Recap: The Conference on Community Writing

Back in the flatlands, with my new Colorado-branded hat.
Back in the flatlands, with my new Colorado-branded hat.

I spent last weekend – October 16th–19th – at the inaugural Conference on Community Writing in Boulder, Colorado, where I saw some excellent talks, climbed a mountain, and ate a lot of bean-and-grain-filled bowls (much harder to find a hot dog or a sausage in Boulder than in Chicago). The conference ran from Thursday – Saturday, and attracted mostly rhet/comp academics interested in community writing, community engagement, engaged research, public rhetoric, community literacy, and service learning, as well as in creating “sustainable infrastructures” for all of these.

Who Was There

I saw some familiar faces from the recent International Digital Storytelling Conference, including Candace Walworth, my co-panelist a few weeks back, and Phil Bratta. My old UMass comrades Sarah Stanley and Lauren Rosenberg were there, and I also caught up with Seán McCarthy, who gave a smart presentation on “adhocracies” and what he called the “swarm model” of service learning. Plus, thanks to Seán, this was the first time I experienced the fun of seeing my own name up on someone else’s lit review slide! Many of the best thinkers about and doers of community literacy and engaged research were also at this conference, including Jeff Grabill, Eli Goldblatt, Paula Mathieu, and Steve Parks.

Good company! (From Seán McCarthy’s presentation slides.)

The Presentations and Panels

There were lots of solid panels. One of my favorites was from Susan Harris, John Murray, Stephanie Bower, and Edward O’Neill, on “Long-Term Community Relationships and Short-Term Video Collaborations.” John and Stephanie, both writing teachers, have for 10 years taught a Writing in the Community course in which the major student deliverable is a team-produced video, and their presentation showed the depth of their experience. Their technical partner, Edward, had some interesting insights about shifting his support from a ‘mini-school film school model,’ where he’d teach specialized, professional video-making tools to the students in a sidecar workshop, to a model that used vernacular technologies (i.e., smartphones) and integrated the technical training with the normal work of the writing class (e.g., students would test lighting by filming class discussions under different lighting conditions). The team designed lovely slides, too, which convey the gist of their panel.

I was matched up by the conference organizers with two co-presenters—Doug Walls and Maggie Melo— and in this case, the roll of the dice turned out well: we had a surprisingly cohesive panel, titled “Digital Literacies and Community Knowledge-Building,” with all of us addressing in some form how to scale up, diversify, or sustain technology initiatives. Here’s a link to my presentation.

Takeaways and Follow-Ups

I heard about a lot of ambitious teaching at this conference: this is inspired me anew to aim high. One idea that lingers is the possibility of merging classes to work on one service/digital production project: Seán talked about how his Writing for Nonprofits course teamed with a web design course and a video production course to “swarm” the communication needs of one nonprofit organization. The USC folks spoke about merging two of the same Writing in the Community courses to form teams for their video projects. Teaching, especially prep and grading, can be a lonely endeavor, and I like this idea of affiliating with other classes in pursuit of a common project.

I also heard a lot of talk about design process as a model for the writing course, something that I was taken with back when I worked at MIT with the amazing 2.009: Product Engineering Process. As part of the communication team in 2.009, I got to see the ideation-to-product design process in action. With its sketching (invention?), prototyping (drafting?), and showcase (portfolio?), it maps pretty well onto what happens in a writing course.

Follow-up reading list

  • This book, Unsustainable, looks interesting. At one point, Eli Goldblatt said, “Unsustainability has to be at the heart of what we do,” by which I think he meant we must choose whatever models and pedagogies best fit any given local reality. The book is comprised of reflections and post-mortems on short-term community engagement projects, “in an effort to rethink the long-held ‘gold standard’ of long-term sustainability in community writing work’ (quote from the book’s online blurb).
  • Several panelists mentioned this article,”Time to Grow Them: Practicing Slow Research in a Fast Field” by Julie Lindquist, in issue 32.3-4 of JAC. I’ve not read it, but will.
  • Clay Spinuzzi’s new book, All edge: Inside the new workplace networks

In Other News…

On flying: I’m officially unimpressed with the ‘open seating’ model at Southwest Airlines. I generally forget to check in until I’m on the way to the airport, which leaves me boarding with the stragglers of the C-group. This time, I enlisted the help of my son Louis: I told Louis to shout when the clock turned 7:40, exactly 24 hours before my flight, the precise moment when online check-in opened. Louis shouted, I clicked, and 30 seconds later: B-45! Barely better than waiting until the ride to the airport, and clear evidence that the thing is rigged. If you don’t take the upsell, you’re going to get a lousy boarding number, regardless.

On branding: I’m officially impressed with Colorado’s visual identity. I don’t think I’ve every bought an item of clothing for myself in the airport store, but the CO stuff is so dang arresting and retro-cool that I couldn’t resist a hat. It’s almost as good as Chicago’s stars and bars.

On skipping out: my talk ended at 3:15 on Saturday, with only one conference event left: a “Deep Think Tank” with some people I probably wouldn’t mind deep thinking with. I sort of wanted to go, but it was also sort of beautiful in Colorado, so I migrated over to the spread of cookies and coffee to chat and perhaps convince myself one way or the other. It was Candace, a Boulder native, who made the decision for me, by reminding me of the day’s beauty and the few remaining hours of daylight. She directed me to Chautauqua Park, a 10-minute drive from campus. Oh to live somewhere with hikeable mountains in striking distance! This was not a place of solitude – there was a train of people headed up, headed down. But it was rejuvenating just the same, to climb the rocky trail, get a little red dirt on my shoes, and see the parade of young and old, human and canine, out enjoying a beautiful day.

And thus concludes the fall academic conference circuit.

Chautauqua trail photograph
The view from the Royal Arch trail at Chautauqua.