This week is our flagship national convention, the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC). After having attended CCCC for many, many years in a row, I find myself once more forgoing the experience. This year, I’m spending my travel money on a couple of summer conferences (RSA and KBS), and between those and my upcoming talks at LSU and Wisconsin, that’s more than enough public speaking for me for the year.

But as rhetopians and complandians across the nation converge on Indianapolis this week, one of the things that I chatted a bit about in class last night was the role that the flagship conference plays in our field these days. I’ve thought a little about this in various places, but as the field of Rhetoric and Composition has grown (and shifted towards what I think of now as Writing Studies), one thing that hasn’t changed a whole lot is CCCC. I might even project that comment beyond the discipline to suggest that the idea of the flagship conference hasn’t changed a whole lot, but I can’t really say whether that’s correct. For the moment, I thought I’d explain a little of what I mean by this.

I’m sure that, with a little extra nuance, we could subdivide these further, but in my mind, there are at least three network models that correspond to changes in the field, with implications for how we think of the flagship conference:

centralized, decentralized, distributed

3 network models of disciplinarity

Wave 1: In the early days of the field, before there was much in terms either of graduate programs or even publication venues, I think a conference like CCCC served the very obvious function of centralization or aggregation. Folks with an interest in the teaching of writing were few and far between in most English departments. Not that there wasn’t plenty of writing instruction happening, but there weren’t nearly as many people taking rhetoric, writing, and teaching as research topics, nor were there likely large numbers of conversations about these happening. This is a very sketchy (and evidence-free!) history I’m offering here, but I think it fairly safe to say that most academic disciplines emerge this way, and flagship conferences, organizations, and journals play an important role in establishing them as discrete areas of inquiry. The conference plays an important role in establishing continuity and community, a social core of practitioners around which the discipline eventually forms.

Wave 2: As a discipline matures, that aggregative function of the conference remains, but it shifts somewhat. Graduate programs are only a portion of the story, but the “center” of the discipline begins to distribute among them. If I wanted to study this, I might look at the archive of conference programs, and look at the number of panels that consisted entirely of presenters from the same institution. I’d argue that, during the first wave, that number would be close to zero, because most places wouldn’t have “clusters” of people in the discipline yet. At a certain point, though, as RhetComp becomes a viable area of study, degree concentration, and eventually its own degree, the number of panels composed of folks from a single institution would rise. The conference, rather than aggregating geographically-dispersed individuals, brings “programs” together. When I first started attending CCCC, this was very much the case. My tongue-in-cheek way of characterizing it is that we hunted in packs. You could walk into the hotel bar, and see a social map that looked a lot like the second network above: clusters of people all from the same program gathered around their respective table or two.

CCCC was not the only site for disciplinary conversation during this wave. There were more journals, and the steep climb in masters and doctoral programs meant that conversations were happening across the country. Those conversations were not “evenly” distributed, though, and like I said, graduate programs only represent a certain portion of the organization. There were (and are) still plenty of people being hired as “the one RhetComp person” in an English department, and for someone in that position, a flagship conference still serves that centralizing function.

For those who are part of the clusters represented by graduate programs, a flagship conference helps to combat the insularity that can sometimes happen as a result. Members of the same program may develop strong ties amongst themselves—spending several years with the same, small group of people will have that effect—but the conference provides an important opportunity to venture outside of that small group, to see what conversations are happening elsewhere, to learn that yours are not the only ways of doing things. This is much of what’s meant by networking. A conference is an opportunity to see the field as broader than one’s own immediate horizon. I think of this as the development of weak ties as a complement to the strong ties (of mentorship, colleagues, etc.) that one develops as part of a graduate program.

Wave 3, then, for me begins with discussion forums and email distribution lists, but it becomes much more active and intense with the current wave of social media. I think we’re already seeing this at conferences like CCCC, where individual programs are much less centers of social gravity than they used to be. When we can have conversations with and get to know our far-flung colleagues over Facebook and Twitter, a flagship conference no longer plays that primary social role. There are lots of opportunities now for even the most isolated members of our field to interact with others who share their interests on a daily basis, via listservs, blogs, social media, etc.

(My guess, btw, is that the number of panels composed entirely of presenters from a single institution would drop a bit, although not quite disappear. Social media makes (or will make) it easier to find a 3rd person to fill out a panel topically.)

The question that comes up for me, time and again, is what role does or should a flagship conference play when the intellectual life of a discipline is as distributed as ours now is (and I can only assume that parallel developments are playing out across the academy). The pace of the conference process (requiring submissions almost a year prior to the conference itself) feels positively glacial, and conferences are no longer the privileged point of access to one’s disciplinary audience that they used to be. For me, this raises questions that I can’t really answer yet. I think it’s generational to a degree—we could legitimately argue that CCCC at least is more of a Wave 2.5 conference right now. There are plenty of people in the discipline who don’t avail themselves of social media much, and the conference itself is still working from that older model where workshops, special interest groups, and the like happen at the margins. The “typical” CCCC encounter remains the 3-4 person panel of presentations delivered to an audience.

I do believe that this is slowly changing, with genres like poster sessions, subconferences (like ATTW), and even roundtables grounded in edited collections and online projects. But as current generations of scholars mature into the field, my guess is that the conference will need to change faster. The traditional rationale for what the flagship conference does for a discipline (and its implicit justifications for institutional travel budgets) is becoming, if not obsolete, at least a little more debatable. I don’t think that social media can substitute for all of the things that a conference can do, but I do think that conferences will have to account more explicitly for social media, sooner rather than later.