Note: this is a write-up for my ENG 094 students who are working on Sites of Learning projects/presentations. I’m using my experience at 4C’s as an example, because it illustrates how a specific event that occurs once a year can be a valid site of learning outside of the classroom. Another option I had considered was the xxfitness Facebook community I belong to, where I’ve learned a significant amount about how to properly squat when lifting weights, and where I’ve seen women encourage one another at all stages of their fitness journey (I dislike using the word “journey” to describe that experience and am open to suggestions). I decided to write about 4C’s because it’s important to me that my students see what professional development looks like. I’m a firm believer in transparency, and want my interests and questions and encounters with other people doing this work to be accessible given that many of the interactions I have about teaching and writing involve students, who aren’t always present to speak for themselves. I also know that some institutions don’t provide travel funding for their teachers, especially if those teachers are adjuncts, and I would like to argue that it is essential for good teaching that teachers have the resources they need to be active in their fields. I also want to point out that presenting is not the only legitimate way to participate at a conference, and insist that funding be available for teachers to attend and participate through listening to presentations and taking part in informal conversation with colleagues across the country.
Last week, I was at 4C’s in Portland, OR. 4C’s stands for the Conference on College Composition and Communication, and it’s an annual event where teachers and scholars of writing and rhetoric get together to share their research. The theme for this year’s conference was “Cultivating Capacity, Creating Change.” You can view the program here, but be warned, it’s long! 4C’s 2018 will be in Kansas City, Missouri, and the theme for next year’s conference is “Languaging, Laboring, and Transforming.”
At 4C’s, I presented on a panel with two other people, and our session title was called “Re-Placing Literacy: Cultivating Spaces for Alternative Literacies in the Writing Classroom.” Amanda’s presentation was about an assignment she gives that asks students to write a literacy narrative about “new literacies” (this is a term that refers to literacies made possible by new technologies, i.e.: what does it mean to be a 21st century literate person? It’s also used sometimes to refer to alternative, non-traditional, or non-academic forms of literacy that are receiving more attention as valid sites of learning). Brittney’s presentation was on writing about place/space to engage students at a college with a large rural student population. Both presentations talked about the need for individually relevant and responsive materials (assigned readings and essays). My presentation responded to these by acknowledging student resistance, building on some experiences I’ve had with students who refused to buy-in to even my best attempts at engaging them on their terms. I initially wrote my proposal after a particularly bad teaching day, and then had forgotten about it until the acceptance email came through. While my co-presenters took a more formal approach, reading their presentations and explaining their research methods, I opted for a conversation, sharing my experiences and guesses as to what might be causing the resistance I was experiencing, and then asking for feedback, which I got through a breakout session with a small group of people who came to our presentation.
In addition to presenting at 4C’s, I attended a number of sessions on Thursday and Friday, as well as a Basic Writing workshop on Wednesday, so that I could learn from and alongside other people in my field. Most of the sessions I went to were specifically labeled “queer,” because I want to better understand queer methodology, queer pedagogy, and LGBTQIA scholarship as a self-identified queer person. To give you an idea of how big this conference is, at any given time there are 30+ sessions happening at once, so choosing which session to attend can be overwhelming. I was able to view the program ahead of time, and I put the conference app on my phone where I narrowed down the sessions I was interested in. Then, I made my final choices at the conference itself from the 3-4 I had added to each time slot. Sometimes, I decided to skip sessions and to sit and think, or to visit the exhibition hall where publishers had booths set up for sales. One booth that caught my attention in a sea of corporate, profit-driven publishers like Pearson and Bedford, was PM Press, a small, independent press that specializes in radical material. I ended up buying some books from them and plan to order more!
How Learning Works Here
If you’ve ever given a speech or a formal presentation, the sessions at 4C’s are kind of like that: there are presenters (anywhere from 3-10, maybe?) who have a table at the front of the room, a podium, a projector, and a screen. Presenters take turns sharing their work, and sometimes there is a chair for the session (someone who introduces each speaker or topic, and keeps time for breakout sessions or Q&A) or a respondent (someone who responds to the presentations by summarizing what was said and speaking to a few key points). Some people use PowerPoint presentations, some show videos, some read their papers directly. Some people use a very dry, academic voice, and others speak more conversationally. Sometimes presentations are interactive and the audience might be asked to write, to talk to someone near them, or to play a game. Other times, presentations are expected to sit quietly and take notes. I prefer more interactive presentations, and have been critical of paper-readers, but I also understand that sometimes content or even personal comfort determines the format the presentation takes, and so am trying to practice empathy instead of annoyance.
During these presentations, many people will use Twitter to share snippets or photographs. These are tagged with the official #4c17 hashtag, and then sometimes users might tag the speaker if they are on Twitter, or the caucus or special interest group the presenter is associated with (for example, @4CQueers), or simply the session number (i.e.: #b37) or relevant topic (#basicwriting). This helps people who were in a different session, or who couldn’t make it to the conference at all, follow along on social media. Tweeting during sessions is hard; 4C’s is the one time I use Twitter with any sort of regular activity, and trying to listen while typing and then revising to fit the 140-character limit is exhausting! If you’re curious, you can look up the #4c17 hashtag (which I think was trending for a short while!) to see what people are tweeting about.
In addition to presentations, quite a bit of learning takes place informally, through conversations over coffee or lunch or drinks. One conversation I had with a few friends in the bar of a hotel was about the “nevertheless, she persisted” phrase that became a meme after Senator Elizabeth Warren was silenced by Senator McConnell during the nomination hearing for attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions. I voiced some discomfort with this phrase, because I felt like it normalized the gross imbalance of work (intellectual, emotional, and physical labor) that women experience just to get through a day. I felt like it implied that persistence was expected, when really it’s the system itself, and the expectations themselves, that need to be challenged. This led to a conversation about motherhood and raising children as academics in a demanding field (two out of the four of us at the table are single mothers who had to figure out childcare and who were away from our kids for a long period of time in order to be at the conference). I also had a conversation with another community college teacher from Michigan at the airport about the ALP program and the various models his institution uses. These conversations, though not documented formally on a conference program, were immensely valuable to me and immediately applicable, which leads me to my last point.
Why this Site of Learning Matters
I happen to have an amazing union that ensures conference funding for me so that I can travel and present at or simply attend conferences in my field. However, this isn’t the case at every institution. When I was an adjunct at EMU, I did not have any funding to travel. Everything would have been paid for out of my own pocket, which was not possible on the income I was earning (adjunct pay is the exploitative Walmart part-time employee situation of higher education). The irony is that in order to sell yourself as a worthwhile job candidate in higher education, you need to have conference presentations on your CV, but listing the presentation title and then “did not attend” afterward doesn’t exactly help your argument. I opted not to attend the conferences I was scheduled to present at because I couldn’t afford to go, and I believe they are included on my CV, which is a risk I took that fortunately didn’t cause me great harm when I was applying for jobs. I feel it is my duty now, as a full-time instructor with benefits, to advocate for conference attendance (whether or not one is presenting) as a necessary part of professional development, and as an endeavor that should be funded regardless of one’s teaching load.
In the article “Four Good Reasons to Attend Conferences” on the HASTAC blog, De Hertogh explains, “one my favorite things about being a student and scholar is traveling to new places, meeting new people, and learning neat stuff about how to make my teaching and learning experiences even more productive.” As a graduate student, De Hertogh is probably fortunate enough to have access to funding (I did as a graduate student as well). For adjuncts, and even for full-time faculty whose funding is limited, lack of support for conference attendance sends a strong message: learning how to be a better teacher from colleagues across the country doesn’t matter. I think this undermines the integrity of academic work. If not us, then who will mentor up and coming scholars, and new teachers? If not us, then who will push for innovation in our field? Who will advocate for students in basic writing courses? Who will decide how literacy should be defined and who will work to ensure that public policy reflects the lived experiences of the actual bodies in actual classrooms? I’m not sure anyone is listening to these four bullet points that De Hertogh mentions in her article, but I’m in agreement:
1.) Conferences provide excellent opportunities to learn more about your field of study in a diverse, professional environment.
2.) You get the chance to meet new people and sometimes to even rub shoulders with the scholars and professionals who inspire you.
3.) Conferences give you the chance to shine as a student/scholar, especially if you’re presenting. You can also list conferences you’ve participated in on your curriculum vitae.
4.) Conferences are great way to refuel yourself. Just when you’re feeling worn out from taking classes, writing papers, or teaching a heavy course load, conferences can give you the boost you need to get reenergized and motivated.
I came home refreshed. I was also (am also!) exhausted, for sure, but I was reminded of how nice it feels to be part of a larger community that lives and breathes and evolves outside of the department or division at my home institution. I’m also immensely thankful for the institutional support I have, and especially for my union. I look forward to participating again next year.
De Hertogh, Lori Beth. “Four Good Reasons to Attend Conferences.” HASTAC, 4 Nov 2012. http://www.hastac.org/blogs/dehertoghlb/2012/11/04/four-good-reasons-attend-conferences. Accessed on 20 Mar 2017.
*NOTE: For my presentation, I’d like to show you some of the Tweets from 4C’s, some photographs, and a few artifacts including the conference program and my name badge. I’d also like to share my panel’s presentations with you, and to borrow from an activity we did in the Basic Writing workshop, I’ll ask you to work in pairs and then in groups to collaboratively determine qualities of a good presentation.