My experience at the 2018 Conference on College Composition & Communication in Kansas City made me reflect on how power operates in and through dominant genres. Members of the ‘Task Force on Social Justice and Activism at the Convention’ among others obviously worked hard to create, organize, and execute the various conference events on social justice. I acknowledge and commend them for this difficult, important work. But if disruption is a necessary condition for social change and therefore a necessary component to activism for social justice, then I fear activism didn’t occur at the level that I hoped it would when deciding to attend. Because disruption didn’t occur. The genre of conferencing remained unchallenged, allowing attendees who consciously or unconsciously exercise the privilege of being indifferent to social (in)justice to remain unchallenged and comfortable with that indifference.
My decision to attend the conference resulted from what I perceived as a responsibility and desire to share experiential knowledge from various research projects with the field in order to hopefully help inform and build future social justice initiatives. I volunteered to help facilitate the Wednesday workshop on planning for social justice work in home institutions as well as the Thursday all-attendee event on literacy, language, and labor for social justice. I chose to help facilitate this particular Wednesday workshop because it allowed me to draw from my writing center administration experience and research on organizing with Black student campus movements so that others could perhaps replicate and contextualize the rhetorical strategies and tactics at their own institutions. But attendance was much lower than expected, leading to being at a table with mostly other facilitators. The workshop’s innovative structure was also confusingly abandoned, resulting in even less opportunity to interact with and assist more people.
Attendance at the all-attendee event was also lower than expected, again with facilitators needing to share tables. And the event itself seemed rushed, to the point that the table barely got passed introductions before being asked to share what we talked about. I also couldn’t help but wonder why the event hosted a former police officer (who admittedly seems like a good person with a rich historical perspective on Kansas City) and not, for instance, a prominent local Black Lives Matter organizer. This organizer could speak about rhetorical strategies and tactics of resistance within Kansas City’s historical, contemporary context of institutionalized oppression—and could then follow this discussion by actually leading the attendees into some relevant form of direct action. In other words, rhetoric in action.
I don’t share these experiences as a form of “complaint,” but as a practical illustration of what I experienced as the genre of conferencing fundamentally remaining unchallenged. Of course, I can only speak from my own experience. But it’s important to question why these free workshops were held a day before many (if not most) attendees arrived. The workshops might be free, but the hotel room needed to attend the workshops isn’t. It’s important to question why the all-attendee event was scheduled at a time regularly recognized as convenient for a lunch break. It’s important to question why 4C4Equality’s small flyer encouraged attendees to participate in social justice activities in comfortable ways. Because for some, this means remaining in the discursive comfort of generic conferencing and not participating at all. And all of us need to (continue to) experience and lean into the troublesome, transformative discomfort of questioning and realizing our own complicity in oppressive systems of power. Attending to social justice and activism as a conference should necessarily entail disrupting the genre of conferencing itself. What does it look like to radically rethink the genre of conferencing? What does it look like to structure our time together not through the generic lens of conferencing, but through the generic lens of community organizing? I think it would look and be fascinating.