Recently in conferential Category

The TED Commandments

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Garr Reynolds shares them over at PZ, but they're worth reproducing here:

  1. Thou Shalt Not Simply Trot Out thy Usual Shtick.
  2. Thou Shalt Dream a Great Dream, or Show Forth a Wondrous New Thing, Or Share Something Thou Hast Never Shared Before.
  3. Thou Shalt Reveal thy Curiosity and Thy Passion.
  4. Thou Shalt Tell a Story.
  5. Thou Shalt Freely Comment on the Utterances of Other Speakers for the Sake of Blessed Connection and Exquisite Controversy.
  6. Thou Shalt Not Flaunt thine Ego. Be Thou Vulnerable. Speak of thy Failure as well as thy Success.
  7. Thou Shalt Not Sell from the Stage: Neither thy Company, thy Goods, thy Writings, nor thy Desperate need for Funding; Lest Thou be Cast Aside into Outer Darkness.
  8. Thou Shalt Remember all the while: Laughter is Good.
  9. Thou Shalt Not Read thy Speech.
  10. Thou Shalt Not Steal the Time of Them that Follow Thee.

There are only a couple of these that wouldn't be equally appropriate for any good academic conference.

The more, the messier

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Even after not having been there, one of the nice things about CCCC, at least in a program where many people go, are the conversations that take place afterward. And although I'm a grouser, I would admit secretly to a certain amount of energizing that takes place even as I think the conference needs improvement desperately.

So the question of scale. When I wrote that I thought that the conference had gone awry for reasons of scale, it would be more accurate to say that the conference hasn't scaled along with the membership. And by that, I mean to challenge the commonsense idea of "the more, the merrier," or what's sometimes described in network studies as the "network effect," the idea that as more users opt in to something, the more value the network accrues for everyone who's part of it. The classic example of this is the fax machine. The more fax machines that people buy, the more value it has as a communication device for everyone who already owns one. And this is true of utilities in general.

There's a great piece over at RWW today on the reverse network effect, though, which is something I've seen less discussion of. The basic idea is that, unlike an app like Skype or PayPal, where the network effect is pretty much ongoing, social networking applications, for most users, actually plateau in usefulness, regardless of how many users there are. It doesn't matter to anyone who doesn't work for Facebook that the service now has 175 million users rather than 50 or 100 million.

Bernard Lunn explains:

In a social network, the value for existing users of a new user joining the network plateaus once users have most of their own contacts in that network.

There's a finite limit to the amount of networking/socializing we can do, and once we reach that limit, we will either stop growing our network, or the quality of that network will change. Perhaps we will turn from "hanging out with close friends" to "social butterflying," for instance. I would argue that this process is never necessarily stable--that there are both centripetal and centrifugal forces at play--that we are our own "deictic systems." Nevertheless, I think this sense of plateau-ing is largely correct.

To bring this back to discussions of the conference, I think that there's a point in our careers (and while it may happen at different times for each of us, I think it still is pretty common) where the conference shifts from being a place to meet new folk to being one where we caretake the connections we already have.

Here's how I'd test it, if I were of a mind to do a project: I would do a massive survey of conference attendees, and ask them to answer the following two questions: which sessions did you attend? why did you choose them?

My guess is that new and relatively new attendees are more likely to attend sessions because (a) they want to learn more about a topic, (b) they want to see a scholar whose work they respect/admire, and/or (c) the person/people they were with decided to go. Furthermore, I suspect that not only do more experienced conference-goers attend fewer sessions, but that they are far more likely to attend sessions by people whom they already know (ie, friends, colleagues, and/or students) than for the reasons above. It's not a perfect threshold, but I suspect that the patterns would emerge if you separated out folks who had been to 4 or fewer and 5 or more.

Partly, that's because attending sessions is one of the ways you reinforce extant ties as a conference vet. And those ties carry trust and affinity, but also obligation. I can remember plenty of times where another panel sounded more interesting to me personally, but where I opted instead for panels of those whom I wanted to support.

I'm most certainly not saying that one reason is better than another. What I am saying, though, is that once you've gone to CCCC a few times, your motivations may shift. Inevitably, there is a point at which the network value provided by the conference plateaus. Doesn't mean that you stop meeting new people completely, or that you never go to a panel with speakers you don't know, just that these activities are much less likely.

And these network plateaus organize themselves differently. For some people, it may be a SIG or Caucus that they attend every year. Some people may basically attend CCCC to catch up with their grad school friends. Some may attend as a way of mentoring their own students. Some may only do it to keep up with the work being done in their speciality. Again, none of these reasons is better than any other, just different. And these are all valid reasons to hold the conference and to attend the conference.

For me, a question worth asking, though, is whether or not there's a point after which that plateau begins to turn into a downward slope, as Lunn describes it. I think it fair to say that the recent (@5 years) spate of articles and CCCC papers bemoaning the absence of X, Y, or Z is a sign of this. And I notice that spate because many of them are drawing upon CCCC programs as evidence of this fact.

In some ways, our conference is designed according to an implicit faith in the constancy of a disciplinary network effect. I talked a little about this here when folks were talking about CCCC rejections, about how more specialized research was disadvantaged by the decisions made regarding the submission process. I also think that there's at least an implicit assumption that good proposals are those that target a general audience, including newcomers to the field. There's a reverse network effect as a result, one that Alex talked about yesterday, where the same questions are repeated year after year, because we're not encouraged to assume any prior knowledge in our proposals or our presentations.

But you may say to yourself, this is not my beautiful MLA!

In many ways, MLA suffers from the opposite problem, I suppose, given the way that their conference is organized and designed. Tied as it is to the misery of the job search, MLA doesn't have to worry about attracting newcomers.

But surely there's some in-between space. I have to believe that it's possible for a conference of this scope and size to be able to accommodate newcomers while still be rewarding for those whose motivations differ. The fact that folk use the CCCC program as evidence of our field's failings and/or neglect and/or fragmentation should be a sign to all of us that there are plenty of us who want something more from the conference, that it might be a place that serves both community and discipline.

Would it surprise you to learn that I've been talking about this for 5 years now? Here's an idea I posted in 2004, complete with my old skool design if you follow the link:

Book of the Year: Every year, several books in our field are nominated for a book of the year award (and one or two receive it). Plan a series of sessions, each of which focuses on one of the BOTY nominees. Allow the author to hand-pick 2-3 people to give presentations about the book and then the author would be a respondent. Participants in the BOTY series would be allowed to do a second presentation (assuming that their proposal had been accepted).

I still love this idea. And here's the thing. It would be a thread of sessions that (a) rewards the best scholarship being done in the field that year (in book form, at least); (b) rewards the writers of those books (by featuring their work in the program; (c) recognizes that work in a highly visible way; (d) functions as a centralizing force for the discipline and conference; (e) introduces newcomers to the best work being done by experienced colleagues; and (f) provides some space for sessions where advanced discussions of quality work might happen.

But I'm drifting off-point a little, and this has become much longer than I'd planned initially. (It started as a one-para linklove post to RWW.) Here's my broader point: for certain people in our field, there is an advantage to having a 5000-person conference rather than a 500-person one. There are more people to meet, sessions to choose from, etc. For others in our field, the advantage is reversed, because many of them may feel that the smaller conferences (like RSA, e.g.) allow you to accomplish more specialized, sophisticated work.

As for me? I believe that a genuinely flagship conference should be able to achieve both the social value of 5000 and the disciplinary value of 500. And I'm hypothesizing here that our org has pursued the former at the expense of the latter, even though I honestly believe that this expense has been largely unintended. That's the reverse network effect.

And that is all.

Non-blogging the Cs

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That's what I'm doing, I guess. I do have the excuse of not actually being there. With the exception so far of Dennis and Alex, there are a lot of folk who don't share my excuse who are non-blogging it just as hard as I am.

That's a really backwards way, I suppose, of a little bemoaning on my part. I'm happy to update status and tweet, but if you don't believe that something's been lost in the grand migration to nanoblogging, well, I'd disagree. Not that CCCC was ever a hotbed of blogtastic simulcasting or anything, but the peak of that activity seems to have passed. In an age of increased networking and transparency, the conference seems content to slide back into pre-web levels of opacity. And by the conference, I mean us, of course. I hear tell that the wifi at this year's conference is dismal, which is certainly a contributing factor, but again, it's not as though it's something that we don't have control over. Or at least influence. Wifi should be considered a conference utility not unlike meeting spaces or electricity, and we should be holding our conference sites to pretty high standards.

Anyways. What actually prompted my post was Steve's link to Dan's presentation, and his ruminations on the conference in general:

what's the point of conferences nowadays? Sure, it's about networking, having meetings in person (always more efficient than meetings online, I will admit), getting "away" in the sense of a retreat, getting "away" in the sense of an opportunity to go out with friends, etc. It's fun. But now that it is possible- even pretty easy- to put a presentation like this up on the web, I'm not sure if the pros of a face to face meet-up outweigh the cons of conferences- the costs of registration/lodging/food, the time away from work/family/friends/home, the damage to the earth resulting from air travel, the bad eating/drinking habits, etc.

My answer to this is similarly ambivalent, seeing as how this is the 2nd year in a row that I've missed CCCC, and I can't really lay claim to missing it especially. It's always been one of those things for me that I enjoy when I'm there, but don't really like getting ready for, getting to, or recovering from.

That being said, I think one of the things that's important about CCCC is that it's the one time where we catch a glimpse of the true size of our network/discipline. It's only a glimpse, mind you, but still. As large and unwieldy as the conference is, our discipline is larger still, and it doesn't hurt to remind ourselves of that on an annual basis. I think we forget sometimes. Larger in terms of people, but also larger in terms of interests, perspectives, and philosophy.

But that being said, I think it fair to note that the conference has largely run afoul of the problems of scale. I think it's designed for a much smaller group, and I think our vision of it has not really kept pace with its growth. I've written on a few other occasions about how that's the case, so I won't go into details, but I do honestly believe that it's not a matter of tweaking. I'd love to see some overhauls and I'd love to see some conversations about the possibilities, but I'm not optimistic that either will ever occur. And I've written (and ranted to anyone who'll listen) about why I don't feel that optimism is warranted, and don't really feel like dredging up those args either.

I do think a national conference is worth it, but I'm not sure our national conference is worth it. But then, it's what we've got, and so I'm thinking now about Louisville, and wishing that a few more panel reviews find their way online in the next couple of days.

That's all.

Disengaging Theory

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So, like I said, I was at this conference during the past few days. I'm going back and forth over whether to write about my time there, because what I have to say will inevitably be taken up in ways I don't intend. But ah well.

A few things that you should understand. The conference was very small, more like a working group than a conference per se, and in that, it bore some resemblance to the Convergences shindig we put on a few years ago. Because the conference needed to be small, it was invite-only. And invitations went out to a lot of people whose work I admire, from both the comp and comm sides of the rhetoric aisle. For two days, we shifted seats around a circle, giving presentations on a range of topics related to rhetoric and theory. So far, so good.

Here's the thing. And you need to understand that this is most certainly not me looking for some sort of validation or compliment or disagreement. The thing is, I didn't belong there. At all.

I've been struggling to deal with this over the last few days, trying to come up with a good analogy that will get at what I've been feeling. I don't mean to say that I don't like, respect, and admire the people at the conference, because I do. I don't mean to say that I wasn't happy to see them, talk to them, and spend time outside the conference with them, because I was. But in terms of my paper, my contributions to the conversations, and my ability to follow those conversations, I no more belonged there than I did the conference on digestive disorders (!!) taking place next door. It was as though I was attending a conference in a different discipline or one taking place in a slightly different language than my own.

The best I've been able to come up with is that it was like watching an athlete trying to come back after a few years away from the game. You can tell that this person knows what to do, but the body just won't cooperate. It's kind of sad and embarrassing. So it was kind of like that, except that it slowly dawned on me as I was sitting there that I was the player. I understood what was going on around me, of course, but I didn't really have the same repertoire of texts to rely upon, I wasn't the same kind of writer, and I definitely couldn't have hit a fastball to save my life.

What's peculiar to me about this was that I don't think it really occurred to me ahead of time how much I didn't deserve to be there, and so I've been a little shell-shocked over the past few days. There was a time, 5-7 years ago, when this conference would have been like an oasis in the desert of the discipline for me, when it would have gotten me fired up and motivated to get back to work. And I suppose I vaguely thought that this would be the case even though I've drifted away from theoretical stuff in my own work and I'm at a place where it's not really asked of me.

This kind of scholarship has never been at what I would call the center of my field, but given my background and my social network, it's been much more central to my conception of the field. And so to discover that I no longer have the particular language, skills, or background required for it was more than a little humbling. And no, that's not an attempt to fish for compliments about how smart I am despite this--rationally, that's not a question for me. I know that I'm not stupid, regardless of how stupid I may have felt over the past few days.

But I've always just taken for granted a certain amount of foundational work that I did in graduate school--that I worked really hard at in graduate school. Studying with the people I did, and having the degree I did, and having the expertise I thought I did was part of my core academic identity, the foundation upon which everything else I've done has been built. And yes, I've moved in other directions, picked up other interests, focused on other texts, and so forth. But I assumed that at least some of this other stuff was still there, regardless of how deeply it's been buried.

What I found out this weekend is that it's gone, by and large. And if you detect a little self-pity hereabouts, you wouldn't be entirely wrong. I've spent a lot of time over the past 12-15 months grieving, and that was my overwhelming emotion the final night of the conference, so much so that I basically left early to be by myself. Only instead of losing someone else, I felt like I lost a part of myself. And the truth is that this loss has been gradual and entirely justified given my personal and professional circumstances. Yet, somehow, I wasn't called upon to face it, and had to wait until the worst kind of performance anxiety nightmare situation to realize that I had no business being in that room, with those people, talking about those topics.

So yeah. That's how my weekend was. I don't know what else to say.

Engaging Theory

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That's the name of the conference I'm at this weekend. And for a host of reasons, it's been a very different experience than was Watson. About which, more soon. In the meantime, we were asked to post 4-page discussion papers to the assembled folk, and while it's on the conference website, I thought I'd go ahead and stick mine up here--it was written for a panel on "Technological Inventions:"

The 'Intellectual Venture' of Academy 2.0

In the May issue of the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell published "In the Air," a
feature story about former Microsoft exec Nathan Myhrvold, and about invention more
generally. Gladwell argues that we have been too quick to treat all invention as though it were synonymous with artistic creation. Following sociologist Robert Merton, Gladwell
suggests that "our romantic notion of genius," while it may hold true for great works of
art, is less useful when it comes to knowledge in general. Many of the paradigm-shifting
inventions in science and technology have in fact been "multiples;" in other words,
multiple people, otherwise unconnected, "discover" the same idea or "invent" the same
technology at roughly the same time. For Gladwell, these good ideas are "in the air,"
discoverable not only by the solitary genius but by many people in the right place and
time. Myhrvold's ongoing project, a company called Intellectual Ventures, is an attempt
to capitalize on this idea by bringing in leading minds in many different fields to come
together for invention sessions, with the idea that approaching problems from
unconventional directions might lead to solutions. Myhrvold's company, which he
expected might file a hundred patents a year, is currently filing more than 500 a year,
with a backlog of ideas in the thousands ("In the Air").

Merton is neither the only nor even the most recent thinker to tackle the question of invention, however. Recent work in network studies and organizational theory has attempted to understand invention as something more tangible than the product of genius on the one hand, and as something less formulaic or horoscopic than one might find in the fairly recent genre of corporate self-help manuals. Ronald Burt, for example, has been working for years as an organizational sociologist, studying the ways that organizations are formed around what he calls brokerage and closure, the primary strategies by which members of organizations form social capital. In any social network above a certain size, people tend to form stronger ties among the members of their immediate sub-networks. We know our departmental colleagues, by and large, better than we know the average member of another department. We are more likely to spend time at academic conferences with friends than with strangers. One positive effect of this closure is the trust, respect, and affinity that members of this smaller network feel for one another--this is one form of social capital. But when a larger network separates out into many smaller ones, communication gaps emerge among those smaller networks; Burt describes these as "structural holes." And at the same time that we benefit from them, the danger is that these relatively closed networks will trend towards groupthink, becoming echo-chambers. For Burt, then, brokerage names the opposite tendency, the ability of members of multiple networks to bridge the structural holes that separate them. Brokerage and closure are, respectively, centrifugal (trending outward) and centripetal (trending inward) forces operating within a network. Both are necessary components of any network. But good ideas, Burt writes, occur with more frequency when there are opportunities for brokerage, when people are encouraged to range beyond their comfort zones and/or echo chambers and to export their own ideas and import others.

It is worth thinking about insights like Burt's when we consider the knowledge production and circulation in academic disciplines. As Andrew Abbott observes, disciplines are prone to spread as widely as possible, but within the network formed by the discipline, the reward system encourages closure rather than brokerage. That is, it encourages us to specialize such that, even as the discipline's "turf" expands, the structural holes among specialties and subdisciplines multiply as well. As disciplines grow, the amount of work one must do to comprehend even a portion of one's own discipline likewise grows, and thus we focus our attention in our specialties. David Smit's observations about the fragmentation of rhetoric and composition provide one recent account of this. As the field has increased in population and importance, its members have cast their research nets further and further afield in order to locate subjects of study. It is not unusual to read essays in CCC, for example, whose bibliographies are comprised mostly, if not entirely, of texts that would be largely unfamiliar to the majority of that journal's subscribers. And this is to say nothing of the structural holes that separate composition and communication. Despite recent attempts at brokerage by the ARS and others, most of us remain largely ignorant of developments in fields that are closely related to our own. The specialization that would once have occurred at the point in our careers where our work had matured has slowly crept earlier and earlier in the educational process, to the point where our students feel pressured to specialize before they've even taken a PhD seminar. They are taught that the sooner they specialize the better, because otherwise they will struggle to present and to publish, as they now must do before they've earned the degree.

One of the classic accounts for accomplishing these goals comes from John Swales, whose discussions of academic writing yields the important step of "creating a research space" (CARS), although the C is sometimes related as "clearing" or "carving out" a space for one's work. Structural holes, in other words, are often portrayed in our field not as opportunities for brokerage but as opportunities for the replication of closure. In rhetoric and composition, where most faculty still serve in literature departments, too often "originality" is conferred on research by the obscurity of the object of study rather than method, approach, or ability to engage with the field more broadly. Research spaces are perceived, for better or worse, not as carefully constructed engagements with the discipline (and certainly not among multiple disciplines), but as unspoiled territory that can be claimed and populated with articles and books.

As Gladwell's account of Intellectual Ventures makes clear, there is certainly value to be had in specialization; the expertise of IV's participants is one of the primary reasons for its success. But each participant also brings the trained incapacities of the specialist. Myhrvold's project brokers among those specialists, allowing them to pool their knowledge as a means of approaching intractable problems in one or more of their fields, allowing one's person incapacity to be met with another's capacity. The importance and benefits of that kind of collaboration receive little attention in our field, an unusual omission considering the emphasis that we often place on the virtues of collaboration and the social nature of language. But we have been slow to practice what we preach, especially at disciplinary scales. Even sites of potential brokerage, like our national conventions, are frequently too large for attendees to venture beyond the comfort of relatively closed social networks and academic specialties. When we come face to face with the sheer size of a discipline, our tendency is to retreat to more manageable scales; our disciplines themselves are shaped by this tendency, as Abbott observes in Chaos of Disciplines, often in self-similar ways.

It is unlikely that any of us possesses the kinds of resources at Myhrvold's disposal. But with the recent emergence of software platforms gathered under the umbrella of Web 2.0, those resources aren't necessary. If Web 1.0 was about siloes and exclusive, owned content (closure), Web 2.0 has seen a boom in participatory culture, sites whose function is to allow users to share content (brokerage). You can find pools of photos at Flickr, bookmarks and tags at Delicious, books and reviews at LibraryThing, and so on. When I want to follow up on a book I've read, particularly if it's outside of my field, I'm more likely to visit Amazon than I am any academic site or siloed publisher search engine. In the past five years, the tools available for us to broker our structural holes, to explore beyond our closures, have increased exponentially, such that it's less a matter of resources now and more a matter of commitment to something beyond staking our individual claims on shrinking patches of disciplinary turf.

But professional inertia works against any such commitment. We still hold to the artistic model of invention, both in our attitudes towards intellectual property and in the institutional structures that reward what we do. If Gladwell and others are right, these attitudes may actually work against us; we may spend so much time clearing our research spaces that we miss out on what's "in the air." It's not a question of choosing one or the other; as Burt explains in his work, both are valid forms of accruing social capital, and each provides us with value that the other cannot. The question instead is one of balance, and that balance is difficult to strike in an institutional culture that, for all of its talk of interdisciplinarity, still privileges closure over brokerage when it comes to rewarding the making of knowledge. That attitude trickles down into our attitudes towards the new media available to us. I've lost count of the number of colleagues I've seen speak and write dismissively of weblogs, wikis, Facebook, et al. Those of us who blog as academics are frequently charged with "wasting" our time on such sites when, presumably, we should be using it to generate another article or two. From the perspective of a closure- inflected system, it can be difficult to see the ways that social media transform the ways we read, write, think, and communicate.

It's a lot less difficult to simply treat these media as tools that make our scholarly lives more convenient. If we're looking for a particular essay, we can locate it faster online than we would walking to the campus library, for example. Our hard drives can slowly take the place of file cabinets, as we convert our libraries to PDFs. Our computers can give us more access, faster, to more of the field than ever before, certainly, but we have the opportunity now to rethink the structures underlying that access. We have a chance to rethink our institutions, our cultures, and even our disciplines in important ways. Much like Myhrvold's project does for its participants, new media offer us unprecedented opportunities for brokerage, if we can develop the collective attitude necessary to "waste" a little time on invention.


Whatever the virtues of this little ditty, in addition to the unintended irony of talking about resources in our current financial climate (i wrote it in early Sept), among them you would not count "similarity to the other conference papers." Seriously. Sore-Thumbsville. Check em out yourself if you're tempted to attribute any false modesty to me on this.

I'll have a little more to say, but I've got some sleep and more than a little driving to do first. So for tonight, that's all.

Reflections on a Watson

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I have four observations, two personal and two disciplinary.

1. I have basically forgiven myself for needing to spend time during the first part of the conference getting my presentation together, even though it violates my standards about preparedness. This has not been an easy semester, and while I would have liked to have the whole thing together by Monday, as I'd planned, I had the paper itself basically written, and the slides planned in my head. I just need to force myself to feel that pressure a little earlier, esp for MLA this year.

2. This was the first conference that I've been to in my academic career where I wasn't relying on caffeine to get me up in the morning. It was, needless to say, a struggle.

3. Especially hearing the plenaries this time around, I was struck how different my own local situation is from many of the people whose talks I heard. I have been critical lately of work that extrapolates from a small set of local phenomena to the discipline, and that will likely not change in the near future. There were several points during the conference where I wanted to interrupt and explain that not all of us reside in English departments anymore--I don't live in the same kind of neighborhood as many of my colleagues do, and that realization seems to be really slow to sink in.

4. And that brings me to a larger issue. Based on a number of conversations, and based upon some of the very stark differences among the plenaries, I am more and more convinced that the next major dispute in our field is going to be conducted between those of us who reside in English departments and think of RhetComp as a member of the English studies family, and those of us who have in mind something more like Writing studies, and who sometimes see English studies as an anchor that keeps us from doing more with our field. Heck, I've always been a fan of the idea that I first saw at U Baltimore, where literary study was considered a subset of communication design, rather than patriarch of the language clan.

And frankly, I found more provocative those talks where there weren't tacit assumptions about the English-iness of our field. And I know that I'm not alone in that regard. I think that we're going to see, increasingly, scholarship that takes some of our most deeply embedded conceptual disciplinary metaphors to task over the next decade. Some of that work happened at Watson, which was nice. But there's more on the horizon, I think. As I thought about how I would answer the question implied by "the new work of composing" over the last few days, I kept circling back to a set of issues and directions for inquiry that owe much more to the social and design sciences than to English studies. I think we're starting to see these developments in various locales, but I think too that it's on the verge of trickling up.

We'll see.

[Update: Laura's posted the thoughts that she promises in the comments...]

If I ruled the world...

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Wrote this a few days ago, as some of the posts I link to below were just breaking--there are good conversations circulating about them at each site...cgb


There's a little extra transparency afforded to us by the Interwebs, such that when panels like those of Chris, Debbie, and Becky are rejected by our flagship conference, it doesn't simply happen behind the scenes, as it used to. I'm sure that there are lots of other good proposals that didn't make it; I'm likewise confident that there are a number of proposals that were accepted for papers that will be written days (if not hours) before their actual presentation. I've attended some of those panels, and complained bitterly about them to anyone who will listen. Many of us are lucky enough to receive travel support from our schools to attend CCCC, but it took me a year where I footed the bill on my own to realize that I owed it to my audience to put together the best presentation that I could.

Let me be clear, however, and say that there are also certainly numerous proposals that both were accepted and worthy of acceptance. That's not a question for me. But there are also a lot of good proposals that are annually rejected. Here are a couple of reasons why.

First, our conference leadership has in recent years been preoccupied with making the event more inclusive. By this I don't mean making presentations accessible (which is good), providing child care (which is good), subsidizing under-represented populations (which is good), or any other attempt to meet the needs of conference-goers. I'm talking about the measures that have been taken to bring in first-timers, and in particular, the flattening out of the proposal process to such a degree that one need barely know anything about the field to write a successful proposal.

And perhaps I will be accused of being less than democratic here. So be it. I've never seen the longitudinal demographics on conference attendees, nor do I even know if such data exist, but I do know that the conference is about as big as it can get. (I've heard a lot of people complain in recent years about it being too big--anyone who's ever had to present or attend a talk in a curtained off corner of the exhibit hall would probably agree.) I'd be interested in hearing if our push to "grow" the conference has resulted in increased subscription rates for the journal, memberships in the organization, or any such long-term benefit for those of us who are already committed to the organization and the conference. Perhaps it has, but that data would be have to be qualified with information about the growth of tenure-track positions and programs in the field. I'd be surprised if that information has been gathered in a systematic way, but I'm prepared to be pleasantly surprised.

As the number of proposals has increased, the amount of space devoted to describing the actual projects has shrunk, and that is a trend that privileges the pithy, speculative kind of prose that is its own genre, and which requires far less disciplinary expertise than one might imagine. Again, this makes the process more inclusive, but it does so at the expense of thoughtful research that actually exists. It privileges light, buzzwordy, trendy proposal writing, the kind of writing that gets more difficult to produce once one actually undertakes research and gets into the nuances and complications involved. As Becky notes, "I could have taken a half hour to write a snappy little proposal for an opinion piece about plagiarism, with a little media analysis folded in, and it would have been on the program in a heartbeat." The fact is that our current proposal system privileges this, partly in the interests of making the program as inclusive as possible.

Second, our program is done by percentage, meaning that if technology proposals are 10% of the total, then 10% of the program will be technology panels. The number of proposals in a given area determine the percentage of panels on the program. Democratic, yes? Well, the problem here is that not all areas are created equally. It's no accident that two of the rejections above are for data-driven studies, and another is for historical work. Those are areas where (a) pithy, trendy accounts are not as possible, but more importantly, they are areas where (b) you can't simply read a couple of articles and be prepared to present research. Both historical and qualitative work require a great deal of experience and research, and are likely to have higher percentages of more experienced researchers among their proposals. The Area Clusters are not "equal" so asserting equality among them will often have the opposite effect when it comes to quality.

This would be one way of testing this. Take one year's proposals, and have them rated without reference to Area Cluster (an individual AC reader is going to feel pressure to produce a range of scores--I know because I did when I read one year). Then separate them into Area Clusters and see what the mean scores are. My guess is that we would find that more specialized areas have a higher percentage of strong scores, and that our current system actually penalizes researchers doing more specialized (and potentially more advanced) work. My guess is that there's a much broader range of quality in the catch-all areas.

But that has to be a guess, because we're not allowed to use proposals for research purposes (as of the mid80s, I think). It's why I still hand out that chapter from Berkenkotter and Huckin on CCCC proposals--it's the most recent study possible of this stuff.

I do know that recent attempts to study the field by reference to CCCC Programs (and there are several) are deeply flawed, because they don't allow for the vagaries of the process. We persist in the belief that the annual convention somehow represents our field in a given year, but the fact is that nothing could be further from the truth. It represents the version of our field represented by a flawed process, a version that discourages many who do and prefer certain kinds of work, and the result of a process that I continue to be critical of. That process has seeped deep into the bureaucratic structure of our field, such that we can make small changes around the edges, but I honestly doubt that any sort of sweeping change is possible. And honestly, I don't know that there are that many people who would agree with me--I've believed for some time that our conference is much less than it could be, that it's broken in important ways.

Like Debbie suggests may happen for her this year, I hesitate every year before I send in my membership dues, wary of the degree to which my membership constitutes a vote, however small, for a status quo I find deeply problematic.

Three final notes. As bitter as this may sound, it's not anywhere close to the bitterest version of this entry. Believe me. I still believe that it would be possible to have a better conference, one that I could look forward to attending for more than the opportunity to see my friends.

And second, I have no axe to grind this year, as I didn't send in a proposal. Like Becky, I've been accepted almost every year I've proposed, because I learned early to write pithy, acceptable proposals. I like to think that I use this power for the forces of good, but it took me a few years longer than it should have to arrive at that point.

Three: again, I'm not criticizing those who do get accepted. I myself have had great luck proposing to CCCC, and I don't doubt that the conference will always be a mixed bag. My point, though, is that different areas of the field have different thresholds for entry, and the process itself ignores that fact.

I'm fully willing to admit that I may be wrong about some of this, but I've tried to be fairly careful here. The fact of the matter is that there's way too much of this process that's hidden behind bureaucratic opacity, and I have my suspicions about why that is. Even the tiny amount that's visible, though, is enough to persuade me that it would be worth our collective time to think about why our conference is alienating to its core audience and about what we might do to change that.

That's all.

Blogging Conferential

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It's been a remarkably unconferential spring for me--I bailed on CCCC this year, am not going next year, and currently, RSA and C&W are happening without me, and doing just fine, I imagine. But over round Blogora way, Rosa asks, "who is livebloggin RSA in Seattle?" and the answer would appear to be no one. I've seen a couple of entries, and a handful of tweets, about C&W, but nothing steady. So I'm breaking prose silence to offer up a modest proposal, one I think I may have talked about before...

If I were hosting a conference, I think I'd see about raising money in order to have a bunch of folk blog the sessions. I know that there used to be something similar for CCCC, but I think that that was strictly a volunteer effort. So here's my proposal:

Offer 5 travel stipends to graduate students at $1000 apiece. To earn that money, they must commit to blogging at least one panel during the majority of sessions during the conference. (I can't be more specific, because it would depend greatly on the conference format, breaks between sessions, keynotes, etc.) For the sake of argument, let's say that that number is 10. So $100 per session.

In an ideal world, the organization would provide the laptops. That is coming closer and closer to becoming a reality, financially. My ultra set-up cost less than $300, and the prices on these things will only drop as Intel gets further into the game. But for the sake of argument, I'm going to assume that most would have their own or one they can borrow.

Also, lap desks. They don't need to be from Levenger or anything. You can get a good one at B&N for $30. It's worth it.

Also, a lounge/room set aside for them to store coats, bags, gear, laptops, with Wifi, cable hookups if they need, and bottles of water and bagels/muffins. Also, if they prefer to type up handwritten notes, they could do that here as well.

Someone from the organization would coordinate with them, so that all 5 aren't blogging the same panel during a given session, of course. But otherwise, they'd just be turned loose on the conference.

The upside? It'd be awfully nice for the majority of people in any organization who don't come to the conference, yes. But it would also provide a means of archiving what is now our #1 source of almost completely disposable scholarship. I've given some interesting papers now and then, and the only record of them outside of my hard drive is the paper title in the program. It would give all of us access to a largely untapped area of our disciplinary scholarship.

I'm not talking about posting the papers themselves, although I sometimes will do that for myself, so it wouldn't be an issue of a pre-print threatening those who want to publish longer versions later on. But a good blog summary of a panel would be enough to let researchers know if they'd like to follow up and email a presenter for a copy of the paper.

Or, imagine that you're putting together a panel on X for a future conference. It'd be nice to be able to do a search for folks working on that topic. Or to gather some ideas about possible folk for an edited collection. Or to get some idea about whose work you might want to follow up on for an article of your own about X.

Right now, the scholarship we do for conferences vanishes into the ether for the most part. Blogging the conference in a semi-systematic fashion would mitigate against that, and it would make all of us who don't attend every single conference feel a lot more connected. That wouldn't be a horrible thing, either.

Let's say that we have 1000 people in an organization, which is probably an overestimate for some and under for others. But given 1000 dues-paying members, it would take and extra $5 a year to pull this off, and the result would be access to a cumulative database of 150 presentations per conference (5 bloggers x 10 panels x 3 presenters/panel).

Finally, it would be a nice way to support our graduate students and it would be, I imagine, a really valuable introduction to the breadth of our discipline for those who participated. At conferences like RSA and C&W, the majority of the panels could be blogged. It would be a little more of a drop in the bucket at a conference like Cs, but that's the organization most capable of scaling this up beyond just 5 bloggers, too.

Seriously, I'd pay $5 or $10 more a year if a database from each year of the conference was the result. If someone could get on that for me...heh.

That is all.

No C's for you!

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As most people who expected to see me in New Orleans have learned by now, I'm not there. It's not as dramatic as some may think. I've been struggling a little health-wise this semester--nothing big, but a lot of small things, and it's taken me longer to recover than it did when I was, say, 20. Or 30 even. I was sick again last weekend, when otherwise I would have been leaving on the road trip that took me to NO and to CCCC, and I thought to myself that it would be sooo much easier on me physically if I simply bailed on it this year. And so I did.

I feel sad not to see everyone, and a little guilty about bailing on my co-panelists, but I feel really good today, and it took a few days of sleep that I wouldn't otherwise have gotten to feel that way. So I think it was the right choice.

I have a couple of QuickTime versions of my talk, which I used to test out Keynote's recording and exporting functions. It's a pared down version of the talk I would have done, and the visuals are done up a little as well. It's not great, but it's there. I've got two versions that you can either watch on screen or download: a smaller 10MB version and the monster 44MB version. You may need to right-click the links to download. The larger version is more faithful to the smart builds in the original presentation, but still a little choppy. It would have looked and probably sounded much better in person. Deal.

And have a good time in NO, everyone. That's all.

Update:It occurred to me that it might be nice if, prior to downloading a 40+ MB file, you had some idea of what it is you were downloading. Here's the abstract that I submitted:

Speaker X: Visualizing the Invisible Collage of Research

In 2006, Brad DeLong likened the academic blogosphere to an invisible college, a metaphor familiar to those of us who use email, discussion lists, and blogs to maintain our social networks of friends and colleagues. Speaker 5 argues that Web 2.0 represents an opportunity to make public other disciplinary networks as well. These technologies allow us to conduct practices like annotation, referencing, and collection collaboratively; in doing so, they permit a different model for knowledge production to emerge. If the blogosphere makes visible the invisible college, our journal web sites may help us reveal the "invisible collage" of texts and ideas that each of us now assembles in isolation.

Ahhh, prognostication. My talk ends up being less about "journal websites" and more about the college/collage play on words, I think. And my examples are drawn more from my own experimenting than from anything happening right now in the field, I fear. But the talk's true to the spirit of the abstract if not the letter. My favorite moment is a slide with Robert Boyle (17th C originator of the phrase "invisible college") and "Ye Olde Webbe 2.0" in an old English font. Cracks me up every time. Anyways. That's what all you're in for if you take a peek. The panel's in a matter of hours, and I have it on fairly good authority that they're going to screen my cast. So you'll sort of see me there. 'Night.

Easy, PZ, Beautiful

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So in my enthusiasm over Garr Reynolds' new book, I found myself this semester volunteering to conduct something of a workshop on incorporating visuals into one's presentations. So that workshop will be partly just a hands-on exploration of Keynote--most of us being diehard Mac users--but also partly a little bit of talking head (me) discussing some of the rules of thumb that I tend to go by.

Of course, making those rules explicit is proving to be more tricky. So I'm going to use this as a placeholder for the next couple of days, and add to it as I think of stuff. You are more than welcome to add some comments. The overarching question: What should our students learn/know about delivering good presentations? (There's already an embedded, highly questionable assumption there, namely that good presentations include PP or KN decks. I know, I know.) Okay, so maybe my actual question is: What should our students know about designing hybrid (visual/verbal) presentations?

(That is all for the moment. More on the way, and perhaps even a screencast if I get ambitious.)



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