I chatted over beers and hot dogs. Indianapolis has plenty of both. Currently a Butler MFA student, Tom took a few years off after his undergraduate degree to work in a hotel. It’s his insight into hotels, actually, that lead him to advise me not to be ashamed ordering the one-pound hot dog. “We have a really strong Visiting Writers series,” he said, by way of explaining how he made the move from Buffalo to Butler. Thinking back to the lions getting out of the cage, I pointed out how some of our students later become writing teachers. Although in saying this I was not entirely sure I was promoting effectively either Shaughnessy’s optimistic expectation or Tinberg’s project of public reclamation.
Then I told Tom about my friend Joe. As an undergraduate, Joe McGregor was a writing center consultant on my campus. Joe discovered how much writing and tutoring meant to him, so he pursued graduate school. Several years an adjunct later, Joe finds himself teaching eight courses at three campuses. “I work every day. On the weekends I grade 8-4 just to keep up,” he says. No benefits. Just enough to get by. Three kids and a wife. And Joe’s a veteran. Only nothing Joe says sounds like a complaint. He just sounds worried. Not for himself but for his family and students. When he talks about his work he just reports the facts — the miserable truth. Can you lose your academic innocence without learning about the miserable truth, I wonder? How can something so wonderful hurt so much?
It was Friday and I made it to session I.09, which included Adam Heidebrink’s “Writing on the Cloud: Designing Composition Pedagogy for the Masses.” Heidebrink took Thomas Rickert’s paraphrase of the Sircian rule to heart: writing is “not following a rule, but chasing a desire.” As Heidebrink began he asked the audience to collaborate by tweeting responses to his performance. Later, Heidebrink curated our tweets. During his talk, and between tweets of his own, he considered the virtues of composing en masse in digital communities, arguing that we should celebrate the disappearance of the solitary, individual author. Given the unequal power assessment establishes, he asked us to consider the ethics of assistance as an alternative.
- The most beautiful moment of an article’s life [...] is the moment when the original author’s work is so deeply embedded into the framework of the dialogue that the originator’s words no longer exist in the article itself. [...] Today, only seventeen of the original words written in the Wiki:Feminism, November 2001 survive. Squished together, and arranged as a poem, the original article reads:
- of and of
- to a women
- to the and some
- to equal pay
- for have but
- Now that [...] is a culture of learning, a community of revision.
Or what he called “digital intimacy.” I wonder whether my students feel this sense of closeness when they write. What excites them about writing? Might we consider the revision history of a wiki page as evidence of public reclamation? For our instruction we might consider a wiki page’s revision history as evidence of public reclamation. The Feminism: Revision History page provides fascinating material by volunteer editors: “let’s talk before making big changes,” wrote Ed Poor; QIM said, “Lucretia and the early 1800’s Quakers, ‘feminists’? Give me a break”; Erich gasboy reported, “definition tweek [sic] — for my wife who is going to create an account herself very soon.”
Nonetheless, digital intimacy is complicated. At first glance, it seems that wiki communities may be a function of members’ shared work and commitment to textual improvements (even if they disagree about what counts as improvement). Yet the more revision comments I read, the more sensitive I become to their idiosyncratic efforts and attitudes, suggesting a diverse set of motivations guiding their editing preoccupation. A community of chaos--or born out of chaos, in any case.
Saturday morning I happened to wander into the same session with Adam Heidebrink. Three panelists, three audience members. I tried to listen extra well in order to ask insightful questions. The session was L.14, Paul Muhlhauser’s “ POOCing Around and Expertising,” with Kelly Bradbury and Daniel Shafer. This was the best non-attended session I attended. Bradbury’s opening question was about how we can guide discussions about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) toward democratic pedagogy. Her concern with reframing current conversations about MOOC lead to Shafer and Muhlhauser’s pedagogical companion pieces, each of which were thoughtful and compelling.
Muhlhauser defined the “P” in POOC as personal or participatory. His pedagogy draws on Lawrence Lessig’s idea of a read/write culture. Shafer was interested in helping students become “nichepertists” — experts who can leverage social media and virtual identities for local, social good. I was impressed by how the panelists use social media for encouraging local participation; even more compelling was the enthusiasm they had for an audience of three.
“Remember Shaughnessy,” Vitanza chided Sirc. In my excitement to attend the last session I falsely believed I wanted to pay tribute, but somehow I never got around to it. Instead, I retained my sense of frustration and respect for others’ struggles even as I felt awed by my colleagues’ accomplishments and my new friends’ graciousness.
More than that, though, I discovered “[...] we had better keep learning how to teach writing because the brothers and sisters and cousins and children of our students will be back” (Shaughnessy, 1998, p. 112). Which is precisely what keeps happening to me. New students keep showing up with my old students’ last names. Or my last name (it’s happened twice). Or old students pop up in my social media feeds: working in local media, managing franchise restaurants, fighting fires, getting a new job in accounting, teaching third grade, farming. Just this month they had a baby, got divorced, went on a mission trip, got laid off, finished graduate school, and painted their nails blue in honor of Autism awareness month. And they probably read my status updates about happenings at CCCC.
What is this connection we have with our former students? Thanks to social media and the Internet, we get a glimpse into their lives, years after they escape our attendance policies. Wandering around out there in the real world, it’s easy to assume whatever links us is too slight to matter. Still, it’s not wise to become overly sentimental about former students. Following the panel’s Sirc-inspired spin in the wayback machine, someone from the audience asked, “When will you return to Facebook? We miss you!” His reply sounded wistful, as if he missed the medium but his message has moved on. Then we file out of the ballroom, into the sunshine.
Heidebrink, Adam. (2014). Writing on the cloud: Designing composition pedagogy for the masses. Paper presented at the 2014 Conference on College Composition & Communication, Indianapolis, Indiana. Retrieved July 29, 2014, from
Lessig, Lawrence. (2008). Remix: Making art and commerce thrive in the hybrid economy. New York: Penguin.
Shaughnessy, Mina P. (1998). The miserable truth. Journal of Basic Writing, 17(2), 106-112. (Reprinted from a speech delivered at the First Annual Conference of the CUNY Association of Writing Supervisors, April 26, 1976, and published in The Congressional Record, September 9, 1976.) Retrieved July 29, 2014, from
Sirc, Geoffrey. (2002). English composition as a happening. Logan: Utah State University Press.