This week is bookended by two eagerly anticipated events, both of which tap into the non-research sides of my professional universe. This past Sunday I moderated another BAGNewsSalon. I fell in with the marvelous Michael Shaw and BAGNews about 4 years ago now, and have enjoyed watching (and occasionally helping) as Michael has both expanded the site and at the same time kept focused on its core mission: to read the pictures. His latest change is to partner the salons with Open-I, a photojournalism collective based in London. Sunday's discussion of the visual politics of the oil spill featured the usual amazing commentary from scholar-teacher-colleagues like Nate Stormer from Maine (Go Black Bears!) and Loret Steinberg from RIT, along with important insights from photojournalists who have been working in the gulf, including the Pulitzer-Prize winning John Moore, artist/activist Erika Blumenfeld, and gulf freelancer Kari Goodnough. It was my first time moderating with live audio, which was a fun addition. For those interested, the salon is archived here. In addition to leaving me with the best intellectual buzz ever, they are also important to my sense of myself as a teacher-scholar of visual politics. What I learn in the salons absolutely bleeds into my research and my teaching, and what I do in those other areas, I hope, allows me to bring something useful to the salons.
The other bookend to the week is a trip to the University of Puget Sound (Go Loggers!) in Tacoma, Washington, for the NCA Summer Conference on Teaching Rhetorical Criticism and Critical Inquiry. The conference has been in the works for about three years, so those of us on the planning committee are thrilled that we're finally all gathering for what looks to be a great weekend of conversation about pedagogy. Our fearless leader Jim Jasinski has been the engine driving this train, and I'm hopeful that after we all leave Tacoma he can sit back, enjoy the accomplishment, and take a deep breath or two (until his new gig as editor of RSQ begins, that is...).
The idea behind this conference is simple: rhetoric scholars in communication LOVE to talk "meta" about criticism, but (unlike our friends in rhet-comp) that conversation is almost never about how we actually teach. While rhetorical criticism courses are utterly ubiquitous (most brand-new Ph.D.s will be expected to teach criticism in their first jobs, regardless of the type of institution), our teaching of criticism is at the same time nearly invisible in our routine scholarly engagements. The conference is designed to bust up that paradox, in a sense, by putting all manner of teacher-scholars together for a weekend in sustained, collaborative, pragmatic conversation about a variety of topics. And we're going to be doing it all dressed in t-shirts and shorts and sandals. What could be better than that?
Overall, we hope that the conference becomes a forum for all of us, especially our primary audience of junior folks, to have an opportunity to engage others about pedagogy. This engagement will certainly invite people to try new things; my colleagues helping me plan a session on teaching context/archival analysis, for example, have already given me a bajillion ideas that I can't wait to try out with my own students. We're also hoping folks will be able to connect with one another in informal networks. With 140 people in attendance, all kinds of collaborations could emerge from this event.
Finally, and I'll confess this is one of my primary dreams for the conference, we're hoping that the conference might spur a greater valuing of rhetoric as a pedagogical practice. This is important not only conceptually to our sense of ourselves as rhetoricians, but also pragmatically as folks who work in the institution of the university. These are trying economic times for universities right now (we're sure feeling it here at Illinois). In stressful times it's tempting to draw fault lines between practices, fields, and ideas that "really matter" and those that "don't." Sometimes this conversation falls down along the lines of pitting research "vs." teaching, which is not only just plain wrong, but also pragmatically unwise. Even research institutions like mine recognize that teaching matters and they are increasingly developing schemes to reward those programs and departments that do it well (and, to be blunt, that rack up the most students in their classes). In such an environment it behooves us to pay attention and strategize about how best to position ourselves as teachers of rhetoric.
FYI, for those who are interested in following from afar, I hope to tweet a bit from the conference using the hashtag #pugetsoundcrit. I can't promise tons of stuff (I am not good at listening and typing at the same time), but perhaps a few others at the conference will tweet as well. Further down the line, we are hoping to make materials publicly available via the web, but that's a longer-term plan.