Considering Our Commonplaces
2020 CCCC Annual Convention
March 25-28, 2020
Program Chair: Julie Lindquist
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Call for Proposals
Now is a good time to think about who we are and what we really value.
Just as it is at any other time.
Which is to say, now is a good time.
An ongoing priority of CCCC is the achievement of inclusivity—within the organization, within higher education, within our classrooms. As an organization whose business is the conduct of higher education, this should be our most persistently important goal, the ethical principle that is at the deep core of our decisions and actions. In fact, our history of conferences over the years is populated by calls for inclusivity, either as an explicit charge or as an implicit goal—which is to recognize inclusivity as both a focus of our ongoing attentions and as a persistent need that has demanded those attentions by affecting nearly every aspect of who we are as a community and what is possible for us to do: where we assemble, who we teach, how we grow knowledge even as we enact change.
It’s a good time to ask: what have we learned?
What inclusivity is (and means and takes) is a question that has motivated my life’s work as an educator. I am an unlikely product of higher education. The circumstances of my life have meant that I have always been positioned at an odd angle to the general project of education. I am a first-generation college graduate whose path to higher education (and especially, to the PhD) has been both improbable and fortuitous. I am a child of a single mother, raised by immigrant grandparents whose first language was not English. I left high school and got my first full-time job when I was 15; I began my postsecondary education at community college, where I learned that I would need a GED before transferring to the four-year institution close to home. It’s no surprise, I imagine, that I have never been able to settle comfortably into the usual narratives of opportunity, achievement, and mobility. The values that are at the heart of my work, and the directions my research has taken, are products of my experience of alienation from normative narratives of education. The fact of this formative (and persistent) dissonance continues to be the motivating force for my own work as a researcher and teacher–which is to say that it is a source of inspiration, action, ethical understanding, critique, and reflection.
I am also aware that I am not alone.
It’s a good time to ask: What might we learn?
Our struggles to attain disciplinary legitimacy have been ongoing. Our achievements have been hard-won. Whatever else it might be, a discipline, as a tradition of knowledge-making practices, is also an architecture of commonplaces. As tacit operating premises, commonplaces help us to see things by giving us permission to not see things. A healthy disciplinary practice is one of returning, over and over again, to the truths that are most deeply lodged in our collective imagination: for example, that “critical thinking” is an uncomplicated idea, a transparent virtue, and an irreproachable goal. That, when it comes to the game of writing assessment, some students must fail so that others may succeed. That teaching inclusively is (only) a matter of teaching “about” diversity, rather than a matter of creating storied learning experiences, or making good on the ones students have. That our primary activity is “teaching,” rather than creating learning opportunities for students. That “learning” is an experience that entails only gains, and never losses.
Nowhere is the tension between tradition and innovation more evident than in the very idea of commonplaces. It’s an idea that has had a long and troubled history in rhetoric, and it’s both the concept and the trouble that interest me, here. I think both can be productive for the purposes of naming and reflecting on what we believe and what we value. For Aristotle, commonplaces (topoi) named a store of common understandings, a set of shared cultural resources, by means of which rhetoricians could construct arguments. Later, the idea came to signify ideological means for exclusion from the most exclusive and privileged scenes of knowledge production. If the commonplaces of a given community (or culture) give us a way to understand what it believes and values, then they are also a way for us to see how it defines and defends its borders. For this reason, the idea may be a productive one precisely for what it affords in naming both what and who are present and absent in our knowledge-making community.
With my colleague and collaborator Bump Halbritter, I’ve spent the past decade thinking and writing about commonplaces. The two of us been motivated to do so by our experiences as researchers, which have taught us about the deep complexities of students’ lives in and out of school, and the adaptive strategies these lives produce. We have been motivated to do so by our experiences as teachers, which have allowed us to witness students in their encounters with educational routines and expectations. We have been motivated to do so by our work as WPAs, which has revealed to us not only that the commonplaces that most direct our work as practitioners are ours, and not those of others (students, colleagues in other disciplines, publics), but also, in our interactions with teachers, that commonplaces of teaching and students can often over-determine difficult human problems. Most of all, we have been motivated to so do by what we’ve learned from students’ stories, and how to listen to those stories and attend to their tellers. We have become increasingly convinced that there are some commonplaces which, even as they enable community practices, interfere with the potential for ethical innovation. It seems to us that these commonplaces often entail ideas about learners and learning—what learners do and need, how learning happens, and on what grounds learning may be refused.
With our reflection on each commonplace, we discover how much more we have yet to learn.
To observe that disciplinary commonplaces have become commonplace is, of course, a commonplace. What is less clear is what should follow from this observation. Commonplaces give us a common sense of purpose, and they organize thought and action. That’s the good news about commonplaces: in a chaotic world of busy routines, commonplaces are what help us understand our goals and values and manage the work of the everyday. Of course, that is also the bad news: often, the routines enabled by commonplaces become so deeply routinized as to be impervious to (or at least, unlikely subjects of) reflection. I think immediately here of our practices of assessment. In working with teachers, for example, I have learned how much the everyday pressures and routines of assessment control our sense of what is possible and necessary: assessments must come primarily from teachers, must be holistic (and copious!) in order to be responsible, must not fail to hold students accountable for all that is flawed or wrongheaded or undeveloped. As busy people, we as teachers need to work from a core of operating principles about what it means to assess students’ work in order to get the work done. And yet, these enabling principles, as they are commonly placed within the conditions of everyday life, may be the very things that make it hard to see what might go better.
Which is to say: Now is a good time.
We are in an ideal moment to reflect on our most durable beliefs and practices, as things are going both badly and well. I think we would likely agree that what is going badly is the current national scene, in which rancor, division, and mistrust prevail, and in which the purposes and conduct of education at all levels are being contested. Wisconsin, as it turns out, has been the scene of aggressively competing commonplaces about what education is and does and who it serves, and of new (not so new) debates about whether education is best conceived as a public good or a private commodity. The former governor of Wisconsin, for example, has worked assiduously to cut higher education budgets that fund programs in the humanities and in general education. Meanwhile, at the national level, our secretary of education has made moves toward the privatization of schools and the defunding of public ones.
What is going well, of course, is the strength and resolve of our organization as a countervailing force in national and local conversations about educational access, adult literacy, rhetorical ethics, and cultural and social diversity. We know that our work as members of CCCC has a renewed exigency and a new urgency.
I invite you to reflect, in this moment, on what purposes our commonplaces serve. To what extent are these purposes aligned with ethical and productive goals? In these politically turbulent times, how are our commonplaces serving us? How are they expressed in practice? Whose experiences are they recognizing and affirming? To whom are they giving access? Our conference location for 2020, Milwaukee, our common place, is an auspicious location to consider and reconsider our educational mission and our theories of learning. Wisconsin is the site of a distinctive innovation in inclusive education, the Wisconsin Idea, which advanced the radical notion that state universities should serve the state, and that education should be accessible to all its residents. A more inclusive practice of higher education, the thinking went, should not be exclusively vocational, but should include an education in civic and humanistic ideals as well, and should make education available to all residents of the state via outreach and extension programs. In recent years, however, these ideas have been directly challenged, with significant consequences for the Wisconsin system and those it serves. We may ask: What commonplaces about access and inclusivity produced Wisconsin’s distinctive vision of education, and which ones have resulted in recent moves to change this vision? How are these sets of commonplaces alive in public discourses of education, and what do they predict for the future?
What can we learn in this moment, and in this place?
At this moment and in this place, I invite you to return to your own most durable beliefs and practices as an educator (in classrooms, as a researcher/writer, of publics?) and to ask yourself: When it comes to the work I do as an educator, what are my most sacred values? How do these values direct my practice? What do I believe to be true that I have always believed to be true? What did I once believe that I no longer believe to be true? If my beliefs and values have changed, what occasioned these changes? What are the human encounters, crises, and unlikely events that have compelled me into different relationships with my own truths? How has listening to the stories of diverse others motivated me to form a different relationship with my own experience, my own truths? From what experiences and locations do I draw my most actionable beliefs—values, principles, scholarship, experience, lore? How have my practices changed over time, given what I have always believed and no longer believe? What goals have I found most difficult to reach, and by what means might I identify difficulties in my practice in order to do so? How are my beliefs aligned with, and in opposition to, the educational institutions and communities in which I move? And, critically: What can I best learn from others? What can I only learn from others?
Ask yourself: What do I know, and how do I know it? What will it take for me to learn more, or learn differently?
This is important work for all (each) of us in considering our relationships with commonplaces.
I have often remarked that I never met a paradox I didn’t trust. The space occupied by this call is one of paradox, of the persistently tense relationship of tradition and innovation. Even as my mission here is invite us to question commonplaces, I don’t mean to suggest that I have not—that we should not—learn from the work of those who came before us, from traditions established as productive lines of inquiry. The invitation to reconsider commonplaces may be read to suggest that we are only interested in digging up our foundation of ideas and common practices. But it may just as well entail a dislodging rather than an upending, a nudging rather than an overturning. These motions, though they may seem small, may help us to discover new options for how we think about what we do (and new actions associated with this), rather than to abandon what is serving us, and (especially) those we serve, well. If we are to be an organization with an inclusive educational mission and a community, then we would be well advised to consider the foundational ideas we share and continue to ask whether these ideas are serving those we serve. Who are our students, what do they need, and why would they consent to learn what we hope to teach them?
In the spirit of this inquiry, we invite proposals for invitations to
- Consider the cultural and disciplinary origins of (our) commonplaces.
- Inquire into the capacity of commonplaces—about students, learning, technology, education—to direct our pedagogical practices.
- Question how our commonplaces may have occluded more productive understandings of learners and learning.
- Reflect on the public uses and value of our commonplaces.
- Consider how commonplaces are products of traditions that have served, and continue to serve, us well.
- Inquire into who is most sponsored, and who is most excluded, by our most sacred values and practices.
- Question how our commitments to diversity, inclusion, and access may call for new understandings of our practices.
- Reflect on how our commonplaces direct practices of research and representation.
- Consider how our stories of learning may help us complicate durable commonplaces.
- Inquire into the commonplaces of particular communities, and consider how these may function as assets for education.
- Reflect on what we assume about the motives students may have for refusing our pedagogies.
- Consider how our encounters with commonplaces in other disciplines may help us to become more aware of the possibilities and limitations of our own.
- Inquire into our common beliefs about the nature and conduct of teaching and learning.
- Question what we believe about the relationship of argument and persuasion to the conduct and effects of public discourse.
- Reflect on relationships between disciplinary and public commonplaces about what it means to teach and learn.
- Inquire into how the commonplaces of local institutions interface and interact with disciplinary commonplaces.
- Question how the commonplaces that direct our how professional organizations and events—including CCCC—function, and whose interests they serve and do not serve.
In keeping with the goal of (re)imagining commonplaces of learning, we would do well to reflect on our understandings of what the CCCC event is and does as an educational experience for its participants, and to ask: How can the convention, as a common place, better serve its attendees as learners? How can we put our best practices as teachers and researchers in the service of this learning?
What if we questioned the commonplace that the convention is primarily a place to “present,” to deliver knowledge-products? What if we reimagined the convention as a common place of inquiry and learning?
In the spirit of returning to and reflecting on commonplaces, CCCC 2020 will deliver experiences that are both common and uncommon in relation to the traditions of the convention as an institution. The convention will continue to be a place for connection, reconnection, and the productive exchange of ideas. But it will include new kinds of common places for the purposes of sharing ideas and experiences as community (and as a community of communities), more opportunities conversation and reflection, new kinds of teaching and learning experiences for attendees, accessibility mentoring opportunities, and a new role and session type to invite new forms of participation:
- New session type: the Engaged Learning Experience session. ELE sessions are spaces for invention, problem-solving, experiential learning.
- New program role: the convention Documentarian. The Documentarian are invited/enlisted to document their particular convention experiences and to create a variety of reflective narratives about their experiences.
Engaged Learning Experience Sessions
A commonplace about sessions is that they generally consist of a panel of three sequential presentations. Engaged Learning Experience sessions are an alternative genre of concurrent session, a dedicated space for invention, problem-solving, and experiential learning. As with all sessions, leaders should think in terms of a learning goal and a means for moving participants toward it. In the case of Engaged Learning Experience sessions, some means for moving toward learning goals might include (things like) problem-solving groups, spoken-word poetry, dramatization/improv, making, role-playing, storytelling.
CCCC 2020 Documentarians
A commonplace about program participation is that in order to be listed as a contributor to the convention program, you must have a role in a scheduled session. In 2020, a new “speaking” role will be introduced: the Documentarian. The CCCC Documentarian role is an opportunity for attendees to participate in a new way, and to take part in a collaborative inquiry into what a conference is and does—and for whom—and to teach the rest of us. The Documentarian role has been designed to respond to four primary questions about how attendees experience the CCCC Annual Convention:
- What does it mean to attend the convention? The efforts of Documentarians will help the CCCC community better understand the range of attendees’ convention experiences.
- What do we learn at the convention? The Documentarian role is designed not only to document things that happen at the convention, and the perspectives of those who experience those things, but to help Documentarians—and those who may benefit from their stories—identify the learning they did by way of their convention experiences.
- What are the outcomes of a convention experience? The results of the Documentarians’ efforts will be made available to the CCCC community in a variety of ways, including both formal and informal publication of the resulting documentary stories.
- What does it mean to be included? How diverse are our experiences? The Documentarian role is meant to provide a new form of convention access to a broad range of attendees. Because they fill a “speaking” role (technically, a speaking back role), Documentarians will appear on the program.
Documentarian roles are available to those with or without another speaking role at CCCC. For example, it is possible to be on the program solely as a Documentarian or as a panelist and a Documentarian. Documentarians’ products will be realized as a variety of written (i.e., alphabetic—not filmed or audio-recorded) products that capture highlights of, and reflections on, Documentarians’ convention experiences.
What will YOU do should you serve as a Documentarian? As a Documentarian, you’ll complete a brief instructional module, attend the convention, choose a path through the convention experience, record some observations about the things you see and hear, and then compose a reflective narrative about your experiences. To help you along in this work, you’ll be given a prompt and a set of guidelines for planning, attending, documenting, and reflecting on your experience with the convention. You’ll also be encouraged to meet and connect with other Documentarians throughout the convention in any spaces made available for this purpose. You can indicate your interest in serving in a Documentarian role as part of the regular review process.
Proposals for CCCC 2020
Regardless of role or session type, reviewers will be seeking proposals for talks and sessions that engage their audiences as learners. Successful proposals will
- Engage the idea of commonplaces in some way, either directly or in terms of the work the presentation/session will do. Some ways to take up the idea might be (but are not limited to) to think of commonplaces as
- tacit expectations
- social constructions
- claims to power
- means for inclusion/exclusion
- means for controlling access
- world view
- scenes of action
- means to legitimize/delegitimize knowledge
- enabling fictions
- Describe an experience for learners as much as content to be delivered (for example, will specify the role(s) audience members will be invited to fulfill during or in response to the presentation).
- Give evidence that the proposer is thinking pedagogically about the talk or session, with the learning needs of audiences/participants in mind.
- Articulate learning goals for the participants, and means to get there: What will participants take away from the presentation? How do you plan to make it possible for them to do so?
We hope to see you in Milwaukee, our common place for CCCC 2020!
2020 Program Chair