4Cs just not that into you?
Late July is awfully early for CCCC notifications, but the Facebook and the Twitter were all abuzz tonight with news of whether or not our annual conference hit the Like button on our various proposals. Since I ended up doing a blog entry’s worth of writing in people’s FB comments as a result, I thought I’d collect my thoughts here. 4Cs might actually make a good theme for an upcoming Random Access Monday–there was a time when I was pretty shrill about what was wrong with the conference, even when I was in the middle of a long streak of acceptances.
The good news is that I’m no longer quite so shrill about it; the bad news is that the conference hasn’t really gotten any righter in the interim. CCCC ’13 will be the 4th or 5th in a row that I won’t be attending, after a 1992 debut, and a streak of 10 accepts in a row in there. While I didn’t get accepted this year, my record is still pretty solid, but it’s gotten harder and harder for me to get motivated to submit, much less attend. Health precluded me from attending once, and I didn’t submit for a few years after that, although I was a Stage I reviewer a couple of years, and an official proposal coach for a while as well.
I don’t claim to being a historian of the conference, although some of my first experiments with text mining were conducted on 4Cs program abstracts, and I have a broader interest in the structures and processes of disciplinarity. So you should probably take what I say with a grain of salt and understand that my take on this is a fairly anecdotal one. It’s a little amazing to me that I attended my first CCCC more than 20 years ago, and honestly, given my introversion, a little surprising that I’ve been to as many as I have. There was a time, though, when I thought a lot about the conference, and some of my work on networks has as one of its origin stories a paper I delivered in 02 (iirc) about how we misunderstand the conference program.
Anyhow, my take is that a broad range of factors combines to result in a conference that ultimately appeals to certain members of the field and far less so to others, and I find myself in the latter group. When the conference began, and for a long time after that, it represented an oasis for a small, dispersed community, many of whom found themselves the only person in their department interested in the teaching of writing. It was small enough, even as the field grew, to be organized and programmed by a single person, a senior scholar who could reliably make judgments about the quality of proposals across the field. As the field continued to grow, though, in terms of journals, graduate programs, and specializations, certain changes were made to the structure of the conference (multi-stage review, blind review, single submission, topic areas) designed to make the process more manageable. There are other factors that I can’t speak to (the incredible lag time between proposal and conference, e.g.), but they’ve contributed to this as well. There are some ways that the conference is still modeled on the idea that rhetoric and composition is a single, coherent community–the idea of a single chair, a conference theme, etc. There are also still significant portions of the process, to my mind, that presume particular technologies as well.
The conference is finite in the amount of space it can give to presenters, and as the field has grown and the number of proposals has risen, the selectivity of the conference has gone up, not in the conscious sense of “we need to be more selective” but rather the pragmatic sense of “we can’t fit any more sardines into the can.” Having just presented at a conference that spread over four days the number of presentations that appear in a single CCCC concurrent session, I can tell you which I prefer. But there’s also been a push in recent years to be more inclusive. First time attendees, whether they receive special treatment or not during the proposal process, are asked to indicate that status as part of their proposals. In the conscious sense, inclusion is a worthy goal; in the pragmatic sense, though, it’s an illusion. If you’re limited in the number of proposals you can accept by practical constraints, then one conference can’t really be more inclusive than another. Unless. Unless inclusion is a value that gets transmitted to the reviewers, who then allow it to guide their decisions, and assume that the broader the possible audience for a proposal, the more appropriate that proposal is for the conference.
The bigger that potential audience gets, the more implicit pressure there is on the reviewers to pass along panels with a broader appeal. If you’re reading a number of proposals on technology, for example, it may make more sense to you as a reviewer to choose those panels that the other 95% of the people at the conference will be able to follow and/or be interested in. And there’s nothing wrong with this per se. Programming a conference of this size means making choices, and I think there’s value in the idealism of believing that every panel should be intellectually accessible to first-year graduate students and full professors alike.
What is sacrificed in such an approach, however, is a certain sense of progress. If you go to the panels in a particular area for a few years in a row, and feel as though the panels at this year’s conference could have easily appeared 5 years ago, that can be a little frustrating. And without continuity among the people who make the decisions about the proposals, there’s no way to control for this. There are certainly always exceptions, but they tend to be few and far between. Again, this is not a bad thing. But it leads to a conference that is more appropriately thought of as an introduction to the field than one for experts in the field. And it wouldn’t be as much of an issue if we didn’t self-present the conference as “selective” in the conscious sense. But we do. And we still treat the Conference Program, to a certain extent, as the “yearbook” or “best of” when it’s not, really. Speaking purely for myself, I can say that the best of my work that I’ve presented at 4Cs tends to be whatever portion of it I can translate to a general disciplinary audience, and yes, sometimes, the less-than-stellar conference themes. When I’ve gone ahead and tried to do what I think of as more “advanced” work, those have been the times when I’ve gotten rejected.
The thing about it is that it’s not something that has be either/or, but the way that we’ve structured it forces that choice. There are implications to rules about single submission, 100% general blind review, with a dash of conference chair latitude. And that’s okay. According to a particular definition of fairness, we have a scrupulously fair process for our conference.
All of which, to be honest, is cool by me. But if you were to ask me what my relationship to CCCC is, I would tell you that it’s a conference where only rarely are there panels that interest me and only rarely am I able to present the work that really energizes me. And as a result, even though I enjoy the time I spend there with my friends, it’s not really a conference that represents me in any meaningful way. Insofar as they can only accept a dwindling percentage of proposals in a given year, I have no issue at all with that. Insofar as we still think of it as the flagship conference in our profession, I think we’re deluding ourselves a bit, though. It caters really well to the field’s newcomers and to the featured session superstars, but as I’m no longer the former, and highly unlikely ever to be the latter, I haven’t spent a lot of time over the past few years regretting the fact that I haven’t been. And I’ve probably spent more time tonight thinking about it than I’m likely to spend over the 8 months leading up to it.