Blog Post

What I Learned about Conversation from a Writing Conference

My original, better-formatted post can be found here:

Contents: (hit ctrl+f then enter the code to go to a specific section. Blogger doesn't handle anchors well.)

SE1 Intro to Writing across the Peninsula conference
SE2 Keynote Speaker
SE3Ethics, Stakeholder Theory, and Rhetorical Savvy in the Professional Writing Classand Little Histories: Enhancing Confidence by Establishing Personal Roots
SE4Collaboration and Meaningful Discourse in the Writing Classroom
SE5From Feedback to Revision: Reseeing Written Response to Students’ Texts
SE6From Textbook to Facebook, From Essaying to Texting: Challenges of Teaching Writing in the Digital Ageand Embracing Interactive Writing Pedagogy: Writing and Research Beyond the Textbook
SE7 The Post-Conference Chat/ How to Improve Your Department
On Friday, I arose at 5:30 AM from my “slumber” that never quite came. My brain had been waiting for the last drop of sleep to release from the bottom of the metaphoric plastic cup all night. By 6:10, I was dressed and headed into the frigid silence of Houghton’s suffocatingly dark morning with a fellow undergraduate. Her wet, black hair was gradually freezing as she tried not to sprain an ankle on McNair hill in her heeled leather boots. As we walked, we discussed the flaws in “cold as X” similes, futilely trying to keep our minds off the temperature and the time… not that we were capable of thinking about much else at that hour anyway. We were on our way to meet others who were heading to the Writing across the Peninsula conference in Marquette, MI.
Map of Michigan by Todd VerBeek.
The Writing across the Peninsula conference is a regional conference attended mostly by individuals from schools primarily located in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. This is the second time I’ve been to this conference, and it was slightly larger this year with around 150 people in attendance. Unlike some other conferences, the WAP conference encourages high school teachers, college undergrads, community college instructors, graduate students, and university faculty to participate in discussion about writing (technical, creative, etc.).
Arriving just in time to check-in and grab an MTU sponsored donut, Jackie, Felicia and Kevin (both grad students in Tech’s RTC program we rode over with), and I sat down at a table. We barely had enough time to notice that we all chose the same type of donut before the keynote speaker began presenting.
SE2Dr. John Ruszkiewicz from U of Texas at Austin presented Revising the Teacher, the Writing Conference, Again as the keynote speech. His speech was based on pieces by Murray and Learner about using writing conferences with students rather than written feedback. Ruszkiewicz, however, used conferencing in addition to a writing center, rather than as a replacement.
To summarize Ruszkiewicz’s talk: 
  • Meeting face-to-face with students and providing feedback in real time was more efficient* and enjoyable than writing on students’ papers in his experience. He saved time and enjoyed his job more.
  • He had students do peer reviews in class on papers before they met with him. He started meetings by asking, “Who was your editor and what did they say?”
  • This approach essentially counters the problem Socrates pointed out with text: you can’t ask the author questions and expect an answer if they aren’t around.
  • Students enjoyed the meetings. They felt more connected with Ruszkiewicz, saw that someone was actually reading their papers, and engaged their topics because he emphasized that students were writing their ideas. Personally, I like meeting with faculty to discuss papers way more than reading comments.
  • Conferencing isn’t for everyone. It probably won’t work for people teaching more than 40 students, and Ruszkiewicz noted that instructors must be comfortable giving feedback on the fly the first time they read through a paper.
*Ruszkiewicz calculated that given an average class size of around 20 students, and requiring students to discuss two papers, he would spend about 40 hours per class per semester meeting with students in half-hour sessions. He also scheduled sessions sequentially when possible to avoid distraction. This meant using a strict 30-minute timer, but students didn’t mind.
SE3MTU’s own Kevin Cassell and Daniel Lawrence, presenting Ethics, Stakeholder Theory, and Rhetorical Savvy in the Professional Writing Class and Little Histories: Enhancing Confidence by Establishing Personal Roots.
Kevin discussed an assignment that asked students to respond to a hypothetical business scenario in which they were faced with an ethical dilemma and needed to create a written response. Honestly, I don’t enjoy assignments that involve case study responses or hypothetical scenarios as a student, so I wasn’t sure what I might gain from Kevin’s presentation as a prospective teacher. However, I did like Kevin’s philosophy that an initial lack of an evaluation method shouldn’t prevent teachers from trying new assignments. The trick is maintaining students’ trust by having at least a semi-coherent rubric when introducing the assignment.
Daniel argued that having students share personal histories, identities, “roots,” etc. allows for more open conversations that facilitate “little epiphanies.” During Q&A, this idea was tied back to Kevin’s presentation too. Students bring their personal experiences to ethical dilemmas and arguments, so exploring such experiences and finding out about other people can be a good way of moving beyond one’s own experiences. I think this would definitely be a good way of connecting with other students. Swapping personal statements and talking about histories has connected me with several students I might not have spent as much time talking with otherwise.
SE4Amber Kinonen from Bay College present Collaboration and Meaningful Discourse in the Writing Classroom.
Amber had participants walk through a condensed version of a class assignment in which we analyzed Charles Bukowski’s The History of One Tough Motherfucker, responded via Likert scale to questions about the piece that we agreed or disagreed with, then provided an explanation for our opinion. We then grouped into fours and discussed our responses until coming to a mutual agreement about whether we strongly agreed/disagreed, or just agreed/disagreed. Then, those groups moved to four corners of the room based on whether we agreed/disagreed with a statement. Finally, groups shared their justifications for why we agreed/disagreed.
Personally, I felt the activity would be better suited to high school students than college students. I remember doing a similar activity in high school English and hating it then too, though I loathed every activity in high school English class. This particular teaching method may encourage more students to participate in discussion than other methods, but I found myself contributing less to discussion during the activity than I would during a “regular” class discussion. It felt forced. She spoke very highly of it though, and other participants seemed excited about its potential. Amber’s presentation did lead to a thought that I used in a statement of purpose for graduate applications too, so I guess that made it worthwhile attending for me.
SE5From Feedback to Revision: Reseeing Written Response to Students’ Texts, presented by Lori Rogers and MaryAnn Crawford from Central Michigan University.
I ran into Jackie at this session, and we agree that this was by far the best panel of the day. It stands out among other conference presentations I’ve been to as well. The session was interesting because it took the best part of presentations, the Q&A/discussion, and made that the center of attention.
The “speakers” handed out a few sheets of paper with questions and then asked audience members for their thoughts, e.g. “When composing, what resources do you usually consult first?” This process repeated several times. Refreshingly, Jackie and I were very actively and comfortably involved in the conversation because we could provide a student perspective on what professors were saying and asking about writing practices. I can’t say I learned a lot about writing and revision practices specifically though. But, it was an enjoyable experience discussing ideas with professors, grad students, and other undergrads while not feeling like the only person without a PhD contributing to the conversation.
Finally, Jackie and I both attended SE6 From Textbook to Facebook, From Essaying to Texting: Challenges of Teaching Writing in the Digital Age by Ildiko Melis from Bay Mills CC, and Embracing Interactive Writing Pedagogy: Writing and Research Beyond the Textbook by Kimberly Miller from Case Western Reserve University.
I saw a red flag in one of the titles, but I had talked with both presenters over lunch and thought their session might be interesting. However, I think I learned more talking with them during lunch than during the session. It was interesting to hear about the challenges associated with teaching at a tribal community college in the first presentation, and that Smartboards are frustrating professors far beyond MTU in the latter though. Seriously, Smartboards are useless without training faculty and creating reference texts/tutorials, not to mention proper configuration and calibration.
SE7 The Post-Conference Chat/How to Improve Your Department
We explored Marquette before leaving.
Overall, the conference was a good “break” from classes and the stress of wondering how I’ll fit the necessary work into my days. Being immersed in rooms full of women was a needed break too, compared to the infamous 18:1 3:1 male-to-female ratio at Michigan Tech. It was a new experience going with another undergrad as well, especially since Jackie had never been to an academic conference before. I had fun watching her learn some of the same things I did along the way, and making a few of the same mistakes ;) Surprisingly though, I feel like I learned more from the conversation on the car ride back, and had a lot of fun on the road too.
Almost non-stop, Jackie and I told stories to Kevin and Felicia about life as undergrads in the STC program. Just as constant were our questions to them about grad student life in the RTC program, their questions to us about what we actually do in class, and the four-way laughter at our mutual frustrations. I think we may have even discussed one conference session. Through our discussion, we eventually concluded that (ironically for a communication program) no functional communication network exists between grad students, undergrads, faculty, and administration, and that is a major problem. Equally problematic is the lack of accountability at all levels when communication does occur, primarily because of a FUBARed tenure/evaluation system that extends far beyond Michigan Technological University.
We even worked toward a few potential solutions, though the solutions discussed could use further input during Beer Rhetorics. Honestly, that’s exactly why I started Keweenaw Beer Rhetorics: communication. Communication between groups that don’t normally converse or even acknowledge that the others exist. Communication that happens outside the conference, the classroom, and the committee meeting. Communi-cation to promote communi-ty.
And don’t get me wrong, I love Tech’s STC program and the community here. It’s clear when I go to conferences why Tech’s tuition is so high, and why our faculty and students are well respected. But it’s appalling to think that could change because nobody bothered to sit down and talk with each other a little more.
Administrators, everyone “below” you is a user. Involve them in the design process. Faculty, everyone “below” you is a user. Involve them in the design process. Grad students, your students are your users. Involve them in the design process. Undergrads, we’re users, and sometimes that means we have to invest ourselves in the design process for ourselves to show that we have something to contribute. We (students) have to do more than simply fill out “strongly agree” on every bubble of evaluation sheets and leave a comment or two once per semester. We can’t just complain either. We (in the Humanities here at Tech) teach and learn user-centered design like it’s the Golden Rule and tell students to take a more active role than “scribe.” We have Bob Johnson for crying out loud, we can do better at this.
But don’t simply complain or critique. Seek answers. Actively ask questions. We also need to ask ourselves questions such as, “Who is our department head? What does he or she do? When and where can I speak with him or her?” What have I done to improve that class I hated taking? When was the last time I asked a student why he or she hated my class? Why do we have this class and who is teaching it? Don’t grad students, faculty, and administrators like pizza and beer (root or otherwise) at the KBC too? Clearly, we enjoy talking with each other given the opportunity. What’s my excuse for not being part of the conversation?
More importantly, don’t stop when you have an answer. Find a solution and do what you can to solve whatever problem you find. Take some action. More talk, more doing, more better (abbreviated MMM, as in “MMM… Beer Rhetorics… 6 PM in the KBC on Wednesdays…”).
As I reflect on the entire day, it seems that engaging conversation was the real theme of this writing conference. Actually, I didn’t learn a single thing about writing practice. The keynote speaker encouraged teachers to put down the pens and paper and pick up a conversation with their students. The second session encouraged sharing “little histories” and stories. The third promoted a way of involving more students in class discussion. The fourth panel was a discussion, and the fifth sparked an additional hour of conversation between Jackie and me after we returned to campus. Ironic, perhaps, that I learned so much about conversation considering the conference’s title. Or maybe it says something about the nature of what teachers really do, and communication more broadly. What do you think?

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