Last Friday and Saturday (April 25 & 26, 2014), University of Notre Dame (and Mary Celeste Kearney and Michael Kackman, more specifically) hosted the Craft of Criticism conference. It was fantastic, and a bold new idea for how to structure a conference “back to front.” Read on and I’ll tell you what I mean by that phrase.
Kearney and Kackman are editing a collection for Routledge with the same title, and with the aim of updating and expanding considerably upon Robert Allen’s famed Channels of Discourse books. Each chapter will take a different approach to the study of media, explaining its intellectual roots, and showing how to use it. My chapter, for instance, focuses on “Inter- and Para-textuality,” while others examine celebrities and stars, ideology, genre, sound, historiography, ethnography, and so forth. And so Kearney and Kackman hosted a conference, inviting each chapter’s author (or, rather, those who were able to attend) to discuss their topic, challenges they face in writing the chapter, concerns about parameters, key issues, and ideas for case studies and examples. Each participant got about 20 minutes to present, followed by an additional 20 minutes for questions and discussion from the room. In addition to the 25 or so presenters, some faculty, grad students, and undergrads from Notre Dame attended, and they contributed significantly to discussion.
I call it “back to front” and by that I mean that instead of making research, the presentation of new material, and the reporting of findings and conclusions the opening premise, it required that everyone’s opening premise be pedagogic and generative – “how do we teach our topic?” and “where do we start?” were key questions. As most readers know, conference attendance is regularly funded on the grounds that it contributes to faculty’s research profiles: indeed, many of us can only get reimbursement from our home institutions if we are presenting a research paper. Sometimes, poster sessions, workshops, and other activities don’t even count. Thus, if pedagogic gains are made at a conference, or if we stop to discuss how research begins, this must simply happen on the side, and the structure is per force all about the presentation of finished research or research being conducted. By contrast, the Craft of Criticism was structured around how to teach and how to start the exploratory process (and generously paid for all presenters’ attendance, thereby skirting the issue of institutional reimbursement).
This proved a transformational move. All of a sudden, the discussion could turn to the intricacies of how one communicates complex issues in the classroom … and once there, discussion could stay there. All chapters are meant to use one of the author’s published pieces as a case study, but instead of inviting us to rehash what we were doing with those pieces, the conference now asked us to discuss how to teach them and how to discuss their blindspots. As the conference progressed, therefore, I amassed great tips and best practices from the pros. As an audience member, I loved this and benefited from it immensely, and as a presenter, it was so very refreshing to be presenting on issues I’ve presented many times before, yet now looking though the lens of what to do with them in the classroom.
In many ways, this was an utter rarity, therefore: a teacher’s conference. And yet in many ways it energized my research agenda too. There’s this thing that can happen after tenure when one wonders why one is getting up in the morning. It should be easy to motivate oneself as a grad student and junior faculty member, as fear of not getting a job or fear of not getting tenure once one (hopefully) gets a job often provide all the energy (and angst) that one needs. After tenure, I finally had the luxury of sitting back and asking what I was doing and why it matters. And while I’m sure that some people find answers and energy at large, research-led conferences, I often find the sessions rather dull: I’d rather read a paper than hear it read, and still too many papers dive too deep into the specifics without allowing enough time to answer why any of it matters. When we talk about teaching, though, we should always be talking about why it matters. Indeed, if some of us anguish over failed classroom assignments or badly written student papers, and rejoice in the ones that get it right, that’s perhaps because we know that a lot of what we do as academics boils down to the concentrate of what we can communicate in the classroom, what we can motivate others to think about. A conference that was focused on those issues, ironically, led more naturally (for me) to thoughts about what I want to research next, what projects matter, how to engage in them, and so forth, than conferences focused around research. Which has me wondering whether we’re writing with the wrong hand at conferences, and whether there might be a better (or at least another) way to do it all, a way that Craft of Criticism alluringly offered.
Many thanks, therefore, to Mary and Michael, to Notre Dame, to all my fellow presenters (Cynthia Baron, Ron Becker, Mary Beltrán, Patrick Burkart, Cynthia Chris, Norma Coates, Eric Freedman, Mary Gray, Timothy Havens, Heather Hendershot, Matt Hills, Nina Huntemann, Victoria Johnson, Bill Kirkpatrick, Suzanne Leonard, Todd McGowan, Dan Marcus, Jason Mittell, Diane Negra, Matt Payne, Gregory Smith, and Jacob Smith), and to the attendees who asked such thoughtful questions.