Sunday, November 13, 2011

The One to Go To

PS. I'll add this at the top in case any reader doesn't know that I am an enthusiastic advocate for all things NWP. My comments are not intended to be critical of the fine conferences hosted by NWP but as speculation about what might be shaped ahead.

On November 8, a general NWP Tech Liaison email appeared in my inbox that prompted me to think/respond.  It probably pushed some buttons because the annual meeting of the National Writing Project was days away and my decision not to attend was rumbling about, stirring up trouble like “what are conferences good for anyway?”  The emailed question asked: “If there was one technology conference that you could go to, which one would it be?” 

Perhaps the external questioner opened the gate for my internal debate to get out.  While I believe authentic expression depends more on inner musing than any external prompt, the coincidence of an outsider’s wonder with the personal interrogation can drag a reluctant witness forward.  Real writing reveals, and maybe I didn’t want to expose my motivations for not attending this week’s professional conference.

Meanwhile on the email stream, several respondents immediately posted helpful specifics.  ISTE ( ) and DML ( appeared with strong recommendations.  Mention was made of a conference on Computers and Writing: .  And an online conference ( was noted.

Because within me a certain discontent with traditional conferences had been brewing for some time, I wanted to push the envelope a bit further.  So I posted a email to the listserv:

   Over a decade about a decade ago, I regularly attended a summer conference that spoiled me; the traditional conference at professional meeting lost appeal.  The alternative conference lasted a week in camp settings and fused story, poetry, and other arts giving time to converse with each other and fostering an interactive embodiment in stark contrast with the anti-agency (in the rhetorical sense) effect of traditional conferences. 
   Special gifts from those moments included building the predawn fire as William Stafford, a few others, and I wrote what we might later share in a workshop.  We listened to Coleman Barks, Naomi Shihab Nye, Galway Kinnell, and others recite their poems from memory; but also Naomi and I conversed while watching our young boys play, Galway and Fran Quinn assigned me a Yeats poem to memorize, and Coleman whispered secrets.  Gioia Timpanelli mentored us in the art of storytelling in ways that still infuse my practice and capacity to enact the truth of story.  While expertise and authority were honored, the authenticity of personal, situated knowing was carefully nurtured.
   For me, the day of reading papers about “research on” is dead and my intention is to no longer support the practice because it perpetuates privilege and denies situated knowing, collaboration, and social justice that mark today’s exigence.  I wonder if one legacy of NWP might be to constitute a meaningful educational space that offers a praxis (along the best of Freire’s lines) conference where liberatory education with digital media happens.  Perhaps that conference is being offered but I suspect the one I’d attend has to be created.

This post was followed with a response that I find very interesting:
Some Canadian friends and colleagues did something along the lines of what you're talking about over the summer:
Seemed useful for them.  And while I love the idea of a physical event, I wonder if we, or some folks like us, could cobble together an informal conversation or working group or something via the web tools at our disposal - some sort of longer, intentional and specific conversation/event/happening around the important elements of our practice(s).  What might such a thing, done cheaply and reasonably and "virtually" look like?  We who live in virtual spaces might could begin to inhabit them more fully, together, on purpose and with intentionality.  

I’m strongly drawn to this cobbling together.  Let’s consider why we’d want a conference.  Three reasons for attending a professional conference come to mind: 1) work incentives, 2) travel/recreation, and 3) personal/professional learning.  I’ve prioritized each of these at different times. The three overlap, of course; they vary in legitimacy and exigence from year to year, and all merit consideration.  My interest has moved primarily into the third category.  And perhaps my priority at this time better fits a “retreat” than a “conference”; at risk of oversimplification, I’m wanting a space to share vision more than to publish accomplishment.

Another distinction that’s very important to me concerns the nature of knowing and the connected question of method.  I’m resistant to the sage-on-the-stage design for professional learning because it risks contradiction with the essential locus of authority and responsibility for knowing which I believe to be gnosis.  Knowing is situated, and each individual has ultimate responsibility for discovering and articulating the responses to important questions and decisions.

At the same time as this individual locus, access to knowing often depends on interaction with others.  Reflection, mirrors, modeling, rehearsal, and companionship are all part of the method.  While I value highly the electronic network’s amazing offerings for my professional/personal learning with the amazing access from my home office (and its proximity to my horse), I also acknowledge my need and desire to engage in physical spaces which enhance potential for experiencing the “word incarnate.”  Spending a week around William Stafford let me conclude that he did walk his talk and increased my sense of the being of a fierce pacifist. 

If we are intent on living into our cultural inheritance in terms of collaboration (see Brian Boyd’s On the Origin of Stories) as a positive movement beyond domination and isolation, methods that presume ownership and privileged objectivity should be subordinated to designs that share process and value inclusivity.  Traditional publication, both in print and in conference, have not and do not tend to advance collaboration; merit systems in higher education also perpetuate the cult of the individual and the limits of presumed objectivity.

Even our creativity reshapes when we move imagination and composing into a sphere not constrained by the old paradigm of top-down control (even within the individual).  The musical composer Brian Eno explores this brilliantly:
What we're not so used to is the idea that another great gift we have is the talent to surrender and to cooperate.  Cooperation and surrender are actually parts of the same skill.  To be able to surrender is to be able to know when to stop trying to control.  And to know when to go with things, to be taken along by them. 

How do we compose a collective space where we can support each other in our re-visioning, in our profession, and in our movement toward a more just world?