A #cwcon 2013 story

My first computers and writing related lesson was on the drive to the annual Computers and Writing Conference and it was about the agency (or authority or trust) we put in our machines, specifically our cell phones, as if they were reliable people. I was travelling by myself and my only navigation equipment was my iPhone. I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to the route my iPhone had planned for me until I got close to Frostburg, and by the time I did start to pay attention, it was too late.  The “route 1” Apple Maps planned involved about 20 steps for the last 40 miles– turn left down this street, right for 1000 feet down this road that looks more like an alley, left again, etc. This might have been scenic, but just as I started all these crazy turns, thick fog settled in. And I mean scary, white-knuckle driving under the best of circumstances thick fog. I could not see anything beyond the edge of the road– not that there was much to see beyond the edge of the road anyway. It was so bad I was literally driving by iPhone: I propped it up in the cup holder and I glanced between the road and the blue dot and instructions on the screen telling me I needed to turn left in two tenths and then one tenth of a mile… and then I’d actually see the turn. Thank you, iPhone!

Had my iPhone been “smarter” (and frankly had I been smarter and thought more carefully about the route Maps had selected), I wouldn’t have ended up in these back woods in the first place. On the other hand, had I been traveling with another human and had that human been serving as the navigator on these side roads with the previous generation of navigating technologies– a road map– I am pretty sure I/we would have been lost in the fog until it cleared because there is no way we would have been able to spot those turns.  The iPhone got me into that mess, but it also got me out of it.

But back to the topic at hand, the annual Computers and Writing Conference, #cwcon, this year in Frostburg, Maryland. Let me get my main (really, only) gripe about the conference out of the way right at the beginning: I didn’t think a whole lot of Frostburg.

Oh sure, a lot of those bad feelings are tied to the pretty shitty weather that first night and well into Friday, and all of the locals I came across were perfectly friendly people. And I don’t blame Jill Morris or the folks at host institution, Frostburg State University– in fact, as I understand it, Jill and her folks were the only ones who put in a bid to host the conference this year in the first place.

But dang, Frostburg.

It’s at least 140 miles away from a major airport– I believe Dulles and Baltimore/Washington were closest. The conference hotel choices were the Hampton Inn, which was booked when I tried to make a reservation, and a kind of lame Days Inn, which is where I stayed. (I have yet to stay in the dorms at one of these things; I don’t know, maybe next time). A slight tangent, just to give you a flavor of it all: my check-in was slightly delayed because when I arrived at the front desk, a guest was having an angry exchange with the desk clerk since the clerk’s suggestion for fixing the clogged toilet in the guest’s room was to offer her a plunger.

All of the dining options I saw in that town would have been acceptable on the Super-Size Me diet plan: fast food, chain food, fried bar food, pizzas. The one so-so restaurant I went to, a steak house, served at least six different kinds of fries– that is, with different toppings, seasonings, and cuts of potatoes. My best non-conference meal in Frostburg was a foot-long chili dog in a bar. Ugh.

I don’t want to dwell on this and I don’t want to hate too much, but I do think it is at least a little relevant to mention in relation to the community and the conference that is Computers and Writing. I’ve been going to this thing now for almost 20 years– my first presentation ever was at the C&W in Columbia, Missouri in 1994– and it is just too often in places that you can’t get to easily, places like Lubbock, Texas or Muncie, Indiana or Normal, Illinois or Logan, Utah, or next year’s locale, Pullman, Washington. I guess that’s the plight of a relatively small conference that doesn’t have an organizing structure or body, and since I am not willing myself to do the hard work it would take to get such an organization off the ground (frankly, I’m not even sure where I would start to do such a thing), I guess this is going to remain the situation. But it would be awfully nice if there was some kind of organization associated with #cwcon that could a) pick locations that were near airports and b) plan more than a year or two ahead.

But like I said, the conference itself was quite good.

The first session I attended was “PLZ RT: Networks, Performances, and Games on Twitter.” Dan Anderson put out a call for people who could to video sessions, so before I left town, I grabbed my EMU’s video camera and tripod.  Sadly, I didn’t grab my battery charger, so I was only able to record two sessions– this was one of them.

Presenters were Cate Blouke, University of Texas, “Tweet with Me Now”; John Jones, West Virginia, “Hashtags and Network Power”; and Mike Widner, Stanford University, “A Game of Tweets.”I missed a lot of John’s talk, unfortunately. Cate talked about Twitter and performance and Mike was about coding and gaming with Twitter.  Good stuff and a good conversation after the talks, and I guess Twitter was a theme of sorts: there were a lot of sessions about Twitter, and there was a lot of tweeting at #cwcon. In fact, we were trending nationally one of the days of the conference this year.

After that was James Paul Gee’s keynote, “Writing in the Age of the Maker Movement.” Nothing radically new if you’ve read Gee before but a great talk, both in terms of content but also in terms of delivery. I bet Gee does about 20 of these kinds of talks a year, and he clearly knew and understood his audience.  I am of course familiar with his argument about video games, but I was struck by the story he told about trying to learn how to play a particular game by first reading the manual. Gee said that was hopeless, but after he learned how to play the game by playing it, and after he played it, he was then able to understand the manual. His argument relative to education is that what we tend to do is give our students the manual before they play the game, which is why they often don’t succeed.

He also talked a lot about students/people learning and acting collaboratively based in interests and affinity, more or less skipping over the sanctioned schooling approach to expertise and jumping in by making– thus the title of his talk. The example that stuck out for me is how people playing a massive multiplayer game called FoldIt were able to help figure out some stuff about how proteins are structured. There was even an article in Nature about it all.

I do have a few minor quibbles.  It’s as easy to find examples of collaboration leading to “bad things” as it is to find examples leading to “good things,” and of course the definition of good/bad can be murky.  It’s one thing to complain about the structure and bureaucracy of schooling at all levels and to call for us to organize ourselves based on interests and affinities, but there comes a point just in terms of the scale of the operation where bureaucracy and structure is an unfortunate necessity.

And one of the problems I’ve always had with various theories of gaming and literacy or learning is I am not that fond of games. I understand the theory of what Gee is talking about and I think as it translates to the teaching of writing, “gaming” our pedagogy happens when we create scenarios for our students with either real or imaginary clients, audiences, purposes, etc. instead of the contextless “write me a five page paper about x.” But in my mind, none of this speaks to the much more complex problem of motivation in the first place. Saying to me “hey, let’s make education as cool and addictive as World of Warcraft” doesn’t exactly me jump up and down since about the last thing I want to do is play World of Warcraft. In other words, one student’s cool game that sparks a whole new way of self-engaging in a literacy activity is another student’s completely boring waste of time, and there are a lot of things that we all need to learn how to do that don’t lend themselves to something that is “fun” like a game.

Then I went to and recorded another session, “Futures of Composition,” which was a roundtable featuring Naomi Silver, Joyce Walker, Kristine Blair, Virginia Kuhn, James Purdy, and Cheryl Ball.  It was in a too small and too crowded room, and so my tripod got a little off-kilter. In other words, my tripod is crooked here, not the whole room.

Walker and Kuhn weren’t actually there– they recorded a video and that was shown, and that was a bit of a mini-theme at this year’s conference: no-shows. One of the grad students in our program here at EMU told me she went to a session where there was an audience but none of the presenters showed up. I know a couple of people who weren’t able to come for good reasons and I can easily imagine why others decided kind of at the last minute not to go to Frostburg, Maryland.

Anyway, this was a good albeit sort of free-wheeling session that talked about lots of stuff– the future of graduate studies, tenure and promotion with new media, MOOCs, projects for collecting big sets of data, etc. A good conversation about a lot of different things.

That night, I did something I never do at an academic conference: I went back to my room, channel-surfed, and went to bed comparatively early. I guess I was pooped from the drive.

Saturday I started with a session called “Digital Color and Racial Identity,” and it was sort of a microcosm of what is kind of uniquely cool about #cwcon.  The two talks (I don’t know what happened to to a couple of the folks who were scheduled but didn’t present) were not at all obviously connected yet worked together.  Michigan Tech grad student Joel Beatty talked about color theory– like where the color wheel came from, how our eyes work to see color, and so forth– and Doug Walls had a video (another person who didn’t make the trip for good reasons) called “Hushing Twitter” where he discussed some really fascinating research on one of his dissertation case study subjects, an African American woman working in an office space where most of her co-workers were white people, and how she used Twitter. It’s more complicated than that, actually, but you get the idea.

There were only about a dozen people in the audience for the session, but it was an enthusiastic group and it included Cindy Selfe, reminding me of advice I was given about presenting at conferences a long time ago: take it seriously even if it is a small crowd because you never know who is going to show up. There was a tech failure with the projection system, but it takes a lot more than that to throw off presenters at this conference, so we just gathered around the presenter’s laptops up front. And this was a group that featured a mix of “big-wigs,” new faculty, and comparatively new grad students.

The third (?) keynote for lunch on Saturday was Karl Stolley, which I thought was kind of an interesting choice. It’s not that Karl isn’t super-smart and stuff– he is– but he’s also “one of us,” and a pretty young and new one of us too.  But he did “bring it,” as the saying goes, walking us through a talk that was on slides that were programed so that everyone in the crowd could look at them on our own devices and when Karl advanced the slide on his computer, it advanced on our devices. Very cool.

I think his basic point is we need to “embrace the difficulty” and that is especially true with things like coding.  Karl’s message on this was relatively inclusive with the group, but he did get a couple of “digs” in there with the larger field as represented by the CCCCs, which is frequently pretty ignorant about technology.  He got a bit of pushback in the Twitter-sphere; for example:



To be fair, I don’t think Karl was trying to do that, but both Cindy and Adam are tapping into one of the constant bits of tension at the conference and the field/area of study that is “computers and writing:” how much is it about “computers” (meaning the code, the computer/mobile application, the software, the hardware, etc.) and how much it is about “writing” (meaning rhetoric, critical theory, pedagogy, words in a wrote, etc.).  Obviously, it’s both– that’s why it is called “computers and writing”– but most folks in the field tend to lean toward one way or the other. I’ve seen too many (supposedly) big-name scholars talking techno-this and computer code-that who clearly don’t know anything about how any of that technology works. But I’ve also seen too many folks– generally in the grad student/new faculty category– who are way WAY too in love with the coding/application/hardware/software and forget the writing part. Like I said, I think Karl was trying to strike a balance, but I can also understand where Cindy and Adam are coming from here.

Anyway, for me the rest of the conference involved me talking in some way.  Bill and I did our bit, “‘The Free Conference Kit:’ How to Start, Promote, Organize, and Run a Local Academic Conference for (Almost) Nothing Using Web 2.0 Tools.” I thought it went pretty well: I think we were able to share with folks some good ideas about how to put on a WIDE-EMU-like conference and there were enough folks there who had done something similar for me to learn some things too.

Dinner Saturday night was pretty good because we left Frostburg for the nearby and much more touristy Cumberland, a big table of folks from all over the place gossiping about folks in the field, the conference, etc., etc. In short, one of those nights hard to summarize but that are probably the most important part of most academic conferences I attend nowadays.

Oh, and then there was bowling and I was having a pretty decent game when they shut down the lanes at 10 pm, which meant another (relatively) early night of it for me.

Last but not least, I was a pinch hitter/added speaker for “MOOC Roundtable: Will This Work for Us?” Sunday morning. A small but enthusiastic and kind of chaotic group, so I’m glad I made it. Among other things, I met a fellow MOOCer in the Duke Composition MOOC, Heather Young, which I will be blogging about soon. Here’s a link to my notes from my part of this.

So that’s how it all went. Another great conference in another middle of nowhere/less than enticing place.  This conference always comes at a bad time of the year in terms of summer school teaching, and so I am super-duper behind and kind of tired at this point. But I also come away from this with a lot of energy and, as hokey as it sounds, pride in being a part of this loosey-goosey group.

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