Pihlaja, "Disciplining New Materialism" [link expired, email me @ email@example.com]
Accessibility copy of presentation text (link expires):
Pihlaja, "Disciplining New Materialism" [link expired, email me @ firstname.lastname@example.org]
I meant to write this post months ago. But you gotta prioritize they tell me. And prioritize I have.
Something changed this summer. It was almost an audible and physical "snap!" that was deeply felt though, oddly, I cannot tell you when exactly it happened. Some time between the third week of June and the second week of August. I think.
I told y'all I needed a break. And I took one. I quelled the anxiety and the guilt and made myself do it.
I still submitted my first major solo piece to a journal. I still attended an international conference.
But I also did...nothing. My family and I camped. I wrestled with a tent beneath the angriest sky I've ever been outside to witness. It was thrilling. But reminded me why our ancestors worked so very, very hard to build houses of stone with toilets within feet of our beds.
I did nothing. Which is to say, I did things I could not convert into capital--social, academic, or economic.
We bought a piano. I picked up my guitar. I read novels. Tried to sketch things.
One of my senior colleagues here, Angela, from the day I first interviewed for this job actually, through my first year has...we'll say..."encouraged"? Yeah. Yeah we'll go with "encouraged" me, in her inimitable way, to stop apologizing for things I don't have to be sorry for, to be confident about who I am and what I want.
She, I'm convinced, laid the groundwork for the "snap," the change in disposition.
Hannah Gatsby, in her powerful Netlfix special "Nannette" I also watched this summer, talked about refusing any more to apologize for taking up space. This injunction directed to those far more marginalized than I, still resonated. In much smaller ways, my life has been organized around feeling like I wasn't really supposed to be here, wherever "here" happened to be. This needed to stop as, I imagine, it was (and still is inasmuch as it persists) making me especially unpleasant to be around.
This was a little easier to do after year one. The impostor syndrome that follows everyone, it seems, followed me well into my first year on the tenure track. If I'm honest, it'll follow me for many years still.
But at some point something's gotta give.
And give it has.
The months of June and July were exactly what I needed them to be. A time to reconnect with my family. A time to reconnect with myself.
I traveled to Birmingham, UK to attend a conference run by my relentlessly productive younger brother. Several years ahead of me in academia he's proven a professional mentor, with insights that have helped frame my own work and path so far.
After a whirlwind conference with brilliant people doing fascinating work in a variety of subfields in applied linguistics, we ducked over to Paris. Yeah. THAT Paris.
I totally get why people go to Paris now. It's awesome.
But it was, yet again, a time to connect. With Stephen. With myself. With art. With food.
I'd gone, to be honest, with the intention of letting loose a bit. Eating and drinking too much. Staying out too late. Trying to capture the wild and crazy youth I never had.
But I arrived in the UK to find my brother--one who's had more courage than me to just live his life--a bit of an ascetic. He's vegan now. He meditates. He lets shit go.
So we went hard. But only in terms of walking. 60km or so, all told, in three days.
We ate. Found vegan and gluten free stuff in Paris. People are aghast. PARIS! BREAD! CHEESE! And YOU TWO--VEGAN AND GLUTEN FRE--
What're you gonna do? Bottle of wine on the stairs of Sacre Coeur. That's what.
It was awesome.
But knocking on the door of 40, I'm not one to live alone, away from wife and kids. So getting home was a joy as well.
Teachers don't "get the summer off" in any sense. But I made sure not to do any work on stuff for the fall until at least August. I don't like to throw around the word "hero"--if it crosses your mind, feel free to use it.
But I made myself be reasonable. I worked. I've got two new preps even though you're not "supposed" to do new preps in the first two years. But I'm easily bored. And despite my newfound, devil-may-care confidence, I'm still a bit too prone to say yes to stuff.
Angela will keep me on the straight and narrow, I'm sure.
I've come in to year two with my back straighter. My sense of where I'm possibly headed stronger.
Could it all fall apart? Certainly.
But inspired by my little brother, I do my best to get up at 5am now. I sit quietly while a man with a gentle British accent calmly invites me to sit upright, to pay close attention to my breathing, to let my thoughts come and go, to be aware of my body, my sensations, to return to my breath "always available to me" as best I can.
The first time he said that--"the breath is always available to you"--I started. Such a profound insight. If it's not, then whatever it is in front of you is no longer your problem.
But until then you can ground yourself for the moment in your own biology no matter what is happening. Because you carry your breath every moment of every day. It carries you. It won't carry you indefinitely. But it can bring you back. To this moment. To deal with what is happening right here. Right now.
There is still so much to do. The journal I was sure would reject my first submission came back requesting revisions for re-submission. So the door's still open. We'll take another crack.
My second piece, a co-authored article with my dissertation chair, Dr. Lucía Durá is headed out the door soon.
Teaching a new prep that is right in my wheelhouse yet stretches me has been a revelation. Perhaps the first time I have fully and unequivocally enjoyed teaching a class. Inspired by my colleague Kendall I changed the way I provide feedback. It's still a pain. It's still difficult. I still put it off. But it's now much more in line with who I am as a teacher and a thinker. So little weights have been dropped along the way.
Still quite a ways to climb. Still many miles to go. But for the time being I'm ready to keep moving.
To keep breathing.
Hello all! Quick break from my summer hiatus to say that I am, like every academic it seems, working over the summer. I am presenting at the Poetics and Linguistics Association (PALA) conference in Birmingham, UK being held on the lovely campus of the University of Birmingham.
I have had an absolutely delightful time engaging with scholars from a field--really a collection of fields--slightly different than mine. The overlap has been productive and challenging.
Am presenting on Friday, July 27th at 10am in AWB 112. If you are available to attend, please do. If not, I've included my presentation text and slides here:
Beau Pihlaja PALA 2018 Presentation Slides (link to .pptx file, 1.16 MB)
Beau Pihlaja PALA 2018 Presentation Text (link to .docx file)
I look forward to seeing you all there!
For the rest of you, I'll be back in the fall. You're anxious about it. I can tell. Hold tight...
Image credit: Jim Jackson. Obtained from pexels.com
Is it over? Did I do it right? -Dr. Kendall Gerdes
I think I'm ready to call Year 1 "over." No one is or can do it for me, I don't think. So I'll do it. <decisive hand motion> It's done.
Getting a tenure track job at a major university last year was unexpected. I was fortunate. I'm grateful for the opportunity. I'm excited for the future.
But I'm tired, y'all.
This summer caps what was an insane 18 months. If I'm honest it caps an insane decade that began in 2008 when my wife and I got on a plane bound for India.
My dad passed along information he'd been given at his first major job: that you need at least a year to learn how to do a job.
To be honest, I wasn't sure being a professor at an R1 is something I could do. But while past performance is no guarantee of future success, I think it's safe to say I can do the job.
My colleague Greg Wilson has been telling me all year that I can do the job. But it wasn't until last week that I think I believed him.
I managed to get a major draft of research submitted for review by a major journal in my field.
I tried to put my whole dissertation in a single article. My colleague Kristen Moore had gently warned me not to try. But I tried nonetheless. Turns out you can't. But I got it paired down and sent out. Still too long. But that will always be my problem.
But I course corrected and got it done. That is the thing of which I'm most proud.
Image credit: Rakicevic Nenad. Obtained from pexels.com.
I learned about institutions. The stuff you don't learn about in classes. How jobs were filled. How committees work. How faculty meetings go. How hushed conversations in the hall or loud conversations in offices for everyone's benefit transmit, shape, and erase knowledge in an organization. How a university works. How power, money, ambition, and desire circulate in the academy.
I learned that mentors are important. People inside and outside your institution carry you.
Greg Wilson was a constant presence in that regard. His "you're doing great work!"--which he appears to mean every time he says it--carried me this year. His cheerful criticism and guidance was a gift.
Kendall Gerdes provided that particular insight only someone who is one year ahead of you can give. Michael Faris played Reviewer 2 to a significant final draft and made it better, giving me the confidence to hit "send." Kristen Moore provided tidbits of insight all along the way and facilitated hospitality for us all even as she is on her way out. Angela Eaton kept me in line, taught me that you should never undercut yourself, and that if you say you're "sorry" any time you say anything, you diminish the value of the apology. So knock it off.
Rachel Wolford provided some key writing advice at crucial moment ("You're going to have to write it again, you can't just copy/paste from the dissertation..."). Kelli Cargile-Cook was a helpful presence when I popped in to ask how to do this or that, and went to bat for me over money at a crucial moment. Ken Baake kept us laughing and gave me my first professional in-class teaching evaluation, like, ever. Becky Rickly was a joyful encouragement, making me feel good to be part of the team. Abigail Selzer King gave me the courage to start drawing stuff down as a way to get it organized.
Lucia Dura and Laura Gonzales, mentors from UTEP, proved to be mentors even here in this new position, providing much need outside perspectives and encouragement.
My colleagues, Consuelo Salas and Lou Herman, kept me sane via our ongoing FB messenger group. They made me laugh out loud when I needed it most. Feedback and the cheerful good-natured bullying they provided in our semi-regular writing groups made each week that much more productive and fun. Let's keep that particular madhouse going.
A big part of my belief that I can do this job came from engaging our online grad students last week in our weeklong "Maynar." Our TCR students are terrifyingly brilliant. I was worried I wouldn't be able to keep up. But they are gracious, accommodating, and fun. I learned from them. And I felt like I was able to give them something in return, to provide something like helpful guidance, the kind I've been given. I should be able to do that for another year at least...
I was back in the classroom again this year with our ENGL 3365 course. I remembered why I like working with undergraduates. They too are wickedly smart, ambitious, and fun to be around. They study while carrying so many things. They are inspiring. I look forward to doing it all again next year with a new batch.
Last but not least, I learned how to do this and stay present with my family. Though I certainly need to do that better.
I'm indebted to my wife, Charity, for her willingness to go along with all this, to provide guidance and leadership at key points. This isn't as crazy as bouncing off to India 6 mos pregnant, but it hasn't been easy. I'm grateful for her love and support.
My kids are the most fun learners in my life. Their bubbling exuberance for literally EVERYTHING is exhausting but beautiful. They make me a better teacher and scholar. I'm glad they've been a part of this craziness.
I'm gonna try to rest now.
I know that's not a privilege everyone gets. Single parent scholars who have to keep moving, keep working, keep researching. Scholars, students who are dealing with disability, discrimination, the weight of expectations. All these deserve the right to rest and we must fight for that right for all.
But I'm burnt out at this point. I don't think I'll be much use to anyone without a break. So I'll take what's been given and go, I dunno, camping or something.
We'll see you all in the fall.
Image credit: Jeff Nissen. Obtained from pexels.com.
Again, delays. So much stuff to do. But I don't feel I can ride off into the summer without adding these reflections.
I've commented on my experience at ATTW 2018 here and here. CCCC 2018 met immediately afterwards, as I noted, across the river in Kansas City, Kansas. To be fair, I was all conferenced out after ATTW, but had been accepted to present at Cs and was looking forward to many of the scheduled presentations.
All the issues that made ATTW fraught, the question of where to have the conference, whether to have it at all, all weighed equally heavily on Cs, perhaps more so because they had chosen to keep the meeting in Kansas city, despite the NAACP travel advisory.
I've never been responsible for conference logistics so I have no idea what's involved. I imagine it's a lot. The demand that plans be made years in advance probably only compounds the challenge.
As an early career scholar, I'm still trying to find my place in the world. I have not been certain that Cs is where I "belong" as a researcher or teacher. But I've met good people there, the work is interesting, the diversity of interests generative. So I was looking forward to the experience, but I was uncertain.
CCCC 2018 Program Cover. Design by Sasha Bingaman
The day began with me not realizing (despite someone explaining to me that it was the case) that the conference sessions were held in two major facilities in downtown KC that were quite a ways a part.
Consequently I was late to the opening session (along with others) as I had to hike what felt like a half or 3/4 miles to the auditorium. Program Chair Asao Inoue was in the middle of a moment of silence for those colleagues who were not present for whatever reason when I and a number of us burst in, out of breath, sweating. He later asked us write down a single word describing our current state and that could be used to propel us in to the conference. For me it was "discombobulated."
This set the tone and laid a frame on the conference experience I had not been prepared to think about: the question of "accessibility."
It actually began with a pre-conference email from Asao asking us to be sure to have texts of our talks and handouts for our sessions to help meet the accessibility needs of our colleagues. This struck me hard and I was stunned that it hadn't ever framed itself that way to me.
Like many grad students I'd always been in a desperate state going in to a conference presentation. I was always That Guy working on the PowerPoint in someone else's session, desperately trying to fit the WHOLE WORLD CHANGING THING in to 15 mins.
I have a BA in Theater Arts. So I hate presenting from a text. I want to get up there and just improv/stand-up routine my way to a compelling presentation. It had never occurred to me this was a problem for colleagues with hearing/seeing impairments. Nevermind colleagues' with "invisible" disabilities, focus and attention issues, that my presentation "style" might not serve.
I realized that failure to provide a text was an accessibility failure on my part. Even before we consider that slamming together the final draft of a scholarly presentation the week of the conference is just unprofessional...
Thinking about what it meant to make a document "accessible" led me to discover the "accessibility checker" function in Word. I began thinking about alt text for my complex images/diagrams. I didn't succeed fully, but suddenly I realized this needed to be part of my process from here on out.
This realization gave me a new lens for thinking about conferences. I suddenly began paying attention to how the conference environment might be experience by someone with any kind of body- or neuro-atypicality. Suddenly rows of chairs were painfully close together, difficult to move around in if you aren't rail thin or using some kind of assistive technology to get around. A visual-impaired colleague was led around one room, bumping in to chairs left in total disarray by previous conference attendees. I no doubt had done this myself.
The "culture" of engagement among scholars is not always conducive to inclusion. Little things, like our exasperated disdain for the microphone--"I don't need the mic, do I? Y'all can hear me, right?"--immediately puts the hearing impaired individual (or, hell, even people like me who are just kinda getting old and losing our hearing) at a profound disadvantage. We either have to disclose a disability. Or sit there catching little or nothing of what you're saying. It also makes it hard/impossible for ASL interpreters to do their jobs. I no doubt have done this repeatedly before and never given it a second thought.
That all this would be an issue, conference-wide, should have been clear at the outset when Chair Calhoon-Dillahunt got up to address us and declared at one point she was having trouble seeing her text in the dim stage lights. That no one seemed to recognize this and help, was unnerving. If the chair can't get accessibility help on the biggest stage at the conference...
Image of Conference on College Composition & Communication
All this was on top of the question of inclusivity around race that hung over the conference, just as it had ATTW. Except that where ATTW had addressed the question directly, Cs struggled, perhaps due to its size, to present a coherent, programmatic response to the issue.
At the all-attendee event held on Thursday, three speakers, individuals doing compelling work in KC presented about their work, lives, and initiatives to help engage around the racial disparities in education, policing, economics, etc. They were interesting and compelling. But as an attendee it wasn't clear how they fit together. Worse, it was not clear what we were supposed to do in response to what they shared.
Planners had set up a breakout, workshop-style response to these presentations. Each table had handouts and facilitators at each table to aid our discussion. It was soon clear that the handout was a lengthy document that was supposed to be read before the conference. This was probably shared in an email and then got lost. I was not conscious of seeing it before. We had no facilitator which was a problem probably exacerbated by the fact that we ended up being a table of white-passing, early career scholars who didn't know how to proceed in a programmatic context like this anyway. I left before the report out session. It felt like a missed opportunity.
One session which I was excited to attend involved members of the local BLM organization in KC. I noticed in my addendum sheet to the program that the session had been moved to the accessibility room. Sitting in the room at the appointed time with perhaps a dozen others, I realized the time had passed and the panel was not there. It occurred to me that perhaps the panelists had not known about the change. I ran down to the original session location and sure enough it had begun there. The dozen or so upstairs had to relocate, disrupting the panel, and, it should be noted, excluding those who needed the accessibility room to attend (whether for disability reasons or because they could not attend in person and had to stream it online).
This was repeated the next day when another set of panelists had not been directly told about their change to the accessibility room. Thankfully we caught it sooner and everyone was present.
That these particular issues both involved early career scholars and graduate students of color either attending or in one case supposed to be presenting, was especially disheartening.
I should be clear, the conference wasn't a waste or a disaster from my experience. I call attention to these things, not to denigrate those who took the time to coordinate, as best they could, a massive logistics program under less than ideal conditions. I'm sure there were major issues and things that had to be dealt with at the executive level on down that you couldn't pay me enough to try sort out.
But I take note of these things precisely because they are part of my view "from below."
They are the things I want to remember going forward as I participate in organizations, local and national.
I've already begun to re-think how I design my documents to be accessible to readers, reviewers, students. I have been thinking about the spaces we inhabit, how we think about people different than us in those spaces, how our own use of space is exclusive, erasing, or domineering.
My awareness about the experience of others is being widened. For whatever reasons we are just now collectively beginning to pay attention to the voices of those who have been telling us all these things for years.
It seems like we are forever on the precipice of creating a more just, inclusive world. Which makes the distance we have to travel all the more frustrating.
I don't know that the answer lies in massive organizations and institutions. They provide the resources certainly for us to be able to afford the space and tools to make those spaces more inclusive. I am certainly grateful for those opportunities.
But we can't technologize our way out of the problems humanity faces. We have to become attune to and listen to the world outside, the bodies and voices we so often ignore.
And let's be honest, by "we" here I mean mostly white, able-bodied, economically stable people. Everybody else knows. Because they're the ones who have been accommodating our ignorance for far too long.
As I said in the last reflection and others have noted, we probably need to rethink conference "culture." There may be better ways to do this, to accomplish what we want from conferences.
At the awards ceremony on the last night, one winner described our work at Cs, as scholars of language: "dangerous work." This is a compelling thought. One I need to sit with longer.
But if it's dangerous, we need to do it ever more carefully and thoughtfully.
Got delayed through April. But I'm back.
Continuing my reflections on my experience at the 2018 ATTW conference it seems like the broader context of the conference is also worth mentioning. Those in the orbit of both ATTW and CCCC know that the decision about where to hold the conferences this year (having already been decided upon well in advance) was especially fraught. That uncertainty carried in to both conferences in different ways.
The NAACP put out a travel warning for the state of Missouri in the wake of high profile police killings of unarmed black citizens, the protests in Ferguson, and the disproportionate police engagement with motorists and citizens of color. This threw into question, I suspect in an unprecedented way, whether either organization ought to hold the conference in Kansas City, MO in tandem with CCCC, per usual. The larger national and global political context certainly weighs heavily in an ongoing way and this conference was no exception.
2018 ATTW Conference Program Cover. Design by Christine Chen.
Given that the theme of the conference, set by chairs Natasha Jones and J. Blake Scott, was "Precarity and Possibility: Engaging Technical Communication’s Politics," thinking about this broader socio-political context was unavoidable. Indeed, for me, awareness of place--and the potential precarity of place--suffused the entire conference. Both the session panels and the experience of the conference's "place" (KS, KS and the neighborhood in which the Reardon Convention center was located) felt deeply and uniquely "present."
The CFP for the conference sent in early October declared:
"As a field—at this, the 45th anniversary of ATTW—we have increasingly foregrounded technical communication’s roles in the articulation of precarious conditions and institutional and public responses to them, including possibilities for amelioration and justice. Some have even signaled and/or enacted an emergent move from our earlier socio-cultural and civic political turns...to a social justice one...extending the professional politics around demarcating the boundaries of our field."
Drs. Jones and Blake Scott asserted that the fundamental assumption underlying the call was that:
"that technical and professional communication (TPC) is not and never has been impartial or apolitical"
Ultimately this call sought to have session presenters consider
"foreground the multiple ways technical communication participates--and has a long history of participating—in various levels (e.g., local, national, transnational) and contexts (e.g., community-based, civil, governmental, institutional) of political action, including within our field or profession."
As well as
"foreground the precarity and possibility of our ongoing and future political engagement, especially our advocacy of and with TPC’s most vulnerable stakeholders."
Interacting both with this call and the possibility of attending both ATTW and Cs was unexpectedly challenging. I should say that it was not until especially late in the year, perhaps not even until the beginning of the year, that it occurred to me if or whether I had some obligation to not attend. Some scholars expressed a desire not to attend because they felt genuinely anxious about the location. Others considered whether not to attend as a matter of protest.
Of course at no point did I ever feel "unsafe" in either Kansas or Missouri. When I tried to explain to someone (also white) outside my academic orbit the issues surrounding the conferences (namely the delay in determining where they would be), when I got to the part about the travel advisory, they rolled their eyes. As if the fear itself was ridiculous. But again, that was the point. I as a white man do not consider that there are places where I cannot go and feel largely safe and free of discrimination from agents of the state. My citizenship, in a very fundamental way, is never in question.
This disparate experience was further brought home to me when, on the evening after the first day of the conference, I met my fellow early career colleague, Dr. Consuelo Salas*, who had arrived for CCCC and was staying in MO. She took an Uber from KC in MO to the hotel in KS. One of the first thing she said was, "I just saw a man being arrested." Coming out of her hotel, she'd seen a black man on the ground with police holding him down, their knees on his back re-enacting a scene all too familiar to us nationally, a scene that has cost women and men their dignity, their mental well being, their wealth, their lives. A scene that looks less and less benign from a socio-political perspective--and indeed only ever looked like a "benign" exercise of state power to people for whom such exertion of force is benevolence. It "protects" (largely) white property and sense of order and safety. It maintains a sense of "law and order" which is seems always and everywhere to be disproportionately exercised on individuals and communities of color.
My colleague's distress was palpable. Not only because of the moment's intensity, but because as a person of color herself, she does not have the luxury of expecting her existence in predominantly white spaces to be accepted as normal or desirable. Presence, as we learn again and again, is itself a threat. The irrationality of this predominantly white fear cannot really see her. Once again I was reminded that I in my white maleness am having a profoundly different experience than much of the world. And my experience, shaped largely by a kind of tacit, experiential ignorance is an integral part of creating the fear and the threat.
This contrasted sharply with other, predominantly white, colleagues' comments on the "oddness" of the location of the Hilton. What became clear to me is that what made things "odd" for them (and if I am honest me) was that it was in a relatively poor area. Compared to other more classically "conference friendly" spaces like you might find in Orlando, for instance, with a bevy of hotels, restaurants, and loosely related "vacation" type amenities, this was in a relatively nondescript urban area. Clearly not as economically well off as other locations--or at least less interested in sweeping out "undesirable" elements beyond visitors' field of vision.
Having decided to stay in the KS Hilton for the duration of the week, shuttling back and forth for Cs, I ended up in a number of Ubers. Most had no problem picking me up or dropping me off at the location. But one driver, a white male in a moderately nice car, was palpably anxious about dropping me off at the location after 10pm saying that I was "staying in a rough part of town." He made a point to say he would drop me off, go off line, and log back in to pick up passengers once back in MO. Yet at no point did I feel any genuine sense that I was in any real danger due to my location.
Dr. Krista Ratcliffe in her work Rhetorical Listening helped me attend to these kinds of contrasts by suggesting as a matter of practice in discussions of race matters to "lay" these kinds of vignettes "alongside" one another in the interest of learning and framing our engagement.
But what strikes me most was the fact that I never really felt as if not attending was an option precisely because of the expectations of early-career scholars to develop my "research program"--one worthy of a nationally prominent research university. As I posted earlier, I felt like I had to "come out" as a new member of the field, to make--if not a "splash"--at least a mildly positive impression on my colleagues whose evaluation will be crucial to my full acceptance in to the field in the form of tenure. Here my general desire to act in solidarity, to pursue not only scholarly insight but justice in that pursuit and in the application of whatever insight I come upon runs up against the powerful material constraints the system of academia puts on us, itself embedded in the larger economy. This was profoundly discomforting. You see quickly how systemic forces compel even conscientious people to replicate, by inertia if nothing else, the microphysics of "precarity" even as we dispassionately pursue knowledge.
Yet my discomfort is nothing compared to my colleagues' who have the same (really greater) pressure to perform, to "make a splash," to prove, in ways I don't have to, that they "belong" there. All while having to also hold at bay the broader headwinds of white supremacy which challenge them outside the university.
The precarity of people of color's situation as well as that of graduate students and early career scholars was much more visible to me on this trip than it ever has been before. Several have noted that academia should rethink its "reimbursement culture" which creates very real financial pressure around conferences on early career scholars, scholars from working class backgrounds, scholars whose minority status intersects with working class status, and graduate students across the board.
I wonder too if we ought to re-think "conference culture" itself from the ground up. Beginning with the experience of the most precarious among us.
This particular point only intensified for me as I attended Cs. But I'll reflect on that separately.
[*Consuelo was kind enough to read a draft of this post and gave permission to be named and for her story to be included.]
Having returned from two conferences, I'm almost back in the swing of things. Conferencing is challenging. That they were held over my institution's spring break certainly didn't help. But I've had some time to think about the experience of both ATTW 2018 in Kansas City, KS and CCCC 2018 in Kansas City, MO several weeks ago. This is part 1 of my ATTW reflections. Part 2 should be up soon. I'll also have thoughts on CCCC up soon.
The context of both conferences, I think, is worth mentioning. Both for me personally and more broadly. Personally, I've only previously attended both conferences as a grad student. Here, fresh off a completed PhD and a tenure-track appointment--both coming fairly quickly on the heels of one another and the latter, to be honest, a bit unexpectedly quickly--made being at these academic professional conferences a very different experience. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't nervous. I went feeling like a bit of goofy professional debutante trying not to embarrass myself before my scholarly community.
I really shouldn't have been anxious. As an organization, ATTW is growing but still small enough to foster a familial intimacy. And I think it sets itself apart by being a welcoming group. Senior scholars were incredibly generous with their time and insight. I got to sit and chat for nearly an hour with Dr. Huatong Sun who figured prominently in the development of my own research. I was grateful for her willingness to make the time. It confirmed that ATTW will be a scholarly "home" for me in the future.
It was exciting to see presentations from scholars doing excellent work in the field. Drs. Stacy Pigg and Ben Lauren presented on work they are doing to help prepare students to think about narrative and technical writing as they may be called upon to work with organizations intervening in local, entrepreneurial, social justice work and care.
My colleague Dr. Rachel Wolford presented with several of her graduate students, Darin Williams, Terry Smith, and Michelle Cowan. Rachel's work using "story maps" to raise awareness of water sustainability on the Llano Escatado (the enormous plateau in west Texas) was especially engaging. Terry is doing very interesting work with students trying to utilize synchronous chat tools in face-to-face classes. This enables students to engage in ways in ways more comfortable for them. Michelle talked about UX and design issues in industry--the importance of bringing in designers early and testing interfaces frequently to provide solid customer service. Darin talked about the difficulty of serving as a professional risk assessment consultant in differing fields and the role of varying field's standards in trying to help professionals think about risk and danger in their work.
At another session I was also fascinated by work Dr. Sara Read is doing thinking through an issue I am wrestling with--the ethical considerations surrounding using Actor-Network Theory (of a Latourian bent, especially) to study socio-technical networks. Her work studying super computers and the way in which those responsible for it communicate its value, given an increasingly fiscally austere political environment was very thought-provoking.
Drake Gossi talked about his very interesting work helping youth in a detention center "assemble" an author in a very fraught physical and social environment as they try to learn and use literature to engage the world.
Dr. Lily Campbell's work using ANT and genre to study cultural issues in medical training environments was fascinating and I look forward to seeing where her research takes her.
I missed a couple of presentations that I regret not being at (Dr. Godwin Agboka's and Dr. Kari Campeau's presentations especially). But so it goes...
I tried to live tweet a number of sessions. This practice is very interesting to me. It's a good way, I think, to help people who couldn't be at some sessions still get a sense of what's going on at other panels. It is an exhausting, exceptionally challenging composition practice, one I need to hone a bit. But also a fun exercise that kept me engaged with presenters.
I also had the chance to present my own research, the first time I've gotten to publicly talk about actual data I collected (as opposed to futzing with theory as I waited for my proposal to be approved or research site to be finalized). I was able to sit on a panel with several very smart graduate students Sidouane Patcha Lum, Eduardo Nevarez, and Keshab Acharya. Two of them (Sidouane and Eduardo) are from my alma mater, UTEP. It was fun to see the work they all are doing and the challenging thoughts they are thinking about technical communication and educating the next generation of technical communicators.
I will have some other thoughts on the larger context of ATTW's location and questions that both suffused the panels (especially the plenary panel) and my own experience. It was markedly distinct from CCCC in ways I certainly need to wrestle with. But I'll come back to that later.
Conferencing continues. I'll hopefully have reflections up re: ATTW 2018 soon. But there is no rest for the wicked and the righteous don't need it as my grandmother would say, so I'm in the middle of CCCC 2018. Day one had a great set of sessions, lots of thought provoking moments both from session leaders and session attendees. But also, reflecting on the material conditions of the conference itself has challenged me in a variety of ways. I hope to have those reflections up soon as well.
I'm presenting today at 2:00pm (I.36--note, if you're at the conference, it's back up at the Marriott, not the convention center). If you don't want to make the hike back up the hill or find yourself bonking out late into conference day 2, I'm linking to my presentation text and PowerPoint here:
As with my ATTW presentation, I've attempted to render the .docx file accessible, but I'm still learning how to render PowerPoints accessible. Both PowerPoints will need extensive alt text for figures and animations. I hope to have that improved and up soon.
After an epic (EPIC!) sprint through DFW (Gate B9 to C19 for those of you who know the airport), I made my connecting flight and successfully arrived in Kansas City, KS for ATTW 2018!
I am excited to be presenting during Session B (B6, Tuesday at 2pm in the Quindaro room for those attending). Below are links to my presentation text and slideshow. If you have any issues or want to contact me about the presentation, feel free to email me at email@example.com.
I look forward to seeing you at the conference!
Beau Pihlaja ATTW 2018 Presentation Text (Word.docx)
Beau Pihlaja ATTW 2018 Presentation*
(*Apologies, but the PowerPoint here is not yet optimized for accessibility. I hope to have a link to the the document with alt text, etc. soon.)
Fighting on Facebook ruined my life.
There's been a lot of buzz on the internets--in the email digests I find in my inbox, in offline conversations, and of course most ironically on my social media feeds--about how bad social media is for discourse, for us socially or psychologically.
These stories express a variety of concerns but most have to do with the way the apps we use most frequently in some way "change our brains." These concerns are expressed with a varied degree of sophistication. The Economist recently made the connection between neuroscience and the "addictiveness" of social media. Some of the anxiety has centered on the specific impact of smartphones' and social media's impact on teenage neurological and social development. Dr. Jean Twenge's article in the Atlantic last fall about this very issue is emblematic of the worry about a developing "mental health crisis" among "today's" teens.
But there are also shorter pieces that have circulated as well, more "clickbaity" type articles like the one I received in an email newsletter this week and that finally prompted me to write this particular post. In "You Should Never, Ever Argue With Anyone on Facebook, According to Science," Minda Zetlin draws attention to the fact that "New research shows how we interact makes a huge difference." Zetlin summarizes the results of a "new experiment by UC Berkeley and University of Chicago researchers." 300 participants who listened or watched arguments they disagreed with had "a distinct difference" in reaction from those who read the same as text. The willingness to "dismiss the speaker as uniformed or heartless" diminished if you listened or watched versus read what they said.
Zetlin quotes one researcher who said the experiment was inspired by one of the team having the experience of reading a speech excerpt that was printed in a newspaper from a politician with whom he strongly disagreed." By contrast: "The next week, he heard the exact same speech clip playing on a radio station. He was shocked by how different his reaction was toward the politician when he read the excerpt compared to when he heard it."
Zetlin's conclusion is that we are "using the wrong medium" to argue and should instead visit with one another to air our disagreements, talk over the phone, or watch videos about issues instead of just reading the text.
Zetlin has zeroed in on the fact that social media's mode of interaction is hamstrung by the fact it happens via text. In one respect there is a distance between a person's written and spoken words. As a rhetorician I am aware that pathos, emotive appeal of an argument, is a crucial part of connecting with our audience. As a specialist I am interested in how digitally mediated communication impacts intercultural interactions specifically. I am aware of how easy it is to reduce someone and their arguments to a stereotype when "distanced" from them through technology.
At the same time, this argument does not take in to account the potentially negative use of one's embodied presence to persuade. All respect to brother Godwin, but if you replaced "a politician with whom he strongly disagreed" with "Hitler" in the example above, the problem becomes immediately obvious. If one IS persuaded by someone in person, perhaps seeing their words separate from their embodied connection building is a positive, providing insight easily deflected in person. The one is not necessarily "better" or "more real" than the other.
To the narrow question of whether one should argue online or not, a not insubstantial percentage (by no means all) of people I've noted expressing frustration, are people with authority of some kind who sense that they've lost control of ideas, thoughts, and words, when they go online. Which, to be clear, they have. But it is precisely this distance that has the potential to productively challenge our thoughts, ideas, and arguments. It also allows people without power the space to say what cannot be said in the immediate presence of the powerful.
That arguments have to be typed on social media and in some cases limit the amount you can reasonably say, requires you to externalize and edit your thoughts BEFORE you actually "send" them--something that cannot be done in person. Social media is often castigated for requiring very little of people to respond. But even if you're firing something off--you still have to "say it outloud" before you send it.
People's physical presence is a game changer. And in one respect the advice that one think something like "is this something you would say to the person if they were in front of you" before you hit "send" or "reply" is good advice. But there's a subtle sanctimoniousness here that erases the role of power in relationships. In person strong authoritarian or even just charismatic personalities rely precisely on the dynamic created by physical presence to keep people from responding or to go along with them in ways they otherwise wouldn't. And in my own experience, this has been a very bad thing.
Social media, especially Twitter, has proven very detrimental for people of color, women, people who are neuro-atypical, introverted personality types, etc. But it has also been a place for engagement where people who have been shut down in person, in the public, embodied spaces idealized by Zetlin, Twenge, and (whoever it is that writes for) The Economist. In fact, to the extent those social media spaces have been bad for oppressed and marginalized groups, it is precisely because they reinscribe the same dynamics those people experience "in person" in the intimate space of their phone or mobile device.
Regardless, putting arguments in written actually affords a certain distance on those arguments that has the potential to be beneficial. Set within the background network of information access that allows us to double check claims, weigh counter arguments, this can be very good. That we tend not to do this is not social media's fault.
We may not be very good at arguing online. I wasn't necessarily. But it allowed me to express a side of me that remained repressed in a negative way that physical presence had actually nurtured. It also allowed me to get distance on arguments from people who, in person, seemed like such genuine, nice people and indeed were. But in the stark light of textualization, a cold truth about elements of their argument cast their in-person arguments not as something worthy to share, but as condescending, irrational, fearful, and cruel. Their embodied presence made this difficult to see.
These arguments destroyed relationships--deep, long-term relationships. As I said, it "ruined" my life. My life as I knew it before 2012 or so simply does not exist anymore and could not exist again. But in the distance created by the medium I was able to see many were not relationships that should be maintained, built on arguments I should not embrace. I do not want that life back.
We are very much in the infancy of digitally mediated argumentation. I think we need to be very careful with and critical of the technologies we use. Kids and teens especially will need to develop not necessarily "outside" of technology, but as critical participants--able to get distance on the tools themselves. [And, while I appreciate Dr. Twenge's concern for teens and their phones, Baby Boomers recently elected an impulsive, lonely, phone user from their own cohort, whose embodied relational presence has not made things better for a lot of people...]
The point is: critical engagement is something entirely different than "never, ever" doing a thing. Don't argue online if you don't like it or aren't any good at it. I don't really anymore. But don't discourage people for engaging in ways they may not be able to in the way you think they ought. And certainly don't deploy a single study as "Science" in defense of that argument.
Small Postscript: Seriously. Y'all. One study (even of 300 people from UC Berkeley/U. of Chicago!) does not constitute "Science." It is a data point. One that absolutely needs to be taken into consideration. But please, I understand we are all desperately casting about for credible foundations for our arguments and trying to get them past the noise, but you help neither yourself or "Science" by wielding it like a club (a club you can't even be bothered to provide a link to...)
Beau Pihlaja, PhD
Exploring our global connections.