Seize the Conference
Reviewed by Jeannie Bennett, Texas Tech University, Lubbock, TX (firstname.lastname@example.org)
I have a confession to make. Conferences scare me.
But I love them, too. I love conferences because they embody what I think being a scholar is all about: sharing my work in an open forum, riffing off other people's ideas, taking all the things I've done while isolated in front of my computer hyped up on caffeine and fear of ineptitude, and bringing my ideas to share with other scholars to find a way to make us work better. I love conferences because I get to talk about my own work in a room full of people who care about some of the same things I do. I love conferences because I also get to see what other people are working on. I love the ideas, the methods, the beautiful slides, and the painstakingly crafted posters, all of which hide the blood, sweat, and tears that went into that one moment of sharing a cogent thought. Conferences have the ability to re-energize me, to rev up my creative engines, and remind me why I'm in graduate school in the first place.
Conferences are scary for the same reason they are exciting: There are a lot of people. I have to talk to them, and they might talk to me. Conferences are disorienting, too. There's usually a lot of light, and it's almost always fluorescent. There are a lot of different kinds of spaces that I'm unfamiliar with. Small spaces, big spaces, long spaces. It's hard to keep track of my body in all those different kinds of spaces. It's hard to keep track of where the exits are. I usually become confused about where to go and how to get out. There are also a lot of different things going on: poster sessions, panels, publisher booths, special interest groups, extemporaneous get-togethers, parties, meals, drinks, and, in my case, a late-night run to Denny's with someone I had just met. There are also a lot of things to look at and get distracted by. There's clapping, laughing, and a cacophony of scholarly voices getting their conference on. In short, there's a plethora of sensory information. For me, sensory information usually means overload. Meeting with so many people usually translates to social interaction, which means encountering a lot of invisible social rules I just don't get.
Inevitably, at a conference, I will end up hiding in my hotel room with all of the lights off, or sleeping too much because I'm completely exhausted from a few hours of social interaction. I may even run crying from a room. You could find me lurking in a dark corner, or perched up high in a stairwell to observe the chaos from a comfortable distance.
So, excited as I was to go to the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC), I was also scared out of my mind. How was I going to navigate such a huge conference in a town I've never been to? How was I going to pass as a completely confident researcher? How could I come across as interesting and engaging and not completely antisocial?
Then, I found Sparkle Pony, or rather, Sparkle Pony found me.
After I co-presented research at a panel (which totally rocked, by the way, thank you to fellow panel members Kimberly Elmore, Katie Rose Guest Pryal, Catherine Prendergast, and Elizabeth Donaldson), my friend and colleague, Andrea Beaudin, approached me to provide much-needed emotional support, but honestly, I didn't really see her because I was staring at the Sparkle Pony affixed to her name tag.
What was this glorious creature with a fun feathery tail, sequins, and glitter? I wanted one badly. I demanded to know where I could obtain this conference objet d'art. According to Andrea, all I would have to do is visit the C's the Day table in the Convention Center, sign up to play the C's the Day game, and I too could be the proud owner of a beautiful Sparkle Pony.
That was it.
That was all.
It sounds easy, yes?
But in order to do just this, I would have to do the following:
- Navigate the disorienting open space between the Marriott and Conference Center
- Go up to the C's the Day table
- Attempt to identify someone who was in charge of the game
- Look someone in the eye
- Announce my intention to sign up for the game
For someone like me, it was more like this:
- Attempt to differentiate one table with people crowded around it from another
- Once the appropriate crowded table is identified, watch the table for a while to see what other people do when they approach said table
- After analyzing this process, practice in my mind how I will go about mimicking these other people so I that I can attain my goal of successfully signing up for the game
- Calculate how many people are in between me and the person in charge of the game
- Think about all the unpredictable ways people move in the space and carefully plan my approach to the table so I don't end up bumping into someone
- Locate the eyes of the person I plan on speaking to
- Fix said person with a stare so that I am giving off the signal that I would like to be spoken to
- Figure out how to make the words "I want to sign up for the C's the Day Game" come out of my mouth
Thankfully, Andrea walked me over there. This gave me the confidence to blurt out, "I want a Sparkle Pony." The volunteer smiled and explained the game to me. C's the Day works like this: You sign up for the game, they record your name on a scorecard, and you receive a booklet that lists challenges or quests inside. These are a series of tasks that you can complete as you attend the conference. As you complete these quests, you bring your booklet back to the table to get stamped. That's pretty much it, and after two stamps you get a Sparkle Pony. If you keep collecting stamps, you'll earn trading cards of the conference itself. They made it sound very easy, but honestly at first I didn't get it. In my brain it was something like this:
Do stuff. Go to table. Stamps. Do stuff. Go to table. Trading cards.
Which translated to social interaction, unfamiliar environments, talking to people, standing in line, and making eye contact.
Which translated to holy crap I can't do this.
But I really wanted a Sparkle Pony, and the volunteers made getting those first two stamps very easy. “You see?” They said. “You've already done this. And for this (Yay for you!), you get a Sparkle Pony.” So even though at first it seemed impossible to me to ever get a Sparkle Pony, within five minutes of signing up for this game, I was the proud owner of my own radiant mustang.
That could have been the end of the story. I am not ashamed to admit that the only reason I signed up for C's the Day was to get a Sparkle Pony. I planned to throw my booklet in the trash as soon as I had my hands on one. Having that Sparkle Pony affixed to my name tag was me proclaiming victoriously: “See? I can be social! I belong to something! I can do this." I've been to several conferences, but I've never quite figured them out. I have always thought that conferences were about the panels. I'd check in, get my program, and find a panel for every time slot of the day. I thought this form of attendance was making the most of the conference.
The problem is, due to my severe social anxiety, I would find myself in a crowded room, sitting much too close to people on either side. I'd spend the day feeling claustrophobic, focusing more on breathing and counting in my head to calm myself down than on the session I was in. Because I have auditory processing problems, I can't focus on what is being said for longer than 15 minutes. Then it's as if there's a traffic jam in my ear, and I miss huge chunks of information. I also have problems sitting still for longer than 20 minutes; I have to start fiddling, and fidgeting, and moving around a lot.
The effect was that well before the end of every session, I was exhausted from listening and had missed a lot of the information I had come there to learn because I was eyeing the exits and planning my escape. Then I would only have 10 or 15 minutes to recover and start all over again, when really, I need more like 45 minutes to an hour between sessions. It never occurred to me I could skip a session. I thought conferences were about the panels, so to the panels I would go, rinse and repeat. I was afraid of being caught not at a panel, or facing that most-feared of all questions: "Where were you?" I wanted to be collegial. I wanted to hear the ideas. I wanted to make the most of it.
More than once you could find me fleeing the conference hotel, seeking open air or the solitude of my room, and as I ran past, I could see people conversing in the halls, poring over their laptops, congregating in the common spaces, and I knew I was missing something. The real conferencing happens during the in-betweens, those spaces between panels, but I didn't know how to access that. I didn't know the rules. My processing problems and anxiety often make me appear antisocial, or not very collegial, when nothing could be further from the truth. Long have I wanted to be a part of this all, but the problem is no one taught me how. Based on my previous conferences experiences, I thought that my Sparkle Pony would be the perfect camouflage. With her affixed to my nametag, I would look like any other social conference-goer, there to get the most of it all. Eyes would glance over my name tag, see my glittery steed, and the message would be: I'm here, I'm participating. I'm invested. There would be no need to look any further than the Sparkle Pony, the evidence that I'm collegial and social and want to be here, that I know what I'm doing.
I didn't throw my C's the Day game booklet into the trash. Contrary to my initial plans, I kept playing the game. I normally do not like games. They are, after all, structured around social interaction, and I'm more the "perch on something and observe from afar" kind of person. But as I looked through the game booklet, I realized that what I had was far more than social camouflage. I had a rule book for the conference. Games are, after all, structured social interaction. A lot of the tasks and quests in the game booklet are designed by the people who are invested in the conference. For example, special interest groups and vendors can put quests in the game that are designed to get people to attend sessions or come and check out their goods. That is, the game explicitly shows the many different ways you can participate at a conference. For most people, interacting this way may seem like common sense, and they would earn stamps for things they would normally do anyway. But for me, this was a roadmap. Someone actually wrote a book on how to participate in the conference and put it in my hands. This is something I do not take for granted and would never have known, or thought, to do.
Now I had a rule book in my hands. And earning those first two stamps trained me for the game itself, so all of a sudden the game didn't seem so overwhelming. The greatest thing about these quests were that they were literal. They told me what to do, and all I had to do was go do it. When I mean literal, I mean they're not like other social rules people take for granted but that I often misinterpret, such as, "When talking to someone, make eye contact so that they feel like you value them as a human being." I mean literal as in, if I followed the quests in the C's the Day game booklet, I would end up performing valuable social interaction. The C's the Day game creates participation, that fuzzy category which is the bane of all writing teachers, and makes it concrete. For example, "be collegial," which is the holy grail of conferencing, is made literal by the C's the Day quest: "Help somebody edit his or her CCCC's paper less than 24 hours before it's due."
That essential dictum, "make the most of the conference," is made literal by the quest "Grab a selfie by the bay....wouldn't you just love your friends and colleagues to know how nice it is out here?"
Being social at the conference is made easy through quests that tell you to do things like "Purchase a round for a first time attendee and have them sign off on this quest," or "Find someone that is attending both ATTW and C's."
Lastly, the mandate I never really understood, use the conference as an opportunity for social networking, is made literal by the quest "get business cards from four different people."
Not only did the C's the Day game tell me exactly how to be social and collegial, and give me a plausible excuse for doing things that are so out of character for me, but the C's the Day game also helped me learn about the conference itself. Quests like "Stop by the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives booth and submit your own literacy narrative" gave me insights into the other things going on at the conference besides panels and presentations. Trading cards that explained the special interest groups or the sparkle ponies themselves gave me insight and information about the history of the conference I was attending, and I learned more about it. Trading cards also showed pictures of theorists and scholars to help me put faces to names. The C's the Day game takes all that unforeseen stuff—the invisible social tapestry that can make a conference overwhelming for a first-time attendee—more tangible.
I had hit a gold mine. With the C's the Day game as my guidebook to the conference, I made the most of the CCCC. I participated more than any conference I had ever gone to, and I had a ton of fun. I took the quest to "Tweet a picture of you and your Sparkle Pony enjoying the conference" very seriously. I may have even taken it a little too far. After that initial picture of myself with Sparkle Pony, I kept on taking pictures of her at the conference and posting them to Twitter because seeing the conference through Sparkle Pony helped alleviate my anxiety. If I felt nervous or overwhelmed, I just pulled out Sparkle Pony and took a picture of her with my phone. In this way, I would look like any other conference participant playing the C's the Day game. Sparkle Pony became my conference stand-in. She could go places I could not, and through her, I could express my feelings and articulate my thoughts.
Here is a sample of my Sparkle Pony's adventures during the CCCC in Tampa, Florida. These are a few of the pictures I tweeted. I also provide the text of each tweet as a caption below each picture.
“Sparkle Pony wants to go to the old Tampa theatre."
"Sparkle Pony's great day of firsts. 1st CCCC, 1st disability SIG, 1st C's the Day, and more."
"Sparkle Pony ponders risk and reward"
"No time for existential questions, Sparkle Pony. We have to get to the CCCC conference!"
"Sparkle Pony plays disability bingo and ponders humanity at the accessibility information table."
"Sparkle Pony visits the poster session to learn about instructor feedback and usability."
]Note: The poster in the above photo is Andrea Beaudin's award-winning poster! Way to go Andrea!]
Though I was tired when the conference ended, I found myself reflecting that this was one of the best conferences I'd ever attended. The C's the Day game paved roads to social interaction and made discourse so much easier. For the first time, I wasn't just sweating it out in an endless stream of panel presentations. Instead, I visited publisher booths and poster sessions, I donated my literacy narrative and traded game cards with other conference-goers, I got to dip into those in-between spaces that previously seemed so inaccessible and indecipherable to me, and despite the fact that it's the largest conference I've ever been to, it didn't feel as overwhelming as I thought it would be because of the C's the Day game. It gave me a roadmap to participate in the conference; it helped to mitigate my anxiety; it helped me make sense of social interaction; and it taught me lessons I can take with me to other conferences I attend in the future. Thank you to the volunteers and to everyone who made that game work.
“Don't worry, Sparkle Pony. There's always Houston, Texas, next year!”