Reflections on #4c18, Four Months Later: Questions, Critiques, and Takeaways
What do we mean when we say “4cs”?
Who is/are “4cs”?
Is 4cs the administrators and staff in Urbana? The leadership as elected by its members? The majority of its membership? The caucuses? All current members? All members, past and present?
And, what are we talking about when we say “4cs”?
Are we talking about the perspectives of its leadership? The resolutions and position statements passed by the organization? The decisions made by its leadership? Is it the research it sponsors? The voices and disciplinary knowledges of the membership? The presentation titles listed in its convention programs? All of the above?
When we critique 4cs, who and what are we critiquing? Who is responsible for making 4cs better? (And what does “better” mean? And so on and so forth…)
And, by the way, how much are members expected to know about the details of 4cs’ operations? How much are members expected to know about its governance structure and policies?
On that note, whose responsibility is it to ensure that members know what they’re supposed to know? Is it each individual member’s responsibility to seek out the documents that provide this information? Does the organization have a responsibility to explain how the organization works, sometimes repeatedly, maybe through different media, in different ways—just as many of us writing teachers do for our students?
How do the institutional rhetorics of academic professional organizations interpellate members as responsible subjects?
How should we gauge our expectations of a professional academic organization? Can we compare what happened with #4c18 to ATTW’s decisions to hold its conference across the border in Kansas City, Kansas, to put out a strong statement by Program Co-Chairs Natasha Jones and J. Blake Scott, and to take clear steps to prioritize social justice at its conference?
Can we compare it to the Association for Asian American Studies’ decision to move its 2018 conference from Nashville, Tennessee to San Francisco, California in response to anti-LGBTQ legislation and Trump’s anti-Muslim executive order—or their use of GoFundMe to defray the cost of relocating?
What can we learn from these examples and what caveats must be taken into consideration?
It’s been four months since #4c18. Four months since I said I would post this blog, four months since I’ve more or less stopped thinking about #4c18.
Why should we keep talking about #4c18? What can the emotional, mental, temporal distance that comes with talking about #4c18 many months later help us to understand as we think back about all that happened?
An Institutional Critique, and Some Thoughts About Writing ✍️
It felt like there were a lot of assumptions about the nature of members’ concerns before people even spoke with one another—as I suppose can happen when things get tense. It seemed like some people assumed that any grievance with regards to the conference, and any decision to boycott the conference was singularly because people took issue with the decision to keep the convention in Missouri. I could be wrong. That’s just how it felt.
And, maybe this was the case for some. It wasn’t for me. So, let me just say, personally, I did not ultimately take issue with 4cs’ decision to keep the convention in Missouri. It was clear, as I learned, that there were both benefits and consequences for folks of color to either keep the conference in Missouri or relocate to some other state, and that those outcomes were different for different people. I suppose what I found most frustrating was the way the decision was communicated.
We are, after all, writing teachers. Many of us overworked writing teachers, with limited time and energy to write additional memos and communications, but writing teachers nonetheless.
How do organizations use rhetoric to manage and maintain themselves when political and economic tensions call its business-as-usual into question?
What I found most frustrating about the communications was how bureaucratic they all read—the distant, institutional tone, and how it largely centered around the decision about siting, as well as how so much—if not all—of the justification for the decision came down to money. I’m not naive enough to think that money doesn’t matter, but as many people have already pointed out, we’re talking about people’s lives here. Plus, I had read some very convincing reasons why the conference shouldn’t be moved that was not about money. More significantly, I wished to see more clear and concrete data that supported this justification. Rather, I saw many sweeping statements, and the statements read as though the decision had already been made very early on, perhaps when the first statement that was released stated as much: “We cannot move our national convention…moving a national convention can incur hundreds of thousands of dollars in penalties…it is not possible…”
Or will not?
Oh, and we still want your input, even though we’ve already decided.
Later statements that mentioned the deliberations read as though they were providing justification for a decision that was already made (or that wasn’t quite already made but that some people probably wanted to make), rather than to earnestly explore possibilities. They read as though the institution was really just working to save itself—from the critiques and dissatisfaction of the membership, as well as the cost it would have taken to make real changes to the conference. How so? Well, that’s most of what was discussed. A large part of what was highlighted in those statements was the difficulties and challenges of a move, as opposed to steps taken to explore other possibilities.
Believe us, they said. We’ve spent so much time on this issue, and the cost will be immense.
Well, many of us study rhetoric. We aren’t going to be persuaded that easily, without clear, concrete evidence and support. But hey, at least they didn’t forget to include the “buffer statement” that we teach our professional writing students to include in any negative news message.
The EC later admitted in a lengthy direct response to caucus leaders’ joint follow up letter, “Based on policies and procedures currently in place, we did not formally look into another site,” and “there was not enough time to conduct research on the complicated questions associated with holding a conference online or using a hybrid format.” How do you weigh out options when the actual steps to find out the cost of alternate possibilities were never taken?
On a sidenote, who would’ve imagined that the acknowledgement that “racism is everywhere” could have felt so dismissive? Even though this country is founded on racism and it can be found in all parts of the country, it’s pretty ridiculous to say that people of color are at equal risk of becoming a victim of violence in all places.
I was frustrated by assertions, usually by people who’d had leadership roles in the organization that the Executive Committee was very transparent. I believe that the Executive Committee was probably more transparent than usual. But if someone says they wish you had been more transparent, the more appropriate, and, dare I say, productive response would have been to validate their perspective and then to try to understand why and how. I know we are all humans and that our human emotions might lead us to respond otherwise, but as leaders of an organization, with all that responsibility, I wish we’d try to be better.
Let’s treat each other like people. Let’s respect the humanity of others. Let’s try to be better.
I’m saying this to myself, too.
And, let me say, I was able to speak with at least one colleague on the EC who did do this. Who listened, and seemed to try to understand, while offering points of their own. As a longtime Cs member, I was privileged enough to know folks on the EC who I felt comfortable enough speaking with one-on-one, and sharing my genuine thoughts about the goings ons. Would all members have been able to have these kinds of conversations?
What are the varied consequences of organizational responses for its members?
There’s so much you don’t understand. There’s so much you don’t know.
You’re right. My understanding is guided by the three statements released by the organization, and the social media posts of those within my network. I didn’t scour 4Cs governance documents and take it upon myself to understand, for whatever that’s worth.
I know I’m being facetious here. I mean no disrespect to those who were involved in writing these statements. I understand that it was not easy, that it took a lot of extra time from people who are oftentimes already bursting at the seams with work. I trust that folks were thinking very carefully about how to strike the right tone, how to say things in a way that sounded receptive and empathetic and clear. Some might even have put some part of themselves into the statement.
But if I can’t ask these questions and speak these critiques out loud, how will we ever understand one another?
Stray Observations in Kansas City
Being at #4c18, I saw many gestures toward transforming the conference with issues of racism and inequality in mind. I heard that 4cs had increased the number of Scholars for the Dream Awards this year, and I appreciated the All-Attendee Event. This year, caucus and SIG meetings were scheduled throughout the conference program. In the past, members have explained that holding all of the caucus meetings at the same time was a problem because it made some people have to choose between identities; for instance, which caucus should mixed-race members attend? What about Black, Latinx, and Asian/American members with disabilities or who identify as LGBTQ? This was a welcome change, and this year I was able to attend the Labor Caucus meeting in addition to the Asian/Asian American Caucus meeting.
At the same time, I noticed several caucus members were confused about when their meetings were scheduled, as, after years of meeting on Friday evenings, we were not directly notified that our meeting times had changed. In addition, there was apparently a Joint Caucus Meeting on Thursday evening, which I missed because I had trouble navigating the program design. I also had difficulty finding where to attend the Anzaldua Award Ceremony, and I missed the Scholars for the Dream Awards ceremony. I realize this might sound nitpicky, and as someone who has some professional experience in document design, I realize that mistakes happen. It was just a bit disappointing, especially given everything else going on.
Takeaways: On Conference Siting
Over the last year, conference siting has come up again as an issue—this time regarding the decision to hold a joint Computers and Writing—SIGDOC convention in Honolulu, Hawai‘i. I have to say, I was very excited that one of my favorite conferences (#cwcon) would be held in the place where I grew up.
But there were some concerns about this decision, too.
Many people were legitimately concerned that the cost to attend would be prohibitive for many members, especially those at institutions that do not have a large travel budget. There were important critiques about the colonial rhetoric of the conference’s “Choose Your Own Adventure” theme. Another person pointed out that communications about the convention problematically omitted the ‘okina in Hawai‘i.
Ultimately, the decision to hold a joint conference in Hawai‘i was canceled “due to unforeseen circumstances,” and a new site will be announced, at some point in the future, I suppose.
I had hoped that these institutional missteps (which, really, are symptomatic of a much larger and pervasive problem) would have been an important learning moment about conscientiously navigating issues of race, class, and colonial histories in a place. I’m proud that Hawai‘i has always been a “minority-majority” state, that does not shy away from engaging with its ongoing (neo)colonial history, that raises up Native Hawaiian perspectives, where folks are not afraid to critique the dominant culture. Plus, how do we learn if we don’t make mistakes?
But being wrong, being colonialist and racist feels too risky. It’s embarrassing. What about our reputations? What will people say?
To be clear, I’m not trying to imply that these critiques are the reasons why the joint conference is no longer being held in Hawai‘i. I’m not entirely sure what happened there. But I think there are still some helpful things to take away from the conversations about conference siting in this case.
When organizations select a conference site, I understand that there are many factors to take into account. Cost and accessibility, and accommodations and logistics. I trust that the people who make these decisions weigh them all out and, generally, make reasonable decisions. And, let’s face it: one place is always going to be better—more cost efficient, more accessible, safer—for some rather than others. I’m not trying to say that it’s all relative or that it ultimately doesn’t matter where conferences are held. But even though a conference in Hawai‘i would have been cost prohibitive for many, it might have made it possible for folks in the University of Hawai‘i system to finally attend and participate in a conference that would have been too cost prohibitive to attend in the past. To bring it back to #4c18, I saw colleagues of color raising the important point that we shouldn’t pretend like we do not have colleagues of color who live and work in Missouri. So when we begin to talk about one site being better than another, I think we need to ask ourselves: better for whom? We need to remember that Middle “America” is not the center of the universe. The “average” (which oftentimes means “the majority”) should not be equated with “all”.
What do we see as the purpose of our professional organizations? Perhaps it is to support its membership, to provide learning and mentorship opportunities, to enable conversations that might not have been had otherwise—just as #4c18 did. It seems counterintuitive that the purpose of an organization should be to maintain itself, but I did see this kind of rhetoric as well. Maybe we should also consider it a mission to share disciplinary knowledge with various publics through our conferences. Maybe educational institutions in Hawai‘i would have appreciated what we have to say about digital literacies and digital rhetoric, and maybe we could have learned a thing or two from them, too.
The way I see it, the problem here is not with the selection of a particular place. The problem is with how we engage with that place, and with each other, through rhetoric and through writing.
And What About Me?
What are my responsibilities as a member of the organization and as a co-chair of the AAAC?
To inhabit my own ambiguous space as a cisgendered woman of East Asian ancestry and Co-Chair of the Asian/Asian American Caucus, a person who exists outside of the black-white racial binary but a racialized subject nonetheless, raised even more questions about how to work respectfully and in solidarity with others. How should I best stand in support of others who might be disproportionately affected by an institutional decision? Do I wait for them, who seem to be more central to the discussion, to take the lead and then support them when invited to do so? Or, do I offer to take on some of that labor? Do we seek out the perspectives of others? And if they don’t respond, do we move on and not put it on them to shoulder the responsibility of decision-making? How do we make it clear that we are not the “Model Minority Caucus,” as one colleague cogently put it? And how do we make sure that this concern is not ultimately the driving force of our decisions as we work to contribute to social justice causes?
I don’t have answers to these questions.
Ultimately, I decided to attend the conference for several reasons. As a cisgendered woman of East Asian ancestry, I was privileged enough to not feel especially concerned about my physical safety. I thought by being present I could continue to support scholars of color and queer scholars who chose to attend the conference for various reasons. I considered that I might be able to contribute to efforts to re-shape the institution into one that is increasingly reflexive about social justice and equity. But, honestly, who cares? I think all of this is besides the point. People have many, valid reasons to attend or not attend the conference. I think folks need to respect that.
So, this is where I’m at. And you know what? Let me just say it.
I am 4cs.
And this is me, trying to do what little I can to make 4cs better.
Co-Chair, CCCC Asian/Asian American Caucus 2015–2018
Member, NCTE/Conference on College Composition and Communication 2009–present
Thank you to members of the Asian/Asian American Caucus, and Samantha Blackmon, David Green, Angela Haas, Matt Homer, Aja Martinez, Thomas Passwater, Staci Perryman-Clark, Donnie Sackey, Iris Ruiz, Mira Shimabukuro, Bo Wang, and Sharon Yam for contributing to my thinking about all of this. Of course, any mistakes or missteps are my own. Thank you to Steve Parks, Jonathan Alexander, and all of my co-editors for making this project possible.