Back in Atlanta for another event that centers around talking at and to other people about complicated ideas. One month ago I was just here teaching and learning at the USU Debate Championships hosted by Morehouse College. Now I have just finished attending the Rhetoric Society of America bi-annual conference. Long story short: It was great. But it was a very different conference experience than what i am used to. As I told many of you (probably many of you reading this if I saw you there) I wonder what took me so long to attend one. Well, besides the scheduling of trips to Houston anyway.
Conferences are like debate tournaments in the sense that artificial scarcity drives the entire operation. They are not going to accept every paper. They are not going to put on every panel. There are 3 panels you would like to see at this time. There's no capacity to speak longer. There's no more time for questions. I left out pretty much everything I wanted to say in my paper, and I don't think I'm alone among the participants in that sentiment. If we only arranged the conference with more time in it. It's truly a sortie situation: If we extended it by one day, why not two? If we extend it by two, why not three? Surely now we would accept four. Eventually, we are all living at the event. Arbitrary and artificial limitations are good. They make you choose, they make you think, they keep your attention, and most importantly, they force judgement. Attending one of these things and not exercising judgement means sitting in the lobby or your room, worrying what you are missing, or going to miss should you go to a panel. Notes from the Underground is no way to attend a conference.
This was my first RSA conference and the major take-away for me was a sense of responsibility. I never execute conferences correctly. I always reach for something that I think would be impressive to others, forgetting that this is a community, and what is impressive and matters to me intellectually will, with thoughtful presentation, matter to them. These are not distant others, but those who are also thinking about what it means to mean. The papers and panels that most enthralled me were about the immediate, small questions that face us as interpreters (and often as interpreters of interpretation, and so on).
I was struck by the responsibility I have to present these queries to people at conferences, not because they are "good" or "matter" or whatever the metric might be, but because they stimulate curiosity, thought, and critical engagement. This is what I got from the best panels. But more than any issue or citation I got the sense that there's an exchange here, and if I'm not participating on the level of stimulating that curious, critical inquiry, then I am not holding up my responsibility in the community.
This isn't really a call for more authentic scholarship or something like that. Just a connection that is rather obvious when you teach debate and a connection of it to conferences. Instead of trying to make the winning argument, or the correct argument, or the argument that will blow everyone away, just make the argument that is appropriate, thoughtful, and stimulates response. This is a simple lesson for debaters. For me, it took a bit longer to realize the importance of this, even though I say it a lot.