“But people talking to people is still the way
that norms and standards change.” Atul Gawande
Something has been on my mind a lot lately. It’s been simmering in my head since before ATTW and the CCCCs, and then experiences at those two events and some subsequent online conversations helped to congeal some of the random thoughts. It’s still not perfectly sorted, but I’m gonna throw out here anyway.
When I say conversation, I’m referring to a dialogic event between two or more people around a specific topic. And conversations that are generative to the field are noticeably absent from our journals, our conferences, and our online interactions.
And it’s distressing and disturbing to me.
It seems that the only conversations happening are happening in small groups between those who are exactly like us and validate the ideas we already have. Actual conversations where differences occur, challenges are made, and subsequently, knowledge advanced aren’t happening across platforms.
I find it distressing and disturbing because we claim to want to teach our students to engage and move out of their own personal bubbles to hear diverse ideas, but in the greatest of ironies, we’re doing this EXACT THING when it comes to our scholarly conversations. At conferences, folks converge with people from their graduate programs or those academic friends that have similar orientations. They attend the same sessions, and rarely if ever venture out of their own bubbles. When early career scholars lament that they were challenged in a session and then loudly proclaim they can’t be wrong and they’ll just keep doing their work, I have to wonder where we went wrong that they aren’t able to potentially see a fragment of truth in that criticism (because it’s almost always there).** That they don’t see this as a start of a conversation to do better, to be better.
I get why some early career scholars and graduate students want to just talk to one another, but dismissing criticisms of your work and dismissing established scholars because they are established is not helping the field and it’s definitely not helping your own work. Please give us a little credit for knowing a few things…just like I give you credit for knowing things too.
The lack of conversations is inhibiting our ability to create meaningful scholarship and foster innovation. It’s not only inhibiting, but it’s also undermining it. Unless we talk to one another so we can more fully understand what folks perceive as existing norms, we can never figure out how to overcome the barriers to make productive conversations and generate new ideas. And this is disturbing when editors of journals and special issues and all other editorial things because they aren’t bringing diverse voices to the table through peer review.
With the rise of social media, there is no longer a common space to raise questions and converse outside of conferences. We’ve all gravitated to different platforms and are often followed and follow the same exact people we already knew. The fractured nature of where we choose to talk and who are in those circles in and of itself underscores my point: it seems we don’t actually want to have conversations with others unless we 100% supported or agreed with. (see social media not very social )
I get that our professional organizations sometimes feel anachronistic or stuck in patterns or are so narrowly focused that people may not feel as if they belong, but unless you challenge those organizations to do better, then you truly are contributing to the problem. As such a small field, we have an overabundance of organizations, but it also seems no one is satisfied with any of them and are there are movements and isolated conversations (see the problem?!) to start something new. That’s great, but at least talk about in to the FIELD. Don’t talk about it to the 7 other people who are exactly like you.
I am one of the few people in the field goes to a number of conferences and crosses over the perceived cliques of those who only attend certain conferences. I get that some folks feel that CPTSC is not scholarly and if they aren’t running a program it’s not a place for them. Those two perceptions are completely false because it is scholarly and the last time I checked, we all teach in a program (and the vast majority of us will run one day). Yes, ProComm still has a connection to engineering, but it’s also a highly welcoming place for all sorts of research and pedagogical practices that directly relates to vast majority of folks in technical and professional communication. I make these points because I wonder how many folks pick a conference on what fits their lives rather than if their friends will be going.
I highly recommend that you experiment and try one out and if it’s not working, get involved. Ask questions; converse with the leadership; volunteer to try something different. The constant need to try and re-invent the wheel rather than repairing the wheel is something that boggles my mind. This is why I have given enormous amounts of time to the existing organizations so that they become better and more inclusive and more open to different ideas. It’s a mixed bag with mixed results, but hey, at least I’m trying.
One of the greatest pleasures of my professional life is that I have been enormously blessed and fortunate to talk to many, many people. Those conversations energize me (even when they are difficult) and help me try to do better. Those conversations are also the answer to one of the most common questions that I get: “why do you do so much service?” I do it so I can learn from other people; most of whom are absolutely nothing like me in my orientation to life or research or anything. I talk to a wide diverse set of people for all the reasons I’m talking here.
I understand some may read this and shake their head as if I’ve fallen off a cliff because they believe conversations are happening. It’s true. There probably are some, but apparently, I’m not in those circles, which again provides a point of evidence for the exact problem I’m trying to talk about.
I miss conversations. And I continue to worry that unless something happens soon, the fragmentation of the field will escalate to the point that there no longer will be a common anything to draw us together. I don’t have any quick answers. But I do know staying in our tiny little groups and only talking to those who are exactly like us will not bring us any closer to trying to solve the problems we face as a field, both in the academy and out.
Let me know if you wanna talk. I’m ready to listen.
**I do understand that at times session Q&As can be awful. This was not the case. It was simply that the presenter did not agree with the comment.