What is a CCCC conference experience? I looked forward to examining that question as a Documentarian at #4C20 as the experience usually has all the hallmarks of great travel—meeting old friends and new people, exploring new places and ideas, late night drinks, last minute writing, delayed flights, more drinks.
Instead, I got the opposite. I was relegated to a few rooms with the same people I see every day, and god forbid lunch is late, with the only stimulating questions being “how do they make paint,” and rationing the last bit of wine because all of the liquor stores are closed. Ok, so my family is not that bad; we have a nice suburban home, can go on BMX rides on hand built pump tracks with the kids, and have all the necessary technology to stay connected to anyone in the world. Still, Camus’ The Stranger did seem ever so relevant.
I commandeered the copy of The Stranger sitting on my bookshelf from my university’s library. Its pages are swollen from being waterlogged, and I purchased a new copy for Lincoln University’s library to replace the one I had ruined—and also because I wanted the memento from a great conference travel story.
I was attending a conference in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. As is our travel agent’s habit, I wasn’t staying at the conference hotel but one a few miles away. It was still a beautiful hotel on the beach and my Lyft driver gave me the lay of the land. It would be easier to walk on the beach than walk on the roads to the conference hotel. Plus, I could ride a beach cruiser, he said. What?!? I can ride a bike on the actual beach? As transportation to the conference?!? Sweet. And I could do so while staying under budget as well.
But first I needed to make sure it was feasible. So, I talked to the concierge, rented a yellow, salt-air corroded bike, and set off down the beach that same afternoon. The beach was wider than I had ever seen with 50 yards of hard-packed sand perfect for the beach cruising bicycle. I made it to the conference hotel in 15 minutes, completely dry—save for some wet, sandy feet from a trickle of water draining back to the ocean about halfway through the trek. I washed the sand at the hotel hose and found the room I would be presenting in the next morning.
I headed back to my hotel to review my presentation paper and finish work on another presentation I was giving in a few days—one that involved Camus’ The Stranger.
The next morning, I put a dry, button-down shirt; a t-shirt; my presentation notes; and my copy of The Stranger in a backpack, retrieved my bike, and set off down the beach with an hour until my presentation. Except what was 50 yards of beach the day before was reduced to 1 yard. I had neglected to take the tide schedule into account. Nevertheless, off I trudged, happy I had given myself some extra time. The riding was slower than the day before, I was working up a sweat, but I figured my rolled pants and dry shirts in my backpack would stay presentable.
And then came the river.
My trickle of water at low tide the day before was a wide chasm of water at high tide, connecting an estuary to the open sea. With time running out, I did what any good adventure racer would do. I secured my phone in the top pocket of my backpack, hoisted my bike on my shoulder, and waded into the moat standing in between me and my awaiting audience at the conference. At the deepest, the water was up to the chest of my 6-foot-tall frame. The bike and I made it across with a mere flesh wound to my foot.
With 20 minutes to go, I took to walking along the water line to ease my bleeding toe and hopefully dry my pants in the sunshine. Upon arrival, I cleaned up as best I could, got a bandage from first aid, and opened my backpack to find that my presentation shirt and copy of The Stranger were both soaking wet! Donning the wet t-shirt and pants, I eventually located the room where I was to present—it having been moved since my scouting mission the day before—found a chair off to the side, since the first speaker had begun, and tried to keep from squirming when the AC kicked on and blasted my soaking wet attire.
I scrapped the intro to my presentation, retold my travel story from that morning, weaved it into the conference theme of islands and the need for “changes in latitudes, [that lead to] changes in attitudes”— to quote Jimmy Buffet—and segue into my presentation of including the student voice into assessment of a composition program.
Drying out after the presentation at the hotel beach bar, I was struck by the irony of my still soaking wet copy of The Stranger. In the narrative, Meursault is imprisoned because he shoots a stranger on the beach. Later, in his prison cell, he sees the absurdity of the society in which he resides: “Meursault’s realization that he was loathed and marginalized to the point of death enables him to embrace the present and validates the way Meursault has always lived his life” (Donohue, "A Stranger in Your Own Language: The Marginalization of Meursault and Composition Students"). At the time, I found it funny, in an absurd way, that I gave a presentation soaking wet; much like Meursault, I embraced the present.
When CCCC 2020 was canceled, and my state went on lockdown, I was again struck by the irony of the similarity between myself and Meursault. This time, years after my incident on the beach, I was confined to a small space—unable to travel, meet old friends and new people, explore new places and ideas, have late night drinks, engage in last minute writing, suffer through delayed flights, have more drinks, and document it all to help answer the question, What is a CCCC conference experience?
The lockdown version of my conference experience had exponentially more stress and from all facets of my life—as an academic, teacher, husband, father, and colleague. But what could I do other than to recognize the absurdity of my reality and embrace the present? I was looking forward to expanding myself through travel to Milwaukee to engage in another stimulating and exhausting conference experience. Instead, my CCCC 2020 conference experience was a simplification down to its essence. Under the pandemic circumstances, that simplification was more important than ever and led to the realization that 4C isn’t an event; it is a state of mind. Travel helps. No doubt. But the 4C mindset is just as important—the community, the support, the people, the strengthening of the profession that lead to an expansion of ideas, motivation, inspiration, and questioning whether to continue on the journey, even if it feels like every day I’m just waiting for Gadot.
Every morning at Cs might start with coffee, but the day always brings something different as I jump from session to session, eager to devour what will come next. However, the routine of never-endingness that is Gadot is what my 3-year-old son calls “playing hot wheels with me.” Every morning in the 7 o’clock hour he scampers down the hall, climbs into our bed, and wakes me up: “Do you want to play Hot Wheels with me?” After trying to delay as much as possible—about 4 minutes—I’m downstairs, half-dressed, and stalling him long enough to make a cup of coffee. Then we begin the creation of a “different” Hot Wheels city, although the variations are not drastic. I’m instructed which track to take apart, so he can put them right back together. I’m often reprimanded for piecing together tracks in the wrong configuration. When he is satisfied with the design, I’m given a car to use, but I’m told just to follow him. As the coffee kicks in, I start to wonder what the rules are to this game and why I can’t get any of them right. And then I’m reminded what it must feel like to not write in “Standard Academic English '' like so many of the students at the HBCU where I teach—or at least that is what many of them hear. There is some known set of rules by others, especially by the white guy at the front of the room, but there are so many to know and use “correctly.” Before I’ve finished my first cup, I’m looking for my 6-year-old to come downstairs and relieve me. What relief do our students receive day in and day out?
After breakfast, it’s time to be a first-grade teacher. I survive the morning meeting with its dancing, hello activity, and goal setting for the day. Then my son inevitably chooses math to do first. Our eyes glaze over as the 20-minute explanatory video drags on and my son insists he knows how to do it. We cut the video short and move on to the worksheet. I’m taken aback by the algebra that 6-year-olds are engaged in, but he was right. He knew how to do the lesson. Do my students have the bar set appropriately? Do I trust that they can rise to higher expectations? Do I need control or is there space for the students to move on their own according to their own schedule?
While the world would have to wait for my comparative analysis of two texts engaged in the language of African Americans, Geneva Smitherman’s Talkin and Testifyin: The Language of Black America and Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be Anti-Racist, what my department needed was for me to lead. Two months before COVID-19 (BC), I became the Chair of the Department of Languages & Literature at Lincoln University. Last fall, to prepare for a role that I had no idea what all would entail, I came across the concept of Servant Leadership. I listened to a few audiobooks on my commute to work and decided that philosophy would be a natural fit for me. Right before the COVID-19 crisis, I was dealing with the issue of whether the language lounge could be reserved by another department for open house. After we were sent home, the task was how can we continue the teaching and learning with students who are scattered across the country, many without any access to the internet, and who are limited to writing papers on their cell phones until their data runs out. Just as the students were disrupted, so were the professors. We were all experiencing the traumatic event. And some just needed to talk. So, in order to serve, weekly department meetings were established, my cell phone number was distributed with pleas to call anytime, emails were constant.
“Quiet-time” for the kids was timed to coincide with my Zoom department meeting. The faculty needed direction. How were we to proceed? My answer was to pare down our courses to the priority outcomes. We do a lot every day, but now we needed focus. Instead of trying to do 1000 things that come together at once for our students, we needed to do one thing 1000 times so everyone would have an opportunity to attain that learning outcome. And we were going toZoom, or Moodle, or email, or snail mail, or call, or text our students until we got through.
And so, I presented our plan over and over to full-time faculty, adjuncts, students, and colleagues. Do I spend enough time presenting threshold concepts to my students? In a normal semester, are my 1000 things interfering with the one?
And I was supported by the University President and the Dean of Faculty and other Chairs and IT and Technology Support Specialists and my department faculty and my students.
And I reached out to the 4C network. All those Facebook friends talking about their canceled travel plans to Milwaukee became brainstorming posts about ideas and workarounds and solutions and examples and verbiage for this tenure evaluation and that argument.
All had something to offer. Together we worked on the next issue. And the next.
And during what would have been my CCCC 2020 conference experience, in the back of my mind and in my email everyday was Julie Lindquist and the CCCC Documentarian Team. They were imploring me to write, to answer surveys, to stay engaged as an academic, despite the pull and pressure as Teacher-Chair-Husband-Father-Friend-Short-Order-Cook.
Do I provide this support for my students? With all that they have going on, am I able to implore them to keep going? To find workarounds? For the next issue? And the next?
Every morning and night, I completed Julie Lindquist and the CCCC Documentarian Team’s surveys. And they asked me to go to places that were still dark—like my basement.
“Describe the scene around you,” they asked. “What do you see, hear, smell? What is the action and who are the actors?”
My response was less than enthusiastic: “I’m in the basement/home office. It’s dark and cold with little natural light. I do have a desk and am surrounded with books. I wrote much of my dissertation down here and still have anxiety about sitting here and writing.”
The next day was not much brighter: “I’m in the basement, even darker than normal due to the rainy day. The kids are in and out as they coax me to play with them or feed them. I can hear the rain and the kids’ game upstairs. My wife is now reprimanding the kids for screaming.”
Still, my anxiety is trivial compared to the issues of some students. One of my biggest issues—an adjunct asking for advice because one of her students left campus to return to a foster home where there was little to no food. What does the commonspace of the campus mean for my students? What doors will be unlocked with the keys represented by attainment of learning outcomes?
Of course, one of the most difficult aspects of the conference to replicate was the friends. I certainly wouldn’t be meeting any new friends from my lockdown conference location in suburban Philadelphia. But I also wouldn’t be seeing the people that recharge my batteries. The ones who were there through my doctoral program. The ones who have a sentence in the acknowledgement section of my dissertation: “To the Jeter Crew, your ability to keep me sane while at the same time taking our classroom conversations deep into the night is nothing short of miraculous” (Donohue "Student Assessment of a Composition Program: A Descriptive Study of Program Outcomes from the Student Perspective" v).
We did get a chance to connect. I took the initiative to schedule a “Zoom Happy Hour” Sunday night. The irony here was that I am far from the social director when we get together at a conference. A few texts and visits to a hotel bar and I can usually track them down before they whisk me away to the hot restaurant or quirky dive regardless of the city hosting the conference.
We talked for an hour, making the obvious jokes about Zoom meetings and drinking on a Sunday before moving toward the more serious conversations about the trauma of a pandemic lockdown and how we were coping both professionally and personally. It paled in comparison to what being together in Milwaukee would have meant for me. But the love was there.
And I hope to see them in Spokane. And I hope to see my students in September. We have many questions to answer. And perhaps by then, we shall be strangers no more.
Donohue, William J. "A Stranger in Your Own Language: The Marginalization of Meursault and Composition Students." The Lincoln Humanities Journal 5 (2017). Print.
---. "Student Assessment of a Composition Program: A Descritptive Study of Program Outcomes from the Student Perspective." Indiana University of Pennsylvania 2017. Print.
Kendi, Ibram X. How to Be an Antiracist. Random House, 2019. Print.
Smitherman, Geneva. Talkin and Testifyin: The Language of Black America. Wayne State University Press, 1977. Print.
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