Conference Notes

CCCC2022: Thanks to Norton for Mentioning It

Nearly 20 years ago, I presented at my first national academic conference in New York City. The first day of the 2003 Conference on College Composition and Communication coincided with the first day of the United States government’s bombing of Iraq. I’d finished my 4-year active-duty Army hitch a few years before. On the first day of the conference and on throughout, attendees and presenters and leadership talked about the war and made plans as individuals and as a professional organization to protest. The monitors on the elevators cycled explosions.

A little over 10 years ago, I was in Afghanistan. I’d taken my first full-time Assistant Professor position at the United States Military Academy at West Point, and volunteered to deploy as a faculty mentor for the NATO-led National Training Mission in Afghanistan, working on the academic side of helping rebuild Afghan institutions of higher education after 30 years of war. I felt like it was the least I could do after how badly the US, uh, fouled up their country. I blogged some about it, but there was a lot I couldn’t or wouldn’t or didn’t talk much about.

For one, I made the decision to deploy without a sidearm, which annoyed some of my military and civilian colleagues, all of whom did carry guns.1 I didn’t think I would be a very helpful mentor to the Afghan writing professors carrying a gun: trust; rhetorical ethos. (Weird brag. Sorry.)

For another, it was scary to get shot at and shelled and rocketed. That went without saying (weird brag again; sorry), and I didn’t want to alarm folks back home, and I was grateful that the Taliban’s reputation for terrible aim was well-earned. (OK, let’s try one more time to get away from the rhetorical swagger, Mike.🙄) I had been elected incoming junior chair of the CCCC Intellectual Property Caucus and was required to participate in the conference in some way, and I gave a very windy videorecorded talk in my desert camo ACUs. The ad hoc online component of the conference (such as it was, improvised by the organization’s bloggers: checking out links to presentation materials, following Twitter feeds, reading blogged accounts) was enjoyable and, yes, exciting.

The biggest thing I had a hard time acknowledging even elliptically was the March 1, 2011 killing of nine Afghan boys gathering firewood in Mano Gai by United States attack helicopters soldiers. I felt heartsick, helpless, furious, disgusted. I didn’t know what to say to H—–, or F—–, or Muhammad, or Freshta, or Shams, or any of my other Afghan colleagues at the time, some of whom would become my friends.2 I wish I’d had the courage and humanity to say more than “I’m so sorry.”

This year, the 2022 Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) began on March 9, thirteen days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The Conference was online, and the organizers made the decision that all presentation materials had to be uploaded by February 28—still four days after the invasion. I videorecorded my presentation wearing blue and yellow, which felt like—literally—the least I could do. I wondered, hopefully, how much CCCC conferees and leadership would have to say about the war.

It turns out I needn’t have.

CCCC leadership has been silent on the war. I went to a lot of the on-demand panels and a few live ones, and I was pretty frustrated to hear no mention—not a fudgy peep—in any of the presentations or materials or discussion I saw, with the sole exception of an advertisement from Norton in the program, which I happily reproduce here without permission from NCTE or CCCC. (Yes, Mike, grump grump.)

The only real alternative to war is rhetoric. — Wayne Booth

Thank you for that, Norton, seriously—no sarcasm. I’ll be buying and assigning more of your books.

And, well, CCCC leadership—I guess I’m not sure what I hope you’ll do. I saw the phrase “life-and-death issue” used freely in public statements by the conference leadership. I saw Asao Inoue’s phrase “so that people stop killing each other” quoted more than any other line at the conference. I saw the conference CFP pose the question: “How do we remain relevant?”

So what’s the protocol for relevance when a missile intentionally aimed at a train station for fleeing refugees kills more than 50 civilians? Does one argue over the nuances of the dative case in the phrase “Đ·Đ° детей” after seeing the flop of that dead boy’s little body?

I feel like organizations that find themselves operating on ethical principles demonstrably distinct from the ones they have privileged might ought watch that video again.

And again.

1 I discovered in the violent aftermath of the Terry Jones Q’uran-burning incident that my organization had an emergency safe with long guns, as I’d somewhat expected. The most sphincter-clenching phrase I’ve ever heard is still “insurgents in ANA uniforms inside the perimeter.”

2 The folks named successfully emigrated to the US. I no longer hear from H—–, and F—–‘s P-2 visa application has remained in State Department limbo since August.

CCCC2022: Reasons to Confer

I found this year’s Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC, or 4Cs) to be somewhat less rewarding than in past years, largely because of the organizing committee’s pre-planned material-technological and discursive constraints on interactions within the online conference space. Like many others I saw in the online conference space, I was confused by the way the conference was organized and presented, not just buried but hidden in the CCCC website’s bizarrely hermetic navigation. Once I navigated the 4–5 clicks (try it yourself! can you find it?) into the conference itself, presented as a sort of meshing of the NCTE site (cccc.ncte.org), the conference proposal site (aievolution.com/NCTEevents), and the actual event space (app.forj.ai/CCCC22), I found—as many did—that the search function was unreliable and the sessions were extraordinarily difficult to navigate among.

I want to emphasize that this was clearly a planning issue, and not a matter of things going wrong in the moment: like Steve Krause, I’m talking about “how the online experience could have been better” since “the folks at NCTE generally seem pretty stressed out and overwhelmed. . ., and it kind of feels like any kind of criticism, constructive or otherwise, will be taken as piling on.” The stuff I’ve already described is characteristic of the CCCC leadership’s ongoing inability to manage the public face of scholarship for the discipline’s flagship conference, but what really made this year worse than others in the past was the clear decision by the organizers to prevent the majority of presenters from easily engaging in the conversations usually associated with academic conferences, and to create a two-tiered system wherein those selected to present synchronously had the opportunity to engage with their audiences, whereas those relegated to “on-demand” status had no opportunity to engage with their audiences within the space of the conference. In other words: if you were presenting or viewing an “on-demand” session, CCCC wasn’t interested in you talking to other conferees about it. In a conference with this year’s theme dedicated to social justice, the comparative proportions of BIPOC conference participants who were silenced by the myopic two-tier system seems to me to contravene rather than support the priorities expressed in Dr. Staci Perryman-Clark’s CFP. Or, OK, even more bluntly: I don’t know about the current CCCC leadership, but I go to conferences for the chance to learn and ask questions, and I had a problem with the exclusion of all of the presenters in the “on-demand” sessions from the ability to ask questions.

As Steve Krause puts it, the CCCC leadership’s conference planning this year seems most interested in

trying to prevent the possibility that anyone anywhere could share a link to my presentation materials. Maybe I’m missing something, but isn’t that kind of the point of scholarship? That we present materials (presentations, articles, keynote speeches, whatever) in the hopes that those ideas and thoughts and arguments are made available to (potential) readers who are anyone and anywhere?

Yes, Steve, it is! In fact, Dr. Perryman-Clark emphasized that idea in her CFP, noting that “systems of power and privilege enable certain folks to send the invitations and vet guest lists, determining who is worth inviting and who is not,” and proposing as a consequence that CCCC participants and leadership

hold ourselves accountable for the gate-entry and gate-keeping we practice with our students and each other. For if we don’t, not only will our ethical reputation be at stake but we also risk being so exclusive that our relevance becomes extinct and shifting demographics may potentially lead to a decline in the membership we once treasured, protected, and justified the exclusivity of in the spirit of protecting rigor and the academic integrity of writing studies.

This year’s conference, as insulated as it was from current events by preventing conversation and requiring materials to be completed weeks ahead of time, seemed to me to venture into that territory of exclusivity.

CCCC2022: Racial Capitalism and the Labor Theory of Value in Composition Pedagogy

This year’s online meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC, or 4Cs) was interesting for a variety of reasons, about which I’ll have more to say soon. In the interim, here’s the video of my presentation (with captions now, rather than the less-accessible 4Cs version).

As you’ll see, the presentation is a little elliptical, since I edited it from about 6000 words down to less than 2000. Here’s the written version, with references.

Why the Sparklepony Matters

There’s been a dust-up around my professional conference, CCCC (the Conference on College Composition and Communication, or informally, 4Cs or Cs), and the conference game that Wendi Sierra and others designed to help graduate students new to the discipline network and professionalize. The comments section at the Chronicle of Higher Education story that reported on the game is, as one would expect from most online comments sections, dismaying: defenders of the game are making smart, articulate, and carefully considered arguments, and there are also a lot of trolls and idiots, to include Florida State University English Department graduate student and teaching assistant Adam Weinstein, who wrote a nasty little piece for Gawker based only upon secondhand information from the Chronicle article and his perusal of Google to find Chris Kluwe’s book (which he dismisses in a phrase that makes it quite clear he has no idea what Kluwe is doing in the book) and his (yes, seriously) use of urbandictionary.com.

Here’s the deal. The “sparklepony,” as an evolving concept, came out of Collin Brooke’s conference presentation in 2010, wherein Collin referenced the World of Warcraft Celestial Steed, a new in-game decorative mount/vehicle that players could purchase for $25. The Celestial Steed was quickly ycleped the “sparklepony” by the in-game community (Weinstein: you’ve got your etymology wrong, and need to work on taking your grad student research skills beyond Google) and Collin mentioned the appellation in his presentation, observing that this was an instance (I paraphrase from my own memory here, and apologize to Collin if I get him wrong) of an online luxury good: a way that WoW players could purchase items of value that stood only as class markers. The name and concept of the “sparklepony” was quickly and enthusiastically taken up by the conference Twitter backchannel, especially by scholars who shared Brooke’s interest in the intersections of technology and writing instruction, and who extended that interest into ludology or game studies, including—especially—Jill Morris. Jill made a number of physical-object “sparkleponies,” decorated with glitter and googly eyes and feathers. Those material instances of in-game digital objects became physical objects of value: scholars interested in the blur between digital and material worlds, including myself, coveted them. As such, they became the prize for the C’s the Day game.

That circumstance perhaps makes it clear that graduate students like Adam Weinstein need to be rather more careful in “journalism” (Gawker LOL) that attacks an entire field and scholars (established and emerging) in that field. Collin Brooke’s work demonstrated how immaterial and digitally reproducible objects became tokens of value in World of Warcraft, and suggested implications for how those immaterial objects (like writing) took on diverse forms of value, and how that valuation might have consequences for rhetorical practice. The ways Jill Morris remediated those digital objects into material objects, with diverse material forms of value, extended Brooke’s insights in important ways. Wendi Sierra’s incorporation of the Sparklepony as a token of material value into a systematic social form of professionalization for newcomers to an academic discipline illustrates in crucial ways how what Hardt and Negri have termed the “immaterial labor” [sic] associated with the information economy has important material consequences for composition scholarship—and therefore for composition pedagogy, and also more broadly for entry into the academic discipline.

In other words, this game has important professional and economic consequences, not just for graduate students, not just for professors, but for undergraduate students as well. Value aggregates, and as recent conferences have demonstrated, value aggregates in complex ways, especially when that ostensible boundary between F2F and online blurs—as it has in the case of the C’s the Day game. The Sparklepony, as object remediated from for-pay online game into online slang and from there into academic discourse and from there into practice of academic professionalization, is amazing: I love it in the same way I love the frozen time-golem of the train at the end of China MiĂ©ville’s Iron Council. The Sparklepony, for some, is a reminder of faculty obligations to help professionalize graduate students, and also a reminder of the ways that digital work intersects with the embodied materiality of F2F work—and the embodied materiality of F2F play.

CCCC09 A17: 21st-Century Writing Lives

The full title of this panel was “21st-Century Writing Lives: Redefining Development, Performance, and Intellectual Property in College Writing.”

Erin Krampetz, of the nonprofit Ashoka in Washington DC, began the session by describing the Stanford Study of Writing, which followed students for the five years from 2001 to 2006, from their first year at Stanford through the year after graduation, asking those students to submit to the study every piece of writing they created in that time. Krampetz joined the writing department as an undergraduate, and was one of the initial guinea pigs for the study. The longitudinal study accumulated a total of 14,776 pieces of student writing in its database, and every piece of that data is now being coded. When we think about longitudinal studies, Krampetz observed, we think about change: in the Stanford study, what changes? It’s tempting, she suggested, for researchers to tell stories that follow a timeline. For the Stanford study, however, the story is anything but linear and chronological, with all that staggering data.

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CCCC08 B15: Rhetorical Memory and Delivery 2.0

Kathie Gossett, Andrea Davis, and Carrie Lamanna (unfortunately, John Walter was unable to make it) began their panel with a quotation from Winifred Bryan Horner’s introduction to John Frederick Reynolds’ book Rhetorical Memory and Delivery: “We need to re-think rhetorical memory and delivery as pertaining to new media.” Their panel explored some of the ways in which memory and delivery could be re-thought in relation to new media.

Kathie’s presentation title was “Remembering When: the Temporal Mechanics of Multimodal Composing.” We’re familiar with the traditional modes of composing, Kathie asserted: visual, textual, aural. However, she proposed a perhaps previously underconsidered mode of expression: the temporal.

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CCCC08 A25: Virtual Realities

Doug Eyman, the chair, introduced the panel (the full title being “Reading and Writing Virtual Realities”) by describing his excitment not just about writing about games in our composition courses, but about writing in games. In fact, Doug noted, one of the chief concerns of the panel was not just with reading games as texts, but with reading how games work and can work in writing instruction.

Stephanie Vie’s presentation was first. She described an activity she had developed for a tech writing course, based on the conventional and long-standing genre of writing a set of instructions. Many of us may be familiar with asking students to write a paper explaining how to make a peanut butter sandwich, or perform some similar task. Stephanie noted that many of her students are gamers, and so decided to ask them to work in groups to produce collaboratively-authored game walkthroughs that would instruct another group how to make it to a specific point in a game of their choice. The students chose games like Tomb Raider, Half Life, and Metal Gear Solid; ones that had interesting plots and characters and multiple ways of achieving certain objectives. Stephanie assigned them to groups of 3 or 4, and the groups’ first assignment was to figure out what point in the game to play to and how, specifically, to play the game. The method of gameplay was a specific requirement of the assignment: they couldn’t just play randomly, but had to choose whether to try to play most efficiently, to achieve the objective in the least amount of time, to amass the most points or kills or treasure or experience, or to complete specific in-game quests. Stephanie then had the students negotiate group dynamics in very particular ways, particularly given that some students were more skilled at the games and some less so, and that some were more interested and some less so.

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CCCC08 Day 1

Arrived late yesterday morning after a 6 AM flight, in time for an early lunch and a nap, some exploring around NOLA’s central business district, and then a wonderful late dinner and live cajun music at Mulate’s. My hotel’s accomodations came at well under half one third of the price of the conference hotel, and the same could unfortunately be said of their quality: my first room had a Bartleby view through a single narrow window of chicken-wire security glass, with the barest dim daylight at noon, so I asked for another, and got a room with burned-out light bulbs and walls that shake when the door closes. But it’s got daylight, at least, despite the rather primitive facilities. After scant sleep before my flight, I hoped to catch up last night before helping to facilitate our all-day workshop today on course management systems, but given the room and impending workshop, I dreamed all night of my room’s electric, plumbing, HVAC, robotic maintenance, audio-visual, computing, and high-tech surveillance systems being managed by BlackBoard and WebCT. Like a dream of the opposite of being watched over by machines of loving grace, punctuated by sudden stirrings, awakenings, BlackBoard flushing the toilet next door, eCollege huffing its automated iron over my closet-hanging clothes, WebCT bitterly cycling the ice machine.

The workshop went fine. Good presentations, demonstrations, and hands-on guidance all around, even on BlackBoard and WebCT (I spoke not a word of their nocturnal activities), and I think Dennis and I did well, as well, on open-source and alternative solutions. It was a long day, though, and afterwards up into the skyward suites of the conference hotel to chat with some people I hadn’t seen in a while and then to Bourbon Street and back again. So I’m here, seeing familiar faces, going to panels tomorrow, hoping to make the time to take notes.

More soon.

CCCC07.P04: Pedagogic Violence

The full title of this session was “Pedagogic Violence and Emotions of (Self-) Assessment: Anger, Mortification, Shame,” or, as panel chair Elizabeth Weiser summed it up, “The Happy Panel!”

Amy Robillard began her presentation, “The Functions and Effects of Angry Responses to Plagiarism,” with some questions to the audience: “How many of us have suspected plagiarism?” All hands went up. “Felt insulted by it?” All hands. “Felt angry?” Again: all. Robillard offered an anecdote from a course she had taught wherein a student turned in a paper with one passage in a noticeably lighter font than the rest of the passage. She Googled the passage and discovered that the student had actually plagiarized three separate passages in the paper from weblogs. Robillard described her anger at the attempt at deceit, and her anger at the student’s implicit presumption of stupidity on Robillard’s part; the presumption that Robillard would somehow be dumb enough not to recognize plagiarism when she saw it. This anger, Robillard suggested, helped her to maintain an identity as a writing instructor sufficiently expert to make the distinction between that which is plagiarized and that which is not. But of course, she acknowledged, she could have missed it as well, because it was the font color that spurred her curiosity — and that acknowledgment led for Robillard both to a possible anger at self for writing teacher and to the question (itself carrying an inherent affective teacherly freight) of how many plagiarizers go uncaught.

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