academic conferences and disciplinary identity

Collin Brooke has a good post on the main conference in rhetoric and composition, 4C's, and the challenges it has faced as the field has expanded and diversified. I imagine that any major disciplinary conference that attracts 1000s of attendees has similar kinds of problems. I also go to MLA, which is even larger, but when I go to MLA, I don't expect it to be my discipline's conference. 4C's is supposed to be that for rhet/comp. That's the story we tell. But if you tracked attendee movement from session to session, I suspect that you would see that there are really a number of largely separate, smaller conferences going on. This is to be expected, right? If you to MLA, for example, and you are a modernist, you probably go mostly to modernist panels. Maybe you go to some big name panel. Maybe you go to a colleague's panel in another field. Maybe something else catches your eye or you take a chance on something that sounds interesting. 

The thing is that rhet/comp is still considered a specialization that is roughly equivalent with modernism or any literary period. But it obviously isn't. Modernists, and other literary periods, have their own specialized associations and conferences. So does rhetoric and composition: conferences like Computers and Writing, Rhetoric Society of America, Assn of Teachers of Technical Writing, Writing Program Administrators, and so on. RSA is itself quite huge, but is certainly a slice of the rhet/comp field. So I don't think that rhet/comp is a field anymore, if it ever was. It's more like a discipline, more like "literary studies" than "modernism." In fact, I think it is even more fractured than that. 

Why is that? I believe it has to do with rhet/comp's longstanding focus on teaching and specifically teaching first-year composition. 4C's is replete with panels that are some version of "this is how I teach FYC." If you are in any other discipline, I ask you: what percentage of panels at your primary (inter)national conference are devoted to the teaching of an introductory course in your field? Just spitballing from memory, I feel fairly safe in saying at least 33% of the panels at 4C's fit this category. Why is that? Well, here's the short story about how proposals are reviewd for 4C's. You have to select a category for your proposal. The conference keeps the proportion of accepted panels as rougly equivalent to the proportion of proposed panels (i.e so if 10% of the proposals are in "language," then 10% of the accepted panels will be in "language"). The 13 2012 categories included things like "information technology," "history," "theory," and so on. One category is "teaching rhetoric and writing," which represented more than 20% of the panels. But you shouldn't imagine that those were the only panels that focused on teaching. To give you a sense, 4Cs has a category called "research," into which less than 10% of the panels are categorized, and a good percentage of those are research into teaching first-year composition. 

Can anyone in any other discipline imagine a major (inter)national conference where there is a subcategory for research presentations, and only 10% of the panels are in it? Doesn't that beg the question of what the other panels are about?

So I think that starts to give a picture of how unique 4Cs is. In a way it's more of a convention than a conference. Of course, rhet/comp has long struggled with the label of being anti-intellectual or at least anti-scholarly with its emphasis on first-year pedagogy. And I really don't want to pile on that as I think that 4Cs can do good work for many people. However, it isn't maybe the best place to go and present on the research that you are doing. That is, I pitch every presentation to an audience of graduate students because only four or five people in a 4Cs audience will have read the texts I'm referencing, so these presentations are always introductory. It's the eternal September as the DH folks put it. As a result I go around to the panels given by the 20-30 people who are doing work relevant to my own, but mostly I hear things that are introductory. I imagine they would have the same complaint about mine. But you need to pitch an introductory panel in order to have a chance of getting accepted.

In short, in my experience, a 4Cs panel might be a good place to hear something interesting but it isn't a place where I am going to encounter valuable research. How would you fixt that problem? Is it even a problem that needs fixing? I'm going to assume that answer to that second question is "yes," even though I am confident most 4Cs attendees would say "no." But IF you wanted to change that experience, you would have to begin by acknowledging that this is a convention with several non-communicating conferences. MLA has this to a degree with panels that are organized by sub-groups rather than centrally approved. You could start going in that direction but at some point wouldn't you realize it just makes sense to have separate conferences? The other way of thinking about this is 4Cs mission of inclusiveness, which leads to many, many panels offered by people who really aren't doing research in the field. After all, the vast number of folks teaching writing in the university are doing so in positions that do not require them to conduct research. 4Cs wants to give these folks (and grad students and others newly entering the field) a voice. And I can respect that, but that goal does run counter to the goal of presenting the latest research in the field. Others have suggested regional conferences (like MLA has) as a way of getting more people a voice.

I don't know. It's a difficult problem. Smaller, more targeted conferences run the risk of becoming cliques. That's a complaint that has been lodged at Computers and Writing. So in running a smaller conference, you'd always have to work against that. In a way, many decades ago, 4Cs was like that. In some sense it still imagines itself the same way. I just don't know that the field it once captured really exists anymore.


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