Time for some reflections on the Puget Sound/NCA Conference on Teaching Rhetorical Criticism and Critical Inquiry. In addition to blog posts from Oratorical Animal and Joshie Juice, you can also check out the more real-time response by searching #pugetsoundcrit on Twitter. Here are my thoughts on a few themes that emerged for me. (See my pre-conference hopes and dreams here).
1. Starting at the back of the CV helps us see "old" colleagues in new ways. One of my pleasurable tasks at the conference was to organize and chair one of the plenary sessions. Plenary chairs were encouraged to highlight our panelists' teaching in our introductions, which of course reflected the purposes of the conference. Although all of the plenarists in my session have distinguished research careers, and I mentioned some of that, I learned a lot about these folks by paying attention to the teaching sections of their CVs - not only what they taught but what awards they'd won, what kinds of students they advised, etc. Spending more time with the "back of the CV" than with the "front" gave me new insights into folks I thought I already knew pretty well. And made me appreciate them that much more.
2. Foregrounding teaching alters our conversations about theory and criticism. The conference was designed to get folks to talk about their teaching in ways both conceptual and pragmatic. The concurrent sessions, mainly designed as workshops, were where the more pragmatic work took place; here, folks very explicitly offered concrete examples of assignments, course design, and class activities. The plenary sessions focused on broader conceptual issues, but here too the focus was to be largely on teaching. A few folks, whether by explicit choice or unconscious inclination, downplayed the teaching aspect in favor of what might be termed more traditional research-focused presentations. This was a perfectly fine choice, but because we were at a conference about teaching, the audience pushed panelists in some cases to be more specific, more focused on pedagogy, more explicit about how ideas/concepts would work with students in the classroom. This produced some wonderful exchanges. I left wondering how many comm rhetoricians would have done this at a traditional research conference. Can you imagine standing up at one of those conferences and asking of a speaker, "What does this have to do with my pedagogy?" Making it "okay" to talk about teaching in scholarly contexts changes the conversation.
3. Our governing pedagogical practice seems to be that of imitatio. There was actually a session explicitly devoted to the idea of using imitation in our pedagogy, but the idea cut across the whole conference. References to emulation, models, and exemplars threaded through lots of sessions and conversations. We look for exemplary critical objects and scholarly essays to share with students, we model good critical practice for our classes so they see what is required to succeed, we emulate the ways we were trained by our advisors. On the one hand, the emphasis on imitation and modeling makes perfect sense in light of rhetoric's history as a civic and pedagogical practice. Also, it usually works really well! On the other hand, there is the worry that a focus on imitation might lead to moribund pedagogy: a desire to teach only those models sanctioned by authority (e.g., canonization), a circumscribing of critical invention, and, in the words of our luncheon speaker, a loss of "wonder." Lester Olson rightly noted in his presentation that the use of models doesn't have to entail canonization, so I don't want to put too fine a point on the negatives. But I left the conference wondering about the pros and cons of imitatio.
4. Lastly, two amazing rhetorical questions I am still mulling over. From Dan Brouwer: "Who does your syllabus think you are?" From Chuck Morris: "What would you say to a student who asks you, 'Why do you teach this class?'"