puget sound conference

Music: Elk City: New Believers (2007)

I returned from Vancouver late last evening with a bag full of dirty clothes and a little zip-lock full of Cuban cigars. The latter makes me giddy, the former makes me lazy.

There’s a lot to report about my whole trip, my new dream to have a summer home in Vancouver (fat chance—as if a teacher ever makes that much money), my beloved hosts, eating cod under a blue-blue sky, and my attraction to married people. I also have a ton of work waiting for me (I’m looking at a huge stack of papers to grade), so I’ll just report at the moment on the conference in Tacoma.

The National Communication Association Conference on Teaching Rhetorical Criticism and Critical Inquiry met on the drop-dead gorgeous campus of the University of Puget Sound last Thursday evening through Sunday afternoon. (I had trouble getting to campus Thursday, so my conference started Friday morning). The conference was creatively broken into three kinds of “panels”: on Friday and Saturday there were plenary sessions in the big rotunda to which everyone came, as well as concurrent sessions between the plenaries that allowed you to choose (for example, you could go to a concurrent session on “teaching rhetorical criticism in liberal arts settings” or “teaching rhetorical criticism at the research university,” and so on). On Sunday there were shorter “Great Ideas for Teaching” sessions that offered exercises and teaching tips. Frankly, I thought this format was marvelous: it was varied enough that you got to move around and didn’t get bored. I really appreciated the back-and-forth between larger and smaller sessions, too. If the conference were done again, I very much would recommend the format.

Like any conference, there were a number of good presentations, as well as a number of yawners—but, again, this variety provided for everyone to get something out of the conference. For example, because I teach large lecture courses, the presentations for smaller classes started to get difficult to listen to (because of personal relevance), however, I know these sessions were of most interest to those in similar situations.

I also liked the idea of the plenaries exploring larger, more philosophical topics. Of course, owing to personal bias, I thought Chris Lundberg’s presentation on psychoanalysis and rhetoric was the stand-out paper of the weekend: it was smart, funny, kind, and provocative. He argued for a Lacanian approach to rhetoric that would give the subject an “ontological” foundation (is rhetoric a “science” after all?). I won’t rehearse the moves here, as they’ll be in his book when it comes out. His talk was just awesome.

Of course, I also quite enjoyed the panel on “cultural studies” and how this intersects with rhetorical studies. Ron Greene’s was apparently the most provocative talk; he has been arguing for abandoning textualism for over a decade, but apparently this was news for a lot of folks. What he was mostly doing was redescribing the rhetorical situation as articulation/apparatus, but discussion kept going back to the critique of textualism. Nevertheless, it was enjoyable to hear the discussion.

As an aside: I was surprised by the way in which the more theoretical discussions of the weekend collapsed into “either/or” logics or “false dichotomies,” if you prefer. I’m always amazed, in fact, by how some approaches to rhetoric (e.g., psychoanalysis) are seen as an enemy to extant or established approaches, when in fact there is no reason these are mutually exclusive. Ron’s argument critiquing the “text,” for example, wasn’t a call for abandoning it entirely—just widening the field of objects or domain of critical inquiry to “articulation.” I reckon since a lot of us are former debaters, we like our polemic.

And speaking of polemic, Rod Hart’s keynote was another dirty finger stuck into a sore eye. Admittedly, it was funny—even though I was sort of grumpy from his conclusions. After reminding the mostly largely “public address” crowd that he critiqued public address in the 1980s pretty severely, he then argued that rhetorical critical scholarship was still boring and lacked a sense of “wonder.” He argued for pairing up with our social scientist colleagues for more interesting research (e.g., co-authoring with a content analysis person). He cited a few essays that he thought exhibited wonder (among them, Jennifer Mercieca and Andrew Wood’s essays—two friends!). He pointed the finger most pointedly at “critical/cultural studies” for being the most wonderless, rife with difficult jargon and almost always driven by an agenda that finds what it sets-out to see.

To modify what Christine Harold humorously said in her introduction to the panel following Hart’s talk, “I am Josh Gunn, and I am a critical/cultural theorist.”

Well, it was certainly provocative—and a great illustration of the “hasty generalization.” To his credit, Hart opened by saying he was going to be making a series of fallacious arguments. Even so, a number of my buddies unfamiliar with Hart’s oratory kept coming up to me and kvetching about Rod’s speech. I had to keep telling them this is what Rod does—if he sees a hornet’s nest, he’s gonna whack it with a stick. He wants you to argue with him (and props to Rob Asen for doing so in one of the concurrent panels!).

Overall, I found the conference delightful: smart people in a great setting talking about teaching. Unlike other conferences, even during the meals and downtime I found myself talking with others about teaching, evidence that the conference was doing what it set out to do. In Communication Studies, we just don’t talk about teaching as much as we should.

That said, I would also describe this conference as a kind of “productive fumbling.” The biggest problem, seems to me, is that the conference goers are coming at teaching from wildly different contexts and perspectives. For example, one session I went to was about how to grapple with objects of criticism that were not discrete texts, like a social movement. Although discussion in that session was productive, there was a lot of abstraction that made it hard to focus, and varied assumptions about the context of teaching: I am interested in teaching graduate students rhetorical criticism, however, most of the folks in the room had undergraduates in mind. Some of us teach at larger universities with larger class sizes, while others of us have the good fortune to have ten students. The needs and interests of teachers really do vary from person to person, so the solution was to make things “abstract,” and then the discussion gets so vague it floats in the air. I think in the future the concurrent sessions need to be even more narrowly targeted, identifying at the outset what kind of teaching context will be addressed.

This is something that could not have been addressed ahead of the conference, simply because we’ve not done a teaching conference before!

There’s so much more to say, but I really got to get to grading. Just a couple of things: first, Karlyn Kohrs Campbell spoke, and I realized that I am my mentor’s student. I mean, I already knew this (John Murphy pointed out to me just how close I am to Karlyn’s teaching during my visit at Illinois a couple of years ago). Damn, though, I am a Campbellite down to the core. It was amusing to talk to so many of Karlyn’s students and to “feel” how much we do things like Karlyn taught us to. Indeed: you teach how you were taught.

Finally, the closing banquet was simply marvelous and a great time. Afterward a huge group of 40-something of us went to a local pub and played pool. And then Chuck Morris kept too many of us up way, way past our bedtime. The man is an endurance machine!

Here’s some photographic evidence of the conference. Yes, I have heavily edited this gallery to protect the guilty!

5 thoughts on “puget sound conference

  1. UPS really is gorgeous–it’s hard to believe. I, too, was surprised as I thought about the conference on the way home–we really didn’t chat that much about graduate education. I’m not sure why–we certainly didn’t plan it that way. One of those instances in which the conversation got going in a direction and didn’t come back, I suppose.

  2. Interesting to hear you’re session of the social movements panel was too abstracted. I was at the second session of it and with participants such as Zarefsky, Goodnight, and Kristy Maddox, it was incredibly grounded and useful from a variety of perspectives.

    Thanks for all the pictures of the weekend, they’re great!

  3. Thanks, Josh, for this narrative. I’ve heard from a number of people that they “wished they were there,” so it’s great for folks to see what we discussed. I agree re: grad education being a bit shorted. FWIW, in the context analysis workshop Leah Ceccarelli talked very explicitly about how she structures her criticism grad seminar (taught on a quarter system, no less!) and I learned a lot from that. She’s really thought it out and has a sense of what can and can’t be accomplished in that setting. Masterful.

  4. Oh, I wished I had been at Leah’s session. I’m quite literally working on my graduate rhetorical criticism syllabus now! (Jon, I bet all the second sessions were better after the first run!)

  5. I’m glad you liked Lundy’s presentation, too. If all Lacan said was all he said, I’m on board; the theory makes a great deal of sense.

    There’s also the bad use of Lacan: when seminar numbers are hastily thrown out and all rhetoric comes back to the mirror stage (believe me, this happened a few times in my classes at Northwestern!).

    I’ll need to push him more on the question I asked afterward, though. I “wonder” what’s at stake for ‘doing’ rhetoric, teaching, practice, and criticism, if we all shared his ontological underpinnings. Would our criticism (or for that matter, our teaching of criticism) change? If we became more “scientific,” as he called it, aware of the sloppy and fragmentary relationship of signifier/signified, would we start looking at the underlying tropological mechanics in every text?

    I’m attracted to the idea of better systematicity, but I also have a gut reaction to always flee from social science into the “embodied” embrace of the humanists. So… what do we gain from leaving behind ontological pluralism?

    Questions to be answered another day…

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